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The Unluckiest Pitcher of All Time

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We are barely a week into the 2016 season but it’s good that one tradition never dies, which is the Mariners scoring no runs for Felix Hernandez. A day after dominating performance that led to yet another no-decision, David Schoenfeld claims King Felix is statistically the unluckiest pitcher of all time.

It was the 45th start where he allowed zero runs or one run and didn’t get credit for a win. That ties him with Zack Greinke for the most such starts among active pitchers. With years of inept offenses behind him — the Mariners have finished higher than 11th in runs scored just once in his tenure, back in 2007 when they ranked seventh — you wonder: Is Hernandez the unluckiest pitcher of all time? Those 45 winless games account for 13.4 percent of his career starts.

Greinke’s 45 games actually account for a slightly higher percentage of his career starts at 13.8 percent. King Felix, however, has pitched a little better in his games, throwing 317 innings with a 0.88 ERA compared to Greinke’s 288.2 innings and 0.90 ERA. Hernandez’s average Game Score is 72.5 versus Greinke’s 67.0.

How do those two compare to other bad-luck hurlers? Sticking to this one idea of “bad luck,” Sarah Langs of ESPN Stats & Information reports that over the past 100 years (getting us past most of the dead-ball era when 1-0 or 2-1 games were common), only six other pitchers have had more winless games when allowing one run or zero runs: Nolan Ryan, Tom Glavine, Don Sutton, Greg Maddux, Roger Clemens and Tommy John. So that’s good company, with four Hall of Famers, a would-be Hall of Famer and a guy who won 288 games.

Note that fewer losses means more bad luck, since you can’t lose if you allow no runs. Hernandez and Greinke are well ahead of the others in percentage of career starts that ended with these types of no-decisions. Note that Hernandez has the highest average Game Score — to be fair, he’s pitched in an era with more strikeouts, which is part of the Game Score formula — but notice as well that only Sutton averaged more innings per start.

That’s important because one reason starters don’t get as many wins these days is they don’t pitch as deep into games. That’s not the reason Hernandez isn’t winning, however; he’s pitching deep into games and just not getting any run support.

Argue around the edges, but Felix has consistently played on terrible teams throughout what should be a Hall of Fame career. But to Murray Chass, I guess Felix isn’t providing the proper amount of leaderocity and so better to elect Jack Morris.

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  • tsam

    Ohhhhhh, I was hoping nobody would notice that another quality start was blown by my shitty team.

    Felix has GOT to be the only pitcher who can pitch 7 shutout innings and still get a ND almost every time.

    ETA: Felix just turned 30. Corey Kluber and David Price also are turning 30. Felix has more strikeouts than BOTH OF THEM COMBINED. Heard that on the radio yesterday and had my mind utterly BLOWN.

    • It’s been a long 13 years.

      • tsam

        It sucks when you have a team that, in a game like yesterday’s, you know that extra innings will be a loss. I KNEW it. That’s not good.

        • porwin

          As an A’s fan, it is hard for me to credit this level of pessimism about the other team. Given the way the A’s performed in 1 run games last year, I think you should have been a little more optimistic :). However, when bad luck meets bad luck, I guess someone has to win…I’ll take it. Right now the A’s are on pace for 92 wins! If they win tonight that goes up to 101 games! there’ll be no stopping them…

          • advocatethis

            I’d like to think that talk in the Bay Area about the Warriors likely winning more games than the As this year gave them some motivation, but it seems morel likely that the As’ scorching 4-3 record is a blip and they will regress to the mean soon enough.

            • tsam

              More wins in half the games. That wouldn’t be embarrassing at all. On the other hand, Steph Curry.

          • tsam

            I know, but this is YEARS and YEARS with that stink of losing all over them. I’m just frustrated. There’s more talent there than what shows in their stats. (I think. Maybe I’m full of shit. I don’t know)

          • djw

            Last year, their extra innings records were similar (10-13 Mariners, 7-10 A’s) but from 2010-2014, the Mariners were 20-42 (29/30) and the A’s were 33-29 (11/30).

  • efgoldman

    OTOH, Steve Carlton had 27 wins with a really shitty Phillies team. 59-97, 6th NL East. Go figure.

    ETA: And he pitched 376 innings that year! Holy shit! That’s two+ Bucholz seasons.

    • advocatethis

      That’s one of my all-time favorite bits of trivia.

    • Hogan

      The year Carlton won his fourth Cy Young (1982?), Bill James in the Abstract looked at his stats to see whether the won-lost record (which was clearly Cy Young quality) or the ERA (which wasn’t) told the real story. He found that six of Carlton’s 23 wins came with two or fewer runs of support, and that his ERA was that high because Corrales generally wouldn’t take him out of a game even when he was behind (295 IP, 19 complete games). “So he gives up more runs when he loses. So what?”

      • John F

        Except Carlton’s ERA wasn’t high in 1982 because he stayed in games and gave up extra runs- his ERA in the 9th inning was 2.33, in the 8th 2.35, in the 7th 2.67, in the 6th 2.38

        He stayed in games when he was pitching well and that was LOWERING his ERA, his ERA was high because he tended to get hammered in the 2nd and 4th innings for some reason.

        Also looking at his 1982 game logs, he started 0-4 (didn’t remember that), he didn’t get any run support, but didn’t really matter he was pitching pretty badly too… Started pitching better, also picked up wins where he didn’t pitch well, but was definitely a Cy worthy pitcher the 2nd half.

    • skate

      Is that a typo? Baseball Reference says the most Carlton ever threw was 346 innings.

      Meanwhile, Wilbur Wood did throw 376 in 1972 and 359 the next year.

      • efgoldman

        Might be a typo. I’ve closed the tab and that’s where I got it.
        Even so, that’s STILL two+ Bucholz seasons.

      • Phil Perspective

        Not sure but top pitchers, up to Nolan Ryan and Steve Carlton, used to throw 300 innings a season with some regularity.

  • CrunchyFrog

    Reminds me of another pitcher who was world-class unlucky for a different reason. His defenses really stunk – not “make lots of errors” stunk but “older name players who moved very slowly and had very limited range” stunk.

    http://www.highheatstats.com/2013/02/beyond-era-why-rick-reuschel-had-hall-of-fame-value/#.VwwW4hMrIb0

  • EliHawk

    Counterpoint: Herb Score

  • pianomover

    Chris Bassitt! Chris Bassitt!!

  • Breadbaker

    Jack Morris was never elected to the Hall of Fame. Can you just drop that, please? It adds nothing to the argument.

    • SamInMpls

      Nah. It has only been eight years since Chass stopped writing regularly for the New York Times but he still writes stuff like this on his not-a-blog. He won’t be ignored.

  • Bill Murray

    This stat, while being technically correct, does rather minimize the fact that pitcher usage patterns have changed considerably over the years.

    Back in the day if you were pitching well, you weren’t going to get pulled with the game tied (cf. Leon Cadore v. Joe Oeschger 26 inning 1-1 tie complete games for both) like you would today.

    • advocatethis

      I remember wondering, while watching the As behind Hudson beat the Mariners behind Moyer 1-0, with both pitchers going all the way, if I’d ever see that again. I haven’t, and now I wonder if it’s happened again in the Major Leagues in the 13 seasons since then.

  • howard

    I still remember watching Felix against dice-k in early 2007 and thinking that the sox had signed a good-looking pitcher but that guy in the mariners Jersey was a Hall of famer in the making, and I’ve never doubted it since.

    • tsam

      Yeah–the radio pre game yesterday focused on his pre-30 career, and the numbers are just stunning. He’s not quite Clemons or Ryan, but the man is a friggin beast.

      • Denverite

        Pre-30 Ryan couldn’t hold Clemens’s jock. Just looking at ERA+, Ryan’s best years were 123 and 128. Clemens’s only year in his twenties below 130 was his first half season.

        Hernandez is in between the two.

        • Scott Lemieux

          Ryan also can’t hold Felix’s jock.

          • Denverite

            It’s an interesting comparison. Felix definitely had several seasons that were light years better than what pre-30 Ryan did. But he also some “down” years that would fit in with Ryan’s numbers. He’s clearly better than Ryan over the relevant ages, but not in a Clemens-esque “Clemens’s worst year in his twenties is better than Ryan’s best year” sense.

            But a lot of that is that you’re talking about the greatest pitcher in history. (I forget who it was on here that pointed out that if you squint Clemens isn’t *that* far behind Ruth in career WAR.)

            • mikeSchilling

              But a lot of that is that you’re talking about the greatest pitcher in history.

              When did we start talking about Walter Johnson?

  • Mark Field

    The word “unluckiest” can have lots of different definitions, so I wouldn’t want to say Felix is “the” unluckiest. Matt Cain has an argument on a different definition. Cain has also pitched an amazing number of games when he’s gone 7 innings or more, given up 2 runs or fewer, and had a loss or no-decision.

    • advocatethis

      When I saw the title to this post, Cain’s was the first name that came to mind for me.

      • mikeSchilling

        Me too. And IIRC, in an awful lot of Cain’s non-wins he left with a lead that was blown by the bullpen.

  • j_doc

    A vote for Matt Harvey.

    As it looked like Harvey might be headed towards another 1-0 loss yesterday, the announcers pulled up a stat to the effect that Harvey has the lowest ERA in no-decisions of any pitcher since 1900. Bref puts it at 2.04 (!).

    DeGrom, as a relatively controlled comparison, is 3.18. King Felix is 2.60. Matt Cain 2.54. Greinke 3.00. Kershaw 2.82. Would love to see that list in full. Would also love to see who has the smallest delta between ERA in wins and ERA in NDs. Harvey is probably on the leaderboard for that too (1.65 vs 2.04).

    • j_doc

      Fun in Bref… And Harvey is an unbelievable 0-14 in the 27 games the Mets have scored 2 or fewer runs, despite a 2.16 ERA in those games. How could he not win even one of those by pure chance? And of the 8 unearned runs he’s allowed in his career, 7 came in those 27 games with poor run support. He’s the Dark Cloud Knight.

  • Joe_JP

    How do other Seattle pitchers fare when they give up so little? Useful to determine how “unlucky” he is. Also, there is said to be a different mindset among the team’s batters when an ace is pitching. Also, aces often pitch against aces or against pitchers that really battle to up their game to match them. Luck or the fate of his team and role?

    • djw

      Also, aces often pitch against aces or against pitchers that really battle to up their game to match them.

      This isn’t really true at all. By the time we’re into the third week of the season, the rotations are all scrambled due to different off-days, and deviations from the every-5th-game standard have if anything decreased with increased workload consciousness. (And the various narratives about certain players having an ability to “up their game” in particular situations almost never stand up to scrutiny, although I haven’t yet seen this specific claim debunked.)

      • Joe_JP

        I have watched baseball for a while and it is “true at all” that aces tend to match up with strong competition and if not at least more often than usual a middle range pitcher ups their game. The rotations are not totally “scrambled.”

        Anyway, mixed with the other stuff, it goes to how “unlucky” he has been.

  • djw

    What’s particularly astonishing is how loyal and content he seems with the organization; he’s always had nothing by nice things to say about the organization, never seriously looked into testing free agency, and always shuts down reporters when they try to goad him into complaining about run support. I can’t imagine how that level of loyalty was generated.

    • Breadbaker

      He’s been with the organization since he was a young teenager and has been treated literally like a King. He loves the city and the fans. Why is that so astonishing?

      • djw

        Maybe astonishing is a bit strong but the vast majority of players would have either tested free agency or pressed for a trade at some point.

    • porwin

      I think I might have found the rea$on$ here.

      • djw

        His long term contract was close to his likely market value, but probably not over. Plenty of orgs could give him that.

    • tsam

      They signed him when he was 14 or 15—maybe he just feels a familial loyalty. I wouldn’t blame him for leaving, but I certainly appreciate him staying. He’s the best we’ve had since Moyer. (And quite a bit better than Moyer)

    • ColBatGuano

      If the Mariners are out of it in July, they owe him a trade to a contender.

  • Dr. Ronnie James, DO

    What terrifies me is he’s not reaching up a lot of the types of things dumb HOF voters look for: Ws, multiple Cy Youngs, and “signature” late season/ playoff moments, preferably against teams in Acela cities (sigh). It’s bad enough the best DH of all time has to hope he makes it in the “side entrance” of the Veterans Committee due to this type of BS. The M’s fan in me can easily see Felix having a few more years of this and being denied for similar garbage.

    • tsam

      I don’t think they’ll do that to Felix. They just have a stupid thing about guys who DH for a long time.

      • Dr. Ronnie James, DO

        I didn’t think they’d do that to Edgar either. Nothing against Big Papi, but I’ll be seriously pissed if he waltzes in after years of this.

  • Denverite

    It’s bad enough the best DH of all time

    Frank Thomas would like a word.

    Meant to reply above.

    • tsam

      Thomas wanta a word with Edgar, the best DH of all time?

      • Denverite

        Thomas’s OPS is 40 points higher and his OPS+ is nine points higher. He played 400 more games at DH than at 1B, so it’s hard not to consider him at that position.

        I guess you could break out what each player did while DHing from what they did while playing the field, and maybe Martinez had better numbers from that sense.

        • Dr. Ronnie James, DO

          That’s exactly right: I’m the biggest Edgar defender you’ll find, but after discussing it in way too much detail with some folks online, I can concede that Thomas was a better hitter for his career, the best RH hitter of his era (Edgar was arguably #2, though their eras don’t overlap neatly). But FWIW Thomas’ best hitting was done as a 1B.

          Also: the Mariners passed on drafting Frank Thomas.

          • tsam

            Homer J Teesam says its Edgar.

          • Bill Murray

            when he first started moving away from the field, Thomas was poor hitter (for him) when he DHed. According to his splits at baseball reference, he was about 180 points worse in OPS as a DH, and his tOPS+ split was 121/85. OTOH hand Frank still had a nearly 900 OPS as a DH, but his numbers as a first baseman were just incredible

  • Marek

    There’s a certain romance to his situation, but winning more would be better.

  • Richard Hershberger

    You can talk about “of all time” or you can exclude the first four decades of MLB history, but you can’t do both simultaneously.

  • Emily68

    Felix may be the unluckiest pitcher of all time, but for unluckiest in a single game, I think you have to go with Harvey Haddix.
    From Wikipedia:Haddix is perhaps best known for pitching 12 perfect innings in a game against the Milwaukee Braves on May 26, 1959; the Pirates lost the game in the 13th

    • Dr. Ronnie James, DO

      Andy Hawkins throwing a no-hitter and losing is another one. Brutal.

      • Breadbaker

        Both of them were hitters during the game; they had only themselves to blame. Look at some of the Mariners’ DH production during Felix’s career. It would be better to let him hit.

    • Bill Murray

      Leon Cadore and Joe Oeschger each allowed one run in 26 innings and neither got a win (or a loss). That’s two shutouts a one-run allowed game so 3 wins down the tubes

  • dp

    J.R. Richard would like to have a word with you.

  • Jordan

    gah, sign up a basketblogger! grumble grumble grumble.

  • Rob in CT

    It’s extremely frustrating to watch one’s team squander greatness. Whether it’s a great starting pitcher who gets no run support, or terrible pitching (and/or defense) undermining excellent offense.

    It’s odd that the Mariners haven’t managed to put together a good roster since the prime Ichiro! years. They’re not without resources, and the AL West isn’t that scary…

  • njorl

    I always thought it was Jose DeLeon – the only pitcher good enough and bad enough to lose 19 games twice.

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