A couple of years ago, the media grabbed onto the Phillies’ 10,000th loss as way to prove the futility of a ballclub that had captured just one championship in 124 years to that point. Missing from all the point-and-laughter over the milestone loss, of course, was any semblance of context. Yes, the Phillies were a flat-out dreadful baseball club throughout the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, most of the 1950s, a majority of the 1960s, the first half of the 1970s, the latter part of the 1980s and all but one year of the 1990s.
But really… that’s just nitpicking.
Seriously, if we have said it once we’ve said it a thousand times: stick around long enough and your team will lose some games. And as one of the older clubs in the history of Major League Baseball, the Phillies have lost more games than any other team in professional sports history.
Hey, there always has to be a loser, right?
But during this portion of franchise history, the Phillies are on an unprecedented run. They are about to lock up a playoff appearance for the fourth straight season for the first time in club history, and baring a seismic collapse the Phils should finish the year with a win total that rates in the top three or four in club history.
Indeed, these are heady times for the Phillies. That’s especially the case considering the team has had just one losing season since 2001, a streak only surpassed by the run the club had during its first Golden Age during the mid-1970s and early 1980s.Considering the Phillies have an excellent shot to become the first National League team to make it to the World Series in three consecutive years since Stan Musial’s Cardinals did it in 1942, 1943 and 1944 (they made it back in 1946, too), we’re going to be talking about these Phillies for decades.
So why is it that until Roy Halladay finished the deal on Tuesday night that the Phillies had not seen a pitcher win 20 games in a season since 1982? Or, better yet, how come a right-handed pitcher hadn’t come close since Robin Roberts did it in 1955?
Maybe if folks were looking for something to grab onto to personify the amount of difficulty winning games the Phillies have had historically, perhaps the dearth of 20-game winners is the trenchant caveat. After all, since Steve Carlton last did it in ’82, 20 games had been won 98 times in the major leagues. In fact, three men in the Phillies clubhouse—Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Jamie Moyer—did it a combined six times during the Phillies’ drought.
Hell, Joaquin Andujar, the flakey right-hander with the Cardinals, won 20 in consecutive seasons in ’84 and ’85. Other infamous notables to win 20 games between Carlton and Halladay are pitchers like Lamar Hoyt, John Smiley, Jose Lima, Ramon Martinez (Pedro’s brother), Richard Dotson, Esteban Loiaza, Jon Lieber, Mike Hampton, Matt Morris, John Burkett, Rick Helling, Scott Erickson, Bill Gullickson and Danny Jackson.
Meanwhile, the Phillies had one pitcher win 19 games in a season (John Denny in ’83) and another lose 19 games in a season (Omar Daal in 2000). Otherwise, few, if any, Phillies pitchers even flirted with winning 20. Lieber got to 18 in 2005 and Curt Schilling won 17 games once. During the 1987 season, Shane Rawley was 17-6 on Aug. 31 then proceeded to lose his next five decisions while the Phillies went 2-5 in his final seven starts.
Look, we all know that wins is hardly the most important stat to determine the ability of a pitcher. After all, Nolan Ryan went 8-16 with a league-leading 2.76 ERA and 270 strikeouts during that odd 1987 season and finished in the top five in the Cy Young Award balloting.
But as manager Charlie Manuel tried to explain after Tuesday’s game, there’s something magical about a pitcher who wins 20 games.
“To me, 20 wins in the sign of an exceptional season,” Manuel said. “It'’s a prestige thing. People remember when you win 20 games.”
Still, that doesn’t explain why the Phillies have not been able to have a 20-game winner until now. Halladay says typically a 20-game winner pitches for a good team and that it is a “team accomplishment” where the pitcher often doesn’t have much control.
“I think it says more about the team than anything,” Halladay said. “In the past when I had done it, the team played well when I pitched, but not so well the other times.”
Nevertheless, how does a team like the Phillies go 28 years without a 20-game winner? Better yet, how does a team go 55 years without a right-handed pitcher getting 20 wins in a season? It has to be some sort of a freak thing, right…
“I would think so,” Halladay said. “Based on the teams they’ve had here it’s just a matter of time before Cole [Hamels] does it. I think that with a little bit of luck he probably could have done it this year. There’s definitely a lot that goes into it, but there are a lot of guys here who are capable of doing it.”
Halladay explained it perfectly. To win 20 games in a season a pitcher has to be both lucky and good with an extra serving of lucky. Think about it… Halladay has 20 wins this season, but he also has 10 losses. In those 10 losses Halladay’s strikeouts-to-walks ratio is actually better than it is in his wins. Plus, six of his losses have come in games where he received two runs or less in support. Strangely, Halladay has a losing record (8-9) when the Phillies score up to five runs for him.
Along those lines, Hamels has suffered eight of his 10 losses in games where the Phillies scored two runs or less and he’s 9-2 when he gets at least three runs.
So let’s chalk it up to 28 years of weird luck as the reason no Phillies’ pitcher has broken through the 20-win barrier. It’s just one of those baseball things that can be explained to a point and then everything just falls apart.
Kind of like a calculus class.
As for the 10,000-plus losses since 1883, talent, more than luck, ruled there.
1 The Phillies went 80-81in 2002, a fact that drove then manager Larry Bowa insane. The record was one thing, but the reason why the Phillies lost the last game of the season to the Marlins might be something that ends up causing the stress that finally kills the man. Locked in a tie game with one out in the 10th inning and the speedy Luis Castillo on third base, Juan Encarnacion lifted a pop up in foul territory that first baseman Travis Lee would have been wise to let drop. But Lee had a plane to catch in order to get home for the off-season. If the game lasted too much longer, he would miss that flight. So he caught the ball with his back to the infield and his momentum carrying him away from the action. Castillo easily scored on the sac fly, the season ended and Lee caught his flight.