The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Top Ten Pitchers Who Never Won 20 Games

Whether it’s fair or not, a 20-win season has long been regarded as a mark of excellence for a pitcher.  Up until perhaps the past decade or so, an ace pitcher was expected to win at least 20 games in a season.  Anything less than that was considered a bit of a disappointment, regardless of how strong that pitcher’s other stats may have been.  This led me to wonder which of the best pitchers in MLB history (using WAR as a career measure of success) never enjoyed a 20-win campaign.

Dave Stieb pitching in Toronto, Canada in 1985...

Dave Stieb pitching in Toronto, Canada in 1985. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I decided to exclude currently active pitchers as well as, for obvious reasons, pitchers who worked primarily in relief during their careers.  Here’s what I came up with:

1)  Chuck Finley (L):  200-173, WAR:  58.5

2)  Frank Tanana (L):  240-236, WAR:  57.5

3)  Dave Stieb (R):  176-137, WAR:  57.0

4)  Kevin Appier (R):  169-137, WAR:  55.0

5)  Kenny Rogers (L):  219-156, WAR:  51.1

6)  Mark Langston (L):  179-158, WAR:  50.3

7)  Dennis Martinez (R):  245-193, WAR:  49.5

8)  Jimmy Key (L):  186-117, WAR:  49.4

9)  Milt Pappas (R):  209-164, WAR:  46.8

10)  Steve Rogers (R):  158-152, WAR:  45.3

As you can see, if you came of age as a baseball fan around the 1980’s, you’ll be quite familiar with many of these names.  Only a couple of the pitchers on this list go back much further than that, with Milt Pappas apparently being the “old-timer” on this list.

Exactly half the pitchers on this list were southpaws, and two guys named Rogers are represented as well.  Each of the first eight guys on the list pitched either primarily or exclusively in the American League.  Milt Pappas split his career almost evenly between the two leagues, and Steve Rogers is the only pitcher on this list to have pitched exclusively in the National League.

Half of these pitchers won at least 200 games, and all finished with records above .500.  Only three of the pitchers on this list reached 19 wins in a season:  Langston (twice), Tanana, and Steve Rogers.

In their prime, each of these pitchers was very tough, and if any of them had pitched on consistently better teams, or were a bit luckier, they might not have appeared on this list at all.

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12 thoughts on “Top Ten Pitchers Who Never Won 20 Games

  1. Another fine post, Bill. I immediately thought of “King” Felix Hernandez, because I hope he doesn’t qualify for inclusion on this list one day.

    Warmest Regards,
    Michael Jawitz
    AKA: Grubby Glove

    • Thank you, Michael. And, yes, unfortunately, I can see that happening to him as well. Or he might get lucky, and, like Mike Mussina, win 20 games in his final season.
      Thanks for stopping by,
      Bill

  2. Understand, I’m thinking out loud here…but while all these guys were excellent pitchers, I’m not sure if any of them were great pitchers, at least in the HOF sense. Stieb was at his peak, I suppose, but his peak was pretty short lived. I could be convinced otherwise on this, but doesn’t it seem that truly great pitchers (or at least the guys from the 20th Century) push it to a 20-win level at some point? Again, I know there’s the Jack Morris counter-argument, but still…

    • I don’t think that any of them belong in The Hall, either, though as you say, Stieb at his best was quite excellent. It is rare (or certainly was in the 20th century) for a truly great pitcher to not win 20 games in a season at least once in his career. Then again, it seems likely that if Stieb had pitched for the Yankees, Mets (in the mid-’80’s), Dodgers, etc., he wouldn’t have appeared on this list. So although it is rare (or was) for a pitcher to get absolutely skunked for his entire career, it does appear that we have at least one example where this seems to be the case.
      Having said all that (and far too much on my part), I’d probably put in other pitchers before Stieb, including Wes Ferrell and perhaps Luis Tiant (not counting the recently eligible.)
      Truth is, in my opinion, there are far more position players deserving of HOF induction than there are eligible pitchers (though Maddux, Glavine, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, and a couple of others will add a lot of weight to that side of the ledger.)
      Thanks for the read,
      Bill

  3. So many fine pitchers in the ’80s who never won 20 games, never got to 250 wins, or even 200 in many cases. Imagine how many Jack Morris debates would be stifled if Nolan Ryan or Bob Welch or Fernando Valenzuela had been a little bit better and won the most games of any pitcher in the ’80s.

    • Or a bit luckier. Being the “best pitcher of the decade” is such an artificial construct as to be pointless and ridiculous. Does anyone know who won the most games in the ’90’s, or the ’70’s for that matter? It’s a junk stat thought up to buttress an otherwise mediocre (at best) HOF case for one particular pitcher. Stieb was better than Morris, regardless of wins.
      Thanks for the comment, and for reading,
      Bill

      • “Artificial constructs, the pointless, and ridiculous.” a perfect name for a large book of trivia I always keep in the bathroom and beside my bed and would be bored silly without. I think Jim Palmer won the most games in the 1970’s and in the 90’s I would guess Clemens or Maddux. If a pitcher keeps getting wins, even the calculating coldest spock of a manager would keep sending him out there every 5th day until the heads and tails probability Murphied out.

      • I think I may actually have that book somewhere 🙂
        Thing about Clemens is he didn’t really come on board till the mid-’80’s, which is why I don’t think much of that stat. How many great pitchers came up in the middle of a decade, rather than at the more “convenient” beginning of a decade? Palmer is a good guess, though I think Catfish must be high up on that list as well. Seaver and Carlton can’t be far behind.
        The best pitchers are often the ones who’ll get you the most wins, though as you know, the correlation is not one-to-one. But yeah, run your best out there and hope for the best. What else can you do?
        Thanks man,
        Bill
        P.S. I’ve got some baseball cards heading your way next week, finally.

      • I forgot about Clemens starting in the mid 80. It’s a bummer when the “convenient” little packaging into decades influences HOF votes. Maybe it would be better off for useless trivia of who played in the most decades? Minnie Minosa and Nick Altrock? and wasn’t Minosa brought back as a gimmick in the 70’s.

        You’re right about the correlation of wins and excellence being terribly off except that crappy pitchers who win a lot of games make incredible research projects and inspire the rage of seamheads. Looking forward to the cards. Thanks Bill!

      • You’re welcome. And I’m still very much enjoying your blog as well.
        Cheers,
        Bill

  4. Rich Looby on said:

    Nice list. If ya gave me 1 of those guys to win game 7…I take Steib.

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