Bill James looks at 'big game' pitchers

Bill James has a fascinating series over at the Bill James Online website, attempting to examine the idea of how pitchers fared in "big games." It's something I've always wanted to do, but the task always seemed as daunting as climbing Mount Everest in sneakers. For starters: What is a Big Game?

The impetus for the series was, perhaps not surprisingly, Jack Morris, although now that Morris has officially seen his time on the BBWAA Hall of Fame ballot expire, he's a little less interesting (at least until he gets elected via the Veterans Committee).

James writes in the first part of the series:

OK, but we circle back to the argument that Morris was a Big Game pitcher, in general, rather than merely a Big Game pitcher in the 1991 post-season. Traditionalists assert that Jack Morris was a Big Game pitcher, because they have to assert this to defend Morris, and Analysts sneer and scoff at that because there is no general evidence for it, and also because sneering and scoffing are what we are best at.

We reject the argument that Jack Morris was a Big Game pitcher because there is no evidence for it beyond a few World Series starts, but think about it. Is there any evidence that it isn’t true? Have you ever seen any evidence that it isn’t true? What if it is true?

This is what started me off on this two-week research tangent, neglecting my wife, my personal habits and the Boston Red Sox. What if it is true that Jack Morris was, in fact, a Big Game pitcher? How would we know?

I don't want to give too much away here since the series -- James is nine articles into it, with one left to be published -- is behind the site's pay wall. Using data back to 1952 (aka the Retrosheet era, when we have box scores for nearly every game), James devised an ingenious method to isolate big games, creating what he called a Big Game Score, based on the time of the season, the status of the pennant race (or wild-card race) and the records of the teams involved. Every game with a Big Game Score of 310 or higher is regarded as a Big Game. In the end, he has 7.7 percent of all regular-season games labeled as Big Games, or one in 13.

In Part IV of the series, he lists the pitchers who started the most Big Games. Since those games usually occur late in seasons when a pitcher is on a good team, it's perhaps no surprise that Andy Pettitte has started the most Big Games with 82, one more than Jim Palmer and Roger Clemens. (Again, these are regular-season totals only; Pettitte has also started the most postseason games in history.) The three pitchers with the highest percentage of their career starts marked as Big Games are Sandy Koufax and Johnny Podres (Dodgers teammates in the '50s and '60s when the Dodgers were in a series of tight pennant races) and Jon Lester. The pitcher with the most career starts never to start a Big Game is Zach Duke, with 169.

James has another article going over some of his results, another one examining Jim Kaat's record in Big Games more closely, and then unveils his list of the top 11 Big Game pitchers. I won't give away the No. 1 guy, but I will tell you that he pitched in the major leagues last year. The No. 2 guy -- fitting his reputation -- is Bob Gibson. Mike Mussina is 11th. In 54 Big Games, Mussina went 27-13 with a 3.04 ERA. Maybe that will eventually help his Hall of Fame case.

Maybe my favorite stat from the series came in another article on teams: The Kansas City A's, in their 13 years in Kansas City, never played a Big Game.

What to make of the series? Do the results prove anything? For example, if you make a more stringent definition of Big Games than James did, you may end up with different results. Still, as James writes:

But what happens in Big Games is important whether or not it is indicative of an underlying skill. Bill Mazeroski’s home run in the 1960 World Series is a big deal, whether or not it had anything to do with Mazeroski’s ability as a hitter. Madison Bumgarner pitching 8 shutout innings in the 2010 World Series and 7 shutout innings in the 2012 World Series is important, whether or not it has anything to do with Bumgarner’s character, his underlying skills, or the allegation that he has a girl’s first name and is a bad gardener.

It's just another layer to add to what we already know about pitchers, an important one since the subject of Big Games is often brought up. And Morris? How did he do in Big Games? Stay tuned. That will be covered in that final article of the series.