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August 6, 2007

You Could Look It Up

A Subjective Look at the Worst Pitching Staffs of All Time

by Steven Goldman

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We've seen a lot of traditional baseball milestones touched on this season. No doubt the readers of this site don't need these marks listed. Suffice it to say that players like Sammy Sosa, Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds, and Tom Glavine have reached some big round numbers in some big round individual categories. One club is also on the way to a rare big round number: 1000. That club is the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, and the 1000 in question is runs allowed.

You sometimes hear about an offense being capable of scoring 1000 runs, but never do you hear about the pitching staffs capable of allowing 1000. Seven teams have scored 1000 runs, most recently the 1999 Indians, and eleven teams have allowed 1000 runs, most recently the 1999 Rockies. Including Sunday's 11-3 loss to the Orioles, the Devil Rays have allowed 682 runs in 110 games, or 6.2 runs a game. To reach the magic 1000-run mark, they merely need allow 318 runs in their remaining 52 contests, fractionally fewer runs per game (6.12) than they allow now. With 32 of those games against the top five offenses in the league in runs scored per game, they shouldn't have any problem making it.

The Rays obviously have a very special staff. Starters Scott Kazmir and James Shields would be coveted by most teams. Rookie Andy Sonnanstine has extraordinary control, and may yet develop into a quality starter. Closer Al Reyes might yet make his way through waivers to a contender. Middleman Dan Wheeler has pitched effectively since 2003-ironically, since the moment he first left the Devil Rays. Almost every other pitcher to have made an appearance with the Rays this season would seem to be merely a caretaker for some better pitcher, presumably forthcoming from the Rays' fertile farm system.

Should the Rays allow 1000 runs, their staff would seem to automatically leap onto the short list for worst of all time, but that should not necessarily be the case. Here are the 1000-run pitching staffs, ranked by total runs allowed. The columns to the right of the runs allowed column are the team's runs allowed per game, the league runs allowed per game, and the difference between the two:


The 1000-Run Pitching Staffs
Team        Year          R         RA/G       LRA/G        Diff.
-----------------------------------------------------------------
Phillies    1930        1199        7.69        5.68        2.01
Tigers      1996        1103        6.81        5.39        1.42
Browns      1936        1064        6.86        5.67        1.19
A's         1936        1045        6.79        5.67        1.12
Phillies    1929        1036        6.70        5.36        1.34
Browns      1939        1035        6.63        5.21        1.42
Rockies     1999        1028        6.35        5.00        1.35
Browns      1937        1023        6.56        5.23        1.33
A's         1939        1022        6.68        5.21        1.47
Braves      1911        1021        6.54        4.42        2.12
Phillies    1923        1008        6.50        4.85        1.65

"LRA/G" is the league's runs allowed per game; as you can see from the "Diff" column, not all of these pitching staffs were equal in their mediocrity. While all were bad, some of these clubs owed their high runs allowed totals to the combination of fielding a poor staff in a high-offense era in bandbox ballparks. Within this group, it's the 1911 Braves and the 1930 Phillies that tower over the league. When the worst pitching staffs of all time are ranked by their differential rather than total runs allowed, the list changes, with a few of the 1000-RA clubs failing to make the cut. Below, the top 15 teams in runs allowed per game versus the league average:


Worst Pitching Staffs by RA Differential
Team        Year          R      RA/G      LRA/G        Diff.
--------------------------------------------------------------
Braves      1911        1021     6.54      4.42        -2.12
Phillies    1930        1199     7.69      5.69        -2.00
A's         1915         888     5.77      3.96        -1.81
Phillies    1923        1008     6.50      4.86        -1.64
Phillies    1928         948     6.24      4.68        -1.56
Rockies     1993         967     5.97      4.49        -1.48
A's         1939        1022     6.68      5.21        -1.47
A's         1955         911     5.88      4.44        -1.44
Browns      1939        1035     6.63      5.21        -1.42
A's         1954         875     5.61      4.19        -1.42
Tigers      1996        1103     6.81      5.39        -1.42
Phillies    1919         699     5.07      3.65        -1.42
Mets        1962         948     5.89      4.48        -1.41
Rockies     1999        1028     6.35      4.95        -1.40
Tigers      1953         923     5.84      4.46        -1.38

Of the 1000-run teams not in the top 15, the 1929 Phillies rank 19th and the 1937 Browns 20th, while the 1936 Browns rank 26th, and the 1936 A's 38th, finishing just behind the 2006 Royals. The Devil Rays would rank just off the bottom of this list, finishing just outside the top 20, between the 1937 Browns and the 1956 Senators.

Going by this simple measure, it's tempting to pick the 1996 Tigers as the worst pitching staff of all time, but you have to specify your terms first. In absolute terms, the 1911 Braves were worse. There's just no comparing a bunch of malnourished, skinny white guys allowing lively ball run totals in a Deadball Era year to the diverse, toned, highly-trained modern pitchers, even those that pitched for Detroit that year. The reverse of that coin is that the Tigers managed to be as bad as they were despite having recourse to that diverse group of toned athletes, and also Jose Lima. The statistical record doesn't give the Tigers enough credit for being a failure of modern roster management. In other words, they fail on an aesthetic level as well as a statistical one.

Consistent with the position of that failure in the face of modern safety, we can form a post-integration worst-10 differential list that also disqualifies expansion clubs and wartime teams:


Worst Pitching Staffs with Reservations
Team       Year       R      RA/G     LRA/G       Diff.
--------------------------------------------------------
A's        1955      911     5.88      4.44      -1.44
A's        1954      875     5.61      4.19      -1.42
Tigers     1996     1103     6.81      5.39      -1.42
Rockies    1999     1028     6.35      4.95      -1.40
Tigers     1953      923     5.84      4.46      -1.38
Senators   1956      924     5.96      4.66      -1.30
Rockies    1996      964     5.95      4.68      -1.27
Browns     1949      913     5.89      4.67      -1.22
Braves     1977      895     5.52      4.40      -1.12
Royals     2006      971     5.99      4.87      -1.12

The Rockies might also be discarded from these lists, as their pre-humidor park effects have much to do with their making the list. Fortunately, BP's sortable stats contain park- and league-adjusted runs allowed figures that allow us to construct a new list of worst pitching staffs. The database currently covers 1959 to present, giving this ranking a more modern flavor. As is typical with adjusted stats, 100 is average; an RA+ of 80 would be 20 percent below average:


Worst Pitching Staff by RA+, 1959-Present
Rank    Year      Team          RA+
--------------------------------------
1       2007      Devil Rays    77
2       1962      Mets          78
3       1996      Tigers        79
4       2005      Devil Rays    79
5       2005      Royals        79
6       1974      Padres        80
7       2004      Reds          80
8       1998      Marlins       80
9       1963      Mets          80
10      1964      A's           80

Surprise! By this measure, at least, the Devil Rays are having the worst season by a pitching staff in nearly 50 years. Of course, we've but scratched the surface here, all that's possible in one column. On the macro-statistical level, we should consider defense-independent measurements of pitching to try to separate miserable pitching from miserable defense-note that the 2007 Devil Rays also rank last in our database for defensive efficiency, while Clay Davenport's Defense-Adjusted ERA (DERA) shows that the staff is nearly half a run better when considered separately from the defense.

Simultaneously, the pitchers should be considered on an individual as well as an aggregate basis. One question that we can ask of pitchers who were on these earlier staffs is: Did they have a major league future of any quality? The 1911 Braves deserve no extra credit for getting 18 starts from a 44-year-old Cy Young, but the 1996 Tigers had a few pitchers who put in valuable service after their role in that debacle, including Justin Thompson, Omar Olivares, Gregg Olson, Mike Myers, and even Lima. On some level, these teams should receive credit for employing pitchers that were transiently bad, rather than simply being poseurs. Again, this is in service of the more abstract historical qualification of worst pitching staff ever, rather than the worst in purely statistical terms.

These are questions for the future. Indeed, this very column may be premature. It seems unlikely that the Devil Rays will run off a string of shutouts between now and the end of the season and avoid their fate, but anything is possible. For now, as we try to keep our heads above the tide of Bonds mania, it's worth remembering that there are other rare feats being accomplished on today's ballfields. This record chase will be more rewarding; with every game and every at-bat, Bonds might or might not break the record. In contrast, the Devil Rays have been much more dependable.

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

Related Content:  Pitching,  Rays,  1000 Runs

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