Better to be lucky than good (Part 2)

It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no fortunate son.

Last time in this space, we looked at some pitchers who ended up with poor win-loss records despite pitching well. Now we turn to pitchers who managed to succeed despite their best efforts to do otherwise.

For example, consider a man who doesn’t appear in our list below but who inspired this entire line of inquiry: Stan Bahnsen. In 1972, Bahnsen went 21-16 for the White Sox with a 3.60 ERA. That ERA might sound pretty good by current standards, but consider that the entire American League had a 3.07 ERA in ’72, putting Bahnsen’s ERA+ at an underwhelming 88 (to provide some context, that is Glendon Rusch’s career ERA+), the lowest for a 20-game winner in the so-called Expansion Era (since 1961).

With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at some recent performances that resulted in greater success than might be merited. As explained in the previous installment, I targeted pitchers with a winning percentage of .600 or better and an ERA+ of 80 or lower. Only pitchers that qualified for their league’s ERA title were considered. This gives us nine names, again presented in order of appearance.

Fortunate sons

Steve Blass, Pittsburgh Pirates, 1969
16-10, 4.46 ERA, 78 ERA+
Pirates: 88-74

This came on the heels of Blass’ fine ’68 campaign (18-6, 2.12 ERA), a few years before his Cy Young caliber ’72 season (19-8, 2.49 ERA) and subsequent meltdown. Run support? Yeah, a little. The Pirates averaged 5.80 runs in Blass’ 32 starts, never once being shut out and breaking double digits on four separate occasions.

Blass threw some nice games in ’69, most notably abusing the expansion Padres on May 22 and Expos on July 8. More representative of Blass’ charmed life that year, however, were a June 1 game against the Astros at home (9 IP, 11 H, 7 R, 7 ER, 5 BB, 3 SO) and a June 11 contest at Houston (5 IP, 8 H, 6 R, 5 ER, 1 BB, 4 SO), both wins.

In his victories, Blass went 16-0 with a 3.45 ERA. The league ERA was 3.60. Don Sutton had a 3.47 ERA that year and finished 17-18. Given Blass’ performance in these games, we might expect a record of 8-8, give or take a few on either side, but 16-0? That is called getting by with a little help from your friends.

Dave Roberts, Houston Astros, 1972
12-7, 4.50 ERA, 75 ERA+
Astros: 84-69

A year after making our “Born under a bad sign” list, Roberts became the first (and only) pitcher to reach both extremes. His ERA more than doubled (from 2.10 with the Padres in ’71) while his winning percentage shot up from .452 to .632.

The Astros scored 10 runs or more three times for Roberts. Actually, let’s do a quick comparison of his run support in ’71 and ’72:

     0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10+  Avg
1971 5 9 6 6 3 4 0 0 1 0  0  2.30
1972 1 1 3 1 6 3 4 1 2 3  3  5.60

Or to put it another way:

      0-1   2-3   4-5    6+
1971 41.2% 35.3% 20.6%  2.9%
1972  7.1% 14.3% 32.1% 46.4%

Day and night… night and day. Roberts’ best start of the ’72 campaign came against his old team; he shut out the Padres in San Diego on June 27. Roberts pitched some other strong games, but he also received some generous gifts, including a June 17 contest against the Phillies (7.2 IP, 12 H, 5 R, 5 ER, 2 BB, 5 SO) and a July 12 game at Wrigley Field (6.2 IP, 9 H, 5 R, 5 ER, 4 BB, 7 SO).

Roberts pitched reasonably well in wins (12-0, 2.28 ERA) and fairly poorly in losses (0-7, 6.41 ERA). Where he got away with proverbial murder was in no-decisions (14 G, 10 GS, 53.2 IP, 7.38 ERA).

Roberts managed to surrender five runs or more in eight different games; in those games, he went 2-2 despite a surreal 9.54 ERA (38.2 IP, 70 H, 17 BB, 27 SO). After his experience in San Diego a year earlier, Roberts must have thought he’d died and gone to heaven, or some domed approximation thereof.

Randy Lerch, Philadelphia Phillies, 1977
10-6, 5.07 ERA, 80 ERA+
Phillies: 101-61

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Lerch didn’t have any starts where he was truly terrible and still won. The worst probably came on May 5 at San Diego (6 IP, 5 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 6 BB, 5 SO) and May 16 against the Dodgers (7 IP, 7 H, 5 R, 3 ER, 3 BB, 5 SO), but even those were just mediocre outings.

The Phillies averaged 4.95 runs in Lerch’s starts. Like Roberts, Lerch’s success lay mainly in the ability to escape unharmed from poor outings:

        W-L   IP  ERA
Wins   10-0 73.0 2.59
Losses  0-6 25.1 6.75
No-Dec  0-0 70.1 7.04

In another similarity to Roberts, Lerch didn’t suffer when he gave up five runs or more. In Lerch’s case, this happened seven times; in those games, he went 1-1 with a 9.96 ERA (28 IP, 48 H, 20 BB, 18 SO). Again, it’s not so much a case of pitching poorly in victories as managing to elude defeat when pitching horrendously.

Moose Haas, Milwaukee Brewers, 1981
11-7, 4.46 ERA, 77 ERA+
Brewers: 62-47

Since 1901, 46 pitchers have met the following criteria for their careers:
{exp:list_maker}100 or more wins
better than .500 record
ERA+ below 100 {/exp:list_maker}Haas won exactly 100 games and checks in at No. 17 among those 46 pitchers in terms of winning percentage (.546). The aforementioned Blass (103 wins, .575 Pct, 95 ERA+) is No. 7. Jack Coombs (158, .590, 99) leads in winning percentage, while Lew Burdette (203, .586, 98) has the most wins. Active leaders in those same categories are Russ Ortiz (113, .562, 94) and Livan Hernandez (156, .506, 96), respectively. This is kind of a silly list, but it points to the type of pitcher Haas was. Or to throw out one more name, Haas was sort of the Vicente Padilla of his day.

In ’81, Haas was even better… or at least luckier. The Brewers scored 4.60 runs per game for him that year, not appreciably different from their overall average (4.52) and not the sort of support one might expect from a pitcher who achieved excellent results with such mediocre performances. Haas’ worst win came May 2 at California (5 IP, 9 H, 5 R, 4 ER, 2 BB, 0 SO).

Haas’ numbers weren’t freakish in quite the way Roberts’ and Lerch’s were. He pitched well when he won, not so much when he didn’t. He gave up five runs or more five times, but had a record of 1-3 in those games. When he gave up four runs or more (eight games), he was 1-5 with an 8.92 ERA. He was bad, and the results reflected that.

The flip side is that when Haas allowed three runs or fewer, he had a 10-2 record. Contrast that with Roberts, who went 12-12 when allowing three runs or fewer in his tough-luck 1971 campaign. It’s amazing what can happen to a pitcher when he doesn’t have to be perfect all the time.

Dick Ruthven, Philadelphia Phillies, 1981
12-7, 5.15 ERA, 70 ERA+
Phillies: 59-48

Ruthven posted the worst ERA+ among the lot. Since 1901, only two pitchers have fared so well despite pitching so poorly. In 1919, Red Causey went 13-8 with a 4.03 ERA (70 ERA+) for the New York Giants and Boston Braves.

Six years earlier, Byron Houck of the Philadelphia A’s managed a stunning 14-6 record despite his 4.14 ERA (66 ERA+). The A’s won 96 games in 1913 and averaged a full run per game more than their nearest competitor in the AL. Among 33 AL starters to qualify for the ERA title that year, none had an ERA+ worse than that of Houck. The next closest was his teammate, Joe Bush, who went 15-6 with a 3.82 ERA (72 ERA+). How a team could win nearly 63 percent of its games despite a staff ERA+ of 86 is quite beyond me.

Anyway, 68 years after Houck and Bush worked their magic in Philly, Ruthven did the same. This was a strike-shortened season, and Ruthven was a completely different pitcher before (8-3, 4.05 ERA) and after (4-4, 6.75 ERA) the long layoff.

Ruthven pitched some awful games in ’81. He allowed five runs or more in half (!) of his 22 starts. He topped seven runs on five occasions, including an Aug. 31 start at Atlanta (5.2 IP, 6 H, 8 R, 8 ER, 4 BB, 2 SO) that he won thanks to 11 runs behind him.

Kirk Rueter, San Francisco Giants, 1999
15-10, 5.41 ERA, 79 ERA+
Giants: 86-76

Remember that ridiculous list of 46 players we examined in the commentary on Haas? We noted that Jack Coombs is No. 1 among those pitchers in terms of winning percentage. Rueter is No. 2. He checks in with a career line of 130-92, 4.27 ERA, 97 ERA+.

Rueter won 10 games or more in seven different seasons (consecutive seasons, no less). He had a winning record in all seven seasons. His ERA+ was below 100 (actually, below 94) in four of those seasons. Over that stretch, he went 93-59 (.612 W-L%) with a 98 ERA+. Someone owes Barry Bonds and Jeff Kent a thank you note.

For the season in question, Rueter’s Giants scored 5.84 runs per game in his starts. Granted, league offensive levels were a bit out of control (5.00 R/G in the NL), but even accounting for that, no team scored like the Giants behind Rueter that year (Arizona was closest, checking in at 5.60 R/G).

Rueter pitched some nice games, notably a July 27 victory over the Cardinals (8 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 10 SO). He also won ugly, e.g., in a June 12 start at Seattle (5.1 IP, 10 H, 8 R, 8 ER, 2 BB, 2 SO).

Unlike Roberts and Lerch, Rueter did suffer when he coughed up runs. He allowed five or more in 13 of his 33 starts, going 1-9 with a 12.06 ERA (53 IP, 103 H, 23 BB, 27 SO). The flip side is that he was nearly unbeatable (14-1) when holding the opposition to four runs or fewer. His only loss in those situations came on June 22 against the Brewers (6 IP, 9 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 3 BB, 6 SO), when Scott Karl (!) dominated Bonds, Kent, et al.

Cliff Lee, Cleveland Indians, 2004
14-8, 5.43 ERA, 80 ERA+
Indians: 80-82

Lee has had a bizarre career. Trying to make sense of his numbers is like trying to develop a strategy for Pin the Tail on the Donkey:

2004: 14-8, 5.43 ERA, 80 ERA+
2005: 18-5, 3.79, 111
2006: 14-11, 4.40, 102
2007: 5-8, 6.29, 72
2008: 22-3, 2.54, 168

What the heck is that? Sometimes he’s good, sometimes lucky; sometimes he’s both, sometimes neither. If you created a fictional player with those lines, nobody would believe such a creature could exist. And yet, there he is.

In 2004, Lee received 5.59 runs per game of support (including nine or more runs in eight of his 33 starts). Like Rueter, when he was bad, he was really bad. Lee gave up at least five runs in 11 of his starts, going 1-7 with an 11.85 ERA (46.1 IP, 80 H, 23 BB, 42 SO) in the process.

Again, this meant that Lee was almost perfect when allowing four runs or fewer. He was 13-1 in those 22 starts, with the lone loss coming on Sept. 18 against the Royals (4 IP, 4 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 2 BB, 6 SO). The Indians didn’t have Bonds or Kent in their lineup, but they did have Travis Hafner and Victor Martinez. And on the other side, you can substitute Jimmy Gobble for Karl as the nondescript southpaw that held them in check.

Lee’s most undeserving win of the season probably came in his next start, Sept. 23 against the Twins (5.2 IP, 8 H, 5 R, 5 ER, 3 BB, 7 SO). Oddly, Hafner (1-for-5, 3 SO), and Martinez (DNP) were non-factors in this one, with Coco Crisp, September callup Grady Sizemore, and Josh Bard (Martinez’s replacement) doing damage at the bottom of the order.

Ismael Valdez, San Diego Padres/Florida Marlins, 2004
14-9, 5.19 ERA, 76 ERA+
Padres (through July 31): 58-46; Marlins (from Aug. 1): 31-27

Valdez, who had nothing left at this point in his career, somehow managed to go 9-6 with the Padres despite a 5.53 ERA and a home park that tends not to be forgiving of such transgressions. The Padres traded Valdez to Florida at the deadline, creating some controversy in San Diego, where people couldn’t understand why management would move such a “winner” in the middle of a pennant race.

The thing with Valdez, at least during his time with the Padres, was that he either pitched very well (2.18 ERA in wins) or stunk (8.73 ERA in losses, 7.85 ERA in no-decisions). There was no middle ground.

The high point came in a June 5 shutout of the Brewers (9 IP, 4 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 4 SO). Valdez also won four other games in which he was part of a combined shutout.

At the other end of the spectrum, Valdez had games like the one on July 24 at Dodger Stadium (4 IP, 11 H, 8 R, 8 ER, 0 BB, 1 SO). He deservedly took the loss for that, and seldom got bailed out by his offense… unless he happened to be pitching at Coors Field, as on July 19 (5.2 IP, 9 H, 5 R, 5 ER, 0 BB, 1 SO).

Valdez pitched a little better for the Marlins (5-3, 4.50 ERA, 91 ERA+), then disappeared from the game after working 50 innings for them the following year.

Braden Looper, Milwaukee Brewers, 2009
14-7, 5.22 ERA, 77 ERA+
Brewers: 80-82

The Phillies and Brewers are well represented. So was Looper in ’09, to the tune of 5.81 runs per game. The Brewers averaged 4.85 on the season; the NL checked in at 4.43. So yeah, that’s a lot of support.

He needed every drop of it. Looper led the league in earned runs (113) and homers allowed (39). And, unlike some of these guys, Looper didn’t pitch particularly well in his victories (3.60 ERA). His biggest gifts came on Sept. 16 at Wrigley Field (5 IP, 9 H, 5 R, 5 ER, 3 BB, 3 SO) and Oct. 2 in St. Louis (6 IP, 10 H, 6 R, 6 ER, 2 BB, 3 SO).

On the 13 occasions where Looper gave up five runs or more, he managed to go 3-6 despite a 9.85 ERA (66.2 IP, 109 H, 19 BB, 37 SO). It helps that the Brewers averaged 6.23 runs in those starts.

* * *

I was hoping to have something witty to say here at the end, but I’m drawing a blank. Just my luck…

References & Resources
The usual

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14 years ago

Byron Houck was a winner, he knew how to pitch to the score, he should be in the HOF…

Actually, he appears to have been a swingman, starting only 19 of 41 appearances (and finishing only 4).  If competetive teams of those days tried to win every game by matching up your best pitchers against the opponents’ best (and with the 96 win champ A’s and four pitchers with more than Houck’s 14 wins that was a good strategy), Mack may have always spotted the 21 yr old Houck in against opponents’ lower echelon of pitchers which would give him a better chance of picking up the W.  Houck appeared to be hard to hit (7.5 H/9) but wild (6.2 BB/9).
On the opposite hand, a .500 team might try to increase their chances by throwing their swingman against the opponent’s ace and hoping to pick up 2 of 3 by putting your 1 and 2 against their 2 and 3, thereby producing a lower W-L.  That may have happened to Houck himself, as he may have seen the stack of talent on the ‘14 A’s and jumped to the Federal League.  With the 77-77 Brooklyn team he went 2-6 in the swingman role with somewhat better peripherals.

Jim Gagne
14 years ago

It’s interesting that Roberts was so “lucky” with the Astros in those days. At least the other pitchers mentioned had good to great offenses behind them. I wonder what Roberts’ home/away splits were that year. You mention one poor outing was at Wrigley (no shock), but a great one in SD (also no shock).

I also wonder where Jack Morris’ 1992 season with Toronto fits in. His ERA was 4.04, which is considerably better than the pitchers listed here, but he won 21 games! How often do we have 20 game winners with ERAs over 4.00? Especially since the rise of the reliever.

Interesting thread Geoff. Good job.

Jim Gagne
14 years ago

I looked it up – Morris had an ERA+ of 102 in ‘92!

Geoff Young
14 years ago

@Jim: Thanks, glad you enjoyed. Regarding Roberts’ splits, he was 5-4, 4.95 ERA at home (Astrodome, typically very tough on offense, although not so much that year) vs 7-3, 4.15 ERA away. Another oddity is that after a September 5 loss to the Braves, he was bumped from the rotation despite an 11-7 record. He made seven appearances the rest of the way, but just one start; from what I can tell, Roberts’ spot in the rotation went to Ken Forsch, who had been a starter for much of the year before working out of the bullpen in August. Hmmm, perhaps someone more familiar with Astros history can shed some light?

@Rylan: Thanks to an AL league ERA of 4.56 in 2006, Johnson’s ERA+ was 90 that year. As for highest wins vs lowest ERA+, that is an interesting idea. I will keep it in mind. Thanks!

14 years ago

Randy Johnson in his last year of the Yankees should be in here, was it 17 wins with a 5 ERA?

You should do a highest wins vs. lowest ERA+ that would be interesting.