Winning 20 Games for the First Time

This past season, Braves’ right-hander Kyle Wright won 20 games for the first time. His majors-leading total of 21 wins came in his 5th major league season, though it was really Wright’s first opportunity to win 20 games as he did not appear in more than 8 games in any of his four preceding seasons. In winning 20 games in his first opportunity to do so, Wright became the 87th such pitcher since 1901 and the second in as many seasons, after Julio Urias recorded the same feat in 2021. More after the jump.

Having pitchers accomplish this feat in consecutive seasons is a first since 1990-91, as pitchers winning 20 games in their first opportunity, and 20 win seasons in general, have become progressively rarer over the years. This trend is depicted in the chart below, showing the 87 pitchers with a first opportunity 20 win season, where “first opportunity” is defined as a first 20 start season, the fewest starts* in any 20 win season of the modern era.

The first opportunity 20 win campaigns by Wright and Urias in the past two seasons are the first since Johan Santana‘s 20 win season in 2004. Notable in the above chart is the demise of the 20 win rookie season, with just one in the expansion era, by the Reds’ Tom Browning in 1985.

The 87 pitchers with a first opportunity 20 win season represent 21% of the 406 pitchers who have recorded a first 20 win season since 1901. Are those 21% of 20 win pitchers more likely than the other 79% to have more 20 win seasons, or better or longer careers? The charts below show the number of 20 win seasons in a career, by the select 87 on the left, and all 406 on the right (actually, it’s 85 and 404 as I’ve removed our two active pitchers from these totals).

The two charts appear remarkably similar with over half of pitchers in both groups recording a lone 20 win season in their careers, and just over three-quarters recording no more than two such seasons. For three or more such seasons, it’s 23.5% of the first opportunity group, and 21.8% of the overall group. On both charts, the rightmost of the slivers of pie labeled “MORE” denote the two pitchers sharing the major league record 13 seasons of 20 or more wins, Christy Mathewson and Warren Spahn.

The first opportunity group includes 183 of 789 seasons (23%) of 20+ wins among eligible pitchers, virtually the same proportion as the number of pitchers represented (21%). If there is a difference in the two groups, it’s in Hall of Fame membership, with 58 of the 406 pitchers (14%) in the overall group (including Babe Ruth, though, of course, not as a pitcher), compared to 8 of 87 (9%) in the first opportunity group.

As most pitchers do not win 20 games the first time they have that opportunity, when does that first 20 win season come? The chart below shows the first 20 win season for the 406 pitchers, relative to their first 20 start season.

The 87 first opportunity pitchers show in this chart as achieving their first 20 win season in the same year as their first 20 start season. The rest of the pie is broken down by number of years after that first 20 start season. Bear in mind that the “years after” are a measure of time, and may not correlate exactly to seasons of a player’s career, or 20 start seasons in a player’s career. That said, the chart shows that just over half of the pitchers achieved their first 20 win season in a 3 year window starting from their first 20 start season, and three-quarters of the pitchers recorded their first 20 win season in a 5 year window starting from that same point of their careers. At the extreme end of the spectrum is none other than HoFer Mike Mussina who collected his first 20th win in the final game of an 18 year career that included 17 seasons of 20+ starts.

I’ll close with a look at the most exclusive group of pitchers, namely those who won 20 games in the one and only opportunity to do so in their careers.

  • Henry Schmidt was an established pitcher in the California League (he had posted a 35-20 record in 59 games the year before) when the Brooklyn Superbas brought him on board as a 30 year-old rookie in 1903, even making him their opening day starter. Schmidt had his moments during the season, including three straight shutouts early in the year and two more in September, and earned a contract offer for the following season. Schmidt politely declined the offer, citing a preference for living on the west coast, and returned to pitch in the Golden State (where he made 57 starts and logged 478 IP in the PCL’s inaugural 1904 season of at least 228 games). Schmidt remains the only pitcher to win 20 games in his sole major league season. His 84 ERA+ is also the lowest in any 20 win season in the modern era.
  • Like Schmidt, Buck O’Brien‘s lone 20 win season came at age 30, playing for the 1912 Red Sox (B-R says that O’Brien was no longer a rookie, though he appeared in only 6 games in his first season, one year earlier). O’Brien had played baseball only recreationally as his main vocation was as a professional singer. Eventually, he was coaxed into applying himself to become a professional ball player, reaching the low minors only at age 27. The Red Sox cruised to the AL pennant in 1912 with 105 wins, a franchise record that stood for more than a century. O’Brien was the number two starter behind staff ace and 34 game winner Smoky Joe Wood, with rookie Hugh Bedient making it three 20 game winners for the World Series champs. The next season, O’Brien lost command of his spitball and saw his H/9 climb from 7.7 to 10.3, and his BB/9 from 2.9 to 4.0. That poor performance and ill will in the clubhouse (stemming from an altercation between Wood and O’Brien during the World Series the year before) led to O’Brien being sold to the White Sox at mid-season. O’Brien struggled the next year in the minors, then returned to his singing career.
  • The miracle of the 1914 Miracle Braves was none other than 22 year-old right-hander Bill James. The sophomore hurler started the season innocently enough, taking the loss in the first game of the Independence Day double-header to see his record drop to 7-6 with a 2.50 ERA, still a decent improvement on the 6-10, 2.79 from his rookie campaign. But, could he maintain it the rest of the way? Did he ever! From that point to the end of the season, James went 19-1, 1.55, with 21 CG in 24 starts, leading the Braves to a 68-19 turnaround after their 26-40 start. In the World Series, James picked up a pair of wins on a shutout and an extra-inning relief shutdown as Boston shockingly swept the defending world champion A’s. The Braves doubled James’s salary for the next season, but something wasn’t right with their young phenom, who complained of a chronically fatigued arm. Apparently 332 IP the year before might have been too many for a young arm that had never endured that sort of workload. James’s arm didn’t recover and he retired before the 1916 season. He started a comeback the next year but never made it back to the bigs, save for a single game in 1919.
  • Johnny Beazley was a 24 year-old rookie for the 1942 NL champion Cardinals, winning 21 games with a 2.13 ERA (both still franchise rookie records in a qualified live ball era season), and then posting two CG wins in the Cards’ World Series victory over the Yankees. Beazley missed the next three seasons due to military service as a morale officer, traveling to military bases all around the country to play in exhibition games. That regimen eventually resulted in a sore arm that prevented Beazley from regaining his earlier form when he returned to the Cardinals in 1946. After being sold to the Braves prior to the 1947 season, Beazley finished his career appearing in only 13 games over three seasons in Boston.
  • Like Beazley, Gene Bearden posted an outstanding rookie season for a world championship team team, in Bearden’s case for the 1948 Indians. Bearden’s 20 wins, 2.43 ERA and .741 W-L% were all leading marks on an Indians staff featuring future HoFers Bob Feller and Bob Lemon. In the World Series, Bearden recorded a shutout win in game 3, then logged a high leverage five out save in the clinching game 6, entering the contest in the 8th with the bases loaded. Bearden’s ERA more than doubled the next season, as batters started laying off his knuckleball and ambushing his heater. Bearden finished his career playing in 5 cities over his last 4 seasons, never approaching the form of his glorious rookie campaign.
  • Another rookie, the Yankees’ Bob Grim, posted a most unusual 20 win season in 1954, with a 20-6 record from 20 starts and 17 relief appearances, going 12-6 in his starts and a perfect 8-0 in relief. Grim continued to pitch effectively for the Yankees the next three seasons, the first two as a swingman and the last exclusively in relief, but a bad start to the 1958 season earned Grim a spot on the Kansas City shuttle. Grim finished his career with four middling campaigns, mainly with the A’s.

A final postscript concerning the Negro leagues. Twenty win seasons, or even twenty start seasons, were quite rare in leagues which generally played only on weekends. So, it’s probably worth calling out those twenty win seasons.

20 Win Seasons in Negro Leagues
Rk Player W Season Age Team Lg W L W-L% Dec ERA G GS CG SHO SV IP BB SO ERA+ WHIP H9 BB9 SO9 SO/BB Pos
1 Bill Foster 21 1927 23 CAG NNL 21 5 .808 26 2.03 31 25 21 6 1 217.0 65 119 184 1.161 7.8 2.7 4.9 1.83 1/79
2 Jim Jeffries 21 1922 29 ABC NNL 21 12 .636 33 3.54 38 21 14 1 2 208.2 61 88 128 1.256 8.7 2.6 3.8 1.44 1/98
3 Slim Jones 20 1934 21 PS NN2 20 4 .833 24 1.24 30 22 20 6 2 203.0 47 164 333 0.926 6.3 2.1 7.3 3.49 1/9
4 Nip Winters 20 1924 25 HIL ECL 20 5 .800 25 2.77 29 24 20 2 2 208.0 55 114 152 1.077 7.3 2.4 4.9 2.07 1
Provided by Stathead.com: View Stathead Tool Used
Generated 3/8/2023.

All but Jeffries’ season were the first 20 start seasons of these players’ careers, and it was the only 20 start season for Jones who died tragically from complications from uremia, aged only 25. In 1976, Satchel Paige listed Jones with Bob Feller and Dizzy Dean as the three best pitchers that Paige had seen play**.

* Wilcy Moore posted a 19-7 rookie season (at age 30) for the 1927 Yankees, including 12 starts and 38 relief appearances. One of those relief outings was 5 IP to close out a Yankee win over the Tigers on July 9th, a win that was credited to Yankee starter George Pipgras, but which would have been a 20th win for Moore based on today’s minimum 5 IP for starter wins. Moore’s 12 starts are the second fewest (after Mike Marshall, 0 starts in 1974) in a 200+ IP season, and his 213 IP are the second most (after George Mogridge, 239⅓ IP in 45 appearances in 1918, incl. 19 starts) in any season of fewer than 20 starts.

** Bush, Frederick C., Slim Jones biography, SABR Bio Project, https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/slim-jones/

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Paul E
Paul E
11 months ago

Great stuff-thanks! Gotta ask, “Did anyone win 30 in a rookie season (since 1900)”? Best I could find were Pete Alexander and Joe McGinnity with 28. Also, based on the above format, who was the quickest to win 30? Some great hurlers have won “more than their age” – McLain, Gooden, Feller, etc…

Paul E
Paul E
11 months ago
Reply to  Doug

Doug,
Thanks! Yes, just noticed McGinnity’s 28 wins were in 1899. The “20-win ace” is going the way of the two-handed set shot and single wing 🙁

Richard Chester
Richard Chester
11 months ago

Dizzy Dean’s brother Paul won 19 games in each of his first two seasons. He was then plagued with arm problems in his remaining 7 years in the majors, winning only 12 more games.

Richard Chester
Richard Chester
11 months ago
Reply to  Doug

I came up with Kid Nichols. His career began in 1890 but if you count just the modern era (1901 and on) he won 40 games from 1901 and on and 51 altogether for a percentage of .7843.

Doug
Doug
11 months ago

The guy I was looking for played his entire career since 1901.

So, it’s a different kind of trick in the “trick” question.

Scary Tuna
Scary Tuna
11 months ago
Reply to  Doug

How about Tom Seaton, who won 38 Federal League games? He had 54 career wins for the AL and NL, 43 of them (79.6%) in his first two seasons (1912-13).

Tom
Tom
11 months ago

Buck O’Brien in 1911:
5-1, 0.38
6 games, 5 starts, 5 CG, 2 Sho
875 ERA +

Paul E
Paul E
11 months ago
Reply to  Tom

Wow! If he wasn’t 29 years old already, I guess his picture would be in the dictionary next to “phenom”

Doug
Doug
11 months ago
Reply to  Paul E

Maybe that’s why B-R says he was no longer a rookie in 1912. Just too good!

Doug
Doug
11 months ago
Reply to  Tom

O’Brien had game scores of 81 and 75 in his first two starts, making him one of 13 pitchers with a pair of 75+ game scores to start their careers.

You’ll notice Christy Mathewson on that list with 5 such games to start the 1901 season, except that wasn’t the start of his career. Mathewson made one start in 1900 (no box score available), going the distance in a 6-5 loss to the Chicago Orphans on Sep 13th, so seems quite unlikely that his game score was anywhere near 75.

Scary Tuna
Scary Tuna
11 months ago
Reply to  Doug

So, while Mathewson likely then doesn’t head that list, his dominance continued into June of the 1901 campaign, with an average game score of 76 over his next five starts (plus a four inning relief appearance, giving up an unearned run in the 10th and taking the loss). He started the year 8-0 with four shutouts before losing a 1-0 complete game. By June 1st, he was 9-2 with a 0.57 ERA for the 16-9 league leading Giants. New York held onto first ten more days, then faded to a 52-85-4 seventh place finish. In his first full season, at… Read more »

Scary Tuna
Scary Tuna
11 months ago
Reply to  Doug

I wondered if that list included Andrew Albers, of whom I have written before. It does. When called up by the Twins in August, 2013, a high ceiling wasn’t projected for the 27-year-old without overpowering stuff. But he pitched masterfully in his first two appearances, yielding four hits in 8-1/3 scoreless innings (76 GSc) in his debut, followed by a two-hit CG shutout (85 GSc). It would over four years before his next major league win, on his way to a 5-1 record with the Mariners over the last six weeks of the 2017 season. Albers returned in 2021, notching… Read more »

Bob Eno
Bob Eno
11 months ago

So much good material!

A quick note on Mussina. Mussina’s fat-lady-sings drama was, with 99% certainty, the product of labor disputes. In 1994, his 16-win record was on pace for 23 before the season was shut down after 112 Oriole games, and in 1995, his 19 wins were in a 144-game post-strike season, on pace for 21 wins.

Mussina should have bagged multiple 20-game seasons. Good thing it didn’t rain in Boston on the last day of the 2008 season so that he could get at least one!

Paul E
Paul E
11 months ago
Reply to  Doug

Looks like Culp only made three more stats, including a CG shutout, in 1969. Whatever the injury (?) might have been, he bounced back the next season to win another 17 games with career-highs in K’s, IP, and CG’s…..always seemed like John Quinn traded a lot of young talent out of the Phillies organization

Richard Chester
Richard Chester
10 months ago

Here’s something that Highheatstats posted on Twitter on 4/7. “Today in 2004, Adam LaRoche made his MLB debut and ended up getting his first two hits in the same inning thanks to an 11-run inning by the Braves. I have no idea if any other players have done that, but I have to assume it’s incredibly rare.”

There is at least 1 other player who has accomplished that. Can you name him?

Doug
Doug
10 months ago

I found Ranger catcher Chad Kreuter, in the 5th inning of his career debut on 1988-09-14. A single to lead off the frame, followed by a 3-run home run.

Richard Chester
Richard Chester
10 months ago
Reply to  Doug

Great job Doug but there is at least 1 other who did it prior to Kreuter.

Doug
Doug
10 months ago

A few more. Derek Fisher of the Astros did it in the 6th inning on 2017-06-14. Home run and double. Russ Morman of the White Sox did it in his career debut in the 4th inning on 1986-08-03, except it was the 2nd and 3rd hits of his career, not the 1st and 2nd hits. Going way back, Billy Martin of the Yankees did it in the 8th inning on 1950-04-18, which was opening day at Fenway Park. RBI double and 2-RBI single. Pitcher Chet Kehn of the Dodgers did it in the 5th inning on 1942-04-30. Leadoff single and… Read more »

Last edited 10 months ago by Doug
Paul E
Paul E
10 months ago
Reply to  Doug

Is Willie McCovey’s 4 for 4 in his debut (against Robin Roberts, no less), the best start to a ML career by a batter?

https://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/SFN/SFN195907300.shtml

Richard Chester
Richard Chester
10 months ago
Reply to  Paul E

Cecil Travis got 4 hits in his debut game. 24 others had 4 hits.

Richard Chester
Richard Chester
10 months ago

Correction : Travis got 5 hits in his debut game.

Paul E
Paul E
10 months ago
Reply to  Doug

Doug,
Thanks for the legwork> That just about covers it all 🙂

Doug
Doug
10 months ago
Reply to  Paul E

That Cecil Travis game is one of 6 in which 3 players on a team had 5+ hits, the most recent in 1936. One of the 2 HR games belongs to Bert Campaneris, who hit only 70 more in a career of almost 10,000 PA. His lone season in double figures came in 1970 with the unlikely total of 22 (his .448 SLG that season is more than 100 points higher than his career mark). Another quirky Campy note: he placed 2nd in the AL in 1965 in double-plays turned by a left-fielder; he played every position that season, but… Read more »

Last edited 10 months ago by Doug
Paul E
Paul E
10 months ago
Reply to  Doug

Re Dagoberto’s homer output/surge in 1970, MLB had a roughly 10% increase in HR’s from the prior year. Wondering why Campy was in the OF, how about Wayne Causey taking 88 walks in 1964 (the prior season)?

Richard Chester
Richard Chester
10 months ago
Reply to  Doug

Billy Martin is the one I am looking for.

Richard Chester
Richard Chester
10 months ago

Martin’s hits helped the Yankees turn a 9-run deficit into a 15-10 win.

Richard Chester
Richard Chester
10 months ago

In that Billy Martin game Tommy Henrich hit 2 triples. The next player to hit 2 triples on Opening Day was Tony Pena on 4/2/2007.

Scary Tuna
Scary Tuna
10 months ago

Catcher Aramis Garcia accomplished it 08/31/18 for the Giants, with a solo HR and an RBI single in the 8th inning of a 7-0 victory over the Mets.

Richard Chester
Richard Chester
10 months ago

For those of you who may be interested here is what I posted on Twitter yesterday.:

Today (4/16) the visiting Phils scored 9 runs in the top of the first inning just 3 days after the visiting Twins did it. From 1901-2022 9 runs in the top of the first has occurred 30 times but never in as few as 3 days apart. This stat is for 9-inning games only.