31 Wins: Denny McLain Posted Numbers We’ll Never See Again

Updated on March 21, 2019
In 1968, Denny McLain posted one of the best seasons in history.
In 1968, Denny McLain posted one of the best seasons in history.

In the history of modern baseball since 1901, only 21 pitchers have ever won 30 or more games in a season. All of those, with one notable exception, happened before 1935 (18 were 1920 or prior).

That one exception happened 50 years ago, in 1968, when Denny McLain won 31 games with the World Champion Detroit Tigers.

McLain started 41 games that year and finished the season with a 31-6 record. He had a chance to win 33 games, which no one had done since 1916, but the Tigers lost his last two starts of the season by identical 2-1 scores.

McLain was only 24 that year but was already a pitching star. He’d enjoyed seasons of 16-6, 20-14 and 17-16 in the previous years. In 1969, he again topped the league in wins at 24-9. He was, by all appearances, set to become one of the greatest pitchers in history.

The End Comes Quickly

But the wheels came off fast for McLain. After the ’69 season, he was accused of being partners with Syrian mobsters in a bookmaking business. He claimed he had withdrawn his partnership because his partners reneged on their promises and, eventually, he was suspended for the first half of the 1970 season.

Later that year, he was handed another seven-game suspension for dumping a bucket of ice water on reporters. He finished the year a dismal 3-5 and was shipped off to the Washington Senators.

Things were difficult for him in Washington. The team won only 63 games and he was in a constant battle with perfectionist manager Ted Williams. He finished the 1971 season at 10-22, leading the league in losses just two years after leading it in wins.

The next season the Senators moved to Texas to become the Rangers, but they weren’t interested in taking McLain with them. He was traded to Oakland, where he was 1-2, and then traded to Atlanta for Orlando Cepeda, himself on the way out of baseball just a few years after being a superstar.

McLain was 3-5 with the Braves and was released at the end of the season. At 28, his star had completely burned out. He finished with a career mark of 131-91 and the aura, even 50 years later, of that amazing 1968 season.

Denny McLain Career Stats

Year
W
L
ERA
G
CG
ShO
IP
BB
SO
1963
2
1
4.29
3
2
0
21.0
16
22
1964
4
5
4.05
19
3
0
100.0
37
70
1965
16
6
2.61
33
13
4
220.1
62
192
1966
20
14
3.92
38
14
4
264.1
104
192
1967
17
16
3.79
37
10
3
235.0
73
161
1968
31
6
1.96
41
28
6
336.0
63
280
1969
24
9
2.80
42
23
9
325.0
67
181
1970
3
5
4.63
14
1
0
91.1
28
52
1971
10
22
4.28
33
9
3
216.2
72
103
1972
4
7
6.37
20
2
0
76.1
26
29
Totals
131
91
3.39
280
105
29
1886.0
548
1282

Winning 30 Games

In 1967, the Tigers had finished 91-71, in a tie for second place one game behind Boston. The Tigers had lost the second game of a doubleheader to the Angels on the final day of the season while the Red Sox were beating the Twins to win the pennant.

But in ’68, the Tigers were the undisputed champs, finishing 103-59, 12 games ahead of the second-place Orioles. The Tigers had some big boppers in the lineup, with Willie Horton belting 36 homers and Bill Freehan and Norm Cash 25 each, big numbers in a year dominated by pitching. Lefty Mickey Lolich won 17 games. But the big story was McLain. Not only did he win 31 games, he did so with a 1.96 ERA – although that was only good for fourth place in the American League that year.

McLain enjoyed good run support in his outings, an average of 5.2 runs per game, but he also pitched in three games where he allowed two runs and lost, another where he allowed two runs but didn’t get the decision and another where he didn’t allow a run and didn’t get a decision. With just a smidgeon of luck he could have won 36 games.

On Sept. 14 he won his 30th game, and added to the total on Sept. 19. In his next start, on Sept. 23, he allowed just two runs, only one earned, but lost to Baltimore 2-1. In his final start, and 41st of the season, on Sept. 28, he came out of the game with the Tigers leading 1-0. But the relief corps allowed Washington to score twice in the top of the ninth and Detroit lost 2-1.

A Tough World Series

The World Series featured a matchup of two of the best pitchers the game had ever seen. In the National League, Bob Gibson had gone 22-9 with a 1.12 ERA to lead St. Louis to their second consecutive pennant. The two faced off in the first game of the Series.

McLain didn’t pitch badly, giving up three hits and three runs, all in the fourth, although he was pulled after five innings. Gibson, though, turned in one of the best World Series performances of all time, allowing five hits and a walk, but striking out a record 17 batters for a 4-0 win.

The two faced off again in Game 4, and Gibson again dominated, allowing five hits and one run while fanning 10. McLain couldn’t make it out the third inning, allowing four runs on six hits, including a leadoff homer to light-hitting Lou Brock. Lolich, meanwhile, kept Detroit in the Series by winning games 2 and 5.

While everyone expected a final Gibson-McLain matchup in Game 7, the Tigers pulled a surprise by starting McLain in Game 6. He won in a laugher, 13-1, allowing nine hits but keeping the Cardinals scoreless until two outs in the ninth.

Lolich then bested Gibson in the final game to give Detroit the victory.

Pitchers with 25+ Wins in the Past 50 Years

Player
Year
W
L
ERA
Denny McLain
1968
31
6
1.96
Juan Marichal
1968
26
9
2.43
Tom Seaver
1969
25
7
2.21
Mickey Lolich
1971
25
14
2.92
Steve Carlton
1972
27
10
1.97
Catfish Hunter
1974
25
12
2.49
Fergie Jenkins
1974
25
12
2.82
Ron Guidry
1978
25
3
1.74
Steve Stone
1980
25
7
3.23
Bob Welch
1990
27
6
2.95

A Hard Feat to Repeat

Winning 31 games is almost certainly something we’ll never see again. Only 10 pitchers have won even 25 games in the last 50 years, and only two since 1979 – Steve Stone won 25 in 1980 and Bob Welch 27 in 1990. The best anyone has done since then is 24, by John Smoltz in 1996, Randy Johnson in 2002 and Justin Verlander in 2011. In the past 10 years, only 19 pitchers have reached 20 wins.

One reason we’ll probably never see anyone come close to 30 wins in a season again is because pitchers don’t start enough games to earn that many wins. In 1968, McLain started 41 games.

Since 1980 only two pitchers have started 40 games – Jim Clancy in 1982 and Charlie Hough in 1987. In the past 10 years, only five pitchers have started as many as 35 games, and David Price, in 2016 is the only pitcher to start that many since 2010. With five-man rotations and days off, it’s hard for even a staff ace to pick up more than 32 or 33 starts.

Obviously, with 35 or fewer starts a pitcher would have to be almost perfect and pick up the decision in virtually every game to win 30.

Pitchers with 35 Starts in the Past 10 Years

Player
Year
GS
W
L
CC Sabathia
2008
35
17
10
Justin Verlander
2009
35
19
9
Dan Haren
2010
35
12
12
Chris Carpenter
2010
35
16
9
David Price
2016
35
17
9

Pitching a Lot of Innings

McLain also had 28 complete games during his run in 1968, something today’s pitchers rarely do, which leads to far fewer decisions and win chances. In the past 20 years, only eight pitchers have had 31 or more decisions in a season and none of them won more than 22 of those.

McLain also pitched 336 innings that season (and 325 the following year). No pitcher has thrown 300 innings since Steve Carlton in 1980 and no one has topped 290 innings since 1985. In the past 10 years, only 19 pitchers have been within 100 innings of McLain’s 1968 number.

So, unless baseball completely veers away from the course it’s been on for the past two decades, we will never see another 30-game winner and it’s doubtful we’ll see anyone reach 25. For those of us old enough to remember the 1968 season, we’ll just have to cherish the memories of when pitchers were far more durable than today.

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