Since the turn of the century, only 9 pitchers have won 20 games in a season while playing for a last place team. Three turned the feat during the 1970s, and only one has done it ever since. All four of those pitchers are in the Hall of Fame, and each has 300+ victories.
In his first season after being dealt to Philadelphia from the Cardinals, where he had won 20 games the season before, Steve Carlton became the first pitcher since Ned Garver of the Browns in 1951 to win 20 for a last place club. Lefty went 27-10 in 1972 with a 1.97 ERA and 310 strikeouts, taking his first of four Cy Young Awards. Carlton’s 27 wins are the most ever for a pitcher on a last place team, and accounted for 45.7% of the Phillies’ (59-97) victories, the highest percentage in history. He enjoyed 4 more 20-won seasons in his Hall of Fame career in route to 329 lifetime wins.
Two years later, in 1974, the electrifying Nolan Ryan enjoyed the second and final 20-win season of his 27 year career, going 22-16 for the 68-94 last-place California Angels. His 367 strikeouts gave him three straight years of 300+ Ks. Ryan also had the distinction in 1974 of compiling 19 or more strikeouts in 3 separate games, and pitched his third career no-hitter on his final start of the season.
Then in 1979 40-year old Atlanta’s Phil Niekro posted a 21-20 mark with a 3.39 ERA and 208 strikeouts, while the Braves sputtered in the NL West basement at 66-94. 1979 was the veteran knuckleballer’s third 20-win season, and he pitched until he was 48, winning 318 games in his career.
It took 18 years for the feat to be accomplished again, in 1997 when Roger Clemens went 21-7 for last place Toronto. It was The Rocket’s 5th of 6 20-win seasons, and 4th of 7 eventual Cy Young Awards.
Given the reduced workloads and pitch counts of modern day starters, 20 wins have become more uncommon overall, and it’s questionable we will ever see another pitcher from a last place club able to reach this magic number of victories.
Joe Gersbeck is a baseball historian and lifetime fan/student of the game who lives in New Jersey with his wife and two sons. His website is http://www.1970sBaseball.com and his book, 1970s Baseball: A History and Analysis of the Decade’s Best Seasons, Teams, and Players is available on Amazon, B&N, and iBooks: