In 2012, these two things happened: Cliff Lee was among the best pitchers in the National League, and Cliff Lee won only six games.
While looking up something else yesterday, I ran across this strange list:
Those are, according to FanGraphs, the top six National League pitchers according to Wins Above Replacement (fWAR). I'm sure you'll notice the same thing thing I did: The third-best National League pitcher this year, at least by this particular measure, won only six games.
That's hard to do. And it got me to wondering just how strange Cliff Lee's season really was.
By most measures, it's merely quite rare. Seventeen years ago, San Diego's Joey Hamilton endured a season that's in many ways a dead ringer for Lee's. Both pitchers went 6-9. Both made 30 starts. Both finished with ERA+'s right around 130 (127 for Lee, 132 for Hamilton). Oh, and they were very close in Wins Above Replacment, too. From this point (for obscure reasons I won't mention), I'm going to look at Baseball-Reference.com's version (rWar): 4.2 for Lee, 4.4 for Hamilton.
What really sets Lee and Hamilton apart isn't their wins or any of those other things; it's the losses. Five years ago, Matt Cain won only seven games, despite 4.4 rWAR ... but he also lost 16. Twenty years ago, Jim Abbott won only seven games, despite 5.4 rWar ... and lost 15. In 1986, Nolan Ryan went 8-16 with the best ERA in the National League.
There are a bunch of seasons like this. As unlucky as Cliff Lee was -- and he was terribly unlucky -- things could have been a lot worse. He could have lost 15 or 16 games instead of only nine.
By one measure, though, Cliff Lee's 2012 was utterly unique.
He finished the season with a 7.4 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
There have been only three pitchers in major-league history with a) fewer than 12 wins, and b) at least five times more strikeouts than walks.
There's Cliff Lee this season, Greg Swindell in 1991, and Brad Radke in both 2004 and 2005.
Radke's and Swindell's strikeout-to-walk ratios were in the 5's. Swindell won nine games in his high-K/BB, low-win season; Radke won nine games in 2005, 11 in '04.
So Lee had a significantly better strikeout-to-walk ratio than those guys, yet won significantly fewer games. There's simply never been a pitcher with Lee's strike-zone control who struggled so mightily to win baseball games.
Of course, it's also true that there have been very few pitchers with Lee's strike-zone control, period. Over the last five seasons, his strikeout-to-walk ratio is nearly 6. There have been only 10 pitcher-seasons since 1901 in which the hurler struck out between 6.5 and 8 more batters than he walked. Curt Schilling and Cy Young account for two of those seasons apiece.
Just for fun, here's the list, highest strikeout-to-walk ratio to lowest: Carlos Silva, Greg Maddux, Curt Schilling, Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, Fergie Jenkins, Cy Young, Cy Young, Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling.
Maddux, Schilling (once), Halladay, and Jenkins all led their leagues in victories. Everybody won at least 15 games except Lee and Silva (who won nine games with a solid 130 ERA+, right in line with Lee's this year).
So yes, Cliff Lee was sort of uniquely unlucky in 2012. But then again, Lee's something of a unique chap. So when Cliff Lee is unlucky, it's likely to be a unique sort of unluckiness.