The Five Best Years for Good Pitchers on Bad Teams

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Zack Greinke's good year for a bad team may have been great, but it wasn't the greatest.
For too long, baseball writers who selected the year-end award-winners relied too much on wins to determine who had a good year. The arbitrary 20-win mark became a bar that, if crossed, almost guaranteed some end-of-season hardware. Unfortunate when you consider that a pitcher has control over less than half the game. No matter how good, they can't will their teammates to hit seeing-eye singles or track down a sure-fire double and turn it into an out.

Yesterday, Zack Greinke won the American League Cy Young award over Felix Hernandez. Some people think it's a result worth arguing over. But there's no debating this: Good pitchers on bad teams are finally getting the credit they deserve.

Thanks to the proliferation and acceptance of advanced statistics, valuing wins above all else seems to be a trend past its sell-by date. Greinke won "only" 16 games for a Kansas City Royals team that finished with the fourth-worst record in the league. As Dave Cameron of U.S.S. Mariner wrote yesterday, a near-unanimous victory with that win total probably wouldn't have happened five years ago.

So in honor of Greinke's new hardware, here are the five best years for a good pitcher on a bad team.

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Greg Maddux pitching. Or possibly casting a fly rod. It's hard to tell.
5. Greg Maddux, 1992 Chicago Cubs

Think of Maddux and it's hard to picture him in anything but a Braves uniform. But Maddux's breakout season came while he was still a Cub.

Maddux won the first of four straight Cy Young awards playing for a fourth-place team with an aging roster. The Cubs weren't terrible, but they weren't good either. In part because two of their offensive stalwarts, Ryne Sandberg and Andre Dawson, were on the wrong side of 30.

Maddux would go on to become known as one of the smartest people ever to pick up a rosin bag. A finesse, not a power pitcher. Another reason why his '92 season was memorable: It was the first, and only, year he ever led the league in hit batsmen.

4. Kevin Brown, 1996 Florida Marlins

A case similar to Maddux's. The 1996 Marlins were almost a .500 team who would go on to win the World Series the next year. It's just that Brown was that good.

Brown pitched what some consider the 11th greatest season of the live-ball era, thanks in large part to his world-class sinker. A heavy, top-spinning bit of nastiness former major leaguer J.T. Snow likened to hitting a shot put or bowling ball.

His '96 campaign may have been extraordinary, but it didn't win him any awards. That year, John Smoltz earned the Cy Young, winning 24 games for a first-place team.

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Oh, how we've missed this mullet.
3. Randy Johnson, 2004 Arizona Diamondacks

When you're the greatest left-handed pitcher of all time you're bound to crack any list. Fortunately for Seattle fans, Randy Johnson's good-year-with-bad-team season didn't happen until after he left the M's.

Before the 2004 season began, the Diamondbacks shipped off almost half their roster in off-season trades, including the Ace to Johnson's World-Series-winning Gary, Curt Schilling. The results were disastrous.

They ended up losing 111 games, the second-worst total of the last forty years but a figure that could have been a lot worse if they'd succeeded in trying to trade Johnson too. The 40-year-old had nearly 300 strikeouts and became the oldest man to throw a perfect game. But because he was surrounded by mediocre talent, Johnson ended the season with only two more wins than losses, a record that made him look less like an ace and more like a plug-in starter.

2. Zach Greinke, 2009 Kansas City Royals

Kansas City is a double-edged sword for Greinke. On the one hand, it means he plays for a team with almost no organizational direction or hope for the future; the Royals haven't made the playoffs in 25 years and aren't threatening to break the streak anytime soon. On the other, it means he plays in the city that houses Joe Posnanski, the best baseball writer alive right now.

Posnanski is a prolific blogger. If you added up all the words he wrote in a year he'd put Sue Grafton to shame. And this year, most of those words were used to find new ways to describe Greinke's brilliance.

But out of all the voluminous arguments Posnanski made to promote Greinke's genius, his shortest was also his best. As Posnanski pointed out, by throwing over 210 innings, notching over 210 strikeouts and having an ERA+ (a dressed up version of ERA where 100 is considered "average") of over 210, Greinke's 2009 was put him in the company of only six other elite pitchers, including Pedro Martinez and Roger Clemens.

Not bad for a guy whose team was only three games shy of 100 losses.

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Steve Carlton in '72: No pitcher did more good for a bad team.
1. Steve Carlton, 1972 Philadelphia Phillies

The 1972 Phillies were bad. Scratch that. The 1972 Phillies were bad when Steve Carlton wasn't pitching.

Carlton finished the year with a 27-10 record. When he didn't pitch the Phillies went 32-87, meaning Carlton accounted for nearly half of the team's total wins.

Yes, we just bashed writers for relying on the win as an accurate assessment of a pitcher's year but c'mon. Half of all the team's wins? Had never been done before and will never be done again. That's what makes it the best ever.

 
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