Friday, March 24, 2017

Career run support for starting pitchers

For the little study I did last post, I used Retrosheet data to compile run support stats for every starting pitcher in recent history (specifically, pitchers whose starts all came in 1950 or later).

Comparing every pitcher to his teammates, and totalling up everything for a career ...the biggest "hard luck" starter, in terms of total runs, is Greg Maddux. In Maddux's 740 starts, his offense scored 238 fewer runs than they did for his teammates those same seasons. That's a shortfall of 0.32 runs per game.

Here's the top six:

Runs   GS   R/GS  
-238  740  -0.32  Greg Maddux
-199  773  -0.26  Nolan Ryan
-192  707  -0.27  Roger Clemens
-168  430  -0.39  A.J. Burnett
-167  690  -0.24  Gaylord Perry
-164  393  -0.42  Steve Rogers

Three four of the top five are in the Hall of Fame. You might expect that to be the case, since, to accumulate a big deficiency in run support, you have to pitch a lot of games ... and guys who pitch a lot of games tend to be good. But, on the flip side, the "good luck" starters, whose teams scored more for them than for their teammates, aren't nearly as good:

Runs   GS   R/GS  
+238  364  +0.65  Vern Law
+188  458  +0.41  Mike Torrez
+170  254  +0.67  Bryn Smith
+151  297  +0.51  Ramon Martinez
+147  355  +0.41  Mike Krukow
+143  682  +0.21  Tom Glavine

The only explanation for the difference, that I can think of, is that to have a long career despite bad run support, you have to be a REALLY good pitcher. To have the same length career, with good run support, you can just be PRETTY good.

But, that assumes that teams pay a lot of attention to W-L record, which would be the biggest statistical reflection of run support. And, we're only talking about a difference of around half a run per game. 

Another possibility: pitchers who are the ace of the staff usually start on opening day, where they face the other team's ace. So, that game, against a star pitcher, they get below-average support. Maybe, because of the way rotations work, they face better pitchers more often, and that's what accounts for the difference. Did Bill James study this once?

In any event, just taking the opening day game .. if those games are one run below average for the team, and Nolan Ryan got 20 of those starts, there's 20 of his 199 runs right there.


UPDATE: see the comments for suggestions from Tango and GuyM.  The biggest one: GuyM points out that good pitchers lead to more leads, which means fewer bottom-of-the-ninth runs when they pitch at home.  Back of the envelope estimate: suppose a great pitcher means the team goes 24-8 in his starts, instead of 16-16.  That's 8 extra wins, which is 4 extra wins at home, which is 2 runs over a season, which is 30 runs over 15 good seasons like that.

Here are the career highs and lows on a per-game basis, minimum 100 starts:

Runs   GS   R/GS  
- 85  106  -0.80  Ryan Franklin
- 94  134  -0.70  Shawn Chacon
-135  203  -0.66  Ron Kline
- 72  116  -0.62  Shelby Miller
-154  249  -0.62  Denny Lemaster
- 68  115  -0.59  Trevor Wilson

Runs   GS   R/GS  
+127  164  +0.77  Bill Krueger
+ 82  108  +0.76  Rob Bell
+ 89  118  +0.76  Jeff Ballard
+ 81  110  +0.73  Mike Minor
+170  254  +0.67  Bryn Smith
+106  161  +0.66  Jake Arrieta
+238  364  +0.65  Vern Law

These look fairly random to me.


Here's what happens if we go down to a minimum of 10 starts:

Runs   GS   R/GS  
- 29   12  -2.40  Angel Moreno
- 30   13  -2.29  Jim Converse
- 23   11  -2.25  Mike Walker
- 20   11  -1.86  Tony Mounce
- 25   14  -1.81  John Gabler

Runs   GS   R/GS  
+ 32   11  +2.91  J.D. Durbin
+ 43   17  +2.56  John Strohmayer
+ 58   25  +2.30  Colin Rea
+ 61   28  +2.16  Bob Wickman
+ 23   11  +2.33  John Rauch


It seems weird that, for instance, Bob Wickman would get such good run support in as many as 28 starts, his team scoring more than two extra runs a game for him. But, with 2,169 pitchers in the list, you're going to get these kinds of things happening just randomly.

The SD of team runs in a game is around 3. Over 36 starts, the SD of average support is 3 divided by the square root of 36, which works out to 0.5. Over Wickman's 28 starts, it's 0.57. So, Wickman was about 3.8 SDs from zero.

But that's not quite right ... the support his teammates got is a random variable, too. Accounting for that, I get that Wickman was 3.7 SDs from zero. Not that big a deal, but still worth correcting for.

I'll call that "3.7" figure the "Z-score."  Here are the top and bottom career Z-scores, minimum 72 starts:

    Z   GS   R/GS  
-3.06   72  -1.16  Kevin Gausman
-2.94  203  -0.66  Ron Kline
-2.89  249  -0.62  Denny Lemaster
-2.57  134  -0.70  Shawn Chacon
-2.57  740  -0.32  Greg Maddux

    Z   GS   R/GS  
+3.79  364  +0.65  Vern Law
+3.24  254  +0.67  Bryn Smith
+3.16  164  +0.77  Bill Krueger
+3.12   93  +1.02  Roy Smith
+2.73  247  +0.56  Tony Cloninger

The SD of the overall Z-scores is 1.045, pretty close to the 1.000 we'd expect if everything were just random. But, that still leaves enough room that something else could be going on.


I chose a cutoff 72 starts to include Kevin Gausman, who is still active. Last year, the Orioles starter went 9-12 despite an ERA of only 3.61. 

Not only is Gausman the highest Z-score of pitchers with 72 starts, he's also the highest Z-score of pitchers with as few as 10 starts!

Of the forty-two starters more extreme than Gausman's support shortfall of 1.16 runs per game, none of them have more than 41 starts. 

Gausman is a historical outlier, in terms of poor run support -- the hardluckest starting pitcher ever.


I've posted the full spreadsheet at my website, here.

UPDATE, 3/31: New spreadsheet (Excel format), updated to account for innings of run support, to correct any the bottom-of-the-ninth issues (as per GuyM's suggestion).  Actually, both methods are in separate tabs.

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At Friday, March 24, 2017 11:40:00 PM, Anonymous Tangotiger said...

A bad hitting pitcher is worth around -.05 runs per PA relative to other pitchers, and a good hitting one is +.05 runs per PA. Give them 3 PA, and that's a range of +/- .15 runs per game. You should check into that.

At Saturday, March 25, 2017 2:54:00 AM, Blogger Phil Birnbaum said...

Good point, thanks. GuyM also emailed me that good pitchers stay in the game longer, which means more pitcher PA and therefore fewer runs.

More significantly, Guy pointed out that good pitchers lead to more wins, which means they lead to more home wins, which means less bottom-of-the-ninths in those games. That's a big one.

At Saturday, March 25, 2017 12:31:00 PM, Anonymous GuyM said...

I would guess that part of Maddux's low run support is that he hated pitching to Javy Lopez. Lopez only caught 421 of Maddux's career innings, compared to 1,652 of Glavine's. Lopez was a vastly better hitter than whoever the Braves' backup was in any given year, so that must have cut into Maddux's run support. (And the reverse would be true for Glavine and other ATL starters in these years, to a lesser extent.)

I don't know how common it is for a starter to have a catcher pairing pattern so different from that of the other pitchers on his team, but when it happens the impact could be substantial. Lopez was a 112 OPS+ hitter, while the average backup catcher is probably about 35 points lower. So that could explain maybe .17 runs for each extra game that Maddux did not throw to Lopez.

At Saturday, March 25, 2017 3:16:00 PM, Blogger Phil Birnbaum said...

GuyM, that's a good one. Who are the other well-known "personal catchers", and do the support numbers also tend to go the expected direction?

At Saturday, March 25, 2017 3:50:00 PM, Anonymous GuyM said...

Doing a quick search, personal catchers seem to be fairly common for knuckleballers, which makes sense.
Bob Uecker and Chris Bando for Phil Niekro.
Doug Mirabelli for Tim Wakefield.
Josh Thole for R.A. Dickey.

B-Ref also mentions that from 1976 to 1979, Tim McCarver started 128 of Steve Carlton's 140 starts.

It probably only accounts for a small amount of your variance, but made a difference for a few outliers.

At Thursday, April 27, 2017 2:25:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

4 of the top 6 are in the HOF?? Neither Clemens or Burnett are in.

At Thursday, April 27, 2017 2:28:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually, 3 of the top 6....

At Thursday, April 27, 2017 2:36:00 PM, Blogger Phil Birnbaum said...

Oops! Thanks, will fix.

At Saturday, September 25, 2021 6:31:00 PM, Blogger Staff Writer said...

"relative to teammates" is a little questionable. I mean Nolan Ryan didn't have run support with the Angels or the Astros at all and they weren't great hitting teams for any of their pitchers.

I suspect if you did runs score by their team in their own games started, you'd see a pretty good trend as it's pretty hard to get a win if your team doesn't score.

At Monday, March 28, 2022 2:01:00 PM, Blogger Retrotisserie Baseball said...

I just found this analysis. Great work, Phil! I did a little research recently into the Maddux and his run support, and how that probably cost him the 1998 Cy Young. What I determined is that while Maddux tended to prefer other, less offensively potent, catchers to Javy Lopez while with Atlanta, that isn't a clear explanation for the lack of run support.

Javy Lopez was Maddux's primary catcher in 1994 and 1996, and Maddux received .7 and .85 fewer runs per game, respectively, than the team averaged.

In 1999, the only year during Maddux's tenure that he received better than average support, Eddie Perez was his catcher.

Further, for 1998, Lopez averaged about .27 runs produced (RBI+runs-HR) per plate appearance, while Perez averaged .26. So their contribution while in the lineup was very similar.

At Tuesday, August 22, 2023 10:32:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I thought Nolan Ryan had a personal catcher whilst with the Rangers. Name eludes me though.

At Wednesday, August 30, 2023 7:00:00 PM, Blogger Quimby said...

Phil, did you do run support as in total runs scored by the team in the games that the starter started OR actual runs scored per 9 IP while the starter was in the game?

On another note, in response to the staff writer, who said.:
"relative to teammates" is a little questionable. I mean Nolan Ryan didn't have run support with the Angels or the Astros at all and they weren't great hitting teams for any of their pitchers.

I suspect if you did runs score by their team in their own games started, you'd see a pretty good trend as it's pretty hard to get a win if your team doesn't score.
Yeah, he very often still wasn't even clearly the best starter on his own team.:

1974-79 Angels
Tanana: 89-64, 2.92 ERA
Ryan: 98-89, 3.25 ERA

1980-85 Astros
J. Niekro: 86-71, 3.18 ERA
Ryan: 74-59, 3.09 ERA

... not to mention Niekro clearly outpitched Ryan during the 1980-81 playoffs.
Ryan: 11 earned runs in 28 innings
Niekro: 0 earned runs in 18 innings.

Any other excuses for Nolan?

At Wednesday, August 30, 2023 7:12:00 PM, Blogger Phil Birnbaum said...

It's been a while since I did this, but I'm pretty sure it was runs scored in the entire game for all pitchers, not pro-rated for just the innings the starter lasted.


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