Jacob DeGrom and Tough-Luck Pitchers From Seasons Past

Jacob deGrom is currently 4-0, which, if you care about pitcher win/loss records, is pretty good. Of course, that 4-0 record comes in 12 starts, leaving him with eight no-decisions. In those eight games, the New York Mets have gone 1-7. Five times this year, deGrom has pitched at least seven innings and allowed one or zero runs. He is 1-0 in those five games; the Mets are 1-4. After Saturday’s game (in which deGrom allowed one run in seven innings, only to have the Mets lose to the Chicago Cubs, 7-1, in 14 innings), deGrom has a 1.49 ERA (253 ERA+), 98 strikeouts in 72.1 innings (12.2 K/9), and an MLB-best 1.94 FIP — and the Mets are 5-7 in his starts.

Chances are, this string of bad luck won’t continue. Actually, the most likely outcome over the rest of the season is that deGrom will pitch slightly worse but he will get more help from his offense, and by the end of the year things will be balanced out. But for right now, he is rivaling some of the most tough-luck seasons in baseball history.

Let’s look at a few, shall we? This is not an exhaustive list — it’s a sampling of some interesting seasons from baseball history.

Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners, 2010

I’ll put this one first, because it’s going to be kind of long. Like I said above, usually over the course of a season, a pitcher’s luck will even out. A guy will throw eight shutout innings and get a no-decision, but then sometimes he’ll give up five runs in five innings and his offense will get him a win.

That never happened for King Felix in 2010. He led the big leagues with a 2.27 ERA, but his W/L record was a paltry 13-12, and the Mariners were just 17-17 in his starts. In 30 of his 34 starts, Hernandez pitched at least six innings and allowed three or fewer earned runs. Felix had three losses in which he allowed three earned runs, three with two earned runs, one with one earned run, and one with zero earned runs. In those 30 excellent starts, Hernandez had a 1.57 ERA — and just a 13-8 record with nine no-decisions.

Part of the reason for Hernandez’s tough luck is that he allowed 17 unearned runs that season. Unearned runs are a tricky thing, because they often absolve the pitcher of a little too much blame. For example, on August 15, 2010, Hernandez was facing the Cleveland Indians and shutting them down through six innings. In the bottom of the seventh innings, Hernandez retired the first two batters before Luis Valbuena reached base on an error by second baseman Chone Figgins. Since that would have been the third out of the inning, any runs that scored against Hernandez in that inning are unearned. And boy howdy, did they ever score. Here’s the rest of Hernandez’s day after the Figgins error:

So while it’s true that Felix would have been out of the inning if Figgins had made the play, it’s also true that the next five batters all scored via legitimate means, so calling all six runs unearned is a bit questionable.

(As an aside, this game had one of my favorite anomalies: a run that counts as an earned run against the pitcher but not against the team. If you look at the box score, you see that Sean White allowed one earned run and Chris Seddon allowed two, but the team allowed only two earned runs. When White entered the game, he allowed a home run to the first batter he faced. Because the Mariners should have already been out of the inning, the run is unearned against the team. But because White was not in the game when the error occurred, he doesn’t get to benefit from it, so the run is earned against him. Here’s something I wrote about a 1990 Dodgers/Phillies game that had a similar incident. And while we’re sharing links, here’s one to a story about a game with 16 unearned runs.)

As you surely recall, Hernandez won the Cy Young Award in 2010, easily the worst win/loss record ever by a starting pitcher to win the award. It’s interesting to consider whether he would have won the award if those six runs had been “earned,” giving him a 2.49 ERA instead of 2.27. Hernandez’s overall run average was 2.88, and you have to think that the voters might have gone with one of the bigger “winners” if there had been a smaller gap in ERA.

Then again, if the Mariners had scored some runs and earned him some wins in the seven (7!) games in which he pitched at least seven innings and allowed two or fewer runs, Felix would have been one of those big winners himself. So no matter how you slice it, Hernandez was the victim of some tough luck in 2010.

Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers, 2009

Before he was Clayton Kershaw, Best Pitcher on the Planet, he was just Clayton Kershaw, 21-Year-Old Phenom. In 2009, Kershaw’s first full season in the big leagues, he went a respectable 8-8. Wait, I thought I said it was a full season? Oh yeah, in Kershaw’s 30 starts, he had 14 no-decisions. In those 14 games, he averaged 5.9 innings per game and had a 1.42 ERA — slightly better than his 1.44 ERA in his eight victories.

In Kershaw’s no-decisions, here are the number of earned runs he allowed:

  • 0 ER: Six times
  • 1 ER: Three times
  • 2 ER: Five times
  • >2 ER: Zero times

Part of the problem was efficiency. While Kershaw later became one of the most efficient pitchers in baseball, the 21-year-old version still had some work to do in that area. In 13 of his 14 no-decisions, he threw at least 97 pitches, and he averaged 17.13 pitches per inning in those 14 games.

But still, with a little better luck or a bit more help from his offense, we might have seen Kershaw’s greatness coming a year or two earlier than we did.

Jose DeLeon, St. Louis Cardinals, 1991

DeLeon is one of my favorite pitchers in baseball history, because overall he was entirely bland and unremarkable, but his name always pops up when I’m looking up interesting things.

For one thing, in 1985, the Pittsburgh Pirates removed DeLeon and his 2-18 record from their rotation in mid-September, at least partly to keep him from getting to 20 losses. He saved three games for the Pirates in the next couple weeks, the lost his 19th game in relief in the second game of a doubleheader the last weekend of the season. After that, manager Chuck Tanner did not send DeLeon back out in the final three games of the season.

But then, five years later, the Cardinals skipped DeLeon’s final start of the season, sending out rookie Omar Olivares to face the Montreal Expos in the penultimate game of the season. The reason? You guessed it — DeLeon’s W/L record was sitting at 7-19, so he was shut down early rather than risking losing his 20th game.

Between Brian Kingman‘s 20-loss season in 1980 and Mike Maroth‘s 21-loss season in 2003, nine pitchers lost exactly 19 games in a season — but DeLeon did it twice.

But we’re not talking about 1985 or 1990; we’re talking about 1991. In that season, his 2.71 ERA was 36 percent better than league average — and yet, he went 5-9 with 14 no-decisions, including nine games in which he allowed one or zero runs. DeLeon also lost six games in which he allowed two or fewer earned runs, and he allowed a total of three earned runs in his five victories combined.

In his career, DeLeon had a 3.76 ERA, good for a 102 ERA+. That’s almost exactly average, but his win/loss record was 86-119. If Brian Kenny wants some company on the “Kill the Win” bandwagon, perhaps DeLeon might want to join him.

Joe Magrane, St. Louis Cardinals, 1988

Just three years before DeLeon’s tough-luck season with the Cardinals, 23-year-old lefty Joe Magrane had a similar season for St. Louis. Identical 5-9 record, although Magrane only started 24 games, so he only had 10 no-decisions. But Magrane also led MLB with a 2.18 ERA, good for an NL-best 161 ERA+. In the 16 games in which Magrane allowed exactly one or two earned runs, he was 2-6 with eight no-decisions.

Magrane’s season was similar to Felix Hernandez’s 2010 season in one striking regard: he allowed 40 earned runs and 17 unearned runs on the season. There was no single inning as drastic as the one Hernandez had against the Indians, but it’s safe to say that “limiting the damage” was not Magrane’s strong suit in 1988. Still, though, Magrane won just a single game in which he allowed more than one run — earned or unearned — and allowing three or fewer runs in 18 of his 24 starts really deserved better than a 5-9 record.

Nolan Ryan, Houston Astros, 1987

In 1987, the National League Cy Young Award went to Philadelphia Phillies closer Steve Bedrosian, who had 40 saves and … well, not much else. According to FanGraphs, Bedrosian’s 0.8 WAR that season placed him 80th among NL pitchers — and 22nd among NL relievers. But he led the league in saves, and the ’80s were a weird time.

Finishing tied for fifth in the Cy Young voting was the best pitcher in the NL, Nolan Ryan. Ryan struck out 270 batters in 211.2 innings, his 2.76 ERA led the league, and his 2.47 FIP was nearly half a run better than the second best in the big leagues (Roger Clemens at 2.91).

So how in the world did Ryan not win the Cy Young? Well, he played for the Astros, who just refused to score runs for him, so he finished the season with an 8-16 record. When allowing one or two earned runs that season, Ryan went 3-9 with seven no-decisions. In his 34 starts, the Astros scored three or fewer runs 20 times.

Nolan Ryan never won a Cy Young Award. It’s a shame that in his best full season, a meaningless 8-16 record prevented him from winning the one he deserved.

Jim Abbott, California Angels, 1992

Jim Abbott is famous for a lot of things. He was drafted in the first round of the 1988 draft by the Angels after a remarkable career at the University of Michigan. He threw a no-hitter for the New York Yankees in 1993. He finished third in the AL Cy Young voting in 1991. It seems like there was something else… Oh well, it escapes me right now.

But in 1992, Abbott followed up his outstanding 1991 with a season that was nearly as good. He had a 2.77 ERA and a 3.31 FIP, following up on his 5.5-WAR 1991 season with 4.4 WAR in 1992.

He also went 7-15.

When allowing one or two earned runs, Abbott went 5-5 with four no-decisions. He did not win a single game in which he allowed more than two runs. Heck, he was only 1-2 with two no-decisions when allowing zero earned runs.

Perhaps the best example of Abbott’s tough luck that year came on April 29 in Toronto. Abbott pitched eight shutout innings, then came back out for the bottom of the ninth in a 0-0 tie. He allowed a single to Blue Jays designated hitter Dave Winfield, which was quickly wiped out on a double-play grounder by Kelly Gruber. Singles by John Olerud and Candy Maldonado put runners on first and second, but Pat Borders reached on an error by third baseman Gary Gaetti to load the bases instead of end the inning. That brought up Pat Tabler, perhaps the best bases-loaded hitter in baseball history, with a career .489/.505/.693 slash line in 109 such plate appearances. This one ended in a four-pitch walk, and Abbott walked off the mound a tough-luck loser, having allowed just the one unearned run.

Again, this list is not comprehensive. Hal Newhouser‘s 1942 season (8-14 with a 162 ERA+) deserves a look. Ben Sheets went 12-14 with a 162 ERA+ in 2004. Rich Harden had 13 no-decisions despite a 207 ERA in 2008. The list goes on and on. Only time will tell whether deGrom’s 2018 season ends up on a list like this, but he and the Mets are off to a “promising” start.

2 Responses

  1. Tw Hess

    “It seems like there was something else… Oh well, it escapes me right now”

    Abbott’s B-R info line is interesting…

    “Bats: Left • Throws: Left • Fields Left as well” …truelol…

    …tom…
    P.S. …and we saw what you did *right* there . . ..

    Reply
  2. Tw Hess

    I almost said …previous comment … that Abbott’s B-R info line was ‘unique’.

    Later remembered Pete Gray of the war-time St. Louis Browns. I see his is similar. Are there others..?? Not to my knowledge.

    I also thought Gray had a longer, moe productive multi-year career. Obviously not.

    …tom…

    Reply

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