- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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How often have you heard this question asked this season:
What's wrong with Johan Santana?
Uh, how about nothing?
Yeah, his win-loss record is "only" 7-6. Yeah, that's exactly the same record as Miguel Batista. Yeah, that's as many wins as Adam Eaton. But what we have here, friends, is another classic case of how numbers deceive us.
Well, some numbers.
But especially these numbers -- wins and losses.
Why are we still looking at wins and losses first when we talk about starting pitchers? Don't we live these days in a more enlightened age than that?
In a world that now allows us to evaluate pitchers with so much more revealing information, why are we still hung up on the same numbers that defined pitchers in 1912?
"It all comes down to 120 years of thinking of the pitcher as the guy who wins the game," says Baseball Prospectus' always-incisive Joe Sheehan. "With the advent of bullpens and the higher offensive levels, the fact is that pitchers are more reliant on their offense to score than they used to be. ... So a pitcher's wins just don't correlate as a reliable indicator of pitcher performance the way they used to 80 or 100 years ago."
We couldn't agree more. And we have lots of ideal test cases this year to prove our point, too. So let's take a look at five pitchers whose (W-L) numbers are deceiving:
Yeah, Santana is really having a crummy year, all right. He's second in the league in strikeouts, third in strikeout ratio, fourth in ERA and fifth in opponent batting average and on-base percentage.
WORST RUN SUPPORT
His ERA (2.91) is a run lower than Jeremy Bonderman's (7-0, 3.92). And Santana beats Josh Beckett (10-1) in ERA, strikeout ratio, WHIP and opponent average. So how come The Great Johan is "only" 7-6? Well, the Twins have scored two runs or fewer while he was in the game eight times already. And that has translated to six quality starts that didn't add any "W's" to his record.
So this guy is having a "down" year only if you compare him to himself, not the rest of the pitching species. And we're not even sure if it's safe to say that. His ERA and strikeout rate are almost identical to where they were a year ago after 15 starts. And his opponent average after 15 starts (.218) is the lowest of his career at this stage.
"His velocity is down a little," says one scout. "He used to pitch at 93-94. Now he's more like 90-91. And he has had some trouble keeping his changeup down, which is why he's given up more home runs (14 already). But he's still the best pitcher in the league."
Here's the question we should be asking about Matt Cain: Is he the best 2-7 pitcher in history? Hey, he just might be, as a matter of fact.
We couldn't find a single pitcher in the expansion era who had an ERA as good as Cain's (3.15), or a hits-per-nine-IP rate as good as Cain's (7.02 per nine IP) who wound up a season with a winning percentage as lousy as his is now (.222). But even 2-7 doesn't do justice to how crummy the Giants have played behind him. Their record when he starts is an incomprehensible 2-12.
So how do we explain this? Just about every way possible. He has lost two 1-0 games and a 2-0 game. The bullpen has blown three saves for him. And the offense has scored two runs or fewer in nine of his starts. It's been so ugly that he has allowed three hits or fewer five times -- and won one of them.
"To me, he's a lot like Justin Verlander," says one scout. "It's easy to think he could throw multiple no-hitters. That's how good his stuff is. And he's 2-7. Now that doesn't make a whole lot of sense."
There are probably people out there looking at Gil Meche's 4-6 record in Kansas City and saying, "I told you so." But if those are the only numbers you're perusing, you're hereby assigned to go back and reread the first 11 paragraphs of this column.
Meche has had the third-worst run support in the American League. But let's break down that support (or lack thereof) another way. You've heard of quality starts, right? (That's the stat that measures how many times a pitcher gives his team a chance to win a game.) We're inventing a new stat -- the CUS (Criminally Unsupported Start) -- which measures games in which an offense gives its pitcher no chance to win.
Our definition of a CUS is a game in which a pitcher goes at least six innings, but his offense scores no more than one run while he's in the game. Believe it or not, it's happened to Meche eight times already. Only one other pitcher in baseball (Jon Garland, with six) has more than five CUS.
"That [record] describes what people thought Meche was going to be," says one scout. "But that's not what he's been. I didn't think he had it in him to be a No. 3 [starter], let alone a No. 1. But he's pitched like a No. 1."
It ought to be impossible to be a Yankee with a sub-3.00 ERA (2.93) and just a 4-4 record. But that's exactly what Andy Pettitte was before he was forced by the schedule gods to pitch in Coors Field on Wednesday (where he gave up six runs in 6 2/3 innings in a 6-1 loss).
Pettitte has had three saves blown behind him. And he's had just enough shaky defense and up-and-down run support that Baseball Prospectus ranks him as the sixth-unluckiest pitcher in the American League (just ahead of Meche). The result is that Pettitte still hasn't won a game in which he has allowed more than one run. Hard to believe.
"He was one of their few bright spots during that bad period," says one scout. "He hasn't gotten enough credit for that."
Erik Bedard's breakout year has been lost amid the rubble of the Orioles' other issues. But this guy ought to be way better than a 4-4 pitcher.
He leads the major leagues in strikeouts (112 in 94 IP). And the even better news is that he's working on a streak of nine straight starts in which he has allowed three runs or fewer. The bad news is, he has won exactly one of those nine starts -- thanks to three blown saves and no more than four runs to work with in any of those games.
"He came up as a thrower, but he's morphed into a guy who can pitch," says one scout. "He's got well-above-average stuff every time I see him. And now he's getting ahead of the hitters, which gives him a chance to pitch. He keeps them in every game. They just keep finding ways not to win."
Ah, but they're not the only ones. Which means those five pitchers aren't the only pitchers in this mess. So we'd hate to overlook this list:
Other pitchers who could sue for nonsupport
BLOWN WINS LEADERS
Jeremy Guthrie, Orioles; Mark Buehrle,
Javier Vazquez and Jon Garland, White Sox; Joe Kennedy, A's; Carlos Silva, Twins; Ted Lilly and Rich Hill, Cubs; Ian Snell and Tom Gorzelanny, Pirates; Chris Young, Padres; Jeff Francis, Rockies; Doug Davis and Livan Hernandez, Diamondbacks; Derek Lowe, Dodgers; and the perennial captain of this team, Roy Oswalt, Astros.
Rumblings and Grumblings
• If you're one of those people who seriously think the Giants are going to trade Barry Bonds, we have a picturesque bridge to Marin County we'd like to sell you. "Who would take him?" wondered one NL front-office man. "The Giants would have to assume all the money. He's got a no-trade in his contract, and he's a 10-and-5 man. He can't run at all. He can't play the outfield. Every ball hit into the left-field corner is a double or a triple because he can't get there. His bat has slowed down. And I even think he looks unsure of himself at the plate. He's not swinging at good pitches like he used to. And he's not driving the ball like he used to. So I can't see any way [he gets traded]."
Bonds looked great in April, when he still felt good physically. But here's how obvious is it that he's worn down: Since May 9, he has three homers, eight RBIs and a lower slugging percentage (.385) than Tony Pena Jr., Tony Graffanino or Willy Taveras.
• The Mets have been the team most linked to a Mark Buehrle trade. But the buzz among baseball people we've surveyed is that the Braves are much more interested than the Mets are. An official of one club that has been kicking around ideas with Mets GM Omar Minaya says this of anyone who thinks the Mets would trade Lastings Milledge for Buehrle (or any rent-a-player): "They're nuts." The Mets would talk about Milledge only in a deal for a power arm they could control until at least 2009. (Hmmm. Dontrelle Willis, perhaps?).
• The Braves, meanwhile, don't want to wait much longer to upgrade their rotation. So we're hearing they've been feeling out a bunch of teams in search of a starter -- young or established -- that they can slot behind John Smoltz and Tim Hudson. They're not interested in those Mike Maroth fifth-starter type arms that are out there, though. So Buehrle, says one executive who has talked to them, "fits just about every scenario" they're shopping for. But the White Sox haven't flipped the "sell" switch yet. So the Buehrle Mart won't open until at least the first week of July.
• The other big White Sox name who is likely to move on -- Jermaine Dye -- is attracting much more cautious interest. One club looking for offense said it had concerns about his knee. Another said Dye wasn't the same player -- especially defensively -- he was last year. But it's easy to say that now. We still think that come July, Dye will be the most attractive right-handed bat available.
• Other clubs are interpreting the contract extension for Rangers general manager Jon Daniels as owner Tom Hicks' way of telling his GM: Go trade Mark Teixeira or anyone you want to trade. But even teams looking for a bat are wary of how the Teixeira auction is shaping up. "The guy isn't even coming off the DL until after the break," said one GM. "So that's going to be a two-week [roller-coaster ride]. They're going to want a ton back. The line will be long. The time to do it will be short. It's going to turn into a demolition derby."
• Here's one more often-rumored deal you can forget: Junior Griffey to Atlanta. The Braves are focused on pitching, not bats. And they've been telling teams they're not interested in dealing prospects for players who have big bucks due beyond this year. Well, Griffey has $12.5 million guaranteed for next year, plus a $16.5 million club option for 2009 -- and he has made some noises he'd want that option picked up before he OK'd any trades. So never mind.
• Life with Peter Angelos, Part 1: True story: The Orioles' entire baseball-operations department first heard about Angelos' decision to hire Andy MacPhail when they read Buster Olney's story on ESPN.com. Seriously.
Life with Peter Angelos, Part 2: Obviously, MacPhail never would have taken this job if Angelos hadn't promised him he'd have nearly full autonomy. But one baseball official who has known Angelos for years told Rumblings: "I still question whether he'll let Andy do what's necessary. Andy will do a great job there if Peter lets him do his job. But Peter is Peter. So I doubt it." But another baseball man who has worked with Angelos says, "I know everyone is skeptical that he'll really relinquish the reins. But I honestly think he's had enough. I think the losing finally got to him."
Life with Peter Angelos, Part 3: One friend of Joe Girardi told Rumblings this week: "If Joe were to ask me whether he should take this job, I'd tell him he's nuts. I just can't see him working for Peter Angelos. I'd tell him to wait for a better job."
Girardi's buddies in the game say the one job he'd be interested in besides the Yankees, Mets and Cubs would surprise you. It's the Royals, if Buddy Bell ever gets fired, because of Girardi's respect for GM Dayton Moore.
• We've heard a lot of talk about how the Orioles' bullpen undid Sam Perlozzo. But Perlozzo did his share to undo that bullpen, too. Until Danys Baez headed for the DL, four Orioles relievers (Chad Bradford, Jamie Walker, Chris Ray and Baez) were on pace to pitch in nearly 90 games this year. And here's all you need to know about how insane that is: No pitcher in the history of the franchise has ever appeared in more than 76 games in a season. Those four, said one AL executive, "were totally abused."
• Don't be surprised if the Orioles add Don Baylor to their managerial-interview list. But Dusty Baker was never a candidate for that list. Every indication is that MacPhail thought Baker wasn't the right fit for this team.
• The other blockbuster firing of the week was Eddie Murray's exit as Dodgers hitting coach. Dodgers players have told their friends that Murray was so headstrong and old-school that half the position players on the roster weren't even on speaking terms with him.
• Ever since draft day, Scott Boras has been dumping on baseball's fabled "slotting system" as not being applicable to his own esteemed stable of "special" and "icon" clients. But he may be in for a surprise. One baseball man says the pressure being applied by MLB to teams like the Tigers (who drafted Boras client Rick Porcello at No. 27) and Orioles (who took Boras client Matt Wieters at No. 5) to stay within the slotting guidelines was "unbelievable."
And now that the draft rules have been changed with Boras in mind -- allowing teams to get virtually the same pick next year if they don't sign their pick this year -- MLB seems more intent on playing hardball on this front than ever. Don't touch that dial as the Boras camp combs the fine print for some convenient loophole his players can high-jump through.
• As another Pirates season skids southward, they're once again getting calls from clubs interested in dealing for their young pitching. Stop us if this sounds familiar, but the asking price for anybody who fits that description has sent most of those teams sprinting in the other direction. "To get them to part with any young, controllable pitcher is impossible," said an official of one team that inquired.
• The Yankees continue to hunt for a first baseman. The latest rumored name on their shopping list: The Reds' Scott Hatteberg.
• One NL executive says he can't figure out why teams keep intentionally walking Ryan Howard when the Phillies player they should be walking is Chase Utley -- to pitch to Howard: "At least Howard has holes -- a lot of holes -- especially this year. In a big spot, Utley fights you. He fights off tough pitches. He's hard to strike out. He'll take your heart out to win a game. Give me enough players like that, and I'll win a championship. I guarantee you."
• Finally, what's the biggest crisis in Chicago following the Cubs' trade of Michael Barrett? They traded him six days before Michael Barrett Jersey Day and 11 days before Michael Barrett Bobblehead Day. Our official bobblehead czar, David Hallstrom, reports that Barrett is the third player in the bobblehead era to get traded in midseason before his very special day of bobbleheadedness. The first was Ryan Dempster, dealt away by the Marlins in 2002 before they could give away 15,000 of his bobbleheads. So they just rescheduled the giveaway for May 30, 2003, when Dempster was finally set to return to Florida with the Reds. Oops. He was on the disabled list. So no wonder, after the White Sox traded Esteban Loaiza in 2004 three weeks before his bobblehead day, they just went ahead and gave away the bobbleheads anyhow. At least Loaiza did pitch that day -- in the Bronx.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," has been published by Triumph Books and is now available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.