Noble Failures: 2014’s Best Pitching Performances in a Loss

I’m always curious about what goes on inside a player’s head, post-game, when they’ve delivered a monster performance — but then their team ends up losing. Yeah, yeah: half-naked at the locker most every ballplayer will preach that none of it matters without that W. But, I mean, some of these individual performances are really good, and it takes some significant unraveling on the part of the other 24 players for the team to still end up with the L.

Here are profiles of the 10 best individual games in 2014, by WPA, that ended up in a loss. This time I’ll look at the five best pitching performances in a loss and next time I’ll look at the five best position player performances in a loss.

For pitchers, there’s basically one way — one very precise way — to end up on this list. First, pitch eight innings of shutout or one-run ball while your own offense scuffles along. Then hand things off to your closer for the deadlocked ninth, and watch, with a single tear trickling down your stubbly cheek, while said closer makes a mess of the whole situation. (In the majors, is this cause for the closer to purchase the starter a nice dinner? Another gift? Are there apologies? Consoling hugs?)

5. Johnny Cueto / April 27 / WPA: .490 / Braves 1, Reds 0 (Box)
On this day, Cueto locked horns with Julio Teheran, both of them throwing bagels on the board through eight innings. Cueto struck out 11 batters — not his season high, mind you — and bestowed Dan Uggla with a golden sombrero. The bullpens held the game scoreless until the bottom of the tenth, when Freddy Freeman sent everybody home with a deep single off of Manny Parra.

Also, a dog shared a hot dog with its human at this game, an activity that appears to be truly delightful for all parties. (Click on picture to gloriously embiggen.)
Screen Shot 2015-03-12 at 8.13.05 PM

4. A.J. Burnett / July 23 / WPA: .506 / Giants 3, Phillies 1 / Box
The Phillies managed their one meager run in this game only after the Giants put up their three runs in the top of the ninth, lifting Philadelphia’s Win Expectancy from 1.7% to a robust 4.9%. With a double and a single, Carlos Ruiz was the Phillies’ best offensive performer this day, contributing a whole .08 of WPA.

And so Burnett was all alone on a day when Madison Bumgarner brought his A-game, both starters pitching shutouts through eight. Thus set the stage for the game’s highest-paid closer, Mr. Jonathan Papelbon. After loading the bases, Papelbon gave up the softest of doubles to Hunter Pence, a ball that was an opportune gust of wind away from landing foul. But it landed fair. Papelbon had not one but two other performances in 2014 with a worse WPA.

3. Anibal Sanchez / May 28 / WPA: .523 / A’s 3, Tigers 1 / Box
Sanchez is credited with an earned run in this game, but only because Joe Nathan allowed that runner to score in an outing that included more walk-off hits (1) than outs (0). Sanchez and Kazmir went toe-to-toe in a brilliant duel — only two runs, one walk, and 17 strikeouts between the two starters. Sanchez also helped his case with his glove, finishing off a nifty 3-6-1 double play in the third.

Kazmir made it through all nine innings, while Sanchez had to be relieved with one out in the ninth and a runner on second. Still, when Nathan received the ball, the Tigers were holding on to a one-run lead and had a 73.5% chance of winning the game. And then the bringer of rain, well, brought some rain.

2. Hisashi Iwakuma / May 13 / WPA: .518 / Rays 2, Mariners 1 / Box
Since Tampa Bay starter David Price gave up a lone first-inning run — on an RBI groundout — in the first inning, his WPA in this game was .304, a considerable ways behind Iwakuma’s sterling no-walk performance. (Iwakuma also showed off some positively feline reflexes.) Would-be archer Fernando Rodney saw the first batter he faced, David DeJesus, deposit a souvenir in the right-field bleachers, wiping away Iwakuma’s evening of work rather quickly. Rodney would not make it out of the inning, filling up the bases and then giving up a game-winning single to Matt Joyce before the shepherd’s crook mercifully emerged from behind the curtain.

1. Jeff Samardzija / September 17 / WPA: .554 / Rangers 6, Mariners 1
Of course it would be the hard-luck Samardzija to top this list. A quick recap of Samardzija’s last three seasons: 608 innings, 3.50 FIP, 24-39 record. This game — just like the instant classic Wild Card Game that would follow a few weeks later — ends up being a perfect microcosm of the A’s season: smart, sharp, winning baseball for the first 90% of the way, followed by relentless and inexplicable catastrophe.

After Samardzija struck out ten and gave up no walks or runs through eight, the game was entrusted in the sure hands of Sean Doolittle, with the A’s at a 91.7% Win Expectancy after Doolittle started the inning with an out. Doolittle was then undone by replacement-level rookie Rougned Odor, who slapped a double to the gap, and then by below-replacement-level J.P. Arencibia, who cranked a no-doubt homer to left. Doolittle collapsed into sad-shuffle Charlie Brown mode before Arencibia even left the batter’s box:
Screen Shot 2015-03-13 at 9.54.25 AM
That’s what it feels like to turn your starter’s gem into the noblest of failures.

We hoped you liked reading Noble Failures: 2014’s Best Pitching Performances in a Loss by Miles Wray!

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Miles Wray contributes sports commentary to McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Ploughshares, The Classical and Hardwood Paroxysm. Follow him on Twitter @mileswray or email him here.

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Bob
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Bob

“1. Jeff Samardzija / September 17 / WPA: .554 / Rangers 6, Mariners 1”

Should probably say A’s there.

TKDC
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TKDC

The noblest of losses, taken for a team for which the Shark did not even play. A true gentleman.

geo
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geo

I thought I was going nuts, wondering how Samardzija pitched in a Rangers / Mariners game last year when he played for neither team.