20-game winners were was once as common as the 30-home run hitter. Not anymore. #KilltheWin.
20-game winners are quickly becoming extinct. For that reason, I’m not going to beat around the bush this time. Instead, i’ll start by making my point right here at the start. Here it is:
A pitchers record is more indicative of his teams performance than his own.
How do I know this? Because I got into Marty McFly’s DeLorean and traveled back to 1973, the year Major League Baseball introduced the designated hitter (DH). From there, I searched for every 20-game winner, all the while collecting an assortment of stats, until I got to the year 2017. 44 years of data later, this is what I found.
It is really difficult to win 20 games in a season.
From 1973 – 2017 there have been exactly 185 pitchers who have won 20 or more games in a single season. This comes out to be an average of about 4 pitchers per season.
It is increasingly more difficult for a pitcher to earn a win in today’s game because he has a shorter leash. The increase in use of RP due to better analytics have made it so RP have to hold off runners for more innings in order for the SP to retain his win.
The less amount of IP for a SP, the less control he has over his record.
In fact, since 1973 Wilbur Wood has the highest number of innings pitched by a pitcher with 20 or more wins in a season with 359.1 IP in 1973. The lowest number of IP by a pitcher with 20 or more wins? Jered Weaver in 2012 had 188.2 IP.
Charts and Such
The following chart demonstrates how SP average fewer innings with time.
The result? MLB is seeing the number of 20-game winners dwindle drastically. These are the number of 20-game winners broken down by decade:
- 1970’s – 61 (~9 per season)
- 1980’s – 37 (~4 per season)
- 1990’s – 34 (~3 per season)
- 2000’s – 34 (~3 per season)
- 2010’s – 19 (~2 per season)
Its fair to say that increasingly a SP must rely on relief pitching, in other words, a member of his team to obtain a win.
20-Game Winners Decreasing With Time
It’s also increasingly easier for a pitcher to obtain the 20-win milestone IF he plays on a team whose offense scores runs. In fact, 56% of 20 game winners played on teams whose offense ranked 10 or better in runs scored (RS). 74% of 20 game winners played on teams that ranked 15 or better in RS. No teams with 20-game winners have ever ranked 29 or 30 in RS.
In fact, if we look at the number of 20-game winners broken down by their teams RS rankings, you’ll see that the SP record directly correlates to his teams offense abilities.
In the above graphic, the blue line represents the number of 20-game winners and the red line represents where his team ranked in terms of RS. Notice how the lower a team ranks in RS (30 being the lowest ranking), the fewer number of 20-game winners there are.
While I am a believer in coincidences, this clearly isn’t one. The data is clear. A SP that plays on a team with an offense that is proficient in RS stands a better chance at winning games.
In other words, members of his offense can also determine how good (or bad) a SP record is.
Kei Igawa v. Johnny Cueto
While my argument is that a pitcher’s record is more indicative of his teams performance, I must acknowledge that a pitcher is a primary player in his team. Some might argue THE most important player on his team.
He does touch the ball in every play, right?
That is why i’d be remiss if I did not acknowledge that in some rare occasions he can impact his record – positively or negatively – despite how his team performs.
For example, Kei Igawa’s record of 2-3 in 2007 with the 94-68 Yankees does not coincide with his team’s performance. No other starting pitcher in that rotation posted a sub .500 record.
Conversely, Johnny Cueto’s 20-9 record with the 76-86 Reds in 2014 is an indication that a starting pitcher can win games on a bad team. You’d have to be virtually unhittable and lead your league in innings pitched to accomplish the feat, but it’s possible. You’d also have to rank in the top 10 in 20 individual pitching categories, something only Cueto and Clayton Kershaw – one of the G.O.A.T. – accomplished that season.
In fact, it is so difficult to win 20 games in a single season if you play on a “bad” team that only 25 of the 185 pitchers in this data set have accomplished the feat. That accounts to a little over 13% of those pitchers.
There’s a More to that Story Though.
First off, 20-game winners that pitched on “bad teams” had a slightly lower ERA and FIP than 20-game winners that pitched on “good teams.” This means that those pitchers had to pitch better than those who pitched on “good teams.”
Secondly, 20-game winners on “bad teams” averaged more IP than pitchers on “good teams.” Specifically speaking, 20-game winners on “bad teams” averaged 284.2 IP as opposed to 251.1 IP for those who played on “good teams.”
Also, and perhaps this coincides with my second point, most of the 20-game winners that pitched on “bad teams” came at a time when a SP had more control over the game because he pitched more innings. Here’s a quick breakdown of the number of 20-game winners on “bad teams” by decade:
- 1973 – 1979: 15 of 25 or 60%
- 1980 – 1989: 3 of 25 or 12%
- 1990 – 1999: 5 of 25 or 20%
- 2000 – 2009: 0 of 25 or 0%
- 2010 – 2017: 2 of 25 or 8%
So, what can we conclude from this?
Despite how good – or bad – a pitcher is, his team – relievers, hitters, fielders – will play a larger role in his record.
All that being said, Despite having a lower ERA and FIP and pitching more innings, 20-game winners on “bad teams” had an overall worse record on average than pitchers on “good teams.”
You would think that if you pitched better, as the numbers might indicate 20-game winners on “bad teams” did, that your record would show it. Instead, what the data shows is that 20-game winners that pitched on “bad teams” had an average winning percentage (W-L%) of .637. The remaining 160 pitchers that played “good teams” had an average W-L% of .723.
Why, you might ask?
Because, as I said at the very beginning, a pitchers record is more indicative of his teams performance than his own.
Having grown up in Washington Heights, a small Dominican neighborhood just one mile away from Yankee Stadium, Manny is a life-long Yankees fan. He began pursuing his passion for writing about baseball in March 2018 when he co-founded a small baseball media company called Welcome to THE SHOW. Manny is also a contributor at Call to the Pen. Follow Manny on twitter @MannyGo3.