UPDATE: A few things about complete games

I started this blog in 2009; I now have some additional resources so I thought I might revisit and revise some of my earlier posts. For instance, when I first wrote about complete games, Baseball-Reference.com’s Play Index data base went back only to 1954. It now goes back to 1913, meaning I can paint a more complete picture.

For those of you under the age of 30, a pitcher is given credit for a “complete game” if he is his team’s only pitcher in a game. I don’t think there’s anything inherently better or more manly about the idea of a pitcher going all nine (or more) innings rather than having help from the bullpen. But the game has really changed from just a couple generations ago, and I’m going to include some numbers here that will boggle the mind if the only baseball you know is that of the 21st century.

In 1913, when the current Play Index database begins, 53% of all starting pitchers worked a complete game, and from there the number rose as high as 63% in the war-shortened 1918 season. Since the percentage of complete games has slowly but steadily decreased, dropping below 50% in 1923, below 40% in 1947, below 30% in 1957, below 20% in 1981 (the advent of the designated hitter rule in 1973 helped prop up American League complete games for a while), below 10% in 1991 and below 5% in 2001. Last season (2015) there were just 104 complete games in 4,858 starts, or 2.1%. In other words, complete games were more than 25 times as likely in 1913 and about five times as likely as recently as 1990. You can see the whole story, along with other relevant stats from each season, here.

At any rate, in the lists that follow, we’re not going to see any pitchers who worked in the last 30 years.

Let’s start with the pitchers who, since 1913, have the most complete game wins — and for this purpose I’m going to specify complete games of at least nine innings, so as to exclude games shortened because of weather, darkness, or other reasons. (In all of these charts, when you see “Ind. Games,” click on that link to see details for all the individual games in question.) The first name on this list blows my mind.

Player #Matching ERA SHO IP HR WHIP Tm
Warren Spahn 321 Ind. Games 1.56 63 2909.0 148 0.96 BSN,MLN,NYM,SFG
Pete Alexander 293 Ind. Games 1.34 77 2711.0 50 0.92 PHI,CHC,STL
Robin Roberts 236 Ind. Games 1.83 45 2151.0 145 0.91 PHI,BAL,HOU,CHC
Ted Lyons 236 Ind. Games 2.05 26 2152.0 77 1.09 CHW
Walter Johnson 235 Ind. Games 1.28 75 2183.0 31 0.90 WSH
Lefty Grove 235 Ind. Games 1.89 33 2150.0 64 1.08 PHA,BOS
Burleigh Grimes 232 Ind. Games 1.99 35 2114.0 56 1.12 BRO,NYG,PIT,BSN,STL,CHC
Gaylord Perry 225 Ind. Games 1.22 53 2040.0 73 0.85 SFG,CLE,TEX,SDP,ATL,SEA,KCR
Red Ruffing 223 Ind. Games 1.90 43 2038.0 68 1.06 BOS,NYY
Early Wynn 222 Ind. Games 1.31 49 2015.0 77 0.97 WSH,CLE,CHW
Bob Feller 218 Ind. Games 1.63 43 1977.0 67 1.04 CLE
Steve Carlton 215 Ind. Games 1.38 55 1940.0 72 0.92 STL,PHI,CLE
Carl Hubbell 211 Ind. Games 1.66 35 1924.0 87 0.95 NYG
Fergie Jenkins 208 Ind. Games 1.42 49 1877.0 112 0.82 CHC,BOS,TEX
Juan Marichal 206 Ind. Games 1.45 52 1873.0 110 0.85 SFG
Eppa Rixey 202 Ind. Games 1.49 34 1861.0 20 1.01 PHI,CIN
Red Faber 200 Ind. Games 1.66 29 1843.0 32 1.06 CHW
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 3/20/2016.
Spahn

Apparently this photo of Warren Spahn was taken without the use of a drone

Only 14 other pitchers in major league history have won more than 321 games in any form. Warren Spahn had 321 COMPLETE GAME wins of nine innings or more (and 10 of them went ten innings or more)…88% of his total career wins. Wow. Who needs a bullpen? Throw in the fact that Spahn earned five wins in relief, and that leaves just 37 games Spahn won as a starter in which he did not pitch a complete game of at least nine innings…out of 665 career starts. And look: in those 321 complete game wins, nearly 3,000 innings of pitching — the equivalent of about 15 SEASONS for a modern starting pitcher — Spahn had a 1.56 ERA.

Among recent pitchers, Greg Maddux had 355 career wins — just eight fewer than Spahn — and Roger Clemens finished with 354. But Maddux had just 91 complete game wins of nine innings or more (only one of them more) and Clemens only 92 (all of them nine innings),. Maddux had the same number of career complete game wins as Larry Dierker, who had just 139 total wins in the 1960s and ’70s. Clemens had fewer complete game wins than Denny McLain, whose career victory total in that same era was just 131. The active (as of 2016) leader in career complete games, CC Sabathia, has merely 27 complete game wins of nine innings (and none of more) among his 214 career victories. Things have changed. A lot.

Of course, the list above goes back only to 1913, and Spahn is not likely the all-time major league leader in complete game wins. Of the 14 other pitchers with more than 321 total wins, seven spent all or nearly all their careers before 1913, when complete games were much more likely (back in the 19th century, starting pitchers completed well over 80% of their games); several of them, led by all-time wins leader Cy Young, likely have more complete game wins. And Spahn is probably not even the all-time leader among pitchers on this list.

Grover Cleveland Alexander won 47 games in his first two seasons in the majors (1911-12) and threw 56 complete games. While he also had 17 non-save relief appearances, some of which may have resulted in victories, I’d guess he had enough complete game wins in those seasons to pass Spahn when combined with his 293 complete game wins from 1913 on. And Walter Johnson likely has even more. While he is 86 behind Spahn from 1913 on, he won 115 games from 1907-12 and pitched 169 complete games, finishing 87% of his starts. While he had 25 non-save relief appearances, I’d wager to say the vast majority of those pre-1913 wins were complete games.

Lyons

Ted Lyons

Ted Lyons is worth a mention here. Complete games of nine or more innings accounted for 91% of the longtime White Sox star’s career victories. In his career Lyons won only nine games he started and did not pitch a complete game of at least nine innings (he won 15 games in relief). And in one of those nine wins, he went 14-1/3 innings, the longest outing of his career. That leaves EIGHT of Lyons’ 245 career wins as a starter in which he didn’t pitch at least nine innings. Whoa.

Over the last decade or so of Lyons’ career he was known as a “Sunday pitcher,” typically starting only one game a week and typically finishing what he started. In fact, Lyons pitched a complete game in each of his last 28 career starts and in nearly three-quarters of his career starts.

Gaylord Perry is the first pitcher on this list whose career extended past 1966 (in his case, 1983). Jim Bunning and Catfish Hunter each won 224 games in their Hall of Fame careers. Gaylord Perry won 225 COMPLETE GAMES of at least nine innings (with an astounding ERA of 1.22 in more than 2,000 innings). That’s more wins than 19 Hall of Fame 20th Century starters, including Bunning and Hunter, earned in their entire careers.

Next let’s look at career complete game losses…in this case we’ll consider performances of eight innings or longer to account for complete game losses on the road.

Player #Matching ERA IP WHIP Tm
Walter Johnson 121 Ind. Games 2.86 1071.2 1.20 WSH
Ted Lyons 119 Ind. Games 4.00 1063.2 1.42 CHW
Red Ruffing 107 Ind. Games 4.10 941.0 1.35 BOS,NYY,CHW
Wilbur Cooper 90 Ind. Games 3.02 789.1 1.21 PIT,CHC
Burleigh Grimes 78 Ind. Games 3.55 673.2 1.41 PIT,BRO,NYG,STL,CHC
Pete Alexander 78 Ind. Games 3.27 689.0 1.23 PHI,CHC,STL
Gaylord Perry 76 Ind. Games 3.05 661.1 1.10 SFG,CLE,TEX,SDP,SEA
Bert Blyleven 74 Ind. Games 3.16 629.0 1.14 MIN,TEX,PIT,CLE,CAL
Eppa Rixey 73 Ind. Games 2.93 654.1 1.29 PHI,CIN
Red Lucas 72 Ind. Games 3.76 634.1 1.31 BSN,CIN,PIT
Howard Ehmke 72 Ind. Games 4.29 619.0 1.47 DET,BOS,PHA
Hooks Dauss 72 Ind. Games 3.68 630.2 1.39 DET
Bullet Joe Bush 72 Ind. Games 3.55 618.2 1.35 PHA,BOS,NYY,SLB,WSH,PIT
Sad Sam Jones 71 Ind. Games 3.77 628.1 1.39 BOS,NYY,SLB,WSH,CHW
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 3/20/2016.

Warren Spahn, who topped our complete game wins leaderboard, doesn’t even show up here as he had only 57 complete game losses (with a 2.73 ERA in those games). Note Walter Johnson’s stats in his complete game losses…he had a 0-121 record with a 2.86 ERA! That speaks to both the low scoring of his era and his lack of offensive support. Gaylord Perry, the “modern” leader in complete game losses, had an excellent 1.10 WHIP in those games.

Now on to complete game wins in a season…in a three-year stretch Grover Cleveland Alexander posted the top three totals in the database.

Player Year #Matching ERA SHO IP WHIP Tm
Pete Alexander 1916 33 Ind. Games 0.83 16 302.0 0.82 PHI
Pete Alexander 1917 30 Ind. Games 1.10 8 278.0 0.90 PHI
Denny McLain 1968 28 Ind. Games 1.46 6 253.0 0.83 DET
Pete Alexander 1915 28 Ind. Games 0.83 11 260.0 0.75 PHI
Dazzy Vance 1924 27 Ind. Games 1.59 3 249.0 0.94 BRO
Robin Roberts 1952 27 Ind. Games 2.24 3 253.0 0.96 PHI
Bucky Walters 1939 26 Ind. Games 1.78 2 237.0 1.02 CIN
Carl Mays 1921 26 Ind. Games 2.33 1 236.0 1.10 NYY
Bob Feller 1946 26 Ind. Games 1.10 10 237.0 1.03 CLE
Eddie Cicotte 1919 26 Ind. Games 0.96 5 244.0 0.89 CHW
Pete Alexander 1920 26 Ind. Games 0.92 7 253.0 0.96 CHC
George Uhle 1926 25 Ind. Games 1.70 3 227.0 1.11 CLE
Urban Shocker 1921 25 Ind. Games 2.04 4 225.0 1.08 SLB
Hal Newhouser 1946 25 Ind. Games 1.15 6 227.0 0.91 DET
Sandy Koufax 1965 25 Ind. Games 1.15 8 226.0 0.72 LAD
Lefty Grove 1931 25 Ind. Games 1.66 4 228.0 1.04 PHA
Bob Feller 1940 25 Ind. Games 1.76 4 225.0 1.00 CLE
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 3/30/2016.

Note 16 of Alexander’s 33 complete game wins in 1916 were shutouts…that’s the all-time single season record. He went the distance in 91 of his 94 wins from 1915-17, leading the National League in wins, complete games, shutouts, ERA, innings pitched and strikeouts each year. Alexander went into the Army in 1918 during World War I and was left deaf in his left ear and with muscle damage in his pitching arm, but he came back from the war to win another 181 games.

McLain

From the Detroit Free Press the morning after Denny McLain’s 30th win in 1968

When Denny McLain became the last pitcher to win 30 games in a season in 1968 (he won 31), all 28 of his complete games were victories. In his other 13 starts he went 3-6, winning games in which he pitched 7, 7 and 6 innings.

All 26 of Bob Feller‘s wins in 1946 were complete games, as were 25 of his 27 wins in 1940.

These are the pitchers who have had at least 20 complete game wins in a season since 1960:

Player Year #Matching ERA SHO IP WHIP Tm
Denny McLain 1968 28 Ind. Games 1.46 6 253.0 0.83 DET
Sandy Koufax 1965 25 Ind. Games 1.15 8 226.0 0.72 LAD
Juan Marichal 1968 24 Ind. Games 1.40 5 219.0 0.87 SFG
Sandy Koufax 1966 24 Ind. Games 1.00 5 216.0 0.91 LAD
Fergie Jenkins 1971 24 Ind. Games 1.87 3 217.0 0.87 CHC
Steve Carlton 1972 24 Ind. Games 0.99 8 218.0 0.85 PHI
Juan Marichal 1966 23 Ind. Games 1.53 4 212.0 0.78 SFG
Mickey Lolich 1971 22 Ind. Games 1.43 4 201.0 1.00 DET
Fergie Jenkins 1974 22 Ind. Games 1.23 6 198.0 0.80 TEX
Bob Gibson 1968 22 Ind. Games 0.57 13 204.0 0.76 STL
Warren Spahn 1963 21 Ind. Games 1.62 7 189.0 0.94 MLN
Gaylord Perry 1970 21 Ind. Games 1.33 5 189.0 0.80 SFG
Juan Marichal 1965 21 Ind. Games 0.85 10 190.0 0.77 SFG
Gaylord Perry 1972 20 Ind. Games 0.92 5 185.0 0.85 CLE
Gaylord Perry 1974 20 Ind. Games 1.15 4 180.0 0.83 CLE
Denny McLain 1969 20 Ind. Games 1.25 9 180.0 0.90 DET
Juan Marichal 1964 20 Ind. Games 1.79 4 181.0 0.92 SFG
Juan Marichal 1969 20 Ind. Games 1.15 8 180.0 0.81 SFG
Mickey Lolich 1972 20 Ind. Games 1.25 4 180.0 0.98 DET
Frank Lary 1961 20 Ind. Games 1.85 4 180.0 0.96 DET
Sandy Koufax 1963 20 Ind. Games 0.69 11 183.0 0.64 LAD
Bob Gibson 1969 20 Ind. Games 1.34 4 188.0 0.98 STL
Bob Gibson 1970 20 Ind. Games 1.65 3 185.0 0.89 STL
Vida Blue 1971 20 Ind. Games 1.20 7 180.0 0.86 OAK
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 3/30/2016.

 

Koufax

Sandy Koufax with one of his three Cy Young Awards

Sandy Koufax won the Cy Young Award in 1963, 1965 and 1966 — back when there was only one award, going to the pitcher voted the best in all the major leagues. Of his 78 wins in those seasons, 69 were complete games (24 of them shutouts)…and his ERA in those 69 games was 0.96. Juan Marichal won at least 20 complete games five times in six years from 1964-69. All 24 of Ferguson Jenkins‘ wins in 1971 were complete games. Jenkins and Gaylord Perry are the last men to win 20 complete games in a season, both in 1974; Perry, Steve Carlton and Mickey Lolich were the last to do it without a designated hitter, in 1972.

Then there’s Bob Gibson‘s heralded 1968 season in which he posted a 1.12 ERA. All 22 of his wins were complete games, three of them going extra innings. Gibby tossed 13 shutouts (five of them coming in consecutive starts) and gave up no more than one run in 20 of the 22 complete game wins, giving him an ERA in his wins of 0.57. (In his other 12 starts he allowed more than three runs only three times.)

Now on to the most complete game losses in a season (at least eight innings):

Player Year #Matching ERA IP WHIP Tm
Elmer Myers 1916 19 Ind. Games 3.84 164.0 1.39 PHA
Jim Tobin 1942 16 Ind. Games 4.44 140.0 1.34 BSN
Red Ruffing 1928 15 Ind. Games 4.27 132.2 1.42 BOS
Eppa Rixey 1920 15 Ind. Games 4.35 130.1 1.41 PHI
Red Lucas 1932 15 Ind. Games 3.09 137.0 1.28 CIN
Walter Johnson 1916 15 Ind. Games 2.24 136.1 1.15 WSH
Eddie Cicotte 1918 15 Ind. Games 3.20 132.1 1.28 CHW
George Baumgardner 1913 15 Ind. Games 3.40 132.1 1.47 SLB
Jack Quinn 1915 14 Ind. Games 3.18 121.2 1.24 BAL
Scott Perry 1918 13 Ind. Games 2.94 110.1 1.33 PHA
Walter Johnson 1914 13 Ind. Games 2.18 111.2 1.06 WSH
Walter Johnson 1917 13 Ind. Games 2.72 112.1 1.02 WSH
Wes Ferrell 1937 13 Ind. Games 3.63 114.0 1.47 BOS,WSH
Howard Ehmke 1925 13 Ind. Games 4.04 111.1 1.41 BOS
Jesse Barnes 1917 13 Ind. Games 2.54 110.0 1.01 BSN
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 4/1/2016.

The 1916 Philadelphia A’s had the worst record of any team in the 20th Century (or 21st, for that matter), finishing with a 36-117 mark. They scored the fewest runs in the American League, averaging less than three runs a game. You’d think that combination would mean they would be pinch-hitting for their pitchers a lot. You’d be wrong. Manager (and team owner) Connie Mack let his starters complete 94 of their 154 games, by far the most in the league.

Myers

From the Kalamazoo Gazette, June 7, 1916

And the man who led the A’s in complete games was Elmer Myers, a 22-year-old rookie who finished 31 of his 35 starts. Mack brought Myers up from a Class D league in September 1915 after Myers had won 29 games there; he used his newcomer in the A’s last game of the season and was delighted to see him pitch a two-hit shutout. When Myers started the 1916 season with a 6-1 record (the rest of the team was 7-16 at that point), Mack figured he was on to something special.

“Myers is the greatest young pitcher I have ever developed,” Mack was quoted as saying in an article in the Kalamazoo Gazette in June. The article concluded, “Mack predicts that before the season is over Myers will rank with Walter Johnson and Grover Alexander.”

Alas Myers went 8-22 over the rest of the season, while Johnson won 25 games for Washington and Alexander 33 for the Phillies. (Myers’ 23 losses didn’t lead the AL, though; that distinction fell to teammate Bullet Joe Bush, who went 15-24. The rest of the A’s pitching staff went 7-70. Yes, seven and seventy. No other pitcher on the team won more than two games.)

Mack was never shy about leaving his starting pitchers in to take a pounding. Myers allowed seven or more runs in seven of his complete games (including a game he won, 10-8). The worst drubbing came on September 27, when Myers gave up 17 hits and walked six in a 13-3 loss to Washington. Or, as Jim Nasium (really?) put it in the next day’s Philadelphia Inquirer, “when Elmer wasn’t striking them out they were in there whaling the dad-binged stuffings out of the pill.”

Myers TSN

A story focusing on Elmer Myers’ war experience in The Sporting News, December 19, 1940

Myers pitched in the major leagues until 1922, although he missed time to fight in World War I where he was victim of a poison gas attack by the Germans in Verdun. Bill Nowlin tells Myers’ story as part of the Society for American Baseball Research’s Baseball Biography Project.

Jim Tobin led the National League in complete games and losses for the 1942 Boston Braves, going all the way in 28 of his 33 starts and losing 16 of those games. Of course, manager Casey Stengel had motivation to leave Tobin in the game, as Tobin was one of his better hitters. He finished the season with a .246 batting average (the team average was .240) and six home runs in 114 at-bats.

Red Ruffing also used his bat to stay in the game for the 1928 Red Sox, as he hit .314 and drove in 19 runs in 121 at-bats (he also saw frequent duty a a pinch-hitter). A future star with the Yankees and a Hall of Famer, Ruffing went 10-25 for the last-place ’28 Sox, leading the AL in losses and complete games.

Red Lucas was another good-hitting pitcher who racked up a lot of complete game losses. Lucas finished 28 of his 31 starts for the last-place 1932 Reds (“last-place” is something a lot of pitchers on this list have in common) while hitting .287 and leading the team in pinch-hit appearances. Lucas won 157 games in the major leagues and also held the all-time record for career pinch-hits until the 1960s.

Only two pitchers on the list of most complete game losses had a winning record in the season in question: Walter Johnson (who had a winning record in all three of his seasons on the list) and Scott Perry. Perry was a 27-year-old who had 43-2/3 innings of major league experience when he joined the A’s in 1918. Even though he pitched for a last-place team (although not nearly as bad as they had been in 1916), Perry went 20-19 with a 1.98 ERA, led the league in innings pitched and completed 30 of his 36 starts (both of which led the league) in a season called off at Labor Day because of World War I. He had some success early in the season (including an 11-inning shutout and a one-hitter a week apart) before a nine-game losing streak left him at 5-14, but he rallied to win 15 of his next 19 decisions.

Whatever magic struck Perry in 1918 never returned; he went 4-17 in 1919, 11-25 in 1920, then announced he was finished playing organized baseball midway through the 1921 season.

Let’s look at the pitchers with the most complete game losses in a season since World War II:

Player Year #Matching ERA IP WHIP Tm
Mickey Lolich 1974 11 Ind. Games 4.14 95.2 1.28 DET
Johnny Lindell 1953 11 Ind. Games 3.87 95.1 1.52 PIT,PHI
Rick Langford 1980 11 Ind. Games 3.67 95.2 1.29 OAK
Catfish Hunter 1975 11 Ind. Games 3.23 92.0 1.15 NYY
Ned Garver 1950 11 Ind. Games 3.69 100.0 1.49 SLB
Clyde Wright 1974 10 Ind. Games 3.11 84.0 1.25 MIL
Wilbur Wood 1974 10 Ind. Games 2.63 89.0 1.12 CHW
Nolan Ryan 1974 10 Ind. Games 2.40 90.0 1.18 CAL
Nolan Ryan 1977 10 Ind. Games 3.71 87.1 1.42 CAL
Gaylord Perry 1973 10 Ind. Games 4.98 85.0 1.39 CLE
Phil Niekro 1979 10 Ind. Games 3.27 85.1 1.30 ATL
Mickey Lolich 1975 10 Ind. Games 3.64 84.0 1.24 DET
Roger Craig 1963 10 Ind. Games 1.94 83.1 0.96 NYM
Ken Brett 1976 10 Ind. Games 3.30 84.2 1.29 CHW
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 4/1/2016.

Note that of the 14 pitchers in double digits, 10 of the pitched in the American League in the early years of the designated hitter — four of them just in 1974. Wilbur Wood and Nolan Ryan deserve special mention here, as their ERAs in their complete game losses were lower than their overall season ERA. Wood’s ERA in his CGL (2.63) was almost identical to his mark in his 20 wins (2.61).

Look at poor Roger Craig with the 1963 Mets: a 1.94 ERA in 10 complete game losses, including four games he lost 1-0!  Roger had a 5-22 record for a team that went 51-111; his ERA in his five wins was 2.81.

One last note: Hall of Famer Lefty Grove had seven complete game wins in games that were called before nine innings were played, the most such games of anyone in the database.

UPDATE: Things I meant to write just after Mark Fidrych died

BirdI started this blog in 2009; I now have some additional resources so I thought I might revisit and revise some of my earlier posts. In this case I want to embellish a post I wrote a few months after Mark Fidrych died when he was just 54 years old; like his life, his playing career ended far too soon. Known as “The Bird” for his resemblance to “Sesame Street”‘s Big Bird, Fidrych was a nationally-known phenom in 1976 when he led the American League in ERA, won Rookie of the Year honors and was runner-up in the Cy Young Award voting for the Detroit Tigers, but because of injuries he won only 10 more games in his major league career.

Much of what was written about Fidrych both during his heyday and after his death focused on his unique personality, but I want to focus on the unusual way in which Tiger manager Ralph Houk used him. It’s something the likes of which we rarely saw before and haven’t seen since.

Fidrych had played just one-and-a-half seasons of pro ball before 1976 and had pitched just 205 innings, only 54 of them above Class A; he wasn’t even on the Tigers’ 40-man roster going into spring training and didn’t turn 22 until August 1976. Despite his youth and inexperience he pitched 250-1/3 innings for the Tigers in 1976, which certainly sounds like a lot by today’s standards; no one has thrown more than 250 innings in a season since another Tiger, Justin Verlander, worked 251 in 2011. (And, as we will see, he actually pitched even more because he started three in-season exhibition games and the All-Star Game.) It certainly was a heavy workload for one so young; since Fidrych the only pitchers to throw 250 or more innings in a season at such a young age are Dwight Gooden (twice), Fernando Valenzuela and Roger Erickson.

Fidrych RS

Not many baseball players have made it onto the cover of Rolling Stone…Mark Fidrych did when he was 22

But his innings pitched don’t tell the whole story of Fidrych’s unusual workload, because he didn’t start a game until Detroit’s 24th game of he season and had worked just one inning in relief prior to that (at least in games that counted); essentially it’s as if he pitched in a 138-game season (the Tigers played only 161 because of a rainout). Despite the late start he pitched 24 complete games; since World War II, the only pitcher who had more in a season at anywhere near as young an age was Bert Blyleven, who threw 25 complete games as a 22-year-old in 1973. And Blyleven entered that season with two-and-a-half years of major league experience. Fidrych’s 24 complete games came in only 29 starts, meaning he went the distance 82.8% of the time. Since then, the only pitcher who has started at least 20 games in a season and completed more than 75% of them is Rick Langford, who completed 28 of 33 starts (84.8%) for Billy Martin’s Oakland A’s in 1980, when he was 28. The only other pitchers who have completed more than 75% of their starts in a season since 1954 are all Hall of Famers: Catfish Hunter, Gaylord Perry, Ferguson Jenkins, Bob Gibson (twice) and Juan Marichal. And Gibson (who completed 28 of 34 starts in his fabulous 1968 season) is the only man aside from Fidrych and Langford to complete more than 80% of his starts (in a season with 20 or more) since 1953.

What’s more:

  • In five of Fidrych’s starts he pitched at least 10 innings, the most such starts in a season for any pitcher that young since at least 1913, the period covered by Baseball-Reference.com’s Play Index. (Seattle Bill James…not to be confused with Kansas Bill James…had seven such games as a 22-year-old for the “Miracle” Boston Braves of 1914. James won 26 games that year, plus two in the World Series, pitching a total of 343 innings. Perhaps not coincidentally, he developed arm trouble and won only five games in the rest of his major league career.) The only pitcher of any age who has had as many 10+-inning starts in a season since Fidrych was Mike Norris, who had five in 1980 (as a teammate of Rick Langford) at age 25.
  • Four times Fidrych pitched at least 11 innings; no pitcher of any age has had as many  such games since.
  • He also faced 40 or more batters in six starts; no pitcher of any age has had more such games in a season since, and only four have had as many.
Fidrych fans

Fans loved The Bird in ’76

Fidrych’s first major league appearance on April 20 came in an unusually stressful situation. Houk called on the 21-year-old to pitch to Don Baylor in Oakland in the Tigers’ seventh game of the season, bottom of the ninth, tie game, one out, runners on the corners. (That’s how you break in a rookie?) Baylor singled, game over.

Fidrych’s next outing was in an exhibition game against the Reds in Cincinnati on April 29, a fundraiser for the Greater Cincinnati Knothole program; he started and pitched at least six innings (I can’t find a box score, the line score I found shows Jim Crawford relieved him in the seventh). His next regular season game was an inning of mop-up relief on May 5. That would be his last ever major league relief appearance. On May 10 he started another exhibition fundraiser against the Reds, this one at Tiger Stadium on behalf of amateur baseball programs in the area, and went five innings. He was roughed up for eight hits and five runs.

Five days after that he made his first regular season start…and a legend was born.

First start

From the Detroit Free Press, May 16, 1976

Fidrych held the Indians hitless until Buddy Bell singled to lead off the top of the seventh; he finished with a complete game two-hitter and a 2-1 win. Houk followed that up by using Fidrych to start yet another exhibition game, May 20 against the Tigers’ top farm team in Evansville, Indiana (none of the brief accounts of that game I’ve found show how long Fidrych pitched, but it was long enough to give up five hits and strike out four).

The rookie returned to facing American League competition on May 25 at Fenway Park; Carl Yastrzemski hit a two-run homer in the fourth and Luis Tiant blanked the Tigers, 2-0, with Fidrych working an eight-inning complete game.

Fidrych TSNIn his third major league start, on May 31, Fidrych pitched an 11-inning complete game. Houk left him in to pitch the entire 11th inning even though he gave up three hits, a walk and the go-ahead run (the Tigers came back to win in the bottom of the inning). He faced 47 batters — that’s right, two guys (Robin Yount and Don Money) batted against him SIX times. The last time a pitcher faced at least 47 batters was 1986, and that was knuckleballer Charlie Hough. For a non-knuckleballer, you have to go back to 1983 and 40-year-old Tommy John. Fidrych is the only pitcher to do it before his 22nd birthday since 1967.

Five days later, he pitched ANOTHER 11-inning complete game, facing 41 batters. No pitcher faced more than 36 batters in a game in the entire 2015 season; Fidrych topped that twice in a week, just over a month into his major league career when he was 21 years old, and would do it five more times that season. (For what it’s worth, the last time a major league pitcher faced at least 41 batters in a game was 2002.)

TV

From the nationally televised win over the Yankees June 28, 1976

Six days later, complete game. Five days later, complete game. Five days after that he was lifted in the 8th –- and then he threw six straight complete games, including the nationally televised win over the Yankees that cemented his fame (you can watch it here) and an 11-inning shutout that came three days after he started and pitched two innings in the All-Star Game. (There have been only three shutouts of 11 innings or longer since then, the last of which was in 1990.)

There would be another stretch of six straight complete games in August, two of them going extra innings in which he faced 43 and 42 batters. And five of the six games — including both the extra-inning games — were thrown on just three days rest.

The last four of those games were as follows: complete game, four days later a 10-inning complete game (why the hell did Houk let him pitch to nine batters and give up four runs in the 10th?), four days later another complete game, four days later a complete game that he lost in the bottom of the 12th. That’s 39-1/3 innings in less than two weeks.

Fidrych finally showed he was human when he was knocked out in the fourth inning in his next start, but then he finished the season with five complete games in his last six starts (although he was knocked out in the third in the other one). He pitched at least seven innings in 26 of his 29 starts.

Fidrych S&SIn 1976 Fidrych started 13 games with just three days rest (and that doesn’t include his post-All-Star shutout)…the last pitcher to have that many was Tom Browning in 1988.  Fidrych completed 11 of those 13 starts, going 9-2 with a 2.61 ERA. But in eight starts with at least five days rest, he completed them all and had a 1.32 ERA in 75 innings. Wow. (Of course, that does include the 11-inning shutout that came six days after his last regular season start but only three days after the All-Star Game.)

Despite a workload that would be beyond what any pitcher — let alone one so young — has done for a generation now, the injury that started Fidrych’s road to early retirement wasn’t to his arm. It was torn cartilage in his knee from a fall in the outfield while shagging flies in spring training in 1977. But that injury may have led to his more serious arm injury because of changes to his pitching motion caused by the knee injury. At least that’s the way Fidrych saw it. Gary Smith wrote, in a 1986 profile of Fidrych for Sports Illustrated (that no longer appears to be online):

Nobody knew what caused the crippling pain [in his pitching arm], but many suspected it was Fidrych’s overeagerness to be a superstar pitcher again, that he’d begun throwing too hard too soon after he had injured the knee. “Maybe it was my stupidity,” he says. “I kept throwing. I didn’t want to give up. If you can’t perform, you’re gone, so you fool them as much as you can. I had to. I saw what was going on in my life.”

It’s common now to think Fidrych was never the same after his sensational rookie season. But that’s wrong. He started 1977 in the same groove. The spring training knee injury delayed his season debut, but his first start of 1977 came just 12 days later than his first start of 1976. And that first start after the injury was a complete game in which Fidrych faced 36 batters and allowed just one earned run.

Fidrych 1977

1977 headline

From the Detroit Free Press, May 28, 1977

He threw complete games in seven of his first eight starts. By that time he was 6-2 with a 1.83 ERA. He didn’t give up a home run in his first 66-1/3 innings. He faced 38 batters in each of those last two starts, with just three days rest between them. Performance-wise, he was every bit the pitcher he was in 1976 (at least through the end of August), if not better.

Fidrych Sport

Sport magazine, July 1977

Then he got the hell beat out of him in two starts, being knocked out in the sixth inning of each game, allowing 21 hits and 12 earned runs in 11-1/3 innings. He later came to believe he tore his right rotator cuff in the first of those two games, July 4 at Baltimore, although the injury wasn’t diagnosed as such until 1985. (In the 1986 SI piece, Gary Smith wrote Fidrych’s right shoulder popped “ten days after he returned from the disabled list,” which would be early June, which seems unlikely based on his performance.) On July 12 he was pulled while facing the fourth batter of the game and was done for the year. (Jim Crawford came in to relieve Fidrych and threw 8-1/3 shutout innings.) According to the next day’s Detroit Free Press, team doctor Clarence Livingood diagnosed Fidrych’s problem as “a tired arm.”

“It don’t hurt,” Fidrych said. “I only can’t throw.”

Fidrych didn’t have quite as much asked of him in 1977 as was the case in ’76. He never pitched more than nine innings in a game or faced more than 38 batters. He had more starts on four days rest than he had on three days. Still, he managed to pitch 69 innings in just over a month (34 days) once he started his season.

Fidrych was apparently back at full strength at the start of spring training in 1978. He discussed the effect of his 1977 injuries in an April 1978 Sports Illustrated story by Larry Keith:

“I was a different person,” the Bird says. “I had the bad leg and the bad arm and I was trying to get my head together. Everything I count on, my bread and butter, was missing, and it got me down. The doctors told me to relax, and some of the older players told me how they had come back from injuries, but I didn’t really know about myself until I went down to the instructional league in October. Then I knew for sure. I said, ‘Oh, wow! I can throw.’ “

He was the Tigers’ opening day starter and got a complete game win.

Fidrych 1978

From the Detroit Free Press, April 8, 1978

Four days later, another complete game win. But he was pulled after four innings of his third start, when his shoulder stiffened up. “I was going to stay out there until they knocked me out,” Fidrych said after the game, “but Ralph told me after the fourth inning that he was going to take me out. I guess it was a good thing he got me out of there before I hurt myself.”

“He said his wasn’t hurting, but when he threw, nothing happened,” Houk said. “He’s such a competitor, if I didn’t take him out, he would have kept going out there. And maybe he would have hurt himself. I’m certainly not going to take any chances with him.” (Not that you ever did, Ralph…)

1978 photo

From the Detroit Free Press, April 18, 1978. “The Tigers expect The Bird to be ready for his next turn Saturday.” His next major league appearance came 13 months later.

Fidrych would not pitch in a major league game again for more than a year. From then on he completed just one of 13 major league starts, going 2-6 with a 6.86 ERA.

But those last 13 starts came after Houk retired at the end of the 1978 season (he would return to the dugout with the Red Sox in 1981). During his time pitching for Houk, Fidrych completed 33 of 43 starts (76.7%) and posted a 27-13 record. He had a 2.47 ERA, allowing just 70 walks and 15 home runs in 353-1/3 innings. Of course, he had only 3.8 strikeouts per 9 innings, not a strong indicator of long-term success even if healthy. But he was certainly a remarkable pitcher in his time with Houk. And the way Houk used him was even more remarkable.

Here’s another way Ralph Houk was unusual in using his pitchers. Since 1967, a relief pitcher has worked 10 or more innings in a game only five times. Three of those were pitchers managed by Houk – for three different franchises:

  • Lindy McDaniel worked 13 innings in relief for the Yankees in 1973 (when he was 37) after Fritz Peterson suffered a leg injury in the second inning. That was the longest major league relief appearance since Eddie Rommel pitched 17 innings in 1932. McDaniel also had two relief outings of more than six innings in the three weeks prior to his marathon and pitched more than six innings in relief a total of five times that season. He worked 138-1/3 innings in relief that season in just 44 appearances (h also started three games and completed one!).
  • Jim Crawford (the man who pitched 8-1/3 innings in relief of Fidrych in 1977) went 10 innings for the Tigers in 1976. He entered the game in the first inning after starter Frank MacCormack walked three of the four hitters he faced (and threw two wild pitches) and took a no-hitter into the ninth before giving up a single to George Scott. Crawford pitched more than six innings in relief two other times that season.
  • Bob Stanley pitched 10 innings for the Red Sox in 1983, the last time a major leaguer pitched 10 or more innings in relief. Stanley pitched 168-1/3 innings in relief for Houk in 1982 and 145-1/3 in ’83. Only Mike Marshall (1973 and 1974) pitched more innings in a season without starting a game than Stanley did in 1982. And he did that in just 48 appearances, an average of more than 3-1/3 innings per relief appearance. That’s crazy off the charts; no other pitcher who has worked at least 20 games in a season without starting one has averaged more than 3 innings per appearance. Stanley is the last pitcher to work enough to qualify for the ERA championship in a season in which he didn’t start a game (and the others who did it all pitched significantly more games). In his career Stanley had 18 relief appearances of six innings or more, 11 of them for Houk.

In his first season managing the Tigers, 1974, Houk’s relievers had 16 appearances of six innings or longer; no team has had as many since 1941. John Hiller pitched 150 innings in relief for the ’74 Tigers (going 7-2/3 innings twice) with a record of 17-14, the most decisions in a season for a relief pitcher.

You never know what’s going to change your life, or when it’s going to happen

You never know what the most important day of your life is going to be. Even when it happens, it may be years before you realize it. For me, it wasn’t the day I met my wife. Or the day we got married. Or the day our children were born.

It was the day that made all those days possible. It was July 28, 1967. I was nine years old.

Bear with me, it takes a little while to connect all the dots.

My parents, younger brother and I lived in Louisville, Kentucky. In 1966 I had become a baseball fan, and I saw my first major league game at old Crosley Field that year when my parents took us on a family trip to Cincinnati. We made another trip in July 1967.

700 Vannah

Thanks to Google Maps, I have a recent photo of the house where my family lived from 1965 to 1968. It looks remarkably the same as I remember it from 50 years ago.

Monkees LPI needed help remembering the exact date. Fortunately for me, our visit coincided with an even more memorable occasion than a ballgame: The Monkees were in town for a concert, and we were staying in the same hotel. They were at the height of their popularity, with the first season of their TV series having just concluded. Somehow I found out what floor they were staying on, and I made a journey there in hopes of catching a glimpse of one of them. Security guards were camped out by the elevator when I disembarked, and I made some lame excuse about thinking there was a pop machine on that floor, but I was immediately sent back where I came from. That evening my family went to the lobby to head for the game, only to find the Monkees were leaving the hotel at the same time to head for their show — through the same lobby. The place was mobbed, completely packed with Monkee fans, and I remember seeing Mickey Dolenz’s head bobbing above the crowd of shorter youngsters.

Monkees 1

Monkees 2

Coverage from the Cincinnati Enquirer, July 29, 1967

TSN 7-29-67No, it wasn’t The Monkees that made this the most important day of my life. It wasn’t seeing the Reds play the Cubs that night, either. It was something that happened that afternoon, when I was killing time at the hotel newsstand. I bought a copy of a publication I had never seen before, something that looked like it was all about baseball: The Sporting News. (The photo at right is the cover of the issue I bought…alas I no longer have the one I purchased.) I was already in love with baseball and newspapers, so the combination of the two was irresistible.

I don’t remember how much else of the contents soaked into my brain that day, but in paging through the issue an advertisement drew my attention:

APBA

This is from a microfilm copy of the July 29, 1967 Sporting News found on PaperOfRecord.com…if I ever acquire a paper copy of this issue I’ll replace this with a better image.

Yep, I wanted to bring the major league players right into my home and manage them all myself. I had already played Ethan Allen’s All-Star Baseball with a neighborhood friend who had a copy, but this looked ever so much cooler…all the teams! All the players!

Brochure

This is actually from a 1975 APBA brochure, but I’m sure the one I got in 1967 had a similar image

As soon as we got home from Cincinnati I sent off for that full-color brochure, which got me even more excited. The only thing that wasn’t exciting was the price. There was a reason APBA didn’t list its prices in its advertising so you could just order straightaway — it was expensive, and most people needed more of a sales pitch before parting with that kind of money. APBA was good at sales pitches. I don’t remember the exact price, but it was surely in the neighborhood of $12-15…the equivalent of about $85-100 today. Not something a 9-year-old takes on lightly.

Lucky me…my parents were kind, and I talked them into buying the game with the promise that I would pay them back with household chores. Of course, I was too lazy and sullen to actually do the chores, but as I recall I paid my debt by cashing a few tickets when my father took me to Churchill Downs (I was even more into horse racing then than I was into baseball).

Once APBA arrived I immediately immersed myself in it. But we’re still a few steps away from me getting married and having kids.

The next year, 1968, Dad got a new job and we moved to Port Washington, New York…coincidentally, the home of APBA’s major competitor, the Strat-o-Matic Game Company. Their office/warehouse on South Bayles Avenue was within walking distance of our house. Before long I was making that walk on a regular basis, first to buy their football game and later to buy their baseball game, both of which I played avidly.

SOM ReviewIn 1971 two Strat-o-Matic fans in Kalamazoo, Michigan (well, one of them was in next-door Otsego) started a monthly publication, the Strat-o-Matic Review. Of course I subscribed. The next year, the Review’s editors announced they would host a convention in Kalamazoo and invited other Strat-o-Matic devotees from around the country to come, play some games and get to know each other.

Invite

From the July 1972 Strat-o-Matic Review

Ah, the kindness of my parents…yes, I talked them into letting me go. Dad and I flew to Kalamazoo. When we arrived and I checked in with the organizers, I was told a guy named Brad Furst had hitchhiked to the convention from Spencer, Iowa and was looking for a place to stay. My father — another act of kindness — said Brad could stay with us…the way I remember it was Brad and I shared a room and Dad got another room for himself. Brad was a few years older than I was, but we hit it off right away and spent a lot of time talking that weekend, developing a friendship that continued for several years.

Convention

From the September 1972 Strat-o-Matic Review…I was actually only 14

Hang on, we’re getting warmer…

Brad went on to attend Grinnell College, a superb school in his native Iowa, and when I was preparing to apply to colleges he told me about a school in Northfield, Minnesota he thought I would like, Carleton College. (The way I remember it — and this absolutely may not be true — Brad told me Carleton had a bigger and more established group of Strat-o-Matic players than Grinnell. Although I think Brad remembers it as he just wished he had gone there himself.) I had never been west of Chicago (well, DeKalb, Illinois) and this sounded pretty exotic.

I was accepted at three other schools, and each of them was my first choice for a while, but in the end I decided a small campus in a small town with severe winters was exactly what I wanted, and I chose Carleton. And I feel pretty certain that I never would have heard of it, or at least never given it much consideration, if I hadn’t heard about it from Brad.

Literally everything else that has happened in my life stems from that decision.

Skinner

Skinner Memorial Chapel at Carleton College, where Jo and I were married

I loved Carleton, I loved Northfield, I loved Minnesota. When I was finished with school I wound up in Boise, Idaho, but after about a year there I realized Northfield was home and I moved back in the summer of 1981. Soon after that I met the woman I married in 1983 (at Skinner Chapel on the Carleton campus); our twin daughters were born two years later. We stayed in Minnesota until 2005, when we moved to California. (Oh, and two of the ushers in our wedding were guys I played in a Strat-o-Matic league with when I went back to Northfield.)

And one other thing…Peter Tork, the bass player for The Monkees, attended Carleton in the early 1960s, thus bringing my story full circle. (We named the pinball room in the student union in his honor while I was a student.)

So, to review…I never would have been in Minnesota to meet my wife if it hadn’t been for Brad Furst…I never would have met Brad if I hadn’t gotten interested in table sports games…and I developed my interest in table sports games when I bought a copy of The Sporting News on July 28, 1967 at a hotel newsstand in Cincinnati.

Me and BradKind of weird the ripples that run through a life, huh?

I got to thinking about all this the other day when I had lunch with Brad, the first time we’d seen each other since 1973. (That’s me on the left.) I thanked him for giving me my wife and children and a happy life in Minnesota. Who knew all that was going to come from an accidental night in a motel room in Kalamazoo?

UPDATE: Pitchers who threw the most extra-inning games

I started this blog in 2009; I now have some additional resources so I thought I might revisit and revise some of my earlier posts. For instance, when I first wrote about pitchers who worked into extra innings, Baseball-Reference.com’s Play Index data base went back only to 1954. It now goes back to 1913, meaning I can paint a more complete picture.

Nine-inning games are rare enough in the 21st Century, but extra-inning performances are all but extinct. It’s happened only six times in the 16 seasons from 2000-2015 (only Roy Halladay did it more than once in that period; he had two 10-inning games), and the last pitcher to do it as of this writing was Cliff Lee in 2012. But such games used to be much more common. Here are the pitchers who have gone at least 9-1/3 innings the most times from 1913-2015, with their records in those games (clicking “Ind. Games” will show you all of the games involved):

Player W L ERA CG ShO WHIP
Pete Alexander 51 Ind. Games 32 15 1.71 51 6 1.02 PHI,CHC,STL
Walter Johnson 44 Ind. Games 22 20 1.31 44 7 0.94 WSH
Gaylord Perry 39 Ind. Games 12 11 1.93 17 1 0.93 SFG,CLE,TEX,SDP,SEA
Ted Lyons 39 Ind. Games 19 19 2.24 38 1 1.15 CHW
Red Faber 36 Ind. Games 21 13 2.20 34 1 1.09 CHW
Eppa Rixey 33 Ind. Games 18 15 1.83 32 0 1.16 PHI,CIN
Wilbur Cooper 33 Ind. Games 20 9 1.67 33 1 1.04 PIT,CHC
Bucky Walters 31 Ind. Games 20 9 1.73 26 2 1.16 PHI,CIN
Red Ruffing 28 Ind. Games 11 15 2.63 25 2 1.17 BOS,NYY
Stan Coveleski 28 Ind. Games 14 13 1.54 26 3 1.05 CLE,WSH
Warren Spahn 26 Ind. Games 11 12 1.79 22 0 0.99 BSN,MLN
Carl Hubbell 26 Ind. Games 10 14 1.83 24 3 0.94 NYG
Lefty Grove 26 Ind. Games 14 10 2.06 24 1 1.17 PHA,BOS
Earl Whitehill 25 Ind. Games 11 11 2.61 22 1 1.30 DET,WSH,CLE,CHC
Robin Roberts 25 Ind. Games 12 9 2.16 19 1 1.05 PHI,BAL,CHC
Jeff Pfeffer 25 Ind. Games 8 12 1.61 23 2 1.02 BRO,STL
Dolf Luque 25 Ind. Games 11 11 1.71 21 2 1.00 CIN,BRO
Bob Gibson 25 Ind. Games 9 11 1.73 19 1 1.08 STL
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 3/19/2016.
Alexander

Grover Cleveland Alexander as a Philadelphia Phillie

The first two pitchers on the list are inner-ring Hall of Famers who spent the prime of their careers in the low-scoring dead ball era, at a time when pitchers were absolutely expected to finish what they started. Even so, what Grover Cleveland “Pete” Alexander accomplished was remarkable. From 1913 through 1928 he pitched into extra innings 51 times and completed every one of them…including a 17-inning game in 1920, three 14-inning games and four others in which he pitched at least 13 innings. By way of comparison, as of the start of the 2016 season the active pitcher with the most career complete games is C.C. Sabathia with 38 — none of which went extra innings.

And those 51 extra-inning complete games don’t even include the first two years of Alexander’s major league career. I can’t find how many times he pitched into extra innings in 1912 (although we know he started four games that went long), but as a rookie in 1911 Alexander got a decision in 11 extra-inning contests. So while we don’t know if he pitched into extra innings on any other occasions and was removed without getting a decision, we do know he pitched extra innings at least 62 times in his career, more than 10% of his career starts. We also know this wasn’t solely a factor of the dead ball era conditions, as 32 of those games came from 1920 onward, the last two of them coming when Alexander was 41 years old.

Johnson

Walter Johnson didn’t seem to mind extra work

Second on the list is the great Walter Johnson, who, like Alexander, completed all his extra-inning starts from 1913 on. But those 44 extra-inning games don’t include the first six seasons of his career, in which he started 194 games and completed 87% of them. During those years Johnson started games that went into extra innings once in 1907, four times in 1908, six times in 1909, three times in 1910 and once in 1912 (I can’t readily find a record of Washington’s extra-inning games in 1911). He likely pitched into extra innings in the majority of those 15 games, but that’s just a guess, and I’m not up for digging up the box scores just now.

With at least 38 extra-inning wins (32 from 1913 on plus six in 1911), Alexander is the runaway leader in that category, at least from 1911 forward. More than 10% of his 373 career wins went extra innings. Johnson’s 20 extra-inning losses from 1913 on are the most for any pitcher in that period, and in those games (remember, all losses) he had a 1.99 ERA.

The (relatively) “modern” leader in extra-inning performances, by a wide margin, is Gaylord Perry, who had 39 such games over a 19-year period. Here are the pitchers who have worked extra innings the most times since 1960:

Player #Matching W L ERA CG SHO WHIP Tm
Gaylord Perry 39 Ind. Games 12 11 1.93 17 1 0.93 SFG,CLE,TEX,SDP,SEA
Bob Gibson 23 Ind. Games 9 10 1.72 19 1 1.04 STL
Jim Palmer 20 Ind. Games 5 5 1.52 10 0 0.89 BAL
Tom Seaver 19 Ind. Games 4 3 1.15 6 1 0.82 NYM,CHW
Phil Niekro 18 Ind. Games 7 5 2.14 12 0 0.98 ATL,NYY
Bert Blyleven 18 Ind. Games 7 4 1.63 9 4 1.02 MIN,TEX,PIT,CLE
Nolan Ryan 17 Ind. Games 6 6 1.86 9 1 1.07 CAL,HOU,TEX
Jim Kaat 17 Ind. Games 9 6 1.16 12 2 0.98 MIN,CHW,STL
Jerry Koosman 16 Ind. Games 3 6 1.45 2 1 1.01 NYM,MIN
Jim Bunning 16 Ind. Games 4 3 1.16 5 0 0.92 DET,PHI
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 3/19/2016.
Perry

Gaylord Perry as The Ancient Mariner…I do love those Seattle caps

Perry did have the advantage of the designated hitter rule for 14 of his extra-inning games, in that he never needed to be removed for a pinch-hitter. Or maybe that’s a disadvantage, if you factor in that he never got to face an opposing pitcher. His last three overtime appearances came when he was 43 years old, pitching for Seattle in 1982. (But Perry was not the oldest man to pitch extra innings; the remarkable Satchel Paige tossed a 12-inning shutout for the St. Louis Browns when he was 46! Team owner Bill Veeck rewarded him by telling Paige to order himself a new suit of clothes. Gregory H. Wolf has more about this game as part of the Society for American Baseball Research’s Games Project.)

Paige headline

Paige photo

From the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 7, 1952

How about the most extra-inning games in a season? We discovered Grover Cleveland Alexander had 11 in 1911 that won’t be included in Play Index. Since 1913, we find Johnson and Perry at the top of the list.

Rk Player Year #Matching W L ERA CG SHO Tm
1 Walter Johnson 1918 9 Ind. Games 6 3 1.21 9 2 WSH
2 Gaylord Perry 1972 8 Ind. Games 5 3 1.37 7 0 CLE
3 Al Javery 1943 8 Ind. Games 7 1 1.40 8 0 BSN
4 Red Faber 1922 8 Ind. Games 4 4 2.92 8 0 CHW
5 Stan Coveleski 1918 8 Ind. Games 3 5 1.03 8 0 CLE
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 3/19/2016.

Perry’s eight extra-inning games in 1972 (pre-designated hitter, by the way) are as many as all major league pitchers have had in the last 18 years combined (1998-2015).

Al Javery

Al Javery

Al Javery is the only man I’ve found to earn seven extra-inning wins in a season…he went at least 11 innings in five of them, including a 14-inning triumph. Javery went 17-16 for the 1943 Boston Braves and, not surprisingly, led the National League in innings pitched and batters faced. I don’t blame you if you’ve never heard of Javery; he finished his career with a 53-74 record and was pretty much done once the boys got home from World War II.

For tough-luck losers…pity Stan Coveleski, who won 22 games in 1918 but lost five extra-inning decisions, all in a period of less than eight weeks, in which he allowed a total of five earned runs. The only other pitcher since 1913 to lose as many extra-inning games in a season was Nate Andrews in 1943, when he led the National League with 20 losses despite finishing fifth in the league in ERA. He worked more than 11 innings in three of his overtime defeats. We know Pete Alexander also lost five extra-inning games in 1911. In more recent years, Bob Gibson lost four extra-inning games in 1969.

Next, the most extra-inning games pitched without allowing a run, since 1913. Note this doesn’t include games in which the pitcher either took a shutout into extra innings only to allow a run later, or left the game in extra innings with a shutout but saw a reliever allow an inherited runner to score.

Player #Matching W L CG SHO Tm
Walter Johnson 7 Ind. Games 6 0 7 7 WSH
Jim Perry 6 Ind. Games 2 0 2 2 CLE,MIN,DET
Bert Blyleven 6 Ind. Games 4 0 4 4 MIN,TEX,PIT
Pete Alexander 6 Ind. Games 4 0 6 6 PHI,CHC
Tom Seaver 5 Ind. Games 1 0 1 1 NYM
Don Sutton 4 Ind. Games 2 0 2 2 LAD
Nolan Ryan 4 Ind. Games 1 0 1 1 CAL,HOU,TEX
Dick Rudolph 4 Ind. Games 2 0 3 3 BSN
Jerry Koosman 4 Ind. Games 1 0 1 1 NYM
Bob Feller 4 Ind. Games 2 0 2 2 CLE
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 3/19/2016.

Notice Walter Johnson pitched seven of these games, all shutouts, but earned only six wins. One of those games was a 12-inning scoreless tie in 1919. Likewise, Grover Cleveland Alexander (I so prefer seeing his full name as opposed to “Pete”) pitched two extra-inning games that ended in 0-0 ties, both in 1913. Johnson and Alex are the post-1913 leaders in extra-inning shutouts. Alexander did not pitch an overtime shutout in 1911 or 1912, but I did some digging on Johnson and found he pitched an 11-inning shutout in 1908 and a 12-inning shutout in 1909 (the DAY AFTER he pitched four innings) to give him at least nine career extra-inning shutouts (still don’t know about 1911).

You’ll also notice Jim Perry and Tom Seaver each pitched four extra-inning games in which he did not allow a run but did not get the win…ouch.

In more recent times, Bert Blyleven is the leader with four extra-inning shutouts…and two of them came in consecutive starts in June 1976!

Date Tm Opp Rslt IP H R ER BB SO BF
1975-08-27 MIN MIL W 1-0 11.0 6 0 0 1 13 39
1976-06-21 TEX OAK W 1-0 10.0 1 0 0 4 8 36
1976-06-26 TEX CHW W 1-0 10.0 10 0 0 2 5 40
1978-04-26 PIT NYM W 1-0 11.0 6 0 0 4 8 42
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 3/19/2016.

Since 1913 only 13 other pitchers have tossed two or more extra-inning shutouts in a season (Alexander, naturally, is the only man with three, which he did in 1913, and Johnson is the only man with two in a season twice, 1918 and 1919). Aside from Blyleven, only Lefty Tyler did it in consecutive starts, in August 1914 for the “Miracle” Boston Braves. The first of Tyler’s games was a 13-inning scoreless tie, followed four days later by a 10-inning 1-0 victory. Blyleven is thus the only pitcher, at least since 1913, to have complete-game extra-inning shutout victories in back-to-back starts.

 

Borowy headline

Hank Borowy, Blake Stein, Paul Wilson and the worst pitching performances in major league baseball history

This isn’t the first post I’ve written that was inspired by a recording of an old major league game broadcast I was listening to (previous examples are here and here). This time I was listening to the June 13, 1978 game between the Indians and the White Sox. Veteran knuckleballer Wilbur Wood started on the mound for Chicago, but after he gave up a single, triple, single and walk (with a wild pitch thrown in), Sox manager Bob Lemon decided Wilbur didn’t have it that day and removed him. Both the runners he left on base went on to score after reliever Pablo Torrealba entered the game.

Four batters faced, four runs allowed. That’s a pretty bad day at the office.

And it got me to wondering — what was the worst day at the office? Who faced the most batters while

  • not getting anyone out and
  • allowing each batter to reach base via hit, walk or hit by a pitch, with
  • each batter scoring (even after the pitcher who put him on base left the game)

I put Baseball-Reference.com’s Play Index to work, searching for pitcher games in which BF=R.

Hello, Hank Borowy.

BorowyBorowy (pronounced “buh-RO-ee”) was a Fordham University graduate who went 56-30 in three-and-a-half seasons with the Yankees during World War II. After he was sold to the Cubs in late July 1945 (shortly after he appeared on the cover of Baseball Digest as seen at right) he helped the Cubs win the pennant, going 11-2 with a 2.13 ERA (he was declared the National League ERA champion, despite pitching just 122-1/3 innings, because in those days eligibility was based on number of complete games). He remains the last Cubs pitcher to start a World Series game and the last Cubs pitcher to win one. Cubs skipper Charlie Grimm worked his ace hard in that ’45 Series…after Borowy pitched a six-hit shutout in Game 1, he came back four days later to start Game 5 and pitched five innings…the NEXT DAY he pitched four innings in relief to win Game 6…and two days later he started Game 7. He faced three batters, all of whom singled, before he was lifted. All three batters he faced scored…a foreshadowing of the Worst. Game. Ever.

The last time Borowy finished a season with a winning record was 1946. By August 1951 he was a 35-year-old hanging on as a relief pitcher with the Detroit Tigers. On August 14 Tiger manager Red Rolfe brought Borowy in to pitch the bottom of the tenth in a tie game at Cleveland, but a walk, a stolen base and a two-out single by Jim Hegan gave the Indians the victory. That left Borowy with a 5.02 season ERA.

It was about to get much worse.

On August 18 in St. Louis, the Tigers and Browns were tied 9-9 in the bottom of the seventh when, with one out, Bobby Young singled and Jim Delsing walked to put the go-ahead run in scoring position. Rolfe again entrusted a tie game to Borowy, sending him to the mound to replace Hal White. After that:

  • Matt Batts singled, scoring Young
  • Cliff Mapes singled, scoring Delsing
  • Hank “Bow Wow” Arft hit a three-run homer
  • Ken Wood singled
  • Fred Marsh singled
  • Bill Jennings walked to load the bases
  • Frank Saucier, pinch-hitting for pitcher Bob Mahoney, walked, scoring Wood for the only RBI of Saucier’s major league career (if Saucier’s name sounds familiar, he would become a footnote in major league history the next day, as we will see)
  • Young walked, scoring Marsh
  • Delsing walked, scoring Jennings to make the score 17-9

And after four straight walks — three with the bases loaded — Rolfe had finally had enough. Rolfe “never made a gesture to warm up a replacement until the contest was hopelessly lost and it was obvious that Borowy’s chance of ever retiring the side were [sic] slight,” Tommy Devine wrote in the next day’s Detroit Free Press.

Borowy headline

A headline in the Detroit Free Press, August 19, 1951

“Watch for Hank Borowy, veteran right-handed pitcher, to be cut adrift soon by the Tigers,” Devine wrote in another story in that edition. “Tiger manager Red Rolfe indicated his disgust at Borowy’s work by allowing him to take a cruel beating in a game in which the Tigers still had a chance.” Borowy remains the only man to pitch to nine or more batters in a major league game without getting any of them out.

There was still only one out when Borowy left the game. Rolfe replaced him with Fred Hutchinson, normally a starting pitcher who had worked eight innings four days earlier. Hutch got out of the inning, but not before allowing two singles that let all three runners Borowy left on base score. So the final line for Borowy: nine batters faced, nine runs allowed. His season ERA jumped from 5.02 to 7.17. The Browns’ 11 runs in that inning tied a team record, and their 20 runs in the game set a team mark.

Cleveland headline

From the Cleveland Plain Dealer, August 19, 1951

This game wasn’t the end of the line for Borowy, as Devine had predicted, but he pitched only five more times for the Tigers in 1951, all in lost causes, and had a 5.63 ERA in those games to end his major league career.

Borowy’s beatdown in St. Louis was overshadowed the next day…when 3’7″ Eddie Gaedel was sent to the plate as a pinch-hitter — for Frank Saucier — to start the bottom of the first inning for the Browns in the second game of a doubleheader.

Gaedel

From the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 20, 1951

What about pitchers who started a game? Who faced the most hitters without getting an out and allowing all of them to score?

Blake Stein was a 6’7″ rookie with the Oakland A’s in 1998. He started the August 31 game at Cleveland with a 5-7 record and an unimpressive 5.70 ERA, although he had pitched a two-hit shutout against the White Sox just 12 days earlier. Here’s how the bottom of the first went against the Indians: walk-hit batsman-walk-single-single-walk-single-single. That made it 6-0 Cleveland, and after A’s manager Art Howe lifted Stein, reliever Mark Mohler allowed both runners Stein left on base to score. Eight batters faced, eight runs allowed.

“Stein’s face as he strolled off the mound was a mask of disbelief and anguish,” Steve Kettmann wrote in the next day’s San Francisco Chronicle. “‘It was just one of those things where it kind of snowballed,’ he said. ‘In college [Spring Hill College in Alabama] I worked one-third of an inning once, but I got an out. Tonight I didn’t even get an out.'”

Stein got company in the eight-for-eight club seven years later in the person of Paul Wilson, who in 1994 had been the first player taken in baseball’s June amateur draft. Injuries kept Wilson from achieving the stardom predicted for him, and by 2005 he was a 32-year-old hanging on with his third major league team, the Reds. Wilson had a 1-2 record with a 5.25 ERA in his first six starts of the season going into a May 6 game against the Dodgers in Cincinnati. Here’s how his night went: hit batsman-homer-single-homer-walk-hit batsman-double-double. Relief pitcher Matt Belisle allowed the inherited runner to score.

Wilson

From the Cincinnati Enquirer, May 7, 2005

“It was terrible,” Wilson said after the game. “I let the team down. I got my ass kicked. It was embarrassing.” He pitched just two more games in his major league career, losing both and allowing 12 runs in 10-1/3 innings.

Oddly enough, this was the second time Wilson had started a game and allowed eight runs without getting an out. It also happened on July 10, 2003, but on that occasion the leadoff batter reached base on an error. Likewise, two other starting pitchers also faced eight batters and allowed eight runs but were victimized by an error: Oakland’s Bill Krueger on June 25, 1984 and the Mets’ Bobby Jones on September 17, 1997…although in Jones’ case, he was the one who committed the error.

The day Catfish Hunter was used as a pinch-hitter when he was already in the game

Thanks to Phil Ploquin for mentioning this incident in the Retrosheet Yahoo group recently, because I was not aware it had happened: in 1976 New York Yankees manager Billy Martin used Catfish Hunter as a pinch-hitter, even though Catfish was already in the game. Yes, it was illegal, and Martin apparently knew it, but it happened anyway.

Catfish

I haven’t been able to find a picture of Catfish with a bat in his hand, for the Yankees or anyone else, so this will have to do.

Hunter was the Yankees’ starting pitcher September 5, 1976 at Baltimore. Thirty-six-year-old Cesar Tovar, who had signed with the Yanks just days earlier, was New York’s designated hitter (the rule allowing for someone to bat for the pitcher throughout the game had gone into effect in 1973).

In the top of the sixth inning, with the game tied 2-2, the Yankees had Graig Nettles on first base with two out and second baseman Sandy Alomar due to bat. But Alomar had gotten sick with a virus (according to Murray Chass’ account in the next day’s New York Times, my source for this post). Martin had decided he would put Tovar at second base (a position he hadn’t played for nearly a year) in the bottom of the inning, meaning by rule he would no longer have a designated hitter and Hunter would have to bat for himself going forward. So Martin decided to have Hunter bat for Alomar.

The move was illegal under Major League Baseball rule 6.10(b), which read then (and still does), “The game pitcher may only pinch-hit for the Designated Hitter.” Meaning Hunter could have batted in place of Tovar, but nobody else — although once DH Tovar moved into the field to replace Alomar, pitcher Hunter would go into the batting order in Alomar’s spot. But Tovar had not yet gone into the field, meaning Hunter could not yet bat in Alomar’s spot.

Here’s what Martin had to say after the game, according to Chass:

I knew that’s what the [rule] book says [that Hunter could only pinch-hit for the DH]. I told the guys on the bench I don’t think I can do this, but I’m gonna try it. If they told me I couldn’t do it, then I would’ve put [Otto] Velez up, but I wanted to save Velez for later. I told the umpire my second baseman was sick so I was putting the DH into the game and he said O.K.

I was surprised [Orioles manager Earl] Weaver didn’t protest. I can’t fault the umpire. When the hell did you ever see anyone do it? The guy who looks bad is Earl. All he had to do was protest.

Weaver said home plate umpire Marty Springstead assured him the move was legal. “It was my fault,” Chass quoted Weaver as saying. “I didn’t know the rule.” Chass said Springstead admitted he didn’t know the rule either and said Springstead called it “a stupid rule.”

At any rate it worked out fine for the Orioles. Hunter made the third out of the inning on a ground ball to Baltimore shortstop Mark Belanger. And the Orioles went on to win the game, with two runs scoring in the eighth inning on an error by the Yankees’ second baseman. Only it wasn’t Tovar, as Martin removed Tovar from the lineup at the start of the bottom of the eighth and moved Fred Stanley from shortstop to second base (Jim Mason entered the game at shortstop). “Tovar hadn’t played second base in a long time,” Martin said. “I wanted defense out there.” With the Orioles leading 3-2, Stanley mishandled a bases-loaded ground ball by Tony Muser that allowed two runners to score. (Although he was a much more experienced infielder than Tovar, Stanley had played only one inning at second base in 1976 prior to this game.)

Hunter had the chance to bat again, leading off the ninth, but this time Martin did bring in Otto Velez. In the Retrosheet box score of the game Hunter appears with the unique designation “p, ph, p.” His sixth-inning appearance was the last at-bat of Hunter’s major league career, which he finished with a respectable .226 batting average (including a .350 mark in 1971) and six home runs. He even had three hits as a pinch-hitter, the last of which came in 1973 (the year the DH rule went into effect) when he batted for Bert Campaneris in a wild game in Oakland. That was the only time, other than the 1976 game, that Hunter batted after the DH went into existence.

Looking at pitchers’ performances before and after a no-hitter

I remember the 1974 movie

I remember the 1974 movie “Earthquake” being the first movie with a $5 admission, at least where I was on Long Island. Must have been the Sensurround.

I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, earthquake country. Earthquakes are literally unpredictable. You have no way of knowing in advance when or where they will happen. I have the feeling baseball no-hitters are the same way, so I thought I would investigate the games that pitchers threw before their no-hitter, to see if there is anything that can be teased out that might be of some predictive value. While I was at it, I decided to look at games pitched after a no-hitter as well, to see if pitching a no-no has any implications for the next start.

The tool I’ll use in my analysis is “game score,” a measure developed by Bill James that I’ve written about earlier. Here’s Bill’s definition:

Start with 50 points. Add 1 point for each out recorded, (or 3 points per inning). Add 2 points for each inning completed after the 4th. Add 1 point for each strikeout. Subtract 2 points for each hit allowed. Subtract 4 points for each earned run allowed. Subtract 2 points for each unearned run allowed. Subtract 1 point for each walk.

Bill’s thought when he came up with this was that the average game score would be about 50, but of course there’s no inherent reason that should be the case.

Only it turns out that’s more or less true. In June 2014 Ben Lindbergh of Baseball Prospectus calculated the average game score for each season from 1950 through 2014. And the average of the season averages (as opposed to the average of all the starts in that time frame, which he didn’t calculate) was 50.8. (One note: Lindbergh limited his analysis to starts of nine innings or shorter, since the game score formula is generous to longer outings. I believe he did this to be more fair to the contemporary pitcher, who rarely goes nine innings anyway and essentially never works longer. In the 16-year period from 1950 through 1965, at the early end of Lindbergh’s analysis, there were 1,015 pitcher starts that went more than nine innings, an average of more than 60 a year. In the 16-year period from 2000 through 2015 there have been exactly six…and only one of those has come in the last eight seasons.)

Bill James introduced

Bill James introduced “game scores” in his 1988 Baseball Abstract

There is some notable variance in average game score from year to year. Lindbergh found that the average game score in 1968, when the average runs scored per game was the second lowest in history, was 56.2…whereas in 1999 and 2000, when teams averaged more than five runs a game, among the highest since 1900, the average game score was 47.4.

I used Baseball-Reference.com’s Play Index to calculate the average game score for all games (including starts of longer than nine innings) since 1914 through September 5, 2015…nearly 350,000 pitcher starts. (This process wasn’t nearly as tedious or time consuming as I feared.) And the average is 50.6, almost exactly what Lindbergh came up with, with a median of 51. (But I was surprised to find the mode — or the game score that has most frequently been recorded — is 55, followed by 52 and 54. The values from 50 to 59 are all pretty close in frequency. I’ll have a little more analysis at the end of this post.)

I’m giving you this context because I’m going to look at the game scores of pitchers in games before and after throwing their no-hitter, going back to 1914, the period for which Baseball-Reference.com has game scores in its database. I’m using the definition of “no-hitter” for this purpose as a complete game of nine innings or more, and I’m excluding the five no-hitters in the Federal League of 1914 and 1915, so American and National League games only. Jake Arrieta’s no-hitter on August 30, 2015 was the 206th such no-hitter during this time period, thrown by 176 different pitchers (here’s the complete list). Not all of them have “before” and “after” game scores, as 12 came in the pitcher’s first start of the season and nine came in his last start of the year.

Cliff Chambers (left) walked eight in his 1951 no-hitter. Only A.J. Burnett (9) and Jim Maloney (10 in 10 innings) walked more in a no-no.

Cliff Chambers (left) walked eight in his 1951 no-hitter. Only A.J. Burnett (9) and Jim Maloney (10 in 10 innings) walked more in a no-no.

Game scores of no-hitters range from 83 (Cliff Chambers in 1951 and Francisco Liriano in 2011) to 102 (Clayton Kershaw in 2014, the second-highest game score since 1914 for a nine-inning game; the highest was 105, Kerry Wood’s 1998 one-hitter in which he struck out 20 and walked no one). [ADDED 4/27/16: After this post was written, Max Scherzer had a 17-strikeout, no-walk no-hitter with a score of 104 on the next-to-last day of the 2015 season.] The average no-hitter game score is 91.5 and the median is 91. But what about the games before and after?

Let’s start by looking at the distribution of game scores. The chart below includes all games through September 5, 2015 (when Arrieta made the start following his no-hitter) along with the starts made immediately before a pitcher’s no-hitter and the starts immediately after. Note some of these are 10-point ranges and others near the median are 5-point ranges.

Game Score All Before
  After
Below 0 258 0.1% 0 0.0% 0 0.0%
0 to 9 1760 0.5% 1 0.5% 1 0.5%
10 to 19 10417 3.0% 5 2.6% 4 2.0%
20 to 29 34186 9.8% 12 6.2% 13 6.6%
30 to 39 53181 15.3% 29 14.9% 21 10.7%
40 to 44 29971 8.6% 10 5.2% 17 8.6%
45 to 49 32268 9.3% 18 9.3% 13 6.6%
50 to 54 34909 10.0% 14 7.2% 17 8.6%
55 to 59 35020 10.1% 18 9.3% 24 12.2%
60 to 69 61580 17.7% 46 23.7% 40 20.3%
70 to 79 39071 11.2% 28 14.4% 31 15.7%
80 to 89 13677 3.9% 10 5.2% 13 6.6%
90 to 99 1419 0.4% 2 1.0% 3 1.5%
100 or higher 115 0.03% 1 0.5% 0 0.0%

(Note: 18 pitchers actually worked in relief in the appearance preceding their no-hitter, the last of whom was Jonathan Sanchez in 2009. And 11 pitchers followed their no-hitter by coming out of the bullpen, the latest being Clay Buchholz in 2007. But the chart above includes information about the most recent starts before and after.)

Pitchers are just as likely to toss a real stinker (game score less than 10) before or after a no-hitter as at any other time…it’s extremely unlikely in any event, but no less so adjacent to a no-hitter. But you’ll note pitchers are less likely to have what I’ll call a “poor” performance (game score less than 40) or a “below-average” performance (game score from 40 to 49) both before and after a no-hitter and are much more likely to have a “good” performance (game score 60 or higher).

Game Score All Before After
39 or lower 28.7% 24.2% 19.8%
40 to 49 17.9% 14.4% 15.2%
50 to 59 20.1% 16.5% 20.8%
60 or higher 33.3% 44.8% 44.2%

The average game score for a start before a no-hitter is 54.4 and the average for a start after is 55.5 — both above average. What kind of a game does that translate to? It so happens it almost exactly corresponds to what Tom Seaver did on either side of his 1978 no-hitter:

Date IP H R ER BB SO Game Score
Jun 10 9.0 11 4 4 1 6 54
Jun 21 7.0 5 3 3 4 4 55
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 9/5/2015.
Tom Seaver had his greatest success with the Mets but threw his only no-hitter after being traded to the Reds.

Tom Seaver had his greatest success with the Mets but threw his only no-hitter after being traded to the Reds.

Nothing special, but nothing to be ashamed of either. Of course, just how relatively good such performances are depends on the season context. In 1968 they would be below average and perhaps result in two losses. In 2000 they would be above average and likely result in two wins. (Seaver won the first of these games and lost the second…in most seasons these lines would probably yield a win and a loss, these game scores are close to the definition of a .500 pitcher.) Perhaps a more mathematically sophisticated analysis that I am capable of would compare each score to the norm for that season in determining whether, as a group, pitchers who throw no-hitters are indeed above average in their starts immediately preceding and following.

And maybe the most useful analysis would compare the performances not only to what is normal for the season but what is normal for that particular pitcher in that season. Because it could be one reason the average before-and-after game scores are above average is because pitchers who throw no-hitters are, as a group, above average. Now that may sound like it makes perfect sense — if you go a whole game without giving up a hit, you must be pretty good, right? Yet you don’t have to have a good career or be having a good season to throw a no-hitter. The list of no-hit pitchers includes George “Iron” Davis, who had a career record of 7-10; Virgil Trucks, a fine pitcher in other seasons who went 5-19 the year he pitched two no-hitters; Mike Warren, who had a career mark of 9-13 with a 5.06 ERA; Jose Jimenez, whose no-no came during a season in which he went 5-14 with a 5.85 ERA; Bud Smith, who won seven games in the big leagues; Philip Humber, who pitched a perfect game and finished his career with a 5.31 ERA; and, most dramatic of all, Bobo Holloman, who won only two other games in a major league career that lasted three months.

All that list does is show that a no-hitter really is unpredictable and can happen to almost anyone. But don’t make the mistake of jumping to the conclusion that no-hitters are truly random events. Because, when you look at the list of pitchers who have done it, it turns out to be a list largely made up of pretty good pitchers.

This display at the Baseball Hall of Fame commemorates Nolan Ryan's seven no-hitters for three different franchises.

This display at the Baseball Hall of Fame commemorates Nolan Ryan’s seven no-hitters for three different franchises.

For instance, 35 of the 206 no-hitters were thrown by pitchers who are in the Hall of Fame. That’s 17%, whereas Hall of Fame pitchers have only 6.6% of the starts since 1914. Granted that 35 is boosted by the seven no-hitters for Nolan Ryan, the four for Sandy Koufax and the three for Bob Feller…but hey, they’re Hall of Famers for a reason.

Or how about pitchers who were on the roster for the All-Star Game in the season in which they pitched a no-hitter? That accounts for 59 of the 179 no-hitters pitched since the year of the first All-Star Game in 1933, or 33%. I haven’t calculated the exact figure for how many of the total pitcher starts have been by All-Stars, but I’ll guarantee you it isn’t one out of three or anything close to it. (By the way, I determined what pitchers were on All-Star rosters by using this list.)

Why don’t we combine the two: no-hitters thrown by Hall of Famers in a season in which they made the All-Star Game? That accounts for 18 no-hitters, or 10% of the post-1933 total (and it includes only four of Ryan’s and two of Feller’s).

So it would appear excellent pitchers are disproportionately likely to pitch a no-hitter.

Then there’s the other category, what I’ll call “regular guys,” who neither made the Hall of Fame nor were All-Stars in the year in question. That’s not to disparage their skills; some of them might have been All-Stars had there been an All-Star Game before 1933, others wound up having fine seasons even though they weren’t selected as All-Stars (for instance, Jake Arrieta didn’t make the All-Star Game in 2015 but is looking like he’ll finish in the top three in the Cy Young Award voting) [ADDED 4/27/16: actually, he won the award]. Maybe some of the active pitchers on the list will wind up in the Hall of Fame. And some of these “regular guys” wound up being Bobo Holloman.

Let’s look at the average game scores for each of these categories:

Before After
Hall of Famer 57.7 60.0
All-Star 58.4 61.6
HoF + All-Star 58.1 65.9
Regular guy 52.0 53.1

Note that Hall of Famers and All-Stars typically have an above-average start both before and after their no-hitters, whereas “regular guys” are darn close to average both before and after their moment of fame. But maybe these numbers reflect what are typically average starts for pitchers in these categories. I suspect the “regular guy” numbers are a little bit higher than what the average game score for a non-Hall of Famer not having an All-Star season would be, and I suspect that’s because this group of “regular guys” is still a little bit better than the overall pool of “regular guys.” But I can’t prove that hypothesis.

I find it interesting that all these breakouts show the average start after a no-hitter being just a little bit better than the average start before. Does the no-hitter instill a smidgen of extra confidence in the pitcher going forward? Create trepidation for the next opponent? Or is it just Small Sample Size Theater?

In addition to pitching a no-hitter in 1919, Horce

In addition to pitching a no-hitter in 1919, Horce “Hod” Eller had two complete game wins in the Reds’ World Series victory over the “Black Sox.” After the season the major leagues outlawed Eller’s “shine ball” and he spent only two more seasons in the majors.

Three pitchers actually had a higher game score in the start after their no-hitter than they did in the no-hitter itself!

  • Hod Eller followed up his 1919 no-hitter with a 13-inning five-hit shutout, his game score going from 92 to 99. That gives him the best-ever game score in the start following a no-hitter and is an example of the impact on game scores of extra inning performances. By the way, the game after the no-hitter was an odd one, a scoreless tie through 12 innings before the visiting Reds score 10 runs (!) in the 13th.
  • Howard Ehmke had a no-hitter in 1923 followed by a one-hit shutout, his game score going from 87 to 89. Oddly enough, in the start prior to his no-hitter, Ehmke gave up six runs in five innings and had a game score of 24, the eighth-worst game score in a start just before a no-hitter.
  • Ken Holtzman, like Eller, followed up his no-hitter with an extra-inning performance in 1971, a 12-inning shutout in which he struck out 12. His game score improved from 89 to 96. In between those games, Cubs manager Leo Durocher used Holtzman in relief; two days after the no-hitter Leo brought Holtzman in to face two lefthanded batters with the winning run on base in the bottom of the 11th in Atlanta, but after Holtzman retired Ralph Garr for the second out of the inning, Mike Lum launched a game-ending three-run homer. And yet another oddity: four days before his no-hitter Holtzman was racked for eight runs in 3-2/3 innings and had a game score of 12, tied for the second-worst game score immediately before a no-hitter.

Two other pitchers had a game score in their next start that was the same as the one in their no-hitter: Ewell Blackwell in 1947 (both were 86) and Tommy Greene in 1991 (both were 90). In each case the follow-up game was a shutout.

The Sporting News paid tribute to Johnny Vander Meer's unprecedented and never-duplicated back-to-back no-hitters on page 3 of the June 23, 1938 issue. The front page was dominated by a story about Babe Ruth's return to the major leagues as a coach for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

The Sporting News paid tribute to Johnny Vander Meer’s unprecedented and never-duplicated back-to-back no-hitters on page 3 of the June 23, 1938 issue. The front page was dominated by a story about Babe Ruth’s return to the major leagues as a coach for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Two pitchers actually had a better game score in the start before their no-hitter. Of course, in the case of Johnny Vander Meer, the start before his no-hitter on June 15, 1938 was also a no-hitter, on June 11. The game score of the first was 88 and the second 86. These games came during a remarkable six-start streak for Vander Meer in which he had an 0.65 ERA and gave up just 17 hits in 55 innings. He gave up only one run in each of the other four starts, and his game scores were all 70 or higher. (The record for the longest streak of 70+ game scores is nine.)

The other pitcher whose no-hitter was a “letdown” was Max Scherzer. On June 14, 2015, Scherzer pitched a one-hit shutout in which he walked one and struck out 16 for a game score of 100, the best ever in the start preceding a no-hitter. (The only baserunner came on a hit batsman with two out in the ninth inning.) Six days later he threw a no-hitter in which he walked no one and struck out 10 for a score of 97. I can’t verify if that’s the highest ever combined game scores for two consecutive starts, but I can say there are only 233 starts with a game score of 97 or better in the entire post-1914 database through September 5, 2015 (0.07% of the total), and Scherzer has two of them. Walter Johnson had nine such games just in the period of his career from 1914 forward, with three of them in 1918, and Nolan Ryan had seven such games (all 99 or higher), three in 1990, but neither they nor anyone else has had game scores of 97 or higher in consecutive starts.

Aside from Scherzer and Vander Meer, what other pitchers had outstanding outings before a no-hitter?

Dennis Eckersley in that all-red Cleveland uniform...

Dennis Eckersley in that all-red Cleveland uniform…

Dennis Eckersley, who earned his spot in the Hall of Fame as a relief ace, was an excellent starting pitcher early in his career. His 1977 no-hitter came five days after he pitched a 12-inning complete game in a 2-1 win (game score 92)…Hall of Famer Dazzy Vance pitched a one-hit shutout (game score 91) five days before his 1925 no-hitter (he got rocked for nine runs in his next start, game score 24)…Before pitching his famous no-hitter in 1934 (brother Dizzy had pitched a three-hit shutout in the opening game of the doubleheader), Paul Dean had given up one run in 11 innings five days earlier (game score 87). And three days before that, he had pitched a 12-inning shutout (game score 94). In those three games he allowed one run and gave up 12 hits in 32 innings. Dean was a “regular guy” by my earlier definition who had an excellent season. His streaks of three straight game scores of 87+ and four straight of 84+ are both tied for the longest ever, at least since 1914….Hall of Famer Ted Lyons pitched his 1926 no-hitter five days after pitching a 10-inning three-hit shutout (game score 86)…Dave Righetti, who like Eckerlsey gained greater fame as a relief pitcher, tossed his 1983 Independence Day no-hitter on the heels of a five-hit shutout (game score 86)…And while the wheels came off for Johan Santana soon after pitching the first (and at this writing only) no-hitter in Mets history, six days before that he had pitched a four-hit shutout (game score 86).

One other pitcher worth mentioning here: Lew Burdette is the only man to pitch a shutout in the starts both before and after his no-hitter (in 1960), but because he didn’t strike out many, his game scores weren’t super high (78 before, 77 after).

Now for the worst games preceding a no-hitter…and the worst of all was one that prompted me to write this post in the first place. In researching pitchers who had the biggest difference in game scores in consecutive starts, I came across Bill Dietrich, who had an ugly start just three days before his 1937 no-hitter. In the earlier game he was blasted for 10 runs in just 3-1/3 innings for a game score of 0 (yes, zero). In my earlier post I asked, “was that the worst performance ever in the start before a no-hitter?” Now I can answer definitively, yes, at least since 1914.

Allie Reynolds' two no-hitters in 1951 were very similar, but his starts preceding them were quite different.

Allie Reynolds’ two no-hitters in 1951 were very similar, but his starts preceding them were quite different.

Here are some of the others who threw duds before their glory: tying Ken Holtzman for the second-worst pre-no-hitter score was Jim Abbott, whose 1993 no-hitter came six days after he gave up seven runs and 10 hits in 3-2/3 innings (game score 12)…Fernando Valenzuela gave up eight runs in 5-1/3 innings (game score 16) five days before pitching a no-hitter in 1990Allie Reynolds pitched two no-hitters in 1951, with a very different lead-in to each. Five days before his first no-hitter, he was knocked out after giving up six runs in just one inning (game score 18; the next day manager Casey Stengel used Reynolds in relief and Allie gave up two runs while getting just one out). In his start prior to the no-hitter he threw in his last start of the season, Reynolds gave up just one run in a complete game win with a game score of 73…After a start in which he gave up seven runs in three innings in 2011 (game score 19), Francisco Liriano rallied to toss a no-hitter, although with six walks and just two strikeouts, Liriano had a game score of 83 to tie Cliff Chambers for the worst game score in a no-hitter, at least since 1914….In the start prior to the first of his seven career no-hitters in 1973, Nolan Ryan retired just one batter and gave up five runs (game score 22). The next day, manager Bobby Winkles used Ryan to get a two-inning save, the last and longest of the three regular-season saves Ryan is credited with in his career (he also earned one in Game 3 of the 1969 World Series).

Tim Lincecum gets a shower after his second no-hitter in 2014

Tim Lincecum gets a shower after his second no-hitter in 2014

And for the worst starts after a no-hitter…Carlos Zambrano was walloped for eight runs in 1-2/3 innings (game score 9) five days after his 2008 no-hitterBob Forsch followed his 1978 no-hitter by giving up seven runs in one inning (game score 10)…Tim Lincecum had a 4.61 season ERA prior to his 2013 no-hitter in which he threw 148 pitches, then next time out nine days later gave up eight runs in 3-2/3 innings (game score 12). Lincecum did not pitch a no-hitter in the two seasons in which he won a Cy Young Award, his two no-hitters came in years in which his final ERAs were 4.37 and 4.74…Dave Stewart struck out 12 in his 1990 no-hitter, but five days later he struck out nobody in giving up six runs in 2-1/3 innings (game score 16)…Philip Humber, mentioned here earlier, followed up his 2012 perfect game by giving up nine runs in five innings five days later (game score 17)…Bob Feller pitched baseball’s only Opening Day no-hitter in 1940, then gave up six runs in three innings five days later (game score 22)…Five days after his 1922 no-hitter, Jesse Barnes managed to retire just one of the five batters he faced before getting the hook (his game score was as high as 28 only because he started with 50 and didn’t pitch long enough to do serious damage).

My takeaway from looking at all this? There’s no way of knowing a no-hitter is coming based on a pitcher’s previous start, but (duh) better pitchers have a better chance of pitching one. And, while either might happen, don’t expect either continued greatness or a total collapse in the start after a no-hitter. Most likely the pitcher will go back to being who he is, good, bad or mediocre.

Before I wrap up, a few notes about the distribution of all game scores since 1914. From -5 to 52, game scores rise in an almost perfect progression, that is, there are more game scores of -4 than -5, more of -3 than -4, etc. There are only two exceptions to the steady increase. There’s a decline from 35 (5505) to 36 (5353), but then 37 is higher than 35. There’s also a decline from 43 (6144) to 44 (6138), but then 45 is higher than 43. The totals bounce around a bit from 52 to 55:

52 7089
53 6961
54 7077
55 7131

But then a steady decline is in effect from 55 to 97, with one exception, from 58 (6877) to 59 (7022), with 60 then lower than 58.