July 25, 2008
I'll Get 'Em Next Time
On Wednesday, Greg Maddux started his 14th consecutive game without being credited with-if you'll pardon the expression-a win. Normally, I pay very little attention to a pitcher's won-loss record. I actually hope that at some point down the road the practice of counting pitcher wins and losses will have reached a level of irrelevance such that they will only be tracked for the benefit of fantasy team owners. When that point in time is due to arrive, I have no idea, but many of us and those like us have expended a million words or so about why it's futile to set too much store in the institution.
So I remain a devoted non-follower who, when pressed, cannot give you the leaders in won-loss and winning percentage at any given moment-until something extreme comes along, that is. Then I kick away the soap box and take notice. In this case, it's Maddux getting stuck on career victory number 350 for the better part of three months. On May 10, he pitched six innings of three-hit ball against the Rockies, and became just the ninth man to reach 350 wins. Since then, it's been nothing but frustration. Fourteen consecutive starts without a credited victory sounds like a lot, doesn't it? I knew it wasn't a record, but I wondered how far Maddux had to go before getting close. I also wondered how often this happened.
Going back to 1975, the earliest year for which we have reliable data, it is actually quite common. Since then, no less than 132 pitchers have gone at least as long as Maddux has without a win for a total of 140 times. That means that eight pitchers appear on the list twice. Jose Lima is the most recent to have done it two times, ending a 15-game run on June 9, 2005; this wasn't quite as long as a 16-game dry spell he endured in 2000. Rick Langford had stretches of 19 and 15, while Ray Burris had runs of 15 and 16 games, and his contemporary Craig Swan got stuck twice, at 14 and 15 games each. Jamie Moyer has had two 16-start streaks, the most recent ending in 2004 when he was still with the Mariners, and Mike Boddicker had two of 14 games each. So did Jose DeLeon, one of them coming during his infamous 1985 campaign in which he went 2-19.
Now, it's true that none of these men or any on the list are in history's top echelon in the way that Maddux is, but there are some very talented pitchers present. In addition to Moyer, there are eight other pitchers with a career WARP3 of 60.0 or higher who have had streaks at least as long as Maddux's. David Cone had 15 winless starts in 2000 and 2001, Vida Blue's streak reached 18 in 1982-83, and Fernando Valenzuela went nearly a year without a victory between 1988 and 1989, a run of 19 starts. Doyle Alexander, Jerry Reuss, Rick Sutcliffe, Kevin Tapani, and the aforementioned Boddicker round out the group.
How far does Maddux have to go to post the longest such streak of recent times? Quite a ways, actually. He's still a far piece from reaching the top five, who are listed here:
28: Matt Keough (Athletics) 1978-79
Three of the five main pitchers of the so-called "Triple A's" endured streaks of 14 or more. Langford has been mentioned, and Mike Norris is also on the list. Steve McCatty does not appear on the roll and neither does Brian Kingman, who, ironically, was famous for being the last 20-game loser until Mike Maroth grabbed that title in 2003. Keough's run began on September 6, 1978, and ended a day short of a year later when he held the Brewers to one unearned run, improving his record to 1-14. In the process, he avoided having the most losses in a season without a win, a record set by Terry Felton of the 1982 Twins, at 0-13. While most of these pitchers are martyrs to some extent, Keough only had six quality starts in his run, and had another handful where his defense let him down. With an NRA of 6.75 in 1979, though, he certainly did as much as his teammates to put himself in this situation. Anthony Young, perhaps unbelievably, was traded in the midst of his streak-the Cubs gave up Jose Vizcaino to get Young and a minor leaguer. He then failed to record a victory in his first six tries with Chicago. Although they won his first start, he did not get the decision, they lost the second one 19-5, and then the next four. The streak came to an end on try number seven.
Before seeing the list of longest-fruitless starting stretches, I assumed that most of the pitchers on it would have already established themselves as viable entities. I figured that, in order for a team to show patience, the pitcher would have had to have already built up their mound cred to be able to withstand such a dry spell. This was not the case, though. Six of the pitchers on the list were at the very beginning of their careers. All, such as Bill Caudill who didn't get a win in his first 20 starts, did win a game or two in relief during the starting drought. Current players Jason Hammel of the Tampa Bay Rays went the first 17 starts of his career without gaining credit for a win, and Jason Bergmann of the Nationals went 15.
Like many of the pitchers who have gone before him on this list, Maddux plays for a team with some serious run-support issues. Still, to piece together a run like this goes beyond non-support. The Padres scored 12 runs in his May 25 game, except that it took 18 innings to tally that many, and most of the runs came too late to help him. They scored seven runs in his next start, but again, the deciders came after he departed. Maddux pitched around trouble in his June 20 outing and only allowed one run, but San Diego's run explosion came in the eighth, an inning after he left. They mounted a 15-run assault on the occasion of his June 30 start, but that was also the occasion of his second-worst outing of the year, and he couldn't clear the fifth inning.
While Maddux is well past his prime and a far cry from even his crafty veteran status of a few years ago, he is still capable of keeping a team in a ballgame. Six of his 14 starts in this drought have been of the quality variety. Given the caliber of most of the teams in question-Maddux's 2008 Padres included-the margin for error is so slight that a breakdown of any one component of a team's presentation will leave the starting pitcher without a positive decision, no matter how well he deals. If you check the game logs of most of these pitchers, you'll find a similar star-crossed combination of good outings with non-support, and bad outings with good support. There are also a fair share where everything went wrong, including defensive let-downs and just plain bad luck. The bottom of the standings is no place to have a rough patch-at least not if you want to succeed in the arcane universe of wins and losses.