Max Scherzer and the Law of Averages
After last night’s game, Max Scherzer is now 19-1, which means that if the season ended today, he would have the highest single-season winning percentage in baseball history at .950. Wow, is he ever due for the law of averages to kick him in the behind!
There are 33 games left in the Tigers’ schedule, which should translate into six more starts for Scherzer. He’s almost a lock on a 20-win season, and no pitcher in the 130+ years of the history of major league baseball has ever won 20 while losing fewer than three games. As such, the smart money has to be on Scherzer being credited with at least two more losses between now and the end of the regular season.
That being said, records are made to be broken and just about every record will, in fact, be broken given enough time. There’s so much luck involved in a pitcher’s single-season winning percentage that anything is possible in any given season. Aside from that, it just feels like this year is as good as any for a new record to be set in this regard.
Looking at the current single season leaders in single-season winning percentage, you have Elroy Face at .947 (18-1) for the 1959 Pirates, Johnny Allen at .938 (15-1) for the 1937 Indians, Greg Maddux at .905 (19-2) for the 1995 Braves and Randy Johnson at an even .900 (18-2) for the 1995 Mariners. [I’m not counting Perry “Moose” Werden‘s .923 (12-1) for the 1884 Union Association’s St. Louis Maroons. The UA wasn’t a major league in terms of talent, and its status as a “major league” is more a mistake of history than anything else. The 1884 Maroons were the only team in the league with “major league” talent — they went a ridiculous 94-19 and won the UA’s only pennant by a whopping 21 full games. In 1885, the Maroons jumped to the National League, and with pretty much the same roster finished dead last with a dreadful 36-72 record. Nothing about these facts suggest the UA was anywhere close to a major league.]
In 1995 both Maddux and Johnson were far and away the best pitchers in their respective leagues. Maddux had a 1.63 ERA that year — no other qualifying Senior Circuit pitcher had an ERA below 2.50. Johnson led the Junior Circuit with a 2.48 ERA — Tim Wakefield at 2.95 was the only other qualifying AL hurler with an ERA under 3.00. Johnson also struck out an astounding 294 batters in only 214.1 IP, the fifth highest rate by a qualifier in baseball history, although only the third best season of Johnson’s Hall of Fame career.
Roy Face and Johnny Allen were simply a lot more lucky. Face was a relief ace with a good, but not great, 2.70 ERA that year (Face’s ERA was better than the top NL qualifier, but four pitchers who threw more innings than Face that season had better ERAs, some much better) who just happened to win almost all the close games that year. Johnny Allen’s 2.55 ERA was third best in the AL in 1937, and injuries apparently limited him to 24 games pitched and 20 starts. Max Scherzer’s 2.73 ERA is currently fifth best in the AL.
It’s also worth noting that except for Maddux’s 1995 Braves who went 90-54 (.625 winning percentage), none of the teams on which these pitchers played was especially good or as good as the 2013 Tigers so far (77-53, .592 pct.). Faces’ 1959 Pirates just beat .500 at 78-76, Allen’s 1937 Indians were a little better at 83-71 (.539) and Johnson’s 1995 Mariners were just a little better still at 79-66 (.545).
The upshot of all of this, I guess, is that Max Scherzer has as good a shot as any pitcher since at least 1995 to set a single-season winning percentage record, whether all-time or by a 20-game winner, if his good luck and good pitching holds up for six more starts.