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September 17, 2004

Teams: A Critical Guide

Pitching Martyrs at the Wall Edition, National League

by Steven Goldman

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ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS

If we were to try to formulate a theory of pitching martyrs, that is, pitchers having great seasons for bad teams, a reasonable first guess would be that all pitching martyrs are strikeout pitchers. One thinks of Walter Johnson, who might have won close to 500 games on better teams, Nolan Ryan, leading the league in strikeouts and ERA for the 1987 Astros but hardly ever winning, Steve Carlton on the 1972 Phillies.

A closer examination of the best pitchers on the worst teams shows that strikeouts are no prerequisite to surviving organizational ineptitude; all the pitcher really needs is talent and the bad luck to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. In the history of baseball going back to the time of First Fan Grover Cleveland (and why don't the Dems run big fat guys like him anymore? If they can't find a candidate with gravitas, they should just settle for gravity), there have been 25 pitchers to have seasons greater than or equal to 50.0 on teams with a sub-.400 winning percentage. Randy Johnson is one of them.

Measured by winning percentage, Johnson plays on the fourth-worst team of the bunch, his team having won a greater portion of their games than three clubs from the mid-1890s. Johnson will not finish the season as the pitcher who has had the best season for a terrible team, but he is likely to make the top five. Nor will he lead the group in strikeouts. The top 10, with their club's winning percentage:


NAME              TEAM    YEAR    SO      ERA     VORP    WINP
Mercer Win        WSN     1894    72      3.85    103.0   .341
Carlton Steve     PHI     1972    310     1.97    82.3    .378
Whitney Jim       WS8     1887    146     3.22    74.6    .365
Johnson Walter    WS1     1919    147     1.49    71.3    .394
Hemming George    LS3     1894    66      4.37    70.6    .277
Breitenstein Ted  SLN     1895    127     4.44    69.9    .289
Garver Ned        SLA     1950    85      3.39    67.7    .377
Randy Johnson     AZN     2004    268     2.74    66.6    .313
Davis Curt        PHI     1934    99      2.95    65.0    .376
Kelley Harry      PHA     1936    82      3.86    62.8    .344

Doing their part, the Diamondbacks lost five of six. GRADE: F

ATLANTA BRAVES

Not the best week for the bullpen, as it coughed up two losses, including one by Roman Colon, whose name sounds like something that happens to your digestive system after you drink microbe-infested water from ancient viaducts. If you had just lost three of four games to the Phillies, you might want a handy excuse like that. Among the general mess that was the relief staff, Tom Martin didn't exactly stand out for ineffectiveness, but he didn't do anything to avoid underscoring his own redundancy. Typical of more LOOGYs than you would think, Martin has having the cream cheese pounded out of him by lefties, the very guys he's supposed to retire (.330/.394/.511). Righties have spared Martin the whip, the boot, and the glove, but do not fear him either. The Braves got pretty far without having a generic LOOGY on hand and they probably don't need one now. The post-season encourages managers to play all sorts of masturbatory match-up games that are often counter-productive. No one needs a LOOGY, especially in October when you are expecting them to do something really important, like retire Barry Bonds. If they didn't do it all year, it's not going to happen then. Just bring in Smoltz and hope for the best. GRADE: C+

CHICAGO CUBS

Did themselves no favors with a 3-4 week. It was a streaky chapter for the offense, which failed to support generally effective pitching. The three games won by the Cubs went down by a combined score of 25-5. In three of the losses the bats stayed back at the hotel, losing by a combined total of 24-1. The loss that tipped the week was one of those frustrating one-run affairs. The problem with early-sound motion pictures was that if you just spun a record of the soundtrack without synchronizing it to the film, the two elements would start running off in different directions, a la the "Dueling Cavalier" sequence in "Singin' in the Rain"... Having never said anything nice about Neifi Perez in these pages, we are obligated to point out that he went 7-for-10 last week. GRADE: C-

CINCINNATI REDS

Out-homered 18-9 playing Houston and Milwaukee, lost five of seven. Malefactors on the pitching side included Aaron Harang, who made two starts and was bombed worse than W.C. Fields... There are no 10 moves the Reds can or will make to contend next year. No doubt we'll be filling this space with talk about the latest movies. Episode III anyone? GRADE: F

COLORADO ROCKIES

Played rough with the Padres and the Giants, splitting with both of them. Opponents batted .360/.430/.605, so this was something of a feat. The Rockies were at home, natch... In neutral parks, Denver's pride has a .313 OBP, which ranks 13th in the National League. There has been a great deal of speculation as to how to build a winning ballclub given the unique atmospheric conditions in which the Rockies play. Time to try something new, stop sweating the pitching staff and concentrate on making the offense twice as good, twice as patient, as any other in baseball. For the Rockies to win, they're going to have to lead the league in OBP by a goodly margin, so that when the other guy hits a two-run shot, they can count on hitting a three-run shot. GRADE: C

FLORIDA MARLINS

Their chance to make a big move in the wild-card race by decimating the Cubs ended in a draw instead, and as we all know, ties pay the dealer. Summoning Logan Kensing from Class-A Jupiter, or possibly the planet Jupiter, to start against a team that simply had to be beaten was a low-percentage move that had the predictable result, though it is more understandable when one takes into account that the upper-level minor league teams had very little to contribute in Florida's moment of need. In a similar position in May, 1999, Joe Torre pulled Mike Stanton out of the bullpen for the start, asking him for four solid innings. He got them and a win to boot. Torre realized that you'd rather have a little bit of certainty than depend on a youngster who spent the year living on a gas giant. GRADE: C+

HOUSTON ASTROS

Played an old-school eight games and went 5-3, though it could have been a bigger week; Pittsburgh gave them more trouble than they should have. In the three losses in Steeltown, the offense couldn't get started, though most of the principles did well on the week. The restaurant scene in Pittsburgh is said to be lacking (Ed note: not totally lacking) , that could bring a team down... In a reversal of the usual order of things, Brad Ausmus batted .368/.400/.421, but opponents were safe in five of six stolen base attempts. Happy new year, Brad! Life is (a) a bowl of cherries, (b) a beach, (c) none of the above, (d) a mixed bag at the best of times, (e) all of the above. GRADE: B-

LOS ANGELES DODGERS

Swept Arizona, then took two of three from the Cardinals; you'd have to call that a successful week. At no time did they pitch as well as you would expect a Dodger team to, but that's been the story all year. They limited the bad guys to a .299 OBP on the week but a few too many balls left the yard. The starting rotation was universally mediocre throughout, even pitching at home. Still, if the Bums hold on (can you still call them the Bums?) for the division title, then make a first-round exit, you would still have to call that a successful first year for Paul DePodesta… Adrian Beltre had a good week by anyone's standards, but Jayson Werth (.300/.417/.600) and Steve Finley (.385/.429/.885, four home runs) deserve notice. The outfield, not inspiring at season's outset, has become a real asset. GRADE: A

MILWAUKEE BREWERS I asked Jonah Keri for help with this section, and he suggested the following: "Brady Clark is the hottest NL hitter you've never heard of. Conversely, Marcia Brady is the hottest Brady daughter who's never heard of me. GRADE: C-" Jonah is dead on about Clark, who batted .375/.444/.750 last week. We should also mention the much-maligned Russ Branyan, who hit the ball out for three of his five hits, averaging .333/.412/1.000. The only thing I'm disturbed about is the Marcia thing. Maureen McCormick is 48 now, and you find very few 48-year-old women on the hot lists. Still, if anyone can make it, it's Maureen. Mo, if you're reading this, can you send us a photo? We just want to make a fair evaluation. As for the Brewers, never give a sucker an even break. GRADE: C-

MONTREAL EXPOS

Lost four of six, but in the journeyman's progress division Juan Rivera continued his strong second half with a .385/.429/.462 week, and Terrmel Sledge sledged .360 with three home runs. Other than Endy Chavez, who we try not to think about too much, the rest of the O took the week off. Combine that with a pitching staff that struggled against the good hitters of Chicago and Atlanta and the club was out-homered 15-5, one of the more extreme imbalances of the season. It is worth repeating that, whatever tactical quibbles one might have with Old Man Robbie, his team has not quit. That is not true of every outfit in baseball this late in the season. Meanwhile, MLB still dithers on the future, and they'd better hurry because Washington is about to elect a new city council and some of the new guys, one of whom is old guy Marion Barry, are on a crusade to kill the ballpark. GRADE: D

NEW YORK METS

Went 1-5 against division pals Florida and Philadelphia. David Wright continued to play well. As for the rest, the Mets plan to back a truck up to the vault door this winter, but those guaranteed contracts turn bad players into boomerangs: No matter how hard you throw them away, they turn around and smack you in the forehead. GRADE: F

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES

All season long, as the Phillies desperately tried to get something going in center field, Jason Michaels hung around, waiting forlornly for his chance. Having run through everyone this side of Roy Thomas, Michaels finally got his chance and has played extremely well. Had he gotten half the playing time thrown away on Doug Glanville and other non-producers (Marlon Byrd may have been the right choice for the job at the start of the year, but the fact is he fared miserably in this go-round), the Phillies might be in a better place right now and Larry Bowa might have a job for next year. The biggest part of a manager's job is not knowing when to bunt, or in Bowa's case, "motivating," but in assigning playing time. When you fail at that, you've failed at everything. Took three of four from the Braves, for what it's worth. GRADE: B+

PITTSBURGH PIRATES

Pitched exceedingly well against the Astros and Brewers, with only Ryan Vogelsong doing his usual weak job. As a staff, the Bucs walked 2.3 batters per nine. The splashiest start went to Oliver Perez, who struck out 14 and allowed no runs in eight innings. With a 3.22 ERA and 217 strikeouts, Perez would be a Cy Young award candidate with just a few more wins. GRADE: B

SAN DIEGO PADRES

Took two of three for the Cardinals, then let down and split with the Rockies. But for Jake Peavy and David Wells, the pitching was unimpressive. Offensive performances to note include Ryan Klesko's .444//500/.833--better that he has figured things out now than never--and Khalil Greene's .320/.387/.960 with four home runs, a good swan song for a player that improved throughout the year. Should they not take the wild card away from the Giants, this team can be classified as an honorable miss; there is a lot here, and if what they had wasn't quite good enough, it was also almost good enough. GRADE: B-

SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS

With all the hoopla over Barry Bonds' impending brush with immortality, not a lot of attention has been paid to San Francisco's run at the division title or wild card: they have the latter, and are in striking distance of the former. Their schedule from here on out is irredeemably cruel, with a series against Houston and two each against the Padres and Dodgers, including their final six games in San Diego and Los Angeles. That Bonds has compiled 700 home runs is great, but he's always said he'd trade it all for a ring. He's been carrying this team all season, but here's his chance to really put a bow on one of his greatest years, not to mention his career... Note that Felipe Alou used just 10 pitchers last week, and they were strong, holding the Diamondbacks and the Rockies to .181/.256/.342. The only downside was that the bullpen tossed away two one-run games to easy opponents. GRADE: C+

ST. LOUIS CARDINALS

Had a rough week against NL West contenders, but of course it didn't matter... If Cal Eldred lost two games, if Matt Morris was fried like an all-beef patty, it doesn't augur anything for the playoffs...right? GRADE: D

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

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