Most ballplayers have rather predictable careers: arrive, improve, plateau, decline, and depart. They rarely ever perfectly follow the script each season of their career, but the general trend is unmistakable.
Then there are some with strange looking careers. I don’t simply mean they peaked early or unusually late. Those are very typical oddities. No, I mean some guys have careers that seem to defy easy explanation. A simple effort to quantify them threatens to distort more than it illuminates.
Rick Sutcliffe was such a player. He was a pitcher whose career value was far less than the sum of its parts. Approached from one angle, he was an innings eater. From another perspective, he was a Hall of Fame what-might-have-been. I don’t necessarily subscribe to either position, but it’s remarkable one career can have such wildly different (and defensible) interpretations.
From a standard sabermetic point of view, one needs to know only one number to understand Rick Sutcliffe’s career: 97. That was his career ERA+. As virtually all THT regulars probably know, an average ERA+ is 100, so Sutcliffe was a below-average pitcher in his career.
While ERA+ is a fine and useful stat, relying solely on it for career evaluation can be misleading, primarily because it misses the contours of a pitcher’s career. And good lord almighty, did Sutcliffe’s career ever have its contours. He combined an inability to consistently stay healthy with a penchant for impressive achievements in those rare moments with a good arm.
Though his career lasted nearly 20 years, he only had nine really healthy seasons. Here is what he did in them:
The healthy nine
First healthy season: He went 17-10 for a team with the 1979 Dodgers, who had a losing record. This allowed him to claim the coveted Rookie of the Year Award.
Second healthy season: Went 14-8 for a team tied for the 1982 Indians, a last place, thanks in no small part due to a league-leading ERA. His park was essentially neutral (actually, a slight edge to hitters), so he earned his ERA. By ERA+, he was the best starting pitcher in the league that year.
Third healthy season: Won 17 games (with 11 losses) for the 1983 Indians, a squad that lost over 90. That earned him an All-Star nod.
Fourth healthy season: Next year, despite being traded to another team early in the year, he won 20 games on the season. With his second team, he won the Cy Young Award by acclamation, largely thanks to one of the greatest winning percentages of all time: 16-1 with the second squad. He narrowly missed pitching enough to qualify for the ERA title, but he would’ve had the best ERA+ and fourth-best unadjusted ERA in the league.
Fifth healthy season: With the 1987 Cubs, Sutcliffe led the league in wins, even though his squad came in last place. He also gained a spot on the All-Star team, and came second in Cy Young voting (he had the best showing among all starting pitchers in that year’s voting). He had to settle for nabbing The Sporting News’s Pitcher of the Year award instead. Though three other pitchers on the rotation won a combined 764 games in their careers, Sutcliffe was the clear ace.
Sixth healthy season: Went 13-14 for the 1988 Cubs, a fourth-place squad. Thus, for the first time in his career, a complete healthy season did not contain any especially remarkable features.
Seventh healthy season: Won 16 games for the 1989 Cubs, helping them claim an unexpected division crown. He came in the top 10 in the league in innings, which was nice because that team’s bullpen really needed to reserve its strength for days when the back of the rotation started. For his efforts, he claimed a spot on his third All-Star roster.
Eighth healthy season: In 1992, after several injury-plagued seasons Sutcliffe won the Comeback Player of the Year Award with the Orioles. He went 16-15, as his new team improved by 22 games the year he arrived there.
Ninth healthy season: In 1993, at age 37, he sucked.
That is a pretty impressive roundup altogether. He won a series of major awards—Rookie of the Year, Cy Young, TSN’s Pitcher of the Year, Comeback Player of the Year. He led the league in many of the traditional glamor categories—wins, ERA, winning percentage. Almost every year he did something rather impressive.
It’s enough to make one wonder what might have been, as he never had more than three consecutive healthy seasons. Instead, he made a career out of falling apart and putting it back together. He followed up his rookie campaign by a total of five games over the next two years. After his Cy Young season, he posted back-to-back seasons without a winning record. He found himself in the running for Comeback because he’d tossed barely 100 innings over the previous pair of seasons.
Sutcliffe had a strong enough arm to start nearly 400 games, but weak enough so that it was extremely difficult to make 100 consecutive turns in the rotation. With the Cubs in 1980s, he gained a reputation as the slowest moving pitcher of his generation. He later admitted he worked so slowly because each pitch hurt his arm so much it took him a while for the pain to subside enough so he could another ball.
That is the reason his career ERA+ was so underwhelming. He had more talent than an average pitcher, but he frequently was unable to harness it. For example, at age 24, in his second full season, his ERA rose by over two full runs over the season before: 3.46 to 5.56.
Even in some of his nominally healthy seasons, bad stretches marred his overall performance. Most notably, the Indians were willing to trade him to the Cubs in early 1984, because it looked like something was horribly wrong with his arm. Sutcliffe ended 1983 by allowing 25 runs in 25 innings over his last handful of starts, causing his season’s ERA to rise by over a half-run in the process. Then he began 1984 looking like a has been, dropping most of his decisions while sporting an ERA on the wrong side of five.
In short, the man had a lot of talent, but he wasn’t able to harness it all the times.
Ah, but again, that starts the pendulum swinging the other way for me. Sure, he didn’t have the strongest arm in the world. That hardly makes him unique. The Hall of Very Good is loaded to the gills with guys who coulda/mighta done it if their arms had only allowed them to. Endurance certainly isn’t a glamorous as a great fastball, but it is one of the most valuable trait for a pitcher to have.
Also, while Sutcliffe won many of those awards and achievements, looking at them individually, nearly all of his great accomplishments were done in as unimpressive a manner as possible.
Did he win the Rookie of the Year Award? Well, his park-adjusted ERA was barely average. Sure, Sutcliffe claimed an ERA title in another season, but that was the only time his ERA ever appeared in the league’s top 10. In several of the seasons with big wins, his ERA was quite pedestrian. In the times he qualified for the ERA title, Sutcliffe’s ERA+ topped 110 only twice.
Remember how he led the league in wins while pitching for a last place squad? While that was true, the last place squad was only a little below .500 (tough division, that 1987 NL East). Also, he only won 18 games that year—which set a record for the lowest total by an NL champion up to that point in history.
Even in Sutcliffe’s best season, how many starting pitchers have won a Cy Young while not qualifying for the ERA crown anyway?
I love looking at Sutcliffe’s career because it contains so many nuggets and impressive achievements, despite the fact that he was not necessarily ever a great pitcher (aside from a couple of months in 1984, that is). It’s like he went shopping for accolades at MLB’s flea market—achieving so many, but often at a discount price—and intermixed them with some flatly bad seasons.
The Cub fan in me wants to say he might have been a Hall of Famer if he’d had a stronger arm. The baseball analyst thinks that he would have been a really bad honoree. If nothing else, he had a career like none other.
And even acknowledging this bizarreness does not close the book on the strangeness of Sutcliffe’s career. A few other factors exist. They aren’t necessarily the most important factoids in the world—in fact, their overall impact is quite slight—but they should at least be noted.
When people examine pitchers, especially modern pitchers, they generally focus entirely on what the hurler does on the mound. Yet, unless he pitches in a DH league, some value comes from his bat. It may not be much—in fact, it’s pretty much guaranteed to not be much—but it is there.
Sutcliffe posted a career OPS+ of 30. For any position other than pitcher, that would be terrible, but there is no point comparing OPS+ of pitchers to position players. After all, no one would ever ask Barry Bonds to pitch, so the average level of batting for pitching is completely divorced from that of hitters. Among the 191 hurlers who had at least 300 plate appearances since the AL introduced the designated hitter, only 19 had a better OPS+ than 30 (and almost half of them were scarcely better).
How many more runs did Sutcliffe produce with his bat than the average pitcher? Well, let’s use Runs Created as a general proxy. From 1984 to 1989 (Sutcliffe’s main years with the DH-less Cubs), National League pitchers on the whole created 899 runs by James’s formula in 29,608 plate appearances. Ouch.
Sutcliffe, over the course of his career, had 657 plate appearances. They weren’t all during 1984-89, but a majority were. (And I really don’t feel like figuring out pitcher RC for all of his NL seasons and then prorating them based on how many times Sutcliffe batted.)
If he hit like a normal pitcher, he would’ve had 20 RC. In reality, he had 35. (Among other things, this goes to show how limited a pitcher’s offensive accomplishments really are). Adjust his ERA by these 15 extra runs Sutcliffe provided, and his ERA moves from 4.08 to 4.03, causing his ERA+ to skyrocket from 97 to … (wait for it) … 98.
Yeah, had I known it was that small an increase, I probably wouldn’t have gone through all the work, but it is worth noting that to some small (and, yeah, it’s really small) degree, Sutcliffe’s pitching numbers underestimate his overall value.
Actually, that points to yet another bugaboo in Sutcliffe’s record. Among the other eccentricities of his career, a higher percentage of his runs allowed were earned than one would expect. Over the course of a game, that simply tells you someone made an error. Over a season, that could be a fluke. However, over a full career, it’s a different story.
Some pitchers, by their style, tend to allow more unearned runs than one would expect. That is true of knuckleballers, whose hard to predict pitch yields numerous passed balls. It’s also true of groundball pitchers, as groundballs are more likely to result in errors. Still, at times some pitchers just seem to have more trouble pitching after errors. Rube Waddell, for instance, consistently allowed a far higher rate of UER than his teammates did.
In the leagues Sutcliffe qualified for the ERA title, 90.1 percent of all runs allowed were earned. For Sutcliffe himself, 92.4 percent of all runs were earned. This is not the world’s most substantial difference, but it still worth noting. If he’d allowed as many unearned runs as the league, his ER total would drop by 30 over his career. Again, this is nothing monumental, but it does improve him.
While his offensive value improved his ERA from 4.08 to 4.03, the UER adjustment knocks it down to 3.93. That gives him an ERA+ of 101, officially above average (bit the thinnest of margins).
One final item should be mentioned: despite this extremely average ERA (however you want to adjust it), Sutcliffe possessed a very fine win-loss percentage. He went 171-139, for a .552 record. That’s a better win-loss mark than Jim Bunning, Red Ruffing or Red Faber.
An obvious answer could explain it: run support. But of course, nothing is ever obvious with Sutcliffe. Several years ago I spent a lot of time looking at run support (that’s how THT became aware of me, in fact). I devised a way to quantify a pitcher’s run support and adjust his win-loss record.
Quantifying is simple: figure out average runs per game in starts made by a given pitcher in a season, adjust by park factor and the league’s run environment, multiple by 100, and round to the nearest integer. For careers, since the sample size was larger, round to the hundredths decimal. The stat is called RSI (Run Support Index).
Sutcliffe’s RSI was 103.55—good, but nothing great. Guys like Jim Palmer and Jack Morris were around 107. Heck, Charlie Root had a 104.21 career RSI. Yet, despite his slightly superior career run support and much better ERA+ (110, well over Sutcliffe), his winning percentage was only a hair better than the tall redhead: .557 to .552.
You see, three things determine winning percentages: average runs allowed, average runs scored, and a third factor. Some call the third factor luck, other say it’s pitching to the score, still other say something else. I don’t define it, but acknowledge that the first two factors aren’t the only things determining win-loss marks.
There is a way to account for it. Using the pythagenpat variation of the Pythagoras method, see what Sutcliffe’s winning percentage should have been based on his real life runs allowed per game and the actual runs scored by contest his offenses provided for him. The difference is the mysterious third thing.
Sutcliffe, by this system, won 11 more games than he should have, which is one of the highest marks I figured. (I looked at this for over 190 pitchers, and only 11 topped it.)
I have a theory why Sutcliffe won more games than expected—the answer lies in his 1983 season. As noted already, Sutcliffe was quite good for five months, At the conclusion of September 4, he was 16-9 with an ERA+ of about 114. Then he fell apart, causing his ERA to become pedestrian, but he still had enough decisions to finish with a quality record.
An inconsistent pitcher can have a winning record out of line with his ERA. If he throws a shutout one day and allows ten runs the next, he’ll be .500 with a terrible ERA. When Sutcliffe was on, he was terrific—but his arm kept failing him. That might be the real reason his ERA+ underrates him.
He was not a great pitcher, but he certainly was a unique one.
References & Resources
I used Retrosheet to determine RSI, lo those many years ago.
B-ref league splits allowed me to figure out pitcher Runs Created, and its Play Index was the source for the tidbit on how his OPS+ compares with other pitchers from the DH-era.