September 29, 2010
Prospectus Hit and Run
Going into Monday evening's game against the Blue Jays, the Yankees had every reason to feel good about themselves, having come from behind the night before to secure a stirring 10-inning victory over the Red Sox. With one more win (or a Red Sox loss) they would clinch a spot in the playoffs. Alas, by the third inning Monday night, it was clear the Yankees would be uncorking no champagne, as starter A.J. Burnett dug them a 7-0 hole by allowing two homers, seven hits, and seven runs while retiring just seven hitters. Had the Yankees been at home, Burnett would have been booed off the mound by the Bronx faithful, but as this was a road game, Yankees fans were left to hurl rotten tomatoes and blue epithets at their TVs.
Despite his $16.5 million salary, such performances from Burnett have been all too familiar this year. No other starting pitcher has failed to last at least five innings more often than Burnett, who's done so in 10 of his 32 starts:
To be fair, two of Burnett's early exits were owed to rain delays, both of them this month, but even discounting those, he's still got the major league lead. What's more, he shares an even more dubious honor.
Burnett is in a six-way tie for the major league lead in disaster starts, with eight. As originally defined by former Baseball Prospectus columnist Jim Baker, a disaster start is one in which a starter allows as many or more runs as innings pitched. It's the ugly flip side of a quality start, one in which a pitcher goes at least six innings while allowing three or fewer runs—a disaster because teams rarely win such games, and because they often burn through their bullpens just trying to find enough mops and buckets to get through nine innings.
Occasionally, the disaster start definition is limited to allowing more runs as innings pitched, and because the Baseball-Reference.com Play Index makes querying the latter definition much easier than the former one, we'll stick with that for the purposes of this dumpster dive. Here's the 2010 leaderboard, the Masters of Disaster:
Just a small handful of these pitchers have had anything close to successful seasons; only Matt Garza, Ted Lilly, and Randy Wells are preventing runs at a better than league-average clip (i.e., they have RA+ marks of 100 or above). Only Lilly (.544), Garza (.539), Brian Matusz (.514), and Wells (.501) have Support Neutral Winning Percentages above .500, which is to say they're the only ones whose teams could be expected to win half their starts given average offensive and bullpen support. Get bombed enough times, and that's a tough feat to pull off. On the other hand, Ryan Rowland-Smith (.328) has the lowest SWNP of any pitcher with at least 100 innings, while Nate Robertson (.357) has the second-lowest, Zach Duke (.383) the fourth-lowest, and Kevin Millwood, Josh Beckett, Bud Norris, Scott Kazmir, and David Bush are in the bottom 15.
Burnett isn't the only Yankees pitcher on the leaderboard. Javier Vazquez is tied for seventh with seven disaster starts, one fewer than Burnett; he's done so in just 25 starts while shuttling back and forth between the rotation and the bullpen, a fate which has inexplicably escaped Burnett, whose 32 starts rank second on the Yankees. Meanwhile, the Pirates and Orioles each have three pitchers on the list while the Twins and Nationals both have a pair.
As you can see from the records in the table, these pitchers' respective teams didn't win very many of the games in question; their combined record was 22-162, for a winning percentage of .120, which is right in line with the overall winning percentage for teams in such games: .124, via a 91-639 record. In other words, teams whose pitchers deliver disasterpieces tend to win just one game out of eight. Here are the team-by-team breakdowns:
Not surprisingly, the contenders allowed fewer disaster starts than the pretenders; as of this week, the bottom five teams on the list were still in the playoff hunts. Thanks largely to Burnett and Vazquez, the Yankees hold the dubious distinction of having the most disaster starts of any contender, but like most of the high-scoring teams, they were able to win more than their share of such games.
In a year where scoring has fallen about 4.4 percent from 2009, none of these disastermongers is threatening the history books. Here's the single-season leaderboard going back to 1920:
Now that's a list. Two of the top five players hail from the 1930 Phillies, whose 7.69 runs per game allowed is the all-time record. The second-ranked 1936 Browns (6.86 RA/G) featured Jack Knott, the seventh-ranked 1939 Browns (6.63 RA/G) featured Jack Kramer, the eighth-ranked 1937 Browns (6.56 RA/G) featured Chief Hogsett, and the 11th-ranked 1999 Rockies (6.35 RA/G) featured Brian Bohanon and Darryl Kyle. A handful of other pitchers here hail from the high-scoring 1930s. Jay Hook was a member of the 1962 Mets, who still hold the standard for single-season awfulness with a .250 winning percentage (40-120). Early Wynn got lucky in that after his 1948 season he was traded to the Indians, where he enjoyed several successful seasons en route to 300 wins and a Hall of Fame plaque. Darren Oliver eventually found a second life upon moving to the bullpen, and he's still active today, having even worked his way back to the Rangers.
Limiting the list to the wild-card era (1995 onward):
So many memories of bad, bad baseball over the past decade and a half. The list is topped by Official Hit List Whipping Boy Eric Milton, a flyballer whose predictably awful signing with the Reds provided plenty of fodder in the first year that I did our power rankings. The list also features Cy Young winners who had passed their sell-by dates in Doug Drabek and David Cone, future Cy Young winner Chris Carpenter when he was still getting his stuff together (teammate Roy Halladay, who ran up a ridiculous 10.64 ERA in 67
Turning to the historical records for teams, while there are many representatives from the 1930s and the wild-card era near the top of the heap, what stands out the most are the perennial presence of the Phillies and Browns.
The Phillies made the list six times in a nine-year span (1922-30), with the aforementioned Claude Willoughby (36 disaster starts in that span), who was known as "Weeping Willie" for obvious reasons, and Les Sweetland (34) joined by Jimmy Ring (35) and Clarence Mitchell (32). Ring was actually a decent pitcher, a starter for the world champion 1919 Reds whose 4.13 career ERA (compiled from 1917-28) was just four percent below the park-adjusted league average. The Browns claim no less than five of the top 21 totals, including four from the 1935-39 span. As prolific as the aforementioned Knott (22) and Hogsett (20) were at painting their disasterpieces, they were eclipsed during this period by one Jim Walkup, who compiled 23 disaster starts out of just 53 total starts en route to a 6.82 ERA during the period.
Limiting the set to the wild-card era:
Topping the list are the 1996 Tigers, who had no fewer than 14 different pitchers paint disasterpieces, led by obscurities Brian Williams and Felipe Lira with seven. Also pitching in—to use that term loosely—were such notorious hurlers as Todd Van Poppel (six), C.J Nitkowski (four), Lima, and current Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell (one). The 1999 Rockies not only had the aforementioned Kile and Bohanon but also Pedro Astacio (nine) down from his impressive 13 the year before. As with the Browns and Phillies above, it's the Rangers who dominate the list, with four appearances in an eight-year span thanks to the work of Vicente Padilla, Chan Ho Park, Kevin Millwood, Oliver et al. The Dewan Brazleton-era Devil Rays are high on the list, with Mark Hendrickson (eight) leading a pack of 14 pitchers, followed by Brazleton and Doug Waechter (six), and Geremi Gonzalez (five).
Finally, the question arises as to what an all-time leaderboard in this department would look like. As you'd expect, there are actually some pretty fair pitchers on the list, ones who stuck around 15 or 20 years messing up just a few times per year rather than gorging themselves like the men above:
No less than seven Hall of Famers are on this list: Wynn, Nolan Ryan, Phil Niekro, Don Sutton, Red Ruffing, Gaylord Perry, and Warren Spahn. All but Ruffing have 300 wins to their name. Robin Roberts is tied with Tom Glavine and two others for 31st at 77, Bert Blyleven tied for 34th at 76, Steve Carlton is tied for 41st at 74, and so on. Also on the list are popular Cooperstown candidates Tommy John, Jim Kaat, and Jack Morris, and rotation mainstays like Jamie Moyer, Frank Tanana, Jerry Reuss, Joe Niekro, Mike Torrez, and Rick Wise, who were part of many winning teams. All of these pitchers had ERAs in the double digits during such games, with won-loss records like 0-80 (Wynn) or 1-78 (John); Earl Whitehill (5-63) and Morris (5-62) are tied with Herb Pennock (5-30) for the lead in wins; somebody can try working that one into Black Jack's "pitch to the score" argument. As with the leaderboard for home runs allowed which Moyer now tops, it takes a pretty good pitcher to stick around long enough to take so many beatings.
While it's cold comfort to Yankees fans at the moment—perhaps less so now that they've clinched a playoff spot—the recently hapless Burnett rates as a pretty good pitcher in the grand scheme of things. Coming into this year, he'd put up a 3.83 ERA and 8.8 K/9 since 2004. He still misses bats at an above-average clip, his SIERA (4.42) is around league-average, but his BABIP (.323) is inflated; basically, he's in a rut compounded by some bad luck. Thanks to the spaced-out schedule, he's unlikely to get a first-round playoff start. He may just have painted his last disasterpiece of the season.