Is it really better to be lucky than good? Can one exist without the other?
The two most common sports clichés regarding luck directly contradict each other. The first is, “It’s better to be lucky than good,” implying luck and skill cannot occur simultaneously. The second is, “You create your own luck,” meaning that good luck derives from skill. They cannot both be true.
Connor Sadzeck is undoubtedly lucky. Whether his luck is skill-based, or not, is the question of the day.
Sadzeck made his major league debut on September 1, 2018 as a 26-year-old right-hander. He pitched 13 times for the Texas Rangers during the final month of the season, even starting twice. Depending on your point of view, his performance was either very good or very bad, but certainly not in between.
The good: Sadzeck allowed just two runs (one earned) over 9 1⁄3 innings. His career ERA currently reads 0.96.
The bad: Sadzeck allowed 18 baserunners; just under two per inning. This includes six hits, eleven walks, and a hit-by-pitch.
Much like our competing clichés, it should be impossible to allow 18 baserunners in just over nine innings with only one earned run. Let’s examine just how this incongruity came to pass.
Before we dig into his abnormal major league career, it’s worth noting that Sadzeck has been a perfectly fine minor leaguer. Drafted in the 11th round out of Howard College in 2012, he fared reasonably well in the low minors for two years before missing 2014 following Tommy John surgery. He returned in 2015 and worked his way up the ladder, earning a September call-up last year.
To find out how he could possibly strand so many runners, let’s take a look at his game-by game performance (thanks to Baseball-Reference, as always).
- Game 1: Sadzeck faced just one batter in his debut against the Twins, striking out Mitch Garver on four pitches. He’s off to a great start! Unfortunately, this would be his one and only perfect outing.
- Game 2: With a runner on first and one out in the seventh, Sadzeck came in to face the Angels. Eric Young grounded out, but things went south when the lineup turned over. Cole Kalhoun walked on five pitches, then David Fletcher singled home the inherited runner. Mike Trout was walked intentionally (not a bad idea), and Andrelton Simmons flew out to end the inning. That makes three runners allowed in 2⁄3 of an inning, although one was intentional. He wasn’t charged with a run, but he certainly didn’t slam the door.
- Game 3: The following day, Sadzeck threw a fairly clean inning. Simmons singled with one out, and later stole second, but he was the only man to reach.
- Game 4: A few days later in Oakland, Sadzeck got the call with one out in fifth and runners on first and second. He walked Marcus Semien to load the bases, then struck out Chad Pinder and induced a groundout from Jonathan Lucroy. Job well done!
- Game 5: Sadzeck’s unearned run came against the Angels, yet again. He began the sixth inning by retiring Calhoun and Fletcher on grounders. Trout tends to make bad things happen though, and he singled with two outs. Justin Upton reached on an error, and Sadzeck’s day was done. Alex Claudio allowed a single to Shohei Ohtani, plating Trout. His ERA remained 0.00.
- Game 6: Sadzeck started as an Opener against the Padres, throwing just one inning. Francisco Mejia walked to start the game (why is he leading off?), but Wil Myers hit into a double play, and Hunter Renfroe grounded out to end the inning.
- Game 7: Again facing the Padres, Sadzeck popped up Austin Hedges, then walked Freddy Galvis on four pitches. This is kind of impressive in a way; Galvis has only a 5.6 percent walk rate for his career. However, Javy Guerra and Mejia struck out to end the inning.
If you’re keeping track, that’s five walks and three hits through his first 24 batters (plus one who reached on an error). He’s still yet to be charged with an earned run!
- Game 8: Sadzeck was asked to finish a game against the Rays, with the Rangers losing 4-0. He started off in trouble, giving up a single to Tommy Pham and plunking Carlos Gomez. He settled down nicely, inducing a line out from C.J. Cron, striking out Kevin Keimaier, and a fly ball from Willy Adames. This would be the final game in which he didn’t walk anybody.
- Game 9: Opening against Seattle, Sadzeck walked Mitch Haniger to begin the game. After retiring Jean Segura and Robinson Cano, he issued another free pass to Nelson Cruz, then induced a lineout from Kyle Seager.
- Game 10: In another opportunity to face the Angels, things got pretty ugly. Sadzeck was brought into the sixth inning of a 3-3 ballgame with one out and a man on third. He threw a wild pitch on a 3-2 count to Michael Hermosillo, scoring the go-ahead run. Kaleb Cowart blasted a ground-rule double down the right field line. Hermosillo was forced to stop at third only because the ball bounced into the stands, preserving his perfect ERA. Taylor Ward popped out to center field, too shallow for Hermosillo to tag. Claudio then relieved Sadzeck and promptly ended the inning with a ground ball.
- Game 11: Sadzeck had to face just two batters: Trout and Upton. The former walked, but the latter grounded into a double play. Three of his first 38 batters faced in the major leagues were Mike Trout. Sometimes life just isn’t fair, even for the lucky.
- Game 12: A fairly successful Sadzeck outing against the Mariners. He sandwiched a Mike Zunino walk between strikeouts of Ryon Healy and Ben Gamel, then forced Denard Span to popup to shortstop.
- Game 13: Finally, Sadzeck is charged with a run, even though he was no longer in the game. With a Mariner on third and two outs in the seventh, in came our protagonist to shut the door. Instead, he walked Haniger, then allowed a single to Segura. He was pulled for Claudio again, who gave up a single to Cano, scoring Haniger. The run was charged to Sadzeck, who had already thrown his final pitch of the season.
If nothing else, this illustrates the futility of ERA, especially for relievers. Sadzeck did not pitch well for the Rangers, yet he wasn’t charged with a run until the very end. He was remarkably fortunate, thanks to the inadequate ways in which we keep score.
Let’s dive into some obscure record books to see where Sadzeck’s good fortune ranks in baseball history.
The luckiest pitchers in history
No pitcher in the history of baseball has allowed as many baserunners as Sadzeck without any earned runs at all. That record is held by John Dagenhard, as every baseball fan knows, a war-time fill-in for the 1943 Boston Braves. He surrendered 15 baserunners— nine hits, four walks, and a pair of hit batsmen.
However, Dagenhard did give up two unearned runs, so he’s not completely unblemished. The most baserunners in a career with no runs allowed at all is held by Jack Cameron of the 1906 Boston Beaneaters, a predecessor of Dagenhard’s Braves (or, you know, actually well-known Braves like Hank Aaron, Chipper Jones, or Freddie Freeman). Cameron, who spent more time as an outfielder than on the mound, yielded six walks and four hits in six shtuout innings.
As it turns out, there are also two other pitchers even luckier than Sadzeck with one earned run allowed. Dennis Musgraves threw 16 innings for the 1965 Mets, scattering 20 baserunners. This broke the record held by Harry Raymond of the 1889 Louisville Colonels, who gave up 19 baserunners in a single, nine-inning game, but just one earned run. (There’s no box score available, so maybe this isn’t really accurate. 19th century baseball was pretty wild.)
When does luck run out?
This summer, I won a raffle in which nearly 7,000 people had entered. A few months later, my name was chosen again in a drawing of 25 people. When I told my cousin, she demanded that I buy a lottery ticket. I told her that was ridiculous, and that the chances of winning the lottery had nothing to do with these other independent events. Nevertheless, I capitulated (she can kick my ass).
I didn’t win the lottery. My cousin refused to reimburse me for the ticket. Had my lucky steak run its course? Or did it never exist in the first place?
If you believe in such things, Connor Sadzeck caught one hell of a lucky streak. If he makes it back to the majors in 2019, he’ll need all the four-leaf clovers, rabbits feet, and other talismans he can find. Either that, or just throw more strikes.
Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. In addition to BtBS, he writes at www.OffTheBenchBaseball.com. Tweets @depstein1983