Is Matt Cain the Unluckiest Pitcher Ever?

Of course, the answer to that question is a resounding NO. How unlucky could you be with the contract that Cain just signed? But, contract aside, I want to look at pitcher luck in terms of the results achieved for the quality of work produced. In other words, the relationship between wins and losses, and earned run average.

The traditional benchmark of W-L record for evaluating starting pitchers has now been largely eclipsed by ERA. Case in point is the 2010 AL Cy Young winner, Felix Hernandez, who took the trophy with a 13-12 W-L mark. Nevertheless, W-L is obviously still a prominent statistic. I can again cite Hernandez  as a case in point – there was more than a little criticism of his Cy Young selection, based chiefly on that 13-12 record. Similar reaction attended Cain’s new deal. Even a knowledgeable blogger on this site pointed out Cain’s unremarkable career .486 W-L%, rather than his career 125 ERA+, ninth among active pitchers (min. 1000 IP), and in a tight cluster on that list with such names as CC Sabathia and Justin Verlander.

After the break, I’ll take a look at whether comparison of ERA+ and W-L% can provide clues as to whether a pitcher is lucky or unlucky.

In considering luck in evaluating a starting pitcher, I started from the premise that ERA+ and W-L% should correlate strongly with each other. That is, a 100 ERA+ should correlate to a W-L% of .500, with worse ERA+ correlating with worse W-L%, and better correlating with better. Obvious stuff. That would be a perfect world where pitchers are neither lucky nor unlucky, and are rewarded with results according to the quality of their work. But, MLB is not a perfect world.

To find the most unlucky pitcher, I looked at deviations between W-L% and ERA+. That is, given a pitcher’s ERA+, which pitchers have a W-L% most significantly below what might have been expected based on that ERA+. Here’s the list, ordered by ERA+.

Rk Player ERA+ Dec SO/9 BB/9 WHIP W-L% IP From To G GS CG SHO W L Tm
1 Matt Cain 125 142 7.41 3.23 1.196 .486 1317.1 2005 2011 204 203 13 4 69 73 SFG
2 Jim Scott 121 221 4.50 2.90 1.180 .484 1892.0 1909 1917 317 226 123 26 107 114 CHW
3 Ned Garver 113 286 3.20 3.20 1.353 .451 2477.1 1948 1961 402 330 153 18 129 157 SLB-TOT-DET-KCA-LAA
4 Ken Raffensberger 110 273 3.37 1.88 1.258 .436 2151.2 1939 1954 396 282 133 31 119 154 STL-CHC-PHI-TOT-CIN
5 Eddie Smith 108 186 3.91 4.17 1.437 .392 1595.2 1936 1947 282 197 91 8 73 113 PHA-TOT-CHW
6 Jeremy Guthrie 105 112 5.52 2.68 1.291 .420 1020.1 2004 2011 177 154 4 0 47 65 CLE-BAL
7 Pete Schneider 102 145 3.44 3.52 1.332 .407 1274.0 1914 1919 207 157 84 10 59 86 CIN-NYY
8 Rollie Naylor 102 125 2.51 3.08 1.503 .336 1011.0 1917 1924 181 136 67 2 42 83 PHA
9 Bob Weiland 100 156 3.98 3.96 1.494 .397 1388.1 1928 1940 277 179 66 7 62 94 CHW-BOS-TOT-SLB-STL
10 Jim Beattie 98 139 5.17 3.61 1.423 .374 1148.2 1978 1986 203 182 31 7 52 87 NYY-SEA
11 Milt Gaston 96 261 2.63 3.57 1.508 .372 2105.0 1924 1934 355 269 127 10 97 164 NYY-SLB-WSH-BOS-CHW
12 Buster Brown 96 154 3.11 3.91 1.377 .331 1451.2 1905 1913 234 165 106 10 51 103 STL-TOT-PHI-BSN
13 Gordon Rhodes 95 117 3.06 4.09 1.595 .368 1048.2 1929 1936 200 135 47 1 43 74 NYY-TOT-BOS-PHA
14 George Bell 94 122 3.12 2.53 1.211 .352 1086.0 1907 1911 160 124 92 17 43 79 BRO
15 Socks Seibold 91 133 2.50 3.43 1.489 .361 1063.2 1916 1933 191 135 64 8 48 85 PHA-BSN
16 Hugh Mulcahy 90 134 2.43 3.77 1.513 .336 1161.2 1935 1947 220 145 63 5 45 89 PHI-PIT
17 Happy Townsend 84 116 3.74 3.29 1.380 .293 1137.2 1901 1906 153 125 107 5 34 82 PHI-WSH-CLE
18 Jesse Jefferson 83 120 4.33 4.31 1.539 .325 1085.2 1973 1981 237 144 25 4 39 81 BAL-TOT-CHW-TOR-CAL
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 4/10/2012.

Gee, look who’s on top. This list is starting pitchers since 1901, with 100 decisions and 1000 IP, where career ERA+ >= W-L% x 250. Say what? This relationship is saying that, for example, a .500 pitcher would need to have an ERA+ of 125 to be considered unlucky. Similarly, a .450 pitcher would have to have ERA+ of 113, and so forth. You can argue whether this is the right search criteria, but it seems to have come up with a reasonable list. Certainly, for the top half of the list, and even for pitchers as far down as Hugh (Losing Pitcher) Mulcahy at 90 ERA+, hard to argue that their W-L% isn’t a lot worse than would be reasonable to expect based on ERA+.

Note also that only three of these pitchers pitched 2000 innings (10-12 seasons for a full-time starter today, several seasons fewer in the past). To me, this suggests that it’s hard to stay unlucky forever. And, what might this luck be? Look at the seasons represented and the teams these pitchers played for. For the most part, these guys were unlucky chiefly because they played for lousy teams. Which, to me, makes Cain stand out even more – because he hasn’t played for a lousy team. The Giants for 2005-2011 played at .494, even better than Cain’s W-L%. Similarly, Jim Scott, second on our list, played for White Sox teams that won at a .530 clip. On the other hand, Rollie Naylor’s As (.375), George Bell’s Superbas (.397) and Mulcahy’s Phils (.355) better indicate what might have given rise to their lack of good fortune.

The top 2 pitchers on our list are among only 3 with career ERA+ of 120 and a W-L% of under .500, and among only 5 with a W-L% under .550. Here’s that list.

Rk Player W-L% ERA+ Dec SO/9 BB/9 WHIP IP From To G GS CG SHO W L Tm
1 Jim Scott .484 121 221 4.50 2.90 1.180 1892.0 1909 1917 317 226 123 26 107 114 CHW
2 Matt Cain .486 125 142 7.41 3.23 1.196 1317.1 2005 2011 204 203 13 4 69 73 SFG
3 Johnny Rigney .496 122 127 4.59 3.41 1.307 1186.1 1937 1947 197 132 66 10 63 64 CHW
4 Ewell Blackwell .513 121 160 5.72 3.83 1.296 1321.0 1942 1955 236 169 69 15 82 78 CIN-TOT-NYY-KCA
5 Dizzy Trout .514 124 331 4.15 3.45 1.353 2725.2 1939 1957 521 322 158 28 170 161 DET-TOT-BAL
6 Kevin Appier .552 121 306 6.91 3.24 1.294 2595.1 1989 2004 414 402 34 12 169 137 KCR-TOT-OAK-NYM-ANA
7 Don Drysdale .557 121 375 6.52 2.24 1.148 3432.0 1956 1969 518 465 167 49 209 166 BRO-LAD
8 Felix Hernandez .559 129 152 8.19 2.75 1.224 1388.1 2005 2011 205 205 18 4 85 67 SEA
9 Jose Rijo .560 121 207 7.69 3.17 1.262 1880.0 1984 2002 376 269 22 4 116 91 NYY-OAK-CIN
10 Dave Stieb .562 123 313 5.19 3.21 1.245 2895.1 1979 1998 443 412 103 30 176 137 TOR-CHW
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 4/10/2012.

Now for the opposite, the pitchers whose W-L% is considerably better than their ERA+ would suggest. Here’s that list.

Rk Player ERA+ Dec SO/9 BB/9 WHIP W-L% IP From To G GS CG SHO W L Tm
1 Don Gullett 114 159 5.96 3.24 1.227 .686 1390.0 1970 1978 266 186 44 14 109 50 CIN-NYY
2 Mark Mulder 106 163 5.71 2.82 1.342 .632 1314.0 2000 2008 205 203 25 10 103 60 OAK-STL
3 Vic Raschi 105 198 4.67 3.60 1.316 .667 1819.0 1946 1955 269 255 106 26 132 66 NYY-STL-TOT
4 Carl Erskine 102 200 5.14 3.38 1.328 .610 1718.2 1948 1959 335 216 71 14 122 78 BRO-LAD
5 Lefty Williams 99 130 3.91 2.63 1.238 .631 1186.0 1913 1920 189 152 80 10 82 48 DET-CHW
6 George Pipgras 99 175 4.32 3.62 1.429 .583 1488.1 1923 1935 276 189 93 16 102 73 NYY-TOT-BOS
7 LaMarr Hoyt 99 166 4.67 1.91 1.214 .590 1311.1 1979 1986 244 172 48 8 98 68 CHW-SDP
8 Jack Coombs 99 268 4.08 3.26 1.239 .590 2320.0 1906 1920 354 268 187 35 158 110 PHA-BRO-DET
9 Lew Burdette 99 347 3.15 1.84 1.243 .585 3067.1 1950 1967 626 373 158 33 203 144 NYY-BSN-MLN-TOT-CAL
10 Kirk Rueter 98 222 3.84 2.73 1.394 .586 1918.0 1993 2005 340 336 4 1 130 92 MON-TOT-SFG
11 Tom Browning 98 213 4.69 2.39 1.271 .577 1921.0 1984 1995 302 300 31 12 123 90 CIN-KCR
12 Steve Blass 95 179 5.05 3.36 1.349 .575 1597.1 1964 1974 282 231 57 16 103 76 PIT
13 Jack Billingham 94 258 4.60 3.03 1.354 .562 2231.1 1968 1980 476 305 74 27 145 113 LAD-HOU-CIN-DET-TOT
14 Russ Ortiz 94 202 6.46 4.66 1.492 .559 1661.1 1998 2010 311 266 9 3 113 89 SFG-ATL-ARI-TOT-HOU-LAD
15 Ross Grimsley 92 223 3.31 2.47 1.306 .556 2039.1 1971 1982 345 295 79 15 124 99 CIN-BAL-MON-TOT
16 Jack Harper 92 138 3.46 3.24 1.338 .572 1176.2 1901 1906 152 142 110 10 79 59 STL-SLB-CIN-TOT
17 Bob Walk 91 186 4.58 3.27 1.367 .565 1666.0 1980 1993 350 259 16 6 105 81 PHI-ATL-PIT
18 Curt Young 90 122 4.36 2.98 1.354 .566 1107.0 1983 1993 251 162 15 3 69 53 OAK-TOT
19 Tony Cloninger 88 210 5.70 4.06 1.381 .538 1767.2 1961 1972 352 247 63 13 113 97 MLN-ATL-TOT-CIN-STL
20 Sammy Ellis 88 121 6.07 3.39 1.340 .521 1004.0 1962 1969 229 140 35 3 63 58 CIN-CAL-CHW
21 Chuck Dobson 88 143 5.42 3.40 1.311 .517 1258.1 1966 1975 202 190 49 11 74 69 KCA-OAK-CAL
22 Jason Bere 86 136 7.45 5.07 1.549 .522 1111.0 1993 2003 211 203 4 0 71 65 CHW-TOT-CHC-CLE
23 Adam Eaton 84 139 6.53 3.42 1.443 .511 1178.2 2000 2009 209 201 3 0 71 68 SDP-TEX-PHI-TOT
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 4/10/2012.

These pitchers are those, since 1901, with careers of 100 decisions and 1000 IP, and an ERA+ < W-L% x 170. Thus, you’re considered lucky if your W-L% is .500 when your ERA+ is 85. Or, if your W-L% is .600 when your ERA+ is 102. Certainly, these pitchers, on the whole, pitched for much better teams than the guys on the first list. Just scanning the teams and years, nearly everyone played on a dominant or very good team for at least part of his career.

Jason Bere, perhaps, deserves some mention. His first two seasons, he had a 123 ERA+ and .774 W-L%, a good ERA but certainly deserving of being on this list with that improbable W-L mark. For the rest of his career, Bere did a Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde transformation, compiling only a 78 ERA+ but still winning at a .448 clip (even including a 1-10 season with the 2002 Cubs). Not quite in our luckiest ever range (would have needed a .459 mark for that group), but pretty close. So, perhaps Jason is our Luckiest Pitcher ever. Lucky when he’s bad, and even luckier when he’s good.

Who do you think are the luckiest and unluckiest pitchers?

Leave a Reply

45 Comments on "Is Matt Cain the Unluckiest Pitcher Ever?"

Notify of
avatar
Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Graham Womack
Guest

I’ll put in a vote for Deadball Era pitcher Ned Garvin, who went 58-97 with a 125 ERA+ lifetime. Bill James wrote, “Ned Garvin was the tough-luck pitcher of the decade, if not the hard-luck pitcher of all time… He was pretty much the tough-luck pitcher of the year every year.”

no statistician but
Guest

Would Steve Blass be on this list without his record beyond 1972, after which he simply lost the strike zone? Koufax worshippers write off Sandy’s first six years when he was clueless about his talents. Can’t we give other players similar slack, especially when the problem is physical or psychological?

I suppose the real point is that career totals alone can give some peculiar renderings that falsify what was truly going on.

Doug
Guest

Good catch. Through 1972, Blass was .599 with 106 ERA+, a bit shy of our “Lucky” threshold (would have needed a .623 clip with that ERA+).

Ironically, Blass makes it onto this list because of his post-1972 marks of .250 with 36 ERA+. He was actually “lucky” that his W-L wasn’t worse. With that ERA+, anything above .212 would be seen as lucky by this metric.

Tmckelv
Guest

without looking at any comments or stats – or even reading the post, I am going to say yes. Matt Cain is the unluckiest pitcher. Now time to read the post to see if that is actually true.

Tmckelv
Guest

A lot of Reds pitchers on that “Lucky” list – 4 from the Big Red Machine era (1970-1976 – Cloninger, Gullet, Billingham, Grimsley) plus Sammy Ellis and Tom Browning.

Fewer Yankees on the “Lucky” list than I would have expected – only Raschi and Pipgras. (Although Gullet was 18-6 in 30 starts in NY)

Richard Chester
Guest

It looks like Ned Garver should be on the unlucky list. His .451 W-L percentage times 250 = 112.75 and his ERA+ = 113.

Jeff Hill
Guest
Cain is by far the unluckiest pitcher. Worst run support in the bigs since his 2005 call up. Top ten in H/9, innings, ERA and the Giants in his 6+ seasons are 485-486 not counting the 1-3 record ’12 season and his rookie year where he started 7 games. That’s .500 ball and he’s a top tier pitcher, unlucky doesn’t even scratch the surface. I live in Memphis(where he pitched in High School) and I keep up with every start he has being a Giants fan already. Can anyone tell me overall how many games he’s pitched over his career… Read more »
Doug
Guest

Thanks, Jeff.

According to his B-R player page, Cain’s career splits by run support look like this.
0-2 runs – 73 starts, 10-50, 3.23
3-5 runs – 87 starts, 32-21, 3.48
6+ runs – 44 starts, 27-2, 3.43

Michael E Sullivan
Guest
One thing I notice is that the recent aces who I think of as being fairly lucky in W-L (Andy Pettitte, CC) don’t make your list. I suspect that really good pitchers can almost never meet the standard of this search, as pretty much nobody wins over .700 for a career, even all time greats who are on good teams with good run support for their whole career. I’m guessing the relationship between ERA+ and W-L is non-linear and strongest around 100. Or it could just be that the corpus of >115 lifetime ERA+ pitchers is so small, that there’s… Read more »
Hartvig
Guest
I know on MLB Trade Rumors there was a posting about Hamels negotiating for a new contract (which now I can’t find- the comments on the Rosenthal posting are just the opposite of what I read so it had to be another one) and a truly remarkable number of people were claiming that Hamels was the better pitcher simply because of his won-lost record. There are a lot of remarkably good pitchers on that second list although I have to admit I know nothing about Jim Scott or Johnny Rigney. And you have got to love a comment section where… Read more »
PhilM
Guest
I’ll trot out my favorite toy, which calculates W-L records based on annual ERA+ using the negative binomial distribution. As a percentage of decisions, the unluckiest starting pitcher is indeed Ned Garvin, followed closely by Jim Devlin from the dawn of the NL (1876-1877). My “unluckiest,” minimum 1000 IP: Ned Garvin Jim Devlin Matt Cain Thornton Lee Ned Garver – (always wondered at his name and luck similarity to Garvin) Brandon Webb On the other end, the six “luckiest”: Al Spalding (full career, 1871-1877) Vic Raschi Lefty Williams (maybe his lack of teammate support was something he “earned”) Don Gullett… Read more »
PhilM
Guest

I would be remiss if I didn’t give a shout-out to Jack Nabors: nobody deserves to be 1-25, and his admittedly dismal 74 ERA+ probably should have been 9-27, .346 winning percentage. So, he was over 30% unlucky: 8 games divided by 26 decisions. He’s the unluckiest of all time, by my estimation (with hard-luck Anthony Young a bit behind him in second place). Chris Knapp is the opposite number: career ERA+ of 78 shouldn’t earn you a winning record!

PhilM
Guest

I meant, of course: 9-17, .346 pct. Tired hand/brain coordination. . . .

Michael Sullivan
Guest
The more I think about it, the more I think there’s a decent chance that Cain will end up a should-be hall of famer. But he’s going to have to do a *lot* to actually get in. Assuming he pitches long and well enough but his W/L luck doesn’t turn fully around, he is going to look a lot like Rick Reuschel or Kevin Appier, guys who everybody knew were real good, but just “don’t look like hall of famers.” That’s assuming a lot of course, given that he’s still less than halfway to the hall of wWAR, but SF… Read more »
Ed
Guest

Michael – I originally thought the same, thinking he was going to end up a bit like Bert Blyleven in terms of how he was perceived. On the other hand, his best finishes in WAR for pitchers are 8th, 9th and 10th. That doesn’t exactly scream future HOFer.

Michael E Sullivan
Guest

I was thinking in terms of him maybe ending up borderline in WAR terms and just having no chance. I’d say he has almost no shot at being as good as Blyleven, who is so clear cut by the right numbers that it’s just astounding he took so long to get in, even with his unluck. Blyleven was better than a number of pitchers who made it on the first ballot.

bstar
Guest

Doug, was it you who did a somewhat similar look at luck/bad luck for starting pitchers a while back? It was in tabular form. Maybe it was JA. Anyway, I notice several names appearing on both lists of “unluckiest”, including Vic Raschi, Tony Cloninger, J Billingham, Lew Burdette, etc.

bstar
Guest

Edit: “luckiest”, not “unluckiest”.

vivaeljason
Guest

I think it would be a worthwhile exercise to look at unlucky seasons — as noted in the blog, many pitchers don’t stay unlucky forever. I would just love to see if there were some phenomenal seasons buried in 10-15 records on otherwise good teams.

Ed
Guest

Doug – I think there’s an error/type. You state: “The top 2 pitchers on our list are among only 3 with career ERA+ of 120 and a W-L% of under .500, and among only 5 with a W-L% under .550. Here’s that list.” You then go on to list 10 pitchers, 5 of whom have W-L% above .550.

bstar
Guest

Ed, this leaves 5 pitchers with WP >.550 and, like Doug said, five with WP <.550.

bstar
Guest

Doh! Doug beat me to it.

Ed
Guest

Right, it’s just that the text and the table don’t match. The text sets you up to expect a table with 5 names, not 10.

bstar
Guest
What’s weird/ironic about Cain being considered “unlucky” is that it’s often stated the other way around: that Matt Cain is “lucky” to have an ERA as low as he does because his peripheral pitching stats(like FIP and xFIP) suggest that his ERA should be much higher given the # of home runs, strikeouts, and walks he’s accrued. Here’s Cain’s career ERA/FIP/xFIP: 3.37/3.70/4.26 People for several consecutive years have predicted a regression for Matt Cain, since his low HR/9 rate and low BABIP were deemed “unsustainable”. But it’s gotten to the point that people who rely too heavily on FIP are… Read more »
Evil Squirrel
Guest
Thank you, thank you, thank you for this post! And now, to answer the question as to why Matt Cain is the unluckiest pitcher in baseball….. it’s because he has been a member of my fantasy team since the day before he was called up in 2005. He’s my franchise player, I’ve retained him every year. I’ve cursed this poor man for the past 7 years by keeping him on my lousy team, and I plan to stick by him the rest of his career, and continue withstanding the excruciating losses and no decisions he continues to pile up in… Read more »
Paul E
Guest

E- Squirrel:
“…it’s because he’s been a member of my fantasy team for the past 7 years”

You sound like me with the stock market

Evil Squirrel
Guest

Unlucky no more!!!!!

I am so happy for Matt! Couldn’t have happened to a more deserving pitcher….

wpDiscuz