Great pitchers sometimes have bad games

Tuesday's battle for first place in the AL Central was supposed to be a pitcher's duel between reigning Cy Young winner Max Scherzer and rookie fireballer Yordano Ventura. Instead, Scherzer allowed 10 hits and 10 runs in four innings. His ERA climbed from 3.05 to 3.84 and he probably cost himself at least a few million bucks when he hits free agency this offseason.

In the second inning he threw 51 pitches as the Royals scored seven runs. The inning went: Single, home run, walk, home run, single, bunt single, single, single, ground out, ground out, strike out.

As Jeff Sullivan wrote on FanGraphs:

You might assume that, Tuesday, Scherzer simply didn't have it. Everybody is entitled to an off-night, and maybe Scherzer just didn't have the right feel for his pitches. But, in the top of the first, Scherzer set the Royals down 1-2-3, on ten pitches, with a strikeout. In the top of the third, he set the Royals down 1-2-3, on nine pitches, with a strikeout. Scherzer had it, then he didn't have it to an extreme degree, like a four-standard-deviations-away-from-the-mean degree, then he had it again. Conventional wisdom states that there are nights when pitchers don’t have their stuff. What research has indicated is that bad innings aren’t actually particularly predictive. Feel can come and go, between innings and between pitches, and it’s not like Scherzer was doomed from the get-go. He just wound up getting his [butt] kicked in the span of 30 minutes.

I went back and looked at that second inning. Let's review:

  • Billy Butler single: 3-2 fastball inside, Butler fights it off for soft single down the right-field line.

  • Alex Gordon home run: 1-0 fastball over the middle of the plate. Bad pitch.

  • Salvador Perez walk: After getting ahead 0-2.

  • Mike Moustakas home run: 3-2 changeup over the middle of the plate. Bad pitch.

  • Alcides Escobar single: 2-2 slider off the plate but up. Soft single to right-center. Not a good pitch.

  • Jarrod Dyson bunt single: He can fly. Royals successfully challenged the out call at first.

  • Nori Aoki single: 3-1 fastball up in the zone. Line drive -- more of a flare -- to right. I'd say that J.D. Martinez got a pretty bad read on this one.

  • Omar Infante single: 1-2 fastball right down the middle, lined sharply to center. Bad pitch.

Everything wasn't hit hard but Scherzer did make a lot of bad pitches in the inning. In a different reality, he could throw the same sequence of pitches and get out of the inning. But it certainly wasn't a good inning -- both home runs were awful pitches and the 1-2 fastball to Infante was down the middle and lacked movement. The Royals made Scherzer pay and he become the sixth starter this season to give up 10 or more runs.

But the other five weren't Cy Young winners. How often does a great starter have a terrible game?

For Scherzer, it wasn't even the worst game of his career. His Game Score in this one was 6; back on May 3, 2010, he also allowed 10 runs in a game against the Twins, good for a Game Score of 4. But in looking at pitchers who allowed 10 runs in a game, most of them weren't Cy Young contenders. James Shields is a pretty good one, however, and he's allowed 10 runs in a game four times. Jon Lester had an 11-run start in 2012. Felix Hernandez had a 10-run outing back in 2006, his first full season in the majors. Shields, by the way, is pretty extreme: Since 1961 only four pitchers have had four 10-run starts: Jamie Moyer (5); Shields, Jerry Reuss and Jon Garland (4 each).

Bill James actually just wrote on this subject the other day in a series of posts (pay) he's writing on billjamesonline.com. He developed a system to evaluate each start a pitcher makes -- similar to Game Score but adjusted for era, ballpark and strength of opponent, and he rates each start on a 10-point scale. Anyway, he writes,

"This is what I had never understood, until doing this study ... and it is absolutely amazing that I never understood this, because it is an extremely fundamental truth about the game, which I had somehow unaccountably missed up until this point. Dominant pitchers almost never actually have bad games. I never knew that. Guys like Koufax, Carlton, Gibson, Pedro, the Big Unit, Gooden when he was good ... they almost never actually have bad games. They lose sometimes, because sometimes they run up against another pitcher having an equally good day, and sometimes they give up a few runs because they may be pitching against a good team in a good hitter’s park or something. But in terms of just having a bad day ... they almost never do. Their Good Game/Bad Game percentage is actually very close to 1.000.

He mentions Steve Carlton's 1980 season, when Carlton went 24-9 with a 2.34 ERA for the Phillies. He has Carlton at 34 good games and just one bad one. Indeed, Carlton gave up more than four runs just once -- six runs in 7.1 innings against the Expos on July 2. That was his only bad start of the season, under the James method. In 1997, Randy Johnson made 29 starts. Under James' system, he had 25 good starts and four starts rated as a "5" -- but no bad starts. His lowest Game Score was 47 and he allowed more than four runs once, five runs in six innings. (Interestingly, both of those games came against the Orioles -- who would beat him twice in the postseason that year. Actually, Johnson's worst game was the first game of the Division Series, with a Game Score of 32. Not that I'm bitter or anything.)

So Scherzer has now had two Game Score of under 10. Here are the lowest Game Scores for some current starters:

Shields: -3 (twice)

Hernandez: 4

Justin Verlander: 14

Clayton Kershaw: 12

Adam Wainwright: 4

Tim Hudson: 9

Yu Darvish: 29

Mark Buehrle: 0 (he's one of 62 pitches since 1961 to have at least two 10-run games).

Jered Weaver: 7

Most guys have had some bad games -- most of these are starters where the pitchers last a few innings and give up eight runs and a bunch of hits.

What about the all-time legends. Let's check a few:

Roger Clemens: 2 (1.1 IP, 9 H, 8 R, 2 BB, 0 SO; 7/23/95)

Pedro Martinez: 6 (4.1 IP, 9 H, 10 R, 4 BB, 5 SO; 4/12/03)

Randy Johnson: -5 (2.1 IP, 8 H, 11 R, 6 BB, 2 SO; 4/10/94)

Johnson had one other 10-run game in his carer, with Arizona in 2003.

Greg Maddux: 5 (2.1 IP, 11 H, 8 R, 0 BB, 2 SO; 8/5/88)

Maddux had two 10-run games, in 2002 and 2003.

Tom Seaver: 8 (2 IP, 10 H, 7 R, 1 BB, 1 SO; 5/25/79)

OK, let's end it there as I need to grab some lunch. What makes this new system of James' interesting is you could look at the percentage of good and bad starts for each starter or percentage of awful games. Certainly, it's unusual for a starter of Scherzer's caliber to have such a terrible start.