When Bad Teams Happen to Good Players

Our most recent Team Spotlight focuses on the plight of the Arizona Diamondbacks, who just may challenge the Tigers for their recently won title of “Worst Team in History” before the year is over. The Diamondbacks’ plight is the result of several things, including injuries (particularly to Luis Gonzalez, Richie Sexson, Matt Kata, Shane Reynolds, Jose Valverde and Oscar Villareal), choice (trading away Steve Finley) and talent.

One player they haven’t traded away is Randy Johnson. Not that they didn’t try; Johnson was reportedly headed to the Yankees or Dodgers, but Arizona couldn’t work out deals, and Johnson is stuck with the desert heat instead of a winning atmosphere. Which means that one of the greatest pitchers of all time, having another terrific season, is playing for a truly terrible team.

Rob Neyer explored the theme of great players on bad teams last week, and Mike Carminati took it one step further, by comparing Johnson’s won/loss record to other Great Pitchers on Bad Teams. As Mike pointed out, Johnson is on track to win a third of the Dbacks’ games, which hasn’t been done since 1972 when the great Steve Carlton pitched for a lousy Phillies team.

Now, wins are interesting and all, but they can be misleading. Won/loss records toss and turn with the vagaries of the bullpen and offensive support, among other things. According to Baseball Prospectus, for instance, Johnson would have one or two more wins than he currently does, if just given league-average run support.

So let’s turn to Win Shares, which compile the contribution of every pitcher (and player) on every team with only scant attention paid to his won/loss record. Pitchers are primarily graded on the number of runs they allow, compared to the league average. So, to complete the story, here’s a list of the players who contributed the highest portion of their teams’ Win Shares, starting in 1900:

Player          Year  Age  Team  Lg   Pos  WS  TeamWS    %
Steve Carlton   1972   27  PHI   NL   SP   40     177   23%
Nap Lajoie      1910   35  CLE   AL   2B   47     213   22%
Rogers Hornsby  1928   32  BSN   NL   2B   33     150   22%
Babe Ruth       1919   24  BOS   AL   LF   43     198   22%
Amos Strunk     1916   27  PHA   AL   CF   23     108   21%
Honus Wagner    1908   34  PIT   NL   SS   59     294   20%
Walter Johnson  1913   25  WS1   AL   SP   54     270   20%
Barry Bonds     2001   36  SFN   NL   LF   54     270   20%
Red Faber       1921   32  CHA   AL   SP   37     186   20%
Ty Cobb         1917   30  DET   AL   CF   46     234   20%

In 1972, Steve Carlton contributed more to his team than any other single player in history. He had a great year on a really bad team, and represented almost one quarter of his entire team’s worth. He even contributed over half of his team’s pitching Win Shares (40 of 74).

As you can tell from looking at the list, this is a difficult thing for a starting pitcher to do, and it’s become even harder in the second half of the century. To make the point, here’s the same list, but only including years past 1960 (I’ve included all players who compiled at least 17% of his team’s Win Shares):

Player          Year  Age  Team  Lg   Pos  WS  TeamWS    %
Steve Carlton   1972   27  PHI   NL   SP   40     177   23%
Barry Bonds     2001   36  SFN   NL   LF   54     270   20%
Frank Howard    1968   31  WAS   AL   LF   38     195   19%
Barry Bonds     1996   31  SFN   NL   LF   39     204   19%
Gaylord Perry   1972   33  CLE   AL   SP   39     216   18%
Barry Bonds     1995   30  SFN   NL   LF   36     201   18%
Rusty Staub     1969   25  MON   NL   RF   27     156   17%
Barry Bonds     2002   37  SFN   NL   LF   49     285   17%
Tony Gwynn      1997   37  SDN   NL   RF   39     228   17%
Ron Santo       1966   26  CHN   NL   3B   30     177   17%
Mike Schmidt    1981   31  PHI   NL   3B   30     177   17%
Tommy Harper    1970   29  MIL   AL   3B   33     195   17%
Cal Ripken      1991   30  BAL   AL   SS   34     201   17%
Jeff Bagwell    1996   28  HOU   NL   1B   41     246   17%

As you can see, it has become harder for a player to dominate his team, and it has particularly become harder for starting pitchers to dominate their team as their total innings have declined. Which makes Steve Carlton’s 1972 even more remarkable. I took a closer look at his 1972 record, and found there was nothing really flaky about it. The Phillies scored 3.5 runs/game during his starts — slightly higher than the 3.2 they scored overall, but not significantly higher.

There is one thing. Steve Carlton’s 1972 :FIP: was 2.80, which is good, but still much higher than his recorded ERA of 1.97. Carlton’s :DER: was around .750, which indicates that he had a lot of batted balls go his way. Randy Johnson, who currently holds 15% of his team’s Win Shares, has a FIP of 2.39. So, while Johnson probably won’t come close to Carlton’s incredible record of team dominance, his underlying talent, compared to his relatively talent-less team, is comparable.

Johnson has 18.5 pitching Win Shares, which is 45% of Arizona’s total pitching Win Shares. I know you’re curious, so here are the Win Share totals for each National League team, including total Win Shares, Win Shares for the offense (batting) and defense, and defensive Win Shares separated into pitching and fielding Win Shares.

       Total   Off   Def Pitch Field
ARI      111    49    62    41    21
ATL      207    97   110    79    31
CHC      195    85   110    77    33
CIN      171   115    56    37    18
COL      162    82    80    53    27
FLO      180    84    96    66    30
HOU      180    77   103    71    31
LAD      210   101   109    76    33
MIL      165    64   101    72    29
MON      150    50   100    66    34
NYM      174    83    91    65    26
PHI      177    96    81    54    27
PIT      174    76    98    67    31
SDP      189   100    89    60    29
SFG      201   120    81    56    26
STL      234   121   113    77    36

The Cardinals’ dominance is dominating, as they lead or are near the top in batting (1st), pitching (tied for second) and fielding (first) Win Shares. Here’s the American League:

       Total   Off   Def Pitch Field
ANA      201    98   103    72    32
BAL      171    91    80    56    24
BOS      201   102    99    71    28
CHW      180    88    92    63    30
CLE      189   111    78    53    25
DET      168    99    69    46    23
KC       129    57    72    48    24
MIN      198    75   123    87    37
NYY      228   127   101    71    30
OAK      204    88   116    80    36
SEA      135    59    76    48    27
TBD      165    70    95    62    33
TEX      201    88   113    78    36
TOR      147    53    94    65    29

Best offense in the league belongs to the Yankees, while the Twins are leading in both pitching and fielding Win Shares.

There is no AL player who contributes to his team as overwhelmingly as Johnson contributes to the Diamondbacks. In the NL, several players represent about 15% of his team’s Win Shares, including Sean Casey in Cincinnati, Abreu in Philly, Loretta in San Diego, and Helton of the Rockies. But no article of player/team domination would be complete without reference to the magical Barry Bonds, who represents 20% of his team’s Win Shares so far this year. In fact, it’s safe to say that no player has ever contributed a greater portion of his team’s performance the way Bonds has for the Giants over the past few years.

References & Resources
Steve Carlton’s game logs are available, of course, at Retrosheet.

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