Cliff Lee will finish this season with more WAR than actual pitcher wins.
— Eric Seidman (@EricSeidman) June 6, 2012
Pitcher wins might be as relevent as a fax machine in 2012 but, like sending copies of one’s genitals to unknown numbers, that doesn’t mean there isn’t fun to be had. Cliff Lee is off to a terrific start to the season, pitching about as well as anyone in the National League.
Unfortunately for Cliff, he plays for the Phillies. The ageing Phils find scoring runs a real challenge, especially when he is on the hill. The Phillies have given Cliff Lee just sixteen runs of support in his nine starts. Total. One of the lowest numbers in baseball.
As such, Cliff Lee is winless on the year, despite already posting close to 2 Wins Above Replacement by both Fangraphs and Baseball Reference. By ERA, FIP, and xFIP, Lee ranks as one of the best pitchers in the National League but his record doesn’t show it. He’s one of the only pitchers to go winless through nine starts with an ERA under 3.00.
Could Cliff Lee and the Phillies keep this up? Could he actually post more Wins Above Replacement than pitcher wins?
In a word, no. It would be incredibly unlikely that Lee doesn’t fall ass backwards into a handful of wins over the course of a season. There aren’t going to be too many times he will pitch ten shutout innings without picking up a W.
Eric Seidman, author of the original tweet seen above, did some digging on Fangraphs and come up with the name of a starter who managed more WAR than wins.
For those curious, only 1 pitcher has thrown 150+ innings with more WAR than pitcher wins: Jerry Koosman went 3-15 with 3.3 WAR in 1978.
— Eric Seidman (@EricSeidman) June 6, 2012
Jerry Koosman played for a terrible Mets team in 1978, notching 3.3 fWAR to go with only 3 wins. Koosman wasn’t especially great that year, he just pitched a tonne of innings for a bad team. They didn’t score much for him (at all) but, again, he wasn’t that great. His ERA was higher than league average and his FIP was just below the league mark. Innings are important, even for bad teams.
Cliff Lee is no Jerry Koosman. As noted above, he has already counted half Koosman’s WAR total in just nine starts. Should Lee remain healthy enough to make 30 total starts (he spent two weeks on the DL after his marathon start against the Giants in April), his season will easily be worth 5 or even 6 WAR.
All this got me thinking about great pitchers on bad teams. The name at the front of my mind was Randy Johnson, who but together one of his very finest seasons for the terribawful 2004 Arizona Diamondbacks. Those Snakes, just three years removed from winning the World Series, lost 111 games. They were a disgrace. Even that year, Randy Johnson posted 8 rWAR and a shade under 10 fWAR. He was unreal. His team, as mentioned, was historically awful. And Randy Johnson managed to win 16 games that year.
Enter the Baseball Reference Play Index. I went looking for pitchers who had great seasons that didn’t translate to the W/L record. In the name of all that is arbitrary, I sought out pitchers with more than 6 WAR with 10 or fewer wins. Keep in mind, only eight pitchers posted 6 WAR seasons last year. Cole Hamels won 14 games and Ricky Romero won 15, but the average win total was over 18 wins.
This seems exceedingly tough to accomplish. Seeing Roger Clemens high atop this list is weird, considering how many wins he amassed during his incredible career. Brandon Webb’s rookie season was worth 6 WAR? Crazy. Only ten wins, I’m surprised they didn’t send him down.
What if we closed the window a little. Not quite the elite level of production but still some hard luck. What about more than 3 WAR to go with 4 or fewer pitching wins?
Once we get into antiquity, we are scraping the bottom of the barrel. An oft-used relief pitcher from the 30s? Mike Morgan? Woof.
One last search, just for kicks: No more than 7 wins and at least 5 WAR. Still a great season but still all kinds of hard luck.
Jim Abbott. Jim Abbott notched 5.4 WAR after posting a 7.5 WAR season the year before. 13 WAR in two years for a pitcher with one hand. Incredible. His story is simply incredible.
Pedro Marinez was very good too, it seems. Injury kept Pedro from reaching the heights of his previous two seasons but 5 WAR in 18 starts is certainly a thing.
Cliff Lee will win games. Cliff Lee will surely pitched worse but pick up a few wins here and there as that is the cruel way of the world. The oddities pile up but eventually order is restored in the universe. Unless, of course, you aren’t a real winner. Jack Morris should give these chumps a few lessons, you know?