The Worst Starts in Great Seasons

During a May 2 showdown with division rival Detroit, Kansas City’s ace James Shields put up a horrible start. After mostly dominating batters through the first month of the season, Shields allowed eight runs in just over six innings, a dent in an otherwise good-looking seasonal line. Without analyzing the start in detail, it is fair to say that no matter how bad it was for Kansas City, in itself it provided no obvious cause for concern with regard to Shields. Shields has been one of the top ten or fifteen starters in baseball the last few years, and one game by itself does not change that.

Still, just how bad can it get for good pitchers? Every pitcher puts up a bad start now and then, but how bad have the best been in recent years?

This might be seen as a cousin to my earlier posts on hitters having bad months in good seasons (and the flip side), although it was not intended that way. I simply saw Shields and other pitchers having good seasons and then having one terrible start out of nowhere and wondered just how bad it could get in a great year.

Wanting to narrow the scope, I found at the three best seasons by WAR since 2003. In each of those seasons, I found each of those pitcher’s worst game by Game Score. It is not a scientific method, but the point is not some precise ranking. I was simply looking for three interesting anecdotal examples. So here are the worst starts during three of the best seasons by starting pitchers in the last decade.

3. Justin Verlander arguably has had better years since 2009 (according to RA as opposed to FIP), but either way, 2009 was the first season in which he moved from being good being elite. Verlander dramatically improved both his walk rate (down under seven percent when he had been around eight to ten percent in earlier seasons) and strikeout rate (up to over 27 percent when he had only been above 20 percent once in his prior seasons, Verlander has not really come close to that rate since). Whatever one makes of Verlander’s improvement on balls in play since, in some ways Verlander has never been better than he was in 2009.

Verlander’s 2009 did not start out all the well, though. The Tigers opened the season in Toronto on April 6, and Verlander had trouble right from the start. After getting two outs in the bottom of the first, he gave up a walk, a double, another single, hit a batter, and then another double leading to four runs. He made it through the third without giving up anything more, but in the fourth Verlander gave up a homer, a triple, a double, and a walk before being replaced. Verlander ended up going three and two-thirds, and while he did strike out four batters in the short appearance, he also gave up two walks and eight hits, including a home run. He was charged with eight earned runs. His Game Score ended up being 15. It was a dreadful start to the year, but he seemed to end up being all right.

2. After a few up and down years, in 2008 Zack Greinke showed that he could be an excellent, perhaps ace-level starter. However, I doubt anyone anticipated what he would do in 2009. Greinke was clearly the best pitcher (and arguably the most valuable player period) in baseball during 2009, sporting a 2.16 ERA and 2.33 FIP over 229 dominating innings. Greinke has mostly been very good since then (and is off to an awesome start this seasno), but has not come close to that year since, an issue that might be interesting in itself. No matter how one looks on it in the context of Greinke’s career trajectory, Greinke’s 2009 was one of the best seasons by a pitcher in the last decade. Greinke winning the Cy Young in 2009 seemed almost anticlimactic, given the obviousness of the choice.

Coming into his start in Toronto on June 5, Greinke had pretty much destroyed everything in his path. He had stumbled a bit in his previous game against Cleveland on May 31, giving up four runs (three earned), if one considered going seven innings, striking out seven, and giving up no walks or home runs “stumbling.” Things definitely went off the rails against the Blue Jays. Greinke at least managed to get through five innings, but that is pretty much where the good news stopped. Greinke was let down by some errors (ah, remember the Jose Guillen years for Kansas City?), but he also gave up multiple extra base hits, including home runs to Lyle Overbay and Adam Lind. In those five innings, he struck out three, walked one, and gave up nine hits (including those two home runs), resulting in seven runs (five earned) for a Game Score of 27.

Side note: we had tickets for the game in advance, but I woke up the day or two before with a a big of “indigestion” that turned out to be appendicitis. Needless to say, we did not make it to the game. My wife called the Blue Jays later and told them what had happened. The Jays ticket office actually gave us games to a game later in the season, which was very nice of them.

1. Randy Johnson had a few good years after 2004, but 2004 was his last truly great season in a career that had many of them. Despite being in his late thirties as the decade began, Johnson was still arguably the best pitcher of the 00s. Johnson had a disappointing, injury-marred 2003, but came back with a vengeance the next year, pitching 245 innings with a strikeout rate over 30 percent and a walk rate under give percent. his ERA- was 57 and his FIP- was 48. Given that Johnson had at least three or four other seasons just as good or even better earlier in his career, readers probably do not need to be told that Johnson is a no-doubt Hall of Famer. Fun fact: Johnson did not win the National League Cy Young in 2004, some guy named Roger Clemens did.

Even during the perhaps the best season by a pitcher in recent memory, Johnson threw up a clunker. And it was not exactly against the 1927 Yankees, either. On June 18, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays came to town. That’s right: not the Rays, but the Devil Rays. It is not as if the 2004 Devil Rays were totally hapless at the plate. Aubrey Huff was a pretty good hitter, and even Tino Martinez had a decent year. But they still ended up in the bottom third of the the majors in wRC+.

Perhaps Johnson’s start was not as disastrous as Verlander or Greinke versus Toronto, but it was pretty bad. He managed to go six innings, which probably disqualifies it from being a total disaster. Striking out four and walking one over six innings might be terrible by Johnson’s standards, but for most pitchers that would not in itself be terrible. He only gave up one home run. Still, when one adds in eight hits and five runs over those six innings, it was definitely a bad start for any pitcher: a Game Score of 39.

If even a Hall of Famer in one of his best years can have a start like that, anyone can.

Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

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AJ Burnett’s 12-run outing against St. Louis comes to mind immediately, although that was merely a solid season rather than a great one.

I seem to recall that Cole Hamels always gets hammered in his first start. Could be wrong. I think Cliff Lee got knocked around in his first start this year and aside from that he’s doing fine.