A regular reader emailed me recently with a question. He wrote: Besides Henry Schmidt (only season) and Mike Mussina, can you think of any other major leaguers who won 20 games in their last season?
The answer is yes, though it’s a small club. I found nine pitchers who’ve managed this feat and only two who have done so since 1920. This is because most hurlers, even future Hall of Famers, don’t bow out gracefully. Most are lucky not to wind up like Steve Carlton, bouncing from team to team or Roger Clemens, in disgrace or Nolan Ryan, whose ESPN highlight his final season might have been putting Robin Ventura in a headlock during a brawl.
Occasionally, a pitcher finishes well. Here are nine men who won 20 games their last year:
Mike Mussina: It’s a wonder Mussina didn’t keep playing after his 20-9 season in 2008. Mussina quit just shy of his 40th birthday with 270 wins when he might have stuck around to win 300. In fact, I think he could still be pitching if he wanted. Or Mussina could go the route of Jim Palmer and try an ill-conceived comeback in a few years.
Sandy Koufax: Has a pitcher ever done better his final season? This may be the standard. Koufax went 27-9 with a 1.73 ERA and 317 strikeouts in 1966, winning the Cy Young and leading the Dodgers to the World Series. Afterward, Koufax retired at 30 because of his arthritic arm and later was the youngest man inducted into Cooperstown. He’s also the only Hall of Famer here, at least until Mussina gets in.
Jim Devlin, Eddie Cicotte, Lefty Williams: Devlin went 35-25 in 1877 and, late in the season, participated in baseball’s first game-fixing scandal, costing his team the pennant and earning a lifetime ban. Decades later, Williams and Cicotte were rotation-anchoring hurlers for the Chicago White Sox who played crucial roles in throwing the 1919 World Series. Williams and Cicotte pitched again for Chicago in 1920 and won a combined 43 games but were barred before the 1921 season.
Henry Schmidt: Perhaps my favorite on this list, Schmidt went 22-13 as a 30-year-old rookie for Brooklyn in 1903 and then wrote the club a note saying he didn’t like playing on the East Coast. He never pitched in the majors again. Brooklyn had a hard time keeping pitchers in those days, losing another promising starter the year before, Jim Hughes, for similar reasons.
Charlie Ferguson: Ferguson won at least 20 games each of his four seasons in the majors, but died at 25 in 1888 after contracting typhoid fever. Overall, he went 99-64 with a 2.67 ERA and also hit .288 as an outfielder and second baseman.
Toad Ramsey: Going 23-17 in 1890 didn’t turn this Toad into a prince, at least not for the St. Louis Browns of the American Association who released him that September. Ramsey was done in professional baseball and so was the nickname Toad, which probably left the game for good reason.
Hank O’Day: Another pitcher who won at least 20 games in 1890 but didn’t play thereafter, O’Day’s 4.21 ERA that year and .227 batting average as an occasional outfielder perhaps doomed him. O’Day later became an umpire and was the official who ruled Fred Merkle out at second on the infamous Merkle’s Boner play on September 23, 1908 that helped the Giants lose the pennant.
Did I miss anyone? Let me know.