So much is made these days of the 20-game winner and how it’s becoming more and more of a rarity to have a pitcher win 20 games in a single season. Though it may not be as rare as the 300 career wins mark, it is a feat that seems reserved for fewer and fewer each season.
Something of an even rarer feat is the 20-game loser. In fact, in the time that has passed since Major League Baseball had its last 20-game loser (Mike Maroth, 2003), there have been twenty-six 20-game winners in baseball. Before Maroth, it hadn’t happened since 1980.
In fact, it is so rare, that there are several teams who have never had a 20-game loser. Obviously, with only one 20-game loser in the bigs since 1980, the Colorado Rockies, Miami Marlins, Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Rays have not had one. But also, the Toronto Blue Jays, Kansas City Royals, Los Angeles Angels and Seattle Mariners have gone without a 20-game loser.
Conversely, only the Rockies are without a 20-game winner in their history.
With the rate of turnover in baseball nowadays, it would surprise me if a 20-game loser ever happened again. A guy would either be sent back down to the minors or simply released if he started the season something like 2-10.
If by some chance it were to happen again, that player would have the distinction of being the 500th occurrence of the 20-loss season in major professional baseball history.
Since 1872, it has happened 499 times. There have been players with multiple seasons accomplishing the “feat” and there have even been several players to win AND lose 20+ in the same season.
Since the turn of the twentieth-century, it has occurred 204 times. And since 1970, it has happened only 16 times. Teammates have accomplished the feat together on several occasions, but only once, has an entire pitching rotation accomplished the feat in one season.
I present for your review, the 1905 Boston Beaneaters.
The Beaneaters were the precursor to the Boston/Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves, and in 1905, they had a very bad year. The Beaneaters posted a record of 51-103, seventh in the National League, 54 1/2 games behind the New York Giants for the pennant. The Brooklyn Superbas were actually worse at 48-104, but they only had two 20-game losers.
In 1905, the Beaneaters ran out a starting rotation of Irv Young, Vic Willis, Chick Fraser and Kaiser Wilhelm. Four other pitchers started eight games, while the starting four took care of the rest. As a unit, the Beaneaters threw 139 complete games and posted a team ERA of 3.52.
In 2014, the Kansas City Royals and the San Francisco Giants both went to the World Series with a similar team ERA (3.51 and 3.50, respectively). But in 1905, 49 pitchers in the Majors had an ERA under 3.00, with eight of those having a sub-2.00 mark.
Of course, it didn’t help that the team batting average sat at a measly .234. That’s bad. That’s 2012 Seattle Mariners bad.
Let’s take a closer look at the Fab Four.
Irv Young- The 27-year-old rookie was a 20-game winner and a 20-game loser at 20-21, with an ERA of 2.90. It was the first of three consecutive 20-loss seasons for Young. He also led the league with 41 complete games and 378 innings pitched.
Despite the 21 losses, Young had the highest WAR for pitchers that year (9.2), just ahead of New York’s Christy Mathewson (9.1), who won 31 games.
Vic Willis- The biggest loser of the group, Willis almost joined the 30-loss club with a 12-29 record. His 3.21 ERA was second on the team, and while that would be a good mark in today’s game, it wasn’t even close to the top ten in the NL that year. Mathewson led the Senior Circuit with a 1.28 ERA.
The 1905 season was the second of consecutive 20-loss seasons for Willis, even though he had won 20 games in four previous seasons, including a 27-8 mark in 1899 with a league-leading 2.50 ERA. A change of scenery would benefit Willis, as in 1906 he joined the Pittsburgh Pirates and went 23-13, with a 1.73 ERA that year.
Chick Fraser- Owner of a 14-28 record in 1905, Fraser had five 20-loss seasons in his career and was actually about as good as one could’ve expected that season.
Kaiser Wilhelm- At 3-23 with an ERA of 4.53, Wilhelm was clearly the anti-ace of the staff. In nine big league seasons, Wilhelm was never spectacular. Though it’s interesting to point out that in 1908, while with the Brooklyn Superbas, Wilhelm had a 1.87 ERA, but posted a record of 16-22, as the team scored only 375 runs en route to a 53-101 record.
It’s worth noting that the 1908 Superbas almost had four 20-game losers. Nap Rucker lost 19, keeping Brooklyn from the feat.
Many teams have lost more games than the ’05 Beaneaters. I think that’s what makes this feat so fascinating, the fact that it hasn’t happened before or since, despite the seemingly average number of losses. How many have come close? Let’s take a look at some of the biggest losers.
The 1916 Philadelphia Athletics came close. That year they had three 20-game losers, and posted a record of 36-117.
The 1935 Boston Braves – with a 40-year-old Babe Ruth – went 38-115, but surprisingly had only one 20-game loser.
The 1962 New York Mets were 40-120, but had only one 20-game loser as well.
The 1904 Washington Senators were 38-113, and had three 20-game losers.
Not even the 1899 Cleveland Spiders – who were 20-134 – had more than two 20-game losers. Though they did have a 30-game loser in Jim Hughey (4-30). They also used 14 different pitchers who started at least one game that year.
So, with baseball trending toward dominating pitching once again, it is quite unlikely that we will ever see a single 20-game loser, let alone an entire starting rotation of them.
But, I suppose we should never say never. For Beaneaters fans in the 1905 season, probably thought to themselves, “We can’t be THAT bad this year. Can we?”