Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Jacob deGrom's Record-Pace Bad Luck

Any Mets fan can tell you what a brutal season Jacob deGrom has had, though it might appear quite unlikely to the outsider. Look at his stats, after all: a 4-0 record, 1.52 ERA, 85 strikeouts and just 47 hits in 65 1/3 innings. That should put him on a pace to contend for the Cy Young Award, an achievement predicted for him in March by Ron Darling, who almost knows about such things.

Yet his bad luck has already reached historic proportions, only one-third of the way through the season. Let me tell you how bad it is.

Since back in the Dark Ages when I worked at the Hall of Fame, I've been compiling several massive studies of pitching usage and success, most going from the 1950s through some recent season. Two studies of starting pitchers are somewhat related, and both reflect what has happened to Jacob deGrom.

One I call the Blown Wins Study. That included all the big winners and seasons from 1955-2008, roughly from Sandy Koufax through Greg Maddux. I focused on the times when each starter left the game with the lead, as the "winning pitcher of record," only to see the bullpen blow the win. For the record, the career leaders in Blown Wins is Roger Clemens, with 67, with Maddux the runner-up at 61.

The lowest Blown Wins totals were Koufax's 13 and Bob Gibson's 15; back then, the starter stayed in long enough to blow his own leads, thank you very much. Maddux and Clemens were often excused from further effort after six or seven innings, giving the bullpen more time to blow those leads.

The other study I call my "Big Pitchers" study only because of the million or two pieces of data I have assembled in it. It focuses on the place in an average game where the deployment of the starting pitcher has changed most dramatically during the past generation or so: the end of the 7th inning.

More precisely, the study covers every time a starting pitcher has worked seven innings and has a lead of three runs or less, the so-called "save situation" in which it has become increasingly automatic for managers to go to the bullpen. In fact, in the last decade this fulcrum has moved to the end of the 6th inning, requiring another study that is in its early stages.

Every time the starter faces the 8th inning with a small lead, I track whether he keeps pitching, what happens if he does, and what happens if and when he is relieved. The amazing (to me) thing I've discovered is that there is little change in the bottom line between the old-time strategy of expecting the starter to finish the game and the current vogue for parading relievers to the mound in the late innings. No matter how you slice it, no matter how hard a manager abuses his starters or falls in love with his bullpen, his team still holds such a lead about 85% of the time.

There's a fair amount of correlation in the two studies regarding starting pitchers leaving the game with the lead but not getting the win. The "big" study simply limits the data to games when the starter worked at least seven innings. By contrast, of Clemens' 67 blown wins, 22 came before the 8th inning, while for Maddux it was 16 of 61.

What does this have to do with Jacob deGrom? I'm getting there. Consider this. Looking at the 25 biggest winning pitchers from a half-century or so (515 individual seasons), I found just 35 in which a starting pitcher suffered as many as 5 blown wins in a season. Three times (Don Drysdale 1960, Phil Niekro 1973, and Maddux 2008), a starter was robbed of 7 wins by horrid bullpen work. Eleven times, there were 6 blown wins (twice each for Jim Kaat, Tommy John, and Tom Glavine, once each for Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, Clemens, Niekro and Jamie Moyer. On 21 occasions, a starter had 5 blown wins in a season.

I looked at those 35 seasons to see how often the starter lasted seven innings. It happened 40.6% of the time; three times out of five, they didn't last seven innings. Out of the 35 seasons, I found two in which the starter went seven innings five times, and four in which he did it four times. These were the winningest pitchers of two or three baseball generations, and only six times did they have as many as four games in a season in which they left after seven (plus) innings with a lead that was blown by the bullpen.

It has happened to Jacob deGrom four times already this season. In fact, all four occurred in a six-week period.

Amazingly, the two times a pitcher was victimized by his bullpen five times in a season, it was the same pitcher! That poor bastard was Jamie Moyer, first for the Baltimore Orioles in 1994 and reprising the feat with the 1999 Seattle Mariners. A youth of 31 in 1994, with only 46 of his 269 career victories on his resume, Moyer got 23 starts for the Orioles before the strike wiped out the last one-fourth of the season. Yet it lasted long enough for Moyer to endure this sad carnage:
  1. April 24, vs. Seattle: Moyer led, 6-3, in the 8th inning when he left with the bases loaded. Three relievers later, Seattle had a 7-6 it managed to keep. 
  2. June 15, vs. New  York: Moyer left in the 8th inning with a 3-2 lead, two runners on, and one out. Reliever Jim Poole surrendered the lead before the Orioles rallied to win,
  3. July 10, vs. Oakland: In seven innings, Moyer allowed just two hits, leaving with a 4-2 lead. Lee Smith got drilled for the game-winning home run in the 9th inning by Mark McGwire.
  4. July 24, at Oakland: This time, he left after seven solid innings, but a 6-2 lead wasn't enough. Four runs in the 8th inning tied it, and the A's won it in the 9th.
  5. August 3, at Minnesota: This time, manager Johnny Oates let Moyer pitch the 8th inning, and he was unscathed. Leading 3-2 to the bottom of the 9th, Oates opted for Lee Smith, who gave up two runs and lost. 
In his final start before the strike, Moyer allowed five runs but picked up the winning, making his 1994 record a mediocre 5-7. In addition to the five wins his bullpen blew, he left two games as the potential losing pitcher but was saved by his offense. So his "pitcher of record" record would be 10-9.

By 1999, Moyer had passed the 100-win mark and, though nobody would have suspected it, was just midway through his career at age 36. Here was the sorry chronicle of his undermining that season:

  1. April 21, at Chicago White Sox: He led 1-0 going to the 8th but gave up a leadoff walk and was yanked. Of course that run scored, as did another, and the Mariners lost.
  2. June 21, at Cleveland: He left after the 7th inning with a 3-2. The lead was blown in the 8th inning, but it took until the 12th for them to lose.
  3. June 26, vs. Texas: This time he took a 4-1 lead to the 8th inning and left with the bases loaded and one out. All three runs scored, another lead vanished.
  4. July 15, vs. San Diego: He got to pitch eight innings, but Jose Mesa blew the 2-1 lead and the game in the 9th.
  5. September 8, vs. Toronto: Again he lasted eight innings and left with a 2-1 lead. Again Mesa blew the lead, this time scavenging a win.
Poor Jamie! He's tied with Tom Glavine for third in career Blown Wins with 53, as many as Tom Seaver and Juan Marichal combined. He pitched longer than anybody it seemed--but for just six or seven innings at a time. He tallied a paltry 25 complete-game victories out of his 269. 

Those who attained the 5-Blown-Win plateau include Dennis Martinez in 1989, Roger Clemens in 1996, Pedro Martinez in 2003, and Randy Johnson in 2008. Now the semi-octopus has snared deGrom before the end of May. Avert your eyes if you can:
  1. April 16, vs. Washington: deGrom took a four-hitter and a 6-1 lead to the 8th inning. After one out and two singles, out he came. It took a mere four relievers to negotiate the rest of the inning, allowing six runs along the way. The Mets lost. deGrom shook his head.
  2. April 21, vs. Atlanta: In his next start, deGrom met an uglier fate. Scoreless to the 8th inning, the Mets erupted for three runs, with deGrom exiting for a pinch-hitter. Three relievers combined to lose this one on a pair of two-run rallies. deGrom flinched.
  3. May 23, vs. Miami: Following his April 27 start, deGrom pitched just five innings in the next three weeks, including a stint on the DL. He returned with a 13-strikeout win, and then this happened. He went seven strong innings, leaving with a 1-0 lead. But Jeurys Familia gave up two runs in the 9th inning to blow the game. deGrom's jaw dropped.
  4. May 28, vs. Atlanta: Once again, deGrom met a cruel fate in consecutive starts. Once again, it was a one-run lead (2-1) through seven innings. This time, it was Seth Lugo who gave up three runs to take the loss. deGrom went looking for a shrink
It's hard to overstate how well deGrom is pitching. In his last 40 1/3 innings, he has allowed exactly two runs and 26 hits while striking out 55. I didn't catch the exact number, but he has held the opposition hitless in the last 56 or 58 at-bats with runners in scoring position. You can't pitch much better than that, unless you're Justin Verlander. 

My father used to say that a pitcher has a right to punch an infielder in the nose for making an error that cost him a game. deGrom has a lot of punching to do to show his bullpen what he thinks of their work. This isn't new to him. In 2015 and 2016, he also suffered 3 blown wins. But it has gotten out of hand, so to speak.

He's entitled. But he'd better be careful to punch them with his left hand. Things are tough enough.

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