It’s been a while since we’ve seen a pitcher lose 20 games in a season. There are, of course, several possible reasons for this. One reason is that starting pitchers, in general, now accumulate fewer decisions at all because they start fewer games than pitchers of old, and they tend to pitch fewer overall innings as well. A pitcher who lasts into the 8th inning is simply more likely to gain a win or a loss than a pitcher who is normally removed after six innings.
Another reason is, perhaps, that the stigma of losing so many games seems to have grown proportionately with the amount of cash a potential free agent pitcher can earn on the open market. A resume featuring a 20-loss season will make it harder for the Scott Borases of the world to milk a given owner out of X amount of dollars. Presumably, avoiding the magic 20-loss mark will aid a client’s marketability.
Yet another reason, closely tied to reason #1, is that there are so many more relief pitchers available to use, including specialists who often come in to face but a single hitter. There are only 162 decisions a season to spread around. Divide that number by an increasingly crowded pitching staff, and each individual pitcher is likely to see fewer decisions, both wins and losses.
Baseball’s last 20-game loser was Mike Maroth of the Tigers in 2003.
Aside from his 9-21 record, Maroth was a really bad pitcher. Now, it’s true that the 2003 Tigers, with their 43-119 record, were one of the worst teams of all time. But Maroth’s 5.73 ERA (ERA+ of 73) provided lots of combustible fuel for the raging inferno that was the Tigers’ pitching staff. To be fair, he had plenty of help. Teammate Jeremy Bonderman posted a 6-19 record and a 5.56 ERA, and Adam Bernero finished the year 1-12 with a 6.08 ERA.
Before Mike Maroth, you have to go all the way back to A’s pitcher Brian Kingman in 1980 to find another 20-game loser. Kingman finished the year 8-20 with a more respectable ERA+ of 98, so he was basically a replacement level pitcher with especially bad luck.
Counter-intuitive though it may seem, you don’t have to be a terrible pitcher to lose 20 games in a season. Plenty of fine pitchers have notched 20-loss seasons. The list features several Hall of Famers, including Walter Johnson, Cy Young, Ed Walsh, Red Ruffing, Robin Roberts, Steve Carlton and Phil Niekro. Other fine pitchers on the list include Jerry Koosman, Luis Tiant, Wilbur Wood and Mickey Lolich.
In fact, the 20-loss plateau has been reached 204 times since the year 1900. Here’s a list of the number of 20-loss seasons per decade over the past 113 years:
As you can see, except for the Expansion Era in the 1960′s and ’70′s, the historical trend clearly shows that 20-loss seasons are becoming as common as listenable U-2 albums.
This begs the question(s), will there ever be another 20-loss season, and, if so, which pitcher will be the culprit? I believe that, though it may be many years in the offing, we have not yet seen the end of the 20-game loser. Not that long ago, many pundits and writers had written off the possibility of ever seeing another Triple-Crown season for a hitter, yet Miguel Cabrera pulled off this feat last year. There’s no reason a future pitcher might not join Mike Maroth and company among the infamous 20-game losing clientele.
Who, then, might be a possible pitcher on one of today’s teams that could conceivably post 20-losses?
As I said previously, he would not necessarily have to be a terrible pitcher, though he’d probably have to pitch for a terrible team. The pitcher would also have to be durable enough to make somewhere between 32 and 34 starts in a season. (No pitcher made more than 34 starts last season.) He would also have to pitch well over 200 innings to be able to go deep enough into games to actually earn his team’s decision in those starts.
So which pitchers come to mind on current MLB rosters?
Bud Norris of the Houston Astros comes to mind. Norris pitches for an Astros team that won just 55 games last season, and which could be every bit as bad this season. Moving from the N.L. Central to the A.L. West certainly won’t help the Astros win more games. Also, Norris is slated to be the Astros Opening Day pitcher, which means they will be counting on him to make at least 30+ starts, and to pitch at least 200 innings (a level he hasn’t yet reached.)
Norris, at age 28, is in the prime of his career, and has generally proved to be a durable pitcher. With the career ERA+ of 89, playing on a team that isn’t likely to provide him with significant run support, Norris might be just the man to lose 20 games.
Ricky Nolasco of the Marlins is another possibility. There is every reason to believe that the Marlins should lose as many as 100 games or more in 2013. In the off-season, they traded away Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, and Jose Reyes. Their only significant player at this point is Giancarlo Stanton, who should expect to be pitched around all season.
Nolasco, entering his age-30 season, has been a durable pitcher for the past few years. He’s made at least 30 starts in a season four times, and has logged over 200 innings in a season twice, falling just 9 innings short last year. Nolasco’s career ERA+ is 93, so he’s been just good enough to stick around the Majors to this point. But his K’s / 9 innings have decreased for four straight years, from 9.5 / 9 innings down to just 5.9 / 9 innings in 2012. If Norris is pushed up to 33 starts and perhaps 215 innings, a 20-loss season would seem to be within reach.
Edwin Jackson is projected to be the Cubs #2 starter this season. Now entering his 11th season, 29-year old Jackson will now be pitching for his eighth team. His career ERA+ is 98, virtually perfect for a potential 2o-game loser. Jackson has started as many as 33 games in a season, and has topped 200 innings a couple of times (he also pitched 199.2 innings in 2011.)
Jackson has been durable and occasionally excellent, but mostly he’s just an average pitcher on a below-average team. While it is unclear if the Cubs are capable of losing a hundred games this year, you should never sell your self short underestimating the Cubs ability to be worse than you could ever imagine. Edwin Jackson might be a potentially sneaky 20-game loser this year, if things go badly enough in Chicago’s North Side.
While no one is rooting for any of these pitchers to lose 20 games in 2013, it should come as no surprise if any one of them join Walter Johnson in at least this one dubious accomplishment.