Cliff Lee at least has some company in his misfortune
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.
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.