The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Archive for the tag “Frank Viola”

Best Forgotten Baseball Seasons: Part 20 – The Minnesota Twins

Rodney Dangerfield at the Shorehaven Beach Clu...

Image via Wikipedia

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.

Best Forgotten Baseball Seasons: A Team By Team Analysis

We all remember the best seasons enjoyed by our childhood heroes.  Many of us can even recite many of the particular statistics our heroes accumulated.

For example, my boyhood hero was Mets pitcher Tom Seaver.  I loved how he won his second of three Cy Young Awards in 1973 without even winning twenty games, an unheard of accomplishment in those days.  I was proud of the fact that my hero was the first pitcher ever to strike out over 200 batters in each of his first nine seasons.

I was much less proud of the fact that a player named Tommy Hutton, primarily a backup first baseman with the Phillies, used to absolutely own Tom Seaver, to the tune of a .320 career average in 62 plate appearances, with 11 walks, three home runs, and eleven RBI.

Yet there are many other players who exist just outside of our memory’s peripheral vision.  Players who, at the time of their best seasons, were widely discussed, lauded and analyzed.  Somehow, though, in the dust left behind by the army of baseball seasons that followed their achievements, these players, and their accomplishments, gradually faded into the background.

Nor am I talking about players from baseball’s most ancient seasons.  Recent baseball history, say from 1960 up through the 1990’s, is replete with impressive performances between the foul lines that now go absolutely unremarked upon, except perhaps in the mind’s eye of the players themselves.

Let this post, then, be the first of several planned installments of a mini-series called “Best Forgotten Baseball Seasons.” Although this will take the form of a team-by-team analysis, a few of the most recent expansion teams will not be included, for reasons that I suppose are rather obvious.

My plan is to choose two players from each of the major league teams who I believe, (completely arbitrarily on my part), best represent the concept of Excellence Soon Forgotten.  The two players might both be position players, or a pitcher and a position player, or a couple of pitchers.

Having been born and raised in southern Connecticut, I was immediately most familiar with the Mets and the Yankees.  You had to get up closer to Hartford before you would encounter very many Red Sox fans.  So due to the geography and culture of my youth, I will begin this series with a couple of players from the New York Mets.

In future blog-posts on this topic, I plan to double-up, covering two teams, (four players total), instead of just the one team I am covering today.

The New York Mets:

The player who had the most to do with this particular blog idea  hatching in my brain was former Mets outfielder Lance Johnson.  Those of you who remember Lance Johnson are most likely to remember him from his years as a speedy stolen base threat atop the White Sox lineup from the late ’80’s up through 1995.

But one afternoon a few weeks ago, while doing research on the Mets teams of the mid-90’s (don’t ask me why I would do such a pointless thing), I was astonished to notice what a truly fantastic season Lance Johnson had as a member of the 1996 New York Mets.

It wasn’t that I didn’t follow the Mets that season.  And certainly, I knew who Lance Johnson was; I’m sure I had his baseball card.

Nevertheless, here are the Lance Johnson statistics from 1996 that I had somehow forgotten:  (The asterisks denote a league-leading total)

*724 plate appearances, *227 hits, 117 runs scored, 31 doubles, *21 triples, 50 steals, .333 batting average, 125 OPS, and a career high 327 total bases.  Johnson also led all N.L. center fielders with 390 put outs.  The 227 hits and the 21 triples are still Mets single-season records.

Unfortunately, for all of his hard work, 32-year-old Lance Johnson’s efforts just weren’t enough to keep the Mets from finishing the season with a 71-91 record, good for a 4th place record that year.

The other player who you may have forgotten about pitched for the Mets for just a couple of seasons.

Frank Viola was a local boy.  Having been born in Hempstead, N.Y., he attended St. John’s University.  He was drafted by the Twins in the second round of the 1981 amateur draft.  A very successful pitcher during his tenure with Minnesota, (he won the A.L. Cy Young award in 1988), the Mets obtained Viola from the Twins on July 31, 1989.

In 1990, pitching for the Mets, Viola enjoyed the second best season of his career.  His numbers for that season are below:

35 Games Started, 249 innings pitched, 182 strikeouts, a 20-12 won-lost record, a 2.67 ERA, and a WHIP of 1.150.  Viola finished 3rd in the N.L. Cy Young voting that year.  His 35 starts and 249 innings led the league.  His twenty wins were good for second place that year.

Viola pitched just one more year for the Mets, then was shipped off to the Red Sox for a couple more effective, although not fantastic seasons, before finally retiring in 1996 at age 36.

Thus endeth the first installment of “Best Forgotten Baseball Seasons.”

If you can think of any other Mets players who you believe should have been included here, (and I’m sure there are many), please let me know.

Stay tuned for the second part of this series, and don’t forget to check in on Friday for my #1 All-Time Best Scene From a Baseball Movie video blog-post. You won’t want to miss it.

Post Navigation