Friday, September 26, 2008

Unearned Runs

This should come as no surprise, but baseball defense was terrible in the first half-century of the game. Given that many players didn't use baseball gloves until the 1890's and the ones used for many years after that didn't have the familiar web between the thumb and forefinger. Looking at some of the gloves pictured here gives a little perspective into why error totals were so staggeringly high in the early part of the game.

You can find error records by position at The most recent such record was set in 1929 when Roy Johnson of the Tigers committed 31 errors in the outfield. Using the Historical Stats feature at, it's possible to figure out that Johnson was an outlier among outfielders (the runner up in errors committed by an outfielder that season was Russ Scarritt with 19), but he wasn't the only guy with a bunch of errors. In fact, his teammate Heinie Schuble committed 46 errors in 86 games at shortstop that year. Joe Cronin led the league with 62 errors.

To give another idea of how bad fielding was, I've put the record for errors at each position into a table, along with each player's games played at that position in that season and their fielding percentage. I've only listed the AL & NL records, just to keep things simpler:

PositionLeagueNameYearGamesErrorsFielding %
PitcherALRube Waddell
Ed Walsh
NLJim Whitney18816628.808
CatcherALOscar Stanage191114141.952
NLNat Hicks18764594.741
1st BaseALJerry Freeman190815441.975
NLCap Anson188411258.956
2nd BaseALKid Gleason190113564.925
NLPop Smith18808389.855
3rd BaseALSammy Strang190213764.890
NLCharlie Hickman190012086.842
ShortstopALJohn Gochnauer190313498.869
NLJoe Sullivan1893128102.860
OutfieldALRoy Johnson192914631.928
NLFred Clarke189513249.881

I know Sullivan committed more errors, but I think Gochnauer's mark is pretty amazing. The only player close to him in 1903 was Rudy Hulswitt of the Phillies with 81 errors. The only American Leaguer besides Gochnauer to reach even 80 errors in a season during the first decade of AL play was New York shortstop Neal Ball in 1908 (he had exactly 80). Gochnauer was maybe even worse with a bat in his hands: he hit .185 in 1902 and 1903. His career batting line wound up at .187/.258/.240 in 1030 PA, good for a 46 the early 1900's! His career wasn't completely forgotten, however: over a century after his last major league game, he was talked about in Congress.

Anyway, the point isn't to laugh at Mr. Gochnauer's historic ineptitude at short, it's that errors were commonplace back in the early days of baseball. Since errors were so common, so too were unearned runs. After all, most unearned runs come about because of errors. That's how you can get years with a league average of four runs per game but a league ERA of under 3.00. One example of that is the 1888 National League. The league average was 4.54 runs per game, but the league ERA was 2.83. When you hear of great pitchers from long ago with miniscule ERA's, chances are they gave up a ton of unearned runs. For example, Cy Young gave up 1020 unearned runs in his long career. Christy Mathewson gave up nearly 500. Addie Joss gave up 241 unearned runs in 286 career games.

This certainly doesn't take anything away from those guys. After all, the playing field was even and everyone had to deal with abysmal defense so putting up a tiny ERA is still impressive. It does explain how an era with such dominant pitching wasn't completely overrun by 1-0, 2-1, or other low-scoring games. Runs were still scored, though not as much as today, but many of them were unearned.

Using the total runs scored and ERA of each league from 1876 through 2007, it's possible to estimate the number of earned and unearned runs. It's not perfect since the ERA rounded to only two decimal places leaves a lot of leeway over, say, 30000 innings, but it's close. I did that and then made a chart showing the percentage of runs scored that were unearned (UER%) over that span. As expected, the percentage has decreased over time:

(click to enlarge in new window)

As you can see, over 60% of runs scored in the National League's first year were unearned. From year-to-year it occasionally bounced back up but overall the percentage fell as better gloves were introduced, rules were changed, managing philosophies developed, and official scorers became more professional. You can even sort of make out the end of the "dead-ball" era when more runs were scored via home runs which are likely to be earned runs. The little hump in the middle of the graph is World War II when teams filled their rosters with guys that wouldn't have been picked for the majors a few years before. Following the end of WWII, the UER% dipped back down to pre-war levels. It rose slightly in the 50's and 60's but has been declining pretty consistently since the mid-1970's. In the past couple seasons, fewer than 8% of all major league runs scored have been unearned.

I started looking all this up after realizing Cy Young had allowed more than one thousand unearned runs. I was curious about who else was high on the list of the most unearned runs allowed. Obviously, it was guys who pitched a lot back in the early days of baseball. Since most people (including myself) aren't hip to the pitching stars of the 1880's, I've made a separate list of pitchers who debuted in 1900 or after.

Most Career Unearned Runs Allowed
Debuted Before 1900

RankNameCareer SpanIPER
1Pud Galvin1879-18925941.118951423
Mickey Welch1880-18924802.014471109
Cy Young1890-19117354.221471020
Tim Keefe1880-18935047.21472996
Tony Mullane1881-18944531.11537986
John Clarkson1882-18944536.11417959
Will White1877-18863542.2896948
Jim McCormick1878-18874275.21155940
Charley Radbourn1881-18914535.11348927
10Gus Weyhing1887-19014324.11867921

Most Career Unearned Runs Allowed
Debuted in 1900 or After

RankNameCareer SpanIPERUER
1Christy Mathewson1900-19164780.21133483
George Mullin1902-19153686.21156480
Walter Johnson1907-19275914.21424478
Eppa Rixey1912-19334494.21572414
Burleigh Grimes1916-19344180.21638410
Jack Quinn1909-19333920.11433402
Eddie Plank1901-19174495.21174395
Red Faber1914-19334086.21430383
Tom Hughes1900-19132644.0909382
10Red Ames1903-19193198.0934377

There's perhaps a few more recognizable names on the second list. They're all still early-century pitchers, which prompts a question about where more recent pitchers fall. Three long-time hurlers that pitched as recently as the 1980's show up in the top 35 of the list of pitchers to debut since 1900. See if you can think of who they might be while looking at the list of the active career leaders in unearned runs allowed. Through last night's game, fifteen players who have pitched in 2008 have allowed more than 100 unearned runs over their career. There's still a few games left, but the only guy on the list who has a good shot to change his position is Jeff Suppan, pitching tonight for the Brewers.

Most Career Unearned Runs Allowed
Active Players (through 9/25/08)
  1. Greg Maddux, 225
  2. Randy Johnson, 186
  3. Tim Wakefield, 177
  4. Kenny Rogers, 171
  5. Tom Glavine, 166
  6. Jamie Moyer, 138
  7. Andy Pettitte, 128
  8. Derek Lowe, 116
  9. Jon Lieber, 115
  10. Steve Trachsel, 108
  11. John Smoltz, 107
  12. Jeff Suppan, 107
  13. Julian Tavarez, 104
  14. Mike Mussina, 103
  15. Miguel Batista, 100
Paul Byrd sits at 98, but he hasn't allowed an unearned run since being traded to Boston. Livan Hernandez has allowed 95 unearned runs but hasn't allowed any since being signed by Colorado. One guy to keep an eye on both as this year ends and for the future is durable lefty Mark Buehrle. He's allowed 96 unearned runs by the age of 30. If he stays healthy and has the right kind of defense behind him, he could reach 200.

Finally, to answer the question I posed above: the three guys who pitched into the 1980's while finishing in the top 35 were Phil Niekro (325 UER - #16), Jim Kaat (300 UER - #23), and Gaylord Perry (282 UER - #34). If you got all three, have an iron glove. In case you're wondering, Greg Maddux's 225 UER allowed puts him at #70 on the list, tied with Charlie Hough.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

At Least He's Remembered, Right?

One hundred years ago today, the New York Giants, Pittsburgh Pirates, and Chicago Cubs were locked in a tight pennant race. The Giants had started the year slowly, falling 6 1/2 games back by mid-June. With the front-running Cubs coming to the Polo Grounds, it seemed as if the Giants were on the cusp of falling out of the race. After dropping the first game of the four-game series, the New York nine rallied to win the final three and pulled within 3 1/2 games of the league lead. From there they began a slow but steady ascent back toward the top of the standings. Meanwhile, Chicago and Pittsburgh continued to battle it out.

The Giants took over first place in late August by taking four games from the Pirates in Pittsburgh. Up 3 1/2 games over both the Pirates and Cubs, the Giants set out for Chicago to try and bury the competition. Instead, Chicago swept them in three games to trim the lead to one half game with a month left to play. From that point on, however, all three teams were on fire. After being swept in Chicago, the Giants won 17 of 18 games. The Cubs won 18 of 24 games to stay in the race. Pittsburgh even got in on the act by taking 18 of 25. By the time the Cubs and Giants were set to play four games at New York's Polo Grounds on September 22, New York was ahead by two games in the standings.

That doesn't tell the whole story, however. The Giants had played six fewer games than the Cubs and actually had one fewer win, along with five fewer losses. Meanwhile, the pesky Pirates were hanging in there, three games (actually six losses) behind the Giants. The Cubs took both games of the series-opening doubleheader on September 22, tying them for the league lead. Coming into play on September 23, the top of the NL standings looked like this:

New York 87 50 .635 --
Chicago 90 53 .629 --
Pittsburgh 88 54 .620 1 1/2

The stage was set for one of the most controversial plays in baseball history. Giants ace Christy Mathewson and Cubs lefty Jack Pfiester had an old-fashioned pitcher's duel going through eight innings. After Mathewson blanked the Cubs in the top of the ninth, the Giants offense mustered up a rally that should've sent them back into sole possesion of first place. With two outs, Moose McCormick stood on first base. Striding to the plate was the youngest player in the league, Fred Merkle. Only nineteen years old, Merkle had started in place of regular Giants first baseman Fred Tenney. Despite his youth and inexperience and the pressure of a pennant race, Merkle singled to put runners on the corners for shortstop Al Bridwell. What happened next has gone down in baseball lore as "Merkle's Boner." There are a few details that change in different versions of the story, but I've tried to stick to the basics.

Bridwell singled, bringing Moose McCormick in from third base. As he touched home plate, jubilant Giants fans started to pour out of the bleachers and onto the field to celebrate the victory. Not wishing to get caught up in a sea of rowdy rooters, Merkle understandably headed for the center field clubhouse without touching second base. Alert Cubs second baseman Johnny Evers noticed Merkle's gaffe and tried to find the game ball. Successfully procuring a baseball*, Evers got the attention of umpire Hank O'Day and stepped on second base. O'Day correctly called Merkle out and ruled that McCormick's run didn't count since the force out ended the inning. With thousands of Giants fans on the field and players strewn about between the dugouts, the field, and the clubhouse, the game was called a tie and postponed.

Giants players and manager John McGraw were (not surprisingly) livid after the game. Their "victory," the now-tied game, was rescheduled after the season if it was still needed. Hoping to avoid playing it, the Giants calmed down enough to win the next day's game. All three teams atop the standings kept close to one another for the next couple weeks, with a three-way tie for first existing as late as October 1.

The Pirates were first to finish their season, ending up with a respectable 98-56 record after October 4th. The Cubs were a half game ahead, at 98-55, with only the make-up game against the Giants to play. Meanwhile, the Giants were 1 1/2 games behind Chicago with three games against the lowly Boston Braves. Needing a sweep to keep their pennant hopes alive, the Giants delivered, tying the Cubs for first place before the make-up game. Had Merkle simply touched second base weeks before and had the season played out the same way, the Giants would have already won the pennant.

Still claiming they shouldn't have to play for something they'd already won, Giants players resignedly took the field at the Polo Grounds on October 8. They had momentum on their side, having just won three in a row. However, the Cubs were well-rested, having not played since the 4th. The rested club won out, as the Cubs edged the Giants by a score of 4-2 to capture the NL pennant. With the Giants' championship hopes dashed, fans didn't have to go far to find a scapegoat for their team's failure. Merkle's Boner has lived on for a century, inspiring ballplayers to know the rules of the game, causing countless numbers of young baseball fans to snicker, and ensuring Fred Merkle's name is remembered in baseball history.

Will anything like Merkle's Boner happen in any baseball game tonight? It's unlikely. For one thing, fans are no longer allowed to swarm the field after a victory, so players really have no need (or excuse) to avoid touching the proper bases on walk-off hits. However, with New York's current NL team hosting the Cubs in the midst of a race for the playoffs, you can't totally ignore the possibility of some crazy play and another unfortunate player going down in baseball history.

*Evers may or may not have wound up with the actual game ball. Some say Evers himself grabbed the ball from the outfield, some say the ball was thrown from the Cubs dugout, and others say the actual game ball was thrown into the crowd and Evers used a different ball to record the out. One account claims it wasn't even Evers who touched second base, saying it was Frank Chance who made the appeal.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Twenty-One Unique Saves

Ugh. Serious Blogger issues tonight, so if anything funky happens, that's probably why.

As I mentioned in my last post, during the early years of the save rule, it was possible for pitchers to be awarded a save without finishing the game for their team. I was actually incorrect in saying this was only possible during the 1973 and 1974 seasons. It turns out that players could get saves without being their team's finishing pitcher from 1969 to 1974. Here's how.

The original save rule said a reliever could pick up a save if he entered with a lead and maintained the lead until the game was over or (and this is what I skimmed over in my other post) he was replaced by a pinch hitter or pinch runner. If two or more pitchers qualified for a save, it was up to the official scorer to award the save to the pitcher judged most effective. So that's the original loophole allowing some pitchers to pick up these weird kinds of saves.

There was a change to the original save rule before the 1974 season (this isn't what I implied in my last post; see below). For that season, pitchers could be awarded saves if they fell under at least one of two conditions:
(1) He had to enter the game with either the potential tying or winning run either on base or at the plate and preserve the lead; or
(2) He had to pitch at least three or more effective innings and preserve the lead.
Since neither condition required the pitcher actually finish the game, saves still could be awarded to relievers who were replaced before the game was over. Like the original rule, it was up to the official scorer to decide between multiple qualified pitchers.

It turns out that twenty-one saves were awarded between 1969 and 1974 to pitchers that weren't the finishing pitcher in their team's victory. From first to last by date, here are those saves:
  1. April 29, 1970 - Angels 3, Yankees 2 - Paul Doyle kicked things off with a scoreless two inning appearance. He gave up a hit while striking out two before Jay Johnstone pinch hit for him in the top of the ninth. Ken Tatum gave up a run in the bottom of the ninth, but the Angels hung on for the win and Doyle's fourth save of the year.
  2. April 23, 1971 - Royals 5, Indians 2 - Tom Burgmeier picked up the save for entering the game with a 3-2 lead and one out in the eighth inning. He retired the next two batters before being replaced by a pinch-hitter during the Royals' half of the eighth. Kansas City scored two runs that inning and Ted Abernathy pitched a scoreless ninth to finish the game.
  3. September 6, 1971 - Pirates 10, Cubs 5 - Bob Moose was awarded a save for pitching three innings in relief of starter Luke Walker. He gave up two runs (one earned) while striking out two and allowing a single and a home run. He was pinch hit for in the bottom of the eighth and Ramon Hernandez recorded the final three outs of the game.
  4. May 18, 1972 - Cubs 6, Cardinals 4 - Entering with a 4-2 lead, Cubs righty Tom Phoebus pitched two scoreless innings, allowing one hit and one walk before Art Shamsky pinch hit for him in the top of the ninth. Dan McGinn gave up two runs in a rough ninth inning before the Cardinals finally ran out of outs.
  5. September 30, 1972 - Athletics 10, Royals 5 - It's just not a saves list without Rollie Fingers somewhere. The mustachioed reliever entered with a 6-4 lead and one out in the bottom of the sixth inning. He allowed an inherited runner to score, but ended the inning with a 6-5 lead. Leading off the next inning, he singled (making him 6 for 19 on the year) and later came around to score. He set down the Royals in order in the bottom of the seventh. Don Mincher pinch hit for Fingers in the eighth and Dave Hamilton finished up the Athletics victory.
  6. May 9, 1973 - Dodgers 8, Pirates 5 - George Culver came in the game with a 6-5 lead after Dodgers starter Claude Osteen gave up 13 hits in 6 1/3 innings. Culver recorded five outs around a single and a walk before Steve Garvey pinch-hit for him. Jim Brewers pitched the final inning for the Dodgers.
  7. August 11, 1973 - Braves 9, Pirates 3 - Lefthander Tom House allowed only one hit in the 7th and 8th innings before the Braves exploded for five runs in the top of the ninth. Carl Morton retired the Pirates in order in the bottom of the inning.
  8. May 6, 1974 - Padres 7, Phillies 6 - The Padres roughed up reigning Cy Young Award winner Steve Carlton, but when the Phillies rallied to make it 5-4 in the 7th, Rich Troedson was summoned from the San Diego bullpen to preserve the lead. He set down two Phillies to end the inning and was pulled for a pinch-hitter. Vicente Romo toiled the final two innings to finish the victory.
  9. May 7, 1974 - Cubs 3, Braves 2 - Steve Stone threw eight scoreless innings but hit a wall in the ninth inning. Horacio Pina came on in relief with runners on first and second, no one out, and a 3-0 lead. The first batter he faced reached on an error, allowing a run to score and the runner on first to go to third. A sacrifice fly followed. A walk followed to put the go-ahead run at the plate, but Marty Perez struck out. Jim Kremmel came in and got a groundout to short to end the game. Despite the rocky outing, Pina was awarded the save.
  10. May 10, 1974 - Athletics 4, Twins 2 - The third weird save of the week belongs to Darold Knowles. The lefty came in with runners on first and second and no one out. He struck a batter out, allowed a walk and a sacrifice fly and then induced a grounder to third to finish the inning. Rollie Fingers closed it out with a scoreless ninth, missing out on what would've been a save the next season.
  11. May 26, 1974 - Yankees 7, Orioles 5 - With a 7-3 lead after five innings, Cecil Upshaw came on in relief for the Yankees. He didn't allow a hit in three innings but issued three walks and hit a batter. Two of those baserunners scored in the ninth inning, but Upshaw had been pulled in favor of Sparky Lyle by then.
  12. June 9, 1974 - Indians 8, Royals 6 - Indians starter Steve Kline (no relation to the more recent lefthander) allowed four runs over five innings and left a 6-4 lead to reliever Fred Beene. Beene allowed two unearned runs on three hits over three innings to pick up the save. Milt Wilcox pitched the ninth for the Indians.
  13. June 26, 1974 - Indians 3, Yankees 2 - Taking over with one out in the sixth and a slim 3-1 lead, Tom Hilgendorf allowed an inherited runner to score on a single and kept Yankees bats down for 3 1/3 innings. Tom Buskey entered the game with two out in the ninth and retired Lou Piniella to finish the victory.
  14. July 6, 1974 - Brewers 3, Twins 0 - With runners on the corners and two out in the sixth, Eduardo Rodriguez entered the game and retired Bobby Darwin to end the inning. He then allowed only one hit over the next two innings. Tom Murphy set the Twins down in order in the ninth.
  15. July 21, 1974 - Athletics 6, Indians 3 - This is maybe the best one of these saves. At least it's one that people who enjoy faulting official scorers' decisions will enjoy. With the tying run at the plate and two out in the bottom of the seventh, Paul Lindblad came on in relief and got a groundout to second base. Rollie Fingers replaced Lindblad on the mound for the final two innings and allowed one hit. The official scorer deemed Lindblad's work the most effective of the night, however.
  16. August 4, 1974 - Royals 3, Angels 0 - Taking the mound with a 2-0 lead and runners on the corners, Joe Hoerner stranded both guys and pitched another inning to boot. Hoerner retired all five batters he faced, striking out one. Doug Bird pitched the ninth inning.
  17. August 18, 1974 - Athletics 13, Tigers 3 - Rollie Fingers shows up again! Trailing 4-3 with one out in the eighth, the Tigers were threatening with runners on the corners. The A's called Rollie Fingers out of the pen and he promptly induced a double play ball. The A's exploded for nine runs in the bottom of the eighth and Dave Hamilton came on to close out the ten-run victory.
  18. August 19, 1974 - Braves 11, Cardinals 6 - Max Leon entered in the fifth inning with a 6-5 lead and tightroped through three innings, giving up five hits while striking out one and allowing one run. Tom House pitched the final two innings for the victory but was ineligible for the save since he didn't enter with the tying run on base or at bat.
  19. August 24, 1974 - Cubs 2, Giants 1 - This game between two second division teams was bookended by scoring. Plating two in the top of the first, the Cubs held the Giants scoreless until the bottom of the ninth. Both teams managed to use ten pitchers in the contest. Burt Hooton pitched 2 2/3 innings for the Cubs while only issuing two walks. One of those walks was to Dave Kingman to start the bottom of the ninth. Kingman came around to score the Giants' only run after Hooton was removed from the game. Despite being responsible for the only Giants run, Hooton was awarded the save.
  20. August 30, 1974 - Athletics 10, Tigers 5 - Though he may have been robbed of a save in the August 18 game listed above, Blue Moon Odom picked up the save twelve days later. He allowed one run in 2 1/3 innings of relief on two hits and two strikeouts. Despite Darold Knowles doing his best to blow the game, the Athletics held on for the win and Odom picked up the first and only save of his career.
  21. September 29, 1974 - Athletics 3, White Sox 2 - Nearly a month after struggling against the Tigers, Darold Knowles shut down the White Sox for three innings. He allowed an inherited runner to score and then allowed another run to score the next inning, giving him a final line of three hits, two strikeouts, and one earned run (the inherited runner was changed to winning pitcher Dave Hamilton). Luckily for Knowles, the A's scored a run in between those innings and he never blew the lead. He was pulled with one out in the ninth in favor of Rollie Fingers and holds the obscure trivia distinction of being the final pitcher to record a save without finishing the game. He and Fingers are also the only two pitchers in major league history to record more than one save as a pitcher who didn't finish the game for his team.
And now, another mea culpa (kids, make sure your information is correct before posting!). At first I thought the save rule was changed before the 1973 season, but the fact that so many of these saves are in 1974 made me wonder if that was in fact the only season covered by the changed save rule. I would've expected to see the bulk of these odd saves split between 1973 and 1974 if both years had the same rule. suggests the rule was changed before the 1974 season, so that probably is the case. Sorry for the confusion. If you know for sure either way, let me know. Regardless, these twenty-one games are unique in baseball history.

You might notice that of these twenty-one saves, thirteen of them took place in games between American League teams. It's easy to think something strange was going on the AL, but if you look closely, six of those twelve were accounted for by the Athletics alone. Take them out of it and the saves are split pretty evenly between the leagues. Count this as another way Charlie O's Athletics were different from other major league teams.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Somebody Save Me

MLB Rule 10.19:
A save is a statistic credited to a relief pitcher, as set forth in this Rule 10.19.

The official scorer shall credit a pitcher with a save when such pitcher meets all four
of the following conditions:

(a) He is the finishing pitcher in a game won by his team;
(b) He is not the winning pitcher;
(c) He is credited with at least 1/3 of an inning pitched; and
(d) He satisfies one of the following conditions:
(1) He enters the game with a lead of no more than three runs and pitches for at
least one inning;
(2) He enters the game, regardless of the count, with the potential tying run either
on base, or at bat or on deck (that is, the potential tying run is either already on
base or is one of the first two batters he faces); or
(3) He pitches for at least three innings.

In 1969, a lobbying effort by Chicago Sun-Times sportswriter Jerome Holtzman succeeded in getting Major League Baseball to accept the save as a new baseball statistic for relief pitchers. The original save rule was somewhat different than the current rule shown above. The 1969 save rule said any reliever who entered the game with a lead and held that lead until the end of the game was credited with a save. This allowed relievers to come in at the start of an inning with a four or more run lead, finish the game, and pick up a save--something impossible today. For example, Ron Perranoski of the Twins picked up a save on May 16, 1970 in a game against the Brewers for throwing a scoreless ninth inning with an 11-7 lead. He would not have picked up a save for the same outing today.

So, when did the rule change? Why, only a few years after the save rule was first adopted. In 1973, the save rule was changed so that the official scorer of a game could only award saves to a reliever under one of two conditions:

(1) He had to enter the game with either the potential tying or winning run either on base or at the plate and preserve the lead; or
(2) He had to pitch at least three or more effective innings and preserve the lead.

(EDIT: This rule apparently took effect for only the 1974 season, not 1973 and 1974 as implied below. See here for more.)

As you might have noticed, neither condition specified a pitcher had to finish the game to pick up a save. If two or more pitchers qualified for a save, it was up to the official scorer to decide which reliever pitched most effectively and award the save to that pitcher. A good example of a save being issued at the official scorer's discretion to a pitcher who didn't finish the game is the September 29, 1974 game between the White Sox and A's. In that game, A's lefty Darold Knowles entered with one out in the sixth inning and a 2-1 lead. He went on finish the sixth, allowing the A's to score another run behind him, before throwing 2 1/3 more innings, giving way to Rollie Fingers in the ninth inning with a 3-2 lead and one out. Fingers retired the final two batters the game in order and would have picked up a save under today's rules. Unfortunately for him, however, both he and Knowles qualified for the save and the official scorer decided Knowles' one run and three hits allowed in three innings was more effective than Fingers' two batters faced. There were sixteen saves in 1973 and 1974 awarded to pitchers who didn't finish the game for their team (hey, that sounds like an idea for another post...).

I only looked at 1973 and 1974 for those types of saves because Major League Baseball once again changed the save rule for the 1975 season. Before that season, the save rule was changed to the version present in the rule book today except for one word. Currently, a reliever who enters a game with a lead (no matter how large) and pitches the final three (or more) innings automatically gets credited with a save. That's a recent change, because the save rule used to read that a pitcher had to pitch effectively for three innings. I recall a bit of a ruckus caused when Dodgers releiver Jae Seo was not given a save after allowing four runs in four innings of relief in a 10-4 Dodgers victory on June 23, 2006. I'm not sure when exactly baseball took "effectively" out of the rule, but I'd imagine it has something to do with that game. Now, if only they'd resolve some other ambiguities...but that's an issue for another day.

If you haven't already guessed, this post was prompted by Francisco Rodriguez notching his 57th save of the season last night in Anaheim. That ties Bobby Thigpen's 18-year-old record for saves in a single season. With that in mind, I want to look at the players who've held the single season saves record since 1969. There's obviously more to say about some of these guys then I've put here, but I'll let others supply the full biographies.
  • Ron Perranoski (31 saves for the 1969 Twins) - I know the Baseball-Reference saves leaderboard says Jack Aker held the record for most saves in a season at this point, but he did that in 1966 and his saves were awarded after the fact using today's rules. Perranoski, on the other hand, pitched under the original save rule. Granted, it allowed him to pick up saves he would not have been credited with today (a quick rundown of his 1969 gamelog made six such saves jump out at me), but when the save was brand new and people were figuring it out using only the original rule, it makes him the original saves king. A lefthanded reliever for the Dodgers and Twins for a decade before the save rule was implemented, Perranoski saved 65 games in 1969 and 1970 combined before losing his effectiveness and limping through three more seasons.

  • Wayne Granger (35 saves for the 1970 Reds) - The first right-handed saves king, Granger edged out Perranoski (who had 34) for the major league saves lead in 1970, establishing a new single-season record in the process. Relief roles back then weren't as specialized as they are today, or Granger might have had a lot more saves: teammate Clay Carroll picked up 16 saves during the 1970 season. Interestingly, after being the top saves-getter for the Reds, Granger was pushed into the background as Clay Carroll moved ahead of him in the bullpen. He was eventually sent to Minnesota and saved some games there, but never again had more than 19 in a season.

  • Clay Carroll (37 saves for the 1972 Reds) - After Granger was sent to the Twins, Carroll and Pedro Borbon became pretty much the guys in the Cincinnati bullpen. Borbon picked up his share of saves in '72 (11 to be exact), but Carroll was most often called upon to lock the game down. After a shaky start to the 1973 season, Carroll was moved to the starting rotation for a brief interval before heading back out to the bullpen, but he didn't pick up many saves from there on out. That isn't to say he wasn't a great reliever: he finished his career with a shiny 2.94 ERA in 1353 1/3 innings. Relievers were just used differently back then.

  • John Hiller (38 saves for the 1973 Tigers) - The save rule was changed before the 1973 season, making it a bit tougher for relievers to pick up saves. That didn't stop Hiller, however. The veteran lefty dominated the American League that season, putting up a 1.44 ERA with 124 strikeouts in 125 1/3 innings en route to his 38 saves. The next season, Hiller became a true relief ace, not being put in the game specifically to get saves, but just to hold the other team. Without starting a game in 1974, Hiller went 17-14 in 59 appearances for a team that went 72-90. Combined with his 13 saves, Hiller picked up a win, save, or loss in 44 of his 59 games pitched. There's a good example of an ace reliever used whenever the team needed outs! Like the other guys on the list, Hiller's top saves season was an aberration, as he never topped 15 in any other season.

  • Dan Quisenberry (45 saves for the 1983 Royals) - Hiller's mark stood for a decade, but relief roles were changing and certain pitchers were beginning to be used more for save situations than as catch-all, hold-the-other-team-in-whatever-inning guys. There were designated closers on teams and if a save situation came up, they'd be called upon. Baseball was still quite a way away from today's one inning closers, however. Case in point: submariner Quisenberry picked up his 45 saves in 1983 while averaging two innings per appearance. In one three-game series against the Twins, Quisenberry picked up three saves by pitching three innings the first night, two innings the second night, and one inning on the third. Plenty of people have argued about how much tougher closers twenty years ago were and I don't want to get into all of that, but it's tough imagining any reliever (much less a closer) throwing six innings over three days here in 2008. Quisenberry is the first saves king to have high totals for more than a couple seasons: he topped 30 saves in a year five times in his career.

  • Bruce Sutter (45 saves for the 1984 Cardinals) - Another of the top closers from the early 80's, Sutter tied Quisenberry's mark the year after it was set. One of the first (if not the first) pitchers to use the split-fingered fastball, Sutter was a dominant closer over the course of his career. His 300 career saves were an NL record when he retired and he's still the only pitcher to lead the NL in saves five times. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2006.

  • Dave Righetti (46 saves for the 1986 Yankees) - The Yankees lefty toppled Quisenberry and Sutter from the saves throne after only a couple seasons. Righetti began his career as a starter, but was moved to the bullpen for the 1984 season. He quickly found a niche as the Yankees closer, recording 223 saves in the role over the next seven seasons. None topped 1986, when Righetti saved 46 of the Yankees' 90 wins. Interestingly, following a blown save on July 1, Righetti was 17 of 26 in converting save opportunities. He turned it on from that point forward, though, converting 29 of 30 down the stretch. After signing a free agent deal with the Giants before the 1991 season, Righetti had one good season in San Francisco before the deal backfired. An attempt to resurrect his career as a starter for the 1995 White Sox didn't work out and his career was over. He finished with 252 career saves.

  • Bobby Thigpen (57 saves for the 1990 White sox) - Maybe it's just me, but Bobby Thigpen doesn't usually come to mind when thinking of top closers. A relatively short career, the early part of which was spent on some bad White Sox teams, doomed him to be relatively forgotten in the top closers discussion. Instead, he's pretty much the answer to a saves trivia question, and one more save from Francisco Rodriguez will take that away from him. After saving 34 games in 1988 and 1989 for teams that won 71 and 69 games, respectively, Thigpen's save total exploded in 1990 when the White Sox starting winning again. Switching from a good reliever to an unhittable one, Thigpen racked up 57 saves with a 1.83 ERA in the 1990 season. At least he'll always have the fact he was the first to record 50 saves in a single season. He followed up the 1990 season by saving 30 games for the '91 White Sox and 22 for the '92 team. He wasn't as dominant, however, and by the end of 1992 he had lost the closer's role to first Scott Radinsky and then Roberto Hernandez. He was traded to the Phillies in 1993 and pitched in the postseason for the first time that year, but his MLB career was pretty much done. A disastrous start to the 1994 season in Seattle led to his release after a month and he finished his baseball playing days in Japan.

  • Francisco Rodriguez (57 saves and counting for the 2008 Angels) - Rodriguez burst onto the scene at the end of the 2002 season. A 20-year-old September call-up added to the postseason roster by virtue of an obscure roster loophole (now informally known as the K-Rod clause), he won five playoff games, helping lead the Angels to their first World Series championship. Following that dramatic performance, Rodriguez set up Angels' All-Star closer Troy Percival for two seasons before being handed the keys to the role. Since taking over as the Angels' closer, he's recorded at least forty saves each season and has already passed 200 career saves at the age of 26. With just one more save this season, he'll take sole possession of the single-season saves record and, as a free agent following the season, he just might set a record for the largest deal ever given to a relief pitcher as well.
EDIT (9/13): Francisco Rodriguez picked up his 58th save of the season, giving him sole possession of the single-season saves record.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Double or Nothing?

File this under "Quirky." Through 29 starts this season, Detroit Tigers lefthander Kenny Rogers has been involved in eleven double plays. That's more than he's ever had in one season. His previous high was 7 in 2005, one of the five years in which he won a Gold Glove.

It's not unheard of for a pitcher to reach double digits in double plays. Rogers is the fifth pitcher since 2001 to have 10 or more in a season. The other four were Kirk Rueter (11, 2001), Javier Vazquez (10, 2001), Livan Hernandez (10, 2004), and Jon Garland (10, 2006). Those numbers aren't league records, but Rueter came close: the AL record is 15 by Bob Lemon in 1953 and the NL record is 12, shared between Curt Davis in 1934 and Randy Jones in 1976. You can find more pitcher double play records here. Even with a few starts to go, I doubt an ailing Rogers will get the four double plays necessary to tie the AL record.

It's kind of strange to look at the rest of the 2008 leaderboard for double plays by pitchers. CC Sabathia and Edwin Jackson are tied for second...with five. Granted there's still a few starts left for those guys, but it's weird to see such a gap between the leader and second place. The last time there was any real gap between first and second place was 2004, when Brandon Webb finished three double plays behind Livan Hernandez.

So how is Kenny Rogers getting involved in all these double plays? Curiously, looking at Rogers' THT page tells us that his ground ball percentage has actually dropped from the past couple seasons. However, looking at the play-by-play of each game in which Rogers has a DP tells us that ten of the eleven are ground ball double plays (the other was a liner back to the mound and a toss to first). So maybe he's just been lucky in that more of the ground balls he's induced have come back to him in double play situations.

The other four pitchers with ten double plays in a season since 2001 also were out of line with their career numbers. Kirk Rueter had 11 in '01 but never more than six in any other season. The closest Javier Vazquez has come to reaching double digits again is six (he has one this year). Jon Garland's 10 in 2006 was way out there, as he's never been over four in any other year (he has three this season). Durable veteran Livan Hernandez has reached seven twice in addition to his 10 in 2004 (none this year). I guess Rogers' high double play total is also probably attributable to luck more than anything else.

If nothing else, there's a reason to watch Rogers' final starts of 2008. He just might find himself in more double play situations and get closer to the AL record.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Weird Batting Line...On Consecutive Nights

This comes via today's "Frosty Mug" on Brew Crew Ball which in turn gives a hat tip to the Pirates blog "Where have you gone, Andy Van Slyke?"

The post that started this chain noted that Rajai Davis was inserted into Oakland's Friday night game as a pinch-runner, subsequently scored, and later in the same inning hit a grand slam. The post looks at his batting line:
That gave him this awesome line for the night:

Davis, PR-DH 1 2 1 4 0 0 0 .247

That's 1/1 with two runs scored, four RBIs, no walks and no strikeouts. That's just not something you see every day.
You don't see that often, that's for sure. In fact, before Friday, only one player since 1956 had scored two runs while hitting a grand slam in his own plate appearance. That player? None other than Brewers outfielder Darrin Jackson on July 28, 1998. After replacing Dave Nilsson on the bases and scoring in the top of the 8th inning, Jackson hit a go-ahead grand slam in the top of the ninth.

So, yes, Davis was only the second player in over fifty seasons to have a batting line like that, but that fact alone doesn't make this notable. What's really amazing is that the very next night a different player managed to put up the exact same line! In the eighth inning of Saturday's Cubs-Reds game, Cincinnati's Jolbert Cabrera pinch-ran for Edwin Encarnacion. He wound up scoring before the inning ended. In the ninth inning, he came up with the bases loaded and hit a grand slam off Carlos Marmol in his only plate appearance of the game.

So, after going 50+ seasons with only one such batting line in a game, MLB saw two players do it on consecutive nights. Baseball's a crazy game sometimes.

Friday, September 5, 2008

The Best Kind of Productive Out

Q: What do Jake Peavy, Dan Haren, Jorge de la Rosa, Todd Wellemeyer, Eric Stults, and Garrett Olson have in common?

A: They're the only six pitchers to hit a sacrifice fly in 2008.

Yes, a pitcher plating a runner via sacrifice fly is a rare occurrence. Simply because precise conditions have to be met to make a sacrifice fly a possibility (runner on third, less than two outs), sacrifice flies by any player aren't all that common. Of the 161,908 MLB plate appearances through September 4, only 9,190 of them took place with a runner on third and less than two out. Of those plate appearances, 1,167 resulted in a sacrifice fly. So when conditions are right, a sacrifice fly results an eighth of the time. Overall, that's one out of every 139 plate appearances.

Pitchers have a tougher time hitting sacrifice flies because, well, they aren't paid to hit in the first place and managers are more willing to call for the squeeze, figuring their pitchers won't get a hit. To hit a sac fly, you have to a) make contact with the ball and b) drive it to the outfield. The first requirement is a major hang-up for many pitchers. You can tell that just by looking at strikeout totals. So, if a sacrifice fly results in one out of every eight plate appearances with a runner on third and less than two out for all major leaguers, how much less often does it happen for pitchers?

It turns out that pitchers have come up to bat 262 times with a runner on third and less than two outs. There were thirty-eight sacrifice bunts in those times up, so pitchers really had 224 opportunities for a sacrifice fly. Six in 224 is pretty close to one every 37 plate appearances, or about 4.5 times less often than all other hitters.

Those are all 2008 numbers. It turns out that it's sort of a down year for pitchers and sacrifice flies. Pitchers were responsible for a dozen sac flies both in 2006 and in 2007. In 2005, they had 16. In 2004, they had 19. In fact, I know there's still a month to play this year, but pitchers haven't had fewer than 10 SF in a full season since 1991, when there was no interleague play and the National League had four fewer teams than it does today. Regardless, pitchers hitting sacrifice flies is still pretty uncommon.

So now that I've rambled on and on about how uncommon it is to see a pitcher hit a sacrifice fly this season, what pitchers have the most career sac flies and who are the active career leaders? Note that sacrifice flies have only been recorded since 1954.

Most Career SF by a Pitcher, 1954-2008
  • Bob Gibson, 18
  • Warren Spahn, 14
  • Steve Carlton, 13
  • Phil Niekro, 12
  • Johnny Podres, 11
  • Woody Williams, 10
    Juan Pizarro, 10
  • Bob Knepper, 9
    Claude Osteen, 9
    Dick Hall, 9 (EDIT 10/3/08: Done as outfielder, not pitcher)
  • Joe Nuxhall, 8
    Jack Harshman, 8
  • Fergie Jenkins, 7
    Jim Kaat, 7
    Juan Marichal, 7
    Gary Peters, 7
    Mudcat Grant, 7
    Vern Law, 7
Most Career SF by an Active Pitcher
  • Randy Wolf, 5
  • Mike Hampton, 4
  • Tom Glavine, 3
    Livan Hernandez, 3
    Pedro Martinez, 3
  • Shawn Estes, 2
    Jeff Francis, 2
    Cole Hamels, 2
    Jason Isringhausen, 2
    Jon Lieber, 2
    Derek Lowe, 2
    Greg Maddux, 2
    Mark Mulder, 2
    Chan Ho Park, 2
    Jake Peavy, 2
    Oliver Perez, 2
    Javier Vazquez, 2
    Carlos Zambrano, 2
Obviously, some of those active players are in a good position to move quite a ways up the list in the future. Other guys, like Jason Isringhausen and Chan Ho Park, not so much.

Final note: Garrett Olson's sacrifice fly this year made him one of only four American League pitchers to hit a sac fly since interleague play started in 1997. The others are Chad Durbin (DET in 2007), Jaret Wright (NYY in 2006), and Mark Mulder (OAK in 2003).

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Major League Debuts as a Starting Pitcher

Hey, look at that, it's been a week again since I last posted. Oops. During the past week, major league active rosters expanded from a limit of 25 to a limit of 40. There are a few different general types of September call-ups: major league veterans who have spent the season at AAA, fringe major league players who get called up to give the big club more flexibility in games, guys who have no business being on a major league roster except for being great at one of the five tools (usually speed), or young prospects.

In the first three days of September, twenty-two call-ups made their major league debuts. Take a gander at the list:
  • Matt Antonelli, 2B, SDP
  • Wilkin Castillo, C, CIN
  • Phil Coke, LHP, NYY
  • Luis Cruz, SS, PIT
  • Alcides Escobar, SS, MIL
  • Dexter Fowler, CF, COL
  • Mat Gamel, 3B, MIL
  • Greg Golson, CF, PHI
  • Mike Hinckley, LHP, WSN
  • Wade LeBlanc, LHP, SDP
  • Casey McGehee, 3B, CHC
  • Jim Miller, RHP, BAL
  • Jason Motte, RHP, STL
  • Brad Nelson, 1B, MIL
  • Jonathon Niese, LHP, NYM
  • Josh Outman, LHP, OAK
  • Jason Pridie, CF, MIN
  • Rich Rundles, LHP, CLE
  • Angel Salome, C, MIL
  • Justin Thomas, LHP, SEA
  • Luis Valbuena, 2B, SEA
  • Josh Whitesell, 1B, ARI
I think Outman is a good last name for a pitcher. Anyway, as minor league playoffs end and a second, smaller wave of call-ups makes it to the big leagues, this list will grow a little more. I really want to focus on two debutants, though: Wade LeBlanc and Jonathon Niese. Those two recently became part of a large group that's still rather small in the grand scheme of baseball history. I'm talking about pitchers making their major league debut by starting a game.

Since 1956, 4439 different players have pitched in a major league game. Of those, 1270 (28.6%) debuted as a starting pitcher. So far in 2008, thirty-four different pitchers have made their debut as a starter. Usually, unless the pitcher in question is a mega-prospect known around baseball, fans of a team going up against one of these rookie pitchers figure the guy should get roughed up in his first start. After all, the thinking goes, he might have pitched well in AAA or AA, but he's in the majors.

It turns out that guys making their debut do tend to get roughed up more than the average pitcher making a start. This makes sense when you consider the guys who get called up, get shelled, and get sent back to the minors shortly after. This is also probably most of the reason why fans figure almost any debuting pitcher should get lit up on the mound.

I've put together a chart showing the combined ERA of all starters making their debut in a given season against the ERA of all major league starters in that season.

(click image to enlarge in a new window)

Unsurprisingly, most of the time the rookies allow more earned runs. Interestingly, however, there are a few seasons where they actually had a lower ERA than the average starter. The most recent time that happened was in 2005 when guys like Paul Maholm, Kyle Davies, Dustin McGowan, and J.P. Howell had great debuts. Sure there were clunkers, too, like Sean Henn and Ervin Santana's first games, but they were more than balanced by good games that year.

The prior season was the worst since 1956 for debuting starters. Thirty-four starters combined to put up an awful 7.68 ERA and an abysmal .990 OPS against. There were eleven starts with a game score of 30 or below, including one of -7 (belonging to Arnie Munoz). Ten guys couldn't even get through the fourth inning. It wasn't all bad: Chris Saenz, Daniel Cabrera, and Tyler Yates (great combo) each went six scoreless while Scott Kazmir, Chris Young, and Zack Greinke, among others, performed capably. All in all, however, it wasn't a great year for the newbies.

For fun, I decided to look at the numbers since 1998, the final round of expansion. In the past almost eleven seasons, 387 different pitchers have made their debut as a starter. In their debuts, they combined for the following pitching line:
1991.7 IP, 2093 H, 1265 R, 1175 ER, 934 BB, 1368 K, 309 HR, Average Game Score: 46

In the more familiar rate stats, that all turns out to be:
5.31 ERA, 1.52 WHIP, 6.18 K/9, 4.22 BB/9, 1.40 HR/9, .271/.354/.464 opponent batting line

It turns out there are a couple individual pitchers who put up similar numbers during the period between 1998 and 2008. The closest comparisons to all the rookies mashed together are these two:
  • Rocky Biddle, 378.2 IP between 2000 and 2004:
    5.47 ERA, 1.53 WHIP, 6.20 K/9, 4.04 BB/9, 1.40 HR/9, .274/.357/.462
  • Victor Santos, 602.1 IP between 2001 and 2007:
    5.21 ERA, 1.58 WHIP, 6.35 K/9, 4.17 BB/9, 1.29 HR/9, .284/.362/.467
Rocky Biddle is spot on. Besides Biddle and Santos, Jason Hammel and Paul Rigdon are also kind of close, Allen Levrault was a few strikeouts away from the group, and if you toss out Bill Pulsipher's first season, he's in the mix, too. Or, if you're a normal baseball fan: one current fringe guy, two forgotten guys and an ex-top prospect join the three listed above.

If you're curious about the actual year-to-year numbers or just want to see how your favorite starter(s) debuted, check out the Google spreadsheet I made listing all 1270 debuts as a starting pitcher since 1956.

EDIT: Of course, I post this and James Parr of the Braves debuts the next night with six scoreless innings against the Nationals. The Nats countered with rookie Shairon Martis, who went five innings while allowing two runs.