Monday, October 13, 2014

Best and Worst MLB Starting Pitching 2014: A Smorgasbord of Leaders, Rankings & Crazy Data

The 2,430 games on this year’s MLB schedule required the work of 291 starting pitchers, 130 of whom threw their team’s first pitch at least 20 times. Over a hundred (104, to be exact) initiated at least 25 contests, while 68 took the proverbial bump in 30+ games. (Thirty-one guys drew but one starting assignment, nine of them coming in the season’s waning days, four times for playoff teams.)

There were 19 pitchers who made starts for multiple teams, the Cubs, A’s (perhaps to their detriment) and Red Sox the main movers and shakers. The Rangers and Rockies trotted out 15 guys apiece, heading a list of nine teams using a dozen or more starting pitchers. On the other end of the spectrum, the Orioles and Brewers made do with just seven. The Cardinals, Giants and Braves used the season’s final days to join a group of seven teams that utilized a total of eight starters (which was the highest frequency for this set of data – the average was 9.7 starters per team).

Double Doubles

On July 11, the Phillies’ A. J. Burnett became the first pitcher this season to start ten games that his team ultimately won and ten games they ended up losing. Curiously, he did it in his 20th start, an oddity that befell 24 other MLB starting pitchers in 2014. Even more curiously, eight pitchers – all National Leaguers – split 30 starts equally between wins and losses. Most curiously of all, the Dodgers’ Dan Haren, the Cubs’ Travis Wood and the Mets’ Jon Niese experienced this perfectly even distribution after both 20 and 30 starts. The epitome of a .500 pitcher, huh – though it’s got to be tougher to do for the Cubs or Mets than in Tinseltown. (We’ll come back to that last idea shortly.)

In all, a total of 102 starting pitchers reached double figures in both team wins and team losses, with names from the obscure (like Miami’s Jarred Cosart or Tampa Bay’s Jake Odorizzi), to the emerging (like Cleveland’s Corey Kluber or Washington’s Tanner Roark), all the way to the audacious (like “Big Game” James Shields of KC or the Tigers’ Justin Verlander, both of whom joined the club in June.)

The 100th guy (and fourth Baltimore Oriole) to qualify for this “distinction” was inducted during the final weekend of the regular season. This player, Chris Tillman, also led MLB in three categories: he was one of ten pitchers to log 34 starts for the season; he tied with the Tigers’ Max Scherzer at 24 team victories; and he tops the heap alone at 15 No-Decision starts.


Tillman headed a list of 19 starting pitchers who accumulated a dozen or more ND’s this season. Four of that number – Shields, Oakland’s Jeff Samardzija, the D’backs’ Wade Miley and 2013’s leader with 17, Jose Quintana of the White Sox – had been shackled with a dozen or more decision-less starts in 2013 as well.

15 ND’s: Tillman

14 ND’s: Vidal Nuno (NYY/Ariz)

13 ND’s: Miley, Samartdzija, Chris Archer (Tampa Bay), Trevor Bauer (Cleveland), Nathan Eovaldi (Miami), Yovani Gallardo (Milwaukee), Felix Hernandez (Seattle), Jordan Zimmerman (Washington)

12 ND’s: Quintana, Shields, Cole Hamels (Philadelphia), Tom Koehler (Miami),Hiroki  Kuroda (NY Yankees), Francisco Liriano (Pittsburgh), Shelby Miller (St. Louis), Jake Peavy (Bos/SF)

On the team front, 11 pitching staffs required a relief pitcher to earn a decision in 50 or more games, led by Pittsburgh’s 58 games and Cleveland’s 57. The Indians led the majors with 35 bullpen victories, nosing out those Pirates. The Giant, Angel and Marlin bullpens also reached the 30-win plateau. (Cincinnati’s mere 11 bullpen wins and 32 losses, an MLB worst on both fronts, symbolized a disappointing season.)

Perhaps we should not be so quick to relegate the work of relief pitchers to second-class status – overall, MLB bullpens posted a 724-713 record in 2014. That’s 29.6 percent of all regular-season pitching decisions.

Wins and Losses

Three MLB pitchers, all National Leaguers, earned “20-Game Winner” status this year. The Dodgers’ incomparable Clayton Kershaw forged a 21-3 record, while Cincinnati’s Johnny Cueto and Cardinal ace Adam Wainwright each finished 20-9 on the season. An additional 14 players started at least 20 games that were ultimately won by their teams.

24 team-wins: Scherzer, Tillman

23 team-wins: Kershaw, Wainwright, Zimmerman

22 team-wins: Cueto, Kluber, Hernandez, Jered Weaver (LA Angels)

21 team-wins: Shields, Mark Buehrle (Toronto), Scott Kazmir (Oakland)

20 team-wins: Henderson Alvarez (Miami), Madison Bumgarner (SF), Phil Hughes (Minnesota), Jon Lester (Bos/Oak), David Price (TB/Det)

Tillman and Wainwright were also on this list last season, Zimmerman the last three seasons, while Scherzer and Shields earned this distinction for a fourth consecutive season.

On the flip-side, Burnett (8-18) topped Baseball in losing decisions, one of nine pitchers who accumulated 20 team losses.

23 team-losses: Eovaldi

22 team-losses: Burnett, Samardzija

21 team-losses: Nuno, Mike Leake (Cincinnati)

20 team-losses: Gallardo, Quintana, Brandon McCarthy (Ariz/NYY), Eric Stults (SD)

Samardzija is the lone “repeat offender” among this group.

Steady Work

Simple arithmetic (whether performed by mind, pencil or gadget) computes 162 regular season games divided by five spots in a pitching rotation as 34.2 games per rotation spot. So let’s consider 34 starting assignments to be full-time work. By this criterion, MLB had 48 “full-timers” in 2014.

The late-season swoon of the Oakland A’s is either further mystified or better understood (I’m not sure which) when we recognize that they ended the year with four full-timers in their rotation – though two had been obtained in mid-season swaps. Five staffs – Toronto, Detroit, Washington, Cincinnati and San Francisco – can claim three. This group of teams accounts for nearly half the playoff field.

Another five – Boston, Houston, Texas, Pittsburgh and the Cubs – were like the fourth little piggy and had none. (The Red Sox did trade away two, however.) But one playoff team to be found in this bunch, it might be noted.

Of these 48 pitchers with perfect attendance, the performance of six would seem to qualify them as modern day Iron Men – guys who show up every day and stay late. They are among a group of only nine pitchers who worked at least seven innings in a minimum of 60 percent of their starts. Take a bow, David Price (26 out of 34, 77%); Adam Wainwright (24 out of 32, 75%); King Felix (24-34, 71%); Johnny Cueto (23 out of 34, 68%); the ubiquitous Mr. Samardzija (21 out of 33, 64%); and Corey Kluber (21 out of 34, 62%). Also, please stand and be recognized, Brother Kershaw (22 out of 27, 82%); Cole Hamels of Philadelphia (22 out of 30, 73%); and the Angels’ Garrett Richards (17 out of 26, 65%).

Across the board, MLB pitchers delivered a “Long Start” (7+ innings) 1,520 times this season, nearly a third (31.3 percent) of all starting assignments. Seven teams, led by the Reds with 70,exceeded 60 LS’s; four squads, the Rockies (22), Rangers (36), Yankees (39) and division-winning Orioles (40), pitched “long” in less than 25 percent of their outings.

Nowadays, a Complete Game rendered by a starting pitcher occurs about as often as a successful execution of the hidden ball trick. Not surprisingly, Kershaw (once again) tops this chart with six CG’s, a total that exceeds that of 23 teams. Wainwright and Houston youngster Dallas Keuchel each went the distance on five occasions. The leading teams in this area with a mere eight were – no, not Kershaw’s Dodgers, but the competitors in this year’s NLDS, Wainwright’s Cards and the Giants.

For the third consecutive season, the overall frequency of CG’s fell, down to 118 this time around – the second-fewest, like, EVER.

The McGinnity Measure

Cousin Horatio and I have conjured up a calculation designed quantify a combination of a starting pitcher’s endurance and his overall effectiveness in terms of wins and losses. (A discussion of the “theory” behind this concept is available here.) The formula uses CG’s and LS’s along with game outcomes on both an individual and team basis. The math yields a per-start rating that is similar in appearance and range to a slugging percentage. (A small percentage of the “scores” – 11 of 130 – were negative, that is, less than zero.)

Among American League pitchers with at least 25 starts, the three guys that best emulated Joe “Iron Man” McGinnity were Felix Hernandez, David Price and Corey Kluber, who each graded out at 1.970. The AL Top Ten is rounded out by Scherzer (1.939), Lester (1.844), Keuchel (1.724), Chris Sale of the White Sox (1.692), Hughes (1.687), Shields (1.529) and Seattle's Hisashi Iwakuma (1.500).

The true Iron Men, like McGinnity himself, represent the Senior Circuit, however, Kershaw yet again the top dog at a whopping 3.645. Three other could have been AL-best – Wainwright (2.594), Cueto (2.205) or Washington's Doug Fister (2.040). The rest of the elite: Bumgarner (1.727), Zimmerman (1.594), Alvarez (1.567), Hamels (1.466), Atlanta’s Julio Teheran (1.454) and Jake Arrieta of the Cubs (1.360).

(At my age, it’s nice to see an old war-horse like the Mets’ Bartolo Colon, at 1.323, scoring in the upper echelon by these standards.)

Most Valuable Starting Pitcher

This final little measuring stick is designed to evaluate a starting pitcher’s contribution to his team’s overall performance. Does not, for example, Niese’s afore-mentioned 50/50 split for a lousy team outshine the same performance from Haren for a top-tier squad?

At the risk of a little shameless self-promotion, I’ll point out that this “metric” (explained below*) has correctly identified four of the six Cy Young winners over the last three seasons. Essentially, the numerical value is the difference between the player’s showing and the team’s – a .500 pitcher scores +100 for a .400 team, but scores -100 for a .600 team. (A score for all 20-game starters can be seen here.)

Here are the Top Tens (again, minimum 25 starts):

AL   --   NL

Sale (213)  --  Kershaw (284)

Scherzer (199)  --   Cueto (200)

Hughes (188)  --  Arrieta (183)

Lester (170)  --  Josh Collmenter, Az (172)

Keuchel (147)  --  Alvarez (170)

Hernandez (144)  --  Jorge De La Rosa, Col (155)

Richards (143)  --  Wainwright (149)

Kluber (132)  --  Cosart (137)

Collin McHugh, Hou (103)  --  Zimmerman (135)

Tillman (102)  --  Fister (131)

The 2014 Cy Young Goes To …

Post-season strife notwithstanding, Kershaw’s selection is a no-brainer.

But the American side lacks not for candidates – Scherzer again, Price redux, Kluber for a change? Has Sale been valuable enough? Do all Tillman’s wins put him in the discussion?

Kluber’s strong close – five winning decisions in a row, all LS’s, one a CG – for a still-contending team may well have put him over the top.

*Abacus Starting Pitcher Index

We'll identify the pitcher's won-loss record in his starts (decisions from relief appearances not allowed), as well as the team's record in all his starts (including No-Decisions).  Simply take the average of these two percentages; then just subtract the team's final winning percentage.

Example A:  33 starts -- player (16-7, .696), team (21-12, .636); team overall (85-77, .525).  So, the equation becomes: [(696 + 636) / 2] - 525 = 666 - 525 = +141.

Example B: 32 starts -- player (10-14, .417), team (15-17, .469); team overall (76-86, .469).  The calculation this time: {(417 + 469) / 2} - 469 = 443 - 469 = -33.