Sunday, September 22, 2013

Remembering Tigers Twenty-Game Winners

When Tigers right hander Max Scherzer won his 20th game of the year on Friday night, it did not create the same buzz it would have in earlier decades.  While winning twenty games is rarer now than it's ever been (just one this year compared to 14 in in 1970 for example), there are plenty of modern statistics that describe the success of pitchers better than wins.  Still, Scherzer's feat does evoke memories of past Tigers 20-game winners.

In my first year as a Tigers fan in 1968, the now infamous Denny McLain became baseball's only 30-game winner since Dizzy Dean of the Cardinals in 1934.  I was only five years old at the time, so I didn't really know what was going on. Living in Red Sox-crazed Massachusetts, most fans around me were more interested in Boston superstar Carl Yatrzemski than McLain.  I just knew that McLain was really good.

The bespectacled right-hander went 31-6 with a league leading 28 complete games and 336 innings pitched in route the American League Cy Young award.  Despite his remarkable win total, McLain was not the best pitcher in baseball that year, let alone the best since 1934. While McLain posted an impressive 1.96 ERA and 154 ERA+ (ERA adjusted for league and ballpark where 100 is average and above 100 is better than average), Cardinals fire baller Bob Gibson compiled unimaginable marks of 1.12 ERA and 258 ERA+.  McLain won nine more games than Gibson thanks mostly to superior run support (5.2 runs per game versus 3.0).

McLain followed up his storied 1968 season with a 24-9 record in 1969.  He led the league with nine shutouts and compiled a 134 ERA+ to earn his second consecutive Cy Young. Unfortunately, I don't remember too much about McLain's glory days of the sixties.  Instead, my most vivid memory of McLain is his three-month suspension for gambling and bookmaking in 1970.  He would never have any success on the field after 1969 and his record off the field was much worse.

McLain's Tiger career ended when he was traded to the Washington Senators in a seven-player deal which netted the Tigers their next 20-game winner in Joe Coleman in what turned out to be one of the biggest heists in franchise history.  The Tigers also received shortstop Eddie Brinkman and third baseman Aurelio Rodriguez, two outstanding defenders who would man the left side of the Tigers infield for the next few years. 

Both Coleman and hefty left-hander Mickey Lolich won twenty games in 1971.  Lolich led the American League with 25 wins and 308 strikeouts and had a 124 ERA+, but finished second in the Cy Young voting to Athletics southpaw Vida Blue (24 wins and a 183 ERA+).  Coleman finished with a 20-9 record and 115 ERA+ giving the Tigers their last duo of 20-game winners.

Lolich's workload that year was more stunning than his win total as he led the AL with 45 starts, 376 innings pitched and 29 complete games.  It was no doubt a different game back then, but that was a lot of pitching even for that era (White Sox knuckle baller Wilbur Wood finished second in the AL with 336 innings).  Tigers fiery manager Billy Martin liked to work his starters hard as he aimed for short-term success and showed little concern for the future.

Lolich followed up with a 22-14 record in 327 innings in the strike-shortened 1972 season.  Coleman fell just short of the mark with 19 wins, but was the team's sole 20-game winner in 1973 when he went 23-15.  Coleman went into rapid decline after that season and pitching three straight seasons of 280+ innings (not too unusual at the time) might have had something to do with it.

It would be ten more seasons before another Tiger won twenty games.  Right-hander Jack Morris compiled a 20-13 record with a league-leading 294 innings and 232 strikeouts in 1983.  Morris was certainly a workhorse, but was only 10th in the league with a 3.34 ERA and finished third in the Cy Young voting.  Dan "Peaches" Petry (19 wins) just missed being the second Tiger with 20 wins that year.

Morris became the Tigers last repeat 20-game winner when he went 21-8 with a 127 ERA+ and a league-leading six shutouts in 1986.    

The Tigers next 20-game winner was Bill Gullickson who went 20-9 with an unremarkable 3.90 ERA in 1991.  His 108 ERA+ was only slightly above league average, but he led the league in wins thanks to 5.7 runs per game from a power-packed Tigers offense.  I think that was when I finally decided that pitcher win-loss record was not a good measure of pitcher success.

The next Tigers 20-game winner would not come until twenty years later in 2011. Justin Verlander went 25-5 with a league-leading 2.40 ERA and 250 strikeouts that year. While he had good offensive support, Verlander's fantastic 172 ERA+ showed that his lofty win total was no fluke.  It was the highest ERA+ for any Tigers full-time starter other than Hall-of-Fame lefty Hal Newhouser in 1945, 1946.

So, Scherzer (20-3, 139 ERA+) has joined some good company.  Here's hoping that he or Verlander can have the right combination of success/support to become the Tigers next repeat 20-game winner in the future. 

Note: Statistics for this post were abstracted from Baseball-Reference.com.

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