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The best (worst?) tough-luck losses of the first half

Great pitching doesn’t always mean a win. Here’s the most obvious instances so far this year.

MLB: Washington Nationals at Miami Marlins Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

This is an article about pitcher losses. On its face it has no place in such a place as Beyond the Box Score, or anywhere that intelligent baseball is discussed. Pitcher win/loss records are foolish, relics of a bygone age. A time that saw Old Hoss Radbourn complete 73 games in the summer, and repeatedly contract syphilis in the winter. In that world, a 59-12 record meant something truly titanic, and the word "antibiotics" did not.

These days, almost all that pitcher win/loss records do is influence Cy Young voting too much and allow for hideous misjudgment of talent. But sometimes, a pitcher win can tell a story, like with a shutout with 20 strikeouts. Now and again a loss is fairly placed at the feet of a pitcher, e.g., when R.A. Dickey gave up six home runs to the Rangers back in 2006. Then there's the Tough Luck Loss, the most painful result a pitcher can have. To pitch a gem and get an L; it's so cripplingly demoralizing for fans, the team, and surely the pitcher himself. The 2017 season has seen its fair share already. Since we're in the midst of a break for a few days still, let's take a look back at the best (worst?) of them, so far.

As far as qualifications, I figured a pitcher had to go seven innings, strike out at least a batter an inning, and have a Game Score over 75. And have a big fat L in the record books, of course. The first two qualifications are obvious, and an explanation of Game Score as created by Bill James can be found here (or in any entry in our daily preview series, Launch Angles). The highest you can have is 114, which means you threw a perfect game and struck out everyone. Thus far in 2017, these three qualifications have been met six times. It’s either vaunted or very depressing company (or perhaps both). Let’s look back at the three most painful.

June 21st, 2017 — Max Scherzer, 8 IP (CG), 2H, ER, 11K, 2HBP — Game Score: 84

Coming into this game, Scherzer had carried a no-hitter into the sixth inning in 13 percent of his starts as a National. He did that here, too, and continued on into the eighth. He even got an out in that inning, and a potential double-play ball after giving up a single to AJ Ellis, but after he lost the no-hitter, a series of wild pitches and hit batsmen let two men cross the plate and earned him a big, fat loss. It’s obvious why we’re talking about him — he had 28 strikes swinging and another 14 looking, enough clean strikes for two complete relief outings. Scherzer, in his usual mutant-like way, just threw another 79 pitches, many of which were great. But he's human, even if he's got a hypnotizing gaze, and his arm slowly faded and gave the Marlins a chance. Losing a no-hitter is one thing, but this approached Harvey Haddix levels, the greatest tough-luck loser of all time. (That might be a bit of hyperbole.)

June 15th, 2017 — Chris Sale, 8 IP, CG, 1 ER, 11 K, 1BB — Game Score: 79

Boston Red Sox v Toronto Blue Jays
We feel your pain, buddy.
Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

Chris Sale is having one of the best seasons for an American league pitcher this century. It’s only 17 years, but still. It’s wonderful to see him flourish, and selfishly I am happy he got out of Chicago (even if a certain Cleveland team did alright against him). This is not his first experience in being saddled with an unkind L. It was his 14th start since 2012 with an earned loss and a Game Score over 70. If not for his former teammate Jose Quintana having it even worse, he’d be the one famous for this. Like Scherzer he was unyieldingly excellent for seven innings and an out. But a single and a double later, and he got his short end of the stick.

Even moreso than Scherzer’s outing though, he was crushed by the weight of poor BABIP from his own team. The only Red Sox-man with an extra-base hit that day was… Chris Sale, and only four other men got any kind of hit at all, despite eight grounders and seven line drives. This is not to disparage the Phillies bullpen or rookie starter Nick Pivetta, but the Red Sox should muster more than five hits against a rookie. One would hope, anyway. Baseball is silly though, and Pivetta does throw like 96 with some nice secondary stuff. Even so, I can understand frustration from the Red Sox fanbase, and Sale himself. Such is the bedevilment of this mad game.

July 4th, 2017 — Corey Kluber,8 IP, 5H, 1ER, 10K, 1BB - Game Score — 77

One man actually had a higher game score on the list: Gerrit Cole, in his seven-inning outing on April 25th. But that extra inning means something, I think, and more than just three outs separates this outing from Cole’s. Kluber set a club record in this start by marking his fifth consecutive double-digit strikeout game. He did this on a team that once employed Bob Feller (who struck out everything) along with some other very excellent pitchers — Sam McDowell, Herb Score for a bit, Luis Tiant; the list goes on. The Indians have a long history of excellent pitching despite a similarly long history of hideously bad teams in general, so that Kluber is spending his 2017 securing his place in that first part’s history is especially impressive.

For him to earn this franchise record while also being handed a loss is about as good as taking a nice, refreshing pull of nearly sour milk after eating a big chocolate chip cookie. It’s satisfying, but there’s an undercurrent of disgust. Aside from setting the record, the fact that the eventual game-winning run was scored on an RBI groundout is just a gut punch. By doing his job (forcing an out), Kluber sealed his miserable fate. Although Cole did lose his because of unearned run. That’s pretty terrible, too. Cole’s line, incidentally, was 7 IP, 2H, 1R, 0 ER, 8 K, with a 79 Game Score. Maybe that is worse. Or better, whichever. Both are miserable, is the point.

The Pitcher Loss is stupid. As stupid as the Win, maybe more so. If your team just doesn’t hit, what are you to do, especially in the AL? All the games listed here are only included because the offense just decided to take the day off. In this time of inflated home run totals, how did one guy not pop one to the bleachers? Or in Scherzer’s case, two? With Scherzer too, I bet if he’d given up a single in the third inning or something, Dusty Baker would have gone to his bullpen sooner, and… the Nationals probably would have blown it anyway because their ‘pen has turned into a dumpster fire. But Max wouldn’t be saddled with a superfluous loss. The other two candidates for the list not yet mentioned are Masahiro Tanaka’s loss on May 25th (7.1 IP, 5H, 1 ER, 13 K, 0BB, 79 Game Score) and Gio Gonzalez‘s on July 1st (7IP, 2H, 1ER, 9K, 2 BB, 76 Game Score), and they were excellent in their own right. Saying either is better/worse than the guys I called out specifically is splitting hairs. That Tanaka outing in particular was filthy. But old rules that are dumb and silly have marred these sterling outings in the record book. This injustice must be ended, one day. If only the team could be saddled with a loss, but not the pitcher. One can dream, I suppose.

Merritt Rohlfing writes about baseball for Beyond the Box Score and Let’s Go Tribe and rants about it at the podcast Mostly Baseball. Follow him on Twitter for opinions, hummus toast and cat loaf photos @merrittrohlfing.