Baseball Crank
Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
November 1, 2002
BASEBALL: Livan's Luck Runs Out

Originally posted on

Sometimes, your luck runs out. People who study baseball statistics have come to one clear conclusion: there's just no evidence that anybody consistently hits well in the clutch. Over time, nearly every hitter will perform, in clutch situations - however defined - about as well as you would expect, compared to his overall performance. As we saw this postseason, this applies as well to guys who have historically underachieved in key situations, like Barry Bonds - his luck turned.

Is there such a thing as clutch pitching? There's no reason there couldn't be, given that pitchers have a greater ability to change their approach in different situations than hitters do -- different deliveries and pitch selections, maybe a little extra velocity, maybe a few more of that pitch that kills your elbow to throw too often -- but the jury's still out on that one too.

This we know: one of the key things that slew the Giants in this World Series was the decision to rely on clutch pitching by starting Livan Hernandez in Games 3 and 7, while having Kirk Reuter start just once (Game 4) in the series. Now, this wasn't the most disastrous pitching lineup of the postseason - that honor goes to Art Howe, who started Tim Hudson twice and Barry Zito just once against the Twins, only to watch his lefthanded starters chew up the Twins (as lefties had all year) while they ate Hudson for lunch. But it did cost Baker the World Series, and it's worth asking: is it always a good idea to pick your startes based on their postseason experience?

Hernandez wasn't the Giants' best pitcher this season; in fact, he was the worst, just the fourth pitcher with a losing record to start a deciding Game 7 (after Hal Gregg in 1947, John Matlack in 1973, and most famously Johnny Podres in 1955 - only Podres won). Reuter, meanwhile, posted a 3.23 ERA this season, best on the team and 9th in the National League (actually, neither pitcher was as good as his ERA, but Reuter was clearly the better of the two in the regular season). Why did Dusty Baker do this? The answer is obvious: because Hernandez had a great career postseason record, 6-0 with a 2.84 ERA entering the series. (Reuter has a good postseason record too, but not nearly as long). The problem, as Joe Buck pointed out after the wheels came off in Game 7, was that Hernandez compiled the bulk of that record in 1997. Hernandez has carried an appallingly heavy workload in the 5 years since then, and unlike his brother, he hasn't exactly stayed in the greatest of physical condition. As a result, his effectiveness has diminished steadily since he entered the league.

I haven't studied this scientifically, but even before 2002, the history of postseason baseball was just littered with examples of great postseason pitchers who were asked to go out and recapture the magic, and found out that it was gone. Some were just guys who couldn't stay unbeaten, but others, like Hernandez, were guys who were asked to take the hill, in place of better pitchers, and failed misreably:

1911-13: Christy Mathewson established himself as the first World Series legend in 1905, throwing three complete-game shutouts in six days. He pitched very well in the 1911-13 World Serieses as well -- a 1.44 ERA -- but just didn't get the run support, and wound up 2-5 for the rest of his World Series career.

1914: Chief Bender was the great clutch pitcher of Connie Mack's "$100,000 infield" A's in the early teens, 6-3 with a 1.92 ERA in four Serieses. In 1914, Bender got bombed for six runs (a ton in those dead-ball era days) on the way to a shocking sweep by the "Miracle" Boston Braves.

1925: Stan Coveleski dominated the 1920 World Series, winning three starts with an 0.67 ERA. He couldn't repeat the trick in 1925, losing both of his starts.

1928: Grover Alexander made one of the World Series' most enduring memories when, after throwing a masterful complete game victory in Game 6, he came out of the bullpen the next day to strike out Tony Lazzeri in a key situation in the seventh inning of Game 7, and went on to finish off the game. Two years later, the 41-year-old Alexander got hammered by the Yankees in a Game Two start and Game Four relief appearance, to the tune of 10 hits and 11 earned runs in 5 innings of work.

1932: Burleigh Grimes was 17-9 at age 37 in 1931, and capped the season by throwing a pair of well-pitched victories to help the Cardinals upset the mighty A's in the World Series. The following year, Grimes suffered through a dismal regular season - 6-11, 4.78 ERA - but was the first man out of the bullpen in Game One of the series, while it was still close. Grimes got pulverized by the Yankees in Game One and to finish off the deciding Game 5, tagged for 7 runs in 2.2 innings.

1938: Dizzy Dean was THE story of the 1934 season, winning 30 games, and in the World Series he was masterful, winning Games One and Seven and posting a 1.73 ERA. Four years later, the Cubs asked a sore-armed Dean (who had been spectacular when healthy that season) to start Game Two and relieve in Game Four. The Yankees reached him for 6 runs in 8.1 innings; like Alexander and Grimes, he was all but finished after that.

1940: Schoolboy Rowe was no Series legend, but he pitched well in the Tigers' 1934 and 1935 World Series appearances, posting a 2.79 ERA and completing all four of his starts. In 1940, he was effective in the regular season, but horrendous in the World Series, gatting chased after 3 innings in Game Two and not even lasting the first inning in Game Six. The damage: 3.2 IP, 12 hits, 7 earned runs.

1947: Dodgers manager Burt Shotton gives the Game 7 ball to Gregg, 4-5 with a 5.87 ERA that season, almost entirely because he was the only Dodger pitcher (other than relief ace Hugh Casey) to pitch effectively in the 1947 Series. Gregg is chased in the fourth inning.

1948: Not a postseason moment, but one of the most controversial pitching selections in the game's history came when Red Sox manager Joe McCarthy asked journeyman Denny Galehouse (8-8, 4.00 ERA that season, counting the final start) to start a one-game playoff against the Indians with the season on the line, in preference to the younger, less experienced but more talented Mel Parnell (15-8, 3.14 ERA; Parnell would win 25 games the next season). McCarthy may have been influenced by Galehouse's heroics in the 1944 World Series against the vaunted Cardinals, baseball's only real intact team during the war years. Galehouse threw a complete game 2-1 victory in Game 1 and lost a 2-0 squeaker (going the distance again) in Game 5 that fall, striking out 15.

1957-58: Casey Stengel gives the Game Seven ball to Don Larsen, hardly the Yankees' ace, two years running, no doubt in part due to Larsen's 1956 perfect game. In 1957, Larsen gets chased in the third inning. He also doesn't make the fourth inning in 1958, although I don't have the box score handy, and it appears he was pitching well and Casey pinch hit for him. Lew Burdette, the hero of the 1957 series, starts three times in 1958, and walks away with 7-0 and 6-2 losses in Games Five and Seven.

1959: The Dogers start Podres in Games One and Six; he doesn't lose, but is roughed up for 5 runs and 13 baserunners in 9.1 innings (Podres would pitch well again in 1963).

1963-64: 0-3 and a 5.71 ERA in three starts for Whitey Ford, who had pitched brilliantly in numerous prior World Serieses, winning 10 games.

1968: Hardly a blowout, but Bob Gibson, after dominating opponents in seven straight World Series victories, loses 4-1 in the deciding Game 7.

1977-78: Catfish Hunter goes 1-2 with a 5.40 ERA in the postseason, including surrendering 3 homers in one game to George Brett.

1988: Ron Darling pitched wonderfully in many big pennant race games for the Mets in 1984, 1985 and 1987, and in the 1986 World Series. Given the ball in Game 7 of the 1988 NLCS, Darling gets chased in the second inning.

1990, 1992, 1993, 1996: Danny Jackson was one of the heroes of the 1985 Royals, winning Game Five of the ALCS with the team down 3-1, and again winning Game Five of the World Series with the team down 3-1. Jackson's postseason record was ugly after that, including thrashings in the 1990 and 1993 World Series and in Game Two of the 1992 NLCS. In several of those cases, he was picked to start over pitchers with better regular season records. Dave Stewart, who recovered from the nightmare of losing the first two games of the NLDS in 1981 to become a big-time "money pitcher," also gets shelled in the 1993 World Series.

1992: Was there a better big-game pitcher than Jack Morris in 1984 and 1991? Only the fourth-best starter on the Blue Jays in the regular season, Morris is nonetheless picked by Cito Gaston as Game One starter in both the ALCS and the World Series, and walks away 0-3 with a 7.43 ERA.

1996-97: Orel Hershiser dominated the postseason as he had dominated the regular season in 1988, and after his sterling performance in the 1995 postseason, Hershiser's reputation as a big-game ace was cemented. But Hershiser was ineffective in the 1996 ALDS, and then on the big stage of the 1997 World Series, he was terrible, pounded for 13 earned runs in 10 innings in starts in Games One and Five (Hershiser would pitch better in 1999 for the Mets out of the bullpen).

There are plenty of more recent examples of guys who had their highs and their lows in the postseason - Kevin Brown, Al Leiter, Randy Johnson, David Wells, John Smoltz. Postseason success can be a fleeting thing. In the end, your best pitcher is usually your best bet.

Posted by Baseball Crank at 10:39 AM | Baseball Columns | TrackBack (0)
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