Fielding in baseball (if not fielders, necessarily) is getting better all the time. Improvements in equipment, field conditions and, especially, defensive positioning, mean today’s players have a leg up on their predecessors. Indeed, today’s computer analysis of batter and pitcher tendencies is of a sophistication unimagined even as recently as a decade ago. And, to top it off, recent years have seen progressively fewer balls in play due to ever increasing numbers of strikeouts. The end result – fewer errors and fewer unearned runs.

Nevertheless, unearned runs haven’t disappeared entirely and some pitchers seem to allow more of them than others. As an example, these are the starting pitchers of 2012 (min. 150 IP) with the three highest ratios of unearned runs allowed to total runs allowed.

Rk Player R ER IP Year Age Tm G GS CG SHO W L W-L% BB SO ERA ERA+ HR
1 C.J. Wilson 93 78 188.0 2012 31 LAA 31 31 0 0 12 9 .571 80 159 3.73 101 17
2 CC Sabathia 85 71 176.0 2012 31 NYY 25 25 2 0 13 6 .684 40 169 3.63 115 21
3 Aaron Harang 82 69 164.0 2012 34 LAD 28 28 0 0 9 9 .500 77 123 3.79 101 14
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 9/16/2012.

Surprised? I mean those are all pretty decent pitchers. Why would it be those guys? After the jump, I’ll explain why perhaps this shouldn’t be so surprising.

Here’s that same 2012 list expanded to the top 10 in unearned run ratio, those pitchers allowing more than 12% unearned runs.

Rk Player R ER IP Year Age Tm G GS CG SHO W L W-L% BB SO ERA ERA+ HR
1 James Shields 100 86 205.1 2012 30 TBR 30 30 2 2 14 9 .609 53 193 3.77 100 24
2 C.J. Wilson 93 78 188.0 2012 31 LAA 31 31 0 0 12 9 .571 80 159 3.73 101 17
3 Homer Bailey 91 79 181.0 2012 26 CIN 29 29 1 0 11 9 .550 47 142 3.93 107 24
4 Wandy Rodriguez 90 77 189.2 2012 33 TOT 31 30 0 0 11 13 .458 51 126 3.65 108 18
5 Phil Hughes 88 77 175.0 2012 26 NYY 29 29 1 0 15 12 .556 40 148 3.96 106 33
6 CC Sabathia 85 71 176.0 2012 31 NYY 25 25 2 0 13 6 .684 40 169 3.63 115 21
7 Aaron Harang 82 69 164.0 2012 34 LAD 28 28 0 0 9 9 .500 77 123 3.79 101 14
8 Matt Moore 78 68 166.1 2012 23 TBR 28 28 0 0 10 10 .500 73 165 3.68 102 17
9 Justin Verlander 78 68 217.1 2012 29 DET 30 30 6 1 14 8 .636 55 218 2.82 148 18
10 Ross Detwiler 62 53 151.0 2012 26 WSN 30 24 0 0 9 6 .600 43 94 3.16 127 11
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 9/16/2012.

Pretty decent set of pitchers. None with ERA+ below 100 or ERA above 4. And, with Verlander, Shields and CC, some of the top echelon pitchers in the game.

Maybe you’re saying this is one season. Doesn’t mean anything. Okay, fair enough. How about 50+ years. Here are the starting pitchers since 1961 with seasons (min. 162 IP) with unearned runs allowed above 15% of total runs allowed.

Rk Yrs From To Age
1 Juan Marichal 8 1963 1973 25-35 Ind. Seasons
2 Gaylord Perry 7 1968 1980 29-41 Ind. Seasons
3 Jim Kaat 7 1961 1974 22-35 Ind. Seasons
4 Tommy John 6 1967 1979 24-36 Ind. Seasons
5 Kevin Brown 5 1992 2003 27-38 Ind. Seasons
6 Greg Maddux 5 1990 1999 24-33 Ind. Seasons
7 Phil Niekro 5 1967 1986 28-47 Ind. Seasons
8 Dennis Martinez 4 1981 1992 26-37 Ind. Seasons
9 Nolan Ryan 4 1974 1984 27-37 Ind. Seasons
10 Dock Ellis 4 1971 1977 26-32 Ind. Seasons
11 Jim Rooker 4 1970 1978 27-35 Ind. Seasons
12 Sonny Siebert 4 1966 1972 29-35 Ind. Seasons
13 Mike Cuellar 4 1966 1973 29-36 Ind. Seasons
14 Don Drysdale 4 1962 1968 25-31 Ind. Seasons
15 Dean Chance 4 1962 1967 21-26 Ind. Seasons
16 Bob Gibson 4 1961 1973 25-37 Ind. Seasons
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 5/16/2012.

Wow! That’s quite a list of pitchers. Obviously tilted to the first part of the post-1961 period owing to the factors cited in the preamble. But, why such outstanding pitchers, as opposed to a more typical assortment of hurlers?

Here is my hypothesis. I welcome your feedback (not that I have to invite you, but go ahead and poke as many holes as you like). So, here goes.

1. This group will be allowing fewer runs (even a lot fewer runs) than “average” and “below average” pitchers in any era. Don’t think there should be much debate on this point.

2. The defense behind this group will play better than the defense behind an average or below average pitcher. Why? Fewer base runners, fewer pitches, fewer balls in play, balls in play not hit as hard, pitchers (probably) working faster – all these factors suggest less pressure on the defense and, ergo, less likelihood of committing errors that lead to unearned runs.

3. Factor #1 will be more pronounced than factor #2. That is, while the defense will play better behind this group, it’s not like they’re going to commit only half as many errors as they would behind a below average pitcher. However, a top rank pitcher may very well allow runs at a rate only half that of a below average pitcher, and perhaps 2/3 the rate of an average pitcher.

4. Taking the 3 points together, the reduced absolute number of unearned runs allowed that is expected for this group (point 1 and 2) will still be a larger proportion of their much lower total runs allowed (point 1 and 3), than would be the case for less skilled pitchers  (i.e. the great majority of major league pitchers).

So, there’s the hypothesis. It would be great if I could get stats on errors committed behind pitchers (point 2), but I don’t know where those figures might be. I expect the rest of the argument should be fairly self-evident. But, if I’m wrong, please let me know.

Finally, to illustrate my point about unearned runs declining at ever increasing rates, here are lists identifying the pitchers with the highest unearned run ratios by period. Notice the decline in unearned run ratio thresholds needed to generate lists of comparable size.

For 1901-1919, here are careers (min. 1000 IP) with unearned runs more than 33% (yes, 33%) of runs allowed.

Rk Player R WHIP ER IP From To Age G GS CG SHO W L W-L% BB SO ERA ERA+ HR
1 Harry Howell 952 1.167 634 2230.0 1901 1910 24-33 289 245 214 18 110 133 .453 561 900 2.56 111 22
2 Jack Taylor 830 1.144 553 2008.0 1901 1907 27-33 237 217 210 17 119 101 .541 432 527 2.48 115 31
3 Addie Joss 730 0.968 488 2327.0 1902 1910 22-30 286 260 234 45 160 97 .623 364 920 1.89 142 19
4 Ed Siever 674 1.235 435 1507.0 1901 1908 26-33 203 174 136 14 83 82 .503 311 470 2.60 117 24
5 Joe Lake 671 1.260 417 1318.0 1908 1913 27-32 199 139 95 8 62 90 .408 332 594 2.85 99 19
6 Johnny Lush 571 1.276 369 1239.1 1904 1910 18-24 182 155 105 16 66 85 .437 413 490 2.68 97 17
7 Smoky Joe Wood 492 1.084 319 1432.1 1908 1919 18-29 224 158 121 28 117 57 .672 419 988 2.00 149 10
8 Phil Douglas 471 1.131 314 1103.0 1912 1919 22-29 189 131 63 13 54 69 .439 266 524 2.56 112 23
9 Andy Coakley 436 1.245 280 1072.1 1902 1911 19-28 150 124 87 11 58 59 .496 314 428 2.35 112 9
10 Jack Pfiester 365 1.089 240 1067.1 1903 1911 25-33 149 128 75 17 71 44 .617 293 503 2.02 128 6
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 5/16/2012.

For 1920-1949, let’s ratchet down that unearned run threshold to 18% of runs allowed.

Rk Player R WHIP ER IP From To Age G GS CG SHO W L W-L% BB SO ERA ERA+ HR
1 Dutch Leonard 1309 1.251 1059 2933.1 1933 1949 24-40 474 373 192 30 172 169 .504 634 1048 3.25 118 136
2 Jimmy Ring 1172 1.543 948 1944.0 1920 1928 25-33 312 251 126 3 96 128 .429 819 713 4.39 97 96
3 Joe Shaute 1043 1.447 838 1818.1 1922 1934 22-34 360 208 103 5 99 109 .476 534 512 4.15 99 76
4 Elam Vangilder 1010 1.513 812 1702.2 1920 1929 24-33 364 186 89 13 98 102 .490 697 468 4.29 100 93
5 Stan Coveleski 851 1.319 688 1933.2 1920 1928 30-38 274 253 138 21 133 89 .599 510 558 3.20 127 53
6 Hooks Dauss 813 1.425 653 1521.2 1920 1926 30-36 269 169 89 6 97 90 .519 476 462 3.86 104 62
7 Bill Doak 596 1.351 477 1268.2 1920 1929 29-38 228 172 66 14 82 68 .547 384 385 3.38 109 42
8 Joe Heving 559 1.460 450 1038.2 1930 1945 29-44 430 40 17 3 76 48 .613 380 429 3.90 108 64
9 Rube Marquard 541 1.386 437 1000.1 1920 1925 33-38 176 130 47 6 52 60 .464 256 341 3.93 94 43
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 5/16/2012.

For 1950-1992, we’re down to 15% unearned runs.

Rk Player R WHIP ER IP From To Age G GS CG SHO W L W-L% BB SO ERA ERA+ HR
1 Curt Simmons 1368 1.284 1158 3038.0 1950 1967 21-38 499 424 153 36 181 160 .531 894 1519 3.43 114 240
2 Juan Marichal 1329 1.101 1126 3507.0 1960 1975 22-37 471 457 244 52 243 142 .631 709 2303 2.89 123 320
3 Sonny Siebert 907 1.213 767 2152.0 1964 1975 27-38 399 307 67 21 140 114 .551 692 1512 3.21 110 197
4 Randy Jones 875 1.251 735 1933.0 1973 1982 23-32 305 285 73 19 100 123 .448 503 735 3.42 101 129
5 Dean Chance 832 1.212 697 2147.1 1961 1971 20-30 406 294 83 33 128 115 .527 739 1534 2.92 119 122
6 Hoyt Wilhelm 773 1.125 632 2254.1 1952 1972 29-49 1070 52 20 5 143 122 .540 778 1610 2.52 147 150
7 Al Jackson 725 1.336 614 1389.1 1959 1969 23-33 302 184 54 14 67 99 .404 407 738 3.98 91 115
8 Jim Hearn 709 1.350 597 1410.0 1950 1959 29-38 308 191 56 9 88 73 .547 534 567 3.81 105 137
9 Zane Smith 692 1.317 583 1485.1 1984 1992 23-31 281 216 31 14 75 86 .466 483 828 3.53 107 85
10 Bill Krueger 571 1.492 484 1024.0 1983 1992 25-34 233 143 8 2 57 57 .500 431 516 4.25 92 85
11 Mel Parnell 567 1.422 481 1194.2 1950 1956 28-34 200 167 69 15 81 57 .587 507 510 3.62 121 88
12 George Stone 524 1.361 441 1020.2 1967 1975 20-28 203 145 24 5 60 57 .513 270 590 3.89 96 122
13 Ed Halicki 509 1.262 428 1063.0 1974 1980 23-29 192 157 36 13 55 66 .455 334 707 3.62 102 82
14 Ron Perranoski 442 1.332 364 1174.2 1961 1973 25-37 737 1 0 0 79 74 .516 468 687 2.79 124 50
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 5/16/2012.

And, for 1993-2011, all the way down to 11% unearned runs allowed.

Rk Player R WHIP ER IP From To Age G GS CG SHO W L W-L% BB SO ERA ERA+ HR
1 Tim Wakefield 1765 1.355 1560 3134.1 1993 2011 26-44 614 450 29 5 192 179 .518 1170 2105 4.48 104 415
2 Mike Hampton 1157 1.442 1024 2268.1 1993 2010 20-37 419 355 21 9 148 115 .563 901 1387 4.06 107 200
3 Kevin Brown 942 1.176 828 2380.2 1993 2005 28-40 359 349 47 14 155 101 .605 597 1920 3.13 135 155
4 Bobby Jones 833 1.351 735 1518.2 1993 2002 23-32 245 241 11 4 89 83 .517 412 887 4.36 94 194
5 Julian Tavarez 808 1.498 696 1404.1 1993 2009 20-36 828 108 2 0 88 82 .518 563 842 4.46 101 113
6 Dustin Hermanson 675 1.360 600 1283.0 1995 2006 22-33 357 180 4 2 73 78 .483 460 874 4.21 105 160
7 Wandy Rodriguez 598 1.346 532 1176.0 2005 2011 26-32 206 197 2 2 73 75 .493 422 1004 4.07 102 134
8 Tom Candiotti 595 1.339 514 1116.2 1993 1999 35-41 206 175 12 1 56 71 .441 359 705 4.14 97 122
9 Felix Hernandez 564 1.224 500 1388.1 2005 2011 19-25 205 205 18 4 85 67 .559 424 1264 3.24 128 116
10 Ramon Martinez 564 1.375 499 1156.0 1993 2001 25-33 186 185 16 10 83 51 .619 527 841 3.88 104 108
11 Brandon Webb 557 1.239 479 1319.2 2003 2009 24-30 199 198 15 8 87 62 .584 435 1065 3.27 142 92
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 5/16/2012.

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