The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Best Forgotten Baseball Seasons: Part 20 – The Minnesota Twins

Rodney Dangerfield at the Shorehaven Beach Clu...

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As with the late comedian, Rodney Dangerfield, twenty-win seasons just don’t get no respect anymore.  Case in point:  This season, C.C. Sabathia of the New York Yankees has 21 victories.

Meanwhile, a continent away, Felix Hernandez of the Mariners has just thirteen wins.  Yet many, perhaps most, baseball analysts / commentators are arguing that King Felix should win the A.L. Cy Young award on the strength of his peripheral numbers.

This is not the time nor the place to debate that argument, but it is worth noting that just a couple of short years ago, a twenty-win season was considered something special.

And despite my strong sympathies to the Wins-Are-Overrated crowd, I can’t help feeling that wins (as a measure of a pitcher’s relative effectiveness) have all too quickly gone from overrated to underrated.

While it is true that over the course of baseball history, some pitchers have won far more games in a single season than they “deserved,” (Storm Davis‘ 1989 season comes to mind), and others have won far fewer than they theoretically should have (Nolan Ryan in 1987), it has been far more common for outstanding pitchers to win lots of games, and for mediocre pitchers to garner average amounts of wins.

Which brings me to former Minnesota Twins pitcher Frank Viola.

Frank Viola, drafted by the Twins in the second round of the 1981 amateur draft out of St. John’s University, certainly was respected by most Major League batters for the vast majority of his professional career.

Unappreciated by many baseball fans then and now, however, Viola averaged 18.6 wins per season for five consecutive years (1984-88, inclusive.) He also pitched at least 200 innings for ten consecutive seasons beginning in 1983, and tossed at least 230 innings in nine of those ten years.

Viola also enjoyed two twenty-win seasons in his career.  His first was in 1988 with the Twins.  He also won exactly twenty games for the Mets in his first full season with that franchise in 1990.

But Frank Viola’s Best Forgotten Season was in 1988 with the Minnesota Twins.

In 1988, 28-year old Frank Viola won the A.L. Cy Young award.  He did not lead the league in strikeouts, innings pitched, WAR, WHIP, ERA+, or even that hoary old stat, ERA (although he did finish in the top six or better in each of them.)

His primary claim to fame, however, was an outstanding 24-7  record, good for a league-leading .774 win-loss percentage. As for his peripheral numbers, teammate Allan Anderson won the A.L. ERA title (2.45) and ERA+ title (166), but he pitched fifty fewer innings than Viola.

Roger Clemens paced the league in strikeouts, Complete Games, and Shutouts.  Teddy Higuera of Milwaukee led the A.L. in WHIP.  Dave Stewart of Oakland led in Games Started and Innings Pitched.  Mark Gubicza of K.C. led in WAR.

When you have that many outstanding performances in one season, it is (or was) unsurprising that the Cy Young voters would notice the impressive number of wins Viola accumulated in a very solid season.

For the record, Viola finished third in the league in strikeouts (193), third in ERA (2.64), sixth in innings pitched (255), and fifth in WHIP (1.136.)

Viola retired after the 1996 season with a record of 176-150. His career ERA was  a decent 3.73.

It is also worth noting that, over the past 22 years, only three other pitchers have matched or exceeded Viola’s 24 victories in ’88:  Bob Welch (27) in 1990; John Smoltz (24) in 1996; Randy Johnson (24) in 2002.  Welch was a good pitcher.  Smoltz and Johnson are future Hall of Famers.

Meanwhile, you also have to go all the way back to Steve Stone of the 1980 Orioles to find a pitcher who exceeded (25 wins) Viola’s win total eight seasons later.

Clearly, then, a pitcher’s win total is not, as  some pundits have claimed recently, absolutely irrelevant.

It is a sensible, if imprecise and incomplete, benchmark by which we can gauge a given pitcher’s success to a reasonable degree.

After all, isn’t it more than a bit ironic that it is now argued that win totals should be irrelevant when deciding to whom the trophy for baseball’s best pitchers should be awarded, when that award just happens to be named after Cy Young, the pitcher who won more games than any other player in Major League history?

Surely, even Rodney Dangerfield would feel the implicit disrespect to Cy Young’s legacy.


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