I was talking sleepers with Rotowire’s Chris Liss the other day—and you can hear more from the two of us on his XM Radio show today at 3 p.m. ET, channel 175—and we got into an exchange about Royals right-hander Luke Hudson. Liss likes Hudson in part because of one start last September, a 10-K, one-walk effort against the Yankees. The idea is that, having shown he can perform at that level, he must have a certain minimum of talent, and that makes him more likely to succeed than a comparable pitcher who didn’t have a day like that.
This is a concept known as “signature significance,” and my recollection is that Bill James first mentioned it in one of the early 1990s Baseball Books. I know that Rany Jazayerli and I were using it as far back as 1993 to become wildly optimistic about Jason Bere, whose 13-strikeout, no-walk effort against the Red Sox late that year elevated him far too highly in our eyes.
Is there anything to the idea that a pitcher like Hudson, who shows that he can be dominant, will succeed? Keith Woolner and Jason Pare researched pitchers who had great starts along these lines—at least 10 strikeouts, no unintentional walks—to answer the question. First off, having many of these starts is clearly the mark of a Hall of Famer. Since 1960, here are all the pitchers with at least 10 of them:
Randy Johnson 34 Curt Schilling 26 Roger Clemens 23 Pedro Martinez 18 Tom Seaver 14 Mike Mussina 12 John Smoltz 10 Sandy Koufax 10 Fergie Jenkins 10 Bob Gibson 10
That’s not a bad staff, featuring seven Hall of Famers and three guys who are still working on pretty good cases. It’s fun to look at this as a proxy for career shape, as well. For example, all 10 of Sandy Koufax’s signature starts occurred during the four-year run from 1963 through 1966 in which he won three Cy Young Awards. Roger Clemens, on the other hand, had his first in 1984, and his last in 2005, two outings at opposite ends of two decades of dominance.
It’s the other end of the list, though, that’s more interesting. Just since 2000, 72 pitchers have had at least one signature start, with Randy Johnson’s 20 leading the way. There are a lot of great pitchers towards the bottom of the list, including Andy Pettitte, Kevin Brown, and Tom Glavine. On the other hand, there are also a lot of pitchers who, shall we say, don’t have quite the same resume. On April 26, 2001, Kevin Jarvis had a day in the sun against the Phillies, whiffing 10 without walking a man. Jose Acevedo owned the Rockies on May 19, 2004, upping the ante to 11 strikeouts without a free pass. Chris Brock and John Wasdin and Jamey Wright all did this in just the last seven years; hell, Jason Bere even shows up on the list.
Having one big day didn’t mean anything for these guys. It was one day. Maybe it was really cold, or maybe they were facing a day-game-after-night-game lineup. Maybe they just applied their particular talents in a way that they never could again. What’s clear, though, is that one big start didn’t herald great things.
Is there a point at which a signature start begins to mean something? Well, Jarvis had a 10/0 outing, and Acevedo’s was 11/0. Bere’s 2001 outing was 12/0 to go with his earlier 13/0. Hideo Nomo had 14 strikeouts against no walks on May 25, 2001 against the Blue Jays, and while he’s no Hall of Famer, he’s a very good pitcher. Other than Bere, the pitchers who went 13/0 are all of considerable accomplishment, save for John Patterson, and he’s a very good pitcher who just happens to be made of Waterford crystal. So there may be something to the idea that a pitcher who strikes out 13 men without walking a batter in a single game is someone to grab.
Looked at the other way, is there some number of signature starts that becomes meaningful? Since 2000, pitchers with two include John Burkett, Matt Clement, and Eric Milton; those with three include Rick Ankiel, but the rest of that crowd is pretty tough, and the worst pitcher with four or more is probably either Mark Prior or Javier Vazquez. So while one signature start can be a fluke, three likely indicates a special talent.
I can think of reasons to like Luke Hudson in 2007, from his build to his late-season work for the Royals to the memory of how he pitched in the first Arizona Fall League game I ever attended. What I can’t recommend is getting too attached to him based on one start, one night, and seven good innings. Signature significance, it turns out, is just an excuse to put too much weight on a small sample size.