20-win seasons becoming rare occurrence for pitchers

Tgiers starter Max Scherzer currently sits with a record of 16-5 for this season.

Rick Osentoski

Whichever side of the fence you’re on regarding the importance of a pitcher’s win-loss record, there’s one thing we can probably all agree on.

For today’s MLB pitchers, 20-win seasons are a rare feat.

Now in mid-September and only two weeks away from the postseason, an MLB pitcher has yet to win 20 times this season.

The Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw currently leads the league in wins with 19, making him the surest bet to achieve the 20-wins mark before the end of the regular season. Madison Bumgarner, Johnny Cueto and Adam Wainwright aren’t far behind with 18 wins apiece.

Whether to put any stock into a pitcher’s win-loss record is a fiercely-debated topic in baseball. Many believe it’s an oversimplified, outdated statistic that says nothing of a pitcher’s true value to his team or his overall ability. Increasing numbers take to blogs and social-media outlets to question its relevance, condemn its use and call for its outright abolition.

The other side of the fence believes that the statistic can still be a no-frills indicator of consistently strong pitching. This camp’s argument is simple: that solid pitching performances statistically lead more often to wins than losses. As A’s pitching coach Curt Young recently noted, "It means your team is winning games when you pitch."

Take Tigers starter Max Scherzer as an example. He currently sits with a record of 16-5 for this season. Provided he takes the mound a few more times in September, it’s possible he could end the regular season with wins in the high teens, which will likely be the highest among any Tigers pitcher this season.

In 2013, Scherzer was the only MLB pitcher to cross the 20-wins threshold, achieving a total of 21 over the season.

Let’s acknowledge first that Scherzer’s win-loss record is only one small component of his pitching performance, and certainly it’s not a statistic on which he should be judged alone. But it’s worthy to also note that Scherzer is one of Detroit’s strongest and most consistent starters. He also happens to have the pitching staff’s highest winning record for two years running.

Coincidence? Perhaps.

Debate aside, 20-win seasons are still an accomplishment that many pitchers strive for.

The Baltimore Orioles had a record-tying four pitchers achieve 20 wins during their 1971 pennant-winning season — a feat which has never been matched since. A century ago, the San Francisco Giants’ Christy Mathewson won 20 or more games for a record 12 consecutive seasons.

But the game of baseball in Mathewson’s days was starkly different from today’s game.

The 20-wins milestone has gradually become increasingly harder to achieve, particularly due to the larger pitching rotations of this era of baseball. In an effort to keep pitchers and their arms healthy and fresh, management dictates they pitch less often and rarely for a complete nine innings.

Because of this, there have been only 80 20-win seasons since 1990 and 46 since 2000, according to the Baseball Almanac. In the last few years, there have typically been only a handful of pitchers to reach the mark in a season.

Within the next few weeks, we’ll know how many will have achieved this mark in 2014.

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