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Run Support Can Make or Break a Pitcher

By Kenneth Broder
Los Angeles Herald Examiner
June 12, 1988

Judging by Mike Witt's record so far this season, it wouldn't seem like a good idea to clear a roster spot on your Rotisserie League team for the fallen Angels ace. After all, he's not going to win any Cy Young awards with a 3-7 record and a 5.10 ERA.

But if you've already got him on your fantasy team and you're thinking of dumping him, keep in mind that last year he had the third best ERA in the American League in June. And his ERA of 2.54 during the past three Augusts is tops in the majors.

Witt's combined record in April and May the past five years has been only 18-23, but in June, July and August he has heated up to 41-16.

You also might check out the accompanying Best Pitched Games '88 chart. Four of the spots on the Top 10 list of well-pitched Angels games (as of Thursday) belong to Witt, including that gem he pitched Wednesday.

He walked away a winner in three of those four impressive outings; the other game was a no-decision. But that's of little concern here, because the Game Performance stat used to rate the quality of pitched games invokes the Nolan Ryan Rule: "It's not whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game."

Yeah, Yeah. I know. You've heard that somewhere else before. But it's not my fault that the best way to conjure up a positive assessment of the Ryan Express is with hackneyed clichés learned at our parents' feet. For those fans who want to tune out Ryan's so-so won-loss record and forget that he's toiled his whole career in pitching pleasure palaces, there's no better stat than Game Performance. It deals with individual games only and doesn't bother with pesky wins and losses.

Bill James dreamed it up and with a few "improvements," this is how it works. Start with a nine-inning perfect score of 100 points and subtract 47 points right off the bat (league record 20 strikeouts plus 27 outs.) Add one point back on for each out and strikeout recorded. Then subtract four points for each earned run, two for each unearned run, two for each hit and one for each walk. And voila, we have a crude assessment of game performance suitable for the Hot Stove League, but hopefully not the folks at Cooperstown.

I hesitate to say Mike Witt has been the victim of bad timing, because he also owns three of the five worst Angels outings this year. But it is also worth noting that among the Angels starters Witt is nearly last in teammate support.

Willie Fraser is first, getting 4.7 runs per game. That's identical to what he got last year. He's followed by Dan Petry, 4.4; Kirk McCaskill, 4.4; Witt, 4.1; and Chuck Finley, 3.2. You read that Finley stat correctly. Chuck Finley has pitched two of the three best Angels games and only tow of the worst 20 games.

You shouldn't underestimate the importance of run support, even if the rest of baseball does. Although it rarely pops up in polite conversation, or on sports pages, run support might have as much to do with won-loss records as ERA does.

A study by the Elias Sports Bureau found that among the 12 pitchers in the National League last year with winning percentages of .600 or better (minimum of 20 starts), five of them were on the Top 12 ERA list and seven were on the Most Run Support list.

They ran the test again for the '85 and '86 seasons and results were nearly the same. In each of those seasons, seven from the ERA list and five from the Most Run Support list were on the Winning Percentage list.

Generally speaking, if you get the runs, you get the wins.

Of course, sometimes you don't get the runs and you still win. Like Orel Hershiser and Tim Leary.

For Leary, it's been the best of times and the worst of times. Two of the top three pitched games for the Dodgers as of Wednesday were his -- and so was the worst, a May 1 outing against St. Louis when he gave up six runs in the first inning.

His problem wasn't lack of support in that game (though the Dodgers were shut out), but if the pattern continues it could be a vexation by season's end.

The Dodgers average just 3.1 runs per game in games Leary has started, by far the worst support of any pitcher. Tim Belcher gets the most support, 5.3 runs per game. He's followed by Don Sutton, 4.9; Fernando Valenzuela, 4.6; and Hershiser, 4.1. Last year, Mike Krukow of the San Francisco Giants led the National League at 5.64; there were no Dodgers among the Top 12.

If Valenzuela continues to get support like he's received in his last two games (24 runs) we won't have to worry about his ERA. If not, take heed of what John Benson noted in the '88 Great American Baseball Statbook.

Using a variation of the ORA formula championed by Herald Examiner sportswriter Tom Singer -- (Hits + Walks) / IP) -- he wrote: "Is Fernando still one of the premier pitchers in the game today? Unfortunately, he may be over the hill. His lifetime (ORA) before 1987 was 1.18; his annual figures over the last six seasons never varied from this number by more than .15. But Fernando ballooned to 1.51 last year. He may be a journeyman hurler for a few more years, but starters who produce a season (ORA) as high as 1.50 seldom return to good form."

So far this year his ORA (not counting hit batsmen) is 1.45.

BEST-PITCHED GAMES '88
Angels
DateNameOppIPHRERBBSOTotal

6/07FinleyTex8.65000776 W
6/04PetryMil8.03111672 L
4/30FinleyTor9.05111469 W
5/08McCaskillTor7.05101768 W
5/28WittBal9.07003568 W
4/06PetryChi6.04001567 --
5/11WittCle10.07321967 --
4/13FinleyChi8.05223763 W
4/15WittSea9.06312563 W
6/08WittTex8.06223862 W
Dodgers
DateNameOppIPHRERBBSOTotal

4/18LearySD9.030021183 W
5/25LearyPhi9.01002682 W
4/05HershiserSF9.03002678 W
5/19LearyMon9.070001076 W
5/18HershiserMon7.05112866 L
4/24ValenzuelaSF7.65003366 W
4/10HershiserAtl8.35112365 W
4/15HershiserAtl9.06220565 W
5/29HershiserMon9.09110765 W
5/27BelcherMon6.33113564 --