Even in the midst of this great pitching era we have entered over the last three years, there are a handful of bad and/or unlucky hurlers out there on pace to join a very dubious list of 20-game losers.
As of July 1, Cole Hamels (2-11), Edwin Jackson (4-10), Joe Blanton (2-10) and Trevor Cahill* (3-10) are on track to lose 20 games. The last pitcher to have that level of futility was Mike Maroth (9-21) with the Detroit Tigers in 2003.
There is a notable difference between Maroth and the four pitchers this year. The 2003 Tigers were one of the worst teams in baseball history, losing 119 games and setting a new American League record in the process.
Proving the fickle nature of wins and losses for pitchers, Cahill actually pitches for a first-place team right now. His 4.66 ERA and 136 baserunners allowed in 96.2 innings doesn't help, but he is also tied for 12th—ironically, with Cole Hamels—in lowest run support per start among at 3.18.
As we move into the second half of the season, I wanted to examine the likelihood that there will be at least one 20-game loser among the current crop of starting pitchers.
*Note: As I was writing this, the Diamondbacks placed Cahill on the 15-day disabled list with a hip contusion that greatly reduces his chances at reaching the 20-loss plateau.
Stacking Up the Candidates
The easiest way to determine if a pitcher is going to lose a lot of games is to look at his team, how much run support he gets and the teams remaining on the schedule.
Using the standard four days of rest for pitchers without taking into account any extra rest down the stretch for teams trying to work in younger players or injuries, here are the teams that the four pitchers should face with their clubs' remaining schedules.
|Cole Hamels, Philadelphia Phillies||Pit., Was. (3), CWS, NYM (2), Det., Atl. (2), LAD, AZ, SD, Mia. (2)|
|Edwin Jackson, Chicago Cubs||Pit. (3), StL (4), Col., SF, LAD (2), Phi, Mil (2), Was.|
|Joe Blanton, Los Angeles Angels||StL., ChC, Oak. (4), Tor. (2), Cle., Hou., Sea., Mil., TB|
|Trevor Cahill, Arizona Diamondbacks||Col. (2), Mil., ChC, TB, Bos., NYM, Pit., Phi., SF (2), LAD, SD|
Among that group of opponents, Cahill certainly appears the most likely to avoid the 20-loss plateau, even without the injury taking at least three starts away. If his schedule holds up, the Diamondbacks right-hander has just three games against opponents with a winning record (as of July 1).
Hamels, despite being the best pitcher on the list, has the most difficult schedule remaining and could find himself reaching the 20-loss barrier with some ease. Eight of his 15 starts are against teams over .500 and four are against division leaders (Pittsburgh, Detroit, Atlanta).
One factor that also has to be taken into account, though we can't accurately measure it right now, is the opposing pitcher. Sometimes you just have bad luck and consistently run into the other team's best starter.
Things Beyond Their Control
The aforementioned run support is a huge factor for all of these pitchers when you look at their win-loss records.
For instance, even if we ignore these four starters, a lot of great pitchers have bad luck or don't play behind good offenses to boost their win total. Stephen Strasburg has a 2.41 ERA and 90 strikeouts in 93.1 innings, but he's just 4-6 because he gets the lowest run support among all starters in baseball (2.60 per game).
Here are the run-support totals that the four pitchers being discussed get this season (h/t ESPN.com):
|Player||Run Support (MLB Rank)|
|Cole Hamels||3.18 (T-12th Lowest)|
|Trevor Cahill||3.18 (T-12th Lowest)|
|Edwin Jackson||4.00 (T-38th Lowest)|
|Joe Blanton||4.13 (T-46th Lowest)|
That puts a whole different spin on projecting which pitchers are more likely to stay in the hunt for 20 losses. Hamels and Cahill have a much better chance than Jackson or Blanton because they are getting virtually no run support at all.
The average team in the National League scores 4.07 runs per game, putting three of our big losers at below average in run support. In the case of Hamels and Cahill, they get nearly one full run of support fewer than the average pitcher when their turn comes.
Going team-by-team, the Phillies are averaging 3.86 runs per game; the Diamondbacks average 4.22; the Cubs 4.13 and the Angels 4.66.
Sometimes It Just Isn't Your Year
We have all seen the hitter who goes through a down year where nothing seems to click, though the overall numbers might not appear as bad as you'd think.
For Hamels, Cahill, Jackson and Blanton, that doesn't really apply because they are all having rather dreadful seasons by their standards. Well, Blanton is actually expected to have an ERA near 5.00. But everyone else is just having a really poor year of pitching.
The metrics still like Hamels a lot, as his Fangraphs Fielding Independent ERA is 3.82. While that is substantially lower than his 4.58 ERA, it is more than a half-run higher than his FIP from 2012 (3.30).
Blanton has been dreadful for the Angels this season and likely only has a rotation job right now because the team has no one else. The righty has given up 17 home runs and 126 hits in 97.2 innings.
Cahilll has always needed to pound the strike zone with his sinking fastball, because he isn't going to rack up a lot of strikeouts. Unfortunately, this year he is striking out just 6.42 per nine innings, walking 3.63 per nine innings and has the highest home run rate of his career (0.93 per nine innings).
But if you are looking for the hard-luck loser in the group, Jackson is the man for you.
Because he is missing bats at a better rate this year than at any other point in his career without allowing many home runs, his FIP looks much better (3.77) than his ERA (5.75).
The Losses Will Keep Piling Up
In the end, while some luck could change in the second half—especially for a pitcher like Hamels, who is still controlling enough of the game when he is on the mound—the likelihood of a 20-game loser at this point seems highly likely.
It won't be Cahill, for reasons that we have already discussed and because he pitches for the best team in the group.
Hamels could flirt with 20 losses, just because I see the Phillies spiraling further downward with an aging lineup and horrible defense behind the pitchers.
Blanton pitches for a team that is going to score a lot of runs, so even if he has a horrible day, there is a lot more margin for error with him than anyone else on the list.
But if you had to put a paycheck on one pitcher breaking the barrier, Jackson would get my vote. The Cubs are easily the worst team among the four in this particular group. He has always been inconsistent, but this year has been a lot more bad than good.
Given the fickle nature of pitcher wins and losses, it is impossible to say with any certainty what will happen. New York Mets starter Shaun Marcum could lap the field in losses—he is 1-9 with a 5.08 ERA right now.
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