(UPDATE 5/16/14: Some numbers through nine starts at the end of this post. ADDED 5/21/14 And I’ve updated his numbers through ten starts in this post.)
I’m aware of this only because Jeff Samardzija is on my National League fantasy team this year, and our head-to-head league has wins as a category and not quality starts. Samardzija has started eight games so far this season, through May 10, with seven quality starts…and no wins. His 1.45 ERA and 1.05 WHIP are helping me plenty, but despite those fabulous numbers he has no wins.
And that makes him the unluckiest pitcher to start a season in major league history.
At least that’s the case going back to 1914. To determine that, I use Baseball-Reference.com’s Play Index feature, which accesses stats going back that far. I used the Player Pitching Split Finder to find the pitchers who were winless in their first eight or more starts of a season…there have been 472 of them. But it turns out the Play Index search function counts only starts when answering that request; many of these pitchers had relief appearances before or during their winless-start streak (or both).
Here’s what I did to find pitchers whose seasons started at all similarly to Samardzija: I looked at the detailed game logs of all the pitchers who had an ERA of 3.50 or less in their winless-start streak to see what their records were through their eighth winless start, and I tossed out any pitchers with a significant number of relief appearances before their first win as a starter. And nobody else had an ERA below 2.00 during their streak, let alone one as low as Samardzija’s 1.45 (which, to this point, is the second-lowest in the major leagues behind Cincinnati’s Johnny Cueto).
The only reasonably close comparison to Samardzija was just two years ago, and it was another Cub: Ryan Dempster had a 2.14 ERA through his first eight starts in 2012, and like Samardzija this year had an 0-3 record. Dempster extended his winless streak when he was pummeled in his ninth start, but then he went on a tear, not allowing a run in five consecutive starts covering 33 innings (and yes, he won all five, his only wins of the season for the Cubs in 16 starts). Dempster was traded to Texas at the deadline, and his luck went the other way with the Rangers, as he had a lousy ERA (5.05) and a good record (7-3).
Hall of Famer Whitey Ford was a 37-year-old veteran with a last-place Yankee team in 1966, when he didn’t win any of his nine starts. Whitey lasted just two innings in his sixth start and one inning in start number seven, then went on the disabled list and didn’t pitch for a month before returning with a two-inning relief appearance in a Yankee loss. In his eighth start of the year he was cuffed for 10 runs…but only three of them were earned, so his ERA for the season to that point was 2.44 (2.35 as a starter). Ford went to the bullpen after his next start and underwent season-ending surgery in August.
Al Javery, who had won 17 games and led the National League in innings pitched in 1943 for the Boston Braves, lost his first six starts of 1944 before getting a one-out save (at least what we now call a save) on May 16. He then lost his next two starts; through his seventh start he had a 2.03 season ERA (2.04 as a starter), but when he was racked for six runs in 2-2/3 innings in start number eight his ERA was 2.83 (2.85 as a starter). Javery pitched a shutout in his next start for his first win but went 9-13 the rest of the season with a 3.92 ERA and won only two major league games after that season.
Steve Bedrosian had made just eight starts, with 181 relief appearances, in his first four major league seasons, then new Atlanta manager Eddie Haas made him a full-time starting pitcher in 1985. “Bedrock” had no wins and a 2.91 ERA through eight starts before finally winning a game; he went 6-13 with a 4.25 ERA over the rest of the season and never started another game in the majors, although he did win the Cy Young Award as a reliever in 1987.
(ADDED 5/16/14: After going 12-11 with a 2.59 ERA as a rookie in 1967, California Angels pitcher Rickey Clark lost his first eight starts in 1968, with a 2.91 ERA, although he gave up at least one unearned run in six of those eight starts. He also failed to pitch into the fifth inning in four of them. Clark was winless in his first 12 starts before finally getting a W in number 13, his only win of the season; he finished 1-11 in 17 starts, with no decisions in four July relief appearances. He didn’t win a major league game again until 1971 and had just six more wins in his big league career.)
Dean Chance, a former Cy Young Award recipient and two-time 20-game winner, was just 29 years old when the 1971 season started, but it would be his last major league campaign because of arm problems. Chance was winless in his first eight starts despite a 2.97 ERA; he was on the verge of winning the eighth when he was lifted with two out in the fifth inning and a 2-0 lead. In fact Chance was pulled before the end of the fifth in five of his first eight starts, giving him no chance to win any of those games. Chance also lost his ninth start before finally getting a win, but he started just four more games after that and earned only three more wins, all in relief.
Andy Ashby entered the 1994 season with a 5-18 major league record and a 6.77 ERA. He then went 0-5 in his first 10 starts of 1994 but posted a respectable 2.85 ERA; through eight starts it was 2.98. Ashby pitched a four-hitter in his 11th start to finally earn a victory and went 5-6 the rest of the way. He spent all or part of the next ten seasons in the big leagues and pitched in two All-Star Games, including in 1998 when he won 17 games for the Padres.
Those are the only pitchers I can find who had an ERA under 3.00 with no wins through their first eight starts of the season, with no more than one relief appearance to that point. Special hard-luck mention goes to Rick Langford, who was winless in his first 11 starts in 1978 with a 2.62 ERA in those starts. But by the time he got his first win as a starter, on July 18, he had pitched in 13 games in relief with a win.
UPDATE 5/16/14: Samardzija is now winless through nine starts…no quality start in his ninth, though, as he lasted only five innings, giving up two earned runs, against the Cardinals. That raised his season ERA to 1.62, still the lowest ever through nine winless starts at the beginning of a season. Behind him are: Whitey Ford 1966, 2.47 ERA in his first nine starts (and a 2.55 overall ERA including a relief appearance; he did not make any more starts that year); Andy Ashby 1994 2.79; future “Black Sox” conspirator Eddie Cicotte 1918 2.82 ERA in his first nine starts (and a 2.74 overall ERA with a three-inning relief appearance along the way); Ryan Dempster 2012 2.90; Rickey Clark 1968 2.92. Those are the only pitchers I can find with an ERA under 3.00 through nine winless starts with no more than one relief appearance. And of them only Ashby lost his tenth start.
ADDED 5/16/14: Here are a couple of pitchers I consider special cases. Rube Schauer — born in Russia as Dimitri Dimitrihoff — lost his first nine starts of the 1917 season for the Philadelphia A’s, with a 2.38 ERA in those games. But he was not winless, as he had made three relief appearances (all of them lasting at least five innings) and won two of them. His overall ERA was 2.56 through his ninth start. Bill Piercy was not only winless in his first nine starts of 1923 for the Red Sox, he was the losing pitcher in eight of them — and he lost two relief appearances during that time as well. His season ERA to that point was 3.06, with a 2.55 ERA as a starter. Both Schauer and Piercy extended their streak of winless starts to ten.
ADDED 5/17/14: ESPN’s Buster Olney has this item in his column today:
From ESPN Stats & Information, more about the hard luck of Samardzija so far this season.
He has 12 straight starts in which he has allowed three earned runs or fewer, and he hasn’t won any of them. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, that’s the second-longest such streak since earned runs became an official stat in both leagues in 1913.
Samardzija’s streak began last season. Thanks to Play Index, here are the three longest streaks of winless starts without giving up more than three earned runs in any of them:
Ray Washburn had a fine season for the 1968 National League champion Cardinals, going 14-8, finishing eighth in the league with a 2.26 ERA and throwing a no-hitter against the Giants. But after he won two of his first three starts in 1969 he earned just one more victory that season (in relief) despite allowing no more than three earned runs in his last 13 starts. (He did allow a total of 11 unearned runs in those starts.) In 1970, with the Reds, he gave up three runs in 4-2/3 innings in his first start, then in his next start more than a month later he allowed six runs — but only two earned — in 1-2/3 innings to extend his streak to 15 games. He made just one more start in the major leagues and was bombed, retiring only one batter and allowing seven runs.
Washburn didn’t allow more than three earned runs in any of his 16 starts in 1969, or in his last 20 starts of 1968. Throw in his first two starts of 1970 and that’s a streak of 38 starts allowing three earned runs or fewer…the longest of all time. And he had a losing record in those starts! Here’s the list of longest streaks of starts allowing no more than three earned runs:
Going back to the winless streaks without allowing more than three earned runs…note Jim Bouton’s streak of 11 such games for the 1966 Yankees. Whitey Ford allowed no more than three earned runs in any of his nine starts for that same team (and stretched his streak to 10 in 1967). The Yankees as a team had 77 such starts in 1966, their starting pitcher allowing no more than three earned runs and not getting the win — almost half their games. And that’s not the record.
Oh the frustration of pitching for the 1967-68 White Sox. In ’67 the Sox managed to stay in pennant contention until the final days of the season, despite averaging just 3.3 runs per game. But in 1968, when the offense managed just 2.9 runs per game, they fell to ninth place. The 1964 Angels featured Cy Young Award winner Dean Chance, who had eight losses and six no-decisions in starts in which he allowed no more than three earned runs and still won 20 games anyway (18 as a starter). Chance allowed three earned runs in one of his wins and no more than two in the other 19, including 11 shutouts (although two of those wins were in relief).