One of the most unlikely events in the history of the Atlanta Braves could happen near the end of September if trends continue.
The Atlanta Braves haven’t seen this happen since 2003. In all of baseball, it’s happened just 58 times this century… an average of about 2-1/2 times per season. But since 2015? Only 10 times.
What we’re talking about here is a dying breed: the 20-game winner. For at least 20 times in a season, this is a starting pitcher who: (a) is credited with at least 5 innings thrown in a game; (b) finishes his day with a lead; and (c) sees his team win the game without surrendering the lead from that point.
In this age where the pitchers often are removed from the game by the 6th inning, those requirements stand as fairly daunting… even as the “Wins” stat is being discounted more and more.
Yet Kyle Wright is still on track to broach that barrier before years’ end… perhaps.
Wright has a 14-5 record after Wednesday night’s victory over the Red Sox. All things being equal, he’s on schedule to make another 9 starts before the season ends.
So he clearly has a chance.
The Historical Record
In the long history of the Atlanta Braves’ franchise, pitchers have reached the 20 wins plateau on 90 occasions.
The record holder for wins in a season goes way back to 1875 when Al Spalding (yes, that Spalding) went 55-5… breaking his own record of 52-16 from the previous season. But that was back in the ‘old days’ when pitchers threw practically all the time.
After 1900 (the so-called “modern era of baseball”), the Braves record is 27 wins, achieved by both Vic Willis and Togie Pittinger.
In that same era, both Bill James and Dick Rudolph won 26 times for the 1914 “Miracle” Braves team that won the World Series.
Sain won 24 times in 1948; Spahn 23 times twice, a decade apart (1953 and 1963). Spahn also threw in a couple of 22-win seasons and a 21 along the way.
In the Atlanta era, few have even approached John Smoltz’ 24-8 record from 1996, a year in which he threw to a 2.94 ERA.
The closest to that was Phil Niekro’s 23-13 record in 1969. The fact that he lost 13 games while throwing a 2.56 ERA should tell you a lot about the run-support he received that season. A couple of decades later and those numbers might have pushed him close to 30 wins.
Since the team moved to Atlanta, the feat has been accomplished only 12 times (Tom Glavine has five of those), and just twice in the 2000’s.
Curiously enough, Greg Maddux reached 20 wins only once as a Brave (1993), though he was stopped at 19 wins four times (1995, 1997, 1999, 2000).
The last Brave to win 20 games was a fairly unlikely candidate: Russ Ortiz, who had just joined the club from the Giants during the prior off-season. In prior years, he’d won 18, 14, 17, and 14 games; so this 21-win campaign wasn’t a total surprise, though his ERA (3.81) doesn’t quite fit the profile.
2003 was Ortiz’ career-best season at 21-7 and after a 15-win season in 2004, he declined rapidly in stints with Arizona, the Giants, Houston, and the Dodgers… eventually retiring by the end of 2010.
That brings us to Wright
Kyle Wright is already at a career-high in wins. How much so? In 2020, he had two wins. That’s it… he has no other wins at all dating back to his MLB debut in 2018.
So if you’re looking for “unlikely candidates to have a 20-win season”, Wright would probably top the list.
It won’t be easy, though. Here’s an estimate of the teams he might face for the rest of the year if he stays on schedule:
- Mets – August 16
- Astros – August 21
- Cardinals – August 27
- Marlins – Sept. 2
- Mariners – Sept. 9
- Giants – Sept. 14
- Nationals – Sept. 20
- Phillies – Sept. 25
- Mets – October 1
The usual disclaimers apply: Wright clearly has to stay healthy, the rotation has to stay intact (Ian Anderson’s impact on that is unknown at present), he has to remain effective (of course)… and his teammates have to give him enough support.
But at 6 wins away, it’s certainly a doable goal… and even if Wright were pushed back on the schedule by a day or two, there’s still enough extra dates on the calendar (the Braves end the year against the Marlins after that last Mets series shown above) to allow for some slack in those (estimated) 9 remaining starts.
But now, let’s talk about the feat itself.
How rare is this?
Very. For pitchers with 2 career wins or fewer to have a 20-win season… well, it’s getting harder to even imagine this happening with each passing season.
It’s actually happened just 11 times since the end of World War II and only once this century.
Here’s the list:
- 1945 Dave Ferriss (BOS). 21-10 (0 prior career wins).
- 1946 Johnny Sain (BRAVES). 20-15 (0 priors).
- 1947 Larry Jansen (NYG). 21-5 (0).
- 1948 Gene Bearden (CLE). 20-7 (0).
- 1949 Alex Kellner (PHL-A’s). 20-12 (0).
- 1953 Harvey Haddix (STL). 20-9 (2).
- 1954 Bob Grim (NYY). 20-6 (0).
- 1967 Fergi Jenkins (CHC). 20-13 (0.
- (* this started six 20-win seasons in a row, and 7 of 8. Impressive.)
- 1971 Wilbur Wood (CHW). 22-13 (0).
- 1985 Tom Browning (CIN). 20-9 (1).
- 2002 Derek Lowe (Boston). 21-8 (1).
So if this event comes to pass, Wright would become…
- The first Brave to do it since Johnny Sain
- The first Atlanta Brave to do it
- The first pitcher to do it since 2002
- The second pitcher to do it in the 5-man rotation era
- The third pitcher to do it in the last 50 years
- The first Brave to win 20 games at all since 2003
Pick whatever superlative you’d like… they all would apply. But even if he falls short, this historical record should still underline just how significant Wright’s effort has been.
So let’s celebrate Kyle Wright’s year… this kind of performance simply doesn’t happen very often.