Today’s Game: Orel Hershiser

All this week we’re taking a closer look at the 10 people on the Today’s Game Era Ballot for the Hall of Fame.

In 1988, Orel Hershiser led the National League in wins.

One year later, in 1989, Hershiser led the league in losses.

In 1988, Hershiser won the Cy Young Award, got some MVP votes, was named MVP of the NLCS and World Series, and became one of only seven pitchers to win Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year.

In 1989, Hershiser got bubkes.

So, you know from that setup that I’m going to tell you that Hershiser was a better pitcher in 1989. But I’m not. It's not quite that easy. In one way, Bulldog WAS a better pitcher in 1989. In a different way, he was not quite as good in 1989. And, because luck is never too far from such discussions, yes, luck played a role.

Mostly, Hershiser was the exact same pitcher both years. I mean exact.

1988: 149 ERA+, 178 Ks, 73 walks, led league in innings.

1989: 149 ERA+, 178 Ks, 77 walks, led league in innings.*

*Even the small walk difference is misleading; Hershiser intentionally walked four more batters in 1989 than he did in 1988.

But there were three subtle differences between 1988 and 1989 that made a pretty huge difference.

First: Hershiser gave up half as many home runs in 1989. He allowed 18 homers in his wizard year, allowed just nine homers in his muggle year, and this is why Fangraphs WAR has Hershiser being MUCH better in 1989:

1988: 4.0 fWAR

1989: 5.6 fWAR

In 1988, he was ninth in the National League in fWAR; in 1989 he was first. The argument that muggle Hershiser was better than wizard Hershiser is based on him cutting his home runs; as you well know by now, Fangraphs bases its WAR on the Voros McCracken principle that the three things we know a pitcher can control are strikeouts, walks and home runs allowed. The rest is a bit of a blurry mess.

Second difference: In 1989 — in roughly the same number of innings — Hershiser allowed a total 18 more hits (18 more singles, 13 more doubles, 4 fewer triples, 9 fewer homers). In all, it was about 30 points of extra on-base percentage. How much of this was Hershiser’s fault? How much was the defense’s fault? How much was simply geometric luck, balls finding holes, the wind playing its part? We can guess, but mostly that's what it would be: Guesswork.

[caption id="attachment_23739" align="aligncenter" width="412"] Hershiser's '88 season was magical, but he was never quite that dominant again.[/caption]

Hershiser’s sinkerball helped eliminate some of those extra baserunners; batters hit into 11 more double plays against him in 1989. But teams did score nine unearned runs against Hershiser’s Dodgers that year, and these did play a role in that uninspiring 15-15 won-loss record.

Third difference: Well, the third, you would expect, is the obvious one: The Dodgers scored fewer runs for Hershiser in 1989. And it's true. Bulldog got 3.19 runs of support in 1989 vs. 4.09 in his Cy Young year. That’s not insignificant.

But there’s something else I think is more important: In 1988, Hershiser threw nine innings or more in 16 starts. That's a lot. That's in part how he got the Bulldog nickname. And if you take away one shaky complete game against the Reds (he allowed five runs in a loss), and one hard-luck loss against the Mets (he gave up two runs and lost to Bobby Ojeda and two relievers), he was practically unhittable in those other 14 games.

Eight of the 14 were shutouts, and that doesn’t even include the 10 innings of shutout ball that he threw against the Padres (he was pulled with the game still scoreless — the Dodgers ended up losing.) In the other five games, all wins, he gave up two runs or fewer. That was the year, you will ll remember, when he set the consecutive-innings scoreless streak. When he was good, he was impossibly good.

In 1989, it was different. Overall, Hershiser might have been as good. But his top end wasn't as good. Hershiser had only eight starts in which he pitched nine innings or more. He pitched great in all of those starts* — and got the win in all of them — but he simply had fewer standout starts in 1989 than he did in 1988.

*My favorite Hershiser game from 1989 was an 11-hit shutout that he threw against the Cincinnati Reds. The Reds had a baserunner every inning except the last. Since the 1969 expansion, there have been 13 shutouts in which the pitcher allowed 11 hits or more. The last one? Carlos Silva in 2004 against the Angels.

To put it another way: In 1988, Hershiser had 18 starts with a game score above 65. In 1989, he had just nine. This makes a huge difference.

You’ve seen mathematical idea before, I'm sure — Mitchel Lichtman has written about it many times. If a pitcher gives up 10 runs in 38 innings over five starts, he will have a 2.37 ERA. But which of these five-start sets would you rather have:

First option:

Start 1: 8 innings, 2 runs

Start 2: 8 innings, 2 runs

Start 3: 7 innings, 2 runs

Start 4: 8 innings, 2 runs

Start 5: 7 innings, 2 runs

Or second option:

Start 1: 9 innings, 0 runs

Start 2: 9 innings, 0 runs

Start 3: 9 innings, 0 runs

Start 4: 2 innings, 10 runs

Start 5: 9 innings, 0 runs

In the second option, you will certainly lose one game, and you will almost as certainly win the other four. In the first option, you might win all five of those games. You also might lose all five of those games. You might go 4-1. You might go 2-3. The starter will have a smaller role in determining the game result.

And I think that’s what happened to Hershiser in 1989. Yes, his team scored fewer runs, and he was probably unluckier, but I think you can make the argument that Bulldog was also not quite as dominant, even if the overall numbers say that he was. I would say that as starters pitch fewer and fewer innings, this is something we will really want to keep an eye on. People with much greater math skills than me (94.3% of the people reading this) might help me out on this: I wonder if a game-by-game statistic, something like Bill James' "season score" might be more useful than a compilation season stat.

Anyway, just something to think about.

Oh, and as far as the Hall of Fame: If elected, Hershiser would not be the worst pitcher in Cooperstown; he really wouldn’t be close to the worst. He was terrific. But when thinking about Hall of Fame snubs, there are quite a few pitchers -- right off the top of my head, David Cone, Luis Tiant, Bret Saberhagen, Dave Stieb and probably some others with short careers, such as Ron Guidry and Johan Santana — who would be higher on my list.