With a dominating 6 inning performance against the Chicago Cubs on September 24, 2010, Adam Wainwright earned his 20th win of the season. That places him in some rather elite company in Cardinals history. In the previous 50 years, this feat has only been accomplished 15 times. Here is a complete list of the 20 game winners since 1960, including Wainwright’s in 2010.
* also won the National League Cy Young Award
Yes, Adam Wainwright has joined some pretty spectacular company indeed. To help put this achievement in perspective, only 13 additional pitchers have come close, winning 18 or more games: Adam Wainwright (2009), Woody Williams(2003), Kent Bottenfield(1999), Andy Benes(1996), Joe Magrane(1989), Danny Cox(1985), Nelson Briles (1968), Curt Simmons (1964), Bob Gibson (1963, 1964, 1972), Ernie Broglio (1963) and Larry Jackson (1960).
Only two names appear on the 20 game list more than once, Bob Gibson (5 times) and Joaquin Andujar (twice), although Steve Carlton would go on to win 20 or more five additional times with the Philadelpha Phillies. If you include the 18 game winners, that list grows to Ernie Broglio and Adam Wainwright (and Gibson’s total balloons to 8 times). Yes, very elite company.
What it takes to win 20
These two lists point out just how difficult it is to even have a chance to win 20 games in a season. Where a pitcher might get 40 or more starts in the early part of the 1960’s, the typical 5 man rotation used today will limit a pitcher to 34-35 starts. That doesn’t leave much room for no-decisions and bullpen losses. It’s also the reason we will probably never see another 30 game winner in the major leagues. Denny McLain started 41 games in 1968, pitching on more than 3 days rest just 11 times. He also loaded up 336 innings on his arm, and we’ll likely never see anything approaching that either.
A big part of a 20 win season, especially the way the game is played today, is the bullpen. Just ask Adam Wainwright. In 2009, he left his last start of the year with a comfortable lead in the seventh inning. The bullpen failed to hold the lead, and he was denied his 20th victory. Bullpens also played a big part in the past, but in a much different way. Starters used to go deeper into games, resulting in more wins earlier in the year. The increased number of innings took their toll, and all but the best pitchers faded as the season wore on. When called, those bullpens were stocked with young arms learning how to pitch or veterans trying to keep their careers alive – not like the specialists we see today. Regardless of the era, bullpens are big reason the two lists aren’t any longer than 16 and 13 pitchers.
Injuries are also a big part of a 20 win season, perhaps even more today than in the 60s. To appreciate that, just look at Chris Carpenter’s amazing 2009 season. Carpenter would finish the season with a 17-4 record, and a league leading 2.24 ERA. The big right hander would also finish second in the Cy Young voting. Carpenter also missed 5 starts with an injury, and that kept him from having a legitimate chance for 20 wins and his second Cy Young Award. Health issues kept pitchers like Ray Washburn, Silvio Martinez, Andy Rincon, Danny Cox, Joe Magrane off the list, and perhaps John Tudor, Matt Morris and Chris Carpenter from appearing more often.
In the early 60’s, it would not be uncommon for a starter to be used in relief during difficult parts of the schedule, or when a pitcher was struggling. In fact, Ernie Broglio earned 7 of his 21 wins in 1960 that way. With the differences between the roles of a starter and reliever today, that just does not happen any more.
It is interesting to look at how different pitchers reached the 20 game milestone. Hurlers like Bob Gibson and Chris Carpenter would just go out there and wear down the opposition with inning after inning of dominating pitching. All you need to do is look at their low ERAs and high number of innings pitched to see this. Some others, like Ray Sadecki and Bob Forsch, would consistently pitch well enough to stay in the game, waiting for the offense to take the lead before turning things over to the bullpen. Some others pitched even better, but just didn’t have the run support or bullpen help. As a result, Dick Hughes, Ray Washburn and Rick Wise didn’t make either list.
Some other observations
Bob Gibson was unbelievable. Any way you look at it, Gibson had an amazing career. No pitcher today comes close to matching Gibson’s intensity and competitiveness, although Chris Carpenter comes close. There have been some outstanding finesse pitchers since Gibson, but none of them just overmatched hitters, year after year, for more than a decade. I would have considered Roger Clemens a modern day Gibson, but there are mitigating circumstances in the era that The Rocket pitched in that give me reason to question the comparison, for the moment. Five times with 20 or more wins, three more times within 2 games. Many of those seasons, his ERA floated in the low 2’s – or 1.12 in 1968!
Adam Wainwright is a very special pitcher, and the list of 20 game winners helps put that in perspective. Removing Gibson from consideration, there just aren’t many pitchers that have come through the Cardinals system that compare to Wainwright. Perhaps the closest is Matt Morris, but the injury bug bit him early in his career. Wainwright doesn’t have the overtly intense approach of a Bob Gibson or Joaquin Andujar – that’s Chris Carpenter territory. He does have John Tudor’s cool, but Wainwright’s pitches are so much better and his control is every bit as good. His fastball is as good as Chris Carpenter, his curve better than Matt Morris or Darryl Kile. The only pitcher in the 20 win club that compares to Wainwright is Steve Carlton, and that’s a scary indicator of how good Wainwright has become. This begs the question – how many games will Wainwright win in his career, and will they all be in a Cardinals uniform ?
The Ernie Broglio/Lou Brock looked much different in 1964 than today. Broglio was an established star, both in the rotation and out of the bullpen. At the same time, Brock was a free swinging young outfielder with questionable defensive skills. Even with Broglio’s struggles in 1964, the Cubs made a good trade based what they knew at the time. Broglio just owned the Cubs, posting an 11-4 career record with a 3.53 ERA. Add 10 complete games, 4 of them being shutouts. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that this was the most lopsided trade in modern history, but now you know what the Cubs thought they were getting in the deal.
And finally, the lists points out how tough it was to be a Cardinals fan in the 1970’s and 1990’s. There were some great individual performances (Richie Allen, Reggie Smith, Bob Gibson, Bob Forsch, Steve Carlton), but the teams were just not competitive with the rest of the league. It is no surprise that there are clusters of 20 game winners in the 60s, 80’s and again in the 2000’s.
Even though 2010 has been a disappointing season for the Cardinals as a team and as an organization, it has certainly been a pleasure watching Adam Wainwright reach this important milestone. I have a feeling that this will not be the last time.