Thursday, June 12, 2008


I have been collecting baseball cards since I was a small child in the western suburbs of Chicago. As I have grown older, my collection of Cubs' cards has grown and required some careful consideration as to how I both maintain and display these prize possessions. They are in five notebooks: one for current players on this season's squad; one for Cubs' players who came up through the team's farm system (inspired, in part, by Joseph Bosco's The Boys Who Would Be Cubs); one of Cubs players from other farm systems; one for those Cubs who I consider to be the best to have ever put on a uniform; and one for Cubs players that had an exemplary single season for the team or were simply one of my favorites. The cards, in many ways, require a readjustment of my personal memories and countenance a more nuanced understanding of my visceral likes and dislikes of certain players. For example, Glenallen Hill has been, and remains, one of my favorite Cubs players, but his baseball card reminds me that, at least statistically, there is not much that makes him stand out in the annals of club history. In contrast, Les Lancaster -- who otherwise sported a career 4.00 ERA as a spot starter and middle reliever -- had an outstanding '89 season that, following the starting pitching performances of Greg Maddux, Rick Sutcliffe, Mike Bielecki, and Scott Sanderson, led to the team's second postseason appearance in my lifetime. Lancaster posted a 1.36 ERA for that team, giving up a mere 11 earned runs in 72 and 2/3 innings.

In any event, outside of the unwarranted fascination in the statistics of middle relievers, obsessively organizing the cards focuses attention on what appear to be statistical anomalies that jump out. As I watched Ryan Dempster win his eighth game of the season last night, I was reminded of one particular statistic that has always amazed me: the dearth of 20-game winners for the Cubs. This season, Dempster has already racked up 8 wins in 14 starts and Zambrano's managed 8 in 15 starts. Assuming a season of 34 or 35 starts, Dempster and Zambrano are on the cusp of potential 20 win seasons. Neither are likely to get to that landmark and another season where a Cubs starter failed to reach 20 wins will not be remarkable. The dearth of 20-game winners in modern baseball is a phenomenon commented on by numerous others, but, for the Cubs, it is particularly impressive given the talent that the team has had in its rotation over the last few decades. Since I was born, the Cubs have had three pitchers who reached the 20 win plateau in a season -- and each only managed to do it once. The immortal Rick Reuschel went 20 and 10 in 37 starts (252 innings pitched) in 1977 (he also managed 19 wins for the Giants in 1988, at 39 years of age). Greg Maddux managed 20 wins just once as a Cub, winning 20 games while losing 11 in 35 starts (268 innings pitched) in 1992 (he won another 20 for the Braves in 1993; thank you Larry Himes). After Maddux won 20 in 1992, only one other Cub pitcher has hit that mark -- the once and future Cub Jon Lieber won 20 in his incredible 2001 campaign when Lieber went 20 and 6 in 34 starts (232 innings pitched). In the 35 seasons stretching back to 1973, then, only three Cubs pitchers have won 20 games in a single season (to be fair, Rick Sutcliffe won 20 combined with the Indians and Cubs in 1984 but, for whatever reason, I don't recognize this as a 20 win season for a Cubs pitcher). In the six seasons between 1967 and 1972, Ferguson Jenkins won 20 games in a season as a Cub six times (and Bill Hands won 20 in 1969 as well). Now certainly Jenkins and Hands were part of an era where starting pitchers were used more and, most seasons, a good starter might be handed 38 to 42 starts. But that does not completely explain away Jenkins' achievements, since in 1972 he won 20 while starting 36 games (289 innings pitched).

But if there are not generally 20-game winners in the major leagues, why is it noteworthy that the Cubs do not have many? It may simply be my inflated sense of the Cubs' past pitching staffs, but I am at a loss to explain why the team does not boast more. Former Cub Jamie Moyer has won at least 20 twice in his career, both times with Seattle (in 2001 and 2003). Tom Glavine won at least 20 games for the Braves five times (1991, 1992, 1993, 1998 and 2000). Even the Chicago White Sox have had nine 20-game win seasons from their pitchers since 1973 (Jim Kaat in 1973 and again in 1974; Wilbur Wood had 24 wins in both those same years; Jack McDowell in 1992 and 1993; Richard Dotson had 22 wins and Lamarr Hoyt had 24 wins in 1983, when I spent considerable time at "old" Comiskey; and Esteban Loaiza did it most recently in 2003). That the White Sox have had three times the number of 20 game winners in the last 35 years is mind boggling.

The Cubs' relative drought with respect to this single statistic is unlikely to end this season (although I am slightly more confident that other, more important, droughts may come to a close in 2008), but Dempster's and Zambrano's success so far this year are slightly more compelling given the few Cubs that have achieved the single season glory that both have an outside chance at obtaining this year.

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