Lady Luck and the 20-Game Winner

August 14, 2017
  

2017-39

Lady Luck and the 20-Game Winner

              Most pitchers who win 20 games benefit from at least a little bit of good fortune in reaching that number.

              Since 1950 there have been 353 pitchers who won 20 games.   Of those 353, in my est bestimates, 123 won 20 or more games purely on merit, but 230 were pitchers who "should" have won 19 or less, but benefitted from some good fortune.  65% of twenty-game winners are luck-assisted.  On the other side, 77 pitchers since 1950 should have won 20 or more games, but fell short of that standard due to bad luck.  

              It’s not pure luck that makes 20 game winners; it is mostly skill mixed with a little bit of good luck.   Of the 240 who won 20 games but should have had 19 wins or less:

              38 should have been 19-game winners,

              48 should have been 18-game winners,

              57 should have been 17-game winners,

              38 should have been 16-game winners,

              25 should have been 15-game winners,

              17 should have been 14-game winners,

              6 should have been 13-game winners, and

              One should have been a 12-game winner. 

              I pointed out in a previous article that Red Ruffing, who won 20 games every year from 1936 to 1939, should have won 19 every year.    Adam Wainwright is like that.   He has won 20 games twice.   He was a little bit lucky, but not all that lucky; he should have been 19-8 both years.    Randy Johnson in 1997 was 20-4; he was lucky.   He should have been 19-5.   OK, he was a little bit lucky; he wasn’t really lucky.   The really lucky 20-game winners were:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Deserved

First

Last

Team

Year

Won

Lost

Wins

Losses

Johnny

Sain

Boston Braves

1950

20

13

14

18

Billy

Hoeft

Detroit Tigers

1956

20

14

14

14

Denny

McLain

Detroit Tigers

1966

20

14

14

16

Jim

Merritt

Cincinnati Reds

1970

20

12

14

12

Dave

McNally

Baltimore Orioles

1971

21

5

14

11

Stan

Bahnsen

Chicago White Sox

1972

21

16

14

15

Vida

Blue

Oakland A's

1973

20

9

14

16

Joe

Niekro

Houston Astros

1980

20

12

14

15

Bob

Welch

Oakland A's

1990

27

6

14

13

Scott

Erickson

Minnesota Twins

1991

20

8

14

9

Bill

Gullickson

Detroit Tigers

1991

20

9

14

12

Jack

Morris

Toronto Blue Jays

1992

21

6

14

13

John

Burkett

San Francisco Giants

1993

22

7

14

12

Rick

Helling

Texas Rangers

1998

20

7

14

10

Tim

Hudson

Oakland A's

2000

20

6

14

10

Jamie

Moyer

Seattle Mariners

2001

20

6

14

10

 

   

 

 

 

 

 

Bob

Grim

New York Yankees

1954

20

6

13

10

Ray

Sadecki

St. Louis Cardinals

1964

20

11

13

12

Catfish

Hunter

Oakland A's

1973

21

5

13

16

John

Smiley

Pittsburgh Pirates

1991

20

8

13

10

Andy

Pettitte

New York Yankees

2003

21

8

13

11

Russ

Ortiz

Atlanta Braves

2003

21

7

13

12

Jered

Weaver

LAA Angels

2012

20

5

13

9

 

   

 

 

 

 

 

Bob

Forsch

St. Louis Cardinals

1977

20

7

12

13

 

              How did those pitchers do in the following seasons?  This chart adds their won-lost records in the next seasons:

 

 

 

 

 

 

Deserved

Next Season

First

Last

Team

Year

Won

Lost

Wins

Losses

Won

Lost

Johnny

Sain

Boston Braves

1950

20

13

14

18

7

14

Billy

Hoeft

Detroit Tigers

1956

20

14

14

14

9

11

Denny

McLain

Detroit Tigers

1966

20

14

14

16

17

16

Jim

Merritt

Cincinnati Reds

1970

20

12

14

12

1

11

Dave

McNally

Baltimore Orioles

1971

21

5

14

11

13

17

Stan

Bahnsen

Chicago White Sox

1972

21

16

14

15

18

21

Vida

Blue

Oakland A's

1973

20

9

14

16

17

15

Joe

Niekro

Houston Astros

1980

20

12

14

15

9

9

Bob

Welch

Oakland A's

1990

27

6

14

13

12

13

Scott

Erickson

Minnesota Twins

1991

20

8

14

9

13

12

Bill

Gullickson

Detroit Tigers

1991

20

9

14

12

14

13

Jack

Morris

Toronto Blue Jays

1992

21

6

14

13

7

12

John

Burkett

San Francisco Giants

1993

22

7

14

12

6

8

Rick

Helling

Texas Rangers

1998

20

7

14

10

13

11

Tim

Hudson

Oakland A's

2000

20

6

14

10

18

9

Jamie

Moyer

Seattle Mariners

2001

20

6

14

10

13

8

 

   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bob

Grim

New York Yankees

1954

20

6

13

10

7

5

Ray

Sadecki

St. Louis Cardinals

1964

20

11

13

12

6

15

Catfish

Hunter

Oakland A's

1973

21

5

13

16

25

12

John

Smiley

Pittsburgh Pirates

1991

20

8

13

10

16

9

Andy

Pettitte

New York Yankees

2003

21

8

13

11

6

4

Russ

Ortiz

Atlanta Braves

2003

21

7

13

12

15

9

Jered

Weaver

LAA Angels

2012

20

5

13

9

11

8

 

   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bob

Forsch

St. Louis Cardinals

1977

20

7

12

13

11

17

Average

 

 

21

9

14

13

12

12

Winning Percentage

 

 

.705

.523

.504

 

              Catfish Hunter, after an atypical season in 1973, had deserved won-lost records of 23-13 and 23-14 the next two seasons, and exactly matched his deserved record in 1975 (23-14).   But many of these pitchers had crash-and-burn seasons the next year.   It is what I refer to as the Reality Bites syndrome.  

              When we get lucky, we inevitably start to believe that we weren’t lucky; we are just really good.   All of us do.   When a movie director makes a hit movie, he doesn’t think, "I was sure lucky to get that script, and to get that actor to work with me."   He thinks he’s a genius, and he can produce great movie after great movie from now on.    It’s inevitable.  If you invest in a few stocks that do well, you think you can pick winners in the stock market.    

              When a pitcher who has been lucky one year starts to contend with ordinary luck or some tough luck the next year, he thinks he’s lost it.   "What am I doing wrong now?" he asks.   "I was so good last year; what have I lost?"

              Based on that assumption, he starts to make adjustments, trying to reclaim a magic which in reality was external to him, but which he believes was a part of him.  Sometimes those adjustments backfire on him, and the next thing you know, he’s completely messed up. 

              There are also 77 pitchers since 1950 who deserved to win 20 games, but did not.   These are those 77 pitchers.   I will bold-face those pitchers who got cheated out of a 20-win season, and never did have one:

 

 

 

 

 

 

Deserved

First

Last

Year

W

L

Wins

Losses

Joaquin

Andujar

1982

15

10

20

10

Kevin

Appier

1993

18

8

20

7

Vida

Blue

1976

18

13

22

12

 

       

 

 

Bert

Blyleven

1971

16

15

20

12

Bert

Blyleven

1972

17

17

20

13

Bert

Blyleven

1974

17

17

20

12

Bert

Blyleven

1975

15

10

20

11

Bert

Blyleven

1976

13

16

20

14

Bert

Blyleven

1985

17

16

20

13

 

       

 

 

Kevin

Brown

1996

17

11

20

7

Kevin

Brown

1998

18

7

20

9

 

       

 

 

Jim

Bunning

1965

19

9

20

13

Jim

Bunning

1966

19

14

24

12

Jim

Bunning

1967

17

15

22

12

 

       

 

 

Dean

Chance

1968

16

16

20

13

 

       

 

 

Roger

Clemens

1988

18

12

22

9

Roger

Clemens

1991

18

10

22

9

Roger

Clemens

1992

18

11

20

8

 

       

 

 

Don

Drysdale

1964

18

16

23

13

Don

Drysdale

1960

15

14

21

10

 

       

 

 

Bob

Friend

1960

18

12

20

12

 

       

 

 

Bob

Gibson

1964

19

12

21

12

Bob

Gibson

1972

19

11

21

10

 

       

 

 

Zack

Greinke

2009

16

8

21

6

Zack

Greinke

2015

19

3

21

6

 

       

 

 

Roy

Halladay

2011

19

6

20

8

Ken

Holtzman

1970

17

11

21

12

 

       

 

 

Randy

Johnson

1999

17

9

23

8

Randy

Johnson

2000

19

7

22

8

Randy

Johnson

2004

16

14

21

8

 

       

 

 

Clayton

Kershaw

2013

16

9

20

7

Clayton

Kershaw

2015

16

7

20

7

 

       

 

 

Jimmy

Key

1987

17

8

20

10

Bill

Lee

1973

17

11

20

12

 

       

 

 

Tim

Lincecum

2008

18

5

20

7

Tim

Lincecum

2009

15

7

20

7

 

       

 

 

Greg

Maddux

1995

19

2

21

3

Greg

Maddux

1996

15

11

20

8

Greg

Maddux

1997

19

4

21

6

Greg

Maddux

1998

18

9

21

8

Greg

Maddux

2000

19

9

20

9

             
             

 

 

 

 

 

Deserved

First

Last

Year

W

L

Wins

Losses

Pedro

Martinez

1997

17

8

22

6

Pedro

Martinez

2000

18

6

22

3

 

       

 

 

Jon

Matlack

1974

13

15

20

10

Sam

McDowell

1965

17

11

21

10

Andy

Messersmith

1975

19

14

23

14

Joe

Niekro

1982

17

12

20

11

 

       

 

 

Phil

Niekro

1977

16

20

21

17

Phil

Niekro

1978

19

18

24

14

 

       

 

 

Gaylord

Perry

1967

15

17

20

14

Gaylord

Perry

1969

19

14

22

15

Gaylord

Perry

1973

19

19

21

18

Gaylord

Perry

1975

18

17

20

15

 

       

 

 

Billy

Pierce

1953

18

12

20

11

J.R.

Richard

1979

18

13

21

13

Jose

Rijo

1993

14

9

21

9

 

       

 

 

Steve

Rogers

1977

17

16

20

14

Steve

Rogers

1982

19

8

22

10

 

       

 

 

Nolan

Ryan

1977

19

16

21

13

CC

Sabathia

2008

17

10

21

9

 

       

 

 

Johan

Santana

2005

16

7

20

8

Johan

Santana

2006

19

6

20

8

 

       

 

 

Curt

Schilling

1998

15

14

21

9

Mike

Scott

1986

18

10

23

8

 

       

 

 

Tom

Seaver

1968

16

12

20

11

Tom

Seaver

1970

18

12

22

11

Tom

Seaver

1973

19

10

23

10

 

       

 

 

Chris

Short

1965

18

11

20

14

 

       

 

 

Mario

Soto

1983

17

13

20

12

 

       

 

 

Dave

Stieb

1982

17

14

21

12

Dave

Stieb

1983

17

12

21

11

Dave

Stieb

1984

16

8

20

10

Dave

Stieb

1985

14

13

20

11

 

       

 

 

Don

Sutton

1972

19

9

21

10

Frank

Tanana

1976

19

10

20

13

Bob

Veale

1964

18

12

20

12

Mike

Witt

1986

18

10

20

11

 

              There have been twenty pitchers since 1950 who have won 25 games or more—but there have been only 14 pitchers since 1950 who have won 25 games based on merit, without luck.   Those 14 are as follows:

 

 

 

 

 

 

Deserved

First

Last

Year

W

L

Wins

Losses

Steve

Carlton

1972

27

10

28

11

Gaylord

Perry

1972

24

16

27

12

Sandy

Koufax

1966

27

9

27

10

Bob

Gibson

1968

22

9

26

8

Robin

Roberts

1953

23

16

26

13

Vida

Blue

1971

24

8

26

10

Sandy

Koufax

1965

26

8

26

13

Sandy

Koufax

1963

25

5

25

10

Dwight

Gooden

1985

24

4

25

6

Denny

McLain

1968

31

6

25

13

Wilbur

Wood

1972

24

17

25

18

Bert

Blyleven

1973

20

17

25

12

Bob

Gibson

1969

20

13

25

11

Steve

Carlton

1980

24

9

25

10

 

              All fourteen pitchers who deserved to win 25 or more games did in fact win at least 20, and they averaged between 24 and 25 wins. 

              And finally (for today) there have been 19 pitchers since 1950 who either did win 20 games or should have won 20 games, and who had a deserved winning percentage of .750 or higher:

 

 

 

 

 

 

Deserved

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Winning

First

Last

Year

W

L

Wins

Losses

Percentage

Pedro

Martinez

2000

18

6

22

3

.882

Greg

Maddux

1995

19

2

21

3

.856

Pedro

Martinez

1999

23

4

21

4

.856

Roger

Clemens

1997

21

7

24

6

.809

Dwight

Gooden

1985

24

4

25

6

.795

Zack

Greinke

2009

16

8

21

6

.795

Randy

Johnson

2001

21

6

23

6

.792

Zack

Greinke

2015

19

3

21

6

.788

Clayton

Kershaw

2014

21

3

18

5

.786

Pedro

Martinez

1997

17

8

22

6

.783

Jake

Arrieta

2015

22

6

21

6

.782

Randy

Johnson

1997

20

4

19

5

.781

Greg

Maddux

1997

19

4

21

6

.778

Roger

Clemens

1990

21

6

20

6

.772

Johan

Santana

2004

20

6

20

6

.763

Bob

Gibson

1968

22

9

26

8

.762

Ron

Guidry

1978

25

3

24

7

.760

Randy

Johnson

2002

24

5

23

7

.759

Pedro

Martinez

2002

20

4

18

6

.757

 

              16 of these 19 pitchers did in fact have winning percentages over .750.   Also Kevin Appier, 1993, had a deserved winning percentage of .749.    Most of those pitchers (16 of the 19) have been from the post-1990 period.   I think that’s due to the five-man (vs. four-man) rotation.   When a pitcher is worked hard, that pushes him back toward the center.   When he has more space, he is more likely to perform at a dominant level, perhaps.  

 
 

COMMENTS (15 Comments, most recent shown first)

FrankD
Interesting question DaveNJNews: how many that were "inside baseball" looked at W/L? Stengel didn't, he picked up people like Don Larsen and others who only won with the Yankees. I dunno about if they used ERA but I think the management back in the day saw what the pitchers could throw and judged accordingly. I think the fans fixate on W/L - I know I did before I got into thinking about the game. Like Bill said: teams win games not just pitchers .......
7:52 PM Aug 16th
 
DaveNJnews
Looking at the first list in this article, one wonders how many bad trades were made in the 1960s or 1970s because someone decided to go out and get "a proven 20-game winner."
4:38 PM Aug 16th
 
OldBackstop
FWIW, and this may be a total justification of the methods here, nine out of the top ten luckiest guys had more cheap wins than tough losses, and ten of the top ten unluckiest guys had more tough losses than cheap wins.

Sometimes the number of cheap wins equal Bill's to a win or two, and sometimes the net comes close, but the trend is almost absolute.
1:57 PM Aug 16th
 
evanecurb
The first two major league games I attended in person were Angels-Yankees and A's-Orioles, both in the summer of 1970. All four starting pitchers were 20 game winners that year. Clyde Wright, Mel Stottlemyre, Jim Palmer, and Catfish Hunter. This is my sole contribution to the comments section of a very entertaining series. Thanks, Bill.
10:20 AM Aug 16th
 
smbakeresq
evanecurb
On the list of guys who had at least three seasons where they deserved to win 20, I see a bunch of Hall of Famers, Clemens, and Dave Stieb. Elite company for a guy who didn't garner much HOF support.


If those 20 win seasons were on his resume he would have.
10:29 AM Aug 15th
 
KaiserD2
Just a couple of overview comments.

I reviewed the post about BIll's method again. He has tried to go a step further than baseball-reference.com does, because he evidently compiled extremely complicated data (how he got it, I'm not sure) on how many runs pitchers should have given up, based on their walks, hits, etc, rather than simply look, as b-r does (and therefore, I did), at how many runs they did give up, and compare that to what would have been expected. To put this another way, Bill was trying to eliminate what I call "run luck" from the equation--that is, the fewer or more runs that occur when hits and walks are spread further apart, on the one hand, or bunched closer together, on the other. I think this was a sensible thing to do and indeed I'd be very curious to see a list of pitchers whose runs allowed (actual) differed the most from what Bill's formula predicted. It would be an attempt to identify "clutch pitchers," if such exist.

Despite this difference, it seems that Bill's method and mine (adapted from b-r) reach very similar conclusions about what a great season was and what it wasn't. I'm delighted, for instance, to see that Bill also picked out Bill Lee's 1973 season, which was genuinely great.

I do, however, see one possible problem in Bill's method. It is how he calculates expected decisions for pitchers. He bases it on the average number of innings per decision in the particular era the season under consideration took place. What I noticed is that this seems to lead to a systematic overestimate of the number of decisions the pitcher was likely to get. If you look for instance at the table of seasons where the pitcher didn't win 20 but in Bill's opinion should have, you will see his estimate for decisions is consistently higher than the actual number.

I have an idea as to why this might be so. Every game generates two decisions, a win or a loss. For obvious reasons, the losing pitcher, on the average, will have pitched substantially fewer innings than the winning one, in most cases. But in that table Bill is looking at pitchers who were very good, who won most of their games. Only a .500 pitcher, it seems to me, could be genuinely expected to have the same number of decisions that league average of D/IP would predict.

I still think W-L is too flawed to be a preferred basis for judging pitchers but Bill did find a way around a lot of the problems with it.

David K
7:49 AM Aug 15th
 
OldBackstop
Correction below: Sain had 6 cheap wins.
11:31 PM Aug 14th
 
OldBackstop
Bill, I'd be interested to see how your model comes up as compared to "Chead Wins" and "Tough Losses".

Just poking through, but I looked at Johnny Sain in 1950. He is listed as leading the league in "cheap wins" with 5 (defined as surrendering more the 3 earned runs or going less than 6 innings or losing a quality start.

But he also had four tough losses....losses in quality starts. So he was plus two. The other five guys with 19 or more wins were at leat minus 6 except for Don Newcombe, That year Don Newcombe, who was plus four at 19-11. Newcombe also had a full half run better in run support.I wondered if he had 20 wins would he topped Sain on the lucky list?
11:30 PM Aug 14th
 
shthar
Good question, how many years in a row does it take for luck become 'the way it is'?
10:48 PM Aug 14th
 
Gfletch
Good to see Dave Stieb getting some love here in these articles. I saw a bunch of his games back in the day and I can tell you he is one of the best pitchers I ever saw.

Question: are teams telling pitchers to ignore their W/L records nowadays? At least to the extent of emphasizing their overall stats to counteract any tendency to destructive adjustments?
6:33 PM Aug 14th
 
FrankD
Love the article. Looking at Blyleven's numbers. Even a stronger argument for HOF for him. But, a question: If you are unlucky for 5 years, is it really luck or just statement of reality? Also - I haven't gone through all the data but is there a difference in 'luck' based on type of pitcher, i.e., left vs right, extreme fastball vs control, etc? Or am I just wanting to push the data too far?
5:07 PM Aug 14th
 
shthar
I just hear Rodney Dangerfield saying, "luck, I don't get no luck"
2:31 PM Aug 14th
 
OldBackstop
rofl turtle line. Too funny.
11:49 AM Aug 14th
 
Davidg32
A little surprising to me to see Greg Maddux missing out on 20 wins so many times from 1995 - 2000. The Braves were a good team, and Maddux was the ace of the staff. (Although the pitching staff was awfully strong.) You would think that being on a good team would tend to help a pitcher win a couple of games more than he might have deserved.
8:47 AM Aug 14th
 
evanecurb
On the list of guys who had at least three seasons where they deserved to win 20, I see a bunch of Hall of Famers, Clemens, and Dave Stieb. Elite company for a guy who didn't garner much HOF support.


8:29 AM Aug 14th
 
 
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