When I Paint My Disasterpiece

Whatever Javier Vazquez lost during his time with the Yankees, he certainly didn't find it Wednesday night in Toronto (AP).

Inspired — if that is the word — by A.J. Burnett's lousy performance on Monday night, I wrote a piece for Baseball Prospectus about the fact that his poor performance had enabled him to tie for the major league lead in disaster starts. As defined by former BP columnist Jim Baker, disaster starts are those in which a pitcher allows as many or more runs as innings pitched; they're the seamy flipside of the quality start. It's a disaster not only in terms of a team's chances of winning — they do so roughly one in eight times (a .126 winning percentage this year) — but also because they're likely to burn out their bullpens covering for such a mess. Since limiting the data query to "allowing more runs than innings pitched" is easier to do at the great Baseball-Reference.com Play Index, I did just that, and came up with all kinds of fun lists on the topic.

Well, damned if Javier Vazquez didn't go out on Wednesday night and serve up gopher ball pie, allowing three homers to the Blue Jays and putting up enough crooked numbers that he too qualified for a disaster start, thus tying Burnett with eight. Elsewhere around the league, other masters of disaster decided to get in on the action. Minnesota's Nick Blackburn threw his eighth disaster start, possibly simplifying Ron Gardenhire's choice of starters in the Twins' first-round series. Alas, the Mets' Jonathan Niese also painted a disasterpiece yesterday, his third in a row and his ninth of the year, giving him the major league lead:

Rk   Player            Team  DS Tm W-L IP/GS   RA
1 Jonathon Niese NYN 8 2-6 4.2 13.50
2 Paul Maholm PIT 8 0-8 3.3 19.91
A.J. Burnett NYA 8 0-8 3.4 18.67
Nick Blackburn MIN 8 1-7 3.8 14.97
Scott Kazmir LAA 8 0-8 4.5 13.38
Kyle Kendrick PHI 8 3-5 4.0 12.79
Justin Masterson CLE 8 0-8 4.8 12.08
Javier Vazquez NYA 8 3-5 4.3 11.83
9 Charlie Morton PIT 7 0-7 2.9 20.80
Joe Saunders 2TM 7 1-6 3.7 17.18
Kyle Lohse SLN 7 0-7 3.8 16.41
Brian Matusz BAL 7 2-5 3.3 15.26
Brad Bergesen BAL 7 1-6 3.8 15.19
Matt Garza TBA 7 1-6 4.2 13.04
Kevin Millwood BAL 7 1-6 4.7 11.73
Bud Norris HOU 7 1-6 4.2 11.53

As you can see, the Yankees have been comparatively lucky when it comes to Vazquez's disaster starts, winning three of them, in part because he gave up relatively fewer runs in his disasters than Burnett.

They won five in all, tied for second with seven other teams, but that's because they wound up with more of them than any other contender (loosely defined here as any team above .500 and in the top three in their division):

Team       DS
Yankees 26
Twins 25
Tigers 25
Rangers 23
Cardinals 23
Rockies 23
Reds 22
White Sox 22
Red Sox 22
Rays 18
Phillies 18
Braves 18
Giants 17
Padres 17

Historically speaking, Burnett and Vazquez didn't come close to setting the Yankee record for disasterinos, either individually or in tandem:

Rk  Player              Year  DS
1 George Pipgras 1930 12
2 George Pipgras 1929 11
David Cone 2000 11
4 Red Ruffing 1934 9
Sad Sam Jones 1925 9
Sad Sam Jones 1926 9
Joe Niekro 1986 9
Richard Dotson 1988 9
Tommy John 1988 9
Andy Hawkins 1989 9
Ted Lilly 2001 9
12 Waite Hoyt 1926 8
Ed Wells 1930 8
Tommy Byrne 1950 8
Bob Turley 1959 8
Fritz Peterson 1973 8
Doc Medich 1974 8
Phil Niekro 1985 8
Ed Whitson 1985 8
Dave LaPoint 1990 8
Andy Hawkins 1990 8
Tim Leary 1991 8
Jim Abbott 1993 8
Sterling Hitchcock 1995 8
Dwight Gooden 1996 8
Andy Pettitte 2000 8
A.J. Burnett 2010 8
Javier Vazquez 2010 8

As you can see, a whole lot of these disasters piled up when scoring rates were elevated, in the late 1920s and early 1930s, and again in the Wild Card era (1995 onward); by contrast, nobody is around to represent the 1960s, and in fact just two pitchers are on the list from 1935 to 1972, the year before the designated hitter was adopted. The year that George Pipgras and Ed Wells combined for 20 disasters, 1930, was the highest-scoring year in major league history (5.55 runs per game), though AL scoring rates actually peaked in 1936 at 5.67 runs per game. Pipgras was one of the many players who rode the Boston/New York shuttle back in the 1920s and 1930s (Uncle Steve did a big piece at BP on the topic); the Red Sox initially signed him but traded him to the Yankees in 1923. He was more or less a LAIM (League Average Innings Muncher) for some winning Yankees teams, who then fleeced new Sox owner Tom Yawkey by selling him back to Boston for $100,000 in mid-1933; he pitched just 136.2 innings in Beantown before an elbow injury did him in.

There are some pretty decent pitchers on that list. Phil Niekro is in the Hall of Fame, and so are Waite Hoyt and Red Ruffing. David Cone won a Cy Young and pitched a perfect game but fell apart miserably on the Yankees' watch. Tommy John (who's tied with Hall of Famer Early Wynn for the all-time lead at 111), Joe Niekro and several other pitchers on the list had long, successful careers in spite of such hiccups.

While we're on the subject of piling on Vazquez, who almost certainly pitched his way off the postseason roster with last night's debacle and may have thrown his last pitch as a Yankee, it's worth noting that he didn't surpass Ed Whitson for the highest ERA of any pitcher in a pinstriped stint of reasonable size (190 innings, in this case, a carefully chosen mark that includes the whipping boy in question):

Rk   Player            ERA     IP      Years
1 Ed Whitson 5.38 195.2 1985-1986
2 Jeff Weaver 5.35 237.1 2002-2003
3 Andy Hawkins 5.21 378.2 1989-1991
4 S. Hitchcock 5.15 402.0 1992-2003
5 Richard Dotson 5.13 222.2 1988-1989
6 Tim Leary 5.12 425.2 1990-1992
7 Kenny Rogers 5.11 324.0 1996-1997
8 Javier Vazquez 5.09 355.1 2004-2010
9 Jaret Wright 4.99 204.0 2005-2006
10 Kevin Brown 4.95 205.1 2004-2005
11 Russ Van Atta 4.94 249.2 1933-1935
12 Hank Johnson 4.84 712.2 1925-1932
13 Hideki Irabu 4.80 395.2 1997-1999
14 Dave LaPoint 4.74 271.1 1989-1990
15 Jumbo Brown 4.74 281.0 1932-1936
16 Ken Clay 4.72 209.2 1977-1979
17 Roy Sherid 4.71 413.0 1929-1931
18 Myles Thomas 4.70 275.2 1926-1929
19 Danny MacFayden 4.68 307.2 1932-1934
20 Pat Malone 4.67 283.0 1935-1937
21 Dwight Gooden 4.67 341.1 1996-2000
22 Ted Lilly 4.65 205.1 2000-2002
23 Ken Holtzman 4.64 238.1 1976-1978
24 A.J. Burnett 4.64 387.2 2009-2010
25 Ed Wells 4.59 492.1 1929-1932

That top 10 is like a reunion party for the Yankees' worst ideas of the Steinbrenner era. None of those pitchers was homegrown; every pitcher there is either a bust via free agency or trade. To find one who came out of the modern Yankee farm system you have to drop to Ken Clay at 16th; he's best remembered (if he's remembered at all) as the pitcher about whom the Boss famously said in 1978, "Ken Clay has spit the bit."

Vazquez achieved one more distinction on Wednesday night: after 345 consecutive starts in which he struck out at least one hitter — a streak dating back to May 16, 2000 — he failed to do so in the midst of all of those homers. Thus he winds up sixth on the post-1920 list:

Rk  Pitcher            Start        End     Games
1 Tom Seaver 1967-05-17 1978-10-01 411
2 Nolan Ryan 1979-09-15 1992-05-27 382
3 Curt Schilling 1993-07-06 2007-06-13 378
4 David Cone 1989-09-24 2003-04-22 347
Dwight Gooden 1984-04-07 1997-09-03 347
6 Javier Vazquez 2000-05-16 2010-09-10 345
7 Randy Johnson 1989-04-20 2000-08-20 342
8 Pedro Martinez 1996-08-24 2009-09-30 327
9 Johan Santana 2000-04-07 2010-09-02 262
10 Bob Feller 1936-08-23 1947-08-13 252

Those are some pretty fair pitchers; by the time it's all said and done Vazquez, Gooden and Cone may be the only ones not in the Hall of Fame, and along with a quartet of pitchers with Yankee ties, you've got the team's great tormenters, Martinez and Schilling. Note that all of the pitchers save for Sever and Feller pitched at least part of their careers in the Wild Card era; strikeout rates have been at an all-time high during this period.

In any event, Vazquez's disaster start on top of that of Burnett once again leaves open the question of the Yankees' fourth starter in the postseason. My BP colleague Christina Karhl, who did a handy piece on what all of the potential playoff team's rotations might look like, noted that while Vazquez failed to make a single quality start in five tries against any of the Yankees' potential opponents, Burnett did so twice against Texas and may have done so a third time had he not been forced from the game by a rain delay. Rain also cut short another potential effort against the Twins (five shutout innings), and he did actually have another quality start against them. So odds are he's the fourth man, but could be skipped in favor of Sabathia on three days' rest in Game Four. Not a terribly comforting thought at the moment.

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