Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
April 4, 2008
BASEBALL: Split Stardom, Part 1
I was looking at this fascinating Hardball Times article on pitching splits (as well as a few batting splits, like the Royals batting .332 in July 1980, thanks mainly to George Brett, Willie Wilson and Hal McRae), and the one that caught my eye was the 1976 Dodgers posting a 1.98 team ERA after August 1 - though amazingly, even with three rotation starters throwing in the ones, only one pitcher on the team was more than one game over .500 in that stretch.
Which got me looking at Don Sutton's incredible stretch run that year (12-2 with a 1.49 ERA after the All-Star Break)...the funny thing is, Sutton looks like the most consistent and unspectacular of pitchers in that era - 21-10, 3.06 ERA in 1976, 14-8, 3.18 ERA in 1977, in an era when an ERA in the threes in Dodger Stadium was nothing all that special. Yet, when you look at the 365-day period from roughly the 1976-1977 All-Star Breaks (7/13/76-7/12/77), Sutton was basically the game's dominant pitcher, posting a Major League-best 1.97 ERA and a gaudy 22-5 record that tied for the most wins and gave him easily the best winning percentage in the game. Granted, Sutton was partly lucky in his defensive support (0.73 HR, 2.67 BB and 5.40 K/9 are not such tremendous numbers - but he allowed just 194 hits in 270 innings). Yet, think of how differently perma-Don would be remembered today, even with the same career stats, if he had had a single season in his career of 22-5 with a 1.97 ERA.
Sutton's not the only one; a guy who is in many ways a similar though lesser pitcher to Sutton is Jack Morris. Morris was a 2-time 20-game winner, but he never finished higher than third in the Cy Young voting, never had an ERA below 3.00, never had that signature dominant season. But as was well known when he was pitching, Morris would get locked into hot streaks where he would win all his starts for a month with an ERA in the ones or zeros.
It turns out, though, that Morris' greatest year-long stretches crossed over seasons in a way that might have made people think about him very differently. From June 1, 1983 to May 31, 1984, Morris was 27-9 with a 2.36 ERA (best in the AL and second in baseball only to 1983 NL Cy Young Award winner John Denny); in addition to the 27 wins, Morris threw 24 complete games and struck out 248 batters (second only to Steve Carlton) in 317 innings. Like Sutton, his success in this stretch was partly defensive luck and good run support, and maybe that's a lesson in why the great seasons tend to be by pitchers less dependent on help - 0.68 HR, 2.50 BB, 7.04 K but 235 hits in 317 innings. Then in 1986-87, Morris did it again: from July 5, 1986 through July 4, 1987, he went 26-5 with a 2.98 ERA, albeit while allowing 37 homers in 275 innings.
Would these records have been possible in individual seasons? In Morris' case it's probably true that slicing through the middle of a season may slightly inflate his numbers; workloads and fatigue even out over a season, so this may cut in a way that increases the number of starts caught. But partly it is just luck. I've argued against Morris as a Hall of Famer, though he would not be a terrible one, but I think it safe to say that even with the same career stats, if he had posted seasons of 27-9, 2.36 and 26-5, 2.98 - basically, Lefty Gomez' two best seasons - he would be in the Hall now.
UPDATE: BTW, check out the White Sox starters in that 1983-84 breakdown: Richard Dotson 24-4, 2.69, LaMarr Hoyt 24-9, 3.44. Also, I looked back before at the 2002-03 golden age of Oakland's Hudson/Zito/Mulder Big Three.