By a fair number of measures, the Cubs’ Jeff Samardzija has been among the two best pitchers in the National League. This is surprising for at least a couple of reasons:
Reason 1. Samardzija has never been remotely this good before, and
Reason 2. Samardzija hasn’t won a game all season.
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Heading into his Monday afternoon start against the Giants, Samardzija is 0-4 with a 1.46 ERA in 10 starts. In four of his starts, he hasn’t give up an earned run. In his four losses, he’s given up eight earned runs. He’s been really, really unlucky.
Before we go one step farther, a couple of caveats:
And this is a great excuse to talk about unlucky pitchers. I thought about coming up with some sort of formula, but then I remembered I don’t know how to write computer programs of any sort. The simple criteria I can apply with Play Index, while they lead to useful results, don’t give me a list I care to stick to. So instead I’m just using the list as a guide to pitchers I feel like writing about …
Beginning with Nolan Ryan, who in 1987 led the National League with 270 strikeouts and a 2.76 ERA … and finished with an 8-16 record. I’m not at all sure it’s the unluckiest season in history. I’m pretty sure it’s the most famous unlucky season. Oh, and before you ask: No, it wasn’t because of the Astrodome. That was a pitcher’s park, of course. But Ryan’s 142 ERA+ also led the league.
Okay, so I’ll let you peek behind the curtain. I made my list by looking for the pitchers who saved the most runs while also posting a sub-.400 winning percentage. Ryan’s at the top of list with 27 runs saved – technically, Pitching Runs – and he’s one of only three pitchers with more than 12 runs saved and a sub-.400 winning percentage who led their league in ERA+.
The others are Jeff Samardzija (so far) and Joe Magrane. In 1988, Magrane made only 24 starts, but captured the ERA crown with a 2.18 mark … and went just 5-9. He did make up for it the next season, though, going 18-9 and finishing fourth in Cy Young balloting. But from there it was all bad luck and injuries, as Magrane went just 25-42 during the rest of his career.
Five years after Ryan’s unlucky season, Jim Abbott did almost exactly the same thing: same innings, same ERA+, almost the same record (7-15). Those ’92 Angels were just awful, thanks to an offense that finished last in the American League in scoring. Abbott suffered the most, but everybody in the rotation finished with losing records. And while Abbott was terribly unlucky in ’92, in ’93 he was lucky enough to throw a no-hitter despite notching only three strikeouts. Abbott subtitled his memoir “An Improbable Life,” and for good reasons.
Even more recently, we’ve got a couple of contemporaries: Matt Cain and Cliff Lee. In 2007, Cain went 7-16 with a 3.65 ERA. Bizarrely, the next season he went 8-14 with a 3.76 ERA. Granted, this wasn’t exactly the Dead Ball Era and Cain’s ERAs weren’t Cy Young-worthy. Three years ago, I made the case that Cain had been the unluckiest pitcher in major-league history, career-wise. Things have gone better for him since then, but his career record still doesn’t nearly match his performance.
Cliff Lee hasn’t suffered Cain’s habitual bad luck. Except for 2012, when he somehow started 30 games, posted a 3.16 ERA, and went just 6-9. Oh, he also led the majors in strikeout-to-walk ratio. Lee’s teammate Cole Hamels, pitching the same number of innings with (roughly) the same ERA, went 17-6. That’s extraordinary.
Oh, and another modern pitcher in that group: young Joey Hamilton, who in 1995 went 6-9 despite a 3.08 ERA in 30 starts. Hamilton’s luck, unlike Cain’s, did turn around the next season, as he went 15-9 despite a below-average ERA+. But Hamilton never enjoyed another good season, struggling with injuries for the rest of his career.
Seven pitchers have saved at least a dozen runs and led their league in losses. In 1930, the Red Sox’s Milt Gaston saved 22 runs and went 13-20. In 1922, Cincinnati’s Dolf Luque saved 18 runs and went 13-23. In 1944, the Phillies’ Ken Raffensberger saved 16 runs and went 13-20. In 1960, Washington’s Pedro Ramos saved 13 runs and went 11-18. In 2004, Arizona’s Brandon Webb saved 13 runs and went 7-16. And in 1976, Montreal’s Steve Rogers saved 12 runs and went 7-17. We might also reserve some sympathy for the Brooklyn Dodgers’ George Bell; in 1910, he saved 11.6 runs while pitching 310 innings and going 10-27. Bell went 5-6 the next season and never pitched in the majors again.
One more I’d like to mention: Turk Farrell, who went 10-20 for the expansion Houston Colt .45s in 1962 despite a 3.02 ERA in 242 innings. Oddly, Farrell posted another 3.02 ERA with the .45s the very next season and went 14-13. There’s a good explanation, though: Over that winter, he took "Winning" classes.*
* — Editorial comment
There’s still a pretty good chance that Samardzija will not wind up on this list. Even pitching for the Cubs, he figures to go roughly .500 over the rest of the season, which would leave him with a record something like 7-11 or 8-12. Granted, those records would keep him on our list, assuming of course that he keeps pitching decently. He’s actually already on the list right now, as he’s saved 15 runs. How bad might things get? In 1937, Eddie Smith pitched for the Philadelphia Athletics, saved 17 runs, and went just 4-17. Smith’s .190 winning percentage is easily the lowest on my list … except for Samardzija, who doesn’t have a winning percentage at all.
Things have to get better, and probably a lot better. Still, might some of us be excused for hoping to see a pitcher without a win start an All-Star Game? No, we probably shouldn’t be. That’s just sort of mean.