The 20-Loss Club
No pitcher has lost 20 in a season since 1980, but that might change in '98
Brian Kingman was sitting in a pub near his Phoenix home two years ago, having drinks with pals while watching the Royals play the Twins on TV. Then suddenly—thwack! Mark Gubicza, Kansas City's starting pitcher that night, had his left leg nailed by a line drive. There was a hush in the bar, and the announcers revealed that Gubicza's leg was broken.
"Yeeeesssss!" screamed Kingman, instinctively. Gubicza, 4-12 at the time, was out of commission. He would not lose 20 games.
"I guess that was a little heartless of me," says Kingman, whose 8-20 record for the 1980 Oakland A's makes him the last man to lose 20 games in a season. "But I'm very protective of losing 20. It's my one claim to fame. It makes me special."
Alas, more than ever, Kingman's specialness is under fire. At week's end six pitchers were on or near pace to lose 20: Colorado's Darryl Kile (5-10, 4.51 ERA), Arizona's Willie Blair (2-10, 5.05) and Tampa Bay's Dennis Springer (2-10, 5.47 ERA) led the way, followed by Oakland's Tom Candiotti (4-9, 5.26), Toronto's Juan Guzman (3-9, 5.77) and the White Sox' Jaime Navarro (5-9, 5.72). Six other pitchers with eight losses apiece also had a shot.
The old saw in baseball is that it takes a good pitcher to lose 20 games. "You've got to be pitching well to get enough starts to lose those 20 games," says Jerry Koosman, a good pitcher who went 8-20 with the 1977 Mets. "If someone loses 20, usually he has poor offensive support or poor fielding behind him. Sometimes both." Other good pitchers of recent vintage who have hit the magic number are Hall of Famers Steve Carlton and Phil Niekro, and Cy Young winners Denny McLain and Randy Jones. In fact, 204 times in this century pitchers have lost 20 or more games in a season, and the list has as many quality pitchers as consistent losers. Among the latter group you'll even find Hugh (Losing Pitcher) Mulcahy—that's his nickname, you can look it up—who went 10-20 in 1938 and 13-22 in 1940 with the Phillies.
Kile seems most likely to supplant Kingman, who is now 43 and the manager of a check-cashing company. The best pitcher on underachieving Colorado (32-44 at week's end), Kile gets very little run support; through Sunday he had lost his last seven decisions, during which the Rockies had scored eight runs for him. His team plays poor defense, and his high salary—$24 million over three years—means he won't be removed from the rotation. "I just pitch my best and see what happens," says Kile, who joined Colorado as a free agent after seven years in Houston. "But I don't think it would be a stigma to lose 20."
Springer, also halfway home, might not need to worry. Very rarely do pitchers with such high ERAs stick in the rotation, even on an expansion team. "I'm not overly concerned about him," says Kingman, who keeps tabs on the loss columns. "No offense to Springer, but there's no reason for a manager to keep pitching him, unless there's nobody else worth trying."
Kingman considers Blair the pitcher to watch. Much like Kile, Blair used a big 1997 season (16-8 with Detroit) to land a hefty free-agent contract. That means he'll probably keep getting starts. Plus, a year ago he had all kinds of good fortune, and this season he's had little. That has Kingman scared. "To lose 20, weird things have to happen, and they can never go your way," he says. "The year I lost 20, I won on Friday the 13th and beat Ron Guidry. Then I couldn't beat anyone else. You have to find ways to lose. I was good at that. I hope no one else is."
A Jordanesque Performance