20 the spiky way

I have a weakness for silly lists of fluky occurrences. They aren’t important and they don’t prove anything, and perhaps that’s their very charm: They’re just fun for the sake of fun.

It turns out that a guy named Brandon Isleib shares this interest. He and I have swapped emails on various subjects, and he likes to do research on this or that arcane question and share the data with me. Today we’re looking at one topic he’s explored.

Brandon identified every pitcher in major league history since 1901 who has:

– Won at least 15 games in one season
– While never winning as many as 15 games in any other season

It turns out 318 pitchers have met these criteria. Our focus will be on the pitchers within that group who were 20-game winners in their lone 15-plus-win season. There have been 50, and quite a few have interesting stories.

Spiking to 20

Twenty-four pitchers won exactly 20 games while never again reaching 15.

Pitcher            Team    Year    Record   2nd best  3rd best   Career
Ray Sadecki       STL N    1964    20-11     14-10      12-6    135-131
Ned Garver        STL A    1951    20-12     14-11     13-18    129-157
Mike Krukow        SF N    1986     20-9     13-11     11-11    124-117
Al Downing         LA N    1971     20-9     14-10      13-5    123-107
Ray Herbert       CHI A    1962     20-9     14-15     13-10    104-107
Alex Kellner      PHI A    1949    20-12     12-14      11-8    101-112
Joe Shaute        CLE A    1924    20-17     14-10     13-17     99-109
Allen Sothoron    STL A    1919    20-13     14-19      13-8     91-100
Sloppy Thurston   CHI A    1924    20-14     13-13      12-8     89-86
Cliff Melton       NY N    1937     20-9     14-14     12-15     86-80
Ben Cantwell      BOS N    1933    20-10     13-11      9-9      76-108
Luke Hamlin       BKN N    1939    20-13     12-15     11-13     73-76
Otto Hess         CLE A    1906    20-17     12-17     10-15     70-90
Jim Turner        BOS N    1937    20-11      14-7     14-18     69-60
Dave Boswell      MIN A    1969    20-12     14-12      12-5     68-56
Patsy Flaherty    PIT N    1904    20-11     12-15     12-18     67-84
Bob Grim           NY A    1954     20-6      12-8      7-5      61-41
Pete Schneider    CIN N    1917    20-19     14-19     10-15     59-86
Wayne Garland     BAL A    1976     20-7     13-19      6-9      55-66
Roger Wolff       WAS A    1945    20-10     12-15     10-15     52-69
Gene Bearden      CLE A    1948     20-7      8-8       7-8      45-38
Lou Fette         BOS N    1937    20-10     11-13     10-10     41-40
Scott Perry       PHI A    1918    20-19     11-25      4-17     40-68
Buck O'Brien      BOS A    1912    20-13      5-1       4-11     29-25

Several of these guys had long and largely successful careers. Perhaps the best pitcher was Ned Garver, whose career record was 129-157 only because he had the misfortune of pitching for a tail-end ball club in nearly every one of his 14 big league seasons. Garver’s career ERA+ was 112 in almost 2,500 innings. His lone 20-win season was achieved with a woefully bad St. Louis Browns team: Their record when Garver didn’t get the decision was 32-90, with their next-highest-winning pitcher racking up a total of six victories.

Wayne Garland had the good fortune to win his 20 games just as he was entering the first free-agent market in history. The Indians signed the 26-year-old to a staggering 10-year, $2.3 million contract (bear in mind that he’d grossed $23,500 in 1976), but arm trouble soon rendered Garland completely ineffective, and he became a poster boy for ill-considered free agent deals.

Dave Boswell’s big year was achieved under a rookie manager named Billy Martin, and along with his 20 wins Boswell notched one widely noted fistfight with Martin.

Seven of these pitchers were rookies: Alex Kellner, Cliff Melton, Jim Turner, Bob Grim, Gene Bearden, Lou Fette and Scott Perry. Three—Melton, Turner, and Fette—debuted in the 1937 National League, with Turner and Fette each winning 20 as rookie teammates with the Boston Bees.

Neither Turner nor Fette was your typical callow-youth rookie; Fette was 30 years old and Turner was 33. Them was the days of the independent minors, ya know. Fette hadn’t been a star in the minors, but he’d hung around in the American Association for eight years, absorbing a lot of punishment: He gave up more than 300 hits in four separate seasons. But in the last of them, after five straight losing records, Fette suddenly went 25-8 and the Bees bought him. Turner, on the other hand, was a great minor league pitcher: Over 14 seasons, in seven leagues, Turner had been 219-146. His major league career, 69 wins and a 111 ERA+ in 1132 innings, was a mere coda.

Grim, the 1954 American League Rookie of the Year, won his 20 games in unusual fashion. He started only 20 games and relieved in 17, going 8-0 out of the bullpen; his 199 total innings were the fewest worked by any 20-game winner in major league history.

Bearden was a 27-year-old rookie who’d been wounded in action during World War II, surviving the sinking of a Navy cruiser during battle in the Pacific. His pitching in 1948 was utterly brilliant, as he led the league in ERA (2.43) and ERA+ (167). Bearden won all five of his starts, two via shutout, in the final two weeks of Cleveland’s grueling pennant race against the Red Sox and Yankees, including a complete-game victory at Fenway Park in that season’s single-game playoff. He then picked up a win and a save while working 10 and two-thirds scoreless innings in the Indians’ World Series victory. But Bearden never again approached that level of effectiveness, as hitters learned to lay off his nasty-but-uncontrollable knuckleball.

Perry, also a 27-year-old rookie, pitched better than his 20-19 record would suggest, as it was achieved with a last-place team. His ERA+ was 148, third best in the league, and he led the league in starts, complete games and innings. But Perry flopped hard the next season, and would go 18-48 for the rest of his short major league career.

I don’t know if Buck O’Brien could properly be classified as a rookie in 1912, as he had pitched in six games and 48 innings (with, get this, a 0.38 ERA) the previous September. In any case O’Brien had a fine year for the pennant-winning Red Sox of 1912, but in the World Series things didn’t go so well for him. In the third game, he pitched eight strong innings but lost, 2-1. The night before Game 6, O’Brien, apparently unaware that he’d be called upon to start the next day, went out drinking in New York. The next day he was shelled for six hits and five runs in the first inning, and after being pulled O’Brien was involved in an altercation with Red Sox ace pitcher Smokey Joe Wood.

O’Brien pitched poorly the next season, and in July he was sold to the White Sox, and a month later sold again to the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League, and never again appeared in the majors.

Looking Back at the 2017 Postseason
Systematically rating the excitement of this year's playoffs.
A 21-win salute

This crew went one better than 20 in their lone big-winning year.

Pitcher            Team    Year    Record   2nd best  3rd best   Career
Esteban Loaiza    CHI A    2003     21-9     12-10      11-9    123-108
Vern Kennedy      CHI A    1936     21-9     14-13      12-9    104-132
Bill Swift         SF N    1993     21-8      11-9      10-4     94-78
Ralph Branca      BKN N    1947    21-12      14-9      13-5     88-68
Bill Voiselle      NY N    1944    21-16     14-14     13-13     74-84
Jimmy Dygert      PHI A    1907     21-8     11-13     11-15     57-49
Al Schulz         BUF F    1915    21-14     10-15      8-19     47-62
Johnny Beazley    STL N    1942     21-6      7-5       2-0      31-12

Esteban Loaiza is still active, of course (if being on the 60-day disabled list qualifies as “active”), and so might achieve another 15-win season, but somehow I’m not holding my breath. He pitched brilliantly in 2003, but that was clearly a fluke amid a journeyman’s career.

Vern Kennedy’s big year was pretty fluky as well. His career total of 1,049 walks against 691 strikeouts is rather ghastly; Kennedy’s career KBB+ of 71 is among the worst of all time.

Bill Swift, on the other hand, was a genuinely excellent pitcher for several years, whether working as a starter or reliever. His only problem was keeping healthy: He was on the disabled list 13 times in his 13-year big league career.

He’ll forever be known for surrendering a particular home run, but Ralph Branca was in fact a very good pitcher, though like Swift he battled chronic arm trouble. Branca was just 21 years old in 1947 when he put together his big-winning season, and it was a humdinger: He was in the top three in the league in starts, innings, wins, strikeouts, ERA and ERA+.

Big Bill Voiselle, from a small town in South Carolina called Ninety-Six, had a monster season as a wartime rookie in 1944, leading the league in starts, innings, and strikeouts, and being named National League Pitcher of the Year by The Sporting News. Though he remained in the majors through mid-1950, Voiselle never had another season remotely like that.

At the tender age of 22 in 1907, Jimmy Dygert stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the best in an all-time great pitching staff that featured future Hall of Famers Eddie Plank, Rube Waddell and Chief Bender. But Dygert receded quickly and threw his final big league pitch at the age of 26. I don’t know but it sure appears as though he encountered arm problems.

Though it’s considered as having been a major league, the stats of players like Al Schulz provide reason to question the quality of play in the Federal League. In the American and National Leagues, Schulz compiled a record of 17-36.

Johnny Beazley enjoyed a brilliant rookie year for the great Cardinals team of 1942, including two complete-game victories over the Yankees in the World Series. He then entered the military, and demonstrated that not all wartime injuries are combat-related: Beazley hurt his arm pitching for an Army ball team, and was never effective again.

Twenty-two and then boo-hoo

Pitcher            Team    Year    Record   2nd best  3rd best   Career
Richard Dotson    CHI A    1983     22-7     14-15      12-9    111-113
Bob Porterfield   WAS A    1953    22-10     13-14     13-15     87-97
Monte Weaver      WAS A    1932    22-10      12-9     11-15     71-50
Sammy Ellis       CIN N    1965    22-10     12-19      10-3     63-58
Dontrelle Willis  FLA N    2005    22-10      14-6     12-12     60-39
Mike Norris       OAK A    1980     22-9      12-9      7-11     58-59
Nick Cullop        KC F    1915    22-11     14-20      13-6     57-55
Henry Schmidt     BKN N    1903    22-13       X         X       22-13

Richard Dotson’s fortunes parallelled those of his ball club: The White Sox in the 1980s were generally mediocre, but they put it all together for one terrific division-winning season in 1983, with Dotson enjoying a career year.

For a guy with a rather humdrum career, Bob Porterfield had quite a season in 1953. Among his 22 victories were nine shutouts, the most by any pitcher in the major leagues between 1948 and 1963. And those 22 wins were the most by any pitcher on the Senators-Twins franchise between 1933 and 1966.

Monte Weaver’s 22-10 mark as a rookie in 1932 was pretty fluky: His ERA+ was only 105, and he allowed 20 unearned runs to boot, but received great run support. After that he was bothered by injuries.

The 22-10 record posted by Sammy Ellis in 1965 was even more of a run-support artifact, as his ERA+ was just 99, and he was backed by an offense that produced the highest team OPS+ in the major leagues between 1953 and 1971. But Ellis had pitched brilliantly in a bullpen role as a rookie in 1964, and the Reds thought they had a star on their hands. However, Ellis was a colossal flop in 1966, serving up 35 homers as his ERA+ dwindled to 74 and his won-lost record thudded to 12-19. He was gone from the majors by age 28.

Dontrelle Willis was legitimately superb in 2005, and he’s still just 25 and may have more great seasons ahead of him. It is the case, though, that outside of that one tremendous year Willis has been agonizingly inconsistent. He might go on to become a major star, but he also might become a “what might have been” story.

Speaking of “what might have been” stories: How about Mike Norris? If cocaine addiction hadn’t brought him down, perhaps the effects of the 24 complete games he threw in 1980 would have, but in any case for one fleeting season Norris was wickedly effective.

Nick Cullop is another guy who suddenly found stardom in the Federal League, but when he returned to the American League in 1916 Cullop was pitching extremely well. Then he appears to have suffered an arm injury. His strikeout rate plunged from 4.1 per nine innings in 1916 to 1.7 per nine in 1917, and with it his effectiveness.

And then we have the fascinating case of Henry Schmidt. He’d distinguished himself in the Pacific Coast League, and was brought to the majors by the Brooklyn Superbas. Schmidt had a fine year as a 30-year-old big league rookie. While it’s important to remember that 22 wins wasn’t all that special in 1903, he was in the league top 10 in wins, as well as games, complete games, innings and shutouts.

But Schmidt returned his 1904 Brooklyn contract unsigned, with a note that simply said, “I do not like living in the East and will not report.” Whether he was sincere or this was simply a salary negotiation tactic isn’t clear, but either way Schmidt returned to the PCL, which at that point was still an “outlaw” league (not recognizing the Reserve Clause), and thus allowing Schmidt to jump. In 1904 he went 26-28 in 478 innings for the Oakland Commuters in their 225-game season, and then 18-17 in 1905.

The towering 23

Pitcher            Team    Year    Record   2nd best  3rd best   Career
Danny Jackson     CIN N    1988     23-8      14-6     14-12    112-131
Ellis Kinder      BOS A    1949     23-6     14-12      11-2     102-71
George McQuillan  PHI N    1908    23-17     13-16     13-17     85-89
Red Barrett       STL N    1945    23-12     12-18     11-12     69-69
Frank Allen       PIT F    1915    23-13      9-14      8-14     50-67
Nick Maddox       PIT N    1908     23-8      13-8      5-1      43-20
Roscoe Miller     DET A    1901    23-13      7-7       7-20     39-45

Credit Bill James with one of the all-time great preseason calls. Through the 1987 season, Danny Jackson had compiled a career record of just 37-49, but when discussing MLB’s intention to crack down on umpires to call the rule book strike zone in 1988, this is what James wrote in his Baseball Abstract 1988:

The guys who will be helped the most are the young, wild hard-throwers, in the class of (names several pitchers, including Danny Jackson) …. I don’t make many predictions, but I’m predicting this. A couple of the pitchers in that class, those I mentioned or somebody I forgot just like them, are going to go 22-5 or 24-7 or something … in 1988 we’re going to be giving these guys a high strike. That’s the pitch they need; these guys don’t throw for the knees. They’re wild high. You give Danny Jackson that slider above the belt, and I’m telling you the batter is going to have his hands full. Giving Danny Jackson the high strike is like giving a grizzly bear the first swat.

“22-5 or 24-7 or something”? How about 23-8? James nailed it with Jackson, a lights-out bullseye.

Alas, Jackson then encountered chronic arm trouble. Though he was able to rebound with a couple of decent years in the early 1990s, Jackson was never again the dazzling star he was in 1988.

Ellis Kinder spent the first half of his career toiling in semi-pro and independent low-minors obscurity. While there he put together some fine seasons, including a 21-9, 2.38 ERA, 307-strikeout performance in the Class D Kentucky-Illinois-Tennessee (Kitty) League in 1940. Kinder didn’t reach the majors until the age of 31, but once there he was consistently excellent.

His spectacular season in 1949 came at the age of 34, after which the Red Sox decided they’d get more mileage out of Kinder from the bullpen. He then became one of the elite relief aces in baseball in the early 1950s, helping to define the “fireman” role. It isn’t difficult to imagine Kinder achieving a Hall of Fame career under the right circumstances; he was that good.

Debuting in the majors with the Phillies at the age of 22 on May 8, 1907, for some reason George McQuillan pitched in only six games that season. He made the most of that limited exposure, tossing scoreless baseball for his first 25 innings, and allowing a total of just three runs and 21 hits in 41 innings, going 4-0. In 1908, he pitched a full season, and was among the league’s stars, in the top five in games, starts, complete games, innings, shutouts, ERA, and ERA+. But then illness and arm trouble plagued McQuillan, and he bounced around.

Red Barrett had a long career as a minor league star. He’d accumulated 121 minor league victories through 1942, including three 20-plus-win seasons. World War II provided the opportunity for him to pitch in the majors, and Barrett rose to the occasion, leading the National League in complete games, innings and wins in 1945.

Frank Allen is another guy whose career might raise one’s eyebrow over the quality of play of the Federal League. In five seasons in the National League, Allen was 26-54, never getting close to 200 innings; in between in the FL he was a star.

Nick Maddox was sort of a Wally Bunker or Mark Fidrych of his day. He was a soft-tosser who burst onto the major league scene at a tender age. He was 5-1 with a 0.83 ERA in six complete-game starts in September of 1907, and then at age 21 went 23-8. But he faded and disappeared very quickly; he certainly appears to have succumbed to arm trouble.

Perhaps it isn’t to the same degree as the Federal League, but there are quality-of-play questions about the nascent 1901 American League. Remember that in this league, Nap Lajoie hit .426, 42 points better than his next-highest average, and Cy Young achieved a career-best 216 ERA+ in 371 innings at age 34. So, the outstanding 1901 rookie performance of Roscoe Miller might deserve something of an asterisk, and his subsequent dropoff might be understood. Nevertheless the dropoff was sudden and severe. I suspect, along with everything else, Miller encountered the same sort of arm issues that have always plagued young aces.

Sliding from 24

Pitcher            Team    Year    Record   2nd best  3rd best   Career
Ron Bryant         SF N    1973    24-12      14-7      7-10     57-56

Ron Bryant’s fastball wasn’t outstanding, but his curve was: An old-fashioned roundhouse knee-buckler. He often struggled to get the big-breaker into the strike zone, but when he was getting Uncle Charlie over, it set up his sinking, tailing fastball beautifully, and Bryant could be very tough to hit.

He was pudgy, an easygoing sort who carried the nickname of “Teddy Bear,” and all indications are that Bryant never met a party he didn’t like. So in the early spring of 1974, when the reports came out that Bryant had suffered a major injury—a deep gash in his side—while cavorting on a swimming pool slide, everyone kind of went, “Huh?” How, exactly, does one manage to incur a deep gash from a swimming pool slide?

It always struck me as something you’d have to work very hard at bringing off. Suffice to say that the swimming pool slide story didn’t really add up. Bryant had hurt himself, that was clear, but exactly how he’d done it (and exactly how inebriated he was at the time) remained questions that were never clearly resolved. Maybe Bryant himself didn’t know how the hell he’d done it.

But he’d done it. Embarrassed by the whole silly business, Bryant rushed himself back into action early in the ’74 season, almost as soon as his stitches were pulled, without having benefit of a real spring training. He’d never been a stickler for conditioning anyway, but now he was clearly not in game shape. Bryant’s form in 1974 was a mess, and his results were worse: He didn’t manage to get his ERA below 6.00 until mid-August, and he wound up with a record of 3-15.

The Giants traded him for whatever they could get, and Bryant gave it another try with the Cardinals in 1975. But he just didn’t have it anymore, and less than two years after his 24-win season, Bryant was burnt toast.

Those 24 wins were sort of a fluke. Bryant pitched well in 1973, but not that well. Still, he was a very good pitcher for a couple of years, but when he lost it, on a swimming pool slide or wherever it might have been, Bryant lost it suddenly and for good.

He wasn’t one to get too depressed about it, however. Bryant went to Reno, Nev., and found work as a casino card dealer, by all accounts continuing to enjoy life.

Twenty-five and then a dive

Pitcher            Team    Year    Record   2nd best  3rd best   Career
George McConnell  CHI F    1915    25-10      8-12      4-12     41-51

Add George McConnell to the list that makes one wonder about the Federal League. He was 16-41 in the AL and NL, but led the FL with 25 wins in his lone season there.

The Jamesian heights

Pitcher            Team    Year    Record   2nd best  3rd best   Career
Bill James        BOS N    1914     26-7      6-10      5-4      37-21

One of two namesakes of the baseball analyst/writer to have pitched in the big leagues in the 1910s, this Bill James is rather an enigma. At the age of 22, he emerged from obscurity to put together a stunningly great year for the “Miracle Braves” of 1914: He led the league in winning percentage, was fourth in games, fifth in starts, third in complete games and innings, fifth in strikeouts, second in wins and ERA and third in ERA+. For good measure, in the second game of the World Series James bested Eddie Plank 1-0, shutting out the heavily favored A’s on two hits while striking out eight. In the next game, two days later, James pitched two hitless, scoreless innings of relief and picked up another win.

But that was pretty much it for him. The next year James was 5-4 with an 85 ERA+ in just 13 games, and but for a single-game appearance four years after that, his major league career was over. It would strongly appear that he severely injured his arm.

James was 6-foot-3 and 196 pounds, extremely tall for those days. His primary pitch, as it was for so many in that era, was the spitball; his strikeout rates suggest that he threw very hard.

He went by the nickname of “Seattle Bill” for reasons that elude me: He was born in California, attended college in California (he was a St. Mary’s Gael), and died in California. The only season I can locate Seattle Bill playing in the Pacific Coast League, he didn’t play for Seattle, but instead for the Portland Beavers and Oakland Oaks.

24-karat diamond-writing gems bonus

The autobiography by this excellent pitcher is one of the purest baseball-reading pleasures one can enjoy, macho-style:

I developed my strong right arm early in life by getting in rock fights and by making bets I could throw rocks farther than anybody thought any boy ever could. I didn’t know then that in later life my right arm would be my sole means of support….

The first ball I played was in the street. You could buy a ball for a dime, which was the most we ever had, but you hit it good once or twice and you would have to go look for friction tape. We would wrap the balls up so much you could hardly pick them up, let alone hit them. We finally got smart and and would go to the store and slip a dollar ball in the dime box of balls and hand it to the girl with a dime. A dollar ball would last us three or four days. Then we would go back and switch balls again….

There was an old hotel about a hundred yards from the station. I used to bet the railroad men ten cents that I could throw a rock over the hotel from the station. I never lost a bet, and after about thirty days the word got around the railroad men that came in there, and none of them would give me a bet. For the rest of the time I worked at the railroad, I used to throw rocks over that hotel for thirty minutes a day. I never had a sore arm in my life.

Kirby Higbe

References & Resources
Bill James, The Bill James Baseball Abstract 1988, New York: Ballantine, 1988, p. 28.

Kirby Higbe with Martin Quigley, The High Hard One, New York: Viking, 1967, pp. 3, 10, 12.

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