The Nine Worst 20 Win Season in MLB History

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

To regular readers it will come as no surprise that I’m part of the movement to remove the pitcher won/loss record from our baseball evaluations. I’ve written on the subject quite a bit, both with respect to individual seasons and entire careers, and this piece seems like a perfect fit to round out the discussion. It also helps that I got a direct request for this exact thing after I posted yesterday’s piece:

So what follows are The Nine Worst 20 Win Seasons in MLB history. It gets a little tricky to draw lines here, so let me give you a quick primer. I don’t want this post to be about pitchers who made a lot of starts so they got a lot of wins, but rather about pitchers who performed poorly and still got wins. Therefore, instead of using Wins Above Replacement as I did for the under 9 list, I will be using ERA- and FIP-, which are simply statistics that calculate the difference between a pitcher’s ERA or FIP and league average during that year. Also it controls for park effects, but it’s basically a way to compare an ERA from the deadball era to one from the steroid era.

I would personally prefer to see this done with FIP-, because it better reflects a pitcher’s skill, but I’m going to use ERA- as well so that this piece is more convincing. A pitcher who allows a lot of runs shouldn’t win a lot of games, and you should agree with that if you’re old school or new school.

Additionally, I’ve included lists from 1901-2012 and just 1945-2012 if you’re concerned about the number of starts inflating someone’s win total. That’s fair, so I’ve broken it down into four separate lists, all telling you the same thing. You can have a bad year and win 20 games. 20 games is the old school gold standard of performance, so this cutoff makes sense. If you’ll recall, there have been more than 8,000 qualifying seasons in MLB history and if you try to predict WAR, ERA, or FIP with wins, you get an adjusted R squared of less than .40 in all cases. This isn’t just about a few examples, it’s about the entire population of starting pitchers. For more on this, read the two links above and check out the bottom of this piece.

Here we go.

1945-2012 by ERA-

Rank Season Name Team W L IP ERA-
9 1950 Johnny Sain Braves 20 13 278.1 100
8 1965 Sammy Ellis Reds 22 10 263.2 101
7 1973 Paul Splittorff Royals 20 11 262 102
6 1971 Steve Carlton Cardinals 20 9 273.1 103
5 1970 Jim Merritt Reds 20 12 234 104
4 1980 Joe Niekro Astros 20 12 256 106
3 1972 Stan Bahnsen White Sox 21 16 252.1 113
2 1959 Lew Burdette Braves 21 15 289.2 113
1 1966 Denny McLain Tigers 20 14 264.1 113

1945-2012 by FIP-

Rank Season Name Team W L IP FIP-
9 1971 Dave McNally Orioles 21 5 224.1 110
8 1967 Mike McCormick Giants 22 10 262.1 110
7 1959 Lew Burdette Braves 21 15 289.2 111
6 1990 Bob Welch Athletics 27 6 238 112
5 1958 Bob Turley Yankees 21 7 245.1 112
4 1979 Joe Niekro Astros 21 11 263.2 114
3 1967 Earl Wilson Tigers 22 11 264 114
2 1973 Catfish Hunter Athletics 21 5 256.1 122
1 1966 Denny McLain Tigers 20 14 264.1 123

1901-2012 by ERA-

Rank Season Name Team W L IP ERA-
9 1910 George Mullin Tigers 21 12 289 109
8 1914 Christy Mathewson Giants 24 13 312 110
7 1911 Jack Coombs Athletics 28 12 336.2 110
6 1906 Christy Mathewson Giants 22 12 266.2 112
5 1972 Stan Bahnsen White Sox 21 16 252.1 113
4 1919 Hooks Dauss Tigers 21 9 256.1 113
3 1959 Lew Burdette Braves 21 15 289.2 113
2 1966 Denny McLain Tigers 20 14 264.1 113
1 1903 Henry Schmidt Superbas 22 13 301 118

1901-2012 by FIP-

Rank Season Name Team W L IP FIP-
9 1911 Bob Harmon Cardinals 23 16 348 114
8 1921 Joe Oeschger Braves 20 14 299 114
7 1967 Earl Wilson Tigers 22 11 264 114
6 1903 Henry Schmidt Superbas 22 13 301 114
5 1906 Jack Taylor – – – 20 12 302.1 115
4 1910 George Mullin Tigers 21 12 289 117
3 1908 Nick Maddox Pirates 23 8 260.2 121
2 1973 Catfish Hunter Athletics 21 5 256.1 122
1 1966 Denny McLain Tigers 20 14 264.1 123

And now, to bring the point home even further, let’s put an innings cap at 210 and take a look at 15+ win seasons since 1945 by ERA-

Rank Season Name Team W L GS IP ERA FIP WAR FIP- ERA-
9 2003 Ramon Ortiz Angels 16 13 32 180 5.2 5.26 0.9 119 117
8 1983 Eric Show Padres 15 12 33 200.2 4.17 4.37 0.3 121 118
7 1989 Storm Davis Athletics 19 7 31 169.1 4.36 4.4 0.5 123 119
6 2004 Shawn Estes Rockies 15 8 34 202 5.84 5.54 1 112 120
5 1966 Dave Giusti Astros 15 14 33 210 4.2 3.57 2.6 105 120
4 1999 Kirk Rueter Giants 15 10 33 184.2 5.41 5.01 1.1 113 124
3 1989 Andy Hawkins Yankees 15 15 34 208.1 4.8 4.44 1.2 117 124
2 1969 Steve Blass Pirates 16 10 32 210 4.46 3.72 2 109 126
1 1980 Dan Spillner Indians 16 11 30 194.1 5.28 4.45 1.4 110 130

And now again with FIP-

Rank Season Name Team W L G GS IP ERA FIP WAR ERA- FIP-
9 2012 Barry Zito Giants 15 8 32 32 184.1 4.15 4.49 0.9 110 120
8 1983 Eric Show Padres 15 12 35 33 200.2 4.17 4.37 0.3 118 121
7 1984 Eric Show Padres 15 9 32 32 206.2 3.4 4.23 0.7 97 122
6 1963 Phil Regan Tigers 15 9 38 27 189 3.86 4.58 0 104 123
5 1989 Storm Davis Athletics 19 7 31 31 169.1 4.36 4.4 0.5 119 123
4 1975 Jack Billingham Reds 15 10 33 32 208 4.11 4.43 0.4 114 124
3 2006 Steve Trachsel Mets 15 8 30 30 164.2 4.97 5.5 0.1 114 125
2 1971 Chuck Dobson Athletics 15 5 30 30 189 3.81 4.19 0.1 117 126
1 1950 Tommy Byrne Yankees 15 9 31 31 203.1 4.74 5.51 0.5 107 128

Even when we limit the number of innings a pitcher throws, pitchers can still accumulate wins despite pitching much worse than league average.

So whether you like the simple and easy ERA or the more predictive and true FIP, here you have plenty of evidence that winning a lot of games doesn’t mean you had a good season. Guys on this list were 10 and 20% worse than league average in these seasons and still won the magic 20 games. This is further proof that wins do not reflect a pitcher’s individual performance.

You can be worse than average and still win at an elite level. Last week I showed how you can be much better than average and win fewer than 10 games. Yesterday, I showed that this isn’t a small sample size, single season trick. This is true in small samples and in large samples.

Here’s a quick look at every individual season in MLB history again up against ERA-. There is a trend, but the variation is huge. The adjusted R squared is .3046, meaning wins can only explain 30% of the variation in ERA relative to league average.

pic1

FIP- actually makes wins fare worse, at .1709 adjusted R squared. I won’t bother showing the graph because this one makes the point just fine. You can have an all time great season at run prevention and win 10 games and you can have a well below average season and win 20. Wins are about many factors and pitching is just one of them. You can have a great outing, great season, and great career and never get the wins you deserve and the exact opposite is true as well.

It’s time to outgrow the win and start talking about things that actually measure performance. Even if it’s ERA, which isn’t even the best way to do things. Let’s look at innings and strikeouts and FIP and WAR and everything else. Wins are the oldest statistic there is but they’ve long since lost their usefulness.

If you’re someone who believes heavily in wins, I challenge you to write a cogent response that defends their use. I’d be happy to publish it if you don’t have your own forum and will respond to your arguments. I want to be someone who helps move sabermetrics from a niche tool to the mainstream and I don’t want this to be about drawing lines between people who love baseball. This is my argument against wins, I hope that you take it to heart and really think about it.

Ask questions, look for evidence, and let’s talk about baseball. Share this with people who love wins and hate them. This shouldn’t be a partisan debate between the new and old, it should be about knowledge and fun. Always.

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6 responses

  1. […] Pitchers who had below average seasons and won a ton […]

  2. […] the case is pretty airtight. First I gave you the 9 best seasons under 9 wins, then I gave you the 9 worst 20 win seasons, and showed you that wins do not even out over a career. Finally, I presented a case study in wins […]

  3. […] You Can Have A Bad Season and Win A Lot […]

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