What Is the Most Wins a Pitcher Could Win in One Season in Today’s Game?
In my last post, I wrote that it is highly unlikely that we will see a batter hit .400 in a full season in our lifetimes, but more likely that we’ll see another .400 hitter before we see a starting pitcher win 30 games in a season again. Which made me think, what is the most wins a pitcher could accumulate in the most extreme season which could reasonably happen.
My feeling is that the limit is about 28 games, if everything reasonably broke in favor of one great starter in one season. I will explain how I got to that number as follows.
The last pitcher to win 30 games in a season was Denny McLain in 1968, when he won 31. He was the first to win 30 since since Dizzy Dean in 1934. McLain’s 1968 was a fluke season by a pitcher who was terrific that year.
The last pitcher to win as many as 27 in a season was the recently deceased Bob Welch, who went 27-6 in 1990. Since then, no one has won more than 24 games in a season (John Smoltz in 1996, Randy Johnson in 2002 and Justin Verlander in 2011. Smoltz, Johnson and Verlander were just terrific in the seasons they won 24, but the truth of the matter is that Bob Welch wasn’t particularly brilliant in his 27-win season.
In 1990, Welch had a 2.95 ERA in 35 starts and pitched only two complete games. He did generally go deep into his games, pitching 238 innings that year, but he struck out only 127. His exceptional record that season was a testament to tremendously good luck and the exceptional job Dennis Eckersley did as the Oakland A’s closer that year.
If Bob Welch could win 27 games in 1990, I think its at least reasonably possible that in the next 40 years a pitcher having a much better season in all other respects could finish the season at 28-4 if everything reasonably possible broke right for him.
35 starts in a season was relatively common through the 2006 season. In the the last seven complete seasons, however, only three pitchers have made 35 starts in a season (Dontrelle Willis in 2007, Justin Verlander in 2009 and Chris Carpenter in 2010). Elite pitchers still routinely make 34 starts in a season, though, and this number isn’t likely to drop any lower in the future, simply because there is no indication that teams will use more than five starters or that active major league rosters are going to get any bigger than the current 25 slots in the foreseeable future.
While no one has made 35 starts in the last few seasons, I certainly think that in a situation where a starter is having an historically great season, teams would find a way to squeeze a 35th start out of that pitcher. Further, each league’s leader still pitches more than 238 innings in a season more often than not.
In short, a pitcher with Welch’s luck and an historically great bullpen could go 28-4 if he pitched 35 starts as well Randy Johnson or Justin Verlander pitched the seasons they won 24. I can’t imagine a major league pitcher doing better than that simply because no pitcher in baseball history has ever won 20 games in a season with a won-loss percentage as high as .900.
Only four qualifiers (excluding Perry Werden, who won 12 out of 13 decisions in 1884 in a league that was nowhere near a major league level of talent, although in fairness to Werden, he was one of the greatest players no one has ever heard of) have ever finished the season with a winning percentage at or over .900, and none of them won more than Greg Maddux‘s 19 in 1995. The closest was Ron Guidry‘s 25-3 in 1978.
In short, I just can’t see anyone going 29-3 in a major league season, but 28-4 at least seems possible based on what’s actually happened in the past.