Cliff Lee: Unlucky, But Not Alone

Yunel Escobar of the Toronto Blue Jays rounds second after a home run off of Cliff Lee of the Philadelphia Phillies during MLB action at The Rogers Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Abelimages/Getty Images)

Cliff Lee doesn't have a win this season, even though he's pitched like Cliff Lee. How rare is this?

Cliff Lee hasn't won a game through 11 starts this season. There have been 943 different stretches in baseball history where a starting pitcher went 11 games or more without a win. Travis Blackley was the 943rd, even though he shut the Dodgers down on Thursday. Ryan Dempster just snapped an 18-game winless streak on May 30. So it's not that rare. Lee isn't that much of an anomaly.

Most of the pitchers on the list, though, are pitchers you might not have heard of, like Boom-Boom Beck, Jackie Brown, and Slick Castleman. Or they're pitchers you have heard of and would expect to be on such a list, like Bruce Chen, who was winless with a 6.82 ERA in 19 consecutive starts from 2006 to 2009.

And if they're pitchers you don't expect to be there, it's because they had a really miserable stretch, such as Greg Maddux in 1990, who allowed 58 runs in 71 innings over 13 straight winless starts. But the combination that Cliff Lee is working with -- talented and effective at the same time -- is pretty rare. Lee has struck out 5½ batters for every one he's walked, and he has a respectable 3.48 ERA. Still, no wins. Here's a look back at Hall of Fame and All-Star pitchers who went through similar stretches:

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Don Sutton
When:
9/5/66 to 5/13/67

Stats:
59⅓ innings, 4.40 ERA, 50 strikeouts, 11 games

Unluckiest game?
April 19, 1967, against the Reds. Sutton walked two and struck out 10, but picked up a no-decision when the Dodgers won in extra innings. The 21-year-old Sutton was long a good comp for a young Matt Cain when it came to keeping runs and wins away at a young age, but he's on this list almost by default. He only went four innings in each of his last three starts in September of 1966, so he didn't qualify for the win.

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Catfish Hunter
When:
7/30/69 to 9/14/69

Stats:
67 innings, 4.30 ERA, 41 strikeouts, 11 games

Unluckiest game?
September 9, against the Royals. Hunter pitched eight innings and allowed one earned run that came after three consecutive singles with two outs in the sixth inning. Hunter finished the 1969 season with a 3.35 ERA, 102 ERA+, ten complete games, and three shutouts.

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Zack Greinke
When:
9/14/04 to 5/25/05

Stats:
81⅓ innings, 3.65 ERA, 56 strikeouts, 14 games

Unluckiest game?
May 10, 2005, against the Blue Jays. Roy Halladay and Greinke each pitched complete games, but Greinke allowed a two-run homer to Shea Hillenbrand to take the loss.

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Nolan Ryan
When:
6/17/87 to 8/13/87

Stats:
62 innings, 3.63 ERA, 74 strikeouts, 11 games

Unluckiest game?
August 3, 1987, against the Giants. Ryan struck out 12 and walked only one, but he was lifted for a pinch-hitter after striking out the side in the seventh, and didn't get a decision in the Astros' win.

Ryan also had two different 13-game winless stretches on his career: one in 1985 (4.91 ERA), and one from 1991 to 1992 (4.32 ERA). He had nine seasons with a winning percentage below .500. He also had two seasons with over 200 walks and an ERA under 3.00, which doesn't have a thing to do with this post, but is worth including whenever possible because it's insane.

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Clayton Kershaw
When:
7/24/09 to 4/7/10

Stats:
67 innings, 2.82 ERA, 81 strikeouts, 12 games

Unluckiest game?
August 8, 2009, against the Braves. Kershaw allowed three base runners in seven innings -- a double to the first batter he faced, a one-out single in the fourth, and a one-out walk in the seventh (that was picked off to end the inning.) He struck out 10, but he was replaced with a pinch-hitter who struck out with the bases loaded in the bottom of the seventh.

That was the unluckiest stretch of any of the notable pitchers with a winless streak. The unluckiest pitcher of all, though, was Harry Harper, who had an ERA of 2.35 over 12 starts without a win. It's not like he was pitching in the dead-ball era, either -- the league average for runs scored in 1920 was 4.76. You might remember Harper as the pitcher who went to prison for murdering three of his teammates. That might not be true, but my new thing is updating Wikipedia pages with the way I think history should have happened, so I'll be right back.

Cliff Lee isn't the unluckiest pitcher in history -- he's the 19th pitcher in history to throw 11 starts or more with an ERA under 3.50 without getting a win. So he's been one of the unluckiest, and it's worth remembering that one of his no-decisions was a 10-inning masterpiece, in which he allowed seven singles and threw 102 pitches.

He's also been one of the more notable pitchers to go through this, but he isn't alone. It's happened to Hall of Famers and All-Stars alike. That doesn't make it any less annoying.

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