Protecting pitchers from 20 losses defeatist attitude

Why the stigma of losing 20 games? Bad enough for Steve Carlton, should be good enough for others.

Originally Published: June 25, 2003
By Rob Neyer | ESPN.com

It's been 23 years, but Brian Kingman's not quite ready to give up his crown yet. Kingman, of course, was the last major-league pitcher to lose 20 games in a single season. But why has it been so long? And when did it become such a terrible thing?

First off, let's remember that a lot of good pitchers have lost 20 games in a season. Wilbur Wood lost 20 games a couple of times. Jerry Koosman once lost 20 games, and so did Steve Rogers, Mickey Lolich, Luis Tiant, and Mel Stottlemyre. Steve Carlton's in the Hall of Fame, and he once lost 20 games. Phil Niekro's in the Hall of Fame, and he lost 20 games ... twice.

Steve Carlton
Steve Carlton won a career high 27 games in 1972.

Here's the number of 20-game losers in each decade from the 1950s through the 1990s:

    1950s 11
    1960s 16
    1970s 14
    1980s  1
    1990s  0
    

And that "1" just barely squeaked in, as Kingman's 20-loss season came in the first season of the 1980s. In other words, there are many thousands of college graduates who weren't even alive the last time a major-league pitcher lost 20 games in one season.

Oh, there certainly have been a few close calls. Since Kingman reached the magical mark, eight pitchers have lost 19 games.

In 1985, Pittsburgh's Jose DeLeon suffered his 18th loss on Sept. 16, and was then sent to the bullpen (from where he suffered his 19th loss on the last day of the season).

Also in 1985, Seattle's Matt Young lost 19 games, but that was as many as he could lose. Young was in the rotation all season, and reached 19 only by losing each of his last four starts.

In 1987, Seattle's Mike Moore could have lost 20 ... but he didn't. On Sept. 20, Moore recorded his 19th loss, but that didn't keep him out of the rotation. Moore started two more games, both against the Rangers, and he won both of them to finish 9-19.

In 1990, St. Louis' Jose DeLeon -- yes, him again -- suffered his 19th loss on Sept. 27. The Cardinals did have six games left, but DeLeon wasn't allowed to pitch in any of them.

Also in 1990, something similar happened to the Yankees' Tim Leary (not that he was an innocent bystander). Leary didn't actually pitch all that bad, but when he lost on Sept. 19 he ran (or sunk) his record to 9-19. The Yankees would play 13 more games, but Leary would not pitch in even one of them.

In 1991, Angels right-hander Kirk McCaskill earned $2.1 million (which was, in those long-ago days, a lot of money). He also lost 19 games despite skipping most of September.

McCaskill actually lost his 18th on Sept. 4 but didn't pitch again until Sept. 27 (when, of course, he lost again).

On pace for 20
  • Following are the five pitchers who are on pace to reach 20 losses. Note: Glendon Rusch, who has 11 losses, is not included because he was sent to the minors on June 21:
  • Pitcher,
    Team
    Current
    W-L
    Proj. W-L
    Mike Maroth,
    Tigers
    2-11 4-24
    Jeremy Bonderman,
    Tigers
    2-11 4-24
    Adam Bernero,
    Tigers
    1-10 2-22
    Mark Buehrle,
    White Sox
    4-10 9-21
    Omar Daal,
    Orioles
    4-9 9-20

    In 1993, Minnesota's Scott Erickson -- who'd pitched a no-hitter just the season before -- lost 19 games. He didn't duck No. 20, though. Erickson got hung with his 19th loss on Sept. 19, but started again on the 24th and the 29th, getting no-decisioned both times (he pitched decently on the 24th, and exceptionally well on the 29th). As Dennis Brackin wrote in The Scouting Report: 1994, "... [G]ive Erickson credit for his guts."

    After Erickson, we had to wait seven seasons for another 19-game loser. In 2000, the Phillies' Omar Daal was sitting at 3-19 after losing his start against the Marlins on September 16. He kept on plugging away, though. On the 21st, he pitched six strong innings but didn't get the decision (in a game the Phillies eventually won). And on the 26th, he gave up 10 hits in six innings but permitted just one run, earning his fourth victory on the season. Daal's turn in the rotation came up again on the last day of the season, but this time he or the Phillies decided that discretion was the better part of valor, and so he didn't take a chance on No. 20.

    In 2001, San Diego's Bobby Jones reached Loss No. 19 in his 33rd, and final, start of the season. Jones lasted only 2 2/3 innings in that start, so theoretically he could have pitched out of the bullpen in one (or more) of the Padres' last four games of the season. But he didn't.

    So one of the big reasons nobody's lost 20 games since 1980 is obviously that a number of pitchers weren't allowed to lose 20 games. Of the eight 19-game losers since 1980, roughly half were removed from the rotation in the closing stages of the season, apparently to protect their records.

    But there's another reason we don't see many (OK, any) 20-game losers these days. These days, pitchers just don't start enough games to lose 20 times. As noted earlier, a dozen pitchers lost 20 games in the 1970s, with two of those pitchers doing it twice. Those 14 pitcher-seasons included an average of nearly 39 starts. Putting that into perspective, no major-leaguer has started more than 37 games since 1987, when Charlie Hough racked up 40 starts.

    So it's that powerful combination -- fewer games started, along with teams' general unwillingness to let their pitchers lose 20 games -- that's led to the apparent demise of the 20-game loser. But is the beast really dead, or just hibernating?

    Rusch
    Rusch

    Well, there's one more problem with losing 20 games ... You have to pitch poorly enough to lose 20 and you have to pitch well enough to lose 20. Glendon Rusch has 11 losses and an 8.61 ERA, which means he just won't get a chance to lose 20. Among Detroit's current trio of double-digit losers, Jeremy Bonderman would seem to have the best shot at 20 losses, because 1) he's not pitching particularly well (5.10 ERA), 2) his teammates don't score particularly often, and 3) he is pitching well enough to justify his spot in the Tigers rotation.

    But what about the psychology? The embarrassment?

    After losing Monday, Bonderman was asked if he should perhaps be spared the ignominy of losing 20 games. His response?

    "Spare me what? There's no sparing. So what, my stats. One year? I have a lot more than one year in the big leagues (coming). If I finish the season 2-25, I'm still here and working hard."

    Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski said, "You hope it doesn't happen, but it doesn't bother me. It would depend on how they handled it."

    Every player is different, but it seems to me that most pitchers tough enough to deal with the pressures of pitching in the major leagues are also tough enough to deal with losing 20 games. And considering the company, if somebody does manage to lose 20 games this year, he should wear that distinction like a badge of honor.

    Senior writer Rob Neyer writes four columns per week during the baseball season. His new book, "Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Lineups," has just been published by Fireside. For more information about the book and Rob's upcoming book signings in Seattle (June 28), Portland (June 30), and Denver (July 9), visit Rob's Web site.

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