clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Big Game pitcher? How about the BIGGEST?

Joe Robbins

As I mentioned last week, Bill James has been writing a long series of articles about big-game pitchers; or as he puts it, "Big Game pitchers."

In Monday's entry, Bill listed his top 11 Big Game pitchers (sorry, subscription only). While Bill's Big Game methodology doesn't include postseason contests -- because we've already got those records -- he did consider postseason performance in these rankings. I'm not going to go through the whole list here, because some of the pitchers aren't real surprising and some aren't especially relevant (at least in terms of the Hall of Fame). I will mention that Hall of Fame candidate Mike Mussina comes in 11th, and Hall of Fame candidate Andy Pettitte comes in seventh. You'd think that should count for something, no?

I will also give away Bill's top guy ...

1. Roy Oswalt

And no, I am not just being provocative. Gibson's won-lost record in regular-season Big Games was 36-14; Oswalt's is 37-9. Gibson's teams were 40-17; Oswalt's were 46-12. Think about it: 46-12 in Big Games. Gibson's ERA was 2.26; Oswalt's was 2.63. When you adjust for context, I suspect that Oswalt wins that one. Oswalt pitched 80 fewer innings than Gibson, but struck out almost as many batters (341 to 352) and walked half as many (73 to 144).

In certain ways we are not as good at making myths now as we were a generation ago. The Wild Card system DOES create more Big Games, I believe, but sometimes it creates Big Games for second-place and third-place teams. The story lacks the clarity and symmetry of a pennant race; it is a harder story to tell.

Roy Oswalt won a tremendous number of Big Games for the Astros in the mid-2000s, but when there are six pennant races to follow and two Wild Cards, things get lost in the shuffle. Oswalt's constant drumbeat of Big Wins late in the season didn't have the impact of Bob Gibson winning 7 games in September of '64. But ... just the facts. Oswalt has won 80% of his Big Games. Wow.

Not including pitchers who are either on the Hall of Fame ballot (Mussina and Roger Clemens) or will be (Pettitte, Randy Johnson and Jamie Moyer), there are only three pitchers with more than 250 career wins who haven't been elected to the Hall of Fame already: Tommy John (288), Jim Kaat (283) and Jack Morris (254).

Kaat never received support from even 30 percent of the Hall of Fame voters, while Morris came very close to election last year (and somewhat less close this year, his last on the BBWAA ballot). There are two explanations for this. One, and probably the more important, is that Kaat was overshadowed by his contemporaries while Morris -- in what's probably just a fluke of history -- was not. But another is that Morris is widely considered a tremendous BIG GAME PITCHER, while Kaat seems to have been hardly considered much of anything at all.

Bill hasn't given us Morris's BIG GAME credentials yet. But while Kaat didn't make that Top 11 list, James did devote an entire article earlier in the series to Kaat's credentials. And Kaat was really, really good, just missing that list. Yes, some might quibble with Bill's methodology. But the point is that there is a methodology. It's now been a few decades since every literate baseball aficionado became aware of Bill James, which means just about every Hall of Fame voter. And I'll bet that most of them will answer, if asked, that of course they believe that sabermetrics are important, etc.

I believe them. But it's one thing to reference BABiP or Zone Rating from time to time, and quite another to reach conclusions -- or better yet, tentative conclusions -- after reviewing and weighing evidence, instead of constructing the argument after reaching a conclusion. Baseball writers say BIG GAMES are important ... but how many baseball writers have defined and counted big games? How many have then filled out their Hall of Fame ballots with a systematic method at hand?

I'm going to take a wild guess that the answer is zero.

But that's why Bill James is Bill James and everybody else isn't. You can't really blame Hall of Fame voters for not being Bill James, because Bill is sui generis. But now the information's out there. It wasn't before. Last week somebody asked me if we should still consider Hall of Fame candidates of a century or so ago, candidates who have been passed over time and time again. My answer is that of course we should consider them. We should especially consider them when there's new information at hand. Which there will be. There will always be new information.

Nobody's ever counted Big Games before. Now somebody has. Turning a blind eye to this new information is simply unconscionable.