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Cliff Lee at least has some company in his misfortune

June 24, 2012

Cliff Lee started for the Phillies against the Tampa Bay Rays in the second game of their doubleheader today. That game is ongoing, but Lee was already taken out down 5-3. As the score is now 7-3 in the eighth, Lee will probably be credited with the loss, which would be his fourth this season; he has zero wins. The culprit is poor run support—Lee’s 2.75 SIERA is excellent and virtually identical to his 2011 mark of 2.72, and the same can be said for his 8.92 K/9 and 1.62 BB/9.

So Lee is too good to remain winless for much longer. But his terrible luck to this point and the frailty of the Phillies’ offense will, in all likelihood, conspire to give Lee a losing record by the end of the season. The ZiPS projection system on Fangraphs estimates that Lee will finish the season with 188.2 innings pitched, 184 strikeouts and a 7-7 record. Using those figures as a rough baseline, I looked through baseball-reference’s Play Index tool for starting pitchers with similar seasons.

Here are all starting pitchers since 1918 (I didn’t want any pitchers from the Dead Ball Era) with at least 162 innings pitched, 150 strikeouts, seven or fewer wins and more losses than wins. I sorted these player-seasons by ERA+, which presents a pitcher’s ERA in terms of percentage points above or below the league average for that year (e.g. 101 is one percent better than league average), so the pitchers who pitched the best—and thus had the worst luck/run support that season—are at the top of the table. Bold indicates that the pitcher led the league in that category.

Rk Player ERA+ SO W L IP Year Tm G GS BB ERA
1 Brandon Webb 128 164 7 16 208.0 2004 ARI 35 35 119 3.59
2 Tom Gordon 125 159 6 10 182.2 1997 BOS 42 25 78 3.74
3 Matt Cain 123 163 7 16 200.0 2007 SFG 32 32 79 3.65
4 Steve Rogers 116 150 7 17 230.0 1976 MON 33 32 69 3.21
5 Tony Saunders 116 172 6 15 192.1 1998 TBD 31 31 111 4.12
6 Eric Milton 113 163 7 11 206.1 1999 MIN 34 34 63 4.49
7 Andy Benes 107 189 6 14 172.1 1994 SDP 25 25 51 3.86
8 Bob Welch 106 183 7 13 235.2 1986 LAD 33 33 55 3.28
9 Bud Norris 100 176 6 11 186.0 2011 HOU 31 31 70 3.77
10 Ken Johnson 98 178 7 16 197.0 1962 HOU 33 31 46 3.84
11 Jose DeLeon 97 153 7 13 192.1 1984 PIT 30 28 92 3.74
12 Bob Sebra 96 156 6 15 177.1 1987 MON 36 27 67 4.42
13 Jerry Koosman 93 160 3 15 235.1 1978 NYM 38 32 84 3.75
14 Aaron Harang 92 153 6 17 184.1 2008 CIN 30 29 50 4.78
15 Rudy May 90 164 7 13 208.2 1970 CAL 38 34 81 4.01
16 Dick Stigman 89 159 6 15 190.0 1964 MIN 32 29 70 4.03
17 Bill Stoneman 89 176 7 15 207.2 1970 MON 40 30 109 4.59
18 Jose DeLeon 86 164 7 19 182.2 1990 STL 32 32 86 4.43
19 Brett Myers 85 160 7 14 216.0 2011 HOU 34 33 57 4.46
20 Balor Moore 84 151 7 16 176.1 1973 MON 35 32 109 4.49
21 Mike Moore 80 158 7 17 212.0 1984 SEA 34 33 85 4.97
22 Camilo Pascual 71 162 6 18 188.2 1956 WSH 39 27 89 5.87
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 6/24/2012.

Going into today’s start Lee had an ERA+ of 113, which would put him sixth with Eric Morton on this table. Predictably, most of these losers (13 of 22) were below average pitchers.

Also unsurprising is Matt Cain’s inclusion. For the first few years of his career, Cain was the poster child for good pitchers with terrible run support. Cain’s career win-loss record did not climb over .500 until this year because of this.

Many of these pitchers had control issues that manifested in a lot of walks, which offset their high strikeout numbers. Lee has never had that issue; ZiPS projects only 33 walks for him by season’s end, lower than everyone in the table by far.

Cliff looks to the heavens for answers.

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