Big Game Pitchers, Part IV

January 23, 2014

                OK, who would you guess pitched the most Big Games in his career, regular season, within this data?

                It is not a surprise.   It is the same guy who made the most post-season starts.   Andy Pettitte.    In his 18-year major league career, Pettitte made 82 regular-season starts which are designated by our system as Big Games.   This broke by one the previous record of 81, which was shared by Jim Palmer and Roger Clemens.

                The data for Pettitte and Palmer almost matches.   Palmer made 521 starts in his major league career, of which 81 were Big Games.   Pettitte also made 521 starts, of which 82 were Big Games.   Clemens made many more career starts than Pettitte and Palmer, but he also started 81 Big Games.

                No one can be surprised by this data.   Palmer’s Orioles were in contention almost every year of his career. ..maybe literally every year, I don’t know.    Palmer started Big Games for the Orioles in 1966, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974, 1975, 1976, 1977, 1978, 1979, 1980, 1982 and 1983.   An ordinary pitcher could never do that because most teams don’t play Big Games every year.    Most teams aren’t in contention every year.   The Orioles in that era were. 

                These are the ten pitchers who started the most Big Games in regular season, according to my system and within my data:




                Ties broken by percentages; Palmer ranks ahead of Clemens because his percentage was higher.   We are missing thirteen starts from Whitey Ford’s career here, so his total would be a little bit higher, although it would not be high enough to beat Pettitte.  

                As a percentage of starts, the 1 and 2 guys are longtime teammates, almost career teammates, Koufax and Podres.    The Dodgers in that era played a tremendous number of Big Games.   The Dodgers were in close pennant races in 1954, 1956 (one game), 1959 (playoff with Milwaukee), 1961, 1962 (playoff with San Francisco), 1963, 1965 and 1966.   It led to a large number of Big Games—the highest percentages ever.  

                Number three on the "percentage" list, though, is a current guy:  Jon Lester.   Lester has made 220 starts so far in his career, 41 of them Big Games.   Again. . .not a surprise to anybody in Boston. 

                Much of that list (highest percentages) is composed of surprising names, and I’ll get back to that in a moment.   Let’s run the "most Big Games, career" list out to 25 or 26 or 27:




                The first guy on the list that you might not have expected to see there is Jerry Reuss, who started 70 Big Games.  Reuss spent most of his career with the Pirates (1974-1978) and the Dodgers (1979-1987)—both perennial contenders, and Reuss did win 220 games in his career, although he failed somehow to become a household name. Roy Oswalt, John Lackey and Tim Hudson are contemporary guys who have made a lot of Big Game starts.

                Back to the percentage list.   Behind Koufax, Podres and Jon Lester on the "percentage of career starts which were Big Games" list are:

4.  Joey Jay.   Wouldn’t have thought of him, would you?  Jay came up with the Braves in the 1950s.   They were always in contention, although Jay was never able to establish himself there—no fault of his, actually.  He always pitched well for the Braves, but they had Spahn, Burdette and Buhl, and they didn’t trust anybody else.

                Anyway, traded to Cincinnati in 1961, Jay went 21-10 for the Reds, leading them to the National League pennant, then won 21 games again in 1962, for a team that went 98-64.   The Reds stayed competitive in 1963 (86-76), 1964 (92-70), and 1965 (89-73); then Jay was finished, so he never pitched much for a non-competitive team.  

5.   Jim O’Toole.   Same team, Reds of the early 1960s.

6.   Stan Williams.   A teammate of Koufax and Podres.

7.   John Lackey.   A teammate of Jon Lester.   We are seeing a pattern here.

8.   Bruce Kison.   Pirates of the 1970s, Angels of the 1980s, and, as we will see, very much a Big-Game pitcher although he was not a rotation workhorse like most of these other guys.

9.   Jimmy Key.  Blue Jays of the 1980s and early 1990s, Yankees of the later 1990s. 

10.  Whitey Ford. 


                On the other side of the ledger:

Zach Duke, 169 starts, mostly for the Pirates of the last decade. . .never started a Big Game.    Actually, there are many, many pitchers in our data who never started a Big Game; there are lots of pitchers who work in rotation for two or three years, bad team. . .they never start a Big Game.  Duke made more starts than anyone else, though, who completely missed the opportunity to start a Big One.    Other pitchers who never started a Big Game:  Bob Bruce (Astros of the 1960s), Pete Broberg, Turk Farrell, Steve Arlin, Dave Lemanczyk.    

More notable than any of those, though, is Randy Jones, Padres of the 1970s, a 20-game winner in 1975 and 1976, and the National League Cy Young Award Winner in 1976.   Jones—many of you will remember him—was a lefty who was a ground ball machine, didn’t throw hard.    Jones made 285 major league starts—one Big Game, by our standards.    September 6, 1978, the Padres were 71-68, in fourth place, eleven and a half out but still alive.    The Padres were in Atlanta that day, Jones started against Mickey Mahler, and the Padres won the game, 5-3.   But they lost 4 out of the next 5, dropped out of contention.   That was the one and only Big-Game start of Randy Jones’ career.  

                Jack Morris?   Yeah, he pitched some Big Games.   Morris made 46 Big Game starts in his career, which is 58th on our list, and is an above-average percentage (8.7%).   Bert Blyleven made 47 Big Game starts, which is a below-average percentage (6.9%).    Koufax and Podres pitched Big Games in 22% of their career starts; Jon Lester, in 19% so far.    7 to 9% is not a notable number, one way or the other.


COMMENTS (10 Comments, most recent shown first)

I would have thought Greg Maddux would be higher on the Big Game list. Maybe the Braves dominated too much.
7:58 AM Jan 24th

Regarding Whitey Ford: In September of 1950, he started 4 games in the heat of a pennant race. All four were complete game wins. And then pitched a gem in the World Series.

10:28 PM Jan 23rd
1) Oh, I definitely mentioned Jim Kaat.

2) The few missing games from Whitey Ford are not of any relevance. The study starts in 1952.
7:09 PM Jan 23rd
I'm surprised that Schilling, Mussina and Randy Johnson are not up there in the Big Games leaders. Very interested to see whether Tommy John excelled in the Big Games or not. I hope you might also mention Jim Kaat's Big Game number, percentage and performance when you get to that part of this.
6:23 PM Jan 23rd
Jeez, I would have said Whitey Ford off the top of my head. Why the missing games?
5:47 PM Jan 23rd
Nine Innings by Dan Okrent features a game the Brewers and Orioles played in June of 1982, not the finale.​
2:01 PM Jan 23rd
Oh, sorry. . should have read the question more carefully. I think five of the games that "score" higher than the Palmer/Sutton game (about which Dan Okrent wrote a book. .. I think it was that game). ..about five of those are playoff games after a race ended in a tie, so it's actually top 20.
1:43 PM Jan 23rd
The Palmer/Sutton Orioles/Brewers game scores at 394, which puts it among the 25 biggest games in the study. There are about ten games tied at 394. Lowest percentage of Big Game starts for a Hall of Famer is 5.2%, Phil Niekro (37 of 715). Robin Roberts is a little lower (4.8%), but the data doesn't include the 1950 season, which was a race that went down to the last day of the season.
1:38 PM Jan 23rd
Dun Sutton and Jim Palmer started the 1982 finale for the division title. Where does that rank among true regular season big games, #162 or less?
12:37 PM Jan 23rd
Enjoying the series. Which Hall of Famer(s) from your data had the lowest number of Big Games and percentage of Big Games?
10:57 AM Jan 23rd
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