Critics, criticism, Cloninger

A while back, when I was talking about the worst closers ever, a couple of readers questioned my singling out of Mike Williams and Tony Cloninger. In light of those comments, I thought I’d take this opportunity to do two things:

  1. Remind you that when I say so-and-so is the “worst” anything at the big-league level, I also mean that he is among the very best in the world.
  2. Take a closer look at Cloninger’s career, which was fascinating for many reasons.

On critics and criticism

A critic at a performance is like a eunuch at a harem. He sees it done nightly, but is unable to perform it himself.

—Brendan Behan

I stole that from the beginning of a Roger Ebert article on the nature of critics because it’s a great quote and one that hits closer to home than many of us care to admit. I can’t pitch, and I’m okay with that. I do other things reasonably well, one of which is observe and analyze baseball and its players.

I pay attention, I ask questions. Others do this as well, many better than I do. That’s okay; it’s the nature of the beast. I’ll always give my best effort, but in the end, each of us is limited by the amount of talent we possess.

When I suggest that Williams might be the worst closer ever, it’s important to consider the context. I am comparing him to Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage, Trevor Hoffman, Mariano Rivera… Someone has to be the worst, and there’s no shame in that. Williams was better at his craft than nearly 100 percent of the human population ever has been or will be.

I would kill to have even one-hundredth of the big-league career that guys like Williams and Cloninger had. (Heck, I’d kill to have one-hundredth of Lance Rautzhan’s career.) Their talents and abilities lie so far beyond my own, it’s like the difference between a doctor performing open-heart surgery and a kid cutting paper with scissors.

I talk about these players because their careers are worthy of discussion. The overwhelming majority of people on this planet don’t merit such consideration. This is an implicit assumption in everything I do, but sometimes folks forget, so there it is.

On Cloninger

To matters less abstract, Cloninger is perhaps most famous for being one of the few players in big-league history to hit two grand slams in a game. It happened July 3, 1966, at Candlestick Park in a game between the Atlanta Braves and San Francisco Giants. Cloninger went 3-for-5 and drove in nine runs. He also pitched all nine innings. So, yeah, it was a pretty good day for him and one for which he deserves to be remembered.

But I find the right-hander from North Carolina interesting for other reasons as well. For instance, among pitchers with 200 decisions or more and a career ERA+ of 90 or lower, Cloninger is the only one with a winning record. Granted, there are only six such cases, but still. Consider how the others fared:

200 Decisions or More, ERA+ of 90 or Lower
Player GS IP W-L Pct ERA+
Tony Cloninger 247 1767.2 113-97 .538 88
Mike LaCoss 243 1739.2 98-103 .488 88
Herm Wehmeier 240 1803 92-108 .460 84
Case Patten 238 2062.1 105-128 .451 88
Bob Harmon 240 2054 107-133 .446 90
Jack Fisher 265 1975.2 86-139 .382 88

You’re not supposed to pitch like Cloninger did for any period of time and walk away a winner. The other five members of this group had a combined record of 488-611. That’s a .444 winning percentage.

Another oddity about Cloninger is that half of his wins came in a three-year period. From 1964 to 1966, he averaged 19 wins a season. He wasn’t terrible during those years, but neither did he pitch nearly as well as his record might indicate:

Tony Cloninger, 1964-1966
110 779.1 57-36 .613 98

When he went 24-11 in ’65, he did so with a 106 ERA+. That’s Bronson Arroyo’s career ERA+. Intending no disrespect, it’s not the sort of performance that screams 24-game winner.

What Cloninger excelled at over that stretch was getting run support. Here’s how he compared to his team and league:

Run Support, 1964-1966
Year Cloninger Braves NL
1964 4.61 4.96 4.01
1965 5.50 4.37 4.03
1966 5.18 4.80 4.09

In ’64, his numbers are low relative to those of his teammates but high relative to league. In ’65, though, the Braves scored a run more behind him than they did behind everyone else. It wasn’t quite as extreme the following year, but Cloninger still benefited from an abundance of runs.

His team never once got shut out when he took the mound in 1965 and 1966. That’s 76 starts. Here’s his breakdown for the entire three-year period:

Tony Cloninger Run Support by Game, 1964-1966
0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10+
2 10 18 7 17 12 10 10 11 6 7

Cloninger’s team scored at least eight runs in more than 20 percent of his starts. That’s quite the advantage, no?

Aside from the run support, Cloninger was notable for not always being able to find home plate. He led the NL in walks and wild pitches in 1964 and 1965.

He also went the distance a lot during his heyday. Granted, this was a different era, when pitchers were expected to finish what they started, but 42 complete games in three seasons is impressive. Only seven men completed more over that stretch, and most of them (Juan Marichal, Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, Don Drysdale, Jim Bunning) are in the Hall of Fame. That isn’t bad company to keep.

One of Cloninger’s most noteworthy starts came on April 12, 1966, at home against the Pirates. It points up the differences between the way managers used their pitchers then and the way they use them now. Cloninger worked all 13 innings, facing 50 batters. It was his first start of the season, and he was 25 years old.

One wonders whether more careful handling of the young right-hander might have extended the successful portion of his career. Although Cloninger made it through the ’66 season unscathed (if less effective than he had been the year before), he started just 16 games in 1967 and 18 in 1968. In ’69, he made 34 starts but pitched poorly, fashioning a 5.03 ERA (75 ERA+) and an 11-17 record. A few years later, just after his 32nd birthday, he worked his final big-league game, as a reliever for the Cardinals.

A walk through Cloninger’s list of most similar pitchers at Baseball-Reference is instructive as well. Among other things, note the emphasis placed on wins and losses. This is a group of men who typically won about 53 percent of their decisions.

Turn to the ERA+ column, though, and the story changes. The numbers range from a low of 96 (Milt Wilcox) to a high of 112 (Wilson Alvarez). Cloninger himself finished at 88. That is to say, most pitchers who enjoyed a similar measure of success over a similar amount of time pitched much better than he did.

When you’re looking up at guys like Storm Davis, Steve Stone, Jim Bibby, Mark Portugal, Ken Hill, Wilcox, Alvarez, Dan Petry, Pete Harnisch. All of these pitchers were infinitely better than I am, but that’s hardly the standard.

The point?

Funny you should ask, because there is one and it is this: When I call out someone like Cloninger or Williams for being worse than his peers, I also celebrate the fact that these guys had careers. I admire their achievements even as I compare them unfavorably to people who performed even more amazing feats on a baseball diamond.

Cloninger once hit two grand slams while pitching a complete game in the big leagues, for crying out loud. How many other people can make that claim? None. In that category, there are two groups: Cloninger and everyone else.

When I mention Rautzhan (a fringe reliever for the Dodgers in the late-’70s I remember from my childhood) in passing, it is an homage of sorts. If I don’t mention him, who else will? And at the risk of sounding like the sappy old man I find myself becoming, these guys are all great at what they do—greater than I can imagine.

Does this stop me from observing, comparing, and analyzing? Far from it. If anything, their presence fuels my fire. There are many stories to be told. I can’t pitch, but I can write, so that’s what I do.

References & Resources
Thanks to Baseball-Reference for the numbers; a reader for the inspiration; Roger Ebert and Brendan Behan for the quote; and Tony Cloninger, Mike Williams, and Lance Rautzhan for having careers upon which I am privileged to comment.

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