Lucky Bastards

August 2, 2017
 2017-32

Lucky Bastards

              Today I am writing about the luckiest and unluckiest pitchers of all time, but before I get to that I have another argument that I need to make, an argument against the position of my friend Brian Kenny.

              The way that baseball statistics are interpreted by 99% of the people 99% of the time is not as numbers at all, but as language.    The long history and stable schedule of baseball has created a field of standards, such that "200 hits" does not convey an image which is in any way related to 200 automobiles, 200 cigarettes, or 200 bad hair days.    200 hits is a standard of excellence in a specific area of performance.   Forty home runs does not normally refer to 40 of anything; 40 home runs means power.    .300 does not refer to 300 of anything; .300 means consistency, as a hitter.    Fifty stolen bases does not mean "50"; it means speed.         

              The existence of those standards, those red-letter standards, creates an entire forest of standards.   As 40 home runs means great power, so too does 30 home runs mean real power.   39 homers has a meaning; 38 homers has a meaning which is a tiny bit different.  40 stolen bases has a meaning, not a meaning in numbers but a meaning in terms of speed.   180 strikeouts as opposed to 170 is a meaningful distinction.  

              Walking in a forest of numbers, we always know where we are because we know every tree.   An outsider seeing Stan Musial’s batting record and Bengie Molina’s would not understand the difference.    To a baseball fan, it is like the difference between Paris and a cow pasture.   We see the difference immediately; we process it instantly.   To an outsider, Stan Musial’s numbers would be numbers.   To a baseball fan, they are a symphony.   They are Paris.  

              It is a wonderful language, baseball statistics, a rich and nuanced language which recognizes and pinpoints the most subtle of distinctions.  Even people who pretend to hate the influence of statistics, even people who write diatribes about baseball statistics, will still site them every bit as often as I will site them.   They’re just there; they are part of the game.  They are the language in which we normally describe the players.  

              While it may be true that won-lost records are misleading as often as they are accurate, nonetheless they are a tremendously important part of that language.   They are how we think about starting pitchers.   They are a part of US, a part of Our Thing, Baseball.   You can’t get rid of them, and it would make the game poorer if you could.    You can say that the numbers are misleading, but the language is what it is.  

 

              OK, now to the business at hand.    The luckiest pitcher of all time, over the course of his career, was:   Lew Burdette.  

              Lew Burdette was in a sense Gaylord Perry before Gaylord was.   After a rumor started that Burdette would throw spitballs, which he did, he used to stand on the mound and spit into his hand, lick his fingers, and then wipe his fingers in front of his pants although you didn’t know whether he actually had actually wiped them or not.   He would put the baseball in front of his mouth and hold it there.   He would wipe the sweat off his forehead, grab the baseball, and then shake the moisture off his hand, after he had already touched the baseball.  

              The rule which (now) prevents pitchers from putting their hands to their mouth on the mound is the Lew Burdette rule.   Warren Giles, National League President, ordered Burdette to cut it out, and instructed the National League umpires of the time to eject Burdette from the game if he did that stuff.   This was later codified into the rules.  

              Burdette was also one of the most extreme control-type pitchers of all time.   In 1959 he walked 38 batters in 290 innings.   He led the National League in fewest walks per nine innings in 1958, 1960 and 1961, and was among the league leaders in 1954, 1956 and 1959.   He was the MVP of the World Series in 1957, pitching three complete-game victories over the Yankees, two of them shutouts. 

              A good pitcher in his good seasons, but on the whole, over a long career, Burdette was no better than the other guys.   He was a guy who didn’t walk anybody, pitching for great teams.   Although the Braves had a losing record in his rookie season, 1952, Burdette was in their rotation from 1953 to 1962, and the worst record the team had in any of those seasons was 83-71.   They had a fantastic offense, led by Henry Aaron and Eddie Mathews, and Joe Adcock could hit cleanup for them.   

              In 1956, I believe that Lew Burdette had a deserved won-lost record of 17-12; in 1958, 17-14, and in 1954, 16-12.   Obviously you want that guy on your staff; you have to have those guys.   But over the course of his career, I believe that his deserved won-lost record was 172-178.   His actual won-lost record was 203-144.   He won 31 more games than he probably should have, was 32 and a half games better, and his winning percentage was 94 points better than he probably deserved.   He had a winning record in his career—by 59 games—although he was probably less than a .500 pitcher.   He had more than 200 career wins, probably should have had less than 200.  

              These ten men, in my opinion, were the luckiest pitchers of all time:

 

 

 

ACTUAL

DESERVED

 

Luck

Rank

First

Last

Won

Lost

   Pct.

Won

Lost

   Pct.

Margin

Score

1

Lew

Burdette

203

144

.585

172

178

.491

.094

88.5

2

Christy

Mathewson

373

188

.665

332

207

.616

.049

80.4

3

Freddie

Fitzsimmons

217

146

.598

191

181

.515

.083

76.2

4

Vic

Raschi

132

66

.667

111

98

.531

.135

74.9

5

Kirk

Rueter

130

92

.586

105

117

.473

.112

74.1

6

Bob

Lemon

207

128

.618

177

148

.545

.073

73.2

7

Don

Gullett

109

50

.686

88

71

.552

.133

71.2

8

Art

Nehf

184

120

.605

159

151

.514

.091

70.6

9

Jesse

Tannehill

197

116

.629

169

140

.547

.083

70.2

10

Whitey

Ford

236

106

.690

216

145

.597

.093

68.3

 

              I believe that all ten of those men pitched almost all of their careers for great teams.   Christy Mathewson and Whitey Ford are in the Hall of Fame and deserve to be there; they were great pitchers, and would have been great pitchers with a .500 team.   Bob Lemon. . .ehhn.   Not so sure that Lemon ought to be in Cooperstown, but we’ll get to that argument later in the series.  

              One more note about Lew Burdette.   The 17th luckiest pitcher of all time, by this method, was Tony Cloninger.   Burdette and Cloninger are linked.   Burdette had a painfully slow withdrawal from the Braves’ starting rotation.   Starting rotations were not as well organized then as they are now.   For two or three years, the aging Lew Burdette was put into the rotation and yanked out, while younger pitchers were given a chance.   Burdette was outspoken in saying that he didn’t like this, but anyway, there were several younger pitchers who were given a shot, but the most prominent of them was Tony Cloninger.   Cloninger and Burdette shared a rotation spot, really, for two years or more.   The 11th through 20th luckiest pitchers of all time:   Jack Billingham, Bob Caruthers, Bob Welch, Ramon Martinez, Sam Leever, Andy Pettitte, Tony Cloninger, Jack Sanford, Herb Pennock and Mickey Welch.   Somebody will feel compelled to post a note saying that Bob Caruthers wasn’t lucky; he had a plus record because he was a great hitter.   I don’t know whether to inoculate you against this, or just let him say it.

 

The Not So Lucky Guys

              The unluckiest pitcher of all time, by far, was Bert Blyleven.   Nobody else was close. 

              Blyleven’s bad luck, of course, was documented by many others while the Bert-Blyleven-Hall-of-Fame dispute was in progress.   In retrospect, I wish that I had done this research then; it would have had more impact.    Blyleven won 283 games with stats that, park adjusted, should have led to 335 wins.   By my calculations, these were the ten unluckiest pitchers of all time:

 

 

 

 

ACTUAL

DESERVED

 

Luck

Rank

First

Last

Won

Lost

   Pct.

Won

Lost

   Pct.

Margin

Score

1

Bert

Blyleven

287

250

.534

335

233

.590

-.056

-97.5

2

Ned

Garvin

57

97

.370

84

74

.530

-.160

-85.5

3

Buster

Brown

51

103

.331

79

85

.481

-.149

-80.3

4

Jose

DeLeon

86

119

.420

116

101

.532

-.113

-79.6

5

Milt

Gaston

97

164

.372

114

129

.470

-.098

-64.8

6

Eddie

Smith

73

113

.392

92

92

.502

-.110

-63.8

7

Bob

Friend

197

230

.461

216

196

.524

-.063

-63.8

8

Matt

Cain

101

107

.486

128

102

.558

-.072

-60.1

9

Thornton

Lee

117

124

.485

147

122

.545

-.060

-59.2

10

Jack

Russell

85

141

.376

115

122

.486

-.110

-59.1

 

              Ned Garvin, as I understand the story, was a really bad guy who was feared and hated by his teammates, which may not have been working in his favor.   Jose DeLeon, I’m sure that most of you remember, once went 2-19 although he was a near-average pitcher, should have been about 8-10.    He is sort of the Bob Weiland of the 1980s; he matured into a pitcher with better control, and had a couple of good years with the Cardinals, as Weiland did in the 1930s.   He finished 33 games under .500 although his career performance is about equal to Denny McLain, Vic Raschi or Charles Nagy.  

              Milt Gaston pitched for the Browns, Senators, White Sox and Red Sox in the American League in the years when the Yankees, Tigers, Indians and Athletics were the good teams in the league.  Eddie Smith was the subject of a well-known "bad luck" poem written by Warren Brown, part of which reads:

              Under a spreading luckless spell

              The White Sox Ed Smith works,

              The Smith, a loser now by rote,

              Knows all misfortunes quirks,

              He’s beaten by the best there is,

              He’s beaten by the jerks.

 

              A couple of years ago I published an article about Bob Friend here, and a reader argued that Friend was a tough-luck pitcher throughout his career.   At the time, I said that I didn’t know whether that was true or not.   Now we know; it was true.   Thornton Lee and Jack Russell were Milt Gaston’s teammates, or should have been.  

              The question of the hardest-luck pitchers in a season is trickier than the question of the hardest-luck pitchers in a season, because pitchers used to pitch 350, 400 innings in a season and more, and some of those old-time guys had substantial margins between expected and actual results.   But we’ll talk about it tomorrow.  

             

 

             

 

 
 

COMMENTS (16 Comments, most recent shown first)

bgorden
I'm interested in the question from a historical perspective. Earlier in baseball history, when there were more complete games, were won-lost records more indicative of a pitcher's quality than they are now?

It would seem to me that today, pitchers who routinely work 5-7 innings in place of 7-9 would be less likely, on the whole, to have accurate won-loss records, because they have less impact on the game. Certainly there are far more "no-decisions" for starters today than in the past.

Yet your research seems to show that there were plenty of lucky and unlucky old-timers too.

Has the won-lost record actually lost value over time?
9:02 PM Aug 8th
 
shthar
Good old Ned Garvin. After he was out of baseball he went on to be a Male Prostitute.
2:50 PM Aug 4th
 
wdr1946
A simple way to determine which pitchers are better or worse than their W-L, although the numbers are somewhat different from Bill James's, is as follows:
take the total number of decisions, divide by 2, the go to baseball reference, get the lifetime WAA (Wins Above Average) for that pitcher, and add the WAA to the number you get after diving by 2 to get his real wins, and subtract the same number from the same figure to get his real losses. Bert Blyleven had 537 decisions (287- 250). Divided by 2 that's 268.5. His WAA is +52.2. Add/subtract that gives his "real" W-L as 321- 216. For Lew Burdette, his WAA is -4.1 (that's right, minus 4.1), giving a real W-L of 169- 178. These figures are different from Bill James's, presumably because he is calculating this in a different way from WAA. The figures are fairly similar, however.
3:52 AM Aug 4th
 
337
And Deleon threw only 109 pitches in the 11 inning start. He threw more pitches in 17 other starts that year.
8:54 PM Aug 3rd
 
JackKeefe
I remember Jose DeLeon, and the talk about how unlucky he was versus the stuff he had, which was considerable. And yet, if there was ever a guy who pitched well enough to lose, that was DeLeon. Whenever he was in a critical jam where he couldn't afford to give up a hit, that's when he'd give up the killer hit. He could be pitching a shutout, and then his team would score a run, and he'd promptly give up two. Never have I seen a man pitch to the score like DeLeon did, only he did it backwards, making sure to be trailing when he left the game. His career W-L record is exactly what it was supposed to be, and actually told you more about the pitcher than more advanced stats which told you what his career "should" have been, but wasn't.
7:35 PM Aug 3rd
 
CharlesSaeger
Bill might have taken hitting into account; the first article in the series indicates that he might have. Having said that, I knew nothing about Ned Garvin, and likely always confused him with Ned Garver, and went to look him up, and was struck by two things:

* Wow, was this guy a whackadoo. I can't wait for his SABR bio. Pity he didn't pitch for the Giants; Garvin and Friedman would have been loads of fun for everyone not in the Giants clubhouse.
* He was a crappy hitter, hitting .122 in an era when whole pitching staffs routinely hit over .200.
7:27 PM Aug 3rd
 
chuck
I'm very surprised that Ned Garver did not make the unluckiest list. I've done a few studies on this topic and Garver and Rick Reuschel are usually near the bottom. Definitely Matt Cain showed up, as did Friend.

Friend and Lemon bring up a point. Part of their luck was run support, or lack thereof. And Lemon was most of the time a far better hitter than his opposing pitcher, and Friend often was worse. It's not a huge factor, but, say in Lemon's case:
Baseball-Reference shows him as 113 batting runs above average. He did some pinch hitting and did it well, but his PH plate appearances only account for about 9% of his total PA's. Just estimating his runs above average as a pitcher, then, he's probably closer to around 100.


Multiply those by 9 and divide by his innings (2850.33) and you get 0.32 runs per 9 better than the opposing pitcher, per 9 innings. That's a sizable chunk if one were to instead make him an average hitting pitcher and lop that 0.32 off of his ERA. Lemon and guys like Wes Ferrell, Ruth, and Early Wynn made some of their own luck by being much better hitters than their opposing starter; while hitters like Friend were in a relative hole. Ned Garver was in the former camp, and when his own good hitting is accounted for, he was even unluckier than it appears.
6:39 PM Aug 3rd
 
Zeth
Where does Orel Hershiser place on the luck spectrum? Seeing Bob Welch among the luckiest pitchers ever made me think of it, since Welch and Hershiser, who were teammates for a few years, are (or were, last I looked, probably still are) the two most statistically similar players in history who had long careers. 211-146 vs. 204-150, most of their other numbers just as similar.

Welch of course pitched most of his career for great teams (and in pitcher's parks), but Hershiser's teams were no slouch, either. Makes me curious what their respective Deserved W-L records were.
5:35 PM Aug 3rd
 
arnewcs
Jose DeLeon threw a 1-hitter over 11 innings in 1989, where he faced the minimum of 33 batters. The only baserunner he allowed came on a single. He didn't even get a decision.
5:32 PM Aug 3rd
 
Riceman1974
Surprised Walter Johnson is not on the unlucky list. He had a .599 wining % pitching for a mediocre team for the prime of his career, despite astronomical numbers even accounting for deadball context/park effect, etc. I assumed he should have won 40-50 more games than he did.
4:16 PM Aug 3rd
 
337
I can't wait for the part about the ones born out of wedlock. Terrific work, Bill.
11:37 AM Aug 3rd
 
tkoegel
Fascinating to this Giants' fan that two modern Giants' pitchers showed up on this list--and that both of them were in my mind as I started to read this series of articles (and would be in most Giants' fans minds). Matt Cain has had his last name turned into a verb--to be "Cained" is to pitch brilliantly and lost 2-1. Well, it was before the last two years. Whereas Kirk "Woody" Rueter was always viewed as fabulously lucky. The Giants' broadcast team still regularly refers to his famous good fortune, either on trips to St. Louis (I think he still lives in that area) or his occasional visit to the park out here.

Thanks, Bill, for the fabulous series . . . and it's just getting started!
10:57 AM Aug 3rd
 
KaiserD2
I could easily write as much as Bill has about this because I have given a presentation on this topic at national and local SABR meetings and it's a big part of my book Baseball Greatness. (Publication has been delayed until early next year but the book will include 2017 data.) I will try to control myself.

I do not see in this article any detailed description of how Bill tried to compile "appropriate" won-loss records for pitchers, that is, records that recognized their true ability. The basic point I make in my talk about W-L is this. Won-loss is a function of three essential factors. 1. The number of runs the pitcher's team can score. 2. The number of runs the pitcher's team allows, which is partly a function of the pitcher's ability and partly a function of the ability of the fielders behind him. 3. Luck, as defined by the actual number of runs his team scores while he is pitching, as opposed to their average number of runs scored. From this list it is obvious, I think, that the pitcher's ability is less than 50% of the determinant of his won-loss record and thus, obviously, won-loss should not be relied upon to judge pitchers' abilities.

Now I considered people like Waite Hoyt, Red Ruffing, Lefty Gomez, Whitey Ford, and Catfish Hunter to be extremely lucky because they happened to pitch nearly their whole careers with excellent teams, mostly the New York Yankees. I do not think there's any way that most of those guys would be in Cooperstown if they had pitched for average teams. (Ford and Gomez were significantly better than the others.) The more I'm looking at Bill's data, though, the less I think that he regarded pitching for a high scoring team as luck. But I can't be sure and I'd appreciate clarification on that point.

Bill and I have some major points of agreement on very lucky pitchers. Bob Lemon was one. I did find, regarding Lemon, that in addition to pitching for a high-scoring team for much of his career, his winning percentage was higher than would have been expected anyway, for reasons I couldn't explain. Ditto Whitey Ford. And Bill is so right about Burdette that it isn't even funny. Burdette was a superior pitcher in a couple of years early in his career, 1954 and 1956--not great, but superior. He was significantly below average in 1957, slightly above average in 1958, and below average in 1959. However:

1. He was pitching in County Stadium, a good pitcher's park.

2. He had Henry Aaron and Eddie Matthews and some other good players behind him.

3. He was lucky in the distribution of runs.

Another interesting thing about Burdette: he established a great reputation by winning 3 games in the 1957 World Series, including two shutouts. Anything can happen in a short series. But what goes around comes around. My favorite trivia question these days: what pitcher gave up 18 runs in a best of 7 world series? Answer: Lew Burdette, 1958. He won game 2 13-5. He gave up 7 runs in game 5. Fred Haney was still so impressed that he pitched Spahn in game 6 on two days rest, so that he could also pitch Burdette again in game 7 on 2 days rest. Burdette gave up another six runs in game 7. (Bill in his mangers' book talked about Haney overrelying on Spahn and Burdette in 1959--it started in the 1958 series.)

OK. The huge omission in Bill's list is my choice for the unluckiest pitcher of all time, Wes Ferrell. He had 5 seasons of 4 WAA or more, which ties with Newhouser for the best of his generation (Feller had 4.) But he pitched for lousy teams.

I'm looking forward to more discussions on these points. In general my conclusion is that if you want to get into the Hall of Fame, it's important to be durable and spend a lot of time on teams with great teammates. Pitching ability is less important than either of those.

David Kaiser
8:36 AM Aug 3rd
 
BobGill
I was thinking Milt Gaston might be the unluckiest, not through any real knowledge of him, but just based on the fact that he pitched for so long although his won-lost record was so bad. Glad to see he showed up near the top, anyway.
8:15 AM Aug 3rd
 
CharlesSaeger
Did anyone expect any other pitcher to be the unluckiest? When Bill put Jack Morris in the first article and didn't put Bert Blyleven in it, he was violating a fundamental rule of baseball writing intentionally, leading us to wonder where he was. (Blyleven's obit will read: "Bert is survived by his wife, his children, his grandchildren, and Jack Morris.")
7:58 AM Aug 3rd
 
steve161
"To an outsider, Stan Musial’s numbers would be numbers. To a baseball fan, they are a symphony. They are Paris."

And that is poetry.
6:50 AM Aug 3rd
 
 
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