There has been just one pitcher who has lost at least 20 games in a season since 1980. That would be the Detroit Tigers' Mike Maroth when he lost 21 in 1980. The 20-game loser is a dying breed in an era of thousands of capable pitchers, deeper bullpens and five-man rotations. And there's likely no better way for a pitcher to cement himself into all-time infamousness in today's game.
But there was a time when losing 20 games wasn't necessarily a sign of weakness. To have the opportunity to lose 20 often meant you were winning 30. There are also weird instances of one-time great pitchers taking a 180 and going from ace to punching bag. And the list of pitchers to have lost 20 in a season doesn't lack star power. Here's my all-time starting rotation of pitchers to have lost 20 games in a year.
1) Walter Johnson
"The Freight Train" might be the best pitcher ever. In a career spanning from 1907 to '27, Johnson tossed 110 shutouts with an ERA+ of 147. A career 417-279 starter, Johnson suffered a 20-loss season once in 1916. He also happened to win 25 games that season (it was a bit of a different game). And he did it all with an ERA of just 1.90.
If the Cy Young was an award when Johnson played, he would have collected a few here and there. Instead, he had to settle for two MVP's. Speaking of Young...
2) Cy Young
A 500-game winner, Cy Young comes in as the the #2 behind Johnson. He actually lost 20 in two different seasons - once in 1891 and once in 1906. So Cy has two centuries covered. There isn't much to be said. If Cy Young can't crack the starting rotation, it probably doesn't have anything to do with pitching.
3) Steve Carlton
Four Cy Young awards and over 4,000 strikeouts, Steve Carlton lost 20 games in 1973 for a really bad Philadelphia Phillies team. And it came directly after his best season as a pro when he posted a 1.90 ERA. He went just 13-20 despite an ERA of 3.90 in nearly 300 innings. He could have used some help.
4) Denny McLain
Denny McLain is the last pitcher to win 30 games in a season; and he'll probably be the last. In the "Year of the Pitcher" in 1968, McLain went 31-6 and won the AL Cy Young. Three years later, he went 10-22 for the Detroit Tigers after a whole bunch of conduct problems and logging many, many innings. He'll go down as one of the all-time greats for what he did at his peak, but Denny McLain saw both ends of greatness in a short career.
5) Phil Niekro
I have to give the final spot to the best modern 20-game loser. Phil Niekro posted a 3.39 ERA in 1979 and still managed to lose 20 games. What might be even more surprising is that he was sixth in the Cy Young voting that season because he also won 21 games. Out of all the 20-loss seasons in history, there's a good argument that Niekro's in '79 is the craziest. The knuckleballer rounds out the rotation.
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