Is Madison Bumgarner the World's #1 Starting Pitcher?

November 17, 2014

Bill James has a ranking system called the World's #1 Starting Pitcher. Bill introduced the idea in an article on Bill James Online in September of 2011, and it has been fully explained and updated through the end of the regular season in the just-released 2015 Bill James Handbook. Bill James Online will have daily rankings of the World's #1 Starting Pitcher starting next season.

The system is straightforward. When a starter makes his major league debut, he begins with 300 points. From there, his rating will go up when he pitches well (based on Game Score). His rating goes down when he pitches poorly or doesn't pitch at all (including the offseason). Complete details of the system are available both in The Handbook and on Bill James Online.

The Handbook showed Clayton Kershaw as the World's #1 Starting Pitcher as of the end of the regular season. Here is the rest of that top 10:

World's #1 Starting Pitcher
September 28, 2014
Player Score Rank
Clayton Kershaw 626.0 1
Felix Hernandez 578.4 2
Max Scherzer 564.4 3
Chris Sale 562.5 4
David Price 560.8 5
Johnny Cueto 550.8 6
Cole Hamels 550.7 7
Jon Lester 550.5 8
Adam Wainwright 546.9 9
Madison Bumgarner 545.3 10


Madison Bumgarner is number 10 on this list. But wait. He just put on arguably the most amazing playoff pitching performance of all time. Here are the standings after the playoffs:

World's #1 Starting Pitcher
November 13, 2014
Player Score Rank
Clayton Kershaw 607.8 1
Madison Bumgarner 571.7 2
Felix Hernandez 571.2 3
Max Scherzer 559.8 4
David Price 554.3 5
Chris Sale 551.5 6
Jon Lester 545.3 7
Cole Hamels 541.3 8
Johnny Cueto 539.6 9
Zack Greinke 536.3 10


Bumgarner jumps all the way to number two! Kershaw had such an incredible regular season—and last six seasons, for that matter—he still has a substantial lead despite his disappointing postseason. However, Bumgarner’s exceptional October earned him more than 25 points, enough to pass the other eight pitchers who were in front of him when the season ended.


COMMENTS (10 Comments, most recent shown first)

This is silly. Mickey Lolich jumps ahead of Bob Gibson? Johnny Podres ahead of Don Newcombe? Lew Burdette ahead of Warren Spahn.

As Keith Law would put it, SSS.
2:49 AM Nov 26th
I get your point. We differ.

Appreciate the clarification nevertheless.
10:21 AM Nov 19th
Since it must be my posts you're talking about re the post-season, I wanted to clarify: I didn't criticize giving 'credit' or 'extra credit' for it; I just said that I don't think the way it's done here jibes with how most people would feel it should be done, since I think most would say either that it shouldn't be counted at all, or that it should count MORE THAN regular season games. All just "for what it's worth," but I think the way it's handled here would be a distant 3rd to the others.
9:19 PM Nov 18th
Are you guys serious? This is not an academic exercise, and I don't believe Mr. James wanted to make it one. It's a attempt at an objective ranking, it's fun, it's interesting, and it's a good sight better than running a poll of sportswriters or yammering back & forth about how the ranking system isn't perfect. Plus, what's this about extra credit? (1) contrary to what others have stated, I think that MOST people would think it's reasonable to give due credit for distinguished post-season work. In fact, I think most people would think it's UNfair to NOT give credit for it. (2) As is obvious from the system's description, and even MORE obvious from Kershaw's before & after scores, one's ranking can get PENALIZED from the post-season just as readily as it can get enhanced. No only do I like this system--while being able to state that it's not perfect--but I hope it, or something like it, get's picked up by ESPN and every other sports outlet around. It seems like it would add a shit-ton of fun to the ongoing chatter about the game.
2:32 PM Nov 18th
P.P.S. (i.e. regarding the 2 posts below): MY BAD.

Here's Bill on that:

For inactivity, these are the rules:
1) If a pitcher does not make a start for 1 to 6 days, his score does not change. It remains whatever it was after his last start.
2) On days 7 to 200, if a pitcher does not make a start (for seven days or more), we reduce his ranking by one-quarter of a point for each day that he is inactive—in season or off season. [b]During the off-season everybody moves down, but everybody moves down in lock-step, so the rankings don’t change once you get 7 days from the end of the season....

(And elsewhere in the article, he talks about how post-season games do count, but that they don't necessarily or particularly pump up a pitcher's score.)
12:06 AM Nov 18th
P.S. ....and anyway, I wonder, when Bill did it, did he indeed take away points from pitchers when they went x-numbers-of-days not pitching in the post-season? I never thought of it before, but I never imagined that he did.
11:54 PM Nov 17th
To Steve: I know that in this method, a game is a game is a game. I was just commenting on it in relation to how I think most people would view it, and pointing out how they don't match.
11:52 PM Nov 17th
I hear you, OBS, and to take it a step farther, I'm probably less interested than anybody else here in declaring that somebody is the Number One This or the Greatest That. Still, Bill's little system, for all of its eccentricities, does seem to come up with a plausible answer.

Nor do I think there's any doubt that the Giants don't win the World Series if they replace Bumgarner with an 'ordinary' Number One Starter, any more than I think the Dodgers are even in the playoffs if Kershaw is replaced by the regular-season edition of Bumgarner.

And this to MarisFan, without any attempt to support the bald assertion: for the purposes of this particular exercise, as I understand Bill's exposition of it, a game is a game is a game. In other words, the importance of the game doesn't figure into it.
7:37 PM Nov 17th
I have always been leery of tagging team successes onto individuals in baseball. I call it my "Jim McMahon Has Two SuperBowl Rings Fallacy." Yeah, Bumbarner won the WS for them at one level, but he could have pitched 35 CG shutouts for the Astros and never had the chance, through no fault of his own. I haven't studied Bill's method here, but I like the fact that it is pretty fast-reacting as a rolling picture during the season, and throughout a career. Sort of a horserace....but I assume that if MadBum is a middle of the road pitcher for the next three years he won't be third ranked in 2018 because of his 2014 World Series.
7:13 PM Nov 17th
Arguably one issue with this is that you counted (I presume) post-season games as being equally important as regular season games. I think most people would feel they should either count more (in which case Bumgarner ascends even more) or not at all.

Plus, penalizing pitchers for not pitching in the post-season when their teams weren't even in it.....that's obviously controversial. In a way it overlaps (kinda sorta) with the Win Share approach in that to some extent players may get penalized due to performance of others on their team (including management), but this part of it bothers me a lot more on this than on Win Shares, because Win Shares succeeds in making the system quite team-neutral, and this doesn't.
2:11 PM Nov 17th
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