The New (Old) Meaning of 20 Wins

Roy Halladay is one of the few pitchers in the last decade to win 20 or more games multiple times. (via Dirk Hansen)

We’re so far past the point of acknowledging that wins don’t hold much weight in the evaluation of a starting pitcher that it may not even be worth discussing.

In chatting with baseball analysts and bloggers, I’ve always found that the greatest example of pitcher wins irrelevance was what I call “Forsch/Rasmussen ’77.” The St. Louis Cardinals’ number two starter,  Bob Forsch, emerged from the shadow of his teammate, 1976 National League ERA champion John Denny, who struggled through an injury-plagued campaign.  Eric Rasmussen,  a 25-year old swingman, picked up the slack as well, pitching a team-leading 234 innings to Forsch’s 217.

Here’s where it gets interesting. Forsch and “Ras” pitched to the exact same ERA (3.48), the exact same ERA+ (112,) and for the FanGraphs crowd, the exact same ERA- (88). Rasmussen threw 11 complete games to Forsch’s eight; three shutouts to Forsch’s two, 25 more strikeouts in 16 more innings, lower WHIP – you all know where this is going. Bob Forsch finished third in the league in victories, a sterling 20-7 record.

Eric Rasmussen went 11-17. This should be the opening and closing argument for every “Kill The Win” proponent.

There also should be a Razzies-style award given to the major league pitcher whose sabermetric achievements are completely at odds with his win-loss record. This distinction would of course be named after Nolan Ryan’s epic 1987 campaign, in which he led the league in ERA, strikeouts, ERA+, WHIP, FIP,  hits per nine innings …and finished at 8-16.

So it’s clear I recognize the insignificance of pitcher wins, right?

And then I find this.

Since 2006, there have been exactly two dozen 20-game winners in the major leagues. All pitched to an ERA+ of over 130.

Although it’s a statistic that has gained awareness and respect over the years, ERA+ is not every baseball analyst’s primary measurement of dominance on the rubber. So why use it here? And why 130?

Do you know how many eligible starters possess a career ERA+ higher than 130 and are not in the Baseball Hall of Fame? Seven, and one of them is Roger Clemens, and one of them is Clayton Kershaw. Two are Roy Halladay and Johan Santana. Doc should make it to Cooperstown at some point and the former Minnesota Twins southpaw/two-time Cy Young Award winner is beginning to get some induction rumblings of his own (particularly from guys like Baseball-Reference founder Sean Forman, whose site provided the data for this piece.) I’m not going to comment on folks who don’t see much value in statistical “finish lines,” but to me, 130 is a strong benchmark of greatness for starters (the threshold being higher for relievers).

So here’s the thing – 19 starters have won 20 games in this decade and all of them possessed an ERA+ of 130 or higher. This has never happened before. So what, right? I believe that with the specialization of big league pitching staffs in today’s game, you will not see 20-win seasons without exceptional stats behind those totals ever again.

There were 137 winners of 20 games during the first decade of the 1900s. As pitching rotations added a fourth starter to their respective staffs, that number decreased to 125 in the following 10 years; then 90, 68 and finally just 55 during the 1940s, when a number of players suffered from abbreviated campaigns (or lost full seasons) due to military service. The percentage of those winners enjoying an ERA+ of 130 and over bounced between the 41 percent and 52 percent level before popping to 71 percent during the war years.

Entering the 1950s, the number of 20-game winners increased by five, by another 15 in the ’60s, and yet another 20 during the 1970s. League expansion naturally explains some of the increase, as does the existence of prominent knuckleballers such as 1972’s 49-game starter Wilbur Wood. Teams like the Detroit Tigers and Wood’s Chicago White Sox essentially fostered three-man starting rotations in the early 1970s, while overworking pitchers like Denny McLain, Mickey Lolich (45 starts in 1971!!), Joe Coleman, Stan Bahnsen and Tom Bradley.

As you might expect, injuries and massive overuse (and some colorful off-the-field shenanigans in McLain’s case) effectively ruined all these pitchers. Lolich was finished as an elite hurler by age 33. The forgotten Joe Coleman, another Tigers two-time, 20-game winner in the early ’70s, threw over 280 innings four seasons in a row and was off a big league roster by his 32nd birthday. Bahnsen never started more than 30 games after 29 years old and Tom Bradley was completely out of baseball before the age of 30.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Lessons like these (and the eternally stubborn Billy Martin, who not only led the Tigers from 1971 until ‘73 but also overused and ruined yet another pack of pitchers with the 1980-82 Oakland A’s) led to the change in mentality regarding pitcher treatment.

Into the 1980s, when late-inning relievers took a more active role and the term “closer” emerged, 20-game winners fell by over 60 percent, from 95 to 38, and then to a slightly lower number into the 1990s.

Meanwhile, the percentage of 20-game winners enjoying an ERA+ over 130 cratered back to the 40 percent level and remained there for another decade. As the number of 20-game winners stayed relatively constant over the next 30 years, the percentage of those enjoying an ERA+ over 130 jumped from 47.3 percent to 57.5 percent and then to 67.5 percent.

That number since 2006 has been 100 percent.

Obviously the rise of the closer and bullpen committee practices has taken win chances away from starters. That said, those pitchers strong enough to execute and remain in the game are dominating.

It’s difficult to make this argument without somewhat acknowledging the role chance and luck play in reaching the 20-win plateau. Consider Jason Vargas. He won 18 games for the Kansas City Royals this season with a 109 ERA+. With a little good fortune, he could’ve easily won 20. Well, he didn’t, but check this out. Over the last seven years, there have been 43 16-game winners, 17 17-game winners, 21 18-game winners and 12 19-game winners. The number of 16 and 17 gamers with 130 or higher ERA+ was roughly equal at 35 percent of the total, but rose from there. More than half the 18-game winners hit the 130 mark and 75 percent of the 19-game winners did so. As we mentioned, 100 percent of the 20-game winners were above the 130 benchmark.

The starting rotation abuse from teams like the Detroit Tigers and Chicago White Sox during the late ’60s and early 1970s may explain some of the innings overages (and additional 20-game winners) that  occurred during that time period. With pitch counts and expanded bullpen roles, today’s managers (or if we’re being honest, today’s general managers) won’t allow non-quality starters to linger past the sixth inning. Also, the number of pitchers throwing 200 innings or more has fallen dramatically. Most everyone reading this knows that intuitively, but the raw numbers are rather compelling. In 1998, 56 pitchers threw more than 200 innings; by 2016, that number fell to 15 (and was repeated this past season).

So what do I think this all means? The 20-win season (and pitcher wins, in general) has been getting mocked for a few years now by ambitious journalists trying to make their bones in the sabermetric community, and spiritually, they’re not wrong. And great starters still break the 130 ERA+ barrier without winning 20. But  as  baseball continues to evolve and the innings pitched by hurlers in the rotation continues to fall, only starters enjoying truly elite seasons will win 20 games. We will never again see Jack Morris’ 1992: a 21-6 record with a 4 ERA/101 ERA+. And yes, there is still luck involved, and at the very least, 24 20-game winners in a row with an ERA+ of over 130 is an extremely quirky figure.

Or baseball’s front office and dugout management of pitching staffs is giving the 20-win season its final breath.

Dave Jordan is the co-author of Fastball John, the memoir written with former National League Rookie Pitcher of the Year John D’Acquisto. Dave is also the founder of Instream Sports, the first athlete-author website. Follow him on Twitter @instreamsports.
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Sonny Lmember
5 years ago

YES!!! Thank you Dave for articulating something important about the ‘Kill the Win’ campaign. Off the top, the KTW folks have won and with good reason. What we know now about pitcher performance, usage and exposure points towards current usage being optimal.

But!, but but but those pitchers who consistently put themselves into a position to get a W (go deep into games, take the ball 30+ times per year, can get through a lineup 3x) become a self selecting elite unit.

We can’t say 20 W doesn’t matter if the conditions to get there mean the Marco Estrada, Kevin Gausman, Chris Tillman tier of SPs can’t reach it without league leading, bordering on historic run support.

I don’t think I added anything to the discussion, I’m just excited to have something from HBT to back up my argument that the W isn’t completely irrelevant in SP performance eval.

Las Vegas Wildcards
5 years ago
Reply to  Sonny L

Winning will always be part of the evaluation process for starting pitchers, regardless of advanced stats. We’ll never be able to divorce the impact of quality starts to the outcomes of games. There will always be exceptions, but you won’t be seeing any starting pitchers in the HOF with losing records.

5 years ago

In order to reach the tail of the wins distribution, it’s always been hard to do without very high run prevention. With the changes you’ve described, the distribution of SP wins has shifted. 20 wins today is equal to 23 or 24 wins from yesteryear. Due to the decreasing share of wins going to starting pitchers, it previously took an elite season to reach 23 wins, and now it takes an elite season to reach 20 wins.

5 years ago
Reply to  Werthless

I think a 16 win season with a 5 man rotation is equivalent to a 20 win season with a 4 man rotation.

5 years ago
Reply to  Pennant

From 1966 to 1977 (40 years before the sample where there were 2 dozen 20 game winners), there were 28 pitcher seasons with 23+ wins, 20 of them had 24+ wins.

From 1976 to 1987 (30 years before the sample where there were 2 dozen 20 game winners), there were 9 pitcher seasons with 23+ wins, 6 of them had 24+ wins.

From 1986 to 1997 (20 years before the sample where there were 2 dozen 20 game winners), there were 7 pitcher seasons with 23+ wins, 4 of them had 24+ wins.

Note: the number of teams since 1970 has increased by 25% (from 24 to 30).

tramps like us
5 years ago

“Luck is the residue of design.” -Branch Rickey

5 years ago

My prime example would be Cliff Lee’s 2012 season. Sparkling peripherals and 5 fWAR over 200+ innings. He went 6-9 in 30 starts, lol.

jim fetterolf
5 years ago

Jason Vargas appears to be the poster child for uselessness of wins, but first half of the season he was 12-3, 2.62ERA, 1.147WHIP. His wins reflected his performance. Second half, after wearing down his first full season after TJS, 6-8, 6.38ERA, 1.595WHIP. Those numbers also seem to belong together.

5 years ago

Maybe the win is actually a useful stat for starting pitchers, despite the fact that one can find some examples of it leading to absurd results – especially if one looks at it on a one-game basis. If you have one pitcher who is 18-8, and another who is 6-9, you can be *almost* guaranteed that the 18-8 pitcher had more starts, pitched longer into games, and pitched more effectively. The fact that it is possible to get a win even if you pitch poorly, or take a loss even if you pitch well, doesn’t really illegitimize the win.

If you add ERA to the mix, you have an even more useful and simple approach that will be correct in almost every, though not absolutely every, situation. Again, if one guy is 18-8, 2.78, and the other is 6-9, 4.15, the first guy almost certainly did better.

There are times when a batter can hit a ball poorly and still get a hit and a reach and two total bases. And there are times when a batter can hit the ball well and produce nothing but an out. Yet we still think OBP and slugging and wRC+ and all the rest are reliable stats. That’s because we look at them in the aggregate.

Similarly, wins are a useful stat for starting pitchers if we look at them in the aggregate.

Doug Lampertmember
5 years ago
Reply to  Stephen

The thing is, DECISIONS by a starting pitcher is probably a better stat than wins. Because you get decisions by going deep into games, and that happens if your manager thinks you’re still better on the third or fourth time through the order than he thinks his bullpen is.

Win or loose, the guy in your example with 26 decisions is probably a lot better than the guy with 15.

5 years ago
Reply to  Doug Lampert

bump it to 6 IP for a win then?

5 years ago

1990 Bob Welch 27-6

5 years ago

Harvey Haddix, 12 PERFECT innings, against one of the strongest lineups in baseball history: in their primes Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews, Joe Adcock, etc.
The slacker just couldn’t get through the line-up a 5th time.
Result? 0-1 in the W-L column.

5 years ago

Even in 1992 wins weren’t considered the most important stat. Jack Morris was 21-6 with one of the best teams in baseball and finished 5th in Cy Young voting with a 7% share.

Captain Tenneal
5 years ago

And yet how often does a pitcher with an ERA over 4 even get CY Young votes? The 21 wins were the only reason he got any support, including one first place vote!

Marc Schneider
5 years ago

It’s much harder to get a win these days while pitching badly than it was 20/30 years ago because struggling pitchers don’t stay in the game long enough. There have certainly been 20 game winners who were basically lousy pitchers; I remember with the 1970 Reds (the Big Red Machine) winning 20 with an ERA of 4.08 and a WHIP of 1.286(although, oddly, his ERA+ was 103 and his FIP was 3.34 so something weird seems to have been going on). He also pitched 12 complete games so presumably there were a lot of games where he gave up a bunch of runs but was the beneficiary of a lot of runs and was able to stay in the game.

I wonder if wins is misleading on the low end but not necessarily on the high end. In other words, guys pitch well, don’t get much run support or have bad defense and their win total understates how well they pitched. But, guys that win a lot of games more likely today have pitched at least reasonably well.

Marc Schneider
5 years ago
Reply to  Marc Schneider

Unfortunately, I neglected to mention the pitcher’s name; it was Jim Merritt, who also pitched for Minnesota.