What he did: I recently got an email from Brendan Bingham suggesting I write something on Denny McLain. Brendan wrote:
Although Denny McLain’s 31 wins is part of the standard description of what made 1968 the ”year of the pitcher,” the accomplishment perhaps had little to do with 1968. McLain had a great year, but it would have been great in any era. I have not put McLain’s 1968 numbers through stat converter, but I strongly suspect that if you transport him to another team that won 103 games and outscored its opponents by 180 runs, and if you allow him to start 40 games and pitch more than 300 innings, there would be a good chance that he would win 30, or close to it.
It’s a bold prediction, and I’m happy to test it out. In search of the right team for McLain, I went back more than 100 years, deep into the Deadball Era.
Era he might have thrived in: We’ll trade McLain’s 103-59 Detroit Tigers for an even stronger club. The 1904 New York Giants went 106-47, scored 270 more runs than their opponents, and boasted not one, but two 30-game winners, Joe McGinnity and Christy Matthewson. The two combined for 90 starts and nearly 800 innings pitched, and if McLain subbed for Matthewson, he’d get his 30 wins.
Why: There hasn’t been a 30-game winner since 1968, partly because the perfect storm of circumstances Brendan outlined hasn’t occurred much since then. Since 1980, just two pitchers have made at least 40 starts, Charlie Hough in 1987 and Jim Clancy in 1982, and both played on losing teams. And no pitcher has broken 300 innings in a season since 1980 when Steve Carlton did it on 38 starts for the 91-71 Phillies.
If McLain pitched today, he’d be lucky to win 25 games. Even on the best current clubs, McLain would receive a maximum of 35 starts a season, pitch maybe six or seven innings per outing, and have at least a few wins ruined by relievers. Like Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak or Barry Bonds’ 73-homer season, 30 wins in one year seems improbable today. It’s worth noting, too, that the live ball era has witnessed just three other 30-game winners: Jim Bagby Sr. in 1920, Lefty Grove in 1931, and Dizzy Dean in 1934. There’s a reason for that.
To win 30 games in another era, McLain would need an ironclad team from baseball’s distant past where he and another pitcher would, for all intents and purposes, be the starting rotation. There may be a few teams like this from the Deadball Era, but I’m partial to the 1904 Giants. The stat converter on Baseball-Reference.com has McLain’s ’68 season translating to 19-14 with a 2.35 ERA for New York, though I think that’s inaccurate. I’m guessing the converter is giving McLain what’s left over after McGinnity and Matthewson, as the numbers roughly parallel New York’s real third starter that year, Dummy Taylor.
Removing McGinnity or Matthewson would be key here, and there’s a temptation to keep Matthewson and make this about him pitching with McLain. But I think this team needs McGinnity, the 33-year-old ace whose 35 wins, 1.61 ERA, and 170 ERA+ were all league bests in 1904. Matthewson went 33-12 with a 2.03 ERA and ERA+ of 133, and McLain posted a better ERA+ in 1968, more shutouts, a better winning percentage, and a comparable number of innings. I wouldn’t sub out Matthewson in 1905 when he went 31-9 with a 1.28 ERA and 230 ERA+ and was the Giants in the World Series, but in 1904, McLain would have been the better young arm.
A legendary manager like John McGraw might have helped McLain, too. Matthewson turned 24 in 1904, the same age as McLain in 1968 and pitched another decade on his way to Cooperstown. McLain had one more good season after 1968 and then began an epic decline in baseball and life. He threw his last pitch at 28 in 1972, had drug problems, and was later imprisoned. There would still be risks for McLain in the Deadball Era. He had ties to gamblers while in the majors and perhaps could have been corrupted in baseball’s early days, when players regularly rigged games. And McGraw couldn’t save everyone, like his pitcher Bugs Raymond who drank himself out of the big leagues at 29 and died the following year.
Whatever the case may be, though, at least in 1904, McLain would surely have been something special.
Any player/Any era is a Thursday feature here that looks at how a player might have done in an era besides his own.
Others in this series: Albert Pujols, Bad News Rockies, Barry Bonds, Bob Caruthers, Bob Feller, Bob Watson, Dom DiMaggio, Frank Howard, Fritz Maisel, George Case, Harmon Killebrew, Harry Walker, Home Run Baker, Ichiro Suzuki, Jack Clark, Jackie Robinson, Jimmy Wynn, Joe DiMaggio, Johnny Frederick, Josh Hamilton, Ken Griffey Jr., Lefty O’Doul, Nate Colbert, Paul Derringer, Pete Rose, Rickey Henderson, Roberto Clemente, Sam Thompson, Sandy Koufax, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Stan Musial, The Meusel Brothers, Ty Cobb, Willie Mays