Gagne's strikeouts give him the edge over Smoltz

While John Smoltz is having a superb season, Eric Gagne has simply been the better pitcher.

Originally Published: August 11, 2003
By Rob Neyer | ESPN.com

I made a mistake in last Thursday's column, a mistake that a number of readers pointed out, most of them in less than kind fashion (not that I didn't deserve it).

    Rob,

    Your most recent article on ESPN.com concerning Eric Gagne and John Smoltz contained a statistical error/misprint. The section comparing Smoltz's projected stats vs. Gagne's showed Smoltz's current strikeout total as the projected total for the year. Instead of 62, I believe it should have been 94, based on the projected innings pitched of 82. I do believe this affects the comparison between the two somewhat.

    I really enjoy your articles and the analytical perspective you bring to baseball.

    Jonathan Cantrell

Eric Gagne
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesEric Gagne is the latest award-winner pitcher to wear Dodger blue.

What's that old saying about honey and vinegar? Anyway, I'm grateful to Jonathan for his patience with me. And here are the real projected numbers, updated through Sunday's games:

         IP  Hits BB  K    W-L  Sv
Smoltz   80   58  11  86   0-3  58
Gagne    80   35  18 134   1-4  54   

So yes, Smoltz's strikeout rate is truly impressive, better than I let on last week ... but Gagne's strikeout rate is historic.

Some might argue, I suppose, that it doesn't matter how you get the outs, as long as you get them. But let's take two pitchers with identical stats, except for one:

           IP  Hits BB  K    W-L  Sv
Sam Slow   80   60  20   0   2-2  48
Bill Blow  80   60  20 240   2-2  48   

Don't you have to give Bill at least a bit of extra credit for doing all of the work? And conversely, don't you have to give Sam's teammates at least a bit of the credit, for making at least a few tough plays behind him?

Well, the difference between Smoltz and Gagne isn't nearly so extreme, but Gagne is going to finish the season with roughly 50 more strikeouts than Smoltz, which means Smoltz's teammates have to make 50 more plays, and at least a few of those 50 plays won't be easy ones.

Nobody would argue -- at least I hope nobody would argue -- that the fielders don't deserve a certain amount of credit for what they do. And is it really a leap in logic to suggest that if the fielders get credit, the pitcher loses some?

Another complaint about my "analysis" was that I omitted ERA, ostensibly (at least in the "minds" of some Braves fans) because my bias against the Braves wouldn't allow me to run any statistic that's not favorable to the non-Brave.

Sorry, but that wasn't the reason. I didn't list their ERAs because the numbers don't really tell us anything interesting. It's true that Smoltz's 0.94 ERA looks a lot better than Gagne's 1.58 ... but looks can be deceiving, and in this case they are. Smoltz has given up six earned runs (seven total), and Gagne has given up 10 earned runs (11 total). I'm sorry, but a difference of four runs over the course of 4½ months just doesn't mean a whole lot. If those numbers hold through the end of the season (which they won't), that would represent an edge for Smoltz. But just a tiny one.

What's important is how well they've done their job, and their job is to protect the leads with which they're entrusted.

Who's been better at doing that? Actually, they're very close. Gagne has converted every save opportunity that he's had, but lost three games. Smoltz has blown three saves, and lost two games. By this particular measure, Gagne is two to the good. And when you throw in Gagne's strikeouts (and his amazingly low rate of baserunners allowed), it seems obvious to me that he's been slightly better than Smoltz. And probably the most valuable pitcher in the league.

On the other hand ...

    Hey Rob,

    If win rates are nonsense ... then aren't save rates? So 19-1 is nonsense and somehow the Smoltz/Gagne 'save' thing isn't?

    Isn't that contradictory?

    Best,
    Steve

Well, yes ... sort of. But while I would argue that a starting pitcher's job is simply to keep his team in a decent position to win, I would also argue that a closer's job is specifically to preserve a win for his team. Which makes -- at least in my opinion -- save percentage a somewhat more meaningful statistic than wins and losses for a starter.

And here's something else ... Often when a pitcher has a great record and a less-than-great ERA, he's been the beneficiary of outstanding run support.

Russ Ortiz
Starting pitcher
Atlanta Braves
Profile
2003 SEASON STATISTICS
G IP W-L BB SO ERA
25 158.2 16-5 75 105 3.46

That's Russ Ortiz. Yes, I know he's 16-5. I also know his 3.46 ERA ranks just 13th in the National League, but that his 6.41 runs support per game ranks third in the National League (Woody Williams is second, and Ortiz's teammate Shane Reynolds is first). Ortiz is having a fine season, but there are five or six National League pitchers having finer ones.

    Rob,

    After Shigetoshi Hasegawa got two saves in Yankee Stadium this weekend, here are his stats this season:

     IP Hits HR  BB   K  W-L  Sv BlSv   ERA   
    54.2  42   2  10  23  1-0  10   0   0.66
    

    Considering your recent article about Gagne and Smoltz, it seems to me that "Shiggy" is having nearly as good a season as they are. Not as great a H/IP ratio, or K/BB, but still very, very effective.

    So the question is, what are the chances he stays on in the closer's role once Kaz Sasaki comes back? I know Sasaki is good, but he's not that good. In fact, I would say no one other than Gagne and Smoltz has been better this season (maybe Troy Percival or Billy Wagner). Can a closer (and, historically, a pretty solid closer) get Wally Pipp-ed?

    Just curious what you think.

    Thanks,
    Micah

He's having a great season, obviously. I do think it's a bit of a stretch to compare Hasegawa's season to those of Gagne and Smoltz, because only the ERA is comparable. But yes, he's having a great season.

Should Hasegawa be the closer in Seattle? Yes, I think he should be. While he's obviously pitched better than his ability, 1) there's no telling if Sasaki is going to return at full strength, and 2) Sasaki was never all that great, anyway.

On the other hand, haven't we realized the ninth inning isn't always the most important inning? With all the fuss in Boston about every reliever having to know his exact role, the Mariners have quietly done what the Red Sox hoped to do. Four different Mariners have recorded at least three saves this season, and while one (Jeff Nelson) of those four pitchers is gone, he's been replaced by another (Armando Benitez) with nearly 200 career saves.

Holding off the A's isn't going to be easy, but among the Mariners' many strengths is a brilliant collection of arms in the bullpen. And using those arms in the best way, rather than the easiest way, might make the difference between finishing first and finishing second.

Senior writer Rob Neyer writes four columns per week during the baseball season. His new book, "Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Lineups," has just been published by Fireside. For more information about the book, visit Rob's Web site.

ALSO SEE