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On wins and losses

This story about CC Sabathia and his chances of winning 300 games in his career got me thinking along some slightly different lines.

CC Sabathia won his 200th career game [last] week against the Minnesota Twins, becoming the 114th pitcher in major league history to do so. While wins are an overrated stat for pitchers, the fact is that they become a pretty good barometer of how good a pitcher was over his career.

Nowadays, most stat-savvy fans recognize that pitcher wins are more a function of run support and bullpen quality than anything else. Pitcher quality is more accurately measured by the things that the pitcher has control over – primarily strikeouts, walks, homeruns yielded, also known as defense-independent pitching stats (DIPS). At a somewhat deeper level, things like groundball and flyball rates are factored in, as are ballpark effects. It is true that while a so-so pitcher can luck into a big-win season, any pitcher that can rack up a large number of wins over his career is almost by definition of high quality. There can still be a pretty broad range of quality among even pitchers with gaudy career win totals, however, and that got me to wondering who are the “worst” pitchers with at least 200 career wins. “Worst” is obviously a highly subjective term, just as being of Hall of Fame quality is, so this is just one person’s attempt to quantify that. For these purposes, I used two measures of Wins Above Replacement, or WAR. The most common ones used are fWAR and bWAR, where the “f” is for Fangraphs and the “b” is for Baseball Reference. Here are the pitchers with at least 200 wins and less than 40 fWAR and/or bWAR:

fWAR Name Wins Losses FIP fWAR ========================================== Hough, C 216 216 4.29 24.6 Niekro, J 221 204 3.79 26.9 Spalding, A 253 65 2.93 26.9 White, Will 229 166 2.92 28.4 Burdette, L 203 144 3.68 31.1 Fitzsimmons, F 217 146 4.05 32.0 Perry, J 215 174 3.78 32.6 Hunter, C 224 166 3.66 33.8 Lemon, B 207 128 3.79 34.4 Welch, Mickey 307 210 3.27 35.4 Haines, J 210 158 3.95 35.9 Welch, Bob 211 146 3.71 36.1 Root, C 201 160 3.78 36.4 Mullin, G 228 196 2.80 38.0 Stivetts, J 203 132 4.11 38.8 Wakefield, T 200 180 4.72 38.9 McGinnity, J 246 142 2.89 39.2 Mays, C 207 126 3.27 39.4 McCormick, J 265 214 2.87 39.8 Dauss, H 222 182 3.29 39.9 bWAR Name Wins Losses ERA+ bWAR ========================================== Burdette, L 203 144 99 25.8 Niekro, J 221 204 98 28.7 Reuss, J 220 191 100 33.1 Fitzsimmons, F 217 146 112 33.5 Marquard, R 201 177 103 34.2 Mullin, G 228 196 101 34.3 Wakefield, T 200 180 105 34.5 Dauss, H 223 182 102 35.2 Haines, J 210 158 109 35.7 Hunter, C 224 166 104 36.6 Lemon, B 207 128 119 37.5 Root, C 201 160 111 38.0 Perry, J 215 174 106 38.7 White, Will 229 166 121 38.9 Derringer, P 223 212 108 39.0 Hough, C 216 216 106 39.6

“FIP” means Fielding Independent Pitching, and is a way of calculating ERA based on strikeouts, walks, and homers. “ERA+” is simply the ratio of the pitcher’s Earned Run Average to the league ERA. A 100 ERA+ means your ERA is the same as the league average; the higher the ERA+, the better your ERA is relative to the league that year. Fangraphs had FIP, Baseball Reference had ERA+, so I just went with what they had.

As a point of reference, nine pitchers have an fWAR of over 100 – Roger Clemens is the all-time leader with 139.9 fWAR – and nine pitchers have a bWAR of at least 100 – Cy Young leads that group with a bWAR of 170.3. If you don’t recognize some of the names in this lists above, don’t worry – neither did I. A number of them are from the pre-1900 era. While there are a number of pitchers on both lists, fWAR and bWAR are calculated differently, and in some cases they were quite disparate. I think it’s fair to say that Lew Burdette, Freddy Fitzsimmons, and Joe Niekro are the bottom three here. Doesn’t mean they weren’t good pitchers – they most certainly were – but of all hurlers with at least 200 wins, they had the least overall career value. Hey, someone has to be at the bottom of the list.

Note that several of these pitchers are in the Hall of Fame – Catfish Hunter, Bob Lemon, Jesse Haines, Rube Marquard, Joe McGinnity. (Al Spalding is also a Hall of Famer, but as an executive; he did not play ten full seasons and thus would not have been eligible as a player.) Lemon racked up nearly all his value, and 186 of his wins, in only nine seasons as a fulltime starter; McGinnity had a bWAR of 60.6. The others are perhaps not quite as worthy of the HoF as they might have seemed at the time of their induction. That’s an argument for another time.

I must say, when I started writing this post, I’d assumed that one name to appear on these lists would be Bobo Newsom, one of only two 200 game winners to have a losing record. Newsom went 211-222 over a long career with mostly crappy teams, but had a 51.7 bWAR (107 ERA+) and 62.2 fWAR (3.81 FIP), making him a notch above the ones that did get included. The other such pitcher was Jack Powell, about whom I knew nothing going in. Powell went 245-254 lifetime with a 56.0 bWAR (106 RA+) and 46.3 fWAR (3.01 FIP) in a career that began in 1897.

All this talk about losses and 200 wins got me to wondering whether there are any active pitchers closing in on 200 career losses. Here’s the leaderboard for losses among current pitchers:

Name Wins Losses Age ===================================== Lowe, D 176 157 40 Pettite, A 252 148 41 Zito, B 164 138 35 Buehrle, M 179 137 34 Dempster, R 129 132 36 Burnett, AJ 141 127 36 Colon, B 183 125 40 Garland, J 136 125 33 Wright, J 92 125 38 Arroyo, B 131 121 36

Only 45 hurlers have lost 200 or more games in their careers. I don’t see anyone joining that list anytime soon. The youngest players with at least 100 Ls are 32-year-olds CC Sabathia (108) and Dan Haren (106). I suppose if Sabathia could win 100 more, he could lose 92 more as well, though given that his career winning percentage is .649, it’s hard to imagine he’ll revert to being a near-.500 pitcher the rest of the way.

Finally, the players bidding to be the next member of the 200 win club:

Name Wins Losses Age ===================================== Colon, B 183 125 40 Buehrle, M 179 137 34 Lowe, D 176 157 40 Zito, B 164 138 35 Oswalt, R 163 99 35 Garcia, F 155 106 36 Carpenter, C 144 94 38 Burnett, AJ 141 127 36 Santana, J 139 78 34 Garland, J 136 125 33 Lee, C 135 80 34

Barring injury or a complete dropoff in effectiveness, I’d say Mark Buehrle is a cinch to reach 200, possibly next season. The ageless Bartolo Colon, who has 12 wins this season, could join him. If Chris Carpenter hadn’t lost nearly three full seasons to injury, who knows how many more wins he’d have. Cliff Lee would need to regain some form, but he has a shot. Beyond that list, Justin Verlander (133 wins, 30 years old), Dan Haren (123, 32), and Felix Hernandez (106, 27) seem like the ones with the best odds. And going back to my original statement about wins being tightly connected to run support and bullpen quality, imagine how much closer to 200 King Felix would be if he toiled for a better team than the Mariners. He’s in his ninth season now; Andy Pettite collected 149 Ws through his first nine years. Don’t let anyone tell you that luck isn’t a part of the game.