Sunday Frivolities

There wasn’t a lot of smiling going on that season.

One of the most overrated, yet celebrated accomplishments in baseball is the 20-win season. It was the one knock on Mike Mussina’s career, which is a complete joke, and it’s almost a Hall of Fame requirement for pitchers. But I am not all that interested in success. I find failure so much more interesting. So what about 20-loss seasons?

There are exactly 500 in professional baseball history, but only 483 belong to Major League Baseball history (post-1876). Only 204 of those belong to post-1899 baseball. This isn’t surprising. Pitchers pitched deeper into games (thus giving them the chance at getting a decision), and they pitched more times a season (thus giving them the chance at getting a decision). In fact, 153 of the 500 20-loss seasons were also 20-win seasons, and Guy Hecker went 52-20 for the Louisville Colonels in 1884. Out of those 153, only 2 have been post-1905. Phil Niekro went 21-20 in 1979, and Wilbur Wood went 24-20 in 1973.

113 of the 204 of modern-era baseball belong to the 1900-1920 time period. Obviously, we still haven’t gotten out of the time period where 20-loss seasons aren’t really that bad.

But the numbers continue to dwindle. The next 20 years only see 36 20-loss seasons. The 20 after that (1941-1960) only see 23.

What’s weird, however, is that the numbers go back up for the years between 1961-1980. 31 players had 20-loss seasons. From a cursory glance (not scientific), it seems as though the innings pitched in the time also went up. Did pitchers try to start pitching more during that time before the Bullpen Era came on the scene? Anyway, just a neat anamoly.

After 1980, there has only been one pitcher in the last 29 years with a 20-loss season. That belongs to the 2003 version of Mike Maroth. Maroth was horrible that season, but the Tigers did him absolutely no favors. That Tigers team is the same one who lost 119 games, so no one won any games. Almost joining him were Jeremy Bonderman (19 losses) and Nate Cornejo (17 games). Maroth was really only slightly worse than those two, but he was plenty terrible. He gave up a league-high 123 earned runs and 34 homers. His 4.1 K/9 was pretty bad, and other than not missing bats, those bats hit him really hard. 13 of his 33 starts saw Maroth give up at least 5 earned runs. 11 of the other 20 saw Maroth give up 2 earned runs or less. From May 23rd to June 30th, he was actually pretty good, netting 7 consecutive starts with 3 earned runs or less (though one of those only last 1.1 innings).

I think we will see another such pitcher, but I find it incredibly interesting that only one pitcher in the past 30 seasons has accomplished this. Why do you think it has changed so much? Does the 30 fewer innings address it? The five-man rotation, which doesn’t really account for the 80’s? Teams being less-willing to let pitchers be so bad if there are cheaper options in the minors?

In my opinion, it’s because there really haven’t been that many 20-loss seasons in baseball history. As I mentioned, a lot of the previous 20-loss seasons were at least close to being .500 seasons. Only 247 were below .400 seasons. In other words, they weren’t that bad. Maroth’s percentage was .300. Major League Baseball has only seen 108 seasons like that. I think that makes more sense. There’s bound to be at least one historically bad season a season.

8 pitchers are tied with 8 losses so far. Will any of them make it?


3 Responses to “Sunday Frivolities”

  1. Ian Says:

    Ah, the 20-loss season. I remember when Brian Kingman of the 1980 Oakland A's was the name we heard everytime the subject came up. We would see articles about how protective he was of his legacy as the last guy to do it. I remember Omar Daal losing 19 games one season (I think it was 2001), and seeing it mentioned that Kingman himself attended Daal's last start just so he could root for him not to get that 20th loss.

    I'm guessing the number of 20-loss seasons went up between 1961 and 1980 because of expansion. MLB added ten new teams during that 20-year period, so that gave more pitchers the opportunity to lose 20. There's also the issue of a diluted talent pool. Perhaps the starters pitched more innings because there were fewer guys in the bullpens the managers trusted.

  2. tHeMARksMiTh Says:

    Expansion is a good point, but why no 20-loss seasons in the 1980's when there were just as many teams and the pool was probably still diluted?

  3. Ian Says:

    Well, it's usually the years right after expansion that produce the outlier seasons (see Roger Maris and Mark McGwire). It'd be interesting to see how many pitchers lost 15 or more games each year and find out if there were any patterns relative to their league's expansion.

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