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Big Game Pitchers, Part VII

January 26, 2014

                It’s hard to choose. . .there are a lot of great pitchers with terrific records in Big Games.   But these are my ten:

11.   Mike Mussina

                I am, by the way, keeping silent for now on the issue of how Mike Mussina compares to Jack Morris.  If Morris has a great record in Big Games, I’m not going to mention it until the 10th and final installment in this series.   

                But Mussina certainly does.   Mussina pitched in Big Games for the Orioles in 1992, 1993, 1996, 1997 and 1998, and for the Yankees every year from 2001 to the end of his career in 2008.     He pitched well—3.07 ERA in 54 starts—and he won a lot more often than he lost, 27 to 13.  

                In Big Games, Mike Mussina defeated David Cone twice (September 2 and September 8, 2001), and Pedro Martinez twice (August 28, 2002, and September 19, 2004).  


10.  Bruce Kison

                Bruce Kison won a Playoff Game and a World Series game for the Pirates when he was a 21-year-old rookie, 1971, and won another playoff game the next season.   Those were relief appearances, but in his first four post-season appearances, Kison was 4-0 with 0.00 ERA in 20 innings.   This gave Kison the reputation for being a Big Game pitcher early in his career.   

Kison was tall and thin, almost spectral, always fighting shoulder trouble, and he was never able to pitch 200 innings in a season, even once.   But because of his Big-Game reputation he was spotted in Big Games, and he never lost that reputation.   In regular season play he was 22-7 in Big Games, 2.72 ERA.


9.  Whitey Ford

                It is a cliché to observe that Whitey Ford was a Big Game pitcher, but it would be an oversight not to observe it.   36-16, 2.86 ERA.


8.   Ron Guidry

                We appear to be in the Yankee section of the list.   Of the 35 biggest regular-season games of his career, Ron Guidry won 25.    No one else in the data did.    He had 39 Big Game Starts in his career, eight of them in 1978, when he was winning every start, but the other 31 in others seasons.   He was 29-7 in Big Games, 3.10 ERA. 

                Guidry’s career is like that of Gooden, Saberhagen, Valenzuela, Vida Blue; when he first appeared he was sensational, and then he kind of tapered off and was around for about ten more years, seemingly losing about 4% per season.    I think those kind of pitchers are underrated by history because they create unrealistic expectations, and are compared for the rest of their careers to the pitchers they used to be.


7.  Andy Pettitte

                Pettitte not only pitched more Big Games than anyone else; he also performed well, with a career record of 43-18 in Big Games.    Two more wins than anyone else; Clemens was 41-25.  


6.  Johan Santana 

                Johan Santana won two Cy Young Awards, was third in the voting twice, fifth once, seventh once.   We can forget how good he was, and it wasn’t that long ago.   The Twins won their division in both of his Cy Young seasons, 2004 and 2006.   They won it in 2006 by a single game, on the last day of the season.  In 2008 he pitched for the Mets, when the Mets were in first place on September 19.

                So Santana was pitching a lot of Big Games in those years, at a time when he was a dominant pitcher.   By my count Santana has made 30 Big Game starts in his career—four with the Twins in 2003 (4-0), three with the Twins in 2004 (3-0), five with the Twins in 2005 (4-1), eight with the Twins in 2006 (which was the year the race went down to the last day of the season; 6-2), two with the Twins in 2007 (0-2), seven with the Mets in 2008 (6-1), and one with the Mets in 2010 (1-0).   His teams have outscored their opponents in those games 150 to 74, and have won 24 of the 30 games.   Santana’s ERA in those games is 2.16, and his won-lost record is 20-4.  


5.  John Smoltz

                The reason there are 11 pitchers in my Top Ten is that I initially overlooked Smoltz, since his regular-season Big Game record is just good, not truly outstanding.    I decided it was better to wedge him in here like this and have you think I was a little slow, rather than leave him out and have you think I was stupid.


4.  Don Sutton

                I am as surprised as you are to see Sutton on this list, but. .that’s why we do research.    Don Sutton was born a few months after Steve Carlton, and both pitchers were National League rookies in 1966.   Sutton was 324-256 in his career; Carlton, 329-244.   Carlton’s ERA was 3.22; Sutton’s, 3.26.

                In spite of those similarities, Sutton was not perceived as being comparable to Carlton.  A lot of that had to do with big numbers in a season.   Carlton won 20 games in a season, 27, 20, 24, 23.    Carlton won four Cy Young Awards, and first-ballot selection to the Hall of Fame with 96%.    Sutton would go 15-11, 16-10, 18-10; he won no Cy Young Awards and waited through five elections to get the Call.

                Almost everybody, I suspect, would tell you that Steve Carlton was just more of a Big Game pitcher than Don Sutton.   OK; I’m not going to argue with you, but let me report on my research.    Carlton was 6-6 in the post season; Sutton, 6-4.

                In Big Games in regular season play, they made 76 starts apiece, both of them being near the all-time record for Big Game starts.   Carlton was 34-32, which is somewhat misleading because his ERA was good (3.19).   Sutton was 38-15, ERA of 2.66.

                The two started against each other in a Big Game one time, September 5, 1980 at Dodger Stadium, both teams in the pennant race.   Carlton gave up one run in 7 innings.   Sutton beat him, 1-0, giving up 2 hits, no runs in eight innings, 10 strikeouts. 

                He started once in a Big Game against Dock Ellis, September 1, 1974, and he beat him.

                He started three times in big games against Phil Niekro, and beat him twice.  Sutton’s teams won all three games; the third victory went to the bullpen.

                He started once in a Big Game against J. R. Richard, and he beat him.

                He started seven Big Games against the Big Red Machine, the Reds of the 1970s.   He went 3-1 in those games, and the Dodgers won four of the seven.  

                Sutton never started a Big Game against Seaver or Jenkins; they were in the other division, and, at that time, teams played almost entirely inside the division the last six weeks of the season.   There weren’t any Big Games between the Dodgers and Reds in ’75 and ’76, because the Reds finished off the pennant race before there was time for any Big Games.  

                The record is what it is.   Maybe I’m missing something, I don’t know.


3.   Randy Johnson

                Randy Johnson had a famously poor record in Playoff Series.    Although he won three games in the only World Series he ever appeared in, the wonderful World Series of 2001, he never appeared in any other World Series in part because he kept losing critical games in the playoffs.    He won two games in the first round of the playoffs in 1997, against the Yankees, but then lost a game in the second round, against Cleveland.   He lost two games in the first round in 1998, two more in 1999, one more in 2000.   Altogether he was 7-9 in the post season, 3.50 ERA.

                And that is the ONLY thing that is keeping me from naming him the greatest Big Game pitcher of the last 60 years.    If I were to say that Randy Johnson was the greatest Big Game pitcher of my lifetime, people would say, "Well, what about all those losses in the playoffs," and they would be entirely right to say that.

                But in Big Games in regular season play, Randy Johnson was the greatest pitcher ever, by far.    As great as he was all the rest of the time. . .Big Games, he was better.    He made 48 starts in Big Games.   He was 30-5, 2.44 ERA, 421 strikeouts in 345 innings.

                The twelve biggest regular season games that Johnson ever started, he won 11 of them.   The other one, he pitched 8 innings, and left the game with a 3-3 tie.


2.  Bob Gibson

                I have to defend the proposition that Don Sutton was a great Big Game pitcher; I have to defend Randy.   Bob Gibson, nobody’s going to argue with me.

                Gibson’s Big Game regular-season won-lost record isn’t as good as Randy Johnson’s, but it’s still impressive—36-14, 2.26 ERA.      Add in the dominant performances in three World Series, and he’s very near the top of the list.


1.   Roy Oswalt

                And no, I am not just being provocative.    Gibson’s won-lost record in regular-season Big Games was 36-14; Oswalt’s is 37-9.   Gibson’s teams were 40-17; Oswalt’s were 46-12.   Think about it:  46-12 in Big Games.   Gibson’s ERA was 2.26; Oswalt’s was 2.63.   When you adjust for context, I suspect that Oswalt wins that one.   Oswalt pitched 80 fewer innings than Gibson, but struck out almost as many batters (341 to 352) and walked half as many (73 to 144).

                In certain ways we are not as good at making myths now as we were a generation ago.   The Wild Card system DOES create more Big Games, I believe, but sometimes it creates Big Games for second-place and third-place teams.   The story lacks the clarity and symmetry of a pennant race; it is a harder story to tell.

                Roy Oswalt won a tremendous number of Big Games for the Astros in the mid-2000s, but when there are six pennant races to follow and two Wild Cards, things get lost in the shuffle.   Oswalt’s constant drumbeat of Big Wins late in the season didn’t have the impact of Bob Gibson winning 7 games in September of ’64.   But. . .just the facts.  Oswalt has won 80% of his Big Games.  Wow.


COMMENTS (27 Comments, most recent shown first)

First just a correction: Randy Johnson pitched in the playoffs against the Yankees and Indians in 1995, not 1997.

Maybe it is just me or just the writing, but it seems like the descriptions of the people on the list up to Smoltz, that is numbers 6-11, are more enthusiastic or even more convincing than those for the people on the list in the middle, as if you were a bit bored with the rest until you got to Gibson and Oswalt.
4:07 AM Mar 11th
I don't understand, is Smoltz supposed to be on this list, or not?
2:10 PM Jan 15th
No ERA for Pettitte? My guess is he averaged less than 6 innings pitched per game and had an ERA just south of four. He played with great bullpens and killer offensive teams. These factors inflated his record, just as in the post season. His greatest trait was that he was healthy (mostly on his own?) and consistent. Overall there
should be greater weighting for innings pitched per big game.​
4:07 PM Jan 29th
At a glance, Roy Oswalt's postseason victories have run support of 12,6,7,4,5,7,6. Throwout the blowout and you get an average of 5.8 in run support by his team.

I think the problem is how granular do we want to go on these? Going game by game:

12 - Oswalt left after 5 IP (111 pitches) ahead 3-2. The Astros scored one in the 6th (4-2) and 8 runs combined in the 7th & 8th (12-3). Is "12 runs" really reflective of the support Oswalt got while he was pitching?

6 - Oswalt threw 6 innings. It was 5-3 *Cardinals* when he was last on the mound. The Astros scored 2 in the bottom of the 6th, and he was lifted for a PH at the end of the Astros AB with the score 5-5. They added another in the 7th to make it 6-5. He didn't pitch well, and he didn't get the win.

7 - This was a tight 3-2 game through the top of the 7th. The Astros broke it open with 4 in the bottom of -the 7th to go up 7-2. The Braves got one in the top of the 8th, Oswalt responsible for it but scored after he was replaced. They scored "7" while he was pitching, but it overstates the Big Gameyness he pitched all in all but his final two batters: this was a tight, tense game for 7 innings while he was on the mound.

4 - this was a 2-1 game when Oswalt left the mound in the bottom of the 7th. The Astros scored 2 in the top of the 8th to make it 4-1 and Lidge closed it out. "4" doesn't reflect the level of run support Oswalt had while on the mound.

5 - Oswalt went 7 and left with it 5-1. This one is a proper reflection.

7 - Oswalt pitched 5 innings, leaving down 4-0. The Phils scored all 7 runs after he left the game. He didn't get the win. He didn't pitch well, all 7 were after he left, and they really don't relate to the support he had.

6 - Oswalt went 8, leaving with it 6-1. This one is a proper reflection.

So in the 7 games, we get:

* 2 proper reflections of the support he had while pitching (5+6)

* 3 games where his support while pitching was not reflect in the final score (3 vs 12, 3 vs 7, 2 vs 4)

* 2 games where he didn't pitch well and the game was won after he left (6+7)

It's hard to say that he didn't pitch well collectively in the 5 games he won.

It's also hard to say that even in those games where he was given a true 5 & 6 runs to work with that there wasn't a level of Big Gameyness to it. They're post seasons games. We see in the two games his Teams won where he pitch poorly (giving up 5 & 4 runs) that in the PED Era, 5 & 6 runs aren't insurmountable, especially with more time/outs to work with. That he gave up 1 run in 7 & 8 IP in those two games eliminated most of the outs that his opponents had to play with.

The problem with all this?

We can do this to the games his teams didn't win in the Post Season when he started: 4 of them. 2 of which he pitched well and wasn't supported in relief or office, and the other 2 of which he didn't pitch well.

But we'd also have to do this with every Big Game in the data base. 18,530 games. How fine in detail does one want to go?
6:29 PM Jan 28th
I think it's very useful to have reg-season Big Games segregated from postseason Big Games -- and Gibson's seven consecutive postseason wins were ALL World Series . . . very different from a Wild Card or LDS win, it seems to me. The current trend of listing "postseason records" for hitting and pitching blurs this distinction.

Re Don Sutton -- people forget, but in the mid-70s, he was THE Big Game pitcher for the Dodgers, especially in 1974 NLCS and Series (where he provided the only L.A. victory). While there was no one "obvious" ace in the mass of solid Dodger pitchers during this period -- the most consistent, year-in year-out, was in fact Sutton (who also stayed longer with the club than just about any of them).
11:21 PM Jan 27th
Yes -- in fact, looking forward to those full data on all these Top 11 (would have been good to have it here, as was done with the "almost-made-its" in a prior article), including because we'll be more able to try to see the relative extents to which the rankings were based on numbers and subjective tweaking.
4:59 PM Jan 27th
Pettitte's ERA in big games isn't given, and considering how the big argument most fans have over Pettitte seems to be his ERA vs. his big games, I'd really like to see what it is in big games.
12:05 PM Jan 27th
I enter this discussion crippled, I must admit, by Trachselitis. When he pitched like cr@p in 2006, 4.97 ERA, and wound up with a 15-8 record, I foreswore respect for W-L percentages ever again. He was one win away from tying the league leader in wins, and he finished 37th in the National League in ERA among qualifiers (there were only 41 qualifiers). Thirty starts, a lot like the samples we are talking about here. Trachsel was an outlier, my illness.
11:54 AM Jan 27th
I understand and agree with what you are saying about the advantages of Win% not needing comparitive adjustments across eras, but I'm lost when you then say "One pitcher gets 5.5 runs per game to work with, another gets 4.5 ... that's meaningless unless you know what the league average of runs was in that era and what the park influences were"

Run support clearly affects Win%. If Win% has value in these assessments, which I do not deny, how could a difference of a run in run support -- your example -- be meaningless when that would have a HUGE impact on Win%.

It is not meaningless to me in considering RJ's great 30-5 record in regular season big games to know he had unusually high run support.

Without it, I'm going "Wow, that's pretty good because even with that very low ERA for his era, I would have expected him to be about 26-9." But knowing he had unusually high run support of 5.46, I'd already be expecting a winning percentage close to .800. That is, I'd know his high run support accounts for about half of the difference of what impressed me beyond his low ERA.

10:44 AM Jan 27th
Well, but of course I would have cited that data had it been instructive, as I did, for example, in regard to Maloney, Lieber, Blyleven and in other cases. Oswalt's 5-2 record in post-season is IN ADDITION TO his 39-7 record in regular-season Big Games. In regular season Big Games, Randy Johnson was supported by 5.46 runs per game, Ron Guidry 5.1, Sabathia 5.0, Oswalt 4.93, Jack Morris 4.70, Gibson 4.68, Jim Kaat 4.23, Nolan Ryan 3.94.

But if I could point this out: in a study of this nature, won-lost records have a huge advantage over other stats. Everything else goes up and down over time. Winning Percentages are the only stat that is fixed in place. One pitcher gets 5.5 runs per game to work with, another gets 4.5. . .that's meaningless unless you know what the league average of runs was in that era and what the park influences were--and then those norms don't really apply in post-season, so you're dealing with an unknown norm. Won-lost records have a constant reference point.
12:00 AM Jan 27th
Hi Maris...I think W-L evens out in a career sample, but in these cases 20, 30 games, I would like to see less emphasis. ERA is obviously key for Bill here as well, but the one blowout can ruin that, whereas an 80 percent high quality start numbner, however you define it, would interest me more. I am just frustrated that there isn't a simple metric for a good start, which is increasingly important in these setup/closer days. Just a three step measure we all can capiche, like innings and earned runs. 7 or 8 innings, 2 or less earned runs, whatever is agreeable. If your team gives you one run or kicks the ball around the infield or the closer implodes, your performance is still a great pitching effort, W or L.
11:48 PM Jan 26th
Yes!! Great to see you, and thanks for answering!
(Sorry for the digression, folks.) :-)

To OldBackstop: Hadn't thought of it, but it is sort of surprising to be seeing Bill put that kind of emphasis on W-L. But IMO it's not an inapt way of shorthand on a thing like this, and I have a feeling Bill didn't put huge emphasis on it.

BTW, interesting data on the run support.
11:04 PM Jan 26th

Well, I am the Peter Unger who wrote Living High and Letting Die, anyway, which came out in 1996. So, i am not really all that stupid, I guess, though I might have lost a step or two since then.
10:46 PM Jan 26th

Well, I am the Peter Unger who wrote this book (along with other books about other matters)
10:41 PM Jan 26th
At this point in my baseball fandom I literally wince when I see a list or ranking based largely on, or citing at length. W-Ls for pitchers. I would like to see these numbers run with something like Nolan's Ryan "High Quality Start", seven innings, less than three ERA. Or some iteration of that. At a glance, Roy Oswalt's postseason victories have run support of 12,6,7,4,5,7,6. Throwout the blowout and you get an average of 5.8 in run support by his team. By way of contrast, Randdy Johnson's 2001 postseason run support in his victories went 2,3,4,15,3. Throwout the blowout and you get 3.0 in run support per game.
10:05 PM Jan 26th
Bill: I hope you don't mind our questioning some of the rankings, including with the thought that you might reconsider some of the judgment that was involved and maybe tweak the order, especially of the top few.

Unless I'm misunderstanding, it seems that you used a lot of subjectivity in doing the final rankings; you didn't go just by some numbers that you wound up with. I know that as a general matter in doing the data, you didn't differentiate among degrees of big games; a big game was a big game was a big game. And I don't know if you then took differentiations of big games into account in doing the final rankings. If you did, I'm thinking that maybe you could have stood to take them more into account.

I'm looking particularly at the #1 guy, especially in light of this part of what you said (rightly) in the Oswalt comment:

The Wild Card system DOES create more Big Games, I believe, but sometimes it creates Big Games for second-place and third-place teams.

I'm guessing that there were more such games for Oswalt among his "big games" than for most of the others in the Top 11, including Gibson. I'm also guessing that since these Top 11 are already the cream of a very rich crop, to a great extent the rankings split hairs, and especially, once you get to the top few, they're real close. I imagine that Gibson wasn't a whole lot behind Oswalt, and probably even Pettitte (#7) wasn't either.

I'm suggesting that in such a close race, the relative bigness of the respective pitchers' big games should easily trump most of those small differences in the other aspects. Of course this is subjective. What I'm saying is that it's hard to see how differences in the relative bigness wouldn't overtake the other stuff. I know that it wasn't part of how you did the data. But, since it seems that subjectivity was involved in doing the rankings, it's just a question of how much you want to include whatever kind of important subjectivity.

And yeah, in terms of specifics, mainly what I'm saying is that at least Gibson should be moved to #1 ahead of Oswalt. I realize that being #2 on such a study isn't chopped liver; after all, look at who didn't even make the Top 11. But still. I think that rightly or wrongly, to a large extent this study will be judged on who the #1 guy comes out to be -- and so (I hardly need to tell you!) :-)'s worth giving every reasonable consideration to picking the #1.
9:11 PM Jan 26th

Over on Reader Posts I'm running a parallel methodology. Bill, you may have UNDER-RATED Kison!! In 29 September starts when his team was +/- 5 games in the pennant races, he went 17-1 with a 2.32 ERA.

6:41 PM Jan 26th
P.S. to Peter: Are you the P. Unger who writes about principles of behavior? (Sounds like you could be.) If so, you're hardly stupid! In fact, even if not, you're hardly stupid. :-)
4:00 PM Jan 26th
To Aagcobb: Regarding how Bill helped show Biggio's value: It seems there's relatively little awareness of Bill's later work that negated some of it, in an article that actually echoed some of what's being looked at here, but conversely: It seems he fattened up in lower-leverage situations and against worse pitchers, but did markedly worse in higher leverage and against better pitchers. For what it's worth, this doesn't seem to show in the situational "split" data, but I don't know that Bill has ever taken back or qualified that stuff about Biggio.

About there being 11: I initially thought it was just a wry thing from Bill.

Don Sutton: How interesting -- and I'm very surprised that during his career this didn't seem to make it into people's image of him. I think it did at least fuzzily make it into people's images of all the others, including Oswalt (although of course not to that extent). And we've talked about how it made it into the popular image of MAGLIE. (BTW I found the Maglie-1956 thing so interesting that I went back and looked at the year, and found not only how striking his "big games" were but also how remarkable that pennant race was. Just flipping through the day-by-day scores and standings [which was all I did] was entirely gripping. It might be worth a Reader Post.)

2:42 PM Jan 26th
David Kowalski
I'm not surprised that Roy Oswalt is on the list, even in the top five. I am surprised that he heads the list. The give-away for me with Oswalt is that he kept getting contracts even when it made no sense. Oswalt was effective in relief and kind of hammered in starts but he hold out and mid-season is signed as a starter.

The Phillie who seems he should be on the list due to post-season glory id Cliff Lee. I know he was a reliever but Mariano Rivera lived in big games in both the regular season and the post-season. Rivera over 19 years piled up a lot of big innings. A lot.

Anybody with a career 205 ERA+ had to be special in the regular season big games.
12:43 PM Jan 26th
Maybe the problem for Roy Oswalt and his six starts for the Rockies last year (he finished 0-6 with a 8.63 ERA) was that, presumably, none of those were Big Games.
11:24 AM Jan 26th
It seems like Bill has a knack for revealing the hidden value of Astro players like Biggio, Cruz and now Oswalt. If Roy had been a Yankee, everyone would know what a great big game pitcher he has been.​
9:55 AM Jan 26th

Ok. I am now reading in detail and have come to 5. where you make a very amusing comment.

Should there have been an alert - before the numbering started - so nobody would think you had forgotten how to count, or forgotten which arabic numerals are paired with which English words, as with 11 being paired with eleven, and 10 being paired with ten?

I don't know, just asking a bit more.

A very slow old Peter, maybe sorta stupid as well.
9:15 AM Jan 26th
Sutton started the winner-take-all 162nd game of the 1982 season and beat Palmer and the Orioles. It was 9-2 so people forget who the pitchers were that day.
9:10 AM Jan 26th

You are one of my five or so favorite living writers, along with Phillip Roth, Michael Connelly, the psychologist Danny Kahneman, and somebody else whose name now escapes this septuagenarian. That's why I subsrcibe, even though barely a baseball fan - absolutely crushed when young and both the Dodgers, my team, and the Giants left my native NYC for Cali.

Maybe I am missing something, but I count 11 - Eleven - pitchers on this list, which I have not yet read in details.

You say that this is "my ten". Am I missing something here - or should this present list NOT include the estimable Mike Mussina, listed as 11.

In part, I write this because my own memory isn't quite what it was 5 years ago, not even one year ago, I guess.

Just asking, largely as something of a mental check-up for my old head.

9:06 AM Jan 26th
With three installments to go this is probably premature but I smell a "Big Game Hitters" study coming sometime later once Bill gets reacquainted with his loved ones.
8:33 AM Jan 26th
Roy Oswalt, wow, I didn't see that coming. I love how this series makes changes how you see these pitchers you think you know.

It was actually 1995 that the Big Unit beat the Yanks twice in the ALDS, which was a fantastic series even though my guys lost (in '97, the Yankees lost to the Indians in the first round).

It also bears out Bill's point about stuff getting lost in all these 6-8 pennant races every year. Immersed in Yankee-world, I have no memory at all of Johnson acquiring any kind of negative postseason rep between the time he stung us in 1995 and again in 2001...
6:26 AM Jan 26th
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