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Can you win with losers?

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Wins and losses may be the bottom line in baseball, but could a rotation of the biggest losers in baseball be effective?

Mitchell Layton

As with every sport, there is a lot of talk about "winners" and "winning culture" in baseball. Russell Carleton recently wrote an interesting piece on the subject of how consistently losing could affect players, but our understanding of the concept is in its infancy.

Sabermetric types are likely to be dismissive of the importance of this idea, as it is incredibly difficult to quantify. On the flipside, old-school baseball fans may overrate its significance, since they've heard commentators shove it down their throats for decades. In all likelihood, the effect will never be fully understood.

All of that being said, I thought it would be interesting to evaluate losers of all in terms of their ability to help their team. In my view, the most obvious losers in baseball are pitchers with the most losses. To evaluate these players, I decided it would be interesting to measure the top five losers the last five seasons, against rotations in baseball in each particular year, to see how strong a rotation of "losers" could be.

2010

Pitcher Losses ERA FIP xFIP WAR RA9-WAR
Joe Saunders 17 4.47 4.57 4.50 1.3 0.4
Kevin Millwood 16 5.10 4.86 4.46 1.2 0.5
Rodrigo Lopez 16 5.00 5.21 4.50 0.6 -0.2
James Shields 15 5.18 4.24 3.55 1.7 -0.7
Paul Maholm 15 5.10 4.18 4.41 1.4 -1.0

As one expects, they didn't set the world on fire in terms of run prevention, but their fielding-independent numbers show a group that ran into some poor luck. The table below shows how this five-man unit would have ranked among MLB starting units in 2010.

RA9-WAR WAR
-1.0 (29th) 6.2 (29th)

As it turns out, the losers were pretty much in the cellar among MLB rotations, again as one might expect. However, the 2011 group was a far better bunch.

2011

Pitcher Losses ERA FIP xFIP WAR RA9-WAR
Derek Lowe 17 5.05 3.70 3.65 2.0 -0.4
Jeff Francis 16 4.82 4.10 4.29 2.3 1.3
Hiroki Kuroda 16 3.07 3.78 3.56 2.2 3.7
Jeremy Guthrie 16 4.37 4.51 4.46 2.0 1.7
Roberto Hernandez 15 5.25 4.56 4.17 0.9 -1.2

They don't make up an excellent rotation, but you cold do worse — and a few teams in 2011 did.

RA9-WAR WAR
5.1 (25th) 9.4 (24th)

2012

Pitcher Losses ERA FIP xFIP WAR RA9-WAR
Ubaldo Jimenez 17 5.40 5.06 4.98 0.2 -0.8
Luke Hochevar 16 5.73 4.63 4.32 1.3 -0.1
Justin Masterson 15 4.93 4.16 4.15 2.1 0.3
Tim Lincecum 15 5.18 4.18 3.81 0.8 -0.9
Josh Johnson 14 3.81 3.40 3.73 3.5 3.1

There are a lot of big names here, but most of them had career-worst years in 2012, and the resulting rotation is unimpressive.

RA9-WAR WAR
1.6 (27th) 7.9 (23rd)

2013

Pitcher Losses ERA FIP xFIP WAR RA9-WAR
Edwin Jackson 18 4.98 3.79 3.86 1.9 -1.0
Lucas Harrell 17 5.86 5.42 4.97 -0.8 -2.2
Joe Saunders 16 5.26 4.72 4.23 0.4 -0.9
Wily Peralta 15 4.37 4.30 4.13 1.1 -0.2
Chris Sale 14 3.07 3.17 2.95 5.1 5.4

This group has a legitimate ace in Chris Sale, but the rest of the group is suspect. Interestingly, Joe Saunders makes his second appearance on this list, making him "The Biggest Loser"  if you were going to go the overused pun route. Once again, this hypothetical rotations ranks close to, but not at the bottom of, the league.

RA9-WAR WAR
1.1 (29th) 7.7 (24th)

2014

Pitcher Losses ERA FIP xFIP WAR RA9-WAR
A.J. Burnett 17 4.40 4.00 3.87 1.3 -0.1
Eric Stults 17 4.59 4.85 4.26 -0.9 -0.8
Kevin Correa 16 5.29 4.67 4.67 0.3 -1.3
Brandon McCarthy 14 3.93 3.43 2.90 3.2 2.0
Tyson Ross 14 2.81 3.24 3.10 2.6 3.1

There are a couple of solid performances here, especially by Ross and McCarthy, but Stults and Correa have been more or less awful. For the first time, the RA9-WAR ranks higher league-wide.

RA9-WAR WAR
4.9 (28th) 6.5 (29th)

Conclusion

Ultimately, this is too small of a sample for a real "conclusion". However, the results here aren't surprising. Pitchers who accumulate the highest loss totals are both durable and talented enough that teams continue to put them out there for every scheduled start. As a result, creating a rotation out of the top five losers in any given year results in a rotation that is bad, but not the worst in the league.

Unless you have a great lineup or defensive team, you probably couldn't win a lot of games with a bunch of losing pitchers. You could do worse though.

. . .

All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.

Nick Ashbourne is an Editor for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @Nick_Ashbourne.