Baseball has no shortage of cliches. One of my favorites is when a manager or coach says that the starting pitcher gave his team a chance to win. Not that keeping your team in the game is a bad thing. Far from it. My amusement comes from how mutable the phrase has become. How good is good enough to give your team a chance? Does it depend on how many runs the offense scores? Or does the pitcher have to limit the other team to three runs? Or it is some other arbitrary number?
White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper has an interesting definition of a pitcher giving his team a chance to win. Speaking to the media after a 12-3 loss to the Yankees on Sunday, Cooper discussed his struggling starting staff. He didn’t put an exact number on it, but instead used a vague metaphor. “But it’s time to get people out and try to figure out a way to help us win games by fighting and clawing.” He then described John Danks‘s effort the previous day, in which he allowed two runs through five innings, needing 118 pitches to accomplish the task.
Did Danks fight and claw through this start? It would appear so. His control wasn’t there, as he walked three batters in those five innings. He also threw just 55 percent of his pitches for strikes, so he found himself in a number of unfavorable counts. Yet he stranded six of nine base runners, escaping with just two runs to his name. He even left the game with a lead, thanks to yet another poor start by Javier Vazquez. That, to me, seems like fighting and clawing.
But did he pitch well enough to give his team a chance to win? I suppose you could say that, since he left with a 5-2 lead, that he did his job. Is five innings enough to earn that kind of praise, though? That leaves four innings to the bullpen, and we know how quickly bullpens can blow games. To that end, Scott Linebrink promptly blew Danks’s lead in the sixth, allowing three straight singles before Nick Swisher hit a three-run shot to right-center. That put the Yanks up 6-5.
Of course, the Yankees bullpen pulled the same act the very next half inning and the White Sox ended up winning the game. Despite the result, though, Danks’s effort was not enough. He might have fought, and he might have clawed, but I wouldn’t say that he pitched well enough to give his team a chance — a good chance, at least — to win the game. He left 4/9 of the game to the bullpen, which features, for the most part, pitchers not as good as himself. If he had turned in this type of performance against, say, the Mariners, maybe it would have been good enough. But leaving almost half the game in the hands of the bullpen against the Yankees offense? That doesn’t say “good enough” to me at all.
The Chicago bullpen hasn’t been all that bad this year. While its 4.07 ERA is a bit below average, its 3.54 FIP looks a bit better. As a unit it walks a few too many batters, but it also strikes out a ton. By most measures, it has performed better than the starting staff. But any bullpen, no matter how solid, becomes vulnerable when it has to cover four innings. That effect only becomes worse with the better offenses. It came as no surprise that the Yankees took the lead soon after Danks’s exit.
This isn’t to say that Danks didn’t pitch well. He held a tough offense to just two runs. But when that covers only five innings, is that enough to give his team a good chance to win? Considering the inherent volatility of bullpens, I’d say no. Then again, a quality start denotes six innings and three runs, and is generally categorized as an effort that gives a team a chance to win. So is a run and an inning difference that much? I guess that depends on the opposing team.
Now Jake Peavy. He gave his team a good chance to win on Monday. Jon Danks in his previous start? Yep. Great chance to win. Danks on Saturday, though? Not so much. The results appear favorable, but five innings and two runs against at top-two offense just isn’t necessarily giving your team a good chance to win.
Though it certainly was a well-fought and well-clawed act.