Jo-Jo Reyes finally won a decision as a starting pitcher this past Monday after failing to earn the "W" in 28 previous starts. The whole debate around winless streaks offers yet another opportunity to look at how problematic that particular statistic is when trying to evaluate individual pitchers.
Using Baseball-Reference's play index tool I was able to isolate the top 100 winless streaks by starting pitchers since 1901. The streaks range from 16 up to 28 starts. For each pitcher, I calculated their fielding independent pitching (FIP)* for all starts during the streak. The results are pretty interesting.
The average FIP for pitchers during their winless streaks was 5.28. That's certainly not a number to write home about. However, there was quite a bit of variation amongst the 100 pitchers in the sample.
First, there were two pitchers, Andy Benes (17 starts) and Tony Saunders (16 starts), that had FIP's below 4.00 during their streaks (3.77 and 3.97 respectively). In fact, Benes had the 16th best FIP in all of baseball between 1994 and 1995.
Second, thirteen pitchers finished their streaks with FIPs under 4.50 and 41% of the sample finished with FIP's under 5.00.
Third, to be sure, there have been some truly awful performances by pitchers on this list.
Eight of the 100 pitchers on the list had FIPs over 6.50, and 32% of the sample had FIPs over 6.00 during their streaks.
The worst FIP? That would be Jamie Navarro during his 16 decision winless streak when he only managed a FIP of 7.82, 148% of the sample average.
If we isolate the sample to streaks of 20 decisions or more, we find former Met and Cub Anthony Young leading the way with a 4.13 FIP during his 27 decision winless streak between 1992-1994. Young was widely ridiculed during his streak and was helped in no part by pitching in New York on some bad Met teams. Looking at his performance during that streak, however, we see how unfair that ridicule was.
Young pitched 153 innings in the 27 starts during the streak. If we look at all starting pitchers in the National League between 1992-1994 Young's 4.13 FIP would have ranked 58th overall out of 96 pitchers--so above average.
(Actually, if we factor in all of his relief appearances he actually had a FIP of 3.93 during that time frame, 45th best at the time.)
Bottom line: yes, bad pitchers will tend to lose a lot of games and are well represented on the list of longest winless streaks. However, there are plenty of decent pitchers and even some really good ones that can also make the list. Why? Because pitchers cannot control their offensive run support nor the quality of their defense. The variation of names and performances on this list certainly reinforces that notion.
*I used the following formula for FIP ((HR*13)+((BB+HBP)*2)-(K*2)/IP)+3.20