Gio Gonzalez became the first Major League pitcher in 2012 to reach the 20-win plateau, and he has already positioned himself well to contend for the National League Cy Young award this November. While pitcher wins just aren’t a passable way to evaluate what a hurler has done over the course of a game, season or career, don’t let that take caveat take anything away from what Gonzalez has done in his first season as a Washington National. An improving starter, Gonzalez has earned his accolades even if those 20 wins have very little to do with anything.
I started thinking about 20-game winners who simply weren’t really great in their seasons of enhanced publicity. I don’t want this to be a post detailing why wins are an extremely silly and outdated statistic (hasn’t everyone already done that like an infinite amount of times?); what I want to do as this season begins to wind down to a close and teams begin deciding their playoff destinies is to have a little fun and examine the worst 20-win seasons over the past 15 years. Looking back through the numbers brought some names to the forefront of my brain that simply hadn’t been there in a long, long time. I’ll list these guys in chronological order, starting with our most recent 20-game winners. All of them had solid enough seasons, but they weren’t actually among the very best pitchers in their respective leagues. For the sake of simplicity and finding a starting point, I boiled this list down to the lowest FanGraphs WAR totals since 1997 by 20-game winners.
Bartolo Colon/2005/21 wins/4.5 WAR
This Colon season was the one in which he took home his only Cy Young award, though it was not the finest of his career. While Colon’s ’05 was certainly solid, his ERA (3.48) and FIP (3.75) don’t seem befitting an award winner when looking at them now. Colon’s strikeout rate was also significantly below 7.0 per nine yet again, a trend that signified the end of his high-octane strikeout machine days.
Russ Ortiz/2003/21 wins/3.1 WAR
Ortiz went 21 21-7 in 2003, but he did so by conducting himself in the sometimes-useful manner than defined the best seasons of his spotty career as a starting pitcher. Ortiz sported a 4.17 FIP and 4.70, and his walk rate and strikeout rate simply weren’t all that far apart. Ortiz walked 4.32/9 that season while fanning just 6.3/9, the mark of a pitcher not destined for longevity. Hence what wound up happening to Russ Ortiz.
Barry Zito/2002/23 wins/4.4 WAR
Much like Colon, Barry Zito got incredibly lucky to win a Cy Young award. He’s since been lambasted for years because of the huge contract the Giants foolishly gave him, and looking at the mere solidity of his award-winning 2002 campaign (7.14 K/9, 3.06 BB/9) it’s hard to see how any team was willing to court him so aggressively. Zito may have had a 2.75 ERA, but his FIP soared to 3.87 and his xFIP was an even-worse 4.31.
Jon Lieber/2001/20 wins/4.3 WAR
The veteran workhorse was able to win 20 games for the only time in his career despite his 3.80 ERA and startlingly tiny strikeout rate (5.73/9). Lieber kept things under control thanks to never walking anyone, though things were about to go downhill for the tree trunk legged righty.
Jamie Moyer/2001/20 wins/3.1 WAR
Moyer is essentially a two-time entrant on this list, as he also won 21 games in 2003 while weighing in at only 3.6 WAR. The eternal soft-tosser was good for a 4.17 FIP in 2001, and he did his usual routine of striking out and walking no one. That .249 BABIP sure didn’t hurt matters when it came to holding his ERA down to 3.43 and planting all of those victories on the back of his baseball card.
Rick Helling/1998/20 wins/4.1 WAR
Helling was the guy I remembered first, a bulky right-hander with a forgettable career who happened to accidentally win 20 games in 1998. Helling went 20-7 in spite of a 4.41 ERA and 4.34 FIP. To Helling’s credit, he wasn’t downright terrible or anything, and he was fairly valuable considering he logged 216 1/3 IP. You don’t need me or even Helling’s Baseball Reference page to tell you things were headed south after his brief moment in the sun.