Bob Porterfield and 20-Game Winners Who Did It the Hard Way

Randy S. Robbins@@RandySRobbinsContributor IIIDecember 17, 2011

Bob Porterfield really hoping he'll hear the ump yell "Strike three!"
Bob Porterfield really hoping he'll hear the ump yell "Strike three!"

Called up to the New York Yankees in August 1948 after notching 15 wins with the Newark Bears of the International League, Bob Porterfield labored on the fringes of the Yankees rotation for more than three seasons, unable, even backed by the powerful Pinstripe lineup, to pitch .500 ball.

A 5.06 ERA in 22 starts and a reputation in Casey Stengel’s eyes as an oft-hurt complainer saw to that—and kept him from seeing any action in the pair of World Series that the Bombers won during his Bronx tenure.

But, on one of the rare occasions that an American League doormat pilfered talent from the lordly Yankees, rather than the other way around, Porterfield, traded with two other mediocre hurlers to the Washington Senators for reliever Bob Kuzava, blossomed through the chance to pitch regularly.

Bucky Harris, Porterfield’s manager during his two-month cup of coffee in 1948 and now piloting Washington, must have liked what he saw three years earlier, because Harris quickly moved Porterfield into the starting rotation.

As the hard-luck ace of some mediocre-to-awful Senators squads, Porterfield racked up 67 victories over four-and-a-half seasons, his respectable ERAs largely thwarted by the generally low-scoring Nats.

His lone year of glory came in 1953, when Porterfield braved his way to a 22-10 record for fifth-place Washington, including an AL-topping nine shutouts among his league-high win total. And although Porterfield finished a distant seventh in MVP voting that year, he did snare The Sporting News American League Pitcher of the Year Award.

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Randy Jones of the San Diego Padres, who threw almost as few strikeouts as Randy Jones of the Winnipeg Jets.
Randy Jones of the San Diego Padres, who threw almost as few strikeouts as Randy Jones of the Winnipeg Jets.

Sadly, Porterfield never again broke .500 in a season and bounced around the Majors until the end of the decade, sinking back to the minors for good with an 87-97 record.

What catches my eye about Porterfield’s career, however, is that he achieved that sterling 22-10 record (and a 3.35 ERA, 10th-best in the AL) with only 77 strikeouts—the feeblest strikeout total of any 20-game winner in the post-War era.

Porterfield logged 255 innings, including an AL-leading 24 complete games, yet ranked 18th in the American League in strikeouts in 1953.

Fanning a meager 2.7 batters per 9 innings, hitters obviously were making contact regularly against Porterfield, but, boasting the fifth-lowest WHIP, most of the balls flying off opponents’ bats were being caught or thrown to the bag in time (Washington did commit the fewest errors in the AL that season, including none by Porterfield, himself).

So few strikeouts did Porterfield hurl that he, himself, struck out at the plate 26 percent as often as he threw them. (In contrast, the AL’s strikeout champ in 1953, Billy Pierce, who batted a puny .126 to Porterfield’s robust .255 that season, whiffed at the plate less than nine percent as often as he set down batters on strikes.

I immediately figured that Porterfield’s quirky achievement must have been a unique fluke, but to my surprise, I found that, since the end of World War II, the seemingly incongruous feat of winning at least 20 games while recording fewer than 100 strikeouts has been accomplished 16 times.

Seven times a 20-game winner, Bob Lemon twice did it on fewer than 100 strikeouts.
Seven times a 20-game winner, Bob Lemon twice did it on fewer than 100 strikeouts.

(This occurred with regularity before 1946, but strikeouts per nine innings, which had been significantly lower during the 1920s and 1930s—making the feat less noteworthy—took several drastic leaps shortly after the War and has been rising steadily ever since.)

Yes, 100 is just an arbitrary number, significant—as for pitch counts—because it’s the first number with three digits. But, in context, it’s still a small number—one would think too small for a pitcher to attain such success.

After all, striking out three batters per start—essentially what these select hurlers did—requires 21 or 24 outs (depending on whether the opponent is the home team) made after the ball is hit, which, over the course of a season, leaves plenty of room for errors, unearned runs, sacrifice flies and other chances to lose a close game.

Considering all of the opportunities that an opponent making so much contact has for squeaking out a victory, the 10 pitchers in this group who won exactly 20 games were, at any given time, an eyelash from winning only 19.

Perhaps the most remarkable of these strange seasons was Randy Jones’ 1976 campaign, in which the Afroed southpaw copped the Cy Young Award with an NL-leading 22 victories.

Jones, who relied largely on a sinkerball and off-speed pitches, pitched a whopping 315.1 innings in 1976 (facing a league-topping 1,251 batters), yet struck out a mere 93 hitters—a shade under three strikeouts per nine innings.

Had the “K” card existed in ‘76, Padres fans might have thought by the later innings that they were observing a Klan meeting in the bleachers rather than a recording of Jones’ infrequent strikeouts.

Ned Garver did it all for the St. Louis Browns in 1951...except strike 'em out.
Ned Garver did it all for the St. Louis Browns in 1951...except strike 'em out.

San Diego finished essentially middle-of-the-pack in fielding that season, and when one considers that 825 of the batters whom Jones faced made an out other than by strikeout, his 22 wins for the sub-.500 Padres become all the more impressive.

(In another peculiar fact, Jones threw zero wild pitches in 1976, which may well be a record for such a gargantuan amount of innings pitched; however, I’m not going to research that one—I do have a life, you know…)

Interestingly, two rookie hurlers preceded Porterfield in this strange feat, achieving it in successive seasons: In 1948, knuckleballer Gene Bearden went 20-7 with only 80 strikeouts—his 20th victory the pennant-winning one-game playoff against the Boston Red Sox, before spearheading the Cleveland Indians to their most recent World Series title.

A season later, aided by 217 double plays turned—still the Major League record—Alex Kellner posted a 20-12 record on just 94 strikeouts for the briefly competitive Philadelphia A’s.

Eerily, each of these freshmen finished second in Rookie of the Year balloting.

While sinkerballing his way to Cooperstown, Bob Lemon actually did it twice: in 1953, when he won 21 games on only 98 strikeouts, and in 1956, winning an even 20 with the help of just 94 Ks—an especially odd accomplishment for a one-time strikeout king who seven times finished in the top 10 in whiffs.

Lost in the blinding glare of Ron Guidry’s epochal 1978 season, teammate Ed Figueroa painted a masterpiece of his own: 20-9, with a 2.99 ERA.

But whereas Louisiana Lightning threw heat as if he’d bottled it on the bayou, blowing away 248 batters en route to a unanimous Cy Young Award, Figueroa, in practically the same amount of innings, logged only 92 strikeouts.

Amazingly, Guidry needed only until June 17—during an 18-strikeout evisceration of the California Angels—to whiff as many batters as Figueroa did the entire season. Still, as Figueroa proved, there’s more than one way to 20 wins.

Junkballer Eddie Lopat, who joined the Yankees during the same season as Porterfield and who, through his success, helped block Porterfield from the rotation, kept enough batters off-balance to go 21-9 on a mere 93 whiffs in 1951.

A year earlier, Johnny Sain probably drove his teammates insane, giving up the most hits and home runs in the National League.

Considering that the Braves finished next-to-last in four major defensive categories, Sain could thank lively Boston bats for helping to turn his 3.94 ERA into a 20-13 record. Spinning more than 96 strikeouts would have made life in Boston easier for everyone that season.

But when all the numbers are crunched, none of these seasons turns the head like that of Ned Garver’s 1951 season in hell.

Toeing the rubber for the last-place St. Louis Browns (their 102 losses were 10 games worse than any other team in both leagues), Garver managed 20 victories despite St. Louis finishing dead last in the AL in fielding percentage and defensive efficiency, as well as committing the most errors.

(Not to mention no regular driving in more than 55 RBI or batting higher than .282—in fact, Garver, a one-man team with his .305 average, hit better than any starter.)

Whiffing just 96 batters in 246 innings, Garver winning 38 percent of his team’s games that season—especially while so often putting the ball in play to defenders so prone to booting it—not only earned him runner-up in the AL MVP vote, but ranks as one of the most underappreciated pitching feats of the post-War era.

Although some of them compiled relatively prodigious strikeout totals throughout their careers, none of the hurlers since World War II who notched at least 20 wins in a season on fewer than 100 strikeouts were as sudden as Sam McDowell or could be confused with Sandy Koufax (although Tommy John, a 22-game winner on a paltry 78 strikeouts in 1980, quipped that the “Koufax fastball” he wanted to receive from the breakthrough ligament transplantation he was about to undergo actually turned out to be a “Mrs. Koufax” fastball).

Yet, at least for one season, these pitchers achieved great success, even though most of the batters they faced put the ball in play. Just enough stuff to induce weak grounders or lazy flies. Strong run support. Guile. Determination. Luck. Healthy doses of each of these.

Like Bugs Bunny perplexing a side of Gas-House Gorillas with his slowball but still needing mighty hitting and superlative defense to win it in the ninth (see “Baseball Bugs”; Warner Brothers; 1946; Dir.: I. Freleng. Reg. U.S. Pat. Off.), Bob Porterfield and his crafty brethren did it the hard way.