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Tough Luck Seasons

August 7, 2017
  

2017-34

If It Weren’t For Bad Luck. . . .

         OK, just for variety, let’s list the UN-luckiest pitchers starting in 1950, and list them by years, rather than teams. 

1)  The Unluckiest Pitcher of all time was Jim Hughey with the 1898 Cardinals; he went 7-24, but should have been about 17-15.    The Cardinals were 39-111.

2)  The Unluckiest Pitcher since 1900 was Ben Cantwell, who went 4-25 with the 1935 Boston Braves.   He probably should have been 11-13.

              The unluckiest pitchers of 1950 to 1954 were:

 

First

Last

Year

W

L

WPct

Des Wins

Des Loss

Luck

Ned

Garver

1950

13

18

.419

18

11

-12.0

Paul

Minner

1951

6

17

.261

11

12

-10.4

Virgil

Trucks

1952

5

19

.208

11

12

-13.2

Harry

Brecheen

1953

5

13

.278

8

5

-10.4

Don

Larsen

1954

3

21

.125

10

13

-14.4

 

              All of these pitchers pitched for last-place teams except Larsen, who pitched for the Browns; the Browns lost 100 games but didn’t finish last.   Virgil Trucks in 1952 went 5-19 despite throwing two no-hitters, a famous accomplishment in its day.   I always thought he was with the Browns that year, was astonished to find (while doing this article) that he actually wasn’t; he was with the Tigers, and the Tigers finished last that year. He got traded to the Browns that winter, bounced to the White Sox, wound up winning 20 games in 1953 and 19 in 1954.   All of these pitchers had better years coming, and coming soon, except for Harry Brecheen, whose best years were behind him.   1955 to 1959:

 

First

Last

Year

W

L

WPct

Des Wins

Des Loss

Luck

Sam

Jones

1955

14

20

.412

14

13

-6.8

Art

Ditmar

1956

12

22

.353

14

15

-9.2

Robin

Roberts

1957

10

22

.313

14

15

-10.5

Stu

Miller

1958

6

9

.400

13

7

-9.2

Bob

Friend

1959

8

19

.296

13

14

-9.7

 

              Most of this group did NOT pitch for last place teams; most of them were just guys who couldn’t catch a break in that season.  Sam Jones got with better teams, won 21 and 18 games in ’58-’59.   Art Ditmar was traded to the Yankees that winter, and had a better than .600 winning percentage over the next four years.   Robin Roberts snapped back to go 17-14 in 1958.   Stu Miller went to the bullpen after his bad-luck season in 1958—his starting job was actually taken by Sam Jones—but Miller had several tremendous seasons ahead of him as a reliever.   Bob Friend’s 8-19 season was bookended by 22-14 and 18-12.   I’m surprised to see that Art Ditmar was the only Kansas City A’s pitcher to make this list.   1960 to 1964:

 

First

Last

Year

W

L

WPct

Des Wins

Des Loss

Luck

John

Buzhardt

1960

5

16

.238

12

11

-11.3

Frank

Sullivan

1961

3

16

.158

8

10

-10.7

Turk

Farrell

1962

10

20

.333

17

11

-15.5

Roger

Craig

1963

5

22

.185

11

15

-13.2

Galen

Cisco

1964

6

19

.240

11

11

-12.2

 

              All of these on last-place teams except for Farrell, who was on a first-year expansion team that lost 89 games, but did not finish last.  The second- and third-unluckiest pitchers of 1960 were Jim Bunning and Don Drysdale, who may in fact have been the best pitchers in their respective leagues.  Drysdale (15-14) should have been 21-10, and probably should have won the Cy Young Award that year, rather than in 1962, and Bunning (11-14) should have been 18-11 and was the #1 pitcher in the American League.  

              Ditmar, Buzhardt and Don Larsen are examples of what I think of as the Red Ruffing syndrome.    Part of the problem of pretty-good pitchers on really bad teams is that they get overworked, because a tired Art Ditmar is still better than anybody else the A’s have.  John Buzhardt worked 200 innings in 1960 and ’61, going 11-34 over the two seasons.  The White Sox cut way back on his innings and he cut his ERA almost in half, and in part that is because the White Sox were a better team with a good defense in a pitcher’s park, but part of it is also that they didn’t need to ask him to pitch 200 innings a year; they could spot him as they needed him, as Casey Stengel did with Don Larsen.    Larsen was overmatched by the league pitching 200 innings a year with a bad team, but when he was traded to the Yankees he went 9-2, 11-5, 10-4 and 9-6, in part because he was only starting 20 games a year.   Ditmar, same thing.     1965 to 1969:

 

First

Last

Year

W

L

WPct

Des Wins

Des Loss

Luck

Jack

Fisher

1965

8

24

.250

14

15

-14.8

Nelson

Briles

1966

4

15

.211

9

9

-11.4

Chris

Short

1967

9

11

.450

15

8

-9.5

Bob

Veale

1968

13

14

.481

17

11

-7.0

Jim

Rooker

1969

4

16

.200

9

9

-11.2

 

              Expansion team pitchers dominate the list in this era—Turk Farrell with the expansion Colts in 1962, Mets pitchers in ’63, ’64 and ’65, and Jim Rooker with the expansion Royals in 1969.  Rooker in 1969 also hit .281 with 4 homers and an .849 OPS; I am pointing that out in response to all of the people who think that lucky pitchers aren’t "lucky"; they’re great hitters.  

              Briles in ’66 went 4-15 with a team that still managed to finish over .500, the Cardinals. People talk a lot about Bob Gibson’s bad luck in 1968, when he lost 9 games despite a 1.12 ERA.   Gibson was unlucky in that season, which a luck score of negative 5.4, but not unusually lucky.   You have to remember:

              1)  The National League ERA in 1968 was 2.98,

              2)  The St. Louis Park Factor was .85,

              3)  Gibson benefitted from some luck in posting a 1.12 ERA.   He was a great pitcher, but he wasn’t great enough to post a 1.12 ERA without benefitting from some good luck.   His ERA is not fully supported by his strikeouts, walks and home runs allowed, which are great numbers but not great enough to produce a 1.12 ERA. 

              Bob Gibson in 1968 had 231 strikeouts, 54 walks and 9.5 home runs allowed per 1,000 batters.    Kevin Brown in 1998 had 249 strikeouts, 48 walks and 7.8 home runs allowed per 1,000 batters, but his ERA was 2.38.   Zack Greinke had comparable numbers in 2009, but his ERA was 2.16.   1968 is different from 1998 or 2009, in that there is more soft contact in 1968, and you have to adjust for that, and I did adjust for that, but still, Gibson in ’68 had some good luck, I think, in how his innings came together for him. 

              Gibson in ’68 had a "deserved" won-lost record of 26-8, which is the second-best deserved won-lost record since 1950, behind Steve Carlton in ’72.    He was unlucky to finish 22-9, but not so unlucky as to be singled out as an unlucky pitcher. 

              1970 to 1974.. .

First

Last

Year

W

L

WPct

Des Wins

Des Loss

Luck

Steve

Carlton

1970

10

19

.345

16

13

-11.7

Dave

Roberts

1971

14

17

.452

19

11

-11.2

Ken

Reynolds

1972

2

15

.118

7

10

-10.4

Bert

Blyleven

1973

20

17

.541

25

12

-9.9

Jon

Matlack

1974

13

15

.464

20

10

-12.0

 

              Dave Roberts in ’71 is the most famous of these tough-luck seasons, although, like Gibson in ’68, he pitched in such a low-run environment that a 2.10 ERA isn’t as impressive as people think it is.   Still, he should have gone 19-11, which is pretty good.    He went 12-7 and 17-11 the next two seasons.  

              Blyleven in ’73 went 20-17 despite pitching in the toughest luck of any major league pitcher.   Nobody else has come CLOSE to doing that, at least since 1950; the most wins by any other tough-luck leader was 16, and only one other pitcher on these lists was credited with more than 14 wins.   To win 20 games despite pitching all year in tough luck. . .man, that’s a season.   Blyleven and the guy who won 16 were also the only toughest-luck pitchers in the majors (1950 to 2016) who had winning records despite the tough luck.  1975 to 1979. . .

First

Last

Year

W

L

WPct

Des Wins

Des Loss

Luck

Mickey

Lolich

1975

12

18

.400

14

13

-7.3

Steve

Rogers

1976

7

17

.292

15

12

-13.1

Jerry

Koosman

1977

8

20

.286

14

12

-13.6

Jerry

Koosman

1978

3

15

.167

13

14

-11.1

Matt

Keough

1979

2

17

.105

7

13

-9.7

 

              Jerry Koosman was the tough-luck pitcher of the major leagues twice in a row, playing for Mets teams which were losing almost 100 games a year.  Koosman in ’77 was the toughest-luck pitcher of the 1970s.  There will be another pitcher who does that, later in the charts, another pitcher who is the toughest-luck pitcher in the majors twice in a row.   1980 to 1984. . .

First

Last

Year

W

L

WPct

Des Wins

Des Loss

Luck

Ross

Baumgarten

1980

2

12

.143

9

7

-11.6

Tommy

Boggs

1981

3

13

.188

7

9

-8.2

Bruce

Berenyi

1982

9

18

.333

15

11

-12.8

Bryn

Smith

1983

6

11

.353

11

7

-9.1

Jeff

Russell

1984

6

18

.250

10

11

-10.8

             

              Ross Baumgarten was an above-average pitcher in 1980, but finished 2-12.    From 1985 to 1989:

First

Last

Year

W

L

WPct

Des Wins

Des Loss

Luck

Jose

DeLeon

1985

2

19

.095

8

10

-14.8

Bob

Welch

1986

7

13

.350

15

12

-8.9

Nolan

Ryan

1987

8

16

.333

16

9

-15.1

Mike

Moore

1988

9

15

.375

16

11

-10.9

Doyle

Alexander

1989

6

18

.250

11

14

-8.9

 

              Nolan Ryan, 1987, is another famous tough-luck season; he led the league in strikeouts and ERA, but finished 8-16.   That was the toughest-luck season in the majors in the 1980s, and (at the time) the toughest-luck season in the majors since Turk Farrell in ’62.    Mike Moore was a free agent after his tough-luck season in 1988, signed with the Oakland A’s and was 19-11 the next season.   Jose DeLeon is back on the list in 1990:

First

Last

Year

W

L

WPct

Des Wins

Des Loss

Luck

Jose

DeLeon

1990

7

19

.269

11

10

-12.1

Mike

Flanagan

1991

2

7

.222

8

3

-9.4

Jim

Abbott

1992

7

15

.318

16

8

-15.5

Doug

Drabek

1993

9

18

.333

15

13

-11.1

Andy

Benes

1994

6

14

.300

11

9

-10.6

 

              Jim Abbott in 1992 was 7-15 when he had a 2.77 ERA and should have been 16-8, a Luck Score of negative 15.5.   That’s ties with Turk Farrell, 1962, as the champion tough luck season of the last 67 years.  From 1995 to 1999:

 

First

Last

Year

W

L

WPct

Des Wins

Des Loss

Luck

Paul

Wagner

1995

5

16

.238

9

10

-10.3

Roger

Clemens

1996

10

13

.435

19

9

-13.5

Kevin

Appier

1997

9

13

.409

18

9

-12.2

Tony

Saunders

1998

6

15

.286

13

9

-12.9

Brad

Radke

1999

12

14

.462

16

9

-8.9

 

              The Roger Clemens season is historically meaningful.   Red Sox management of that time, and many Red Sox fans, bought into the notion that Clemens was no longer what he had been, that he was no longer one of the best pitchers in baseball.   They treated him that way, offended him, and it led to a bad ending to the relationship between Clemens and Red Sox nation.  

              But it was all a misunderstanding; it was all based on the failure to understand that what had actually happened to Clemens was just that he pitched in very tough luck.  He was still a great pitcher; he was always a great pitcher.   The Red Sox at that time just weren’t sophisticated enough to understand that.   They bought into the illusion that the poor won-lost record had created.   Clemens went 10-13, but he should have been 19-9.   2000 to 2004:

 

First

Last

Year

W

L

WPct

Des Wins

Des Loss

Luck

Masato

Yoshii

2000

6

15

.286

11

9

-11.1

John

Burkett

2001

12

12

.500

17

9

-8.0

Tanyon

Sturtze

2002

4

18

.182

11

15

-10.5

Curt

Schilling

2003

8

9

.471

15

5

-10.4

Ben

Sheets

2004

12

14

.462

19

9

-12.8

 

              By 2000, 2004, most fans were losing faith in won-lost records, so I think most people or many people understood, in 2003, that Schilling was not finished despite his 8-9 won-lost record.   I don’t know; maybe some people took it seriously.   The Red Sox certainly didn’t.  The 2005 to 2009 list is more interesting:

First

Last

Year

W

L

WPct

Des Wins

Des Loss

Luck

Mark

Redman

2005

5

15

.250

10

11

-9.0

Jason

Jennings

2006

9

13

.409

15

9

-10.0

Matt

Cain

2007

7

16

.304

14

9

-14.0

Matt

Cain

2008

8

14

.364

15

11

-10.5

Zack

Greinke

2009

16

8

.667

21

6

-7.9

 

              Matt Cain, 2007-2008, repeated the accomplishment of Jerry Koosman, in being the unluckiest pitcher in baseball twice in a row.    To this day he is still trying to get his career won-lost record back to .500.                

              Zack Greinke, 2009, and Bert Blyleven, 1973, are the only pitchers since 1950 who (a) had a winning record, or (b) won more than 14 games, in a season in which they were the unluckiest pitcher(s) in baseball.   Greinke won the Cy Young Award despite a won-lost record three and a half games worse than it should have been, which certainly speaks to the decreased significance of the won-lost record in modern baseball, but also, it was just an unusual situation, that a pitcher who was so unlucky was still able to post a 16-8 won-lost record.   2010 to the present:

First

Last

Year

W

L

WPct

Des Wins

Des Loss

Luck

Ross

Ohlendorf

2010

1

11

.083

6

6

-9.8

Doug

Fister

2011

11

13

.458

17

8

-10.6

Josh

Johnson

2012

8

14

.364

13

10

-8.7

Cole

Hamels

2013

8

14

.364

15

11

-9.5

Jeff

Samardzija

2014

7

13

.350

15

11

-10.7

Corey

Kluber

2015

9

16

.360

17

9

-15.0

Chris

Archer

2016

9

19

.321

12

12

-9.9

 

              Most of these pitchers, probably 70% of them or so, are pitchers who have good won-lost records in other seasons, but just have a tough-luck year.   Corey Kluber, Cole Hamels and Josh Johnson had lucky seasons as well as unlucky ones.   The guys you kind of feel for are the guys who only have one or two good years, and are so unlucky in that one good year that their moment comes and goes and people never realize how good the pitcher was.  But, you know; I’ve known writers who wrote one good book, and nobody bought it.   I’ve got a guy in my extended family who writes music and sings, who I think is as good as they guys who make a million a year doing it, but he just does it for fun.   Being an unlucky major league baseball pitcher is not like being an unlucky soldier in a war.   

 
 

COMMENTS (9 Comments, most recent shown first)

bjames
1) I endorse all of Saeger’s comments about Roger Clemens. Where we were then—and still are, to an extent—people could filter out ONE year of luck, but they just couldn’t get to the point of understanding that a pitcher can be unlucky for a period of four or five years (or six years, in Blyleven’s case.)

2) Terry Felton (0-16) was a reliever, made only 10 career starts, so he doesn’t show up in this study.

3) Rick Reuschel will show up later in the series.

4) Jerry Koosman was still a little bit UN-lucky in 1979 and in 1980, and was tremendously unlucky again in ’81. He didn’t have a “positive luck” season until 1982.

5) Anthony Young never made 20 starts in a season, and thus did now show up in my study. If included. . .well, his two unlucky seasons were 1992 (2-14) and 1993 (1-16). While his luck was obviously terrible, he clearly could not have beaten Jim Abbott for the title of unluckiest pitcher of 1992, since Abbott was having a historic season. In ’93 he might have been THE GUY if he had qualified for the list, but I doubt it. He gave up 20 un-earned runs that year, in 100 innings. He looks a lot different if you look at ALL the runs, rather than just the earned runs.

11:20 AM Aug 8th
 
JohnPontoon
Bill, could you perhaps speak a bit about the recently-passed Anthony Young? I'm not usually one to ask for requests, but the confluence of your article series and his joining with eternity seem to merit some words.
8:12 AM Aug 8th
 
bearbyz
Jerry Koosman won 20 games for the Twins in 1979. The Mets must have been really bad and pitching for the Twins was an improvement. I saw Koosman win his 15th game live that year. He was still an excellent pitcher, but I wonder if he got a little of his luck back that year.
6:08 PM Aug 7th
 
laferrierelouis
Terry Felton 0-13 in '82?
5:44 PM Aug 7th
 
sayhey
Thought Rick Reuschel might show up somewhere.
1:00 PM Aug 7th
 
CharlesSaeger
Clemens was unlucky in the 1993-1996 period overall. You still get folks who post comments that Clemens was done in 1996, and that he only succeeded afterwards due to steroids, but:

* In that period, Clemens had a 3.77 ERA, a 130 ERA+, FIP 3.69, allowed 7.9 H/9, 0.8 HR/9, 3.7 BB/9, and 8.7 K/9.
* In the period immediately before it (1989-1992), Clemens had a 2.54 ERA and a 165 ERA+, FIP 2.63, and allowed 7.5 H/9, 0.5 HR/9, 2.5 BB/9, and 8.0 K/9. Better, sure, but he went 74-38 versus 40-39, and he wasn't that much better. The Rocket lost about ten games due to bad luck in 1993-1996.
* The AL from 1989-1992 scored 4.35 R/G, and 5.09 in the period afterwards. Between that, the work stoppage, and Clemens's injury in 1995, Clemens looked worse in comparison to the previous four years.
10:22 AM Aug 7th
 
taosjohn
Seems odd that Danny Jackson never shows up?
9:55 AM Aug 7th
 
MarisFan61
Pardon if this was already explained, but:
About Gibson's 'luck' in 1968: You mention that you did adjust for there being "more soft contact." Can you say a little on how? (maybe just the skinny, not necessarily in any detail)
9:47 AM Aug 7th
 
shthar
I wonder which team has had the most guys have tough luck seasons.

I gotta guess the pirates or the cubs.
9:27 AM Aug 7th
 
 
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