The 2003 season has produced a chase for one of baseball’s rarest accomplishments, that of a pitcher losing twenty games in a season. The chase may be a reluctant one, as its attainment requires frequent and regular failure, but the failure may be as much that of the team as the pitcher, as baseball history will attest.
The contestants this year are teammates Mike Maroth and Jeremy Bonderman of the Detroit Tigers. If either loses twenty games, he will be the first major league pitcher to do so since Brian Kingman in 1980. With the possibility of such an occurrence, it seems worthwhile to revisit and expand our previous look at 20-game losers.
Less than a century ago, pitchers lost 20 games as frequently as hitters slugged more than 10 home runs in one year. As recently as the 1920 season, 7 major league pitchers lost at least twenty games, led by Scott Perry’s 25 losses for the Philadelphia A’s. Perry’s pitching was obviously not the problem, as he compiled a 3.62 ERA during a season in which the entire league would bat .284. Taking the ball every fourth day, he pitched 263 innings and completed 20 games as Connie Mack’s White Elephants staggered to a 48-106 record.
Ten years later, the 20-game loser club dwindled to two, as Red Sox teammates Milt Gaston and Jack Russell each lost 20. By 1940, there was only one, that being the appropriately nicknamed “Losing Pitcher” Mulcahy of the Phillies.
The decline continued for another twenty years, but was eventually broken with the arrival of major league expansion. The combination of some truly terrible teams and a 162-game schedule helped Turk Farrell of the Houston Colt 45’s and Al Jackson and Roger Craig of the Amazin’ Mets join Cubs lefty Dick Ellsworth in the magic circle in 1962. Over the course of the next seven seasons, 10 more pitchers, led by four Mets, joined the group.
During the 1970’s, 14 more, including names such as Denny McLain, Mickey Lolich, Steve Carlton, Jerry Koosman, and Phil Niekro, made the list. And in 1980 came Brian Kingman’s accomplishment, followed by 22 years of close-but-no-cigar. Now, with Bonderman and Maroth pitching for a bad team which is unlikely to improve this season, the doors may open again.
The possibility of two teammates losing twenty games in the same season may seem remote, but it is certainly not microscopic. In addition to the aforementioned Gaston-Russell and Jackson-Craig combinations, a number of other teammates have walked into history together. Scott Perry was joined on the 1920 A’s by Rollie Naylor at 10-23. Some other cases were Si Johnson and Paul Derringer of the 1934 Reds, Bucky Walters and Joe Bowman of the 1936 Phillies, Jack Fisher and Al Jackson of the 1965 Mets, and Wilbur Wood and Stan Bahnsen of the 1973 White Sox.
For a few pitchers, the pain of 20 losses was lessened somewhat by winning more than that number in the same season. Most recently, at the major league level, Wilbur Wood finished 1973 at 24-20 and Phil Niekro’s 1979 season ended at 21-20.
In the minors, a variety of factors produced extremes in many statistical categories. During the early Twentieth Century, when losing twenty games was not unusual in the majors, it was almost commonplace in the minors. League schedules had a great impact. The Pacific Coast League played over 200 games for many seasons, and the International League, American Association, and Western League nearly 170. With minor league players spending their seasons with one team, and smaller rosters requiring pitchers to start more often, losing twenty games was barely worth mentioning in light of inflated numbers for many categories. Our previous article singled out the 1943 Sacramento Solons and 1922 Newark Bears for their collective accomplishments.
In 1921, when three major league pitchers lost twenty or more games, at least 27 minor leaguers accomplished the same feat. Several of those went far beyond the minimum, with Herman Pillette losing 30 with the PCL’s Portland Beavers. Pillette shared honors on that Beavers’ team with Syl Johnson at 12-26 and Sam Ross at 13-25. Teammate Rudy Kallio was traded to Salt Lake City during the season on his way to losing 21 games. Using all of their resources, the Beavers finished the season in last place with a 51-134 record.
During that same season, Ray Roberts posted a 9-27 record with the Mobile Bears of the Southern Association. This was a more notable feat, as the Bears played only a 152 game schedule. While pitching 248 innings, Roberts allowed 326 hits and walked another 100 as he made his way through a very long summer in the South.
Through the 1920’s and early1930’s, the number of 20-game losers in the minors continued to greatly outnumber those of the majors. Their numbers began to drop, however, as the effects of the Great Depression and the arrival and growth of major league farm systems took hold. The PCL cut back its schedule by 20 games and other leagues followed suit, with the 154-game schedule increasing in popularity. In 1929, there were twelve 20-game losers in the minors, and by 1939 the number had shrunk to 5. Several feats stand out during that decade, including Tom Sunkel’s 6-26 with Asheville of the Piedmont League in 1936 and Ken Sheehan’s 4-27 record with the 1938 Oakland Oaks.
During World War II, minor league baseball barely held on and the numbers continued to drop.
After the war, the minor league boom began and record numbers of teams and players appeared. However, Branch Rickey’s farm system brainstorm had caught taken over much of professional baseball, and teams like the Cardinals, Yankees, and Dodgers filled the rosters of cities and towns throughout North America. With the minors becoming a feeding channel to the major league teams and individual players spending only one season or even less than a season with one team, records for both achievement and futility were becoming less common. Those records that were being set became the domain of career minor leaguers – Ballard Branham at 8-23 with Leesburg in 1948, Mike Giardullo with a 5-25 record with New Castle in 1949, and Frank Dasso’s 8-25 with Wenatchee in 1952.
During the decade of the 1960’s, only five pitchers lost 20 or more in the minors; Julian Ladera at 9-20 with the Mexican League’s Veracruz Aguilas in 1960, Kim Elliott’s 4-21 with Wenatchee in 1960, John Dewald also at 4-21 with Tri-Cities in 1961, Harold Haddock’s 10-21 with Salinas in 1963, and George Angel completing the list at 5-20 with the 1964 York White Roses.
In the 1970’s there were only two, both of which came in the non-affiliated Mexican League. Angel Davila went 9-20 with Reynosa in 1971 and Ernest Lee posted a 7-20 record with Coahuila in 1975.
Our final entry for both the majors and minors comes from the 1990’s, when Tim Smith of the Eastern League’s New Britain Red Sox finished the season with a 3-20 record in 1992.
The Professional Baseball Player Database (published by this author), lists Rich Werner of the 1993 Pioneer League’s Helena Brewers with a 1-25 record. As noteworthy as such an accomplishment would be, it is the result of a typographical error. In fact, Mr. Werner’s record was actually 1-2 for that season. The error has been corrected and he will no longer appear as one of the game’s most unsuccessful pitchers of all time.
For those who really did lose 20, however, there is a place on the list of baseball rarities. For many, such as Brian Kingman, the accomplishment serves as a source of pride. It speaks of endurance and commitment to a team. It also speaks of a strength, found less often in recent times, through which an individual chooses to face the possibility of failure rather than hiding in the dugout or clubhouse as the record approaches.
Mike Maroth and Jeremy Bonderman have exhibited skills that will be more obvious on a winning team. It will be interesting to see, five or ten years down the road, how much their ability to endure the 2003 season will prepare them for success in the future.