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The Strike Zone

Lee, Nova offer latest proof that wins are an overrated stat

Despite another strong outing on Sunday, Cliff Lee is still searching for his first win of the season. (US Presswire)

Cliff Lee has a 3.18 ERA, a 1.05 WHIP, has averaged just over seven innings per start and leads the National League in strikeout-to-walk ratio (5.69), having struck out more than a man per inning while walking fewer than two per nine. Ivan Nova has a 5.09 ERA, a 1.47 WHIP and is allowing 1.7 home runs per nine innings, having already matched his 2011 total of home runs allowed in 94 2/3 fewer innings. Lee failed to earn a decision in the Phillies’ loss to the Orioles on Sunday and remains 0-3 on the season. Nova, who will start for the Yankees against the Braves tonight, is 7-2.

Is there anyone out there who still insists that wins and losses are a legitimate measure of a pitcher’s performance?

The Yankees have scored 6.04 runs per start for Nova. The Phillies have scored just 3.21 per start for Lee. Philadelphia has won three games in which Lee turned in a quality start, including one in which he struck out 10 Astros over eight innings while allowing just one run and left with the lead, but Lee has yet to be credited with a win because the winning runs in those games came after he departed. In that May 15 game against Houston, for instance, his bullpen allowed the Astros to tie the score before the Phillies won in extra innings. More memorably, Lee threw 10 scoreless innings against the Giants on April 18 (making him the first starting pitcher since 2007 to complete 10 innings and the first since Mark Mulder in 2005 to do so without allowing a run) only to be matched for nine of them by Matt Cain and see his Phillies lose 1-0 in the 11th. Lee has completed at least six innings in all 10 of his starts this year and has allowed more than three runs in just three of them, two of which he lost.

To be fair, Nova has pitched better in his wins than his ERA would suggest. Just two of his seven wins have come in games in which he has allowed more than three runs, and his ERA in those seven games is a solid 3.59. He also has a 4.33 K/BB ratio in his wins thanks to a Lee-like 1.7 BB/9 ratio, which has minimized the impact of the nine home runs he has allowed in those starts. Of course, the key factor is that every time Nova pitches even moderately well, the Yankees have delivered him the win. Nova has allowed fewer than five runs just six times this season and has won every one of those starts, and when he has struggled, the Yankee offense bails him out. Nova has allowed five or more runs five times this season and only been handed the loss in two of those games, getting a win and two no-decisions in the others thanks to final scores of 7-6, 8-5 and 6-5.

Lee and Nova are obviously extreme examples of the pointlessness of assigning wins and losses to pitchers, but their seasons made me curious about some of the more extreme examples in baseball history. For example, what pitcher has won the most games with an ERA over 5.00, or, to refine that question, what qualified pitcher has posted the best winning percentage with an ERA+ below 85 (Nova’s is 84)?

The answer is a pair of swing-men for the 1913 Philadelphia A’s, Bullet Joe Bush, who went 15-6 (.714 winning percentage) with a 3.82 ERA (72 ERA+) and Byron Houck, who went 14-6 (.700) with a 4.14 ERA (67 ERA+). Limiting the search to pitchers who were exclusively starters produces Braden Looper’s 2009 season, when he went 14-7 (.667) with a 5.22 ERA (79 ERA+) for the Brewers. Curiously, the third man on the list behind Looper is none other than Cliff Lee, who went 14-8 (.636) with a 5.43 ERA (80 ERA+) for the Indians in 2004, his first full season as a major league starter. That same season, Shawn Estes went 15-8 (.652) with a 5.84 ERA (84 ERA+) for the Rockies.

Nova is just one of three pitchers this year who are rivaling Looper, Estes and that long-ago version of Lee. Clay Buchholz is 6-2 with a 5.77 ERA for the Red Sox, who have scored 6.63 runs per start for him, and Mat Latos is 4-2 with a 4.85 ERA (85 ERA+ exactly) for the Reds, who have scored 5.13 runs per start for him. Buchholz went 4-1 with an 8.31 ERA in his first seven starts, but has pitched better since, posting a 2.88 ERA in his last five starts, including a 1.50 ERA in his last three, including a shutout of the Orioles in his most recent outing. Latos has just four quality starts on the season and has earned the win in three of them. His fourth win came in a game in which he gave up five home runs to the Rockies. He hasn’t lost a game since April 18, but has five no-decisions in his nine starts since then.

As for Lee, I was curious as to whether or not a starting pitcher had gone winless this deep into the season while pitching as well or better. The A's Matt Keough went winless in his first 23 starts in 1979, the deepest any starting pitcher has gone without a win since 1918, but he had a 5.61 ERA over that span and most of the men behind him on the list had comparable ERAs. Searching for a mark below 4.00 (remember, Lee is at 3.18), it takes until the 49th spot on the list to find one: Rickey Clark of the 1968 Angels, who went 12 starts without a win to start that season while posting a 3.31 ERA. However, that was 1968, the Year of the Pitcher, when the American League as a whole posted a 2.98 ERA, meaning Clark’s 3.31 was well below average. In 1978, Oakland's Rick Langford posted a 2.62 ERA in his first 11 starts without picking up a win, but he did earn a win in relief in his ninth appearances that season. Just last year, the Padres' Tim Stauffer went winless in his first 10 starts while posting a 3.88 ERA, but the National League ERA last year was 3.81.

That just leaves Brad Rigby. Rigby made his major league debut for the A’s on June 28, 1997 and held the Rangers to two runs over eight innings only to lose 2-0. He then proceeded to go 0-5 in his first 11 major league starts despite posting a 3.76 ERA (against a league average of 4.56), turning in five quality starts, and allowing two or fewer runs seven times in those 11 turns. Rigby finished his three-year career with a 5-13 record and fewer than 200 innings pitched.

Lee can avoid matching Rigby’s streak with a win in his next start on Saturday against the Blue Jays. Lee has pitched far better than Rigby over his first 10 starts, meaning that Lee’s winless streak is really without precedent in baseball history. No pitcher has pitched this well this deep into the season without earning a win.

Looking further down the road, however, there is plenty of precedent for pitchers pitching as well or better than Lee yet being saddled with miserable won-loss records. Lee’s ERA+ is 123. In 1937, the A’s Eddie Smith had a 120 ERA+ but went 4-17 (.190 winning percentage) and the Reds' Gene Schott went  4-13 (.235) with a 125 ERA+. In 1904, Ned Garvin had an ERA+ of 160 for two teams but went 5-16 (.238). More recently, Lee’s nemesis Matt Cain posted a 123 ERA+ in 2007 yet went 7-16 (.304), and former Diamondbacks ace Brandon Webb matched that record with a 128 ERA+ in 2004.

No pitcher with more than 16 games started and an ERA+ at or above 120 has ever won fewer than the four games won by Smith and Schott in 1937, so that is a dubious distinction Lee can still avoid. Of course, the distinction is less Lee’s than it is the Phillies'. None of the teams that employed the pitchers mentioned above (the A’s of 1937, 1978, 1979, and 1997, the 1968 Angels, 2004 Diamondbacks, 2007 Giants, and the 1904 Brooklyn Superbas, for whom Garvin made 22 of his 24 starts), won more than 71 games. The Phillies’ current winning percentage translates to 76 wins, but it’s headed down, with the Phillies having lost eight of their last nine, and the team’s inability to get Lee a win just might be a significant indication that it won’t be coming back up.

-- By Cliff Corcoran

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