Sunday, August 26, 2012

R.A. Dickey, 20-Game Winners And Losing Teams

Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images North America

On Saturday, R.A. Dickey pitched seven strong innings to defeat the Houston Astros by the final score of 3-1.  In doing so, Dickey improved his record to 16-4.  Despite the win, the Mets are still 11 games under .500 with a 58-69 mark.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a piece on R.A. Dickey accomplishing two things that had never been done by a Mets pitcher in their 50-year history.  He could become the first starting pitcher for the Mets over a 162-game season to finish at least 10 games over .500 on a team with a losing record.  (Bret Saberhagen was 14-4 for the 1994 Mets, who finished three games under .500, but that was in a strike-shortened 113-game season.)  Dickey could also set a team record by winning the highest percentage of his team's games.  In 1975, Tom Seaver went 22-9 for a Mets team that finished 82-80.  Seaver was credited with a franchise-best 26.8% of his team's wins that year.  As of today, Dickey has 16 of the Mets' 58 victories, or 27.6% of the team's wins.

But now I'm looking at the bigger picture.  Barring a "ya gotta believe" 1973-style miracle, the Mets will finish the 2012 campaign with a losing record.  However, with approximately seven starts remaining on the season, Dickey still has a fair chance to win 20 games.  How rare has it been for a player to win 20 games on a team with a losing record?  It looks like it's time to put on my research shoes and tap out some stats for you.

Recently, there have been several pitchers who won 20 games for teams that were mediocre.  For example, last year Clayton Kershaw won 21 games for the 82-79 Dodgers.  In 2008, each league's leading winner played for so-so teams.  National League leader Brandon Webb won 22 games for the 82-80 Diamondbacks and American League leader Cliff Lee won 22 games for the 81-81 Indians.  But as mediocre as those teams were, none of them finished with a sub-.500 record.

You have to go back to 1997 to find the last pitcher who won 20 games or more for a team that finished with a losing record.  Two pitchers accomplished that rare feat a decade and a half ago.

Fifteen years ago, Roger Clemens went 21-7 for the Toronto Blue Jays.  Although the 1997 Blue Jays also had 15-game winner Pat Hentgen, who, like Clemens, was a former Cy Young Award winner (Hentgen won in 1996, Clemens won his fourth in 1997), Toronto didn't have other good horses to trot out to the mound on days when Clemens and Hentgen weren't pitching.  Despite Clemens' best efforts, the Blue Jays finished the 1997 season in last place in the AL East with a 76-86 record.

Even more outstanding than Clemens' mark was what Brad Radke did for the Minnesota Twins that same year.

In only his third season in the major leagues, Radke went 20-10 for the Twins in 1997.  But no other pitcher on the team won more than eight games that year.  As a result, the Twins finished the season with an abysmal 68-94 record, or 48-84 when Radke didn't get a decision.  Although it would mark the only time Radke won more than 15 games in a season, the lifelong Twin finished his career with 148 wins in 12 seasons with Minnesota, good for fourth place on the Washington Senators/Minnesota Twins' all-time list (the Senators moved to the Twin Cities in 1961), behind Hall of Famers Walter Johnson and Bert Blyleven, as well as 283-game winner Jim Kaat.  Radke is in great company on the Twins' all-time wins list, but when it came to his company on the 1997 Twins staff, there was none to be found.

Both Clemens and Radke won 20 or more games for American League teams with losing records in 1997, but to find the last National League pitcher to do it, you have to go back a little further, before each league split up into three divisions.

In 1992, Greg Maddux finished his final season in Chicago with a 20-11 record.  Like fellow 350-game winner Roger Clemens did five years later, Maddux also had a fine sidekick on the staff in Mike Morgan, who went 16-8 for the Cubs.  The rest of the team didn't fare so well, going 42-65 in games that the M & M boys didn't earn a decision.  The 1992 Cubs finished the season with a 78-84 record, then let Maddux walk away to sign a lucrative free agent contract with the Atlanta Braves, allowing Greg Hibbard to become the team's ace in 1993.  Of course, the Cubs somehow improved in 1993, finishing six games over .500, led by Hibbard's 15 wins (Hibbard only won one game in the major leagues after 1993, which is probably why you don't remember him).  Maddux also improved, winning the Cy Young Award in each of his first three seasons in Atlanta, en route to what will likely be a one-way ticket to Cooperstown when he becomes eligible for the Hall of Fame in 2014.

Out of curiosity, since two pitchers won 20 games for losing teams in the American League in 1997, I decided to go back and see who was the last National League pitcher before Greg Maddux to win 20 games for a sub-.500 team.  That honor went to a pitcher who was far more popular than Maddux ever was (the "Chicks Dig The Longball" ad notwithstanding"), although his lengthy career failed to produce half of Maddux's career win total.

In 1986, Fernando Valenzuela had arguably his most complete season in the major leagues.  Although he was thrust into the national spotlight in 1981, winning both the Rookie of the Year and Cy Young awards (not to mention the Silver Slugger Award) for a team that won the World Series, he only won 20 games once in his nearly two-decade major league career.  Valenzuela went 21-11 for the Dodgers in 1986, leading the league in complete games (20).  He also flashed the leather at his position, winning the Gold Glove Award for the only time in his career.  Despite a Mets pitching staff that featured four pitchers with a .700 winning percentage (Bob Ojeda, Dwight Gooden, Sid Fernandez and Ron Darling finished 1-2-3-4, respectively, in winning percentage in 1986), it was Fernando Valenzuela who led the National League in victories, doing so for a Dodgers team that finished with a 73-89 record.

Valenzuela's 1986 season was also special in one other regard.  It was the last time a pitcher in either league completed 20 of his starts.  Since Valenzuela's 20-win, 20-complete-game season in 1986, no National League pitcher has finished a season with more than 15 complete games (Orel Hershiser and Danny Jackson each had 15 complete games in 1988, as did Curt Schilling in 1998).  The most complete games by an American League pitcher since 1986 is 18, which was accomplished by Roger Clemens one year after Valenzuela's 20-complete-game season.  Only one pitcher (Jack McDowell in 1991) has reached the 15-complete-game plateau in the American League since Clemens did it in 1987.  By comparison, R.A. Dickey is currently the National League leader in complete games with four.

I am Dickey, hear me roar!
(AP Photo/Paul J. Bereswill)

With that mention of R.A Dickey, we have now come full circle.  Dickey already has a good chance of becoming the first Mets pitcher over a full 162-game season to finish at least 10 games over .500 while his team finishes with a losing record, as well as recording the highest percentage of his team's victories over a single season.  But it's not just Mets history he might make this year.

Dickey is also in line to become the first 20-game winner to pitch for a sub-.500 team since Roger Clemens and Brad Radke did so for their teams in 1997, and the first National League pitcher to accomplish the feat in two decades.  Dickey would join Greg Maddux as the only pitchers in the last quarter century to win 20 games for a losing team in the National League.

R.A. Dickey has already become one of the best pitchers in the National League.  Now he has a chance to do something that hasn't been accomplished in the major leagues since the 20th century by pitchers who are among baseball's all-time greats (Maddux, Clemens) as well as pitchers who were all-time greats on their respective teams (Valenzuela, Radke).

The Mets team might not be winning as much as its players and their fans would like, but R.A. Dickey has shown that it's possible for a losing team to have a winner on it.

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