In the blow out loss to the Nationals on Saturday, Mike Hampton said it was just one of the those days when batters hit everything, balls find gaps or go down the line, and, unfortunately, "it happens...it's just part of the game." That made me curious about how often these bad games happen, and what it means about whether he is a good pitcher or a bad pitcher (or somewhere in between).
To quench my curiosity, i compared Hampton's game log for this season to his game log in 1999, when he was one of the best pitchers in baseball with a 22-4 record and and a 2.90 ERA. I used a game score of 30 or below to identify the "bad" games. And to some extent the comparison supports Hampton's claim that these bad games happen, even if you are a good pitcher. In 1999, Hampton had 4 "bad games" in a full season and so far in a half season in 2009 he has had 3 "bad games." One of those three games barely met the criteria with a 30 game score.
In 2009, the three really bad games are shown below:
July 10 3.2 IP 9 H 5 R 5 ER (Nats)
May 24: 5 IP 8H 5 R 5 ER (Texas)
May 1: 4.1 IP, 5H, 6 R, 5 ER (Braves)
In 1999, the four really bad games are shown below:
Ap. 7 3.2 IP 7 H 4 R 4 ER (Cubs)
May 30 4.2 IP 10 H 7 R 5 ER (Pirates)
July 28 7 IP 13 H 5 R 5 ER (Rockies)
Sept. 18 3.1 IP 8 H 8 R 7 ER (Cards)
I don't intend to imply that Hampton should be expected to be as good a pitcher in 2009 as he was in 1999. Ten years of age and several surgeries have intervened to reduce our expectations for today's Hampton. But the comparison above doesn't provide much evidence that Hampton's current pitching talent can be judged on the basis of the bad games. That conclusion could change if he goes through a string of such bad games in the future.
Obviously, Hampton's pitching results were much better in 1999 (3.10 ERA on July 10, 1999 vs. 4.52 ERA after yesterday's game). The number of exceptionally good games may be what really distinguishes the Hampton of 1999 from the 2009 Hampton. The 1999 Hampton had 8 games with a game score of 70 or higher, with three of those games occurring in the first half of the season. Mike Hampton of 2009 has 1 game with a game score of 70 or higher (April 15 vs. Pirates). One of the reasons that Hampton could post high game scores in 1999 is that he routinely pitched 7 innings, and further pitched 9 innings four times and 8 innings three times. Hampton has pitched 7 innings twice so far this season. One factor is the differences in managers: Larry Dierker who was loathe to lift pitchers early, and Cecil Cooper who has shown a short hook for starters. Dierker felt that pitchers had to learn to pitch their way out of trouble. Cooper seems to have a hard time determining when a pitcher shouldl be left in the game to work out of trouble. Another factor is run support: In 1999, Hampton benefited from 6.89 runs/game, while the Hampton of 2009 has received 4.21 runs/game. More run support allows a pitcher to stay in the game longer and also reduces the pressure to be "perfect," which probably has the side effect of improving the pitcher's performance.
I don't have a definitive conclusion. But some tentative observations: (1) I'm not ready to give up on Hampton; (2) Hampton will never be the "old" Hamtpon, because it is very unlikely that he will routinely pitch into the 7th inning or later, given his age, current manager, and injury history; and (3) the pitching performances of Hampton and other Astros' starters are likely to improve signficantly if the Astros' offensive output increases.