Back in 2010 Bill James conducted a Greatest Pitchers’ Duels study. In doing so James created a scoring system for the purpose of ranking great pitchers’ duels. James’ system was based on four criteria: the performance of each starting pitcher, the quality of each starting pitcher, if relievers were used- the quality of their performance, and lastly a low score.
James though limited his study to four decades: the 1950s, ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. We thought we’d expand on the study and investigate further by going all the way back to 1920 and then forward up until 2019 which would give us an even 100 years and a neat title for an article to boot- “BLI’s 100 Years, 100 Duels” which is borrowed from the American Film Institute’s (AFI’s) 100 years, 100 Movies series. Why didn’t we go all the way back to 1900? We’ll get to that later.
For our investigative purposes we borrowed from James’ system but simplified it. We focused on only the first two of his criteria: the performance of each starting pitcher and the quality of each starting pitcher. We did not concern ourselves with relief performances. In our view a pitchers’ duel is strictly starter versus starter.
To measure the first of his four criteria, that being the performance of each starting pitcher, James used his own creation, Pitcher Game Score. We did the same. Baseball Reference defines Pitcher Game Score as “a metric to judge a starting pitcher’s effectiveness in a single game. It uses a system of pluses and minuses to create a score.” The formula can be found at baseball-reference.com. Note- for the purpose of producing this list we focused on pitching duels where both pitchers had a game score of at least 70.
To measure the second criteria, the quality of the starting pitchers, James used another one of his creations- Pitcher Season Score. Pitcher Season Score is simply a point system used to evaluate a pitcher’s yearly performance based on traditional pitching statistics such as wins, losses, strikeouts, walks etc. Season Score does not adjust for era. It is, as James wrote, a “method to identify a pitcher’s best season without adjusting for the influence of the moon.” We find Pitcher Season Scores to be very useful; however, for this investigation we used another one of James’ creations to measure the quality of the starting pitchers- Starting Pitcher Ranks.
Starting Pitcher Ranks works similarly to ATP Rankings and PGA Rankings for tennis players and golfers in that it uses recent past performance to determine which pitcher is MLB’s “Number One Starting Pitcher.” It is a point system that uses a pitcher’s recent Game Scores and adjusts for park effects and periods in which the pitcher was inactive. It also takes into account post-season play. For a full explanation of the system, visit James’ website at billjamesonline.com.
We decided to use Starting Pitcher Ranks (SPR) rather than Season Score because SPR provides us with an up to the moment snapshot as to how well a pitcher had been performing just prior to his start, whereas Season Score provides an end-of-year evaluation of a pitcher’s performance. We believe the former provides better context as to the quality of a pitching matchup on any given day.
To illustrate the point, let’s look at an example. On May 20, 1985 the Toronto Blue Jays played host to the Chicago White Sox. Starting for the Blue Jays was Jimmy Key. Starting for the White Sox was the venerable Tom Seaver. Jimmy Key up against Tom Seaver in ‘85? Now that’s a pretty good match-up- a future Hall of Famer in Seaver versus a 24 year-old left-handed American League All-Star in Key. Just one thing though- Key wasn’t an All-Star, not at that point in time anyway. At that time Key was a second-year pitcher who was making just the seventh start of his career. He was essentially Toronto’s number four starter behind Dave Stieb, Doyle Alexander and Jim Clancy.
However, beginning in June of that season Key went on a roll and won 11 of his 15 decisions and posted a 3.10 ERA. Overall in ’85 Key was a 14-game winner with a solid 3.00 ERA, fourth best in the AL. His Season Score of 208 was ninth best in the AL. Key’s mound opponent, the 40 year-old Tom Seaver, won 16 games and had a 3.17 ERA, good for sixth best in the AL in ’85. Seaver’s 190 Season Score was 10th best, just behind Key.
In other words, Jimmy Key’s 1985 season was on par with Seaver’s ’85 campaign. In fact both pitchers finished the season with an exact 5.0 rWAR. However, heading into their May 20, 1985 match-up, Key wasn’t on par with Seaver. Not yet anyway. Key had only six career starts to his name. In those six starts Key averaged a Game Score of 51 which is considered very average. Conversely his counterpart, Tom Seaver, although past his prime, was still an above-average pitcher. Seaver was coming off a 15-win season in ’84 and was off to a strong start in ’85 with a 4-2 record and a 3.16 ERA.
How do we more accurately quantify both Key and Seaver on the day of their match-up back in ’85? We do so by using their SPRs. On May 20 of ’85 Seaver was ranked 14th among MLB starting pitchers with a 473.23 rating. To put that into context Seaver was ranked just ahead of California Angel Mike Witt and just behind Pittsburgh Pirate, Rick Rhoden. The Cincinnati Reds’ Mario Soto was MLB’s Number One Pitcher with a 533.38 rating.
Jimmy Key on the other hand was ranked 120th with a 333.19 rating. Therefore the May 20, 1985 Key/Seaver match-up was a 120th ranked pitcher in Key versus a 14th ranked pitcher in Seaver. If instead we used Season Score to measure the quality of the match-up we’d have a 9th ranked Key versus a 10th ranked Seaver. In our opinion that isn’t quite accurate, at least it wasn’t accurate at game time.
By the end of the year Key had jumped up all the way to 59th in the rankings. Had the two pitched against one another in October of ’85, it would have been number 59 versus number 11 by way of SPR as Seaver had also moved up in the rankings.
To further illustrate the point and also reveal our point system, let’s look at two other pitchers’ duels. On August 16, 1940 Boston Brave Nick Strincevich hurled 12 innings of one-run ball and allowed just five hits to beat Brooklyn 2-1. His mound opponent, Vito Tamulis, allowed just six hits over his 12 innings of work but took the loss. Strincevich’s Game Score was 86, Tamulis’ was 87. Indeed, this was a very good pitchers’ duel.
On August 24, 1971 New York Yankee, Mel Stottlemyre, fired a complete game 3-hit shutout versus the Oakland A’s. His mound opponent, Vida Blue, who was well on his way to winning both the Cy Young Award and the AL MVP Award that season, gave up just one run in his nine innings of work. He also struck out ten batters. Stottlemyre’s Game Score was 83, Blue’s was 85.
Which was the better pitchers’ duel? Was it Strincevich versus Tamulis or Stottlemyre versus Blue? Both Strincevich and Tamulis had higher Game Scores than Stottlemyre and Blue but we are guessing most would agree that the Stottlemyre versus Blue match-up was the better pitchers’ duel. Why? Because at the time we had two pitchers pitching at an extremely high level for a sustained period of time, both of whom fulfilling the expectations of fans. Stottlemyre and Blue were ranked 23rd and 7th respectively on the day of their game. Conversely, Strincevich and Tamulis were ranked 106th and 74th prior to their meeting in August of ’40. We have to take that into account.
In the end we ranked the Stottlemyre/Blue battle as the 77th greatest pitchers’ duel of the last 100 years. The Strincevich/Tamulis duel ranked 140th. We scored each duel as follows. First, we simply added up each pitcher’s Game Score. The Stottlemyre and Blue Game Scores totaled 168. Strincevich and Tamulis totaled 173. We then had to take into account each pitcher’s ranking.
As previously mentioned Stottlemyre and Blue were MLB’s 23rd and 7th ranked starting pitchers on the day of their game. Future Hall of Famer Fergie Jenkins was MLB’s Number One Pitcher on that day with a 616.07 rating. Stottlemyre’s rating was 510.79 or 82.91% of Jenkins’ total. Blue’s 543.41 rating was 88.21% of Jenkins’ total. To come up with a Rank Score we simply took the percentages and multiplied them by 100.
We then added those numbers to each pitcher’s Game Score to come up with a Total Pitchers’ Duel Score (TPDS) of 339.21:
Stottlemyre Game Score: 83
Blue Game Score: 85
Stottlemyre Rank Score: 82.91
Blue Rank Score: 88.21
Total Pitcher’s Duel Score: 339.12
At the time of the Strincevich/Tamulis duel MLB’s Number One Pitcher was Bob Feller with a 617.46 rating. Strincevich’s 318.95 rating translated to a 51.66 Rank Score while Tamulis’ 353.54 rating equated to a 57.26 Rank Score. After adding their Rank Scores to their Games Scores (86 and 87), the Strincevich/Tamulis tilt came to a Total Pitcher’s Duel Score of 281.92.
To get each pitcher’s Starting Pitcher Rank we used BaseballMusings.com’s day by day database. Unfortunately though the farthest the database goes back is 1920 which limited our investigation to 1920 – 2019. Still though we were able to come up with what we think is an impressive list.
Now that we have gotten all of that out of the way, we can list our top 100 pitchers’ duels of the last 100 years beginning with number 100. We’ve also selected 20 duels that we’ll be delving much deeper into because as we’ve found, the events leading up to the duels were just as interesting as the duels themselves.
To be continued..