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Hunting a pitching Odd Couple

Have a league’s best and worst pitcher ever been on the same team?

Texas Rangers v Seattle Mariners Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Pit Your Wits has been held off until tomorrow, because imstillhungry95 left his laptop at work. However, he’s still involved in Saturday’s post, which was inspired by the following tweet of his from the end of February.

Well... The first few turns around the rotation have probably put a damper on that bit of speculation. Or if it’s going to happen, it’s going to be in the opposite way we probably expected. For at time of writing, our best starter has been... Merrill Kelly and his 2.57 ERA, while Zack Greinke “enjoys” an ERA north of seven. But inspired by the Tweet, I thought I’d dig into the records and see what I could find.

I wish I hadn’t: there’s no easy way to check this, except for a lot of manual searches on the Play Index at Baseball Reference. In the end, I limited myself to the National League since 1998 for a full search, and there were no such cases where the Cy Young winner and worst pitcher in the league (as measure by bWAR) came from the same team. This isn’t too much of a surprise. To be the worst pitcher, you not only have to pitch badly, you typically have to throw a lot of innings to pile up that negative value. That tends to mean you are on a bad team, with no better alternatives. Cy Young winners, on the other hand, almost always come from contending teams. They won’t keep some guy with a 7.00 ERA in the rotation.

But for the record, the chart below shows the NL Cy Young winners since Arizona joined the league, along with the worst pitcher on that team. I’ve also listed that year’s worst overall pitcher, and the best pitcher on that team.

Best and worst NL pitchers, 1998-2018

Year Cy Young bWAR Worst on team bWAR Worst in league bWAR Best on team bWAR
Year Cy Young bWAR Worst on team bWAR Worst in league bWAR Best on team bWAR
2018 Jacob deGrom 9.6 Paul Sewald -1.0 Matt Albers -1.6 Jeremy Jeffress 3.4
2017 Max Scherzer 7.1 Shawn Kelley -0.7 Bartolo Colon -2.1 R.A. Dickey 2.0
2016 Max Scherzer 6.3 Lucas Giolito -0.5 Alfredo Simon -2.1 Dan Straily 4.3
2015 Jake Arrieta 8.3 James Russell -0.9 Matt Garza -1.6 Francisco Rodriguez 1.7
2014 Clayton Kershaw 7.7 Kevin Correia -1.5 Edwin Jackson -2.3 Jake Arrietta 5.4
2013 Clayton Kershaw 8.0 Brandon League -1.4 Barry Zito -2.5 Madison Bumgarner 4.0
2012 R.A. Dickey 5.7 Manny Acosta -1.2 Tim Lincecum -1.7 Matt Cain 3.8
2011 Clayton Kershaw 6.7 Hung-Chih Kuo -1.6 Ryan Franklin -1.7 Chris Carpenter 3.5
2010 Roy Halladay 8.6 Danys Baez -0.5 Kyle Lohse -2.3 Adam Wainwright 6.2
2009 Tim Lincecum 7.4 Joe Martinez -0.8 Brad Lidge -2.6 J.A. Happ 4.2
2008 Tim Lincecum 7.8 Kevin Correia -1.0 Josh Fogg -1.6 Edinson Volquez 4.7
2007 Jake Peavy 6.2 Clay Hensley -0.9 Mike Maroth -2.4 Adam Wainwright 2.8
2006 Brandon Webb 7.0 Kevin Jarvis -0.5 Derrick Turnbow -2.4 Chris Capuano 3.4
2005 Chris Carpenter 5.8 Carmen Celi -0.3 Eric Milton -1.9 Aaron Harang 4.5
2004 Roger Clemens 5.4 Tom Redding -1.3 Rocky Biddle -2.5 Livan Hernandez 5.0
2003 Eric Gagne 3.7 Victor Alvarez -0.4 Jose Mesa -1.9 Rheal Cormier 2.6
2002 Randy Johnson 10.7 Eddie Oropesa -1.4 Kyle Farnsworth -2.5 Matt Clement 4.4
2001 Randy Johnson 10.1 Brian Anderson -0.9 Andy Benes -2.5 Darryl Kile 4.9
2000 Randy Johnson 8.1 Johnny Ruffin -0.3 Ruben Quevedo -1.9 Jon Lieber 3.7
1999 Randy Johnson 9.1 Vincente Padilla -0.5 Micah Bowie -2.0 Jon Lieber 2.5
1998 Tom Glavine 6.1 Mark Wohlers -1.3 Andy Larkin -3.2 Matt Mantei 1.2
  • The closest in this timeframe is probably 2014, when Clayton Kershaw won (as well as topping the NL in bWAR), and Kevin Correia was the fourth-worst pitcher in the league.
  • Good effort by Jacob DeGrom last season. The gap of 10.6 wins between him and team-mate Paul Sewald was the most for 16 years.
  • Tim Lincecum is the only pitcher to both win a Cy Young AND appear on the worst in league column - just three years later. In related news, Paul Goldschmidt reached the majors in 2011.
  • The biggest overall gap is the 12.1 wins between Randy Johnson and Eddie Oropesa on the 2002 Diamondbacks.
  • How good the Big Unit was that year. Know how incredible DeGrom was last season? Johnson was more than a full win more valuable.
  • The 2005 D-backs placed three pitchers in the league’s bottom 10. Brandon Lyon (-1.2 bWAR), Brian Bruney (-1.6) and Russ Ortiz (-1.9). Even the 2004 version, which lost 111 games, couldn’t do that.

It seemed possible there were other cases that fell outside of this group, but I wasn’t going to check all 116 Cy Young winners to find out. The most plausible candidates would appear to me to be cases like DeGrom, where the Cy Young went to a great pitcher on a bad team. That doesn’t happen very often. In fact, he was just the 17th winner since the Cy Young began in 1956, to appear on a losing team (including Brandon Webb for the D-backs in 2006). I did a spot-check on all previous “winning losers” to see if any qualified. It turns out I would not have had to go much further back, to find the last time the NL Cy Young winner and worst pitcher in the league were on the same team.

That dubious honor belongs to the 1997 Montreal Expos, a team which went 78-84, finishing fourth in the NL East. Their ace was Pedro Martinez, who made 31 starts (including thirteen complete games!), going 17-8 with a 1.90 ERA, He got 25 of 28 first-place votes, as he won the first of his three Cy Youngs, and was worth 9.0 bWAR. But the worst pitcher in the league could also be found plying his trade in the Stade Olympique that season. Future Diamondback Omar Daal worked out of the Expos’ bullpen, making 33 appearances with a 9.79 ERA. He was worth -2.3 bWAR, 0.4 wins worse than the next most awful pitcher, the Phillies’ Mark Leiter.

The same season, the AL Cy Young also went to a pitcher on a losing team - the Blue Jays’ Roger Clements. But their worst pitcher, Luis Andujar, was only 10th-worst in the league. To find another example before this, we have to go back to 1976, when Randy Jones went 22-14 for the Padres, to take the Cy Young. Colleague Dan Spillner, meanwhile, racked up -2.0 bWAR in a mix of starts and relief, with 106.2 IP of 65 ERA+ work.

But the most recent case of all appears to have come as recently as 2010, when Felix Hernandez took the AL award, despite a mediocre 13-12 record, due to his 2.27 ERA. The bottom-dweller in the league was Ryan Rowland-Smith, who went 1-10 with a 6.75 ERA over 109.1 innings, and was worth -2.6 bWAR. Hernandez still holds the record for the Cy Young winner on the worst team, being the only man whose side managed to lose a hundred games. Seattle went 61-101 that season, despite Hernandez’s winning record. Over the 128 games he didn’t start, they were 44-84; so bad as that season was, it would have been a lot worse for Seattle without King Felix.