Welcome to The Opener, where every weekday morning you’ll get a fresh, topical column to start your day from one of SI.com’s MLB writers.
A clinical psychologist in London devised a trial in 1960 in which subjects were told a series of three numbers, 2-4-6. The subjects were then instructed to figure out the “rule” behind the sequence by offering other series of three numbers, to which the psychologist would say if the proposed sequences fit the original “rule” or not. The psychologist, Peter Cathcart Wason, found that people kept proposing sequences that fit their perception of what they thought the rule to be, such as only even numbers or numbers that increased by two.
In fact, the “rule” was only that each number was larger than the last. A series such as 1-99-102 would have fit the rule; 2-6-4 would not. Wason learned that people tend to favor information that confirms their existing beliefs. He gave that tendency a term: “confirmation bias.”
Think of every Jacob deGrom start for the New York Mets, including his next one Saturday, as another version of the 2-4-6 Task.
Back in 2018, deGrom gained the reputation as a hard-luck pitcher who gets little run support. In that season deGrom made 12 starts in which the Mets scored no more than two runs. He pitched brilliantly in those low-scoring games (1.87 ERA) but came away with an 0-7 record in them. In one five-start stretch behind deGrom, the Mets lost 2–1, 4–3, 7–1, 4–1 and 2–0.
A “rule” was born: deGrom suffered frequently from terrible run support. There is a problem with that “rule:” it’s not really true. It is a classic case of confirmation bias.
The truth is that when it comes to frequency of “bad luck,” deGrom is a rather ordinary pitcher. He is not nearly as unlucky as Shelby Miller, Tyson Ross, Nathan Eovaldi … or even Matt Harvey.
What is bad luck? Getting two runs or less of support is really bad luck. Teams win only 11.5% of the time when they score two runs or less.
How often does this rotten luck happen? From 2014, when deGrom’s career began, through 2020 it happened 30.3% of the time in MLB games.
Given deGrom’s reputation, you would expect deGrom would suffer from an abundance of these two-or-less games. But he doesn’t. In fact, deGrom is pretty darn average when it comes to his percentage of starts with two runs or less (31.5%) of support and in how often he wins those tough-luck games (14.6%).
There are 49 active pitchers who have endured 50 or more starts with two runs or less. deGrom is nowhere near the worst afflicted when it comes to the percentage of such bad-luck starts.
Highest Percentage of Starts With Two Runs or Less Support (Active, min. 50 GS)
|Pct. of Starts||W-L Record|
1. Shelby Miller
2. Tyson Ross
3. Matt Harvey
4. Nathan Eovaldi
5. Kevin Gausman
6. Kyle Hendricks
7. Madison Bumgarner
8. Alex Cobb
9. Ian Kennedy
10. Jhoulys Chacín
deGrom falls in middle third of starting pitchers when it comes to how often they get two runs or less. (Poor Shelby Miller; now there’s a guy with a gripe. And how about that win-loss record of Matt Harvey in low-scoring games? He has one win in a pitcher’s duel in his career. Ouch.)
deGrom simply is not involved in these hard-luck games as often as you might think. The 2018 season established the narrative (though Derek Holland, without the hue and cry, endured 14 starts with two or fewer runs that year, two more than deGrom.) Confirmation bias keeps it alive. The narrative also continues because deGrom rarely has a bad start, which means his low-support games tend to be low-scoring games for both sides.
It turns out, though, that deGrom is not the best active pitcher when it comes to pitching well with so few runs—that would be Clayton Kershaw. When it comes to tough luck, there is almost no difference between deGrom and Chris Archer, though Archer has no “tough luck” confirmation bias.
Lowest ERA with Two Runs or Less Support (Active, min. 50 GS)
|ERA||Win Pct.||Pct. of 2R or Less|
1. Clayton Kershaw
2. Max Scherzer
3. Jacob deGrom
4. Chris Archer
Kershaw’s record with little run support is phenomenal—way ahead of everybody else. His winning percentage with two runs or less is the third best of all time, behind only Sandy Koufax and Addie Joss.
Of the six pitchers who started the most games with two or fewer runs of support, all six of them endured a higher percentage of such starts than deGrom has: in order of most such starts, Nolan Ryan (37.3%), Walter Johnson (39.6%), Don Sutton (32.3%), Gaylord Perry (34.1%), Bert Blyleven (33.7%) and Steve Carlton (32.3%).
There is nothing historically significant about how often deGrom gets two runs or less—not even among pitchers in franchise history. Here is a list of the career marks of selected starters who pitched chiefly for the Mets:
Career Starts with Two Runs or Less Support
|Pct. of Starts||Winning Pct.||ERA|
Let’s be clear about deGrom’s “tough luck.” It is not due to an abundance of games with so few runs. It comes from pitching so well when those games do happen. He is “unlucky” when it comes to wins. Since 2018 he did not get a win in 19 starts in which he went at least six innings and gave up one or no runs. Nobody else has more than nine such winless elite starts in the span.
deGrom already has more such winless elite starts in his 184 career starts (31) than Seaver did in his 647 starts (30). But part of that tough luck is deGrom is part of the modern generation of aces that don’t pitch deep enough into games to see a win through.
The deGrom confirmation bias was on full display in New York’s Opening Day game. He pitched brilliantly, leaving after six innings with a 2–0 lead. The Mets lost, 5–3. deGrom exited after six innings despite throwing only 77 pitches. It was the kind of quick hook that is becoming common. It was the fifth time in the season’s first six days that a pitcher was pulled with less than 80 pitches over six shutout innings—that’s more than in the entire 2000 season (4).
If you want to shed some tears for hard-luck pitchers, save them for Miller, who in 2015 received two runs or less in 18 of his 33 starts and made the All-Star team in a season when he led the league in losses. Miller in his career is 2-40 when he gets two runs or less and 35-16 when he gets at least three.
Save the tears for Kevin Correia, who pitched 13 years (2003-15) and never won a game with two runs or less support—the only pitcher in history without such a win (min. 50 low-support starts). Correia went 0-49 in his 69 starts with two runs or less.
Save them for Hugh Mulcahy, who was such a tough-luck pitcher his nickname was Losing Pitcher, because he always had “LP” next to his name in the boxscore. Mulcahy received two runs or less in 36.6% of his starts from 1935-46. He was 2-50 in those games.
Save them for Spencer Turnbull, who since 2019 has received two runs or less in an MLB-high 19 of his 41 starts (46.3%)—way more than deGrom (12 of 45, 26.7%).
Save them for José Ureña, who has lost four 1–0 games in his career. deGrom has lost only one 1–0 game, which was his major league debut. Jim Bunning lost 15 of them.
Finally, let’s end all this tough-luck talk on a Happy note. John Townsend was born in 1879 in Townsend, Del., a town named 23 years earlier for an ancestor who was the town’s majority landowner.
John Townsend pitched six years in the major leagues, four with some really bad Washington Senators teams. If you pitched for a bad team in the Deadball Era days, you knew all about tough luck. Townsend received two runs or less support in 57 of his 125 career starts, a whopping 45.6% of his starts. His ERA in those games was a sterling 2.61. He also went 3-51 in those games.
John Townsend finished with a career record of 34-82. Despite such tough luck, he was known then and now for the nickname he acquired for keeping a sunny disposition: Happy Townsend.