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.

10 thoughts on “Split Stardom, Part 1”

  1. Don Sutton was an underrated pitcher, though I only saw him pitch a few times, including in person at the 1977 All Star Game at Yankee Stadium. He was not glamorous, but if you look at his year to year consistency and the innings pitched, any team in baseball today would kill for a guy like this in the pitching rotation.

  2. Yeah, if you gathered a bunch of real GMs and had them draft all the pitchers in history knowing they’d do basically what they did, you’d be surprised how high Sutton would go. The guy never had a serious off year and came pretty close to not missing a turn in the rotation for 21-22 years.

  3. Yet, some sportswriters did not support Sutton and other comparable pitchers for the Hall of Fame. I gotta say, the Yankees rotation this year is quite iffy, and we sure could use a 270 inning guy who doesn’t pull up lame or poop out after the 6th inning and who can guarantee 15-18 wins. As a Mets fan, I am sure you feel the same way now that Pedro’s on the DL again.

  4. How about some amazing individual batting splits? Wasn’t there a split season (AS break to AS break) in the mid-80s where Wade Boggs hit over .400?

  5. Not to rain on the DS parade but he would not be pitching 270 innings/year these days. Throwing 225 in this day and age is a minor miracle. Strike zones are smaller (mostly), SSs are not Mark Belanger, 2Bman are not Denny Doyle, parks are smaller, guys take pitches, etc. If you can find a guy now who can consistently give you 180 innings/year, he’s a workhorse.

  6. Jim, I agree with you. The game has changed in that respect. When it comes to durable starting pitchers, the game has not changed for the better. Some of these changes may be the result of things over which pitchers have no control, like smaller ballparks or batters taking more pitches, but I still think that pitchers today are being conditioned to pitch less, and that if baseball really wanted to, it could have starters go 250 innings a season. This would make baseball sense: fewer pitchers on the roster, more position players taking their place.

  7. I think going 250 innings now is nearly impossible. Hitters are so much better across the board, there is so much more power at almost every position, ballparks are smaller and the day of the high strike is long gone. Trying to negotiate the Yankees, Sox, Tigers, Mets, Phillies, etc. line-ups with 110-115 pitches in less than 7 innings is almost impossible to do. Look what happens to guys who have stockpiled innings, especially early on in their careers as of late. It just doesn’t work out. Especially in the AL nearly every batter represents somesort of offensive threat and lots of guys can go deep if you don’t throw good stuff every pitch. It’s just harder to get through line-ups nowadays than it was even just 20 years ago let along 30 or 40.

  8. I believe Tony Gwynn over the last 2 months of the 1993 season and the whole 1994 season (strike shortened to 110 games) Gwynn played in 141 games and amassed 610 PAs. He went .403/.455/.571. I can’t recall anyone in recent times having a batting split like that.

  9. It might be good to point out that most can not name the infield Sutton played in front of before Garvey, Lopes, Russell and Cey came along. They were not very good offensively and by the time the big 4 got there Sutton was past his prime.

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