The Worst Start of the Season

On April 2 against Texas, Boston’s John Lackey gave up nine earned runs on ten hits and two walks in just 3 2/3 innings. Before hitting the disabled list, Lackey would throw just six more starts, the last of which was another nine run disaster, this time the result of nine hits and five walks in 6 2/3 innings against Toronto. Lackey’s teammate, Daisuke Matsuzaka, yielded seven runs in two innings in his second start of the season, a 15-6 drubbing at the hands of the then-hapless Rays. Matsuzaka would also hit the DL after walking seven and giving up five earned runs in 4 1/3 innings against the lowly Orioles on May 16. None of these was the worst start of the season.

After the Red Sox righted their ship, they smoked Cleveland’s Mitch Talbot for eight earned runs on twelve hits and two walks in just three innings last Wednesday. The next night, they got to Detroit’s Max Scherzer for seven earned runs in two innings, again scoring fourteen runs before the night was through. Neither of these was the worst start of the season.

On April 13, when the Cardinals beat the Diamondbacks 15-5, Ian Kennedy coughed up nine earned runs on seven hits and two walks in three innings. Two weeks later, Ryan Dempster was perhaps even worse against Kennedy’s Diamondbacks, throwing 40 pitches to get just one out, leaving in the first having given up seven earned runs (for the second straight outing) on four hits and four walks. According to Game Score, neither of these was the worst outing of the season.

A lot of pitchers have struggled enormously this season. Javier Vazquez carries a 6.02 ERA and a 1.61 WHIP through ten starts. John Danks is 0-8 with a 5.25 ERA and 11 home runs surrendered in just over 70 innings. Poor James Russell can’t stay out of the Cubs’ rotation, but hasn’t completed the fifth inning in any of his five starts, all losses sustained while filling in for another injured starter. Did any of these guys pitch the worst start of the season? Of course not. Baseball is never that predictable.

Saturday night, St. Louis’s Jaime Garcia was assigned the sometimes-unenviable task of pitching against the Rockies at Coors Field. Garcia was coming off a nondescript outing in Kansas City, where he had given up three runs on seven hits in five innings. Prior to that start, Garcia was undefeated and ranked third in the National League in Season Score, behind only Roy Halladay and Tim Lincecum. While the Rockies have hit better at home this season than on the road, they’re not exactly Murderers’ Row (they’re slashing .257/.332/.422 at home, while the Cards are hitting .301/.370/.460 on the road), and the Rockies came into the game having lost four straight (all at home) and seven of eight.

Naturally, Garcia was horrendous. He pitched into the fourth inning, but the ten outs he earned were scattered around 11 hits, four walks, and his own error. The first eight hits Garcia gave up were all singles, two of the infield variety. He recorded six of his eight outs by strikeout, so fielding and luck have to have played some role in his failure, but the last three hits against Garcia were a Carlos Gonzalez double, a Ryan Spilborghs triple, and a Chris Iannetta homer, all in the fourth inning. Even with those six strikeouts, Garcia’s Game Score was a negative six, the worst in the majors this season by eight points (Talbot’s bomb against Boston scored a two). He can’t even blame his relievers for any of those runs, as he was yanked right after Iannetta’s bomb, leaving deposed closer Ryan Franklin with no mess to clean up.

It may seem shocking that Garcia could be so good for ten starts, never walking more than two or giving up more than three earned runs, and then turn in such a dismal outing his eleventh time out, but that’s baseball. Less than two weeks after Kennedy’s disaster, he threw a complete game three hitter with ten strikeouts and no walks against the Phillies. Immediately following Matsuzaka’s first nightmare, he threw back-to-back one-hit, no-run outings, striking out 12 and walking four over 15 innings. Dempster yielded just one run over seven innings in a win against the Dodgers, and he struck out eleven Giants ten days later.

Even the league’s best pitchers struggle occasionally. Roy Halladay gave up six earned runs on ten hits in a 9-0 loss to the Brewers on April 19th. Dan Haren struck out just two Twins while giving up ten hits in his last outing. As much as the game’s great pitchers can seem like machines, brilliantly mixing blazing fastballs on the corners and knee-buckling curves like clockwork, every pitcher good enough to make the major leagues will have great outings and terrible ones. The difference between the very best pitchers and the very worst is about three runs per nine innings, or two runs in a six-inning start. Two runs can come from a blooper over second base and a cheap homer off Pesky’s pole. They can come from a couple of Texas leaguers after a misplayed ball that could have ended a scoreless inning. The difference between a standing ovation from 40,000 fans and an early trip to the showers can come from a single swing, or from an umpire’s interpretation of a dollop of chalk kicking up off the left field line. On this one night, Jaime Garcia got all the wrong bounces.

I’m always entertained by the question “what pitcher would you want to pitch a winner-take all game seven?”, as it tends to stir up some genuinely great debate. Is Halladay more dominant than King Felix? Is he more “clutch” than Tim Lincecum? Does Cliff Lee’s playoff success make him a better bet to succeed in October than Zack Greinke? Of course we all want our best pitcher pitching in the biggest game, and some pitchers seem to have that Bob Gibson/John Smoltz October greatness coded in their DNA, but the best answer to that question, more often than not, is the luckiest guy. In a winner-take-all game, you want the guy who’s going to give up line drives that land in the shortstop’s glove, rather than left-center field, the guy who gets a consistent strike call from the umpire on that fastball right off the outside corner, the guy who happens to be on the mound when his team springs for five runs in the third.

Over a 162-game season, the best teams tend to win the most games. Sometimes, though, a great pitcher on a great team can’t seem to catch a break. A few ground balls find holes, a few bloopers find grass, and a home run later, your ERA’s up a point and a half and you wish you’d stayed in bed that day. Jaime Garcia is due to pitch again on Thursday against San Francisco. I won’t guarantee a dominant outing for the young lefty, but I certainly wouldn’t bet against it.

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