Big Game Pitchers, Part VI

January 25, 2014

                 Jim Kaat won 283 games in his major league career, won 25 games in 1966, won 20 games in 1974 and 1975, but he isn’t in the Hall of Fame in large part because he wasn’t perceived as a big game pitcher.   In fact, his record in Big Games is great.   He made 53 Big Game starts in his career—more than Jack Morris—and was 27-15 in those games, 2.84 ERA.   He just missed making my list of the ten best Big Game pitchers of the last 60 years.

                 Let me run some of those down for you. . .sorry to take the time out of your day if you don’t care about this, but

                a)  Kaat is a viable Hall of Fame candidate,

                b)  He deserves to have his credentials aired,

                c)  It is an important issue in that case, whether he was or wasn’t a Big Game pitcher, and

                d)  If I don’t spell out the facts, people will ignore and dismiss my contention that his Big Game record is outstanding.

                In 1962 the Twins were in a pennant race for the first time ever.   The Twins until 1959 were the Washington Senators, and they had been among the worst teams in the American League for a quarter of a century.   Kaat had made his major league debut with the Senators in 1959.   In 1961 they moved to Minnesota, but still lost 91 games.   In 1962, with a young team, they were in the pennant race for the first time.

                August 28, 1962, the Twins are three and a half games out of first place, facing the White Sox (also in the race) in Chicago.   Kaat pitches a shutout, 2-0.

                September 2, 1962 (his next start); the Twins are in second place, four games out.   Kaat faces the Red Sox in Fenway Park—and beats them 5-2, complete game.

                September 7, 1962 (the next start).  The Twins have closed to three games back of the Yankees.   Kaat pitches another complete-game victory, beating Detroit 6-4 to keep pace with the Yankees.

                September 15, 1962.   The Twins are now four games behind with 12 to play, still alive but needing to win.  Kaat beats Cleveland with a complete-game six-hitter.   Unfortunately, the Twins lose five of the next seven (including a loss by Kaat), and drop out of race, but Kaat’s 18 wins on the season include four big wins in the closing weeks of the season.

                August 26, 1965.   The Twins, after struggling for a couple of years to consolidate the breakthrough of 1962, are trying to win their first pennant in Minneapolis, the franchise’s first pennant since 1933.   The White Sox and Tigers are their closest pursuers.  August 26, Kaat beats the Yankees, 9-2, pitching a complete game.

                August 30, 1965, Kaat starts against the Tigers, and Twins win 3-2 in 11 innings (bullpen getting credit for the win.)

                September 3, 1965, the Twins are still in first place, the White Sox in second.    The White Sox are in Minnesota to begin a crucial three-game series.   Kaat starts the first game, and beats the White Sox 6-4.    The White Sox win the other two games of the series, beating Mudcat Grant and Jim Perry, but Kaat’s victory in the opener limits the damage.

                On September 9, 1965 (Kaat’s next start. . .he has been held out of the last game of a series against Kansas City so he can start against the White Sox.)   The Twins still in first place, the White Sox still in second.   The Twins go to Comiskey.   Kaat beats them again. 

                September 14, 1965.   Kaat wins again, beating the A’s to effectively end the 1965 pennant race.   The Twins win their first American League pennant, Kaat winning five straight starts in late August/early September, three of the five against the Twins closest competitors.  

                August 27, 1966.    The Twins (67-61) are trying to hang in the race against the Orioles.  Kaat pitches a 3-hit shutout against the White Sox.  

                August 31, 1966; Kaat beats the Red Sox, 11-2, with another complete game victory.  

                September 4, 1966.  Kaat beats the Yankees, 9-2, ten strikeouts, another complete game victory.    It isn’t enough; the Orioles continue to win almost every game, and the race is over by early September despite Kaat’s 25-win season, leading the American league in starts, complete games, innings pitched and wins.    But in Kaat’s three biggest games of the 1966 season, he pitched three complete-game victories.

                September 1, 1967.   A fantastic four-team race is shaping up among the Twins, Red Sox, White Sox and Tigers.    On September 1 the Twins are a half-game behind the Red Sox, and all four teams are within a game and a half.   Kaat has struggled most of the season.   He enters September with 9 wins, 13 losses, 3.55 ERA.

                September 1, Kaat goes all the way and beats the Tigers, 5-4, also hitting a double and scoring one of the Twins’ runs.   He is 10-13, 3.53 ERA. 

                September 5, 1967.   The Twins are now a half a game in front.  Kaat beats Cleveland, another complete game, keeping the Red Sox a half-game ahead as the Red Sox also win.  Kaat is 11-13, 3.46.

                September 9, 1967.   The Twins are now tied for first with the Tigers, the Red Sox a half-game behind.  Kaat beats Baltimore, 3-2, a complete game 5-hitter.    He is 12-13, 3.41.

                September 13, 1967.   The Twins and Red Sox are tied for first place, both teams 83-63 with 16 games left.    Kaat strikes out 9 batters in 8 innings to beat the Senators, 3-2.    He is 13-13, 3.37 ERA. 

                September 18, 1967.   Kaat pitches a ten-inning shutout against Kansas City, striking out 12 and walking no one.   He is 14-13, 3.22 ERA.    The Twins move into a three-way tie for first place.

                September 22, 1967.    The Twins are 88-67, tied with Boston for first place with seven games to go.   Kaat beats the Yankees with a complete game 7-hitter (no earned runs, two un-earned) while Boston loses, putting the Twins one game ahead with six to go.   Kaat is now 15-13, 3.11.

                September 26, 1967, four days later.    The Red Sox had moved back into a first-place tie with the Twins, both teams at 90-68, four games to go, with two other teams still within a game and a half of the leaders.   The Twins were playing the Angels, a good team, and Kaat started for the Twins.  Kaat pitched a complete-game 5-hitter, striking out 13 batters to beat the Angels, 7-3.   For the third time in nine days, Kaat has put the Twins back in first place.  Kaat is now 16-13, 3.07 ERA.

                That was the second-biggest regular season start of Kaat’s career.   The biggest was the next one, September 30 at Fenway.   Neither the Twins nor the Red Sox had managed to win a game in the intervening three days.   The Twins were stuck at 91 wins; the Red Sox still had 90.   Kaat injured his elbow and had to come out of the game in the third inning—but he was also pitching shutout baseball until he came out of the game.   He ends the season at 16-13, 3.04 ERA.

                The 1967 pennant race has been written about by many people—but here is what I did not know, until I took on this project.    Jim Kaat in September of 1967 was as hot as Yastrzemski was.   Yastrzemski in September of 1967 hit .391 with 9 homers, 24 RBI.   Kaat in September of 1967 pitched 66 innings.  He was 7-0, with a 1.51 ERA.   He won every start except the last one, and he gave up no runs in the last one.    Not too shabby.

                In 1968 the Twins were never in the pennant race, and in 1969 they won the division in a walk; Kaat did not pitch any Big Games in either season, because of a late-season injury in 1969 and because the Twins didn’t play many big games in either season.   (The Twins, who had played 43 Big Games in 1967, played no Big Games in 1968, and only 16 in 1969.)

                Kaat didn’t appear in a Big Game again until September 10, 1970.   The Twins were in first place in the division, Oakland in second.   The Twins were playing Oakland in a double-header in Minnesota.  Kaat started the second game, and beat the A’s with seven strong innings (two runs).    That race was over not long after that, the Twins winning it by nine games.

The Twins were not competitive in 1971.   In 1972 Kaat, off to a 10-2 start, broke his hand and missed the rest of the season.   When the Twins failed to compete again in 1973, they hit the re-set button and traded Kaat to the White Sox.

                The White Sox were on the fringes of the pennant race.   On the morning of September 4, 1973 they were 12 games out, 24 to play.   By the Virtual Elimination formula they had not been eliminated.   The Big Game system says it is a Big Game, which I agree is a questionable call, but. . .it was September, the White Sox were alive, and they were playing a divisional opponent, the Rangers.   They needed a win in the worst way.   Kaat pitched a 5-hit shutout.

                In his next start, September 9, he faced the Twins for the first time, and he beat them.    Despite this the White Sox were unable to hang in the race, and had been virtually eliminated by the time Kaat’s turn came around again.

                September 4, 1974, was an eerie echo of September 4, 1973.    The White Sox were in exactly the same position they had been the year before—12 games behind, not Virtually Eliminated but in deep trouble.   As he had the year before, Kaat pitched a shutout on that day, keeping the White Sox slim chances alive.

                By September 8, 1974 (his next start), the White Sox had shaved a game off of their deficit, so the team was still alive.   Kaat pitched 6 2/3 shutout innings, beating the Angels 1-0, and keeping the White Sox alive for one more day.

                Kaat would pitch another shutout in his next start after that, and would very nearly pitch a shutout in the game after that and the game after that.   Those were not Big Games, however, because the White Sox had been virtually eliminated by that time.   Kaat would finish 1974 with 21 wins and would win 20 in 1975, but the White Sox were not competitive.   He was traded to the Phillies.   On September 26, 1978,  by this time almost 40 years old and a spot starter, Kaat pitched six strong innings (four hits, one run) to beat the Expos.  That was in the last week of the season.   The Phillies held on to win the division by a game and a half over the Pirates.  That was his last Big Win as a starting pitcher.

                Kaat did lose some Big Games, of course, and he had another ten or fifteen wins in Big Games that I didn’t tell you about.    But on balance, considering all of the starts, Kaat’s record in Big Games was excellent—better than Gaylord Perry’s, better than Ferguson Jenkins, better than Catfish Hunter, Nolan Ryan, better than Jim Bunning or Phil Niekro or Juan Marichal, and as good as Tom Seaver.    That’s all I’m trying to say.


COMMENTS (16 Comments, most recent shown first)

Someone may have brought this up elsewhere, and I apologize if they did. It strikes me that a majority of a pitcher's "big games" will come in those seasons where he himself is in his prime. Since a good pitcher in his prime will help his team be in contention more. Conversely, a pitcher not in his prime will start fewer big games. This would seem to be true for the most part, with the exception of pitchers like Pettitte and Palmer who were always on very good teams in contention. But pitchers like Blyleven and I'm sure others I can't think of right now (Resuechel) may have only gotten to good teams AFTER they were in their prime, thus skewing their results in big games.
5:31 AM Jan 2nd
On the 1965 Twins fielding: I’m not certain, but I think the reason Baseball-Reference rates them so highly is because of the Total Zone statistic. According to Total Zone, the ’65 Twins were 70 runs above average in the field. That’s second in the American League that year, two behind Baltimore, and 15 runs ahead of the third-place team.

Also, the Twins were third in the league in Defensive Efficiency, at .724. (The White Sox were #1, at .728, and the league average was .715.)

In particular, Baseball-Reference (using Total Zone) says that the Twins’ best defenders were:

· Zoilo Versalles (17 runs above average, making him the 2nd best fielder in the league)

· Bob Allison (12 runs above average, 6th best fielder in the league)

· Rich Rollins (10 runs above average, 10th best fielder in the league)

· Tony Oliva (6 runs above average, top 25 fielder)

The system also rates Earl Battey, Jimmie Hall, Harmon Killebrew, Sandy Valdespino, and Jerry Kindall as being worth 3-4 runs above average apiece. I think a lot of this is… questionable, at least. Baseball-Reference is saying that a bunch of the Twins had career years in the field, which I guess is possible, but really, was Bob Allison, a 30-year-old left fielder, really worth 12 runs? Rich Rollins, according to the very same statistic, was never worth more than 4 runs as a fielder in any other season, but here he’s worth 10. Versalles never had another season close to this good.

Anyway, Baseball-Reference thinks that the Twins’ defense accounts for about half a run (actually, 0.47 runs) per nine innings. So they essentially take the league average runs allowed, adjust for Kaat’s opponents, adjust for park, and then knock of 0.47 runs to adjust for the Twins’ defense. They use this adjusted runs allowed rate to determine how much Kaat is worth.

The Twins’ fielding doesn’t account for all of the issues with their valuation of Kaat, but 0.47 runs per nine innings is quite a bit. The odd thing (to me, as a non-statistician) is that by using runs allowed rather than earned runs, Kaat is getting “penalized” for the failures of his defense, but then he’s also “penalized” for supposedly playing in front of a superior defense. As a layman, my first thought is, “Which is it? Did his defense help him or hurt him?”

4:47 PM Jan 26th
Your mention of him prompted me to look again at his statistics, and I was surprised to see that Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs view him in completely different ways.

Leaving aside hitting, and focusing just on their valuation of his pitching:

· Baseball-Reference says that Kaat was worth 45.3 Wins Above Replacement. They view him as three wins below replacement level for the last seven years of his career.

· Fangraphs says that Kaat was worth 69.4 Wins Above Replacement. They view him as 4.6 wins above replacement level for the last seven years of his career.

Not only do they disagree wildly about Kaat’s decline years – they also totally disagree about a bunch of his prime seasons. For example, in 1965, Kaat went 18-11 with a 2.83 ERA in 264 innings. Despite those gaudy numbers, according to Baseball-Reference, Kaat was barely replacement level (0.4 wins) that year. This is apparently because

(1) Kaat gave up a huge number of unearned runs, so his runs per nine innings was a 4.12, and

(2) Kaat pitched in front of a good defense.

Put it all together, and Baseball-Reference says that the average pitcher in Kaat’s situation would allow 3.58 runs per nine, whereas Kaat allowed 4.12. Which is why they say he was barely replacement level.

Fangraphs, on the other hand, looks not at Kaat’s runs allowed but at his strikeouts, walks, and home runs. Based on those statistics, they agree that he wasn’t as good as his 2.83 ERA, but they still view him as a very good pitcher – more of a 3.35 ERA-type pitcher. Fangraphs interprets Kaat’s 1965 as a 4.1-win season.

This pattern plays out throughout Kaat’s career. Fangraphs thinks that Kaat was a five-win (or better) pitcher in six seasons; Baseball-Reference says it was only three. In the five years from 1969 to 1973, Baseball-Reference says that Kaat was worth just 9.9 wins, total. Fangraphs thinks he was worth 16.6 wins.

Essentially, Baseball-Reference thinks that Kaat was comparable to Jamie Moyer, whereas Fangraphs thinks he was more like Tom Glavine. I’d be interested to see a Win Shares-Loss Shares analysis at some point.

For 1965, Baseball-Reference has Kaat's teammate Mudcat Grant at 2.5 wins, and Fangraphs has him at 2.8… so, basically no difference.

Baseball-Reference has Camilo Pascual (another teammate) at 0.7 wins, but Fangraphs says 2.1.

Jim Perry, who was third on that team in innings pitched: Baseball-Reference says 2.5 wins, Fangraphs 2.1.

The two metrics, Baseball-Reference’s and Fangraphs’, begin in totally different places. Baseball-Reference starts with runs allowed and adjusts from there. Fangraphs ignores all that and focuses mainly (only?) on strikeouts, walks, and home runs.

Fangraphs DOES have something called “RA9-WAR,” which is supposed to be based on runs allowed rather than the “fielding independent” stats. Comparing that metric to Baseball-Reference’s…

· Kaat is at 59.3 wins, which is still way more than the ~45 wins according to Baseball-Reference.

· For 1965, Kaat is at 3.1 wins (again, much better than Baseball-Reference’s 0.4).

· Mudcat Grant is at 5.1 wins – a huge divergence from both his Baseball-Reference number (2.5) and his regular Fangraphs number (2.8).

· Pascual is at 2.4 wins – closer to Fangraphs’s regular number (2.1) than Baseball-Reference’s (0.7).

· Jim Perry is at 3.5 wins, better than both other calculations (Baseball-Reference 2.5, Fangraphs 2.1).

It’s really, really, really weird to me that Fangraphs’ version of WAR that is based on runs allowed still differs so much from Baseball-Reference’s WAR, which is also based on runs allowed.

For Kaat’s career, then, you have three very different interpretations:

· Regular Fangraphs WAR says he is a pretty solid Hall of Famer, with 69 career wins.
· Fangraphs WAR based on runs allowed says he is borderline, with 59 wins.
· Baseball-Reference WAR says he is definitely not a Hall of Famer, with just 45 wins.

4:45 PM Jan 26th
Bill’s experience might be different, but I haven’t heard HOF voters talk that much about whether candidates were big game pitchers or not, except for Jack Morris, and that was basically about one game.
1:57 PM Jan 26th
Besides failing to spell "due" correctly, I am missing a crucial "not" in that he was "not perceived among the elite of his era."
12:37 PM Jan 26th
First and foremost, I love this series and have read it with great interest. But I have to question a statement in the opening sentence. "[Kaat] isn’t in the Hall of Fame in large part because he wasn’t perceived as a big game pitcher." Maybe I missed it but I have never heard that, and that seems strange if it is in fact a LARGE part of why he is not in the HOF. My impression has been that Kaat is not in the Hall of Fame mainly do to the perception that he was among the elite pitchers of his generation. And in his case that perception is correct -- although that is not the same as saying that perception means he should not be in the Hall. My real point is I have no sense that there was a general perception that Kaat was not a big game pitcher, and if there were, that it was costing him many HOF votes.

On a second point, I wonder if these statistical impressions of a "Big Game Pitcher" are being driven in a sizeable measure by the chance of when these big games came up in the pitcher's career. By my count you detailed 25 Kaat starts for us and prorated by the number games to the season involved, these 25 came from better than average seasons for Kaat in both win% and ERA. And so we should temper enthusiasm based on a comparison to his overall career. Granted, there is unusual quality in 27-15 with a 2.84 ERA that is not going to go away. But the significance is different if we compare it, say, to 25-17 with a 3.13 ERA rather than 23-19, with a 3.45 ERA.

12:35 PM Jan 26th
Responding to hankgillette. . .that's right; the 1970s starting pitchers were just very dramatically better than the 1980s starting pitchers, so Kaat was competing in a very different weight class than Morris. And incidentally, the 1990s starting pitchers were ALSO dramatically better than the 1980s; it was just a lost generation of starting pitchers. All of the guys who came up about 1978 and could have been great (Tanana, Guidry, Righetti, Dennis Leonard, Fernando, JR Richard, Steve Rogers, Dave Stieb). .. for one reason or another they all fell short of true greatness.
10:31 PM Jan 25th
How did these pitchers hit in these big games?

9:32 PM Jan 25th
Kaat may have been better than people realized in big games, but he still doesn’t strike me as an egregious omission from the HOF. His ERA+ was only 108. That’s the same as Don Sutton, but Sutton had the advantage of being 24 games over the 300 win mark. Had Sutton only reached 283 wins, I’m not sure he would have been elected.

The real question to me is why Kaat didn’t get the support of the “traditional” HOF voters the way Morris did? He had nearly 40 more wins, and a slightly better ERA relative to his league than Morris.

I think the answer is that Kaat had to compete with a group of his contemporaries who were obviously better pitchers or who had hit historic milestones (or both). Most of Morris’ contemporaries who were obviously better had short career due to injury or had careers that spanned the 70s or the 90s, rather primarily the 80s
9:27 PM Jan 25th
Two thoughts: Would you build this new methodology into the HOF Monitor? And, two, looking at Kaat, it is just hard for me to get by a 24 year guy with only three All Star appearances....
5:40 PM Jan 25th
Well. ..draw whatever values conclusions you want to, but Kaat's 3.55 ERA going into September, 1967, was within a few points of the league average. The league ERA in 1967 was 3.23, but it was 3.27 going into September, and the Park Run Index for Minnesota was 111. Park-adjusted league ERA for Kaat would have been 3.46.
3:32 PM Jan 25th
Steven Goldleaf
So if you're 9-13 with a 3.55 ERA (and in 1967 a 3.55 ERA is WAY above league average) going into September, and your team is in a tight pennant race, how come we don't blame you and your lousy season for keeping your team from running away with the pennant? Just askin'.
2:05 PM Jan 25th
Bill, where exactly does Kitty stand in terms of next HOF shot? Here is an interview from 2011 with him when he thought he might get in on a Veterans vote:
1:28 PM Jan 25th
Remarkable record in big games. Can't help thinking if he had done the exact same thing for the Yankees Kaat would have been a shoo in for 1st year HOF election.
11:00 AM Jan 25th
The other day somebody mentioned that the Hall of Fame bar used to be 250 wins and it's now 300, which is maybe a little overly simplistic, but I looked the list over. Kaat, Tommy John, and Jack Morris are the only eligible post-1900 pitchers who retired with 250-300 wins who aren't yet in the Hall of Fame. My own opinion has always been that this is a red herring, because most of these guys get in through the Veteran's committee, but in this way I was the one being overly simplistic. The majority of the 250-300 win pitchers were elected by the BBWAA.
10:43 AM Jan 25th
Quite extraordinary -- as so often in the past, Bill has added to the body of knowledge from . . . well, what was there all along.

The greatest lecture I ever heard, from a poli-sci professor at USC in 1976, boiled down to this -- The truth is all around you. You just don't see it yet. It is the educator's job to help pull the scales away from your eyes, to help make the world more intelligible to you (and NOT hand you life's answers on a silver platter, predigested, etc.). That's what this is.

There are other tools -- such as when Bill (in the Historical Abstract) discussed Koufax's extraordinary record in games with low run support (one, two and three runs). Look forward to more like this. Thanks.
7:04 AM Jan 25th
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