On Feb. 20, 1975, Livan Hernandez was born. He’s is part of a rare club: pitchers with more than 150 victories despite an ERA+ less than 100.
As baseball changes, it is only natural that certain clichés will change along with it, some going out of style and others becoming more popular. One that has virtually eroded in popularity is the saying that one has to be “a pretty good pitcher to lose 20 games.” Being that only two pitchers have lost 20 games in a season since 1980—Brian Kingman in ’80 and Mike Maroth in 2003—the usefulness of the phrase has waned, even if its inherent truth has not.
Although losing 20 games in a season has become a rare accomplishment in my lifetime, there is a dubious achievement that has surpassed it as the mark of a pitcher whose quality is belied by his numbers. That is those men who have won more than 150 games despite an ERA+ of less than 100.
ERA+ is a statistic that measures a pitcher’s ERA relative to the league average, and accounting for his home ballpark. Anything less than 100 means that pitcher had an ERA worse than league average. For practical purposes—and reflecting to some degree the point of this column—any pitcher making regular turns in the rotation with an ERA+ in the high 90s is probably actually an above-average pitcher, owing to the differences in ERA between starters and relievers, among other factors.
But despite the particular details of ERA+, it remains true that these men all won 150 or more, sometimes many more, despite having a career ERA+ worse than the league average. That is no mean feat. We’ll kick off with the one active member of the club, Livan Hernandez, and go from there.
Excluding his three-inning cup of coffee year in 1996, Hernandez has never won fewer than eight games in a season. This is impressive given that over the course of a 14-year career (again excluding ’96) he has posted an ERA+ better than league average just six times. Despite bettering league average only once the last five seasons, he still has 56 wins. That’s equal or better than the totals of Barry Zito, Jake Peavy, Chris Carpenter and Zack Greinke.
|Livan Hernandez, working his way up the list of wins with a sub-100 ERA+ (Icon/SMI)|
For his career, Hernandez is now in the top 200 all-time for wins and has more victories than nine Hall of Famers. Like most pitchers on this list, Hernandez’s greatest asset is his durability. Ten times he has topped 200 innings in a season, including six years of 225 or more innings and a remarkable three-year stretch with the Natspos franchise when he averaged 245 innings per year and recorded 19 complete games.
Of course, compared to other pitchers, Hernandez’s workload seems positively lazy. One such man would be Lew Burdette, who ranks second all-time in wins with an ERA+ below 100, with 203. Although such a heavy workload would eventually catch up with him, in his prime Burdette was an incredible example of durability. For the eight-year period of 1954 through 1961. Burdette averaged 262 innings; his best year three-year stretch saw him average 280 innings.
Burdette varied wildly in quality through his run; in 1956 and ’58 he threw more than 250 innings with an ERA under three. But in 1959, while he won a league-leading 21 games, he topped the NL in earned runs allowed and finished with an 87 ERA+.
Besides their membership in the club, Hernandez and Burdette shared another quality, that of postseason success. Hernandez famously won both the NLCS and World Series MVP awards in 1997, while Burdette won three games, with a 0.67 ERA, in the 1957 World Series. Another pitcher who shared that success was Joe Niekro, who threw 20 shutout innings across his postseason career.
Of course, I mention Niekro not just because of his postseason success, but also because he is the single most successful pitcher on the list, with 221 career victories. That total puts Niekro in the top 75 all-time, and he is ahead of pitchers like Pedro Martinez, Don Drysdale and Chief Bender. As a knuckleballer, it is little surprise that Niekro achieved the durability to appear on this list. As late as age 40, he was still throwing more than 225 innings in a season, and he averaged more than 250 from age 37 through 40.
Despite a 22-year career, Niekro posted an ERA better than league average only eight times, but made up for it with a consistent standard of having an ERA+ in the 90s; only seven times in his career did he drop below that number. And three of those were the final years of his career, as Niekro—then in his early 40s—slowly lost the ability to fool batters at all.
While Niekro is the most successful pitcher on the list by wins, the least successful trio by ERA+ are Jim Slaton, Mike Moore and Jim Lonborg. All had an ERA+ of 95, while winning between 151 and 161 games. This is, all things considered, a pretty impressive feat. Pitchers who failed to win that many games—despite ERA numbers considerably better—include Brad Radke and Dizzy Dean. As great as the careers of Roy Oswalt, Mark Buehrle and Johan Santana have been, at this point neither one can claim as many victories as any of the trio above.
With one exception, all the men on this list pitched in the period following integration, which probably reflects the increasing load shared on pitching staffs. The only man to play before the color line was broken died in 1957, and was at the time the only member of the club. That would be Jack Coombs. At his best, Coombs was an outstanding pitcher, winning 31 games for the A’s in 1910 with a 1.30 ERA. The next season Coombs won 28 games, but did so with a 3.53 ERA, a downright pedestrian number for the time. But those two seasons, along with his 21-win, 94 ERA+ season in 1912, constitute more than half of Coombs’ career wins.
Heading into the 2011 season, the only pitcher with even a reasonable chance to join the club would be Jeff Suppan, who needs 12 more victories. But most likely it will remain an exclusive club, proving you have to be a pretty good pitcher to win 150 games with an ERA+ worse than average.