The Legacies of Anthony Young

Former Mets pitcher Anthony Young died Tuesday after a fight with cancer, an inoperable brain tumor, at 51.

Teammates say he was known for his dignity and grace, characteristics he demonstrated through what his career is remembered for: losing 27 consecutive decisions between the 1992 and 1993 seasons, the longest streak in major-league history.

He died on the anniversary of his 24th consecutive loss on June 27, 1993, which set the major-league record.

Former teammates remembered Young in an ESPN report:

“Anthony was a true gentleman,” Turk Wendell said. “At this year’s fantasy camp, he told us he had a brain tumor. That was Anthony. He never ran away from anything.” …

“A.Y. took a lot of kidding about his losing records,” Doug Flynn, a former Mets infielder who participated in the fantasy camps with Young, said in the statement. “But he was the victim of some bad luck during the streak. He knew inside that he was a better pitcher than his numbers.”

Unfortunately for Young, he pitched in an era before performance was placed in context. He played in an era when his pitching was not separated from the defense behind him, the catcher to whom he threw, and the park in which he played. Perhaps he would have had a more enjoyable career, a more productive career, had he played in the data age.

He will go down as perhaps the unluckiest pitcher in baseball history.

He produced a career ERA- of 100 — the epitome of an average pitcher, in other words — but he finished with a 15-48 record over six major-league seasons (.238 winning percentage), covering 460 innings. Instead of being known for the game’s longest losing streak, he ought to be a glaring reminder of the absurdity of the pitcher win and loss.
Said Young to in 2011: “I really don’t think I deserved it, but I have the record. And I don’t wish it on anyone.”

The streak had, unfairly, become a media spectacle, which finally ended on July 28, 1993:

The streak bothered Young in a way it would perhaps not bother a player today, at least to the same degree. From a July 3, 1995 Sports Illustrated profile on Young:

After loss No. 23, Young wore a black T-shirt with this message on the back: LIVE AND LEARN. “I’m not the type to run and hide from my problems,” Young said.

On June 22, Young tied Curtis with a typically cruel defeat, a 6-3 loss to the Montreal Expos. His infielders committed four errors that led to three unearned runs. Young departed that game after six innings, in a 6-0 hole, whereupon the Mets proceeded to play flawless defense. “Did you see the plays we made after he left?” said New York relief pitcher Jeff Innis. “When he goes out there, the whole team feels it. It’s intense.”

Said [Mets manager Dallas] Green, “It’s a difficult thing for him to go through. That’s why we’ve had stiff hands out there. Everyone’s trying to do a little too much.”

Interjected Kelly Whiteside, the article’s author:

And how bad is he? Well, his career record is 4-29, leaving him with a better lifetime batting average (.146) than winning percentage (.121).

It is of some interest that a statistic, the pitcher loss, affected players and the Mets staff, or at least they claim that it did. I remember when covering the Pirates, that Clint Hurdle recounted how when, slumping as a player, he seemed unable to avoid noticing his lowly batting average on the scoreboard. It bothered him, and while he was struggling, it was not the best measure upon which to focus.

Players are better served by evaluating themselves by what they can control, underlying skills, independent of environment. Back in February I wrote about how players were using the new data tools available to help them keep their sanity. To try to separate his true skill level from box-score performance, Charlie Morton has used PITCHf/x data as a baseline from which to evaluate, one of the first pitchers to do that, in my experience.

In reality, Young was a capable back-of-the rotation arm. He finished with a career 3.89 ERA and 4.23 FIP. During 1992-1993 seasons when he went 3-20, he was actually worth 2 WAR in a period that covered 220 innings.

Sports Illustrated reported that Young became a youth pitching coach after retiring from baseball and he continued to offer instruction even while undergoing cancer treatment. Those who were closest to Young will remember him as teammate and man who carried himself well even when conventional wisdom judged him to be one of the game’s worst pitchers.

There are few players who suffer from a greater gap between actual and perceived skill than Young. His career will always be remembered for a record losing streak, but perhaps it should not be remembered not for losses but for the absurdity of awarding them. Young’s on-field legacy is not of losing but of the importance of context.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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6 years ago

Great article, Travis. Thanks for posting.