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Twice in a lifetime

June 11, 2023
                                                     Twice in One Year


            This is the sort of stuff that I will miss having an audience to share with, once we say goodbye to one another at the end of the season.  

            What I was originally trying to do here was to answer this question:   What pitcher in baseball history faced the most formidable set of opposing starting pitchers?   And, following from that, what pitcher faced the toughest starting pitchers in 2007, let us say, or 1955, or some other year?   And, breaking down from that, if you take a given team—the San Diego Padres in 1971, let us say—which of the San Diego starters in 1971 faced the most formidable row of opposing starters?   Who faced the toughest opposing starters in his career? 

            Or go the other way:  who faced the weakest?   There must be a pitcher somewhere in history who finished 22-8 because he kept being matched up against the ass end of the other team’s starting rotation.   There must be a pitcher who is the answer to every question of that type, but we have no way of knowing who that pitcher was, because we have no method to address the issue.  Let us say that there are starting pitchers who wrestle tigers, and there are starting pitchers who wrestle bears, and there are starting pitchers who wrestle alligators, and there are starting pitchers who wrestle big dogs, and there are starting pitchers who wrestle little dogs, and there are starting pitchers who wrestle house cats, and there are starting pitchers who wrestle chickens.  

            So I decided to take that one on.  The first task we have to work on to get at those questions is to decide how to rate each opposing starting pitcher.   Now, we already have roughly 11,000 different analytic methods by which pitcher/seasons may be rated, but, fool that I am, I decided we needed another one, specifically designed for this task.   Why THIS ranking is better for that purpose than any other ranking, I probably couldn’t say, but in my head at the time, it SEEMED like it would be better.  

            As step one . . . and this is Step One toward rating the OPPOSING starting pitchers, rather than the pitchers who wrestle tigers.   Step One toward rating the opposing starting pitchers is to evaluate each START by each starting pitcher, by what we could call an Alternative Game Score.  For each start, the pitcher gets an AGS, Alternative Game Score, based on:

1)     The Game Score that I normally use,

2)     Plus his "outcome" in the game—his win or loss or whatever,

3)     Plus an adjustment for the quality of the opponent.

So it is his old Game Score, more or less, but modified a little bit so that the wins and losses and no-decisions also matter, and modified by the quality of the opposing team.  AGS, Alternative Game Score.   The highest theoretically possible Game Score is 22, with the pitcher receiving:

Up to 12 Points, if he has a Game Score of 90 or more, plus

Up to 3 Points, if his teams win the game and he is credited with the win, plus

Up to 7 points, if the team he beats has finished the season at least 40 games over .500.  


I’ll explain more later, if I reach the finish line with the study.   Anyway, 22 points in this system is a Max-Score game—a game in which the starting pitcher dominated a great team, and was credited with the win.   In my data file, 329,989 games, there are 40 Max-Score games, or a little less than one is each 8,000 games.   We’ll get to the other stuff later, but what I am writing about NOW is those 40 really impressive games.   A fair number of those are famous or sort-of famous games.  There is Sean Manea’s no-hitter against the Red Sox in 2018, one of Nolan Ryan’s no-hitters, Kerry Wood’s 20-strikeout game against the Astros in 1998, and one of Karl Spooner’s famous games in September of 1954.  Most of the pitchers who threw these games were great pitchers or at least really good pitchers, although the list is enlivened by the occasional Billy Traber or Don Ferrarese.   Among pitchers who never did it:  Sandy Koufax, Steve Carlton, Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens, Clayton Kershaw, many others.   Also, Bob Gibson did it in the World Series, which is kind of impressive.  That would be 41 except that that the World Series games aren’t in my organized data.  Koufax ALMOST did it twice in the World Series, but his Game Scores were 88 and 88, rather than 90. 

Anyway, in these 40 Max-Score games there are only two pitchers who did it multiple times.  One is Curt Schilling, who did it in 1998 and in 2003, both times against the Braves.  

And the other one, and the only pitcher ever to do it twice in one season, was Johnny Vander Meer.  

But here’s the thing:  It wasn’t his no-hitters!   His no-hitters didn’t have anything to do with it.   His no-hitters were in 1938.  His Max-Score games were in 1941, 1943 and 1943—all of them against the Cardinals.   

On opening day of the 1943 season, Vander Meer matched up against Cardinals’ ace Mort Cooper, who won the MVP Award in 1942 and would have won the Cy Young Award in 1943 had their been such an award.   Vander Meer and Cooper both threw shutouts through 10 innings; the Reds scratched out a run in the 11th inning for a 1-0 win.   On June 16, Vander Meer matched up against Howie Pollet.   The Cardinals scored an un-earned run after a leadoff error in the 4th inning of that game, but the Reds tied it in the 5th, and that game also went 11 innings, Vander Meer giving up only 5 hits and the one run, un-earned, and again earning the win. 

Vander Meer pitched more than 9 innings in a game five times in 1943, pitching great in all of those games, but eventually losing one of them.  


COMMENTS (8 Comments, most recent shown first)

Bill once vehemently told me to never tell him what to write or what not to write. Maybe he told me twice? Anyhow…

Bill, I command you to never follow up on this.

5:05 PM Jul 12th
Not sure I see why he needs to get the win to be credited with the full three points? Seems like a sort of homage to a dated form of appraisal?”

Wins have very precise information in them. It was wrong to make wins the be all and end all in measuring pitchers. It is equally wrong to toss them out. They can be useful. Especially when measuring whether a pitcher benefitted or was hurt by the opposing starter. That is a wins based study if there ever was one.
5:25 PM Jun 12th
One word, Bill....Substack.
1:39 PM Jun 12th
These are the studies that we will miss reading and thinking about when BJOL ends. I hope one of your next books is a collection of them--30 Studies by Bill James.

12:26 PM Jun 12th
Can't wait to see the results! I'm guessing some of the most dense collections of tough opponents might be by the best pitchers on bad teams who had half of their starts against contending teams? - say, Joe Horlen or Gary Peters on the the 1968 White Sox or Al Jackson or Roger Craig on the 1962-64 Mets or maybe John Means on the 2021 Orioles? We'll see....
11:48 AM Jun 12th
Side issue of sorts, but to me the biggest thing here:
One of the things I love about your work, and which I think (not sure, but I think it's so) ...which I think is unique to you, among all the major purveyors in your field, is that you are always open to creating a new way to identify something for a specific question.... actually not just open to it but that you insist on it, even at the expense of considerable additional work. You look openly and creatively to what can be done, to optimally assess a given thing, what it seems needs to be done. If the 11,000 existing ways don't seem great, you'll develop a new way, even if this is the only thing you'll be using it for and you'll need to come up with yet another way for whatever next somewhat similar thing you might look at.

I apologize in advance if I'm being mistaken and unfair to any of your colleagues/competitors, either in the above or in what I'm going to say next.

You talked in the previous article about how sabermetrics isn't about statistics but about looking for approaches to questions and answers. (I hope that's a fair paraphrase.) My general impression about the approaches besides yours (I know I'm asking for trouble here) is that they're long on the statistics and short on the constant creative thought, that they tend to focus too narrowly on manipulation of numbers and not enough on what's really going on and what's really behind those numbers and even more importantly on what isn't.

I guess that's the main thing I'll miss about not having this site.
But since you're not quitting what you're doing, just that it won't be here, I know we'll keep getting it -- and I look forward to however you might be doing it.
2:51 AM Jun 12th
Not sure I see why he needs to get the win to be credited with the full three points? Seems like a sort of homage to a dated form of appraisal?
10:30 PM Jun 11th
Late that season, JVM started two games on two days' rest and pitched four-hit shutouts in both.
9:09 PM Jun 11th
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