The 5 Worst Seasons with 20+ Wins
The title says it all. I excluded seasons before 1976 because pitchers made way too many starts before then. If I went way back, I would run into seasons like Old Hoss Radbourn‘s 1886 where he won 27 and lost 31 (maybe his arm was worn out from throwing more than 2100 innings over the previous four years). I previously wrote an article on the 5 worst seasons of 120+ RBI. 20+ wins is a little rarer than 120+ RBI, so it took a little more digging to find seasons that were less than very good. I was informed by fWAR but I also used peripheral factors, and looked for seasons where perceived value and actual value were out of touch. Anyways, here’s the list.
Honorable Mention: Ross Grimsley would go 20-11 in 1978, carving out his place in baseball history as the Montreal Expos only 20 game winner. Only one other NL starter struck out hitters at a lower rate than Grimsley’s 7.9%, which was 61% of the NL average. He also walked very few hitters and avoided the longball, allowing him to compile a respectable 102 FIP- . After 1978 Grimsley would throw only 320 ineffective innings before retiring in 1981. Apparently he didn’t handle hecklers too well either, which would give him a place in your author’s Corporations casebook.
5. Russ Ortiz walked a lot of hitters for the Atlanta Braves in 2003, a MLB-leading 102 to be exact. He went 21-7 despite a bloated 108 xFIP-. Much of this can be attributed to a .250 BABIP, which was 35 points lower than his career mark and a 7.4% HR/FB ratio, also well below his career average. Ortiz would only have one more season of positive WAR before retiring.
4. Steve Stone won 25 games and the AL CY Young for the Baltimore Orioles in 1980. By fWAR, Stone was 40th out of 74 qualified starters. A strand rate much higher than his career rate helped Stone overcome 101 walks, which was the 2nd most in the MLB. Stone also posted the same fWAR in 1973, where he threw 75 fewer innings and went 6-11. His arm gave out after 1980, and he would make only 12 more starts.
3. Ed Figueroa went 20-9 for the New York Yankees in 1978 despite a 3.27 K/9 that was more than a strikeout below the league average. A BABIP 25 points lower than his career average and a LOB% 4 points higher than his career average helped Figueroa overcome very pedestrian peripherals. Of course pitching for a Yankees squad that finished 3rd in the AL in runs and won 100 games helped. Perhaps Figueroa was burned out after throwing nearly 1000 innings from ’75-’78 and he would only last parts of the next three seasons.
2. Joe Niekro went 21-11 for the Houston Astros in 1979 and finished a close 2nd in the NL CY Young voting behind Bruce Sutter. He also finished 6th in the MVP voting, even garnering a first place vote. As knuckleballers tend to do, Niekro walked a lot of hitters that year, which is reflected by his 113 FIP- . However, thanks to a BABIP 30 points lower than his career average, he was able to overcome a 4.06 K/9 and a 3.65 BB/9. He would win 20 games the next year with numbers that were only slightly better.
1. Bob Welch was in the right place at the right time in 1990. Pitching for the 103 win Oakland Athletics he went 27-6 in 35 starts in 1990, beating out Roger Clemens and his 211 ERA+ for the CY Young. Welch’s 1.6 fWAR in 238 innings was 85th among starting pitchers. He managed a 2.95 ERA (6th in AL) with a 4.19 FIP. A strand rate of nearly 80% and a BABIP 20 points lower than his career mark certainly helped, not to mention a cavernous home park. Interestingly enough, Welch was 6th among pitchers in fWAR in ’86, but went 7-13. After ’90 Welch would not have another season with an FIP- below 120.
Nowadays getting to twenty wins is tougher, and it almost always takes an excellent season to reach that mark. Back in the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s, winning twenty games was a benchmark for pitchers, and the fact that pitchers such as Wayne Garland entered that club apparently wasn’t enough to sully the achievement. Wins aren’t the order of the day like they used to be, but they will almost certainly help an excellent (and deserving) Max Scherzer win the AL CY Young by a landslide over other deserving candidates such as Chris Sale, Anibal Sanchez, Yu Darvish, or Felix Hernandez.