Past TimesFebruary 04, 2008
Taking Route 19 to Obscurity
By Al Doyle

How can a pitcher do an excellent job and avoid being noticed? Just have a 19-win season.

Even in the modern era of five-man rotations that has made 20-game winners an endangered species, racking up 19 Ws does little more than elicit yawns. Would National League Cy Young Award winner Jake Peavy have gotten more publicity and national coverage if he added a win to his superb 19-6, 2.54 ERA 2007 stat line?

In more than a few cases, pitchers who fell one victory short of the magic 20-win mark were superior performers. Take Earl Moore as an example. His 1.77 ERA led the American League in 1903 when the right-hander was going 19-9 for the Indians.

Ed Reulbach's 19-4 record for the 1906 Cubs is exceptional by any standard, let alone for a third starter. Reulbach played a supporting role to Three Finger Brown (26-6, 1.06) and Jack Pfiester (20-8, 1.56) that season, as the Cubs set a record with their 116-36 (.763) record. The Cubs also took the top three spots in the National League's ERA race, and Reulbach picked up the bronze medal behind Brown and Pfiester.

Dutch Leonard's 1.01 ERA with the 1914 Red Sox is the best in baseball history, and that performance was accompanied by a 19-5 record. Hall of Famer Stan Coveleski's 19-14 record for the 1917 Indians isn't an eye grabber, but his 1.81 ERA was third in the AL and a full run below the league standard of 2.82.

When is 19-17 worthy of a large raise? Howard Ehmke eked out that record in 1924 for the seventh place, 67-87 Red Sox. The righty's 3.46 ERA was 0.77 better than the American League average of 4.23.

Picking up 19 victories as a starter is difficult enough, but a pair of tireless relievers reached that mark in 1927 and 1928..

Wilcy Moore went 19-7 for the fabled 1927 Yankees. HIs 50 appearances included a dozen starts, and Moore's 213 innings pitched would be three seasons worth of work for a modern closer. The rookie's 2.28 ERA led the majors.

Fred "Firpo" Marberry is often credited with being the first true late-innings ace. The Washington Senators righty went 19-12 with 11 saves (credited retroactively) in 1928. Marberry's 3.06 ERA in 250.1 IP was good for second place in the AL, and he was fourth in strikeouts (121).

A career-high 26 of Marberry's 49 appearances were as a starter, and he tossed 16 complete games. His career stats include a 148-88 record (.627) and 101 saves.

Over in the National League, Ray Kremer was going 19-8 with an NL-best 2.47 ERA for the pennant-winning 1927 Pirates. Even though he made his big league debut at age 31 in 1924, Kremer won 15 to 20 games every season from 1924 to 1930, with a pair of 20-win campaigns. Kremer's 143-85 career record translates to a .627 winning percentage.

Ask even the most fanatical baseball history buff about the best NL pitchers of 1929, and Red Lucas probably wouldn't make the short list. The Tennessee native had a 19-12 record while completing 28 of 32 starts for the seventh-place Reds (66-88).

Lucas' 3.60 ERA was good for fifth place in the NL and nearly a full run under the league average of 4.57. The right-hander also finished in the five spot in ERA in 1932 and 1936. A lifetime .281 hitter, Lucas is remembered more for his skill with a bat than as a hurler. He went 13 for 42 (.310) as a pinch-hitter in '29 and finished his versatile career with 109 pinch hits.

The Phillies put in a typically inept Depression-era performance in 1934, as they finished in seventh place with a 56-93 record. Curt Davis kept the team out of the cellar with his 19-17 record, which doesn't reflect just how well he pitched.

A 30-year old rookie, Davis led the National League with 51 games pitched (31 starts, 18 CGs). His 2.95 ERA (league average 4.06) was fourth in the NL, but adjust that number for the home field disadvantage of the dinky, decaying Baker Bowl, and Davis looks even better. Subtract his stats, and the Phillies' team ERA jumps from 4.76 to 5.32.

The St. Louis Browns wouldn't have won their only American League pennant in 1944 without Nelson Potter's career year.

Relying on control and a sinker/slider/offspeed repetoire, Potter went 19-7 with a 2.83 ERA for the Brownies. He went 0-1 against the Cardinals in the World Series despite an 0.93 ERA (one run, 9.2 IP) in a pair of appearances.

Steve Gromek's 19-9, 2.55 season for the 1945 Indians nudged the team above the .500 level at 73-72. With nine games lost to rainouts, it's likely that Gromek would have reached the 20-win level if Cleveland had played a full schedule.

Hall of Famer Jim Bunning racked up three consecutive 19-win seasons (19-8, 19-9 and 19-14 respectively) with the Phillies from 1964 to 1966. During that time, Bunning had just one league-leading stat - his 1.46 walks per nine innings pitched in 1964 - and 24 other top 5 finishes in WHIP, ERA, IP, complete games, strikeouts, batters faced and winning percentage.

The hard-throwing future U.S. senator from Kentucky also tossed a Father's Day perfect game against the Mets on June 21, 1964. It was a fitting time to make history, as Bunning and his wife were parents of seven children at the time.

Joel Horlen had his best season in 1967. The White Sox righty went 19-7 with an AL-best 2.06 ERA. More run support would have gotten Horlen to the magic 20-win circle. The Sox hit just .225 as a team, with Ken Berry and Don Buford co-leading the south siders with their anemic .241 averages.

Despite scoring just 531 runs, the White Sox were in the thick of a four-way pennant race until the final weekend of the season. Gary Peters (16-11, 2.28) and Tommy John (10-13, 2.47) finished second and fourth in the ERA race.

Steve Blass was the ace of the 1972 Pirates staff. The right-hander's 19-8 record and 2.49 ERA (sixth in the NL) earned Blass his only All-Star appearance.

With several other solid seasons in his background, it would appear that Blass' future was bright, but a mysterious and complete loss of control led to a nightmarish 1973. Blass went 3-9 with a hideous 9.85 ERA. He gave up 84 walks with just 27 strikeouts in 88.2 IP. Despite trying every mental and physical technique possible and trips to the minors, Blass never regained his form and retired after the 1974 season.

How can a pitcher put up dominant numbers and not even make the All-Star team? It happened to Bert Blyleven several times, but 1984 was the most blatant example of the lack of respect that dogged his career.

Going 19-7 with a 2.87 for the otherwise dreary (75-87, sixth in the AL East) Indians, Blyleven was second the American League in winning percentage (.731), wins, fewest hits per innings (7.49) and WHIP. The curveballer was third in ERA and fourth in strikeouts (170) and complete games (12).

Blyleven lost at least four late-season starts with a broken bone. That surely cost him a 20-win season, but isn't a 19-7 performance for one of the league's worst teams enough to win a Cy Young Award? Relievers Willie Hernandez and Dan Quisenberry finished 1-2 in the balloting. Blyleven picked up four first-place votes and came in third.

It's not easy to pick the peak of Greg Maddux's 347-win career, but 1995 looks like the top performance of the bunch - and it's the best 19-win season of all time.

The 19-2 (.905) record is incredible, but that tells just part of the story of Maddux's dominance. In his third season with the Braves, Maddux posted a puny 1.63 ERA in a hitter's park. That was a whopping 2.64 better than the NL average, as Maddux gave up just 38 percent as many runs as the typical pitcher. In 209.2 IP, Maddux struck out 181 and walked just 23 for a nearly 8 to 1 ratio. He gave up fewer than one walk per nine innings (0.99) and owned most of the statistical categories.

Not suprisingly, Maddux breezed to the third of his four NL Cy Young Awards, and he led the Braves to a world championship. So what kept "Mad Dog" from winning 20? Thanks to the lingering effects of the 1994 players strike, the 1995 season began late and was shortened to 144 games. Give Maddux those missing starts, and 20 would have been a lock.

If a pitcher wins 20, it's a ticket to at least a measure of fame and media hype. Deduct one victory, and that same guy might be forgotten just a few years later.


Blyleven might have finished 3rd in Cy Young voting in 1984, but Mike Boddicker had a league-leading 20 wins, led the league in ERA, and came in fourth in the voting that year.

Willie Hernandez's success in the post-season award voting really was a "had to be there" deal.

Fascinating article. In baseball, as in most everything else, we seem to want to measure things for the purpose of finding the best and the worst, and to rank everything in between. It's the logical extension of competition itself, and not a bad thing in and of itself. However, it leaves an awful lot on the table, as Al so aptly points out. Beyond what is measurable, there are vast tables, untouched by many. As a songwriter said, there's just some things that numbers can't measure.

Interesting article. It proves you can have a lot of fun with 19-win seasons.

A lot of people will point out that Mike Mussina is the only 250-game winner that never won 20 games, but he did win 19 games in back-to-back seasons, including once when he had a 4.81 ERA and had a BAA of .275.

And after that 1995 season, Greg Maddux went on to win 19 games an additional 3 times, including a 1999 season that saw him post his highest WHIP since his 6-14 1987 season and a streak of 6 winless starts where he had a 6.10 ERA during that streak.

Christy Mathewson, Walter Johnson, Lefty Grove, Warren Spahn, Early Wynn, Steve Carlton, Roger Clemens, and Tom Glavine may have 68 20-win seasons between them, but these 300-game winners have never won exactly 19 games in a season.

As an offspring of parents born in Taiwan, I hope that Wang Chien-Ming, a native of Taiwan and the only pitcher to win 19 games the past two seasons, doesn't go down as one of the 19-game winners to fade into obscurity.

It seems to me that the magic #-20 wins-also affects media and fans' perceptions of players' careers. I remember that until he had that 25-4 record in 1961, there was something of a knock on Whitey Ford because he had never won 20. In 1956, he had gone 19-6 with an ERA of 2.47 which was an ERA+ of 156, but missing that 20th win seemed to mark him as less than great.

The strange thing is that in that 25 win season, his ERA+ was just 117, yet to many that year validated his greatness far more than his earlier marks when he actually pitched better. In one season, he was 14-7 with a 2.01 ERA (ERA+=176), but it was the two 20+ win seasons that fixed his reputation.

The current player who is in the same situation is Mussina. Despite consecutive 19 win seasons, one in which his 3.29 ERA was an ERA+ of 145, and three more 18 win seasons, there seems to be something missing to a lot of observers.

I don't hold Moose's lack of a 20-win season against him, yet to me he's a very good but not great pitcher.

He's a bit snakebit, between the 20-win thing and the 1-strike-from-a-perfecto-at-Fenway thing. As if I needed additional reasons to hate Carl Everett.

As for Wang, he's in a pretty good situation to pick up lots of wins, with the Yankee offense behind him. Of course, that's been true of Mussina as well, and it hasn't happened for him.

I remember some kid named Fidrych once winning 19 games. Had he won 20, I'm sure he'd have been somewhat popular.

As for Willie Hernandez winning the '84 MVP and the comment, you "had to be there." - I WAS there. I sat in the CF bleachers of game #5 and saw Gibby's blasts. Literally danced in the street (Gratiot AV) after the game.

Willie was the one Tiger that got an undeserved gift to win that MVP and Cy Young. Kaline never got a deserved MVP. Trammell got robbed in '87 (and every year in HoF voting). Fielder probably should've had an MVP. Lolich beat out Blue in W's and K's and Vida still got the CY. Maybe Willie's MVP was a makeup award.

Blyleven, Boddicker, and perhaps a couple others were more deserving than Willie. During the Tigers' 35-5 start, Hernandez had an ERA over 5.00. Sparky padded his stats by having him pitch the 9th as often as possible to get saves for the best front-running team of all time.

In that game #5, Aurelio Lopez came in and struck out four of the seven batters he faced. But Sparky brought Willie in for the 8th (and 9th), so he'd be the one to get mobbed on the mound. Willie almost blew the plans by gettng tagged for three hits and a run to bring the game to 5-4, but the Tigers bailed him out catching a stealer and with Gibby's 3 run blast in the bottom of the 8th.

Willie had a good year, but my little sister could've done well closing for that team.