One of the oldest recurring clubhouse debates in baseball is over which pitcher on a staff gets the most runs to work with, and how much effect it has on his won-lost record.
The current Baltimore Orioles are a perfect case in point, with Steve Stone (22-5), Scott McGregor (16-7), Jim Palmer (15-9) and Mike Flanagan (13-11), who are known as, in order, Cy Present, Cy Future, Cy Old and Cy Young.
The Orioles instinctively feel, and will argue, that the performances of these four are not as different as their records indicate.They go so far, in moments of bravado, as to say that whichever of the quartet gets the most runs -- especially early inning runs -- in a given season will win the Cy Young Award.
Statistics go a long way toward documenting this claim, as well as showing other tendencies of these four pitchers who make an excellent study because they all have roughly equal numbers of starts, innings and decisions.
In the most basic figure -- runs scored per start -- the numbers exactly parallel the hurlers' winning percentages. Stone has been the most blessed with 5.63 runs a game, followed by McGregor with 5.18, Palmer at 4.85 and hardluck Mike Flanagan far behind at 4.06.
In their cases, run support has been almost directly proportional to their success.
To any pitcher, the best runs are the ones he gets early in the game as a cushion with which to work. Early runs make everything easier, just as having to wait for support compounds every difficulty.
Here again, Stone has had spectacular help, averaging 4.50 runs on the board through the first six innings of his starts -- a half a run more in two-thirds of a game than Flanagan gets in a whole game. McGregor, in this category, gets 3.78 runs in the first six frames, Palmer 3.51 and Flanagan 2.51.
The extraordinary quality in Stone's record is that he has been worthy of his support. In games where the O's have scored three or more runs for him, his record is 22-1. In his five loses of 1980, the O's have scored just eight runs.
In those games of merely modest support, where the Birds have given him three, four or five runs, Stone really has shown his mettle, building a 14-1 mark.
Despite the Orioles' reputation as a team built on pitching, the Birds' hurlers, as a group, have not been good enough to win low-scoring games of the 1-0, 2-1, 3-2 type that many people associate with Baltimore baseball.
In contests where the O's have scored three or fewer runs, those four starters have a mediocre 13-21 record. In fact, Flanagan, with a 7-7 mark, has more wins in games where he got three or fewer runs to work with than the rest of the O's staff combined.
The magic cutoff point for Baltimore pitchers seems to be four runs: that's what they need. Give these four guys four runs or more for the night and their record for '80 is 53-11.
If Baltimore pitching has a hallmark, it is consistency, the absence of really bad games. When Stone, McGregor and Palmer have gotten five runs or more in a game, their mark is an almost unbelieveable 37-3. In other words, they seldom undermine a good offensive performance with awful pitching. They "keep the team in the game" and pick up a win when the runs arrive.
There is one exception, however: Flanagan. If the southpaw has been the Birds' best battler in low-scoring games, he also has been the club's only careless starter, prone to wasting opportunities for cheap victories when Bird bats are booming. The O's have scored six or more runs for Flanagan nine times, yet he has won only four of those games. He probably should have taken seven or eight of them to the bank.
Stone, McGregor and Palmer show no such largesse, having put together marks of 8-0, 8-1, 10-1, respectively, in those games where they were blessed with six or more runs.
Although these hurlers seem remarkably similar in many traits -- craftiness rather than pure stuff, good fielding ability, avoidance of homers with men on base, good control but few strikeouts -- they also have marked statistical differences.
Stone, for instance, has his worst trouble in the first inning, while Palmer almost always begins splendidly, then goes totally to pieces from the seventh inning onward.
In his 30 starts, Stone has given 22 runs in the first inning -- a whopping 6.60 runs-against average over a game. But, thereafter, the mark diminishes to 2.59. If Stone settles down, he just gets better. In fact, he is a much better "finisher" than he is given credit for, despite having only seven complete games. His runs-against (not ERA) average for the first six innings is 3.51, while from the seventh on, he is just as solid with a 3.60 mark.
By contrast, Palmer has become perhaps the most Jekyll-and-Hyde pitcher in baseball. In his 27 starts, he has held opponents to two or fewer runs on 18 occasions going into the seventh inning. His ERA for the first six innings of those 18 games (two-thirds of his starts) is 0.96. That's why Palmer still has a chance for 20 wins, and why he beat the Yanks twice in crisis games.
Still, there is one huge qualification -- Palmer's ERA after the sixth inning in those 18 starts in which he appeared to be so sharp is 8.64. The lesson, to which Manager Earl Weaver still is reluctantly acclimating himself, is that once Palmer gets into the least hint of late-inning trouble, he probably should be relieved.
Weaver has juggled his rotation over the past two weeks to get all four starters extra rest. It probably has cost the O's a game or two recently, due to rusty starters, as both Baltimore and New York have gone 11-5 against the West since their last head-to-head meeting. All four O's starters, except McGregor, have grumbled about feeling "too rested . . . too strong" within the last week -- an unheard of late-season complaint on any other club.
But, as always, Weaver has operated on a pet theory: the team with the best and healthiest pitching in the last 30 days wins the pennant. That final month has come. Weaver has four completely rested and healthy starters who will work in a basic three-days-rest format until the end of hostilities.
The record shows that all they ask is four runs a game. It seems a modest request.