On the same afternoon when I watched Mike Pelfrey pitch eight innings of one-run ball only to see the bullpen (aided by a muffed fly ball) blow a 4-1 lead and cost him the victory, I saw that the same thing happened to Stephen Strasburg. That is, he left the game as the potential winning pitcher, only to be deprived of that notch in the win column by shoddy bullpen work.
In Strasburg's case, he pitched six shutout innings against the Marlins, throwing a modest but possibly sweat-inducing 94 pitches, and getting the rest of the day off as Nationals manager Davey Johnson put the 1-0 lead in the hands of the bullpen. By the ninth inning, the lead was 2-0, but that didn't matter when Brad Lidge staged his own throwback night by walking a batter and coughing up a game-tying home run to Logan Morrison. The Nationals won the game in the tenth inning, but of course some reliever scavenged the win.
I have a message for Mr. Strasburg: get used to it. Pitch your ass off, young man, and hope for the best, but don't expect to win as many games as you deserve to. Understand that in an age where managers expect less and less from their starting pitchers, you are the poster child for a huge talent who might have to wait years to be challenged enough to reach your full potential. Nobody will have more no-decisions snatched from the jaws of victory than you will, but the good news is that if you can put together a very long career, you might set the all-time record. More about that later.
In a season in which Strasburg will turn 24 years old, and having already undergone the kind of serious arm surgery which many long-lasting pitchers got out of the way early in their careers, his manager has already put an innings limit on him for the season. It's a rather modest limit, too, in the neighborhood of 175 innings. If he skips a start here and there and takes the mound 30 times, the average start will not last six innings. Something will have to give on that front, probably depending on whether the Nationals remain in the pennant race late in the season. Can you see Johnson shutting Strasburg down midway through September if they're within a couple of games of making the post-season? No way.
As of today, Strasburg has made 21 starts in the majors and recorded eight wins. That doesn't sound too horrible until you realize that in 13 of those starts, he has held the opposition to no more than one run. It's fair to say that any time you give up one run or no runs, you're entitled to win. So he should be about 12-4 instead of the 8-4 he is in reality.
Two of those non-wins were leads blown by the bullpen, yest and an important game last September. It was Strasburg's first start after missing just over one year following Tommy John surgery, and he held the Dodgers to a pair of hits in five innings, walking nobody and striking out four. He left with a 3-0 lead, but the bullpen promptly blew that one in the sixth inning, and the Dodgers went on to win.
So that's two starts out of 21 in which the bullpen has cost Strasburg a win. I have studied the 20 winningest pitchers in the last 50 years (all with 240+ wins), tracking leads blown by the bullpen as well as games in which the pitchers left as the potential losing pitcher but were bailed out by their offenses. The two leading victims are Roger Clemens and Greg Maddux, with 67 and 61 respectively. If either man had won two-thirds of those games they left with the lead, they would have challenged the 400-victory mark reached only by Cy Young and Walter Johnson, who did not hand any ball over to any damn bullpen bush-leaguer in the seventh or eighth inning. Similarly, if Bert Blyleven's various bullpens had saved even one-third of the leads Blyleven handed to them, he would have vaulted over the 300-win mark and earned election to the Hall of Fame much sooner.
Clemens and Maddux are also the unfortunate leaders in differential between vanished wins and rescued losses. Clemens was bailed out by his teammates only 37 times and Maddux 35, compared to 58 for the all-time leader in being rescued, with Jim Kaat.having the worst differential at 41-58. Here are the pitchers I studied, each listed with career win-loss record followed by additional wins and losses if relievers had never affected their decisions. They are listed according to career wins:
MADDUX 355-227 61-35
CLEMENS 354-184 67-37
CARLTON 329-244 35-49
SUTTON 324-256 48-54
RYAN 324-292 45-48
NIEKRO 318-274 47-43
PERRY 314-265 37-47
SEAVER 311-205 35-41
GLAVINE 305-203 53-49
R. JOHNSON 303-166 49-32
JOHN 288-231 52-56
BLYLEVEN 287-250 47-29
JENKINS 284-226 26-27
KAAT 283-237 41-58
MUSSINA 270-153 40-19
PALMER 268-152 22-29
MOYER 267-204 51-54 (through 2011)
MORRIS 254-186 30-26
D. MARTINEZ 245-193 46-47
TANANA 240-236 49-41
One thing is clear from the chart: the more recently you pitched, the more likely you are to have a lot of wins sacrificed on the altar of the 12-man bullpen. Stephen Strasburg sit on the tip of a large iceberg yesterday and saw career victory #9 melt away in the ninth inning. Get used to it!