Low Leaders

Bartolo Colon’s Cy Young Award raises a question I’d been thinking about late in the year, when Kevin Millwood first grabbed the AL ERA lead: whether this was an unusually weak year for pitchers in the AL. One way to look at that is to look on baseball-reference.com at the league leader in ERA+, the league/park adjusted measure of which pitcher stands furthest below the league in ERA (the stat divides the park-adjusted league ERA by the pitcher’s ERA, so the higher the ERA+, the better, with a league-average pitcher clocking in at 100).
Colon’s ERA+ this year was 120, not in the top 10 in the AL. The league leader was Santana, at 153. Is that one of the lowest league-leading figures ever? Not really, as it turns out.
I went back and looked over the league leaders in this category going back to the dawn of the National Association in 1871 – 256 major league seasons in all. The league leader in ERA+ has been below 150 in 40 of those (15.6%). The lowest league-leading total was 127 by Tommy Bond in 1879, which is unsurprising; the NL was the only major league in 1879, there were only 8 teams, and each team used one pitcher most of the time, so that the league’s top 8 pitchers threw 76% of the innings. Hard to stand out in a crowd that small.
So, I put together a list since 1893 (when the mound moved back to its curtrent 60’6″ from 50 feet), which gave a list of 13 pitchers who finished below 144 and yet led their league. Here they go:

Pitcher Year ERA+
Sal Maglie 1951 134
Tom Hume 1979 135
Gene Conley 1959 137
Diego Segui 1970 138
Sal Maglie 1956 138
Mike Garcia 1954 139
Bob Stanley 1982 140
Curt Simmons 1961 140
John Denny 1976 140
Alejandro Pena 1984 142
Frank Baumann 1960 142
Tom Seaver 1970 142
Joe Mays 2001 143

Interestingly, other than Seaver and Maglie, a number of these guys were fluky leaders anyway (Denny was sort of fluky, but he did win the Cy Young Award legitimately in 1983). Note that the 50s to early 60s were the golden age of pitcher parity . . . Garcia’s ERA+ was 139, but the Indians’ ERA+ as a team was 132; that had to be one of the most well-balanced staffs ever.
One name that jumps out here is Gene Conley. Did you know that Conley had been the best pitcher in the National League one year – and still found the energy to go play 1,300 minutes for an NBA-winning Celtics team that offseason, including being third on the team in rebounds? Amazing. I’d always thought of Conley as sort of a failed experiment in two-sport play, but for a while there he really made it work.

3 thoughts on “Low Leaders”

  1. Johan Santana deserved Cy Young, not Bartolo Colon

    Yes, Bartolo Colon got 21 wins. But, he had great run support which is a big factor when it comes to Wins. The numbers don’t lie. Pitchers on mediocre teams get penalized because of the lack of wins. Who would you rather have as your ace, Santana or…

  2. Does a “low” leading ERA+ really say that this was a weak year for pitchers? If the mean ERA+ is 100 every season how can you compare one to an another? Or are you mereling saying that this was a weak year for ‘outstanding’ performances?

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