Pitching well in the major leagues, against most of the best hitters on earth, is really hard. Maybe that's not something you need to read about, but sometimes I think we get into the habit of watching the best pitchers -- Clayton Kershaw and Justin Verlander and the like -- and wind up forgetting just how difficult this is. How little margin for error they've really got.
Earlier this week, Bill James wrote something over at his website, wondering if a starting pitcher's early outings are predictive (subscriber-only). He thought they wouldn't be. Before reading any farther, I guessed they would be. Bill's conclusion:
I did study that, and my answer. …spoiler alert. . .it turns out that my answer was completely wrong; there IS a meaningful separation in futures that occurs within the first few starts of a pitcher’s career.
Anyway, that's not what I want to talk about. In the course of answering the question, Bill devised distinct categories of success, based on his Game Scores. It's a blunt tool, but in this context it works plenty well enough. Here are those categories:
Very Limited Major League Success
What interests me is the dividing line between Recognizable Pitchers and Modest Careers. As it happens, the lowest-ranking Recognizable Pitcher is Chris Hammond; the highest-ranking Modest Career is Jesse Jefferson. Which seems exactly right, doesn't it? I remember things about Chris Hammond; all I know about Jesse Jefferson is that he pitched for the Blue Jays. Sure, part of that's temporal; Jefferson was a generation younger than Hammond. But you've got to draw the line somewhere, and the Hammond-Jefferson line seems as good as any other.
Bill made a list of all the starting pitchers who began their careers between 1955 and 1999, and made at least 10 starts. There were 2,224 such pitchers.
How many of them enjoyed more than "modest" careers? Just 481, or 22 percent. And that doesn't even count all the pitchers who didn't pitch well enough to earn 10 whole starts.
That's how hard it is.