A win by itself doesn't really mean much for a pitcher. For a team it's the only result that matters, but to that starting pitcher it's the result of a lot of things the pitcher can and cannot control. No, a win by itself is not much to consider when talking about starting pitchers. A collection of wins might not have any more meaning, but there are certain historical boundaries that can be celebrated.
Ian Kennedy, the reluctant ace of the Arizona Diamondbacks, is in position to try for a 20 win season. Perhaps each of his current 17 wins don't measure his value, and perhaps it's silly to analyze him according to an arbitrary standard. This isn't about analyzing the wins, or even his value. It's acknowledging his potential to join a slowly shrinking club, one that has interesting historical meaning even if the "money value" of it has been stripped away.
I'm sure there is someone who will comment on the meaningless nature of wins. I don't think I can say this any clearer: this piece is not to celebrate the win, but to celebrate Ian Kennedy. It is to show the company he might keep by the end of the year.
Arizona has had remarkable success with 20 game winners. Since 2001, there are have been only 34 instances of a pitcher reaching the mark in a season; the Diamondbacks have had five. No other team has had as many 20 game winners in the past decade as Arizona. The next two closest franchises are Boston and New York, of course. In 2007 there was only one 20 game winner, Josh Beckett of the Red Sox, and in 2009 and 2006 there were none.
Remarkably, the first decade of the 2000's had more 20 game winners than the 90's. Here's a decade-by decade breakdown:
Four of Arizona's 20 game winners were when we had Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling as a 1-2 combo. In 2001, both men pitched in more than 20 games in which they were awarded a win. Johnson won 21, and Schilling won 22. The next year, both men did again: Schilling won 23, and Johnson won 24.
The only other 20 game winner in the Diamondbacks' brief history was Brandon Webb in 2008. The season might no have turned out like we'd hoped, but he hurled his way to 22 wins before disappearing on a deep sea fishing boat.
Winning 20 games has long been a kind of historical benchmark for a great pitcher. In recent years the appeal of wins as an analytical tool has slid down to the point that people instantly chortle when it's mentioned. The win's time as a perpetuating historical benchmark might be almost over, anyways. With more and more specialization of pitchers, and lowered pitch counts as teams try to maximize their players existence, we may soon see a day when years pass without a 20 game winner.
To some that'll be fine, as they probably never cared for it anyways. The funny thing is that if you dig back through baseball history, you'll find that baseball front offices have always hoped to see the end of the 20 game winner, though for different reasons than stat-heads. As particularly detailed in David Halberstam's October 1964, teams would purposefully limit pitchers toward the end of the season with the hope of limiting 20 game winners. 20 game winners were paid more, so good young pitchers would see their workload disappear in August and September, simply so the front office wouldn't be on the hook to pay them more money.
Being a 20 game winner isn't always a mark of pride. The pitcher might have pitched well enough to be part of 20 winning efforts (that he was credited for) but there also have been pitchers who has managed to lose 20 the same season. Eleven different pitchers have won and lost more than 20 games in a season since 1901. None of them managed to lose more than 21, but the last to have a losing record (20-21) was Jim Scott of the White Sox in 1913. The last man to win and lose 20 was Phil Nierko in 1979. He posted a record of 21-20 for the Braves at the age of 40.
To reach 20 wins Ian Kennedy will have to be very good, and have some offense on his side. He currently sits on an NL best 17 wins. He will likely have 5 more starts. I don't know if luck will be on his side, or if he will have it in him. But it's going to be sure fun to watch.