Make it an even dozen for Max Scherzer, and some history on the side.
The Detroit Tigers right-hander picked up another win on Friday night, pitching seven innings and allowing three earned runs in a 6-3 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays. That makes Scherzer a perfect 12-0 on the season.
Now, us nerds know that a pitcher's win-loss record is hardly the best indicator of how well (or not well) he's pitched. But Scherzer's 12-0 start to the season still has a certain "Hey, cool!" factor to it, as it's not every day you see a pitcher start a season with a record like that.
Or every quarter-century, for that matter. Before Scherzer, the last pitcher to start a season 12-0 was Roger Clemens in 1986.
And according to Baseball-Reference.com, there have been only four other cases since 1916 of pitchers beginning the season with a record of 12-0 or better as a starter: Eddie Cicotte in 1919*, Johnny Allen in 1937, Dave McNally in 1969 and Ron Guidry in 1978.
Scherzer's in a pretty exclusive club with his 12-0 record, but we naturally have to inquire about the path that led him there. Compared to the other guys, was it harder or easier for Scherzer to get to 12-0?
*Cicotte did pick up a loss early in the 1919 season, but it was as a reliever. As a starter, he went unbeaten until the middle of June.
How Many Starts Did it Take?
We're going to be kicking around a few notions in this piece, and here's Notion No. 1: A longer road to 12-0 is a more perilous road to 12-0.
Makes sense, right? The more starts a pitcher has to make to get to 12-0, the more likely it is that he's going to run into trouble and have his unbeaten streak snapped.
Take Scherzer, for example. His record is 12-0, but he's made 16 starts on the season. Four of those no-decisions could have ended up as L's had things gone differently.
So the difficulty of his road to 12-0 is already looking pretty good. It looks even better in light of the other five guys in the club.
|Pitcher||Year||Starts to 12-0|
Of the five other guys, only three got to 12-0 in fewer starts than Scherzer. Another guy (Allen) got there in just as many starts as he did.
Only McNally took longer than Scherzer and Allen to get to 12-0, and he took a dog's age to get there. He was darn lucky along the way, too, as five of his nine no-decisions saw him pitch fewer than five innings. He pitched fewer than four innings in four of those.
It's hard to imagine anyone ever taking more than 21 starts to get to 12-0, so McNally is probably going to wear the "Most Perilous Road to 12-0" hat forever and ever. But in light of the other guys in the 12-0 club, Scherzer hardly had it easy getting there.
That's also true if we take home ballparks into consideration.
Liking That Home Cooking?
Here's Notion No. 2: A pitcher who has a hitter-friendly home ballpark is going to have a harder time getting to 12-0.
This should also make sense. Pitchers are going to start at their home ballpark more often than anywhere else, and they stand a greater chance of racking up losses if their home park is friendlier to hitters than it is to pitchers.
Fortunately for us, Baseball-Reference.com keeps track of "Pitching Park Factors" for every ballpark throughout history. A PPF of 100 is neutral, while anything under that favors pitchers and anything over that favors hitters.
Here's a look at how many home starts our six guys made on their way to 12-0, how many wins they racked up at home and the PPF for their home ballpark that year.
|Pitcher||Year||Home Starts||Home Wins||PPF|
Cicotte, Allen, McNally and Guidry all made their homes at ballparks that were friendly to pitchers. Clemens made his home at a park that was neutral.
But Scherzer, on the other hand...
I'm guessing that some out there might still think of Comerica Park as a pitchers' park because of how it played earlier in its history. But that ship sailed when the fences were moved in about a decade ago, and the last few years have season the Tigers' digs become a hitting haven. Hence the 105 PPF.
If that's not enough to convince you, Comerica is the third-best offensive park in the majors in 2013 by ESPN.com's reckoning.
Scherzer has basically made the bulk of his starts in a bandbox, and it hasn't been easy for him. He may be a perfect 8-0 at home, but he has a 4.01 ERA at Comerica this season compared to a sub-2.00 ERA on the road.
But if Scherzer has all those wins at home and a high ERA at home, then that means...
Yup, he's getting a lot of run support. And not just at home, either.
How's Your Run Support?
And now for Notion No. 3: A pitcher who gets less run support is going to have a harder time getting to 12-0.
It's my duty as a nerd to take this moment to wag my finger at the idea of the win itself, as it's downright silly to credit one guy with an overall team accomplishment. Pitchers can do a lot to help their teams win, yes, but they're only "winners" if their guys come through with some runs.
But I digress. Let's go to the table for this section, which shows the number of runs per start our pitchers got during their journeys to 12-0 compared to how many runs their teams were averaging.
|Pitcher||Year||Team R/G||Player R/G||Difference|
|Max Scherzer||2013||5.03|| 6.31 ||+1.28|
I should note that the run support figures are not per 27 outs, a la Baseball-Reference.com's usual standard. Just per game, which is ordinarily not the best way to go about such things. But the records for Cicotte and Allen aren't complete enough to calculate run support per 27 outs, so sue me.
At any rate, the numbers in the table shouldn't surprise you. The only starter to begin 12-0 who wasn't getting run support better than his team's usual output was Cicotte in 1919. He had an ERA in the low 1.00s at the time he got his 12th victory as a starter, and he absolutely needed it.
As for Scherzer, it says a lot that the Tigers scored six runs for him on Friday night and his average run support went down. He indeed has been getting a ton of support from Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and the rest of the boys this year.
But while Scherzer's usual run support looks high on its own, it pales in comparison when placed against the kind of run support Allen and Clemens were getting on their roads to 12-0. Both the 1937 Indians and 1986 Red Sox were strong offensive clubs, but they basically turned into the 1927 Yankees when Allen and Clemens were on the mound.
Has Scherzer had it easy compared to all other pitchers in 2013? Yes.
Has he had it easy compared to the other guys since 1916 to start 12-0? Not quite.
This is also true in terms of the competition he's faced.
Picking on People Your Own Size?
Now for Notion No. 4: The more tough offensive teams a pitcher faces, the harder it's going to be for him to get to 12-0.
Indeed, but this is where things get tricky. In a long enough streak of starts, a pitcher is going to face the same team multiple times. Each time he does, odds are the team isn't going to be performing the same as it was the last time he saw it.
So I had to cheat a little bit to come up with the following numbers. I used season-long runs-per-game averages for each pitcher's opponents during his streak, and I also used the season-long runs-per-game average for the whole league. Not perfect, but it'll have to do.
|Pitcher||Year||League R/G||Opp. Avg. R/G||Difference||Below-Average Wins|
|Max Scherzer||2013||4.38|| 4.36 ||-0.02||6|
*Note: "League" here is American League, not all of Major League Baseball. All six of these guys were/are AL pitchers, and Scherzer hasn't made a start against a National League club yet.
I'll stop once again to acknowledge the strings attached to this data, but none of our six guys really had it "difficult" in terms of facing only the hard-hitting teams in the league time after time. That's not the least bit surprising, as we probably wouldn't be sitting here talking about them if they had been.
But relative to the other guys, you can see that Scherzer has had it tough this year. With the exception of his own team, he's had to face each of the top run-scoring teams in the American League: Boston, Baltimore and Oakland. But amazingly, he hasn't yet faced the second-worst run-scoring team in the league: the Chicago White Sox.
You can also see that Scherzer has only racked up six wins against below average-offensive clubs—those being teams with R/G outputs below league average. Somehow, he failed to collect wins in starts against Seattle and Houston. The Mariners are the worst-scoring team in the AL, and the Astros are the fourth-worst-scoring team in the AL.
So Scherzer has faced some decent competition, and he hasn't racked up the bulk of his wins against subpar offensive teams. Add that to his relatively long journey to 12-0, his tough home ballpark and his relatively modest run support, and his road to 12-0 is looking like a tough one.
But there's a catch. There's always a catch.
Any Cheap Wins in There?
Lastly, here's Notion No. 5: A pitcher who actually has to earn his wins is going to have a harder time getting to 12-0.
For example, a pitcher who wins 12 starts in which he went eight innings and allowed no more than two earned runs in each one clearly had a better stretch than a pitcher who had a couple five-inning stinkers that turned into wins, right?
Of course. And fortunately for us, there is such a thing as a cheap win, and it's a simple concept. Any win earned in an outing that wasn't a quality start—at least six innings, no more than three earned runs—is a cheap win.
Here's a look at how many cheap wins our six guys racked up on their roads to 12-0.
There's your catch. Three of Scherzer's 12 wins have been of the cheap variety, and that's one more than any of the other five guys earned on their way to 12-0.
Scherzer's first cheap win came in his first start when he lasted only five innings and gave up four earned runs against the Yankees. The next came on April 24 against the Royals, in which he gave up five earned runs in five innings. The third happened on May 10 when he gave up four earned in eight innings against the Indians.
Had Scherzer not gotten his usual run support in those games, he's not 12-0 right now, and you and I are doing other things with our time.
This is not to bring this conversation to a screeching halt by saying that Scherzer's road to 12-0 has been decidedly easy. It hasn't been, and him getting there is still a darn cool achievement.
This is just as good a sign as any that he's lucky to be where he is. As impressive as it looks on paper, Scherzer's win-loss record doesn't tell the whole story.
Note: All stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.
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