The Ghost of Denny


Before we get into the real stuff, a couple random deals.

1. Have you seen the new commercial for the i-Pod or portable music device of some sort with “Why can’t we be friends?” playing in the background? The whole premise is there’s these fans of rival teams (Yankees-Red Sox and Dodgers-Giants) who decide they can set aside their differences because they both use the same mp3 player. What’s weird is in part of the commercial this Angels fan glares at Cal Ripken wearing his Orioles uniform before they get all chummy due to their peacemaking accessories. Did I somehow miss out on the great Angels-Oriolez rivalry? What’s this all about? Is there bad blood over the haloes picking up Bobby Grich and Doug Decinces in the early 80’s? That’s just odd.

2. There seems to be a perception, perhaps due to the Jim Rome show, that sports fans can’t also be sci fi geeks, but I intend to debunk that Wednesday at midnight to see the opening of Revenge of the Sith. And yes, I was also at the midnight premiere of Return of the King a couple of Christmases ago. If it makes me uncool, so be it, Jedi.

On with the Chlorophyll . . .

What’s the most unbreakable single season record in baseball? The one that probably comes to mind most readily is DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, for a few reasons. 1) We all know about it and 2) it’s stood for over 60 years, and 3) every so often some guy gets around 30 games, thus bringing the record back into our consciousness. This record is very close to unbreakable, but I would give someone like Ichiro an outside shot, if they caught the right breaks.

Some other notable records:
Avg. Hugh Duffy .440; Nap Lajoie .427
OBP. Barry Bonds .609
SLG. Barry Bonds .863
Runs Billy Hamilton 192 Babe Ruth 177
Hits Ichiro Suzuki 262
2B Earl Webb 67
3B Chief Wilson 36
HR Barry Bonds 73
RBI Hack Wilson 191
SB Hugh Nichol 138 Rickey Henderson 130
ERA Tim Keefe 0.85 Dutch Leonard 0.96
WHIP Pedro Martinez 0.74
Saves Bobby Thigpen 57
K Matt Kilroy 513 Nolan Ryan 313

The stats with two names listed indicate a 19th century record and the later 20th century record. Most historians agree the 20th century game is a more mature version, and so you’ll get some anomalies in the 19th century like Kilroy’s 513 strikeouts. My favorite of these is probably Chief Wilson’s 36 triples. Cristian Guzman had 20 in 2000, but no one’s seriously threatened this record in some time. I doubt it’ll be broken in our lifetime, but if Willy Taveras can learn to hit it in the gap in Minute Maid . . . well, a guy can dream.

However, all the most unbreakable single season records in baseball history belong to 19th century pitchers. All the rest of these are cute, but my all time champion is Charley “Old Hoss” Radbourn’s record of 59 games won in 1884. (He also completed 73 games that year, just shy of Will White’s record of 75). “Old Hoss” has to get my vote as the most understated nickname in history; I’m not sure what they’d call him nowadays, other than sir. Kind of like Albert “Decent” Pujols or something.

59 games won. This is, by the way, undoubtedly the most valuable season anyone has had ever — pitcher, hitter, whatever. The top 24 spots on the list for games won in a season all belong to 19th century guys, mainly because they were all working in two-man rotations and there were no real relief pitchers. As you ease into the 20th century you get some remarkable perfomances here and there, but most of these are also really old — Jack Chesbro won 41 in 1904, Ed Walsh won 40 in 1908. Again, these guys were working in a different era, three man rotations, lots of complete games; so it’s probably not fair to compare today’s pitcher with these ancient ones.

The standard that does loom for pitchers is the 31 games won by Denny McLain in 1968. This was still a different era than our own; we’d made it up to four-man rotations and there was more relief work but nothing like the extensive 6- or 7-man bullpens that prevail in today’s game. Still, this is a number that is, yes, daunting, but at least conceivable; if somebody got the right breaks and had an excellent bullpen and was absolutely dealing all year, well it seems conceivable that somebody could chase down 30 wins.

This standard is like DiMaggio’s or maybe more properly like Ted Williams’ .406 in ’41. Every few years some pitcher will cruise into an All-Star break with 15 or 16 wins and people begin to wonder if 30 is a possibility. I remember a few years back Pedro started 14-1 or something and people started to talk. And, of course there was the year Smoltz won 24. Bob Welch won 27 as recently as 1990.

This year, Jon Garland and Dontrelle Willis are off to red-hot starts, stirring thoughts in the mind that well, maybe . . . Garland is 8 for 8 in his starts; Dontrelle finally dropped one, but is 7 for 8. Adding to the speculation is the fact that these guys are completing a few games, thus ensuring they get the decision in their starts. Sure, these probably aren’t the guys you would have expected, but who would have picked Denny McLain before ’68?

What odds are these guys facing to get to the 30 win mark? Pretty steep. The main obstacle is the five-man rotation, which limits a pitcher to 35 or 36 starts a year. Thus, to get to 30 wins, they would have to win either 83 or 85% of their starts, depending on if they got 35 or 36. It’s important to distinguish that it’s 83% of their starts, not their decisions, which wouldn’t be all that unusual.

Well, how difficult is this? Let’s look at some of the great pitching years in history and see:

Yr Pitcher W GS %
99 Pedro 29 23 79
’02 Unit 24 35 69
’95 Maddux 19 28 68
’96 Smoltz 24 35 69
’90 Welch 27 35 77
’86 Clemens 24 33 73
’85 Gooden 24 35 69
’84 Sutcliffe 16 20 80 (Cubs only)
’72 Carlton 27 41 66
’69 Seaver 25 36 69
’68 Gibson 22 34 65
’68 McLain 31 41 76
’66 Koufax 27 41 66
’61 Ford 25 39 64
’53 Spahn 23 32 72
’44 Newhouser 29 34 85
’30 Grove 28 32 88
’16 Alexander 33 45 73
’13 W. Johnson 36 36 100 (Holy Smokes! did have 12 relief appearances)
’08 3-Finger 29 31 94 (!)
’08 Mathewson 37 44 84
’08 Ed Walsh 40 49 82
’95 Cy Young 35 40 88
’84 Radbourn 59 73 81

Well, that’s more than enough to be getting on with. I’ll have to admit I wasn’t sure what I’d find before I ran these numbers. I halfway expected to see that even the ancient legends didn’t win at high enough a clip to get 30 wins in the modern era. I certainly didn’t expect too see the Big Train at 100%. To be fair, this is somewhat misleading, since Johnson didn’t literally win 100% of his starts; I’m sure some of them came in relief. Also, until 1920, baseball was heavily pitching dominated, so results of this kind are a little less surprising. Still, these guys did some astonishing things.

I think the key thing that let these guys put up these huge percentages is how deep they pitched into games. Johnson pitched 29 complete games in 1913, thus ensuring he would get a decision in those games. It’s not the losses that hurt a modern starter’s chances at 30 wins; it’s the no-decisions. Wins are already a fairly luck-driven stat, but you only pitch six innings, you not only have to rely on your offense to help you get the victory, but also two or three other pitchers of lesser quality than you.

The random nature of wins can be seen in two recent years for very different lefthanded pitchers. In 2003, Jeriome Robertson pitched rather poorly for the Astros, with a 5.10 ERA, averaging just over 5 innings a start but still wound up with a 15-9 record thanks to tremendous run support and an unholy bullpen featuring Brad Lidge, Octavio Dotel, and Billy Wagner. Last year, Randy Johnson pitched brilliantly with a 2.60 ERA, 290 K’s, and an average of 7 innings a start (with a perfect game mixed in), yet went 16-14 because the team behind him couldn’t hit or field, and the bullpen wasn’t reliable.

So, the most encouraging development in the quest for 30 may be that pitchers are finishing games more this year. It remains to be seen if managers hold to this philosophy in the dog days of July and August, but if pitchers start getting more decisions, then perhaps a pitcher with the right combination of brilliance, health and run support can get to this goal. It wasn’t long ago when 60 home runs seemed an unassailable mark, but certain shifts in the game made it attainable. Now, the game may be trending away from that, though it’s dangerous to declare trends based on six weeks of a season. Such a trend could create the right environment for a 30-win season. It will be difficult, but Welch’s 27-win season provides encouragement. In ’90, Welch was far from the most dominant pitcher in baseball; he was 6th in the league in ERA and no where on the leaderboard for K’s. He was very good, no doubt, but he also played for the best team in baseball, and was very lucky even for that. So, one of these years the Yankees will sign the right free agent pitcher who’ll pitch brilliantly enough and deep enough into games that the Yankees will provide all the luck he needs to get 30 wins.

Meanwhile, Denny waits.

2 Responses to “The Ghost of Denny”

  1. juvenal_urbino Says:

    I’m not sure you’re right about Welch giving pitchers hope. He was extremely good. 1990 was not a completely anomalous season for him.

  2. Coolhand Says:

    Welch WAS good, but there are a few pitchers who are better than he was in ’90 in any given year. I think if one of them racked up enough innings and got enough run support, there’s an outside shot at 30.

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