Who the hell decided 20 was going to be this big magical number?  In fact, who decided that round numbers are so good anyway?  Is this hard-wired into our minds from birth or is it something we learn in youth?  Somebody get Malcolm Gladwell on this!  Why is it that multiples of 10 have so much appeal to them?  How did it become so important that every time I mention to someone that Mike Mussina is a hall of famer, without fail the first thing they say is “But he’s never won 20 games?”  How did we become this way and what does it really mean?

According to the amazing software at baseball-reference.com Mike Mussina’s most similiar pitcher for his career is Juan Marichal.  Marichal is a Hall of Famer; inducted in 1983, eight years after retiring.  During his 16-year MLB career Marichal won 243 games. His case for induction is based around his performance from 1961 to 1971 (with the exception of a down year in 1970) when he had the following amazing win totals:  18, 25, 21, 22, 25, 14, 26, 21, 18.  If Mike Mussina had won 20-games 6 times, but still had only 269 career wins would he be a HOF’er?

Marichal was with only 243 wins.

Those years gave Marichal 190 of his 243 career wins.  Marichal is in Cooperstown because of how dominate he was winnning games.  If you think Marichal is in, then what about Mussina? Marichal’s career ERA+ is only 123 compared to Mussina’s 122.  Marichal got there because of those amazing win totals in the 1960s.  But was he a better pitcher than Moose?

Juan Marichal had those great years because he did not get removed from games.  He are Marichal’s complete games for that same time period (1961-1969, 1971):  18, 18, 22, 24, 25, 18, 30, 27, 18.  Wow.  During the period that Marichal won 190 games he accumulated 200 complete games.  For his career he recorded one more complete game than wins (244 to 243).  Eleven times Marichal had more or the same amount of complete games as wins.    Marichal won so much because he was allowed to pitch complete games. Mike Mussina has not been give the same opportunities, because baseball is a different game today.

Mussina has 57 complete games.  Marichal did that in 1968 and 69 combined. In 1969, Marichal went 21-11, his team went 21-16 in games he pitched.  In 1964 he was 21-8, his team was 25-8.  This year Moose is 19-9, but the Yankees are 22-11 in his starts.  Give Mussina a few complete games and he’s probably already at 20.  When Moose won 19 in 1995 the Orioles won 20 of his starts, in 1996 when he won 19 again they won 22.  When he won 18 in 1993, the O’s won 21, again he had 18 in 1999 and the Orioles won 22 of his starts and when he gave the Yankees 18 wins in 2002, they won 23.  And in 1997 when Mike Mussina only went 15-8, the Orioles went 21-12 in games he started.

The 20-win season is a function of the complete game.  If Mike Mussina was allowed more complete games each year he would have multiple 20-win seasons, be a sure-fire Hall of Famer and probably would have been done with his career at age 35, like Juan Marichal.

Patrick’s edit: Well, look, you don’t have to be an idiot to see that–Roy Halladay and C.C. Sabathia excluded–complete games are becoming more and more rare. And obviouly, if he’s a very good pitcher, the longer he stays in, the better chance he has of getting a win, because he’s the pitcher of record for longer. I don’t think 20-game winners are completely a thing of the past, but it’s not a coincidence that 16 wins led the NL in 2006, and that Webb is the only guy who even came close in the NL this season. But I think it’s more about pitch counts than anything. Once pitchers hit the 100 mark, out comes the manager for the change. Relievers make a whole lot of money relative to the innings they pitch, so teams are going to use them. 20 is not unattainable. But even great pitchers having great seasons have failed to do it.

As human beings, we read left to right. So seeing the 2 in the tens column makes it seem much larger than it is. Try this on for size.

Football game A: 41-19
Football game B: 39-21

At first glance, the top score probably looks a lot worse, but it’s really not. This is why cars are always priced $19,995. Because we focus on the 19 more than the 995. It’s why almost every price you see is ends with .99.

Roberto Clemente is a good example of this: He passed away at exactly 3,000 hits. Now, he was one of the all-time great players, but I do think we’d have a different view of him had he wound up with 2,995 hits. Mickey Mantle always said his biggest regret as a ballplayer was not finishing with a .300 average. But he hit .298. What’s the difference?

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3 thoughts on “What #20 really means. Marichal and the Moose and the Death of the Complete Game.

  1. Good point about round numbers, milestones, etc. However, I’ve always been confused/disappointed by the “players most similar” feature at baseball-reference because it lumps the whole career together. Sure, their win% and ERA+ are close, but Marichal only played 13 full seasons and dominated for only about 8 seasons. As you said, he had win totals of 26, 25, 25, 22, 21, 21, so they don’t seem all that similar to me. What am I missing here? Marichal is in the HOF for the same reason as Koufax (he dominated for a several yrs), but Mussina–assuming he is elected–will get in for the same reason as Don Sutton (he was quite good for a very long time). Of course Mussina is better than Sutton, and Marichal was no Koufax, but those seem like more natural career comparisons to me.

  2. One more point and it’s a little more on-topic. The trends you mention are undeniable: it’s getting harder to win 20. In the early 1900s, the coveted milestone was actually 30 wins. In the 1880s, the pretty number was a whopping 40. So ‘Who the hell decided 20 was going to be this big magical number?’ It’s because the standard changed as the game changed. From the 1920s to the early 2000s, the game just didn’t change that much, but the game is now changing more rapidly than ever since the 1800s. Mussina’s career appears to be bridging that transition. Perhaps in another 20 yrs, historians will look back and compare him with the aces of the 2010s who were good enough to win 15-17 games. Age factors aside, a 20 win season in this decade is a greater accomplishment than if he had done it in the 1990s.

    Random sidenote: 23 yr old Mussina won 18 games in ’92 despite suffering 5 blown saves. Four of them were 9th inning no runners inherited meltdowns by closer Gregg Olson.

  3. Joy–

    Two notes. Marichal was used because, according to Bill James, he’s the most similar pitcher to Mike Mussina, with a similarity score of 907. Ryan’s point was that the only big difference, that he could see, was that Marichal’d 237 wins had a bunch of 20 win seasons in them.

    Also, Marichal is not in the Hall–in my opinion–for the same reason Koufax is in. Marichal’s entire career was played out, and he retired at the age of 37. He only finished in the top 10 in Cy Young voting once in his career. Marichal’s 237 was the limit of his pitching ability. He was, like Mussina, a very good pitcher, but nothing more.

    Koufax was one of the greatest pitchers ever to set foot on a mound. He won three Cy Young Awards, an MVP (And came close to winning three of those as well) His career ended at 30 because he could no longer pitch. Had he stayed healthy, he’d have won 300 games, at least one more Cy Young, and who knows what else. For a four year stretch, he was the most dominant player in all of baseball, forget just pitchers. The voters acknowledged all of that when they voted for him

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