Tagged: Major League Baseball

Pitching Dominance: Justin Verlander’s and Clayton Kershaw’s Historic Seasons

While Matt Kemp came up short in his bid for the Triple Crown this season, two pitchers completed the pitching Triple Crown. Both Justin Verlander and Clayton Kershaw led their leagues in wins, ERA, and strikeouts. However, like the hitting Triple Crown, the pitching Triple Crown has a stat that does a poor job at measuring pitching performance; the win. One need only look at Felix Hernandez’s 2010 season or Russ Ortiz’s 2003 season.  Since wins are such a poor measure of pitching performance (not to say ERA and Ks are perfect but at least they are far more dependent on the pitcher), let’s replace wins with WHIP. Then the question becomes whether Verlander and Kershaw achieved this version of the pitching Triple Crown and who has claimed that title in the past. Looking at the AL/NL era, let’s see what the numbers say:

Year Name Team ERA WHIP K
1901 Cy Young BOS 1.62 0.972 158
1905 Christy Mathewson NYG 1.28 0.933 206
1908 Christy Mathewson (2) NYG 1.43 0.827 259
1912 Walter Johnson WSH 1.39 0.908 303
1913 Walter Johnson (2) WSH 1.14 0.780 243
1915 Pete Alexander PHI 1.22 0.842 241
1916 Pete Alexander (2) PHI 1.55 0.959 167
1918 Walter Johnson (3) WSH 1.27 0.954 162
1918 Hippo Vaughn CHC 1.74 1.006 148
1919 Walter Johnson (4) WSH 1.49 0.985 147
1924 Walter Johnson (5) WSH 2.72 1.116 158
1924 Dazzy Vance BRO 2.16 1.022 262
1928 Dazzy Vance (2) BRO 2.09 1.063 200
1930 Lefty Grove PHA 2.54 1.114 209
1931 Lefty Grove (2) PHA 2.06 1.077 175
1934 Lefty Gomez NYY 2.33 1.133 158
1939 Bucky Walters CIN 2.29 1.125 137
1940 Bob Feller CLE 2.61 1.133 261
1948 Harry Brecheen STL 2.24 1.037 149
1963 Sandy Koufax LAD 1.88 0.875 306
1965 Sandy Koufax (2) LAD 2.04 0.855 382
1968 Bob Gibson STL 1.12 0.853 268
1971 Tom Seaver NYM 1.76 0.946 289
1973 Tom Seaver (2) NYM 2.08 0.976 251
1986 Mike Scott HOU 2.22 0.923 306
1995 Randy Johnson SEA 2.48 1.045 294
1997 Roger Clemens TOR 2.05 1.03 292
1999 Pedro Martinez BOS 2.07 0.923 313
2000 Pedro Martinez (2) BOS 1.74 0.737 284
2001 Randy Johnson (2) ARI 2.49 1.009 372
2002 Pedro Martinez (3) BOS 2.26 0.923 239
2005 Johan Santana MIN 2.61 0.921 265
2006 Johan Santana (2) MIN 2.77 0.997 245
2007 Jake Peavy SDP 2.54 1.061 240
2011 Justin Verlander DET 2.40 0.920 250
2011 Clayton Kershaw LAD 2.28 0.977 248

*Bold for numbers that led all Major League Baseball

Not only have Justin Verlander and Clayton Kershaw pitched fantastically this season, they have done something rather rare. Only two other times has a season seen a pitching Triple Crown winner and (prepare Tim Kurkjian voice) the last that happen was 1924. It is also the first time that baseball had two Triple Crown pitchers but did not have one achieve the Major League Triple Crown.

This list also testifies to how great Walter Johnson pitched. He leads all pitchers in winning this Triple Crown. Along with the five Triple Crowns, he has three Major League Triple Crowns. Pedro Martinez takes second place with three Triple Crowns and Sandy Koufax is second in Major League Triple Crowns with two.

Most of the names that make up this list would not surprise baseball fans. However, there is one name that came out of the blue (at least to me) on the list:

’86 Mike Scott

This name shocked me and probably because I only heard in his name while he sat in the dugout. In watching Game 6 of the 1986 NLCS, you can hear the announcers talking about how the Mets needed to win this game to avoid Mike Scott in Game 7. So who is this mystery pitcher?

Mike Scott made his Major League debut with the Mets in 1979 and the Mets traded him to the Astros in 1982. During that period, you could consider Scott a below replacement level player. Here are his numbers during that period:

W-L ERA WHIP K/9 BB/9 ERA+ WAR
29-44 4.45 1.427 4.2 2.9 78 -2.4

In fact, in the 1984 season Mike Scott starting 29 games for the Astros put up a WAR of -2.2. So what changed for Scott to become the most dominant pitcher in 1986?

In the offseason before the 1985 season, Mike Scott came under the tutelage of Roger Craig. Roger Craig invented the split-finger fastball and was pitching coach of the Detroit Tigers in 1984. Many view his teaching of the splitter to many on the Tigers as an important aspect of their World Series run. That success got him the job as manager of the San Francisco Giants in 1985.

During that off-season Mike Scott learned the splitter. He scrapped his slider and change-up and became a fastball-splitter pitcher. In 1985 he pitched the best season of his career up to that point. A year later, he put together the most dominant pitching season of the 1980s. He pitched a no-hitter against the Giants (Roger Craig’s team ironically) to clinch the NL West title. While the Astros lost the NLCS to the Mets in six, their two wins came on the back of two fantastic starts by Scott. He outpitched Doc Gooden in a 1-0 Game 1 victory by posting a five-hit shutout. In Game 4, he pitched a three-hit, one-run, complete game. In his two starts Mike Scott has a 0.50 ERA, a 0.500 WHIP, 19 Ks, and 1 BB. His Game 1 performance got a Game Score of 90 and his Game 4 start got a score of 82. One can see, especially with Game 6 going 16 innings, the Mets could not afford to go against Scott in Game 7.

As his career went on, while he never reached the level he did in ’86, he remained an All-Star caliber pitcher in ’87 and ’88 along with having a good season in ’89. However, by ’90, the wear and tear of the splitter had led to consistent injuries. He retired in ’91.

One should not ignore the potential controversy with Mike Scott’s ascendancy. Many players and baseball insiders thought that Mike Scott scuffed the ball and that gave him the insane movement on his splitter. While that idea does persist, there has not been any conclusive evidence to back up the claims. This might be why we do not talk about Mike Scott’s season in the same way we discuss the other great pitching performances of all-time.

Both Verlander and Kershaw have given us dominant pitching performances this season, and, like Mike Scott, they have put themselves in a class with Walter Johnson, Sandy Koufax, Pedro Martinez and other pitching legends of the game. Many called 2011 the Year of the Pitcher and we have two who epitomized why this season deserved that title.

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John Lackey’s Historic Season

John Lackey's season has been awful and may have cost the Red Sox a trip to the playoffs.

On September 19th, the Boston Red Sox started John Lackey in their second game of their doubleheader with the Baltimore Orioles. Lackey stayed true to his form this season going 4.1 innings giving up 8 runs and 11 hits and two walks. That’s an ERA of 16.6 and a 2.54 WHIP. That brings Lackey numbers for the season to 12-12 with a 6.49 ERA and 1.63 WHIP. In fact, his ERA is 1.15 runs above Bronson Arroyo’s who has the second worst ERA in all the Majors. Now let’s take it a step further, how does Lackey’s 2011 season rank among the all-time worst in ERA for starters? Let’s see what the numbers say.

(Sorted by ERA and WHIP rank in parentheses)

Rank Name Year Team Record ERA WHIP IP GS
1 Les Sweetland 1930 PHI 7-15 7.71 1.982 167 25
2 Jim Deshaies 1994 MIN 6-12 7.39 1.719 130.1 25
3 Jack Knott 1936 SLB 9-17 7.29 1.894 192.2 23
4 Jose Lima 2005 KC 5-16 6.99 1.660 168.2 32
5 LaTroy Hawkins 1999 MIN 10-14 6.66 1.709 174.1 33
6 Greg Harris 1994 COL 3-12 6.65 1.585 130 19
7 Jose Lima 2000 HOU 7-16 6.65 1.625 196.1 33
8 Chubby Dean 1940 PHA 6-13 6.61 1.776 159.1 19
9 Darryl Kile 1999 COL 8-13 6.61 1.752 190.2 32
10 Nels Potter 1939 PHA 8-12 6.60 1.762 196.1 25
11 Ernie Wingard 1927 SLB 2-13 6.56 1.868 156.1 17
12 George Caster 1940 PHA 4-19 6.56 1.699 178.1 24
13 John Lackey 2011 BOS 12-12 6.49 1.630 154 27
14 Terry Mulholland 1994 NYY 6-7 6.49 1.550 120.2 19
15 Eric Milton 2005 CIN 8-15 6.47 1.551 186.1 34
16 Dave Fleming 1994 SEA 7-11 6.46 1.855 117 23
17 Jimmy Ring 1928 PHI 4-17 6.44 1.835 176 25
18 Joel Pineiro 2006 SEA 8-13 6.36 1.648 165.2 25
19 Jaime Navarro 1998 CHW 8-16 6.36 1.737 172.2 27
20 Nate Robertson 2008 DET 7-11 6.35 1.660 168.2 28

(All pitchers had to have qualified for the ERA title in Baseball-Reference.com’s Play Index)

If the season ended today, Lackey’s ERA would be the 13th highest in MLB history among starters. With another start like he had against the Orioles, he could shoot up above LaTroy Hawkins and take fifth place. It’s amazing to think that the Red Sox would keep sending him out on the hill. One could argue that the injuries to Clay Buchholz and Josh Beckett force the Red Sox to start Lackey. But, Lackey has been historically bad this year. In August, he posted 4.61 ERA with a 1.61 WHIP and that was his best month in terms of ERA. In terms of WHIP, his best month was June where he posted a 1.28 WHIP with a 5.28 ERA. It is almost a complete certainty that when John Lackey pitches you need to give him at least 5 runs of support for the team to get the win. The Red Sox would have been better off promoting guys from AAA. At least the Red Sox would have had the chance of finding someone who can produce at a respectable level. And now with the Red Sox’s lead in the AL Wild Card shrinking, they have only one starter they can trust in Lester, are praying that Beckett stays healthy, and have three poor pitching performances guaranteed. Which means that the only reason to continue start Lackey is to justify the contract the Rex Sox gave him.

And if they start him because they have invested $82.5 million in him, then they risk not making the playoffs for the sake of attempting to justify a bad contract.

AL vs. NL: The Success of Regular Season Champions

In the previous blog post, I talked about how the Phillies regular season dominance does not guarantee that they will be successful in October. However, is the lack of success among National League teams that finished with the best record mirrored by the American League? Let’s see what the numbers say.

Team with the Best Record in the MLB:

Era National League American League
1903-1968 36.4% 63.6%
1969-1993 44% 56%
1995-2010 43.8% 56.2%

Team With the Best Record in the MLB Winning the Pennant:

Era National League American League
1903-1968 100% 100%
1969-1993 54.5% 78.6%
1995-2010 28.6% 44.4%

The Team with the Best Record in the MLB Winning the World Series:

Era National League American League
1903-1968 41.7% 64.3%
1969-1993 27.3% 28.5%
1995-2010 0% 33.3%

These numbers show that historically an AL team who finishes with the best record in the MLB has been more successful than their NL counterparts in winning the pennant and the World Series. This also holds true for each era. While the introduction of Championship Series in 1969 and Divisional Series in 1995 have reduced the likelihood that the team with the best record will win the pennant and/or World Series, the AL still maintains an advantage. What could be the source of this disparity? Well, let’s look at what the numbers would look like if we took the achievements of the New York Yankees out of the equation.

Team with the Best Record in the MLB (w/0 Yankees):

Era National League American League
1903-1968 54.5% (+18.1) 45.4% (-18.2)
1969-1993 47.8% (+3.8) 52.2% (-3.8)
1995-2010 58.3% (+14.5) 41.7% (-14.5)

Team With the Best Record in the MLB Winning the Pennant (w/o Yankees):

Era National League American League
1903-1968 100% 100%
1969-1993 54.5% 83.3% (+4.7)
1995-2010 28.6% 40.0% (-4.4)

The Team with the Best Record in the MLB Winning the World Series:

Era National League American League
1903-1968 52.6% (+10.9) 55% (-9.3)
1969-1993 27.3% 27.3% (-1.2)
1995-2010 0% 33.3%

First, understand the method that was chosen was not perfect and it will be described at the end of the blog. However, the presence of the Yankees has given the AL an advantage over the NL when it comes to having teams that succeed in both the regular season and the playoffs.

The Yankees may provide the AL teams with external pressures to innovate and build rosters. And in the attempt to catch up with the Yankees the AL has had a motivating factor the NL did not have. While that is a speculation, here is what is not. The Yankees give the American League dominant team. Dominant teams the National League has not often had. The National League has only 13 teams that have had the best record in the Majors and won the World Series. The Yankees have 20 teams who have accomplished such a feat.

One could look at lists made about the greatest teams in the history of baseball and two things are certain. The list will be AL dominant and the Yankees will have by far the most representatives of any other franchise. For example, Tom Verducci’s list of the 10 greatest baseball teams includes five Yankees teams (’27, ’39, ’98, ’61, ’32) and only two NL teams from the World Series era (’75 Reds and 1907 Cubs). The Sporting News’ list contains five Yankee teams (’27, ’39, ’98, ’61, ’53) and three NL teams (’75 Reds, ’55 Dodgers, ’42 Cardinals). Roger Weber’s list for Baseball Almanac had four Yankees teams (’27, ’39, ’32, and ’98) and three NL teams from the World Series era (1907 Cubs, 1905 Giants, and 1906 Cubs)[1].

There may be another reason behind the success of these teams when they come from the AL. For example, the end of the Dead Ball Era coincides with the dominance of AL teams. Could it be possible that National League teams did not adjust to the changing times and clung onto players, managers, and a philosophy of playing the game that was anachronistic? I have no clue no being a baseball historian. But, we all know the legends that have played on so many great Yankees teams, that it is hard to dispute that the gap between the AL and NL  is not, at the very least, the fault of the New York Yankees.

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