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Playing WAR Games In Order To Analyze Orioles Pitching Greats

February 18, 2018
One of the things I love about my job is that sometimes I'm doing one task and another story angle emerges.

Earlier this winter, I was compiling biographical information on former Orioles left-hander Scott McGregor, who had agreed to be the special guest at my annual baseball talk for charity in Southern Pennsylvania.

The basic numbers I found weren't surprising. McGregor, who pitched for the Orioles from 1976 to 1988, was sixth all-time in modern franchise history (since 1954) in wins and fourth in games started and innings logged.

Those in front of him aren't shockers.

Jim Palmer, Dave McNally and Mike Flanagan -- in that order -- have McGregor beat in games started and innings pitched for the modern-day Orioles. Mike Mussina (147 wins) and Mike Cuellar (143) are third and fourth, respectively, on the franchise's all-time wins list, ahead of Flanagan (141) and McGregor (138) and behind Palmer (268) and McNally (181).

Those are basic statistics -- counting stats, as they are referred to these days -- and they have a lot to do with the success of the teams and the eras in which those pitchers played.

I was curious as to what modern metrics would say about the greatest pitchers in Orioles history. It's definitely difficult to compare eras, but I thought I would at least look into it using the rWAR metric -- that's Wins Above Replacement according to baseball-reference.com (that's where the “r" comes from. There's also fWAR, done by Fangraphs, that is computed slightly differently. For this piece, I'm exclusively using rWAR.

I know many old-schoolers hate WAR, which is supposed to determine how many more wins a specific player generates for his team above what a baseline (or replacement-type) player would achieve. The formula is complex, but basically for pitchers it focuses on the prevention of runs and baserunners while also incorporating other factors such as league, ballpark, defense, et cetera.

It's a tool. It's an interesting way to evaluate players. I don't believe it is more than that.

And, in many cases, WAR reinforces what we saw with our eyes and comprehended with our minds. For this piece, I delved into the advanced metric to get a sense of Orioles pitchers throughout the years. The results weren't startling.

Palmer, the one pitcher who has gone into baseball's Hall of Fame as an Oriole, is the franchise leader with an all-time WAR of 68.1. All 558 big league games in which Palmer pitched from 1965 to 1984 were in an Orioles uniform.

Second on the list isn't particularly surprising, either. It's Mussina, who had a 47.6 WAR in an Orioles career that spanned from 1991 to 2000. Add in his eight seasons with the New York Yankees from 2001 to 2008 in which he accumulated a 35.1 WAR, and Mussina's total number is higher than Palmer's (82.7).

Mussina's career WAR is the 19th-highest all-time for a pitcher -- slightly ahead of Hall of Famer Bob Gibson's -- and 14th for all pitchers who have played since 1950. There's a legitimate reason why Mussina's Hall of Fame supporters grow each year.

Palmer is 28th all-time in WAR, just behind Rick Reuschel, who never won a Cy Young Award, but made three All-Star teams.

So, yes, WAR is far from an exact science. There are results that don't pass the memory muster.

But it's interesting to scroll through anyway.

Here are some of the other things I found when comparing Orioles pitchers during the years. Call this fun with WAR:

- Not only does Palmer own the largest career WAR in franchise history, but he also has the highest (8.5) for one season among all Orioles pitchers. That was in 1975 when he was 23-11 with a 2.09 ERA in -- get this -- 323 innings. He threw 25 complete games in 38 starts and had 10 complete-game shutouts. It was an extraordinary effort in all facets, yet it is tied for 137th best all-time among pitchers, joining Randy Johnson's 2004, Pat Hentgen's 1996 and Dizzy Dean's 1934, among others.

- As great as Palmer's 1975 was, WAR suggests that Mussina's campaign in 1992 was nearly as strong -- although the basic numbers pale significantly. Mussina was 18-5 with eight complete games and four shutouts while posting a 2.54 ERA in 241 innings. It's amazing that, as tremendous as Mussina's career was, his first full season is the one that statistically is considered the best in his 18 years in the majors.

- Palmer is the king of WAR when it comes to single seasons in an Orioles uniform. Six of the top eight season WAR totals for an O's pitcher were turned in by Palmer. The other two were by Mussina in 1992 and knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhelm in 1959. Mussina was 23 years old in 1992; Wilhelm was 36 and in his first full year as primarily a starter. Wilhelm had a 7.6 WAR while going 15-11 with a 2.19 ERA in 226 innings.

- From an Orioles career standpoint, the top pitchers in club history, from a narrative point of view, are aligned with the top WAR numbers. But there is one significant surprise in the top five. McGregor is sixth, Mike Boddicker is seventh and Mike Cuellar, eighth. Palmer and Mussina are first and second, McNally is third and Flanagan, fifth. So, who is fourth all-time as an Orioles pitcher, according to WAR? Milt Pappas, the man best known as the primary chip in the trade that brought Frank Robinson to the Orioles before the 1966 season. Pappas, who played for the Orioles from 1957 to 1965, had a total Orioles WAR of 22.0, just ahead of Flanagan's 21.8.

- Here's a modern WAR surprise: The 10th-highest WAR among O's pitchers -- just behind Steve Barber's 17.1 -- is Jeremy Guthrie's 16.4. Guthrie pitched during the dark days of the Orioles, from 2007 to 2011, and was 47-65 with a 4.12 ERA. In three of his five seasons, though, he had an ERA under 4.00 and a WAR at 4 or better.

- Another recent shocker: The 11th-highest WAR for an Oriole for one season was in 2007 by left-hander Erik Bedard. He was 13-5 with a 3.16 ERA and, according to his 5.7 WAR, was slightly better than Mussina in 2000, 1997 and 1994, and McGregor in 1983. I'm sure McGregor would be OK with that distinction, since he won a World Series ring that year, while Bedard's Orioles were 69-93 and finished fourth in 2007. The Orioles traded Bedard to the Seattle Mariners after that season, landing Adam Jones and Chris Tillman (and three others) to set up the franchise for future success. Bedard never posted a WAR over 2.0 in any season after 2007.

- We all know the Orioles had a rough year on the mound in 2017, including posting the worst rotation ERA in club history. Well, WAR backs that up. The only Orioles pitchers with a WAR at 2 or better last year were Dylan Bundy (2.7) and Mychal Givens (2.3). Thirteen Orioles pitchers had negative WAR, meaning they were worse than replacement level, including starters Wade Miley, Jeremy Hellickson, Ubaldo Jimenez and Chris Tillman.

Issue 241: January / February 2018 

Originally published Jan. 19, 2018