January is the worst. No beer, no sugar, no carbs. It’s cold outside. So naturally, friends during the winter text about baseball trivia. Life it often does, that turned into looking up 90’s relief pitcher David Weathers’s career stats. Weathers had phenomenal luck. He appeared in 2 games for the 1992 Blue Jays and 11 games for the 1996 Yankees. Just 13 appearances, 2 championships.

Weathers also played for the 2001 Cubs, who featured Jon Lieber going 20-6 that year. I had forgotten this fact and thought, “Who does Jon Lieber think he is winning 20 games?” Is his 20-win campaign of 2001 the worst 20-win season since 1996? I just had to find out.

(Note: I ponder most baseball topics relative to 1996. It matters baseball-wise because it was post-strike and I think the game changed then. 1993 baseball was nothing like today, but I think 1996 baseball is much closer. And the Bulls won 72 games, 6th grade was a helluva year, Recovering The Satellites came out and I played on a Little League team that went 20-1. 1996 rules.)

Consider these items about Joe Lieber’s 20-6 season with the Cubs in 2001 (34 starts):

  • Lieber had a 4.51 ERA when the Cubs scored 6 or more runs – he had run support.
  • Lieber went 12-1 at home and the Cubs scored 5.4 runs per game when he started (compared to 4.6 runs per game in the other 128 games).
  • Sammy Sosa was on his team: In Lieber’s 34 starts that year, Sosa hit .309 with 11 HRs and 33 RBIs and walked 24 times.

Another fun fact: Lieber was the winning pitcher for the Cubs’ 10,000th win and the losing pitcher for the Phillies’ 10,000th loss.

It was his only all-star season and only top 15 Cy Young finish. His career ERA+ is 103, meaning he was about 3% better than the average pitcher. But where does his outlier season rank among the worst 20-win seasons since 1996?

20-Game Winners Since Troublesome ’96

Tupac wasn’t in the Billboard top 5 at the start of the 1996 baseball season, but you can find that list hereAnd that’s where we begin: You can find the list of American League 20-game winners here and the National League 20-game winners here. I then looked at these lists and focused on the 20-game winners since 1996 and evaluated them by advanced metrics WAR, FIP, ERA+, WHIP and K% – BB%.

Below is the list of pitchers who have won 20 games in a season since 1996. By looking at those 5 advanced metrics, I placed the seasons into tiers: dominant green, normal and mediocre red.

Here’s the list of AL 20-game winners:

PITCHER NAME TEAM SEASON W-L RECORD WAR FIP ERA+ WHIP K% – BB%
Andy Pettitte Yankees 1996 21-8 5.6 4.08 129 1.362 9.7
Pat Hentgen Blue Jays 1996 20-10 8.5 3.94 156 1.250 7.5 CY
Roger Clemens Blue Jays 1997 21-7 11.9 2.25 222 1.030 21.5 CY
Randy Johnson Mariners 1997 20-4 8.0 2.82 197 1.052 25.2  
Brad Radke Twins 1997 20-10 4.6 3.81 120 1.193 17.6
David Cone Yankees 1998 20-7 4.0 3.45 125 1.180 17.3
Roger Clemens Blue Jays 1998 20-6 8.2 2.65 174 1.095 19.0 CY
Rick Helling Rangers 1998 20-7 3.7 4.34 109 1.327 9.3  
Pedro Martinez Red Sox 1999 23-4 9.7 1.39 243 0.923 33.1 CY
Tim Hudson Athletics 2000 20-6 4.0 4.13 113 1.241 10.3
David Wells Blue Jays 2000 20-8 4.8 3.50 123 1.293 13.9
Mark Mulder Athletics 2001 21-8 5.6 3.35 126 1.156 11.0
Roger Clemens Yankees 2001 20-3 5.6 3.29 128 1.257 23.2 CY
Jamie Moyer Mariners 2001 20-6 3.4 4.17 120 1.102 8.8  
Barry Zito Athletics 2002 21-5 7.2 3.87 158 1.134 11.1 CY
Derek Lowe Red Sox 2002 21-7 7.2 3.34 177 0.974 9.2  
Bartolo Colon Indians/Expos 2002 20-8 2.4 3.72 147 1.239 14.1
Pedro Martinez Red Sox 2002 20-4 6.5 2.24 202 0.923 25.3  
Roy Halladay Blue Jays 2003 22-7 8.1 3.23 145 1.071 16.1 CY
Esteban Loaiza White Sox 2003 21-9 7.2 3.05 159 1.113 16.4
Jamie Moyer Mariners 2003 21-7 4.8 4.01 132 1.233 7.0
Andy Pettitte Yankees 2003 21-8 3.1 3.35 110 1.330 14.5  
Curt Schilling Red Sox 2004 21-6 7.9 3.11 148 1.063 18.5  
Johan Santana Twins 2004 21-6 8.6 2.92 182 0.921 23.9 CY
Bartolo Colon Angels 2005 21-8 4.0 3.75 122 1.159 12.6 CY
Josh Beckett Red Sox 2007 21-8 6.5 3.08 145 1.141 18.7
Cliff Lee Indians 2008 22-3 6.9 2.83 167 1.110 15.3 CY
Roy Halladay Blue Jays 2008 20-11 6.2 3.03 152 1.053 16.9
Mike Mussina Yankees 2008 20-9 5.2 3.32 131 1.223 14.5
CC Sabathia Yankees 2010 21-7 4.6 3.54 136 1.191 12.7
Justin Verlander Tigers 2011 24-5 8.4 2.99 172 0.920 19.9 CY
David Price Rays 2012 20-5 6.9 3.05 150 1.100 17.5 CY
Jered Weaver Angels 2012 20-5 4.0 3.75 135 1.018 13.1
Max Scherzer Tigers 2013 21-3 6.7 2.74 144 0.970 22.0 CY
Dallas Keuchel Astros 2015 20-8 7.2 2.91 157 1.017 18.1 CY
Rick Porcello Red Sox 2016 22-4 5.1 3.40 142 1.009 17.6 CY
JA Happ Blue Jays 2016 20-4 4.5 3.96 134 1.169 12.9

Here’s what the NL list of 20-game winners looks like:

PITCHER NAME TEAM SEASON W-L RECORD WAR FIP ERA+ WHIP K% – BB%
John Smoltz Braves 1996 24-8 7.3 2.64 149 1.001 22.2 CY
Denny Neagle Braves 1997 20-5 4.5 3.34 140 1.084 13.0
Tom Glavine Braves 1998 20-6 6.1 3.50 168 1.203 8.9 CY
Mike Hampton Houston 1999 22-4 6.6 3.64 155 1.285 7.8
Jose Lima Houston 1999 21-10 4.5 3.76 125 1.218 14.0
Tom Glavine Braves 2000 21-9 4.9 4.03 135 1.191 8.8
Darryl Kile Cardinals 2000 20-9 3.7 4.24 120 1.175 14.0
Matt Morris Cardinals 2001 22-8 4.1 3.05 137 1.257 14.4
Curt Schilling Dbacks 2001 22-6 8.8 3.11 157 1.075 24.9  
Randy Johnson Dbacks 2001 21-6 10.0 2.13 188 1.009 30.3 CY
Jon Lieber Cubs 2001 20-6 3.9 3.79 109 1.149 11.2
Randy Johnson Dbacks 2002 24-5 10.9 2.66 195 1.031 25.4 CY
Curt Schilling Dbacks 2002 23-5 8.7 2.40 140 0.968 27.8
Bartolo Colon Indians/Expos 2002 20-8 2.4 3.72 147 1.239 14.1
Russ Ortiz Braves 2003 21-7 2.3 4.17 113 1.314 5.2
Roy Oswalt Astros 2004 20-10 4.0 3.17 124 1.245 14.6
Dontrelle Willis Marlins 2005 22-10 7.3 2.99 152 1.134 12.0  
Chris Carpenter Cardinals 2005 21-5 5.8 2.90 150 1.055 17.0
Roy Oswalt Astros 2005 20-12 5.9 3.16 144 1.204 13.6
Brandon Webb Dbacks 2008 22-7 5.8 3.28 140 1.196 12.5
Roy Halladay Phillies 2010 21-10 8.3 3.01 167 1.041 19.0 CY
Adam Wainwright Cardinals 2010 20-11 6.3 2.86 160 1.051 17.3
Ian Kennedy Dbacks 2011 21-4 4.8 3.22 137 1.086 22.0
Clayton Kershaw Dodgers 2011 21-5 4.7 2.47 161 0.977 27.2
Gio Gonzalez Nationals 2012 21-8 4.9 2.82 138 1.129 15.9
R.A. Dickey Mets 2012 20-6 5.8 3.27 139 1.053 19.0 CY
Clayton Kershaw Dodgers 2014 21-3 7.5 1.81 197 0.857 31.9 CY
Johnny Cueto Reds 2014 20-9 6.4 3.30 163 0.960 18.4
Adam Wainwright Cardinals 2014 20-9 6.1 2.88 153 1.031 19.9
Jake Arrieta Cubs 2015 22-6 8.7 2.35 215 0.865 21.6 CY
Max Scherzer Nationals 2016 20-7 6.2 3.24 144 0.968 25.3 CY

* You can find more about what these numbers mean HERE
* Blank lines (blacked out in the spreadsheet) indicate no 20-game winners that year

* I showed my work HERE – check it out! (it’s easier to follow along in the sheet) 

Pay attention to the 9 seasons listed in red. These are what we’re going to look at to determine the worst 20-win seasons since 1996.

The 9 worst 20-win pitching seasons since 1996 are the following:

  • Rick Helling (1998 Rangers), Jose Lima (1999 Astros), Darryl Kile (2000 Cardinals)
  • Jamie Moyer (2001 and 2003 Mariners), Jon Lieber (2001 Cubs)
  • Andy Pettitte (2003 Yankees), Russ Ortiz (2003 Braves)
  • CC Sabathia (2010 Yankees)

Looking at our 5 advanced metrics, I compared the numbers against each other and also against the league averages of those years. I put the bad numbers in red, and the good numbers in green. Those with a lot of green were off the hook, those with a lot of red stayed on my 20-win hot seat. To break ties, I went into every pitcher’s game log and counted how many bad starts they had that year.

Here’s what those 9 seasons looked like:

Screen Shot 2018-04-04 at 11.11.15 PM

The 5 Finalists For A Dubious Honor

From those 9, I cut it to Helling, Pettitte, Kile, Lieber and Ortiz. In addition to the 5 metrics we already have, I went back to the game logs and looked at game scores, how often each pitcher recorded 20 outs and how their teams fared in their starts vs. when they didn’t pitch. Here’s what the 5 pitchers left look like:

Screen Shot 2018-04-04 at 11.20.10 PM

Rick Helling vs. Russ Ortiz

Whenever I think of Rick Helling, I think of 2 things: that he blew the whistle on steroids way before his time and what Chuck Klosterman, one of my favorite authors, said about him:

Screen Shot 2018-04-04 at 11.24.13 PM

Today, I think about his 1998 season, where he won 20 games with a mediocre 4.41 ERA. He had 7 starts which I would consider “duds” had an ERA+ of 109 (9% better than league average). On the other hand, Ortiz had 6 “duds” and only got 20 outs a third of the time (12 of his 34 starts).

Here’s the difference: The 1998 Rangers went 25-8 in Helling’s starts (.758), compared to 63-66 in all other games. The 2003 Braves went 24-10 in Ortiz’s starts (.706), but won 101 games because they had an excellent team. The Braves went 77-51 without Ortiz.

Russ Ortiz’s 2003 season with the Braves where he won 21 games is the worst 20-win season in baseball since 1996.

For the record, here’s how I rate the 5 worst 20-game winners: Ortiz 03, Helling 98, Kile 00, Pettitte 03, Lieber 01. Jon Lieber’s only the 5th worst!

The Common Theme In This Exercise: Needles

Other than Sabathia’s “just kinda OK” 2010 season, all of these pitching seasons in question happened between 1998-2003. Look at this list above: 20-game winners before 1998 and after 2006 or so have way better numbers. Guys like Helling, Moyer and Ortiz battled through the Steroid Era and bulldogged their way to wins and quality outings against pharmaceutically-enhanced behemoths.

Winning 20 games from 1998 through 2006 or so is even more impressive when you consider the climate of PEDs in the sport.

The Worst Career Pitcher Who Won 20 Wins

So now that we know 2003 Russ Ortiz is the worst kind of 20-game winner, let’s take a minute and figure out  the worst overall player to win 20 since 1996.

In his 13-year career, Jose Lima managed just 6.2 WAR. No other 20-game winner had less than 13.9 career WAR. Lima’s career record was 89-102 and his career ERA+ was 85 (15% worse than an average big leaguer).

Jose Lima is the worst pitcher to win 20 games since 1996 and it’s not anywhere close. The table below shows the career WAR totals for our list of 20-game winners:

Screen Shot 2018-04-05 at 12.19.07 AM

He’s Got Jokes

“…in baseball, you wear a cap!”

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