Last blog post, we mainly discussed numbers used for batters. Here is some basic stuff that concerns pitchers that you will see me use and that will help us put pitchers from the same year and different eras in context.
We already touched on what makes a win and a loss. Many people, including me, don’t think wins and losses tell you much about a pitcher. But, in the past, wins and losses meant a lot and if a pitcher won 20 games in a season that was considered really good. Back in the early days of baseball, say before 1900, pitchers won over 30 or 40 games a season quite a few times. In fact, in the history of the game there have been 147 pitchers that won between 30 and 59 (!) games in a season. Of those 147, only 21 times did a pitcher after 1900 win more than 30 games. If you narrow that even further, to say – post 1930 – the list dwindles to three:
- Denny McLain, 31-6 in 1968
- Lefty Grove, 31-4 in 1931
- Dizzy Dean, 30-7 in 1934
Winning 30 games is just unheard of these days. I was only five when Denny McLain did it so I can’t say I remember that feat too well. I do, however, as a baseball fan know how great that was. Nobody wins 30 games. Since the onset of integration in baseball (think Jackie Robinson and 1947), which is in my view the modern era of baseball, only 21 pitchers have won more than even 25 games in a season and only three guys have done that since 1975:
- Bob Welch, 27-6 in 1990
- Steve Stone, 25-7 in 1980
- Ron Guidry, 25-3 in 1978
So, this gives you a sense of how much the game has changed over the past fifty years and how tough it is for a pitcher to win 20 games. For example, this year only one guy (1!) won 20 or more games – Max Schrezer of the Tigers went 21-3. How many in other years?
- 2012 – 4 guys
- 2011 – 3 guys
- 2010 – 3 guys
- 2009 – zero
- 1974 – 11 guys
- 1973 – 13 guys
- 1972 – 10 guys
- 1971 – 14 guys
- 1970 – 11 guys
- 1969 – 15 guys
You can see, I grew up when starting pitchers won more games. That is not to say they were better, they just stayed in games longer and relief pitchers were used differently. And, stats were just in their infancy, so we grew up with 20 wins as a magic number. Good pitchers were expected to win 20 games.
Why do fewer pitchers win 20 games now, you ask? Well, pitchers win fewer games partly because they pitch less often. Of the players since 1975 to win more than 25 games, most started about 40 games that season and threw between 20 and 30 complete games.* These pitchers also threw a lot of innings over the course of the season. They ranged from a low of 238 Innings Pitched (IP)** to a high of 376 IP for Mickey Lolich in 1968, with most in the 300-320 range.
To put this in perspective, the highest innings pitched total for the 2013 season was 228 2/3 in the American League and 241 2/3 in the National League. That is quite a bit less than those guys in the 1970s – about 8-10 fewer starts a season – about a month and half worth of starts. The last time an American League pitcher tossed more than 300 innings in a season was 1977 (Jim Palmer – 319 IP); and, in the National League – 1980 (Steve Carlton – 304 IP) – over thirty years ago. That’s so long ago I was in high school!
*A complete game, as it suggests, is when a pitcher throws the entire game – no one else helps out or “relieves” him – thus the term reliever. Most complete games are 9 inning jobs, but sometimes there can be extra inning complete games.
**I discussed an inning pitched in the last post (I told you about 1/3 and 2/3 innings pitched). If you throw 8 innings you have 8 IP.
There is a lot I could say about the change in pitcher usage over time, but I won’t bore you with that.
ERA (Earned Run Average):
To determine a pitchers ERA, you mulitply the number of earned runs the pitcher allowed in his outing by 9 and then divide that total by the total number of innings pitched by the pitcher. What complicates this a bit is that say a pitcher goes five innings and starts the sixth. He walks a batter and gives up a single and then the manager pulls him. The relief pitcher then gives up a home run. That is three runs allowed but the first two are charged to the starter because he was responsible for putting them on base; he still only pitched 5 innings despite starting the sixth but gets charged with those extra two runs.
Okay, here is an example from last year about ERA – Koji Uehara threw 74 1/3 IP last year and allowed 9 earned runs (he gave up 10 runs over the year but one was unearned, I’ll explain earned vs. unearned in a later post – it has to do with if a runner gets on base or scores because of an error). So the math is llike this:
(9 x 9) / 74.66 = 1.08
What the ERA tells you is how many runs the pitcher has given up for every 9 innings he pitched (you are pretending this is what he would do if he tossed a 9 inning complete game each time he went out). So, if Koji were a starter, from his ERA we’d expect that he’d only give up 1 run over 9 innings. We know Koji could not throw a 9 inning complete game – he is a reliever and not able to throw for that long. You can’t really compare a reliever’s ERA to a starter’s ERA. A reliever is only expected to pitch an inning, maybe two, each time he takes the mound, where a starter expects to go 6-8 IP each time out. You can sense that the starting pitcher has to pace himself, while the reliever does not – he just throws as hard as he can for an inning or so.
To win the ERA title, which tilts more toward starting pitchers, they have a formula. For a pitcher to qualify for the ERA title, he must pitch more than 1 inning per team game played – so most often 162 IP is the minimum required to qualify for the ERA title. This formula essentially eliminates relievers from the ERA title.
Baseball kinda does the same thing for the batting average title. You have to have 3.1 plate appearances per team game played (162 x 3.1 = 502 – so pinch hitters or just platoon players won’t qualify).
In 2013, there were 41 guys with an ERA under 2.50 with a minimum of 50 IP. Of those 41, only 4 players started 15 or more games and 34 started no games at all. Those 34 were relievers. So, it is much easier to have a low ERA if you are a reliever. Those starters with an ERA under 2.50 last year include three of the best young pitchers in baseball. You should remember these names for discussion with your friends so you can appear on top of things:
- Clayton Kershaw (25 years old), 1.83 ERA in 236 IP
- Jose Fernandez (20 years old), 2.19 ERA in 172 2/3 IP
- Matt Harvey (24 years old), 2.27 ERA in 178 1/3 IP
Of those three, Matt Harvey hurt his pitching elbow and underwent Tommy John surgery after the season ended. He will be out most if not all of 2014; it usually takes 18 months for a pitcher to come back from that kind of injury. Tommy John surgery happens pretty often these days, but it is a big setback for a pitcher and can often limit his career. The surgery first took place in 1974 and is named after the pitcher it was first performed on. I’ll talk more about Tommy John in the future. The surgery takes a tendon from somewhere else in the body and replaces the damaged elbow ligament with this harvested tendon. There is some concern that when you throw a lot of innings when young, you are a likely candidate for Tommy John surgery. There are some divergent opinions on that. Nonetheless, before Tommy John had his surgery, if you had an injury like this your career was over. The doctor who invented the surgery is famous – Dr. Frank Jobe. He should have taken a cut of each player’s future salary, rather than the cost of the operation; if he’d have done that he’d be a bazillionaire today. I’m sure he’s pretty well off as it is. His procedure saved and extended many a career. Heck, he might be one of the most influential non-baseball players of all-time.
Anyway, back to ERA. Koji’s ERA was pretty spectacular in 2013. While he did not qualify for the ERA title, we Sox fan know how important he was to the 2013 World Series run. It was probably one of the five best relief seasons of all-time. Another belongs to an ex-Red Sox pitcher who now does announcing stuff for the Sox and is in the Hall of Fame – Dennis Eckersley (aka “The Eck”). This is not to suggest that Koji is Cooperstown bound (Cooperstown is where the Hall of Fame is located); he most likely is not unless he repeats last year for another five or six years.
This seems like a good place for a tangent about a player I always liked – The Eck.
The Eck began his career as a starter but finished it as a closer (a specialized relief pitcher who finishes games). He began his career with the Indians at the age of 20 in 1975. He threw a no-hitter for the Indians in 1977 and was inexplicably, to some, traded to the Sox in 1978. There were some rumors that he was traded to the Sox because he was too much of a partier. Regardless, he promptly went out in 1978 and won 20 games for the Sox with a 2.99 ERA. He pitched well for the Sox as well in 1979 but fell off a bit and was traded to the Cubs during the 1984 season for Bill Buckner (we will talk about him later – he is, unfortunatley, most well known for an error he committed in the 1986 World Series against the Mets).
The Eck pitched well for the Cubs, who in 1984 traded for another good pitcher named Rick Sutcliffe. These two trades helped the Cubs win their division that year. The Eck went 10-8 with a 3.03 ERA for the Cubs. The Cubs later lost to the San Diego Padres in the NL Championship Series. You were not around for the Sox suffering; you’ve only know good times for the Sox. It wasn’t always that way. But, on the bright side, we were not Cubs fans. The Cubs have not won the World Series since 1908. Heck they haven’t even been in the World Series since 1945. Like us and the Curse of the Bambino (that is what Babe Ruth was called), the Cubs think they are cursed. They call it “The Curse of the Billy Goat.” The story goes that a bar owner was asked to leave a Cubs World Series game in 1945 because his goat smelled and was offending other fans. He is said to have cursed the Cubs – “Them Cubs, they ain’t gonna win no more,” he said. Who knows if it is true, but it is a good story.
Theo Epstein, the Sox general manager during the 2004 and 2007 World Series seasons, is now the head of baseball operations for the Cubs. If he can get the Cubs a World Series title, he may go down as the greatest baseball general manager of all-time, having turned around both the Red Sox and the Cubs! Back to The Eck.
In 1987, at the age of 32, the Eck was traded to the A’s. This might have been related to his drinking. He eventually admitted he was an alcoholic, checked into rehab, and has been sober ever since. Whatever led to the trade, it was a fortunate event for him. Why? Because the A’s turned him into a relief pitcher – and this change helped him make it to the Hall of Fame. He took over the A’s closer role about half way into the 1987 season and never really gave it up until he returned to Boston in 1998 for a last hurrah.
The Eck was a dominate closer from 1987 to 1992. Over that six year stretch he did this:
- 1987 – 3.03 with 16 saves
- 1988 – 2.35 with 45 saves
- 1989 – 1.56 with 33 saves
- 1990 – 0.61 with 48 saves
- 1991 – 2.96 with 43 saves
- 1992 – 1.91 with 51 saves
I want to talk a second about The Eck’s 1990 season. He made 63 relief appearances and in those appearances he threw 73 1/3 innings. He gave up 41 hits, walked only 5 batters all season (one was an intentional walk), and struck out 73. Think about that for a second. His WHIP (another stat to absorb – Walks + Hits per innings pitched) ratio was 0.61 – oddly the same as his ERA for the year; if a pitcher has a WHIP around 1.00 that is considered excellent. That 0.61 Whip was pretty amazing. And, he did it with this mean look on his face, a big legkick and a sidearm delivery. When he struck you out, he shook his fist at you! He was fierce. Here take a look.
Since integration, there have only been five relief pitchers to have thrown at least 70 innings and have a WHIP under 0.75 (which is a miniscule Whip).
- Koji, 2013, 0.565 Whip, 1.09 ERA
- The Eck, 1990, 0.614 Whip, 0.61 ERA
- Mariano Rivera, 2008, 0.665 Whip, 1.40 ERA
- Eric Gagne, 2003, 0.692 Whip, 1.20 ERA
- JJ Putz, 2007, 0.698 Whip, 1.38 ERA
That puts in perspective how awesome Koji was last year. It also shows you that the game has changed and relief pitchers are used differently. Why do I say that? Because all these players, except for The Eck, had their amazing seasons after 2003.
Okay, one last stat.
Just like OPS+, ERA+ figures out what the league average ERA is (adjusting for the park in which each pitcher labored) and uses a 100 baseline for the average pitcher. The higher the ERA+, the better the pitcher. Koji last year had an ERA+ of 376. He was great, but you want to see how great The Eck was? His ERA+ was 603! Yeah, you read that right – 603. That is just mind boggling. Has anyone else been that good? Only one and not surprisingly, all the pitchers who threw more than 70 innings in a season and had an ERA+ north of 300 were all relief pitchers. The list is only fifteen names long.
In some later post, I’ll probably talk about Bruce Sutter and Rollie Fingers, two of the three guys on this list from 1977 and 1981. Enough for today, though.