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April 18, 2012

Pebble Hunting

Doing Lines

by Sam Miller

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It’s true that, as they say, every time you watch a baseball game you see something you’ve never seen before. Monday, for instance, I saw a swinging strikeout, followed by a groundout to second base, followed by (after the teams switched sides) a pop-out to shallow right field, followed by a groundout to shortstop, followed by a single to left center, followed by a groundout to second, followed by (after the teams switched sides) a flyout to right, followed by a single to right. Never seen that sequence before. History was made. Save your ticket stubs.

The trick isn’t seeing something new, but seeing the right new thing. The other trick is caring about the new thing, because not every new thing is a bunt called foul, then called fair, then converted into a triple play. Ben Lindbergh wrote last week that Tom Milone was the first pitcher ever to produce an 8/3/0/0/3/0 (innings/hits/runs/earned runs/walks/strikeouts) pitching line, which is a more typical new thing.

Milone became the first pitcher ever to pitch eight innings and allow three hits and three walks without recording a strikeout. No other pitcher has done precisely those four things in the same outing. Whatever Milone does after this, his legacy is secure, or at least more secure than his rotation spot. He’s Mr. 830030. He’s the Greatest Living Ballplayer to pitch that many innings with that many hits and that many walks and that many strikeouts.

Nobody who was at the game, of course, had any idea that this had happened. Tom Milone doesn’t know this happened. Ben Lindbergh knows it happened, and now you know it happened. You probably don’t care that much that it happened, but I cared, because it made me realize that there are still pitching lines that haven’t happened.

Since 1918, there have been more than 317,000 starts, and each starter, of course, received a pitching line. There are 859,233 total pitching lines, approximately 20,000 of which are 1/0/0/0/0/1, and nearly 20,000 more that are 1/0/0/0/0/0, and still 15,000 more that are .1/0/0/0/0/0. Those are relievers’ lines, though, and this piece is about starting pitchers’ lines. There are, technically, infinite possibilities for a starters’ pitching line, but realistically, almost all will:

  • Be between two and nine innings;
  • Have a Hits total that is no greater than IP plus seven;
  • Have a Runs total that is no greater than Hits plus one or Hits minus eight;
  • Have a Runs total that is no greater than Earned Runs plus four;
  • Not have a BB total greater than eight;
  • Have a Strikeout total that is no less than BB minus three and no greater than BB plus 10;

That’s still a huge range of possibilities, but with even with those broad boundaries (which would include such unlikely events as 2.2/9/5/2/7/4) it limits us to about 1.5 million pitching lines. And every day or two, a new line is formed for the first time. On Sunday, Luis Mendoza threw the first ever 4/9/9/5/4/1, and Brandon Beachy was the first pitcher in history to produce a 7/3/1/0/2/6.

It’s unsurprising that Mendoza’s line had never been done. Beachy’s, though, looks so normal, like it should have happened, and most of the lines that look like they should have happened have happened, a lot. There are really two ways of looking at these pitching lines. One is that baseball could be played forever and we would never see the exact same thing twice, and the other is that baseball has been going forever and we see basically the same thing over and over and over and over all the time.

For instance, one of the most common pitching lines is 7/5/2/2/1/4, occurring 86 times since 1918. We might call this the Brad Radke. Start tweaking the numbers of the Brad Radke to try to find an undiscovered pitching line and you get a pretty full distribution of historical results:

And so on. After 300,000 starts, we’ll get outliers that have never occurred before, but it’s extremely hard to find outliers going the other way—starts that should have occurred but haven’t. Baseball games have so many variables that no game will ever be repeated, but the number of pitching lines is limited enough that we are, slowly, exhausting the most likely possibilities and seeing the same starts come up repeatedly. There are no fewer than five shutouts that have been thrown at least 100 times:

  • 9/4/0/0/1/4: 120 times (Warren Spahn, among others, twice)
  • 9/5/0/0/1/4: 116 times (Whole bunch of guys twice, most recently Brian Moehler)
  • 9/4/0/0/2/5: 106 times (Mickey Lolich and others twice)
  • 9/4/0/0/2/4: 101 times (Warren Spahn and others twice)
  • 9/4/0/0/1/5: 100 times (Bert Blyleven and others twice)

And a dozen more shutouts that have been thrown at least 80 times. There’s just no hiding from the mass of games that have been played. That’s why it’s interesting, even for just a moment, even for arbitrary reasons, to see a start like Milone’s, something that has eluded everybody.

So which previously unpitched lines are you most likely to see when you go to a game? There are a few that look like they should have been done by now. There’s 6/4/4/4/0/4, and 6/7/0/0/2/7, and 6/7/1/1/3/7, and 7/7/3/3/1/10, and 7/10/1/1/0/3. Matt Cain on Friday was one strikeout short of breaking in the 9/1/0/0/0/12. Every line from 9/1/0/0/0/0 through 9/1/0/0/0/14 has been produced multiple times, but somehow the 12-K line has been avoided, so that will probably happen in your lifetime.

The one that seems most likely to go, though, might be 7/7/0/0/1/8. Everything around it has gone:

  • 6/7/0/0/1/8: 1 time
  • 7/6/0/0/1/8: 5
  • 7/7/0/0/1/6: 8
  • 7/7/0/0/1/7: 1
  • 7/7/0/0/1/9: 3
  • 7/7/0/0/0/8: 3
  • 7/7/0/0/2/8: 3
  • 7/7/1/1/1/8: 8
  • 7/7/2/2/1/8: 20
  • 7/8/0/1/1/8: 1
  • 8/7/0/0/1/8: 1

Adjust any number up or down one and get results, yet somehow this island of 7/7/0/0/1/8 has gone undiscovered. It will happen, probably soon. It won’t be historic in the sense that anybody will notice or remember it, but it’s part of the sport’s long march toward everything having been done.

Thanks to Dan Turkenkopf for research assistance. 

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

Related Content:  Tom Milone,  Pitching Lines,  Brad Radke

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