Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Pitching Duels

I recently read Bill James' Solid Fools Gold which - as most Bill James books tend to be - is a collection of thoughts about a wide range of subjects, most involving baseball. One of the chapters of this books is called "The Greatest Pitchers' Duels of the 1980s." As the title would suggest, James lays out a statistical method to analyze pitching matchups throughout history, then applies this method to determine the greatest single-game matchups of the 1980s. James expresses a one-time desire to figure this out for every game since 1950 but said he didn't because "everyone got bored with the project."

As a baseball-loving computer programmer, I'd been wanting to try my hand at baseball statistics for some time and figured this was as good a place to start as any. My first step was to download all of the game data from Retrosheet. Next came the tedious data-parsing code needed to read all of this data into my program. After a good amount of work, the result is a program that has play-by-play data for all games since around 1950 and all box scores since 1918. My next step was to use this data to analyze the pitching duels.

Bill James' Method:

The method which James lays out incorporates three elements:
  1. Quality of Starting Pitchers: Each starting pitcher's Season Score, scaled based on the decade's min/max Season Score to come up with an integer between 0-100.
  2. Quality of Performance of the Starting Pitchers: Each starting pitcher's Game Score (which is already more or less on a 0-100 scale)
  3. Quality Performances by Other Pitchers in the Game: Each team's Game Score for the game. This is calculated using the stats from all pitchers in the game (including starter) as if they were from a single pitcher.
The "Pitcher's Duel Score" is calculated by adding these three elements together for both teams, resulting in a theoretical score of 0-600 for every game ever played. A run penalty is then applied, subtracting 5 points for each run scored in the game. eg: A 1-0 game would have a 5-point penalty, a 3-1 game would have a 20-point penalty, etc.

James goes on to list the top-10 duels of the 1980s, culminating in his #1: Dwight Gooden (NYM) vs. John Tudor (STL), 9/11/1985.

Bill James' List, Completed

Once I had all of the data in my program, I wrote the code to calculate the "Pitcher's Duel Score," as defined above for each and every game since 1918. There is a slight discrepancy between my 1980s scores and Bill James' because he seems to be using some different version of the Season Score formula than I did.  The discrepancy is very small, however, and certainly doesn't prevent this formula from doing what James intended it to do: pick out the best pitching duels.      

Without further delay, here are the greatest pitcher's duels since 1918 in spreadsheet form. There is a tab for each decade showing the top-25 for that decade and an 'All-Time' tab with the top-100 of all-time. Note that I included years 1918 & 1919 in the 1920s and the year 2010 in the 2000s. The spreadsheet should follow, but you can also access the data here.

Most of the columns in data should be self-explanatory, with the exception of the following:
  • Matchup Full: The Duel Score calculated as stated in the first section of this post
  • Matchup: The Duel Score divided by 595 to generate a score between 0-100 where 100 is the "perfect" matchup.
  • Season: The starting pitcher's Season Score, scaled to 0-100 based on the min/max seasons of each decade.
  • Game: The starting pitcher's Game Score, scaled to 0-100 based on the min/max individual game scores of each decade.
  • Team Game: Combined Game Score for all pitchers on team, scaled to 0-100 based on the min/max team game scores of each decade.


The Top 10 pitching duels of all-time are:

10. Leon Cadore (Robins) @ Joe Oeschger (Braves)
5/1/1920. Tied 1-1. 26 innings
Cadore: 26.0 IP, 15 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 5 BB, 7 SO
Oeschger: 26.0 IP, 9 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 4 BB, 7 SO

9. Warren Spahn (Braves) @ Juan Marichal (Giants)
7/2/1963. Giants 1-0. 16 innings
Spahn: 16.0 IP, 8 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 4 BB, 10 SO
Marichal: 15.1 IP, 9 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 2 SO

8. Johnny Antonelli (Giants) @ Don Newcombe (Dodgers)
8/15/1956. Giants 1-0. 9 innings
Antonelli: 8.0 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 3 BB, 6 SO
Newcombe: 9.0 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 11 SO

7. Hal Newhouser (Tigers) @ Bob Feller (Indians)
9/22/1946. Tigers 3-0. 9 innings
Newhouser: 9.0 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 9 SO
Feller: 9.0 IP, 8 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 4 BB, 7 SO

6. Tex Hughson (Red Sox) @ Bob Feller (Indians)
6/21/1946. Red Sox 1-0. 9 innings
Hughson: 9.0 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 9 SO
Feller: 9.0 IP, 5 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 2 BB, 7 SO

5. Dwight Gooden (Mets) @ Fernando Valenzuela (Dodgers)
9/6/1985. Mets 2-0. 13 innings
Gooden: 9.0 IP, 5 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 10 SO
Valenzuela: 11.0 IP, 6 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 3 BB, 5 SO

4. Erik Hanson (Mariners) @ Dave Stewart (Athletics)
8/2/1990. Athletics 1-0. 11 innings
Hanson: 10.0 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 11 SO
Stewart: 11.0 IP, 5 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 3 BB, 5 SO

3. John Tudor (Cardinals) @ Dwight Gooden (Mets)
9/11/1985. Cardinals 1-0. 10 innings
Tudor: 10.0 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 2 BB, 7 SO
Gooden: 9.0 IP, 5 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 3 BB, 7 SO

2. Tex Carleton (Cardinals) @ Carl Hubbell (Giants)
7/2/1933. Giants 1-0. 18 innings
Carleton: 16.0 IP, 8 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 7 BB, 7 SO
Hubbell: 18.0 IP, 6 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 12 SO

1. Rudy May (Angels) @ Vida Blue (Athletics)
7/9/1971. Athletics 1-0. 20 innings
May:12.0 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 6 BB, 13 SO
Blue: 11.0 IP, 7 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 17 SO


While happy with the final results and intrigued enough with the lists to spend a good amount of time poring over them, I couldn't help but think something was missing from this equation. This something can be demonstrated by the fact that the #1 pitching duel of the 2000s involved Kelvim Escobar. In my mind, a true pitching duel is not just two pitchers having a great game or even two pitchers in the midst of a great season having a great game, but rather two great pitchers pitching a great game.

This led me to modify Bill James' formula to come up with a new, better top 100. What was truly the greatest pitching duel of all time?  Find out here.

Hint: Bill James was correct to begin his analysis in the 1980s.

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