News of Pat Dobson's death Wednesday night reminds us that there was a team 35 years ago that featured four starters who each won 20 games, only the second time such a conglomeration occurred. The 1971 Orioles could call on Dave McNally (21-5), Mike Cuellar (20-9), Jim Palmer (20-9) and Dobson (20-8) and be almost equally pleased every time they did. The way each man won his 20th was like something out of another Baltimore pastime, duckpin bowling. McNally knocked down No. 20 on September 21, Cuellar and Dobson picked up their spares in respective ends of a September 24 doubleheader and Palmer rolled his 20th on the 26th.
The '71 Orioles were the third straight spectacular regular-season Orioles club to dominate the American League: 109 wins in '69, 108 wins in '70, a measly 101 wins thereafter. Each division title was a breeze, each ALCS was a sweep (World Series were something else, heh-heh). Dobson, previously a journeyman with the Tigers and Padres, benefited from the coaching wisdom of Bamberger and the hitting and fielding prowess of Brooks, Boog, Buford, Blair, Belanger and assorted killer Birds. July in particular was quite a month for him. He started eight games, he won eight games, he completed eight games.
Who starts eight games in a month anymore? Who wins eight games in two months anymore? For goodness sake, who completes eight games in two years anymore? The CGs alone bring a “you and what army?” aspect to the mound. In 2006, only two Major League STAFFS (Cleveland and Cincinnati) exceeded for the year what Dobson accomplished in that one magical month vis-à-vis finishing what one starts.
By 1971, Palmer was en route to the Hall of Fame, Cuellar had a Cy Young in the bank and McNally was an established stud. It was Pat Dobson who turned the Orioles into historymakers, matching the 1920 White Sox (Cicotte, Williams, Faber, Kerr) in the category of outstanding quartets. It is why, quite frankly, I remembered him yesterday when I read he had passed.
At the risk of being crass, do we need to write an obituary for the 20-win season as well? Or would we be too late in paying it tribute?
You may have noticed 2006 came and went with no pitcher gaining 20 wins. Johan Santana and Chien-Ming Wang led the American League with 19. Nobody led the National League at all…not really. The most wins here in Pitching & Defense Land was 16, a milestone so pale it seems insulting to the concept of leading the league to specify which six pitchers reached it.
Now and then, 20-game winners are at a premium. In fact the N.L. hasn't had more than four in any one year since 1977. That speaks to the elite nature of winning 20. Is it possible that nobody's even close to elite anymore? Now and then, one league or another misses 20, but the National League is usually good for a 19- or 18-game winner. This year, if you had a pitcher and 17, you lost.
In the Age of Dobson, 20-game winners were everywhere. The four Orioles were joined by six other American Leaguers…TEN 20-game winners in one league TWO years before the DH eliminated the need to take starters out of close contests for offense. Come 1973, a full dozen American League pitchers racked up 20 wins and only a couple of them were Jim Palmer or Catfish Hunter. If you're not a nut about knowing them, I wouldn't be surprised if you told me you've never heard of Joe Coleman or Paul Splittorff or Jim Colborn (or, honestly, Pat Dobson). They were all A.L. 20-game winners back in the day.
On this day, nobody's a 20-game winner. In the three seasons previous to 2006, only four National Leaguers won 20, including Roy Oswalt twice. He's the only N.L. starter in his prime to have multiple 20s on his ledger.
Geez. What happened?
Well, it's not like there's not good pitching somewhere. Santana, for example, is pretty decent. He got to his 19th win on the final Tuesday of the season, putting him in line for a chance at a 20th win on the last Sunday. Ah, but there was a playoff for which to prepare. Why waste a lot of energy getting to 20 when there was something more important at stake?
For that matter, is 20 wins important? As a round number, absolutely. We love that stuff. Always have: Jerry Koosman merited the cover of the 1977 yearbook (first edition) for winning 20. Always will: I considered it marvelous that Willie Randolph sat Jose Reyes to protect his .300 average at the very end in Washington. Yet when the Mets won 97 games, were you picking apart the Ws and bemoaning Glavine's and (if you'll excuse the expression) Trachsel's failure to top 15 victories? Would you rather marvel at the anomaly of Steve Carlton in 1972 (27 wins on the 59-win Phillies) or watch Wright and Reyes exchange funny handshakes 97 times?
You shouldn't have to choose. The '69 Mets won 100 and Seaver won 25, good news all around. In 1971, the same season that Dobson was contributing to an epic accomplishment, Tom Terrific chalked up 20 wins himself, nailing down his final W on the season's final night and putting a bow on his greatest season: 1.76 ERA, 289 K's, a run-starved 20-10. Would have Seaver not had his greatest season had the Mets not bothered to score for him his last start 35 years ago? No, but from here, that 20 looks so much better than a 19.
The '90 Mets won 91, led by Frank Viola's 20, the last time of eight we enjoyed so many victories from one pitcher. That was 16 going on 17 years ago. The Mets haven't had a 19- or 18-game winner since then. Al Leiter won 17 in 1998, the most in the post-20 period. Nobody else has accumulated more than 16.
Why? You probably know why.
• Five-man rotations, foresightfully deployed by Gil Hodges and Rube Walker, became the norm, cutting down on starts per pitcher, cutting back on the opportunity to win 20. Hell, six-man rotations sneak in now and then.
• Pitch counts are part of the boxscore never mind the gameplan. Throw a lot of pitches early, you're not going the requisite five to be in position to win. Throw a lot of pitches early and you're probably not going to be in a position to win regardless, but 35 years ago, who was counting?
• Pitching staffs are routinely 12 men (if not 12 men strong). Relief is not a punishment, it's a specialty, one that is handsomely rewarded at this time of year. If you're paying a setup man exponentially more than you ever paid Mike Cuellar, you're using him, decisions be damned.
• Dude, everybody's handsomely rewarded at this time of year. Except for old goats with their eyes on a transcendent prize, few are seriously counting individual wins. Nobody's going to kill himself to get to 20, playoffs or no playoffs. Anybody who manages 19 wins these days is going to be compensated like a 30-game winner used to be anyhow.
Statlovers that we are, we also realize wins are as much luck as skill, the stuff of right place meeting right time. Maybe W's need to be issued those t-shirts that read PROPERTY OF NEW YORK METS. Tom Glavine driving to 300 helps (helped?) the greater good, but when he's undermined by circumstance and “his” win winds up as Pedro Felicano's, does it matter for more than a minute to us? Now that he's at 290, it would be sweet to see him get there in a Met uniform, but it's sweet to see any Met win anytime. It means our team won.
Quick, what pitcher was the difference between the Mets advancing to the World Series and the Mets going home a tad too soon? No not Trachsel; it was Jeff Suppan. Jeff Suppan beat the Mets in Game Seven but good. Except Jeff Suppan technically did not beat the Mets. Oh, he was the man, no bleeping question about it, but he exited in the eighth for Randy Flores who was the pitcher of record when Yadier Molina…you know.
That said, 16-going-on-17 seasons is a long-ass time. It's not the worst National League stretch going by any means — only eight N.L. teams have had as many as one 20-game winner since 1990. The Dodgers, the hallowed House of Koufax, Drysdale, Valenzuela and Hershiser if you can believe it, have gone just as dry. Hence, there's no real shame in any of this. Still when Reyes triples more often than any single pitcher wins two years in a row, I have a hunch we've got a legitimate drought on our hands.
So what gets here ahead of the other: the first Met no-hitter or the next Met 20-game winner? If current trends prevail, bet on neither.