Congratulations, Wally Holborow, you got your record back from Carlos Frias

(Much of this post is repurposed from an earlier post of mine.)

Carlos Frias pitched his way out of the major league record book on May 1, 2015. Well, his record wasn’t exactly in any book…I was probably the only person who knew he held it aside from the person who told me, Sean Forman, creator of Baseball-Reference.com. Sean was kind enough to use his database for me when I was trying to identify the unlikeliest pitching performances in major league history. I thought one way to do so would be to use the “game score” that Bill James first published in his 1988 Baseball Abstract and look for the pitchers with the biggest difference between their best-ever game score and their second-best. That might be a sign that their best game was a fluke and, hence, unlikely.

Baseball-Reference com has calculated the game score for every start in its database since 1914. Here’s the definition, from B-R.com’s glossary:

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.

When Sean ran the numbers for me earlier this year, the pitcher with the biggest difference between his two highest game scores was Carlos Frias, who to that point had two major league starts, both in 2014 for the Dodgers.

Carlos Frias

Carlos Frias

Frias was brought up to the Dodgers in August. Working out of the bullpen, he allowed at least one run in five of his first eight appearances, with an ERA of 5.65. Then on Sept. 3, manager Don Mattingly gave Frias a start against Washington, and Frias responded with six shutout innings (he came out of a scoreless tie in a game the Dodgers lost in 14 innings, 8-5). Despite pitching just six innings, Frias’ game score was an admirable 69, and Mattingly said the rookie might get another start.

That chance came two weeks later. Unfortunately for Frias, it came at Denver’s Coors Field, and he didn’t get out of the first inning — he faced 11 batters, eight of whom scored (two of them on a hit after Frias left the game). His performance earned a game score of zero (remember, you start the game with 50). Frias didn’t start again in 2014, so that 69-point difference between his best and second-best starts ever was the largest of all time (at least since 1914).

But Frias got another chance to start on May 1, 2015, and pitched 5-1/3 shutout innings against Arizona a for a game score of 62. That gave the record for biggest difference between top two game scores back to the man who held it before Frias — Wally Holborow.

Wally Holborow in 1948

Wally Holborow in 1948

With major league caliber players at a premium during World War II, Holborow went to the majors directly from the semi-pro ranks in 1944 at age 30. He had been pitching in his native New York and was with the high-profile Brooklyn Bushwicks when he signed with the Washington Senators. His previous professional experience appears to be limited to three games in the Class C Middle Atlantic League in 1935.

Holborow made one relief appearance late in the 1944 season, throwing three scoreless innings, and started the 1945 season in Washington. He wasn’t used often, and almost always in games the Senators were trailing, but he got the job done. He didn’t allow a run in nine of his first 11 appearances, with an ERA of 2.08.

Then on Aug. 4, Nats manager Ossie Bluege selected Holborow to start the first game of a doubleheader against the Red Sox. And he came through…Shirley Povich wrote in the next day’s Washington Post:

Wally Holborow Post

Holborow’s shutout didn’t earn him more opportunities; in fact, he made only three appearances the rest of the season, all in relief, and gave up at least one run in each. But he finished the year with a 2.30 ERA in 31-1/3 innings.

From the Washington, D.C., Evening Star of Aug. 31, 1948

From the Washington, D.C., Evening Star of Aug. 31, 1948

After the season, with hundreds of players returning from the military, Holborow turned in his voluntary retirement papers and went back to the Bushwicks. But in late August 1948, A’s owner/manager Connie Mack lured Holborow — then 34 years old (although newspaper reports of his signing said he was 31) — to Philadelphia. He made three relief appearances and was the winning pitcher in the third of them when the A’s rallied after he was lifted for a pinch-hitter.

Six days later Holborow was called on to make his second career major league start in the Sept. 23 game at Detroit. The A’s staked him to a 7-2 lead in the fifth inning (Holborow knocked in three of the runs himself), but the Tigers came back, and Sam Vico hit a two-run triple in the bottom of the ninth to give Detroit a 8-7 win.

Why didn’t Connie bring in a relief pitcher? Who knows? Connie was 85 years old, after all; maybe he was resting. But for whatever reason he allowed Holborow to go all the way, facing 43 batters and giving up 16 hits.

Holborow’s game score was 18, 66 points less than the 84 he posted in his 1945 shutout. He made just one more relief appearance for the A’s, finishing his major league career with a 2-3 record and a 3.31 ERA, and then went back to the Bushwicks. Any further information about Wally Holborow would be much appreciated.

I’ve ranked Holborow’s 1945 shutout the sixth-most unlikely pitching performance in major league history; my complete list is at the end of this post, and I’ve written much more about number one and number three on my list here. The complete list of largest differences between best and second-best career Game Scores is here.

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