Tuesday, April 1, 2014

20-Game Losers

Major League Baseball started up this week. Baseball is my favorite professional sport.  More specifically, I am a lifelong Atlanta Braves fan, as my baseball posts reflect.  This post has a slight Braves ingredient to it but it has a broader focus in honor of the start of the 2014 season.  It deals with one aspect of the game that has changed through the years.

There is a list in the "frivolities" category at baseball-reference.com of 20-game losers.  The fact that such a list is today considered "frivolous" says a great deal about Major League Baseball and how it has changed over the many decades of its history. What is frivolous today didn't used to be. In the 19th century it was commonplace for starting pitchers to lose 20 games or more in a season. That is because back then each team only had 2-3 regular starters; there were no regular relief pitchers or closers.  You took the dirty, tobacco-juiced ball and you threw 8 or 9 innings. You did that 2-3 games a week.  No one does that today.  In fact no one has done that for many decades.

But I don't want to get ahead of myself.  According to baseball-reference.com, 499 major league pitchers have lost 20 or more games in a single season going back to 1872.  298 of these pitchers lost 20 or more games in the 19th century, when home runs were rare, the hit and run was the most common offensive strategy, errors were often epidemic, most players did not use fielding gloves, most games were played in their entirety with one or two baseballs (if a ball was lost you found it and threw it back in the game), and no one substituted players much.  Almost every starter played almost every game; players were rarely rested.  Many stadiums did not have outfield walls.  The ball could theoretically roll forever.  Spitting on the ball was legal and expected.  Pitchers initially threw underhanded to the batter.  Gradually they discovered they could throw with more velocity if they sidearmed the delivery.  It was later that today's overhand delivery became commonplace.

The winningest pitcher on the 20-game loser list was Guy Hecker.  He went 52-20 with a 1.80 ERA in 1884 for the Louisville Eclipse, something that seems unbelievable today. The dubious distinction of the all-time biggest loser goes to John Coleman who went a dismal 12-48 with a 4.87 ERA in 1883 for the Philadelphia Quakers.  The most innings pitched by a 20-game loser was iron man Will White who threw an astonishing 680 innings and 75 complete games in 1879 for the Cincinnati Red Stockings.  White's record was 43-31 with sparkling 1.99 ERA.  In other words, White pitched 75 complete games and got 74 decisions. If you are a true baseball fan, think about that.

But let's get back to losing.  You can get some measure of how much the game of baseball has changed when you break down the 201 20-game losers since 1900.  Between 1901-1910 a total of 74 pitchers lost at least 20 games in a season.  35 pitchers did it between 1911-1920.  35 more did it between 1921-1940. From 1941 to 1970 another 37 pitchers did it.  See the pattern? As time passes, fewer pitchers lose 20 games.  This is due to a variety of reasons.  Pitching staffs were beefed up with more pitchers, teams had 4 or 5 starters now which resulted in fewer decisions for any given pitcher overall, relief pitching became more prominent which made for a drastic reduction in innings pitched and decisions by starters, and - obviously - there was less tolerance to allow any player to lose that many games.

Since 1970, pitchers have lost 20 games only 16 times.  This short list of players makes for an interesting study.  In 1971, Denny McLain (who won 31 games for the 1968 Detroit Tigers, the last pitcher to win that many games in a season) went 10-22 with a 4.28 ERA for the Washington Senators.  Three pitchers lost 20 games in 1973 and five did it in 1974.  Then it became a true rarity. Since 1975 it has only happened six times. Most recently, it was achieved by Mike Maroth, also with the Detroit Tigers, in 2003.  Since then, Maroth's 9-21 record with a sky-high 5.73 ERA has not been matched in terms of losses.  He is the only pitcher to lose 20 games in the 21st century and that happened 11 seasons ago now.

Two pitchers make an appearance twice on the list of 16 since 1970.  So really only 14 players lost 20 games in the past 40-plus seasons.  One was Chicago White Sox pitcher Wilbur Wood who is the winningest 20-game loser in recent history. In 1973 Wood went  24-20 with a 3.47 ERA.  The interesting thing is that the White Sox had two 20-game losers in 1973; Stan Bahnsen went 18-21 with a 3.57 ERA also for the Sox that season.  Wood made this list again in 1975, going 16-20 for the Sox with a 4.11 ERA.

The other pitcher to make the recent list twice was the great Phil Niekro of the Atlanta Braves. Niekro (a 300-game winner, Hall-of-Famer, and the player who won the most games in baseball history after age 40) pitched for some really crappy Braves teams while in Atlanta.  He was rewarded with making the playoffs in 1969 and in 1982 but, otherwise, he somehow won a lot of games for very mediocre or outright bad Braves teams.  In 1977, the knuckleballer went 16-20 with a 4.04 ERA and 20 complete games. This means that the Braves lost at least four games where Niekro threw every pitch for them in the game. Unheard of today.  In 1979 he became the last major league pitcher to win 20 games and lose 20 in the same season.  His 21-20 record with a decent 3.39 ERA and 23 complete games was accomplished as part a horrible Braves team that went 66-94 that season.

Niekro's manager in 1979 was a young Bobby Cox. Cox had a terrible bullpen that was nevertheless used heavily because he managed an even worse starting pitching staff except for Niekro.  So, whenever Niekro's spot came up on the rotation, Cox counted on Knucksie to give his bullpen a rest. Win or lose, Niekro was expected to pitch deep into or all the way through every start.  And that's what he did.  Winning 21 games that year for that team was an outstanding achievement.  Still, when comparing Niekro with baseball's past, he pitched 342 innings, which is more than almost anyone by today's standards but not as much as the pitchers from the 19th century and early 20th century mentioned above.

After Brian Kingman went 8-20 with a 3.83 ERA for the Oakland Athletics in 1980 another 23 seasons passed before Maroth lost 20 games.  So only one pitcher has lost 20 games in a season in the past three and a half decades.  That reflects the changing nature of Major League Baseball.  But the game's fundamentals remain pretty much intact. Pitching largely remains the key to victory in baseball so I maintain a special interest in that position as a fan of the game.  19 pitchers have won 20 or more games in a season so far in the 21st century. But even the number of 20-game winners is fading compared with the past.  No one won 20 games last season, for example. Overall, fewer starting pitchers receive decisions in games due to the specialization of the the game. Relief pitchers today get more decisions than ever before.

We have been in an era of specialists for some time now.  It reflects how baseball continues to evolve, along with the introduction of artificial turf, free agency, the designated hitter, the lowering of the pitching mound after 1968, the emergence of wild card teams, and so on.  I don't care for most of these changes.  The game was great to start with and these changes only make me nostalgic.  I am more conservative about baseball than I am about almost any other interest in my life.  Most of these changes are symptomatic of adaptations to the demands of the marketplace. They are intended to bring in more fans and drive revenue.  Thankfully, a lot of tradition remains built in to the game. Enough to where you can still make interesting comparisons through time - like looking back through the past at all those 20-game losers that just are not around anymore.  Maybe I am more nostalgic about that than I care to admit. They are gone with the wind sure enough.

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