MLB Notebook: Phils' Lee hit with tough luck in 2012
Since the commencement of the 1918 season, 32 pitchers have made a start featuring exactly 10 shutout innings and no walks. Sometimes, years would go by without such an effort (there were none between 1944-56), while in other stretches, these pitching lines would come in bunches (eight in 1967-68).
Of the 32 starts since 1918, 22 saw the pitcher rewarded with a "W" next to his line in the box score, meaning that 10 pitchers were left with nothing more than a pat on the back for a job well done.
The most recent of these 10 no-decisions came on April 18, 2012, when the Phillies' Cliff Lee, in addition to blanking the Giants for 10 innings, recorded seven strikeouts. Lee's line remains notable both for its rarity (before this day, the Majors hadn't seen a 10-inning, no-run, no-walk effort since 2005) and for how it symbolizes the southpaw's year.
Buoyed by that line on April 18, Lee would finish the season with the National League's top marks in walk rate (1.19 per nine innings) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (a historically exceptional 7.39 strikeouts for every walk -- the 11th-best mark since 1893). And thanks in part to those two components, he also posted the ninth-lowest raw ERA (3.16) and eighth-best ERA+ (127) in the NL.
But for all of those positives, Lee also failed -- at a historic rate -- to capture victories. With his 6-9 record, he finished tied for 58th in winning percentage among the 65 pitchers in the Majors to start at least 30 games this past season. But his dearth of wins is even uglier than that. Over the past 50 seasons, 2,973 pitchers have made at least 30 starts in a year. Among that huge group, only 31 pitchers have recorded six wins or fewer; the only pitcher among the 31 to post a higher ERA+ than Lee's 127 was Joey Hamilton, who went 6-9 with a 132 ERA+ in 1995.
Even viewed from a different angle, the storyline has a similar, sorrowful tone. There have been 736 starting pitchers (hurlers with 75 percent of their total games as a starter) in the past 50 seasons to post an ERA+ of at least 127 while qualifying for the ERA title. The winning percentage of the entire group stands at .640, with an average season win-loss record rounded to 16-9. Among these 736, Lee's .400 winning percentage places him in a tie for the ninth lowest.
1963-2012: Starters who qualified for ERA title with ERA+ of at least 127:sorted by lowest winning %
# Top 10 Categories*
*Indicates number of categories in which the pitcher placed in the top 10 in his league among the following: ERA, ERA+, IP, strikeouts, K/9, H/9, BB/9, K:BB ratio, WHIP, OPS-against
Lee's 10-inning effort against the Giants marked the first time in his 11-year career he went so deep into a game. In contrast, Ryan slogged through 14 efforts of 10-plus innings in his Hall of Fame career. None, however, came in 1987, a season that holds some parallels to the year just produced by Lee.
Like Lee, Ryan experienced a notable year for its production of cognitive dissonance. In 1987, Ryan, then in his 21st Major League season, led the NL in ERA and five other categories, including strikeout-to-walk ratio -- the only time in his career he would top a league in that particular category -- while capturing a win in only one-third of his decisions. (He was 8-16.)
In the long history of Major League Baseball, no other ERA winner has been saddled with such a low winning percentage. It was an odd year for the right-hander, who finished a season with no complete games for the first time since 1966 (when he made just two appearances) and had a cry-on-someone's-shoulder 2.30 ERA in 10 no-decisions. In the eight starts that did produce personal victories, Ryan was almost impossible to score upon, posting a 1.11 ERA in 57 innings. Not surprisingly, he had the lowest run support per game started in the NL and led the league in losses in quality starts. He also finished tied for third in the league in "wins lost," meaning he left the game in a position to record the victory, but the potential win was blown by the bullpen.
Cliff Lee's 2012 vs. Nolan Ryan's 1987
ERA in Ws
ERA In NDs
ERA In Ls
Run support per game*
Losses in QS
*The average runs per game in the NL in 1987 was 4.52, whereas in 2012 it was 4.22.
Ryan and Lee also populate another convergence, albeit one that -- for the Hall of Famer -- occurred outside his tough-luck 1987 season. Three years later, Ryan produced the only 10-inning, no-run, no-walk game of his career: one that also didn't put a "W" in his ledger.
On Aug. 17, 1990, Ryan -- in the middle of a 13-9 season -- took the hill for the Rangers in a contest against the White Sox and allowed only three hits and struck out 15. It was the eighth 10-inning, no-run, no-walk no-decision since 1918, and the second of that season. The next would come in 1994, when Bret Saberhagen had one for the Mets, and that would be it until Lee's effort against the Giants.
Not too long ago (2008, to be exact), Lee went 22-3 for the Indians, posting one of the highest winning percentages in baseball history; sometimes the breaks, along with the pitch selections and executions, all go a person's way. But his two seasons -- on opposite ends of the spectrum -- are equally interesting, for not only do they each allow for connections to past performances of similar color and tone, they each, in their own way, add texture to the season in which they are framed.
Lee won a Cy Young Award for his effort in 2008, and although no hardware was part of his offseason story this year, it's fairly reasonable to expect that future generations of fans might look at his line from 2012 with as much awe as they do his work in 2008 or Ryan's season in 1987.