Why Denny McLain Will Be Baseball’s Last 30-Game Winner

There has never been another player in the history of baseball like Denny McLain, he was truly one of a kind. He marched to the beat of his own drum. As teammate Bill Freehan said, “The rules for Denny just don’t seem to be the same as for the rest of us.”

McLain made his mark in baseball history for what he did both on and off the field, eventually earning a suspension from the game. But on the diamond he was a gifted pitcher, winning two Cy Young Awards and an MVP Award in 1968. That season, when the Detroit Tigers won the World Series, McLain won an incredible 31 games. No pitcher since has reached the 30-win plateau and no pitcher is ever likely to do so again unless a major change occurs in baseball.

In 1968, the 24-year old McLain started every four days with three days of rest in between. McLain started 41 games that season, with Detroit manager Mayo Smith utilizing three other starters and a spot fifth starter when needed. The four-man rotation was used by every team in baseball in the 1960s and into the early 1970s, as well. It wasn’t until the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1971 that the five-man rotation emerged and within a few years it was commonplace in the major leagues.

The reason the Dodgers made the switch to a five-man rotation was not to preserve the arms of their pitchers, by the way. It was because they had five quality starters on their roster. In Don Sutton, Claude Osteen, Bill Singer, Tommy John, and Al Downing, the Dodgers were pitching rich. Their farm system would continue to crank out solid pitchers for the next decade and a half, and with teams like the Baltimore Orioles doing the same, the five-man rotation soon was the default. Only a handful of managers, like Chuck Tanner and Billy Martin clung to the four-man rotation for a few years.

In a four-man rotation a pitcher will start 40-41 games. In a five-man rotation, pitchers will start 32-33 games. At the very most an ace pitcher will get 34-35 starts each year in a five-man rotation if his manager skips the #5 starter when an off-day allows him to. Greg Maddux, who pitched his entire career in the era of the five-man rotation, never started more than 37 games, and usually got between 32-24 starts. Roger Clemens’ career high was 36 starts, and Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, both considered workhorses, never started more than 35 games. Tiger ace Jack Morris, who started, won, and completed more games than any other pitcher in the 1980s, started 37 games twice. Roy Halladay, considered the most durable starter in the game today, has only started as many as 36 games once, and that was when he was 24 years old, almost a decade ago.

If pitchers are only going to start 32-35 games each season, they won’t get enough opportunities to win 30 games. A pitcher would need to win nearly every game he pitches, of course. In addition, pitchers in baseball today are throwing fewer innings and as a result they’re getting fewer decisions. The increase in no-decision starts has meant that many pitchers don’t even get 30 decisions in a season, let alone 30 victories. Halladay has had only two seasons in his career where he’s recorded as many as 30 decisions. A record of 17-8 or 16-10 is very common today for pitchers making their 32-33 starts.

Another reason McLain is likely to remain the last 30-game winner for a long time, is that teams are protecting their pitchers. With millions invested in the right and left arms of their pitchers, major league clubs are wary of overworking their starters. Pitch counts, something that McLain and his generation never pitched with, are now watched closely. Once a pitcher reaches the 90-pitch mark, many managers are warming up a reliever to be ready. Few pitchers, with the exception of Halladay and a few other workhorse starters like Tim Lincecum, CC Sabathia and Detroit’s Justin Verlander, are allowed to throw more than 110 pitches and work their way out of late-inning jams.

Unless an organization has the guts to bring the four-man rotation back, no pitcher will approach the 30-win mark any time in the near future. And Denny McLain will hold onto his spot as the last of a dying breed.

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