The Worst of the Best, Part IV: Wins
Continuing on with my series about players with the lowest career totals in major statistical categories in which they once led their league, in this installment we’ll look at pitching wins. You can find Parts I, II and III of this series, here, here and here.
Fewest Career Wins by a One-Time League Leader since 1893. Chuck Estrada: 18 AL 1960; 50 career wins. Estrada was born in San Luis Obispo, near the central coast of California. He went 18-11 as a 22 year old rookie for the Baltimore Orioles and won 33 games over his first two major league seasons. However, he led the Junior Circuit in losses with a 9-17 record in 1962, although he actually pitched nearly as well as he had the prior two seasons.
Estrada appears to have had good stuff, but he was wild and threw a lot of pitches over his first three major league seasons. The upshot was that he blew out his pitching elbow early in the 1963 season and was never the same thereafter.
Honorable mention. George McConnell: 25 Federal League 1915; 41 career wins. “Slats” McConnell was a long-time minor league and presumably industrial league star, whose first record of pitching “professionally” was for the 1908 Buffalo Bisons of the Eastern League (not the current Eastern League, but the one that was later renamed the International League, one of the top minor league circuits and still in existence today) at the advanced age of 30.
It was not at all uncommon in that era up until at least the end of 1920’s for great players to play for railroad, steel mill and other industrial teams rather than signing professional baseball contracts. Big corporate teams provided year ’round jobs that paid better than what players could make spending only their summers playing in the lower minor leagues. To this day in Japan, industrial leagues serve the function of the lower minor leagues, since NPB teams have only one minor league club each. Junichi Tazawa, for example, was signed directly out of a Japanese Industrial League by the Boston Red Sox at age 22 after going undrafted by any NPB team out of high school. Another possibility is that Slats McConnell pitched for a successful barn-storming semi-pro team.
At any rate, McConnell at some point developed a terrific spitball which he used to go 30-8 at age 33 for the Rochester Broncos of the Eastern (International) League in 1911. The New York Giants then acquired him, but McConnell went a combined 12-27 with unimpressive ERAs for the dead-ball/dirty-ball period in 1912 and 1913, and the Giants sent him back to Buffalo’s the Eastern League franchise in 1914 (the new Federal League also fielded a team in Buffalo that season). McConnell went 14-10 for the Bisons and also won a single start for the Chicago Cubs, probably late in the 1914 season.
The Federal Chicago Whales signed McConnell before the 1915 season, and he responded with a 25-10 season. When the Federal League then promptly collapsed and the Cubs acquired all of the Whales’ assets including their ballpark, now known as Wrigley Field, the Cubs also acquired McConnell. McConnell went 4-12 for the 1916 Cubs at age 38 and never pitched in the majors again.
I have elected not to consider Slats McConnell as the all-time leader in this category simply because the Federal League was a marginal major league which didn’t last long enough for many of its stars to have significant “major league” careers.
Ron Bryant: 24 NL 1973; 57 career wins. Ron Bryant went 14-7 in 1972 and 24-10 in 1973. However, he was as bad in 1974 (3-15, 5.61 ERA) as he was good in 1973. Wikipedia says he hurt himself in a “swimming pool accident” during Spring Training in ’74 (which another website says resulted in a back injury), but Bryant’s heavy workload in ’73 probably also had a lot to do with his quick demise as a major league pitcher.
Four pitchers — Jumbo Elliott (19 NL 1931: 63 career), Elmer Riddle (21 NL 1943; 65 career), Heinie Meine (19 NL 1931; 66 career) and Red Barrett (23 NL 1945; 69 career) — all managed to lead the National League in wins at some time between 1931 and 1945 while winning fewer than 70 games during their respective major league careers. Needless to say, Jumbo Elliott was the heaviest player of his day.
Fewest Career Wins by a Two-Time League Leader. Brandon Webb: 16 NL 2006, 22 NL 2008; 87 career wins. I’m sure you remember how good Webb was the three seasons between 2006 and 2008. After winning 22 in 2008, he never won another game due to a series of shoulder injuries that didn’t respond to two rotator cuff surgeries.
Honorable mention. LaMarr Hoyt:19 AL 1982, 24 AL 1983; 98 career wins. Drug arrests, not arm problems, were the main culprit in the untimely demise of LaMarr Hoyt’s major league career, although there are certainly reasons to think his arm wouldn’t have held out much longer after the heavy workloads he handled from 1982 through 1985 — his strikeout rates were dropping fast.
Hoyt was arrested twice for drug possession before the start of the 1986 season, which caused him to miss most of Spring Training. He was arrested again after the 1986 season, served 45 days in jail, and was suspended by Commissioner Peter Ueberroth for the entire 1987 season. An arbitrator later reduced the suspension to 60 days, but Hoyt didn’t pitch at all that season. The White Sox briefly re-signed him, but then released after a fourth drug arrest following the 1987 season. If nothing else, this sad saga reminds us of the problem MLB had with cocaine in the early-mid-1980’s.
Hoyt’s story has a happy ending, however. He eventually got off drugs and returned to the White Sox organization as a roving pitching instructor in 2004.