A pitcher's main objective when he climbs the mound is to keep the other team from scoring. But even if he does so incredibly well, fate can sometimes have a way of intervening. Jacob deGrom's 2018 campaign serves as another reminder that pitcher wins are far from a tell-all statistic when
A pitcher's main objective when he climbs the mound is to keep the other team from scoring. But even if he does so incredibly well, fate can sometimes have a way of intervening.
Jacob deGrom's 2018 campaign serves as another reminder that pitcher wins are far from a tell-all statistic when it comes to evaluating performance. After a scoreless 10-strikeout performance in the Mets' 3-0 win over the Braves on Wednesday, deGrom likely finishes the year with a 10-9 record despite his Major League-low 1.70 ERA.
Ten wins out of 32 starts is a mind-boggling low total for a pitcher who has been as dominant as deGrom. But how does it stack up to ERA champions throughout Major League history?
Below are the 10 league ERA leaders who collected the fewest wins in a season in baseball's modern era. This list includes regular starting pitchers only -- those who started at least 75 percent of the games they pitched in the relevant seasons -- and includes full seasons only (not, for example, the strike-shortened 1981 and '94 seasons). To qualify for the ERA title, a pitcher must average at least one inning pitched per team game for the season. Pitchers marked with an asterisk () led the Majors in ERA, not just their own league.
1. Joe Magrane, Cardinals, 1988: Five wins
Season stats: 5-9, 2.18 ERA
Magrane had finished third in NL Rookie of the Year Award voting in 1987 (Benito Santiago won) after going 9-7 with a 3.54 ERA in 27 games and helping St. Louis win the NL East. As a sophomore, he was even better… except in the win-loss column. Magrane led the Majors with a 2.18 ERA in 165 1/3 innings, but the left-hander was just 5-9 in his 24 starts for a Cardinals team that went from first in the East to fifth, finishing 76-86 a year after going 95-67. The next season, with a higher ERA (2.91) but a much better record (18-9), Magrane would tie for fourth in NL Cy Young Award voting.
2 (tie). Nolan Ryan, Astros, 1987: Eight wins
Season stats: 8-16, 2.76 ERA
Ryan was 40 years old in 1987, but that didn't stop him from leading the NL in ERA and the Major Leagues in strikeouts (with 270). But the Astros scuffled to a 76-86 third-place finish in the NL West a year after winning the division and making it to the NL Championship Series, and Ryan's record suffered along with the team's. Seven of his 16 losses came in quality starts (at least six innings pitched with no more than three earned runs allowed). Ryan's winning percentage of .333 in '87 is the lowest ever for a league ERA champ. He still finished fifth in the NL Cy Young Award voting that year.
2 (tie). Ed Siever, Tigers, 1902: Eight wins
Season stats: 8-11, 1.91 ERA
Baseball was a much different game at the turn of the 20th century, of course, and the American League was only in its second year of existence when Siever led the Junior Circuit with a 1.91 ERA. But the left-hander was pitching for a Detroit team that finished seventh in the eight-team league at 52-83 while scoring the fewest runs of any AL club by a wide margin -- its 566 runs were 53 behind the St. Louis Browns. Siever took one especially famous loss in a pitchers' duel with Hall of Famer Rube Waddell (who is about to make an appearance on this list himself). Siever and Waddell both tossed 12 scoreless innings on Aug. 11, 1902, until Waddell himself tripled in the 13th and scored the game's only run.
2 (tie). Rube Waddell, Pirates, 1900: Eight wins
Season stats: 8-13, 2.37 ERA
This was Waddell's first year in the NL, which went from 12 to eight teams in 1900. Several stars -- including Hall of Famers Waddell, Honus Wagner and Fred Clarke -- went from the Louisville Colonels to the Pirates as part of the contraction. In his debut season in Pittsburgh, the 23-year-old Waddell led the Senior Circuit with a 2.37 ERA in 208 2/3 innings, but he finished with a record well below .500, even as the Bucs as a team went 79-60 and finished second to Brooklyn. Waddell would go on to flourish with the Philadelphia Athletics as one of the premier strikeout artists of the Dead Ball era.
5 (tie). Kevin Millwood, Indians, 2005: Nine wins
Season stats: 9-11, 2.86 ERA
Millwood was only in Cleveland for one season, but he spent that year winning the AL ERA crown. Even with a sub-3 ERA, Millwood's record stood at 9-11 at season's end. He didn't get much support from his offense -- the Indians averaged just 3.6 runs in the 30 games Millwood started, the lowest run support of his career to that point. They scored two runs or fewer 13 times. But the 30-year-old did manage to tie for sixth in the AL Cy Young Award voting.
5 (tie). Craig Swan, Mets, 1978: Nine wins
Season stats: 9-6, 2.43 ERA
deGrom isn't the first Mets hurler to see his ERA not translate to the win column, as Swan pitched to an NL-best 2.43 ERA over 29 games without reaching double-digit wins. The main culprit was no-decisions: Swan had 14 of them, despite posting an ERA of 2.13 in those games. The Mets struggled as a team, finishing in last place in the NL East with a league-worst 66-96 record. Swan didn't even receive an NL Cy Young Award vote.
7 (tie). Jacob deGrom, Mets, 2018: 10 wins
Season stats: 10-9, 1.70 ERA
deGrom's campaign becomes more incredible the further one digs in, from his record 29 straight games allowing three runs or fewer to his 11 games with double-digit strikeouts to the fact that his season-end ERA ranked more than a half-run better than the rest of his qualified competitors in the NL. The trouble was that the Mets hardly ever gave him run support; the starting pitchers who opposed deGrom in 2018 combined for a 2.45 ERA. Still, deGrom's contributions were enough to lead all Senior Circuit players in wins above replacement (WAR), per FanGraphs.
7 (tie). Atlee Hammaker, Giants, 1983: 10 wins
Season stats: 10-9, 2.25 ERA
This was the best season of Hammaker's career. The 25-year-old left-hander was a breakout All-Star, and he finished the season with a Major League-best 2.25 ERA in 172 1/3 inning over 23 starts. But he only won one more game than he lost. Hammaker's toughest losses that season came on May 22, when the only two runs he allowed in eight innings were unearned and the Giants lost to the Expos, 2-0; and on July 2, when he pitched into the 10th inning against the Padres only for the walk-off run to score on an error by San Francisco shortstop Johnnie LeMaster.
7 (tie). Dick Donovan*, Senators, 1961: 10 wins
Season stats: 10-10, 2.40 ERA
Donovan came to the Senators from the White Sox in 1961, and in his only season with Washington, he won his only career ERA title. But Donovan didn't finish with a winning record, although he did well to battle back from starting 0-5 despite a 3.29 ERA in that stretch. The Senators finished tied for last in the AL with a 61-100 record that year, but for his excellent pitching, Donovan got an All-Star nod and showed up on a few AL MVP Award ballots.
9 (tie). Josh Johnson, Marlins, 2010: 11 wins
Season stats: 11-6, 2.30 ERA
We're now into 11-win territory, so you can see just how rare it is for a pitcher who dominates in ERA to also be held out of the win column. This was Johnson's best season for the Marlins, with the 26-year-old finishing with an NL-best 2.30 ERA to go along with 186 strikeouts in 183 2/3 innings. His record wasn't overwhelming on a middling Florida team, but Johnson's season still got some shine, as he was an All-Star, finished fifth in the NL Cy Young Award balloting and got a couple of MVP votes, too.
9 (tie). Juan Guzman, Blue Jays, 1996: 11 wins
Season stats: 11-8, 2.93 ERA
Guzman broke into the big leagues with a great three-season stretch -- he was the runner-up to Chuck Knoblauch for the AL Rookie of the Year Award in 1991, an All-Star in '92 and finished seventh in the AL Cy Young Award voting in '93, all while helping Toronto win back-to-back World Series in the latter two years. But he'd gone through two straight down seasons when '96 rolled around, only to recapture his form and lead the AL with a 2.93 ERA in 27 starts. Guzman didn't get any AL Cy Young Award votes, even though he was certainly deserving.
9 (tie). John Denny, Cardinals, 1976: 11 wins
Season stats: 11-9, 2.52 ERA
Denny would win the NL Cy Young Award with the Phillies in 1983 after going 19-6, but the right-hander's 11-9 season in '76 with St. Louis, when he was just 23, was pretty similar in terms of ERA -- 2.52 in '76, 2.37 in '83. Denny didn't get any NL Cy Young Award love in that first breakout campaign, though, even with his ERA title. The top four vote-getters were all 20-game winners, even though two of them -- Don Sutton and Steve Carlton --each had an ERA over 3.00.
9 (tie). Phil Douglas, Giants, 1922: 11 wins
Season stats: 11-4, 2.63 ERA
Douglas' 1922 season went far beyond him having the best ERA in the NL. It also ended with the 32-year-old right-hander being permanently banned from baseball by the Major Leagues' first Commissioner -- Kenesaw Mountain Landis. After a midseason falling-out with Giants manager John McGraw, Douglas wrote a letter to his former Cubs teammate and then-Cardinals outfielder Les Mann saying that he could be bribed to leave the Giants for the rest of the pennant race. The letter was reported to Landis, who banned Douglas for life.
ERA LEADERS BY LOWEST WINNING PERCENTAGE
Win totals are one way to put deGrom's season into perspective; winning percentage -- deGrom's is .462 -- is another. With the same criteria -- qualified starting pitchers in a full season -- here's a quick list of the 10 league ERA champions with the lowest winning percentage in the modern era.
1. Nolan Ryan, Astros, 1987: .333 (8-16, 2.76 ERA)
- Joe Magrane*, Cardinals, 1988: .357 (5-9, 2.18 ERA)
- Rube Waddell*, Pirates, 1900: .381 (8-13, 2.37 ERA)
- Ed Siever, Tigers, 1902: .421 (8-11, 1.91 ERA)
- Kevin Millwood, Indians, 2005: .450 (9-11, 2.86 ERA)
- Dolf Luque*, Reds, 1925: .471 (16-18, 2.63 ERA)
- Ed Walsh*, White Sox, 1910: .474 (18-20, 1.27 ERA)
- Stan Coveleski, Indians, 1923: .481 (13-14, 2.76 ERA)
- Dick Donovan*, Senators, 1961: .500 (10-10, 2.40 ERA)
- Dave Stieb, Blue Jays, 1985: .519 (14-13, 2.48 ERA)
David Adler is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @_dadler.