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Looking for Big Games (and Big Game pitchers)

Jared Wickerham

Over at Bill James' website, he's in the middle of a sprawling series of articles about big-game pitchers.

What's a Big Game? As you might imagine, Bill's come up with a precise definition. Which takes up, as you might imagine, a whole article of its own. So I will summarize: a Big Game is a regular-season game toward the end of the season that materially affects your team's chance of reaching the postseason. Using Bill's method, roughly 8 percent of all the games since the middle 1950s were Big Games.*

* Caveat: I can't figure out if it's 8 percent of all games, or 8 percent for one team or the other, or 8 percent for one or both teams. But I think it's actually 8 percent of all pitchers' games started. So Bill could have named it Big Start (BS) instead of Big Game. Maybe. But probably didn't because nobody talks about big-start pitchers.

I don't want to give too much away -- there's a reason they charge for this stuff, after all -- but these 11 pitchers have started at least 70 Big Games in the last 60-odd years: Andy Pettitte (82), Jim Palmer, Roger Clemens, Don Drysdale, Steve Carlton, Don Sutton, Johnny Podres, Whitey Ford, Juan Marichal, Sandy Koufax. As Bill notes, if his study went back a few more years, Ford would rank higher, but wouldn't knock off Pettitte. James:

The first guy on the list that you might not have expected to see there is Jerry Reuss, who started 70 Big Games. Reuss spent most of his career with the Pirates (1974-1978) and the Dodgers (1979-1987)—both perennial contenders, and Reuss did win 220 games in his career, although he failed somehow to become a household name. Roy Oswalt, John Lackey and Tim Hudson are contemporary guys who have made a lot of Big Game starts.


On the other side of the ledger:

Zach Duke, 169 starts, mostly for the Pirates of the last decade ... never started a Big Game. Duke made more starts than anyone else, though, who completely missed the opportunity to start a Big One...

More notable than any of those, though, is Randy Jones, Padres of the 1970s, a 20-game winner in 1975 and 1976, and the National League Cy Young Award Winner in 1976. Jones—many of you will remember him—was a lefty who was a ground ball machine, didn’t throw hard. Jones made 285 major league starts—one Big Game, by our standards. September 6, 1978, the Padres were 71-68, in fourth place, eleven and a half out but still alive. The Padres were in Atlanta that day, Jones started against Mickey Mahler, and the Padres won the game, 5-3. But they lost 4 out of the next 5, dropped out of contention. That was the one and only Big-Game start of Randy Jones’ career.

I thought that was interesting, about Randy Jones. What's more interesting, I suppose, considering that Bill originally framed this discussion as a way of evaluating claims about Jack Morris, is that Morris started only 46 Big Games in his career, which is 58th on the list. Bert Blyleven (if you're keeping score at home) started 47 Big Games (actually a smaller percentage of his career starts than Morris, though).

Next week, I guess, we'll find out how well Morris (and Blyleven!) actually pitched in those Big Games. But there are bigger issues here. While most Hall of Fame voters pretty obviously don't believe so -- except in very special and specific cases -- I think that we can agree that postseason performance matters, and maybe a lot.

But if we agree that postseason games matter, shouldn't we also agree that Big Games matter more than non-Big Games?

Or maybe you don't agree with either of those things. It's been argued that such thinking penalizes pitchers with teams that aren't good enough to play in Big Games. Well, sort of. Pitchers on bad teams don't have chance to pitch well in Big Games ... but they also don't have a chance to pitch poorly in Big Games. Let us imagine that we have three pitchers with identical regular-season numbers, except

Pitcher A pitched poorly in Big Games,
Pitcher B pitched well in Big Games, and
Pitcher C didn't pitch any Big Games at all.

If all three were on the Hall of Fame ballot, would you simply ignore the Big Game information, so helpfully provided by our old friend Bill James? Or would you instead rank them Pitcher B, Pitcher C, Pitcher A? Because I would.

Among the pitchers we've mentioned above, the actual performances -- once Bill reveals them -- might actually have a bearing on the pending Hall of Fame cases for Morris and Pettitte. I would like to see where Mussina comes out, too. I wish I could say the same about Reuss and his 220 career wins, but I'm afraid his league-average ERA and nondescript postseason numbers leave him in the Hall of Very Good, regardless of his Big Game numbers.

Really looking forward to seeing the numbers, though! Please write faster, Bill James.