At the outset, allow me to offer the obvious caveat that wins are not anything close to the best measure of a starting pitcher. Let further note that, in most respects, using wins to measure a starting pitcher is not just useless, it’s actively misleading. I hope we don’t have to litigate that, as it’s been litigated into the ground over the years.
I also hope you appreciate that this article is not at all premised on wins making a pitcher good. Rather, it’s premised totally on the notion that win totals, whatever their utility, are kinda fun to look at sometimes. Especially in a day and age where the win totals of the best pitchers are lot lower than they ever have been, relatively speaking.
Are we cool with that? Good. Allow us to proceed.
As I mentioned in the recaps this morning, White Sox starter Lucas Giolito picked up his eighth win on the season yesterday after an impressive performance against the Indians. Only two pitchers in all of baseball have more wins than Giolito at the moment: Justin Verlander of the Astros and Domingo Germán of the Yankees, with nine each. Two others are tied with Giolito at eight: Jake Odorizzi of the Twins and Hyun-Jin Ryu of the Dodgers.
The thing is, though, that the Dodgers, Astros, Twins and Yankees are all really good teams. Indeed, they’re all in first place in their divisions and they are 1, 2, 3, and 4 in team wins, respectively, in all of baseball. Giolito’s White Sox, meanwhile, are 29-30, and stand 11.5 games out of first place. It’s a “good for the White Sox” season, but the White Sox are not a good team in an absolute sense. They’re on pace for a 79-win season. Meanwhile, Giolito is on pace for 22 wins. If that were to hold, it’d give him just a hair shy of 28% of all of the White Sox’ wins on the year.
That puts Giolito in some pretty exclusive company. Here are some of baseball’s most notable high-win pitchers on otherwise bad teams:
- Steve Carlton (1972 Phillies): Lefty went 27-10 for a 59-97 Phillies team, which gave him 45.7% of the Phillies’ wins that year. It’s the gold standard for this odd little category of observation, obviously. A lot had to go right for Carlton that year apart from merely being one of the best pitchers ever, which he certainly was. For one thing he pitched a lot. He led the league with 41 starts, going on three-days rest like many of the early 1970s aces did. The outcome was usually completely in his hands too, as he had a mind-boggling 30 complete games. Hundreds of 19th century and deadball-era pitchers did that, but only a small handful of post-1920 pitchers managed as many CGs. Carlton also helped himself out at the plate that year, with a lot of key offense performances to help get himself wins. We’ve only seen one other 27-game winner since Carlton: Bob Welch for the 1990 A’s. That was a 103-win team, though. Seeing anyone do that at all going forward seems close to impossible. Seeing anyone do it for a losing team like Carlton did is unthinkable.
- Bob Gibson (1970 Cardinals): Gibson’s best season is, without question, his 1.12 ERA campaign in 1968, which is actually underrated given how many people understandably discount 1968 pitching stats due to how depressed offense was. He was the best player on the defending World Series champs that year and he almost single-handedly helped them repeat as champs before the Tigers edged St. Louis in a classic seven-game World Series. Gibson was almost as good in 1969, putting up a year that would stand as the best for even a great many Hall of Fame pitchers, but Tom Seaver and Phil Niekro finished ahead of him in the Cy Young voting. Gibson’s 1970 season was probably just his third-best, but his 23 wins — 30.2% of the Cardinals’ 76 wins on the year — earned him his second Cy Young Award. I suppose it’s all about expectations.
- R.A. Dickey (2012 Mets): Dickey’s story is a famous one: he was a prospect until the Texas Rangers discovered that he didn’t have an ulnar collateral ligament, put him in non-prospect, swingman limbo as he became one of the odder and harder-throwing knuckleballers around. He would not be a regular starter until the Mets acquired him at age 35. He would average 32 starts a year for the rest of his career — leading the league in starts each year from 2012-14 — making one wonder if having an ulnar collateral ligament was all that it was cracked up to be in the first place. 2012 was the season which made him a star. That year he won 20 games for a 74-win Mets game (27%) and took home the Cy Young Award.
- Cliff Lee (2008 Indians): Cliff Lee had had good seasons before this — he won 18 games in 2005 — but he had a major coming out party in 2008. Maybe a coming-out-again party, as he was injured in 2007 and sent to the minors when he got healthy. That year Lee was one of only eight pitchers since 1920 to win 19 or more of his first 21 games and ended up going 22-3 in all for a .500 Indians team, giving him 27.1% of all of the Tribe’s wins. His winning percentage — .880 — was the twelfth best of all time.
- Tim Lincecum (2008 Giants): Lincecum won two of his three World Series rings as a mostly ineffective odd man out for the 2012 and 2014 Giants, but his stellar pitching for some less-than-stellar Giants teams probably earned him the latitude to do it. No more so than in 2008 when Lincecum, then in his second year, became a national sensation because of his freaky delivery and dominant results. He led the league in strikeouts, FIP, ERA+ and was stingier than anyone in the NL in allowing homers. He also went 18-5 for a 72-win club (25% of team wins) that was still trying to put together the pieces it would need for its impending dynasty.
Sure, there are some pitchers with gaudy win totals and gaudy winning percentages on great teams — Walter Johnson, Lefty Grove, Pedro Martinez, Denny McClain and Ron Guidry all say hello — but seeing someone do it for a team that doesn’t stand to win more than 80 games would be quite the dang thing. Here’s hoping Giolito keeps it up.
UPDATE: A reader comes up with another one: