This annotated week in baseball history: Aug. 15-Aug. 21, 1940

On Aug. 17, 1977 Mike Maroth was born. Maroth holds a dubious distinction in baseball history, the last pitcher to lose 20 games.

Much was made last year of the majors not having a 20-game winner. It was the second time in four years the league leaders won less than 20, something that had never before happened in a full season. Many theories were trotted out, though the most likely—some bad luck and random variation—did not receive much play, being the least sexy of the possible explanations.

Of course, it received no play that the league once again did not have a 20-game loser, being that only one pitcher has been so unlucky since 1980. The unfortunate victim of this statistic is Mike Maroth, who lost 21 for the Tigers in 2003. Of course, the 2003 Tigers were a dreadful team, easily the worst of the 21st century, losing 98 games even without Maroth’s 21.

Because of this, Maroth’s 21-loss season is an unfair burden for him to carry. His 2003 season was not great, but it was essentially comparable to the 2006 of Jason Marquis. Marquis lost 16 games that year, but playing for the World Series winning Cardinals, he also won 14 and would never be mentioned in the same breath of bad seasons.

Of course, while Maroth may not enjoy his unique distinction as the last 20-game loser, he can at least be reassured that he is in relatively good company. A number of Hall of Famers have lost 20 games in a season, including Cy Young (who lost 20 three times) Walter Johnson (twice) and Pud Galvin who, playing in a very different era, lost 20 games 10 years in a row, 1879-1888.

In the era when Galvin played, and for many years after, losing 20 did not necessarily represent a bad season. In fact, some players had excellent years when the sheer number of games they appeared in gave them a number of losses. Ed Walsh is most famous for his heroic efforts in the 1908 pennant race. Two years later, he lost 20 games but did so while arguably pitching better, at least on a per-inning basis, posting the lowest WHIP of his career.

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Maroth, pitching with the weight of 20 losses on his shoulders (Icon/SMI)

Almost without question, the best season by a pitcher losing 20 took place in 1903. Pitching for the Giants, “Iron Man” Joe McGinnity won 31 games, tops in the NL. He placed third in the league in ERA, fifth in WHIP, and second in strikeouts. But he did that on the back of a huge number of innings—434, with 44 complete games—and thus suffered 20 losses. Yet his 20 losses did nothing to take away from a season that Baseball-Reference’s WAR ranks as the 12th best of all time.

Of course, for Maroth to be the latest 20-game loser, someone had to be the first. That man was apparently Hank O’Day, who went 9-28 in 1884 for the Toledo Blue Stockings of the American Association. O’Day would lose 29 in 1888 but his maturation as a pitcher continued and the next season, playing in a sort-of proto-World Series, he went 2-0 for the victorious Giants and gave up just three earned runs. O’Day would suffer arm trouble shortly thereafter and have to leave the mound.

But that was not the end of his time in the game, as O’Day soon returned to the league as an umpire. That was no easy task in those days, as violence was not just accepted, but also expected as a technique for managers and players to express their discontentment with umpires.

O’Day endured and would umpire until 1927, although he did break at times to serve as manager for various teams, an unthinkable situation in the modern game. Despite his status as the first 20-game loser, O’Day is surely most famous as the umpire who ruled that Fred Merkle was out on a force play during a game between the Giants and Cubs in the 1908 season. Without O’Day’s call—controversial to this day—“Merkle’s Boner” could not have taken place and the Giants would likely have won the ’08 pennant.

Of course, while there have been some pretty decent 20-loss seasons, and even some when the pitcher deserved better, there have also been some truly lousy years. In 1905 Mal Eason went 5-21 for the Brooklyn Superbas. The Brooklynites were anything but superb that season—they went 48-104—but Eason was especially bad. He lost those 21 games in just 207 innings (a low total by the standards of the time) and posting a 4.30 ERA. For good measure, Eason walked more than he struck out.

Hard as it is to believe, Eason’s record is not even in the top 10 worst winning percentages for a 20-game loser. That distinction belongs to Jack Nabors, who managed an astonishing 1-20 record—that’s a .048 winning percentage—in 1916, pitching for what must in all candor be described as an aggressively awful Philadelphia Athletics club. No other pitcher has lost 20 while winning only one game.

The next worst record belongs to Joe Harris on the 1906 Boston Americans who went 2-21. All other 20-game losers have a winning percentage of at least .100, while just shy of a majority (98 of 201) are under .350, sometimes comfortably so.

Everyone knows that Ted Williams was the last man hit .400, and Denny McLain the last to win 30 games in a season. These records seem unlikely to be broken anytime in the future. George Brett hit .390 in 1980 and Bob Welch won 27 in 1990, but those are the closest anyone has come to putting themselves on the top of those mountains in recent memory.

By the same token, it seems unlikely that anyone will knock Maroth off his perch anytime soon. Not only do many managers seek to avoid putting pitchers in the position to lose 20, but in the age of 35 starts in a season, it is difficult to stay in a rotation while pitching badly enough to lose 20 of them. For now, the spot is Maroth’s.

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Comments

  1. Jack Nabors said...

    Great artcle!

    The fact that it has been 7 years since Mike Maroth lost 20 games and that there has only been 2 twenty hame losers in the last THIRTY years illustrates one of the fundamental changes in baseball: The incresed importance of relief pitchers.

    The Steroid Era, The McGwire-Sosa pursuit and demolition of the 61 hime run record and Barry Bonds were good for attendance. Smaller parks and strike zones also led to the evolution of the relief pitcher. 20 game winners have become rare and the complete game has vanished.

    I think you should have mentioned Brian Kingman though. He not only is one of only two pitchers to have a 20 loss season in the last THIRTY years he was part of a pitching staff that completed a modern Era record 94 complete games.

    Kingman is also the last pitcher since Dolf Luque of the 1922 Cincinnatti Reds to lose 20 games on a winning team, something I doubt we will ever see happen again.

  2. Ted Maire said...

    “George Brett hit .390 in 1980 and Bob Welch won 27 in 1990, but those are the closest anyone has come to putting themselves on the top of those mountains in recent memory. “

    I guess you’re missing Tony Gwynn’s .394 in 1994 because of the strike?

  3. MikeS said...

    How can Hank O’Day be the first 20 game loser in 1884 if Pud Galvin lost 20 games every year from 1979 – 1988?

  4. Ralph C. said...

    I think the lack of 20-game losers also points out the greater importance of statistics, both positive and negative.  Tim Leary in 1990 could’ve lost 20 games but Stump Merrill didn’t let him pitch his last start, the negative equivalent of benching Willie Wilson to preserve his league-leading .332 batting average in the 1982 A.L. batting title race.  Really both of these things can be looked at as bush league—the idea of statistics being more important than the team.  Leary should’ve pitched and Wilson should’ve played. 

    As one great pitcher said, “It takes a helluva pitcher to lose 20 games”.

    Amen.

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