The Victor Zambrano Award

With his first two games scheduled to be against Mike Mussina and the Yankees, I don’t think anyone expected Victor Zambrano to sport a 2-0 record on April 8. Yet, the man has turned the trick, thanks in no small part to what appears to be a multi-hemispherical collapse by Mussina.

That 2-0 record is a bit deceiving, of course. In 11 innings thus far, the 28-year-old Zambrano has walked eight batters, hit another, and thown one wild pitch. This is par for the course with Victor, who achieved a remarkable (if dubious) feat of wildness last season. You see, Victor Zambrano won the rare Triple Crown of Wild in 2003, leading his league in Walks (106), Hit Batsmen (20), and Wild Pitches (15).

Intuitively, I’d expect this to happen reasonably often. Guys wild enough to lead the league in one category are probably wild enough to lead the league in all three, right? So much for intuition — only two other players in the history of baseball have led their league in all three of those categories in the same season, and both of those guys did it before World War II was over.

The first (and until Zambrano, the only) AL pitcher to lead his league in walks, hit batsmen, and wild pitches was Cleveland‘s George Uhle, in 1926. That year, Uhle walked 118 batters, hit eight more (tied with the BrownsWin Ballou), and tossed 13 wild pitches.

If you’re a baseball history buff, you might recognize “George Uhle, 1926.” See, while Uhle (known as “The Bull”) was pretty wild in ’26, he was also the best pitcher in the Junior Circuit. His 318 innings led the league, as did his remarkable 27-11 record. His 2.83 ERA was second only to Lefty Grove, but Uhle pitched 60 more innings than Lefty. If the Cy Young award was around back then, George Uhle would have been a unanimous pick.

Uhle is one of the men credited with inventing the slider, but that didn’t happen until late in his career. At this point, he was mainly a fastball-curve pitcher. In 1930, umpire George Moriarty said of Uhle, “When right, [Uhle] is a masterful pitcher. No predecessor or contemporary ever knew more about the science and technique of box work than this veteran.”

That sort of testimony calls to mind cereberal pitchers like Curt Schilling or Greg Maddux; I wouldn’t expect a pitcher like that to come close to a triple crown like this one. And while Uhle did hit a lot of batters in his career, his career walk rate was very good.

As one might expect, those 318 innings in 1926 took a toll on the Bull, and he was never quite the same afterwards.

The other pitcher in this strange little club is Hal Gregg, a tall right-hander with the Brooklyn Dodgers. With most of the best players at war in 1944, the 22-year-old Gregg was pressed into the Dodger rotation. He led team with 198 innings, but they were pretty awful — his 5.46 ERA was 35% worse than the league average. Gregg allowed 137 walks, hit nine batters, and threw 10 wild pitches — all league-leading figures. The Dodgers, an outstanding team before and after the War, lost 91 games to finish in 7th place.

Despite such an awful season, Gregg was back in the Dodger rotation in ’45. This time, he was pretty good, too: 18-13 with a 3.47 ERA in 254 innings. He led the league in walks again that year with 120, but his walk rate dropped from 6.5/9 IP to 4.5/9 IP.

A sore arm (probably caused by overwork as a young pitcher) pretty much killed Gregg’s career; he won just 13 more games. Gregg still had one more big contribution left for the Dodgers, though.

In December 1947, Branch Rickey sent Gregg, young starter Vic Lombardi, and aging star/racist Dixie Walker to the Pirates. None of the three did much for Pittsburgh, but in return, the Dodgers got Preacher Roe and Billy Cox. Roe went on to have six fine years for Brooklyn, while Cox became the regular third baseman for the Boys of Summer. A third player, Gene Mauch, went to the Dodgers in the trade, but his mark was made as a manager, not as a player.

As for Victor Zambrano, he wasn’t all that bad in 2003, wildness notwithstanding. Zambrano went 12-10 with a 4.21 ERA in 188 innings — not 27 wins like Uhle, but also not a 65 ERA+ like Gregg.

I’m going out on a not-so-far limb here and predicting that Zambrano will match his feat in 2004 — he’s the D-Rays‘ ace, and he’ll probably top 200 innings this year. And if his first two games are any indication, the wildness hasn’t gone anywhere.

References & Resources
The George Moriarty quote is from the forthcoming Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers, due out in mid-May.

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