Baseball’s Losingest Pitchers

“It takes a pretty good pitcher to lose 20 games” — Bill James

The reason I am writing about the losingest pitchers in baseball history isn’t to tear anybody down. After all, a guy who goes 0-10 is better than 90% of the guys who go 0-0. Besides, most of these guys are dead, or else are Mike Morgan. (If Mike Morgan wanted to avoid being mocked in print, he should have done better out of the pen for the ’83 Blue Jays when I was first starting to watch major league baseball. If he cries himself to sleep at night and the huge pile of money he sleeps on gets damp, so be it.)

I decided to focus on the “modern” period (since the two-league system began in 1900), because pitching records are more interesting if the huge numbers of decisions by pre-1900 pitchers are factored out. I had the happy notion, as well, of inventing a new stat, so I’d have something more to write about than just “Nolan Ryan, 292… Walter Johnson, 279…” The cheapest way to invent something, of course, is to take a process that someone else invented and turn it around. So in thinking about baseball’s losingest pitchers, it was a natural to take Bill James’ conception of “Fibonacci Win Points” and turn it into “Fibonacci Loss Points.”

Fibonacci Win Points attempt to measure not just a pitcher’s compilation of wins, but also includes a measure of his quality. Invented as a quick measure of Hall of Fame quality by a pitcher, Fibonacci Win Points (or “FWP”) are calculated as (wins x winning percentage) plus games over .500. A pitcher with a .618 winning percentage will have FWP equal to his wins. A pitcher with a .500 winning percentage will have FWP equal to half his wins. The measurement tries to collapse longevity and quality into a single stat, with an emphasis on quality. At any rate, there’s a full breakdown of Fibonacci Win Points in James’ book Whatever Happened To The Hall of Fame? including a discussion of why it’s named after medieval mathematician Fibonacci.

Fibonacci Loss Points (“FLP”), on the other hand, are determined by losses times “losing percentage” (or one minus winning percentage, if you prefer) plus games under .500. A pitcher with a .382 winning percentage will have FLP equal to his losses. A .382 pitcher is a truly horrific beast, and a rare one: rare only because there are lots of pitchers out there with the stuff to go .382 and managers are always seeking to replace them.

What makes the Fibonacci method much more interesting for losses than for wins is that while a list of baseball’s winningest pitchers is most made up of pitchers with very good win-loss records, a list of baseball’s losingest pitchers has many of those very good pitchers on it, but also a large numer of guys who were just so-so and had long careers. The second-losingest pitcher since 1900 is Walter Johnson, but when we think of the “losingest pitchers” we don’t think of Walter Johnson, who won 417 games and had a .599 winning percentage. We don’t even mean Phil Niekro, who is third in losses with 274 but did have a .537 winning percentage. On the other hand, the guys with the sub-.500 records don’t usually pitch for 20 seasons. We walk a fine line here.

I only looked at the top 400 pitchers in losses, so a couple may have slipped past me, but I doubt it. Everyone with 102 or more losses after 1900 was in the group.

Somewhat to my surprise, the list is dominated by very bad pitchers. Or rather, not very bad pitchers, but pitchers with very bad records. Many or even most of these guys are pitchers who handled “workhorse duties” (as Steve Treder put it to me) for some truly awful teams. Most of these unfortunate players pitched considerably better than their records indicate, but were let by bad teams with awful defenses. In that sense, even the biggest losers of all time weren’t really losers except by an accident of bad luck.

I had been expecting to see about an even mix between bad pitchers and okay pitchers with long careers, but very few pitchers with good records made the list. In fact, of the top 50 pitchers in Fibonacci Loss Points, only 10 also were in the top 50 in losses, which shows you how difficult it is to be a bad pitcher and keep a job.

The top 10:

10. PEDRO RAMOS (117-160, 135 FLP). The lanky Cuban was a mainstay of the Washington Senators’ and Minnesota Twins’ rotations from 1955 to 1961, in which time he piled up a record of 78-112. He was nearly a .500 pitcher the rest of his career bouncing around both leagues. Known as the fastest-running pitcher of his time.

9. SID HUDSON (104-152, 138 FLP). Another long-time Washington Senator. Like most pitchers on this list, Hudson wasn’t as bad as as his record shows (according to Lee Sinins, Hudson would have had a 124-132 record if he’s had average luck and support from his teams). Had the bad luck to miss the war years in the military, or he would have a better record. Great Sid Hudson trivia: on “Babe Ruth Day” at Yankee Stadium in 1947, Hudson started for the Senators and beat the Yankees 1-0, scoring the game’s only run himself.

8. JACK FISHER (86-139, 139 FLP). A big righthander who played with the Orioles before they were good and with the Mets when they were still bad, Fisher’s most notable year was 1965 when he went 8-24 despite a pretty good 3.93 ERA.

7. LONG TOM HUGHES (132-174, 141 FLP). Hughes went 20-7 with the World Champion Red Sox in 1903, so you can imagine how bad the rest of his career was (still not as bad as numbers one and two on this list, though). Hughes is the third long-time Washington Senator in our first four pitchers.

6. JACK POWELL (184-212, 141 FLP). Powell’s overall career record was 246-256, but some of that (and his best seasons) came before 1900. Powell was a strikeout pitcher without very good control, a recipe that wasn’t enough to win consistently in the deadball era either. Most of his post-1900 career was spent with the St. Louis Browns.

5. JACK RUSSELL (85-141, 144 FLP). Russell was a durable right-handed starter for the Red Sox during one of their worst periods, the late 1920s and early 1930s. However, he also had a four-year stint with the hapless Senators as a reliever (he was 24-27 in Washington). Russell should have a better record than he does, but he played for such awful teams that he wound up 24 wins worse than he deserved.

4. MIKE MORGAN (141-186, 151 FLP). Mike Morgan has played for every team in the history of organized baseball, usually when they were desperate for pitching. He did pitch briefly for the successor of the second Washington Senators incarnation, the Texas Rangers. I wonder if, given the Rangers’ franchise-long struggle to find good pitching and the historical futility of both Senators clubs, that there might be some Curse Of The Big Train at work?

3. BOB FRIEND (197-230, 157 FLP). I can’t do any better describing Friend than Bill James does in the essay on him in The Neyer/James Guide To Pitchers. Friend is easily the best pitcher in this list, and he had horrible luck in his career. He, Jack Powell (who won 23 games three times) and Tom Hughes are the only 20-game winners on the top 10 list.

2. SI JOHNSON (101-165, 166 FLP). Si Johnson should have been a Senator, but he pitched in the wrong league his whole career (for the Reds, Cardinals, Phillies and Braves) in the 1930s and 1940s. Johnson had one central skill that big-losing pitchers don’t usually have: above-average control and above-average strikeout-to-walk ratios. He also gave fewer home runs than average. The defenses behind him, though, were generally abysmal, and his offenses couldn’t score many runs. In the middle of his career, he spent two-and-a-half years with the remnants of the Gas House Gang Cardinals, still a decent team. There he had his best season, going 12-12 in 1937 with a good ERA.

1. MILT GASTON (97-164, 170 FLP). Our Fibonacci Loss Points champion is, naturally, another former Senator. Still, Milt Gaston spent only one year in the nation’s capital, and for most of his career toiled for the Browns, Red Sox, and White Sox. He also put in one year (1924) with the Yankees, meaning that in 11 major league seasons (during which he averaged nearly 15 losses a year) Gaston played for five of the eight American League teams! All that bouncing around, incidentally, allowed Gaston to set a record for having the most Hall of Fame teammates or managers in his career—18 of them in all, despite playing for some repellently awful ballclubs. As befits the losingest pitcher on our list, Gaston was also the unluckiest…his “neutral record” according to Lee Sinins was just 128-133, another decent pitcher undone by his teams.

The Top 50 Pitchers Of All Time in FLP

Rk                    W   L  FLP    Rk                    W   L  FLP
1  Milt Gaston        97 164 170    26 Bob Smith         106 139 112  
2  Si Johnson        101 165 166    27 Ron Kline         114 144 110
3  Bob Friend        197 230 157    28 Eddie Smith        73 113 109
4  Mike Morgan       141 186 151    29 Charlie Hough     216 216 108 
5  Jack Russell       85 141 144    30 Bob Rush          127 152 108 
6  Jack Powell       184 212 141    31 Mike Moore        161 176 107
7  Long Tom Hughes   132 174 141    32 Eppa Rixey        266 251 107
8  Jack Fisher        86 139 139    33 Nolan Ryan        324 292 106 
9  Sid Hudson        104 152 138    34 Danny Darwin      171 182 105  
10 Pedro Ramos       117 160 135    35 Ed Brandt         121 146 105 
11 Bobo Newsom       211 222 125    36 Ray Benge         101 130 102 
12 Ken Raffensberger 119 154 122    37 Jose DeLeon        86 119 102  
13 Buster Brown       51 103 121    38 Joe Oeschger       82 116 102 
14 Slim Harriss       95 135 119    39 Vern Kennedy      104 132 102
15 Harry McIntire     71 117 119    40 Murry Dickson     172 181 102  
16 Jim Clancy        140 167 118    41 Tom Zachary       186 191 102
17 Kaiser Wilhelm     56 105 117    42 Ray Burris        108 134 100
18 Don Cardwell      102 138 115    43 Bob Harmon        107 133 100
19 Rick Honeycutt    109 143 115    44 Kevin Gross       142 158  99
20 Bob Groom         119 150 115    45 Tom Candiotti     151 164  98
21 Ned Garver        129 157 114    46 Bobby Witt        142 157  97  
22 Jimmy Ring        118 149 114    47 Harry Howell      116 138  97 
23 Danny MacFayden   132 159 114    48 Dick Ellsworth    115 137  96
24 Earl Hamilton     116 147 113    49 Claude Osteen     196 195  96
25 Frank Tanana      240 236 113    50 Al Hollingsworth   70 104  96

It may be that the “Fibonacci” method, in which pitchers get most of their value from their games under .500, makes the baseline for getting Loss Points too awful. The highest pitcher over .500 was Frank Tanana, whose 240-236 record gave him 113 FLP for 25th on the list. Nevertheless, this is a fun exercise that produces some interesting answers. Strangely, no active pitchers placed in the top 50; the closest is Terry Mulholland whose 124-142 record is about an 0-2 record away from the top 50 (he is 55th). Next is Steve Trachsel, whose 119-135 record gives him 88 FLP; he needs another 6-9 or so. The top active pitchers after Trachsel are Jason Johnson (52-86), Jose Mesa (77-101), and Glendon Rusch (57-86). Given today’s huge pitching staffs and 30 teams, one might expect to see more big losers going forward, but there are three factors that counteract this (greater competitive balance, large bullpens where most of the bad pitchers are put, and free agency making it easier to escape an awful team) which seem to be enough to keep current pitchers away from threatening these sorts of records.

Unless Sir Sidney Ponson somehow stays out of the penitentiary, of course.

References & Resources
Many thanks to Bill James for providing the inspiration for this article and to Lee Sinins’ Sabermetric Encyclopedia for providing the data.

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