Not every player enjoys the good fortune of playing on good teams. Position players, even on bad teams, can attract attention with stellar counting or rate stats. But, it isn’t so easy for pitchers who, even today, can still be overlooked without an attention-grabbing W-L record.
This post is looking at pitchers who sported bad W-L records for bad teams, but who nonetheless turned in creditable if under-appreciated seasons.
To find the pitchers who might qualify for having a good season with a bad W-L record, I looked first for qualified seasons with a .400 or worse W-L% but with a 115 or better ERA+. That yielded 97 seasons since 1901. To focus on those pitchers who persevered despite being stuck on really bad teams, I reduced those 97 seasons down to 14 by choosing only seasons with the pitcher having a better W-L% than his team. To do this, I had to drop nine seasons by pitchers who changed teams during the year (though one of those nine pitchers ended up being selected anyway for his efforts in another season).
So, here are, chronologically, the fourteen seasons identified through the above process.
Almost half (6 of 14) of these seasons are from the 1920s and 1930s, and only three are from the expansion era. That is likely an indication that really bad teams are much less common in the modern era of free agency. In the early years, with a handful of teams dominating most seasons, all the rest would turn in one losing season after another, with a good season being one somewhere near .500. That is not a recipe for filling the stands so, if one of those teams should happen to develop a star player, he might be pried away by one of the dominant teams for a wad of much-needed cash.
Let’s run through these seasons to highlight how good many of them really were.
Bugs Raymond was an alcoholic right-hander whose nickname is said to derive from “bughouse”, vernacular of his time for an insane asylum. While not technically a rookie, Raymond started his 1908 season for the 43-111 Cardinals with only 13 games and 79 IP under his belt. If we grant Raymond “unofficial” rookie status, his 324.1 IP makes the top 10 for rookie seasons (all before 1920), a group that includes Raymond’s teammate Stoney McGlynn who compiled 352.1 IP for the Redbirds the season before. Like McGlynn, Raymond racked up a majors-leading 25 losses on the year but, unlike McGlynn, he posted a very respectable 2.03 ERA, good for 10th in the league. Raymond also posted top 5 results for G, GS, WHIP, H/9 and SO and top 10 for IP, HR/9 and Shutouts. With those credentials, the Giants traded for Raymond who turned in another good season in 1909, this time with a nice 18-12 record playing for a contending Giants club. But, Raymond’s drinking became steadily worse, resulting in an early end to his career and life, dying at age 30 from a cerebral hemorrhage after suffering a skull fracture in a brawl in a semipro game in Chicago.
George McConnell was a 34 year-old rookie on the 56-96 Highlanders team of 1912 that had some pedigree among its pitching ranks (Ray Caldwell, Jack Quinn, Hippo Vaughn) but not much punch on offense (no regulars above 108 OPS+). McConnell’s ERA and ERA+ both ranked in the top 10 in the league, resulting from top 15 placements in SO/9, BB/9 and SO/W, and top 20 marks for H/9 and WHIP. McConnell regressed the next year with his ERA ballooning from 2.75 to 3.20 and his W-L record taking a worse beating at 4-15. His sale to Chicago didn’t help much as he posted a very respectable 2.52 ERA with the Cubs but could do no better than a 4-13 W-L record. For his time in the AL and NL, McConnell recorded a 16-41 record (.281) in 539 IP, the third lowest career mark for any pitcher with 500 IP (but, you have to dip down to no. 45 on that list to find a pitcher with an ERA+ better than McConnell’s 112 mark). McConnell did enjoy success in the win column in his one season with the Chicago Whales of the Federal League, posting a 25-10 record with 2.20 ERA, making McConnell, at age 37, the oldest pitcher (tied with Cy Young) to record a 25 win season.
McConnell’s teammate on the 1912 Highlanders, Jack Warhop turned in the best ERA+ season of his career and was rewarded with his worst W-L% from a 10-19 record. Warhop posted top 5 results in pitcher WAR and BB/9, and top 10 marks in ERA+, WHIP and SO/W. His 258 IP was a career high and ranked 12th in the league. Warhop would play three more seasons, compiling almost 1500 IP playing only for the Highlanders, the franchise’s 5th highest total among players who pitched nowhere else.
Bespectacled Lee Meadows showed the difference between pitching for weak teams and strong ones, posting a 100-128 record (.439) for the Cardinals (before they were good) and Phillies, compared with 88-52 (.629) for the 1920s Pirate clubs that won two pennants. He makes this list for his work with the 57-96 Phillies team of 1922. That season saw Meadows rank 5th in pitcher WAR with top 10 results in starts, CGs, shutouts and HR/9, and top 20 rankings in IP, H/9, WHIP, ERA+ and FIP. Meadows was a dependable innings eater, recording 12 complete games in a run of 13 starts from July 7 to Sep 8, with a stellar 2.98 ERA over that stretch. He also helped his cause at the plate, batting .314 with 27 hits and 5 RBI on the year.
The next five pitchers on the list all toiled for the Red Sox and White Sox during two of the worst stretches of ineptitude for either franchise. In an 11-year run from 1922 to 1932, Boston finished last 9 times, with 100 losses in 5 of those seasons and 90 losses in 5 more (and a best result of only 87 losses in 1924). The White Sox turned in 9 straight losing seasons from 1927 to 1935 with the middle of that stretch their nadir with four straight 90 loss campaigns from 1929 to 1932 and last or next-to-last finishes each year.
The first Boston season we’ll look at was posted by journeyman Howard Ehmke for the 1925 club that finished at 47-105. Ehmke posted a top 10 result in pitcher WAR that included a league best 22 complete games and top 5 finishes in IP, BF and strikeouts. He was also top 10 in FIP, SO/9 and SO/W, and top 15 in ERA, ERA+, WHIP and BB/9. Ehmke was traded to the A’s the next season and stuck around long enough to famously stymie the favored Cubs in the opening game of the 1929 WS, confounding the pundits who had anticipated a start by ace Lefty Grove (who had been uncharacteristically scuffling to end the season and appeared in the series only in relief).
Sticking with the Red Sox, next up is Milt Gaston who, like Ehmke, lost 20 games for a 100 loss club. In Gaston’s case, it was the 1930 team that finished 52-102. Gaston finished 6th in pitcher WAR with top 10 results in IP, BF, CG, shutouts, ERA and ERA+, and top 20 marks in WHIP, FIP and SO/9. Gaston helped himself defensively with top 5 marks in both putouts and assists by a pitcher. At age 34, this was Gaston’s last season finishing near the top of the league’s leaderboards. He toiled for wretched teams for four more seasons, compiling a 23-61 record (.274) that is the 5th lowest W-L% for any pitcher in 500 IP over his last four seasons. Notable though was his final year in 1934 with 194 IP, then the highest total for an age 38+ pitcher in his last season and an AL record that would stand for 55 years.
The last of the Boston pitchers was Gaston’s teammate Ed “Bull” Durham who makes the group for his work with the 45-109 Red Sox of 1932. Durham finished top 10 in WHIP and BB/9, and top 15 in ERA, ERA+ and SO/W. His 6-13 record could have been a lot better had his teammates helped just a little; in 10 of those 13 losses, Boston scored two runs or less, which isn’t going to get in done, especially in 1932. After the season, Durham was traded to the White Sox where the next year he played his final season of professional baseball, retiring at 26 due to arm trouble.
I won’t say much about the first of the White Sox pitchers, 22 year-old rookie Hal McKain, who kind of sneaked into this group as a swing man, barely qualifying with 158 IP for the 1929 club that finished 59-93. McKain’s H/9 ranked 5th best in the league, possibly because he allowed almost 5 BB/9, so hitters may have chosen to not be overly aggressive against him. His ERA and ERA+ both ranked 11th in the league but were aided by having only 76% of his runs allowed recorded as earned, the 3rd lowest proportion among 34 AL qualifiers. But the signature mark of McKain’s season was a 0.39 SO/W ratio, among the lowest recorded in any qualified campaign. Overall, I’m inclined to see his 6-9 record as flattering to him (much as he was flattered by a 12-13 record over the next two seasons despite an ERA that “corrected” to 5.64, tied for the worst among 47 AL pitchers with 200 IP for those seasons).
The other White Sox pitcher fully deserves inclusion in this group. Hall of Famer Ted Lyons toiled for the 1932 club that gave Boston a run for last place with a 49-102 record. Lyons’ 5.8 WAR was the 9th best result for all AL players, not just the pitchers. He recorded top 5 marks for ERA, ERA+ and HR/9, and top 10 rankings in CG, WHIP and BB/9. In his first start of the season, Lyons was the hard luck loser in 13.2 IP to the Senators, the 10th longest CG loss for a White Sox pitcher; the longest such game came three years earlier when Lyons pitched all 21 frames against the Tigers. Lyons passed the 2000 IP milestone in 1932 but he still had a long way to go; almost another 2000 IP in fact before hanging up his cleats at age 45 when asked to take the manager’s chair in Chicago. Lyons’ run of 28 straight complete games to end his career is a record that won’t be threatened anytime soon, if ever.
Ned Garver has established a deserved reputation as a good pitcher consigned to pitching for mostly dreadful teams throughout his career. He makes this group with his rookie campaign for the 60-93 Browns of 1948 that saw Garver place fourth in pitcher WAR and 10th for total WAR among all AL players (with the latter result helped by batting .288 and cranking the first of 7 career home runs). Those results flowed from a 6th best ERA and ERA+. But, to finish up with those marks, Garver had to right the ship after being demoted to the bullpen in early July when his record stood at 2-7 with a 4.22 ERA; for the rest of the season, spent in and out of the rotation, Garver was 5-4 with a nice 2.87 ERA (for the season, only one of Garver’s 18 decisions came in a relief appearance). Garver went on to pitch for the Tigers and A’s before finishing with the expansion Angels in 1961. His teams posted a winning record in only two of his 14 seasons, and lost 90+ games in 10 of the other 12 years (Garver’s nephew Bruce Berenyi continued the family tradition, posting a 9-18 record with a 110 ERA+ for the 101 loss Reds team of 1982, before finishing his career with the dominant Mets teams of the mid-1980s).
Camilo Pascual was already a seasoned vet when he made this group as a 24 year-old with the 1958 Senators team that finished 61-93. That year, Pascual led the AL in SO/9, ranked top 5 in pitcher WAR, SO and SO/W, and top 10 in ERA and ERA+. Pascual remained with the franchise long enough to be part of the Twins’ pennant-winning team in 1965, before finishing his career with the new Senators and, briefly, with the Reds, Dodgers and Indians. His career total of almost 3000 IP is the fourth highest among Cuban-born pitchers.
Tom Underwood, a journeyman who pitched from 1974 to 1984, makes this group for his 1979 season with the 53-109 Blue Jays. That season was the Blue Jays’ nadir and marked the end of the tenure of the franchise’s original manager Roy Hartsfield. Underwood’s only top 10 finish was in H/9 but he had top 15 results (among 46 AL qualifiers) in CG, SO/9 and ERA+. His 227 IP were 57 more than any other Blue Jay as Underwood provided a reliable anchor for the pitching staff with separate streaks of 5, 6 and 7 games going 7+ innings. Hartsfield deserves some credit for sticking with Underwood after he started the season 0-9; his next start was a shutout, part of a 9-7, 2.97 finish from June 15 to season’s end. Underwood’s younger brother Pat went 8.1 scoreless IP for the win in his May 31 career debut against Tom and the Blue Jays.
Lefty Greg Swindell‘s 1991 season for the 57-105 Indians makes the group on the strength of his league-leading scores for BB/9 and SO/W and a top 5 result in FIP. Those marks were complemented by top 10 finishes in IP, CG and WHIP. Swindell went 7+ innings in 11 of 12 starts from Apr 24 to Jun 21; included was 0.64 ERA in 28 IP over 3 starts on June 1st, 6th and 11th. Swindell turned in another solid season the next year in Cincinnati before moving to the “Killer Bee” Astro teams of the mid-1990s. He finished his career pitching in relief for the D-Backs and was part of their 2001 world championship team. Swindell recorded more than 1000 IP for the Indians, the franchise’s eighth highest total among southpaws.
Ervin Santana makes the group on the strength of his 2016 season for the 59-103 Twins. Santana posted top 10 results in ERA and ERA+ and top 5 marks in CG and shutouts. Santana’s record was hurt by poor run support with Twin batters scoring two runs or less in 7 of his 11 losses. Santana’s almost 1500 IP for the Angels ranks 7th in franchise history, and 3rd for seasons before age 30.