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.
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/