A few final (maybe) thoughts on the unlikeliest pitching performances in major league history

Bill James introduced

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

I’ve written two previous posts (here and here) attempting to identify the unlikeliest pitching performances in major league history. In the second of those, I used data provided by Sean Forman of Baseball-Reference.com to look at the pitchers who had the biggest difference between their highest “game score” and their second-highest. “Game score” was a concept developed by Bill James in his 1988 Baseball Abstract to attempt to roughly quantify how good a starting pitcher’s performance was. The formula:

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.

Baseball-Reference.com has calculated the game score for every start in its database, going back (when this was written) to 1914. Here’s Sean’s list of the greatest differences between a pitcher’s best and second-best game score. This chart includes: 1) the difference; 2) the pitcher’s name and the number of his career starts (you’ll notice almost all of them had just two starts, and only two of them had more than four); 3) the pitcher’s highest game score with his box score line (IP-H-R-ER-BB-SO); 4) the pitcher’s second-highest game score with his box score line; and 5) the team(s) he pitched for in the two games. For pitchers who had a tie for their second-best score, both are listed. Links go to the pitcher’s main page on B-R.com and to the box scores of the games involved.

66 Wally Holborow (2) 84 (9-2-0-0-3-4) 18 (8.1-16-8-8-3-2) 1945 Senators/1948 A’s
53 Leon Cadore (147) 140 (26-15-1-1-5-7) 87 (11-7-0-0-0-4) 1920 Dodgers
87 (12-7-1-0-2-3) 1919 Dodgers
52 Bob Clark (2) 77 (9-4-0-0-3-1) 25 (8-13-7-7-3-0) 1920 Indians
51 Joe Oeschger (198) 153 (26-9-1-1-4-7) 102 (14-6-0-0-3-5) 1920 Dodgers/1917 Phillies
50 Bob Lacey (2) 77 (9-7-0-0-1-5) 27 (2-6-5-4-0-1) 1980 A’s/1984 Giants
49 Don Loun (2) 79 (9-5-0-0-0-2) 30 (4-8-4-3-3-1) 1964 Senators
Mel Stottlemyre Jr. (2) 75 (7-1-0-0-3-3) 26 (3-7-5-5-1-2) 1990 Royals
Ben Callahan (2) 61 (6-3-1-1-2-1) 12 (1.1-7-7-7-1-1) 1983 A’s
48 Bob Hartman (2) 86 (10-3-1-1-3-7) 38 (4-4-5-3-2-2) 1962 Indians
Raul Sanchez (2) 78 (9-5-0-0-4-5) 30 (3-6-4-4-2-1) 1952 Senators
47 Dick Rusteck (3) 82 (9-4-0-0-1-4) 35 (4-7-3-3-1-0) 1966 Mets
Steve Schrenk (2) 66 (6-4-0-0-0-2) 19 (2.1-7-6-6-2-2) 1999 Phillies
46 Ed Fallenstein (4) 82 (9-3-0-0-1-2) 36 (6.1-8-5-4-3-0) 1933 Braves
Migel Puente (4) 72 (9-7-1-1-4-7) 26 (1.2-4-5-5-2-1) 1970 Giants
26 (3.1-6-6-5-2-2) 1970 Giants
44 Bill Clemensen (2) 68 (9-5-2-1-5-2) 24 (6.1-11-7-7-4-5) 1941 Pirates/1939 Pirates
43 Chris Bootcheck (3) 61 (6-5-1-1-0-3) 18 (3.2-10-6-6-0-1) 2005 Angels
Charles Leesman (2) 58 (5-4-1-1-5-8) 15 (2.2-9-6-6-1-0) 2013 White Sox/2014 White Sox
Ben Ford (2) 57 (6.1-5-2-2-3-5) 14 (2-6-7-7-2-0) 2000 Yankees

Most of these pitchers were addressed in my previous posts, but I want to mention a couple others here.

Migel/Miguel Puente

Migel/Miguel Puente

Migel Puente (that’s how his name appears on Baseball-Reference.com, but I’ve found his name in print only as Miguel), a native of Mexico, went 13-7 with a 2.52 ERA (second in the league) for the Giants’ farm club in the Class AA Texas League in 1969. He began the 1970 season at Class AAA Phoenix, then the Giants called him up in May and put him in the starting rotation. He got rocked in his debut, giving up five runs in less than two innings, but came back five days later to pitch a complete game in beating the defending World Series champion Mets on his 22nd birthday. Puente made two more starts in the next week and was crushed in both, getting knocked out in the fourth inning of the first and the first inning (after facing seven batters) of the second. In his three non-winning starts combined he pitched 5-2/3 innings and gave up 16 runs. Ouch. His next appearance came in relief in a wild game against the Padres at Candlestick Park; he entered in the 12th inning of a game tied 16-16 (!) and held the Pads scoreless for three innings until Steve Huntz led off the top of the 15th with a home run to give San Diego a 17-16 win. (Giants manager Clyde King was fired the next day.) Three days later he was brought in to face the Dodgers but was replaced without officially being credited with facing a batter; he threw three pitches to Claude Osteen before he was removed with what an Associated Press game story described as “a pulled muscle in his right [pitching] shoulder.” It wound up being his last major league appearance. Puente did pitch in Phoenix again before the season was over; I have not been able to find out what he was doing in 1971, perhaps he was hurt, then he pitched in the Mexican League for several seasons starting in 1972. In the context of the rest of his big league career, his one win seems like a candidate for the short list of unlikeliest performances, but since he was considered a hot prospect at the time I’m inclined to leave him off the list. (Puente is still alive as this was written; he will turn 67 in 2015. I found this story from 2012 showing him living in McAllen, Texas, and playing in a senior softball league.)

From the Springfield (Mass.) Daily Republican of Sept. 29, 1941

From the Springfield (Mass.) Daily Republican of Sept. 29, 1941

Bill Clemensen was just 19 when he made his major league debut for the Pirates in May 1939. He pitched 10 games in relief without getting a decision before getting a start on the final day of the season, in which he gave up seven runs in 6-1/3 innings. He returned to Pittsburgh in September 1941 and got another last-day-of-the-season start; this time he pitched a complete game five-hitter to beat the Reds and deny Bucky Walters his 20th win of the season. That performance might have given Clemensen a chance to stick with the Pirates in 1942; alas Pearl Harbor intervened. In April 1942 he was inducted into the Army and spent the next four years in the Army Air Force. Clemensen did return to pitching after the war and got into one more game with the Pirates, in relief, in 1946.

Sean Forman also made me a list of the pitchers who had the biggest differences between their two best game scores and started at least 10 games in the major leagues.

53 Leon Cadore (147) 140 (26-15-1-1-5-7) 87 (11-7-0-0-0-4) 1920 Dodgers
87 (12-7-1-0-2-3) 1919 Dodgers
51 Joe Oeschger (198) 153 (26-9-1-1-4-7) 102 (14-6-0-0-3-5) 1920 Braves/1917 Phillies
36 Zach Stewart (14) 94 (9-1-0-0-0-9) 58 (7-7-2-2-1-4) 2011 White Sox/2011 Blue Jays
35 Carl Hubbell (433) 132 (18-6-0-0-0-12) 97 (16.1-11-2-1-4-6) 1933 Giants/1936 Giants
34 Lefty Tyler (182*) 126 (21-13-1-0-1-8) 92 (13-10-0-0-4-9) 1918 Cubs/1914 Braves
32 Rob Gardner (42) 112 (15-5-0-0-2-7) 80 (9-4-1-1-3-8) 1965 Mets/1966 Mets
Al Aber (30) 101 (15.1-9-1-1-3-8) 69 (9-6-2-2-3-5) 1954 Tigers
69 (9-5-2-2-4-4) 1950 Indians
31 Vern Law (364) 118 (18-9-2-1-2-12) 87 (12-11-0-0-1-8) 1955 Pirates/1965 Pirates
87 (9-2-0-0-1-5) 1964 Pirates
30 Andrew Lorraine (26) 84 (9-3-0-0-1-4) 54 (8-7-4-4-2-4) 1999 Cubs
29 Ralph Beard (10) 83 (12-8-2-1-2-5) 54 (7-6-2-2-3-0) 1954 Cardinals
54 (4-2-1-1-1-1) 1954 Cardinals
Bryan Bullington (10) 82 (8-2-0-0-1-5) 53 (6-5-3-3-1-4) 2010 Royals
Carl Bouldin (10) 75 (9-7-1-1-1-7) 46 (5-8-2-2-0-3) 1962 Senators
28 Les Mueller (18) 112 (19.2-13-1-0-5-6) 84 (9-2-0-0-2-3) 1945 Tigers
27 Phil Douglas (199**) 119 (16-4-0-0-3-8) 92 (12-6-1-1-1-7) 1915 Dodgers/1919 Cubs
Justin Lehr (11) 82 (9-4-0-0-1-4) 55 (6-4-3-3-3-6) 2009 Reds
Junior Walsh (12) 81 (9-3-0-0-2-2) 54 (6-6-2-2-1-3) 1949 Pirates
26 Dick Conger (12) 79 (9-2-1-1-2-2) 53 (6-6-3-1-2-3) 1943 Phillies
Dave Wehrmeister (10) 77 (9-5-1-1-3-7) 51 (6.1-7-2-2-2-2) 1977 Padres
25 Troy Herriage (16) 78 (9-3-1-1-5-6) 53 (7-5-4-4-5-7) 1956 A’s
Phil Gallivan (11) 77 (10-5-2-1-5-4) 50 (8-8-5-4-1-3) 1934 White Sox

* Tyler started 85 games before 1914 that are not in the B-R.com database; perhaps one of them had a higher game score than 92.

** Douglas started one game in 1912 that is not in the database, but his game score wouldn’t have been high enough to matter here, as he allowed seven runs in seven innings

You’ll notice many of the pitchers with the biggest differences had a game in which they pitched, and pitched well, for a huge number of innings. In each case that pitcher’s second-best game was still an excellent game.

I said in my previous post I can’t consider either Joe Oeschger or Leon Cadore for the unlikeliest performance, even though they both went the distance in a 26-inning tie between Oeschger’s Braves and Cadore’s Dodgers in 1920. The same two pitchers had just gone 11 innings against each other less than two weeks earlier, Cadore winning 1-0. Oeschger had pitched a 14-inning shutout in 1917 (a game that ended in a scoreless tie) and had pitched 20 innings in a game in 1919 (another tie). While such long performances were indeed unusual, they weren’t unheard of; from 1914, when the B-R.com database begins, through 1919 a pitcher went at least 20 innings seven times, and there were three more such performances in the 1920s, the last of which saw Ted Lyons pitch 21 innings and George Uhle 20 in 1929 (Uhle was relieved in the bottom of the 21st after his Tigers scored what turned out to be the winning run in the top of the inning).

By the way, the list above includes two “last-of-a-kind” performances…Les Mueller, who went 6-8 for the 1945 World Series champion Tigers in his only full major league season, was the last man to pitch at least 19 innings in a game, and Vern Law was the last man to pitch at least 18 innings in a game.

Ralph Beard's 1955 Bowman baseball card

Ralph Beard’s 1955 Bowman baseball card

One of the pitchers in the list above never won a major league game. Ralph Beard started 10 games for the 1954 Cardinals, losing four of them; the closest he came to a win was in his third start on July 22, when he came out after 12 innings with the score tied 2-2 (his Cardinals went on to beat Pittsburgh in 14).

There are a few pitchers on the list who may deserve closer consideration for possible inclusion on my list of 10 unlikeliest pitching performances in major league history.

Zach Stewart turned in a dazzling performance in shutting out the Twins in the second game of a Labor Day doubleheader in 2011, facing just 28 men; Danny Valencia led off the eighth with a double to be the only Twin to reach base. Stewart had won only one major league game before that and has won only one since…his career big league record is 3-10 with a 6.82 ERA (he pitched in the minors in 2014 and is just 28 years old to start the 2015 season, so he may be back). I decided to leave Stewart off my “unlikeliest” list because he was considered a good prospect when he pitched his one-hitter; he had been a third-round draft pick just three years earlier and had already pitched a few reasonably good games in the big leagues. But in what is now the context of his full major league career, that one game sure stands out.

Andrew Lorraine‘s shutout stands out in a major league career that saw him go 6-11 with a 6.53 ERA. It came when he was 27 years old and was already pitching for his fifth major league team (he would go on to pitch for two more). Carl Bouldin, aside from his complete game win, was 2-8 with a 6.89 ERA in his major league career. Bryan Bullington‘s masterful performance against the Yankees in 2010 (eight shutout innings allowing just two hits) is the only win of his major league career, and it came while pitching for his fourth team; his career mark is 1-9 with a 5.62 ERA, and since 2011 he has pitched in Japan. (Bullington was the first player taken in the 2002 amateur draft; later first-round selections included Zack Greinke, Cole Hamels and Prince Fielder.) Aside from his three-hit shutout Junior Walsh had a career record of 3-10 with a 6.16 ERA. Dick Conger, Dave Wehrmeister, Phil Gallivan all had miserable careers…but on further review I’ll still keep Troy Herriage in my top-10 unlikeliest list ahead of all of them, even though they all (except Gallivan) have a bigger gap between their best and second-best game scores. Remember, Herriage pitched a three-hitter for his only win in a career that saw him go 1-13 with a 6.63 ERA, and he had more career starts that any of the pitchers mentioned here except Lorraine.

All right, I should have this topic out of my system for a while…but if there are any other unlikely performances you want to nominate, feel free to leave them in the comments.

5 thoughts on “A few final (maybe) thoughts on the unlikeliest pitching performances in major league history

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