J.A. Happ -- The Quest for 20 Losses
J.A. Happ: Does he have what it takes?
"I was a humble person before I lost twenty, but afterward I became really humble. You don't want to say, 'Hey, I lost twenty games in one year,' but at least it has some interest to it." -- Former big league pitcher and 20-game loser Brian Kingman
Last night, after the Rangers smacked the Astros and starting pitcher J.A. Happ around 8-3 (okay, maybe moving to the American League isn't such a good idea), dropping Happ's record to 3-9 on the season, Brian McTaggart of MLB.com tweeted:
Happ's nine losses are tied for the major league lead.
My immediate thoughts on that tweet, in order, went as follows:
1. Awesome! The Astros have someone leading the Major Leagues in something! Then I remembered that Michael Bourn leads the bigs in stolen bases every year without even really trying.
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2. If the Roy Oswalt trade were an MMA submission hold, Ed Wade would be turning blue from the circulation to his brain being cut off.
3. Wait, Happ is 3-9 and the Astros aren't halfway done with the season yet. Let me do the math....picture me pounding away on my calculator....YES! "Twenty losses for Happ" in play!
It's kind of come to this now for Astros fans. The season has degenerated into a few random games here and there with some sort of fabricated significance. The number of games on the list seemingly shrinks every day, with the disappointment of Jordan Lyles' being a mere mortal most recently lopping off seven to ten "must see" home dates from the list.
But Happ's being 3-9 with 88 games left puts a new kind of immortality in play -- 20 losses by a starting pitcher in a single season.
With the advent of the five-man rotation in the late '70's, 20 losses by a starting pitcher has been remarkably elusive. In 1980, Brian Kingman lost 20 games as the fifth starter for Billy Martin's Oakland A's staff, a group whose collective arms had all fallen off by about 1983 because Martin seemingly forgot that you were allowed to make pitching changes.
Brian Kingman has big (white) shoes to fill
Kingman went 8-20 that season with a very respectable 3.83 ERA. He was out of baseball by 1984, but apparently realized that what he had "accomplished" was incredibly difficult to replicate. For the next couple decades, Kingman would have sporadic relevance as starting pitchers would come dangerously close to wresting the title of "most recent 20-game loser" from Kingman.
Kingman would go so far as to openly root for those pitchers to win so his 15 minutes of fame would continue. And make no mistake, it was 15 minutes of fame. It was spread out in ten-second chunks over 20 years, and it barely added up to 15 minutes.
Finally, in 2003, Mike Maroth "broke through" and lost 21 games for the worst team in baseball history, going 9-21 for the 43-119 Tigers. Kingman had to hand over the crown.
So twice it's happened in the last 30 years. Inherently, even if players aren't trying to lose 20 games, it is empirically very difficult to do.
What conditions need to exist for a pitcher to lose 20 games? Let's see, and also see if conditions are conducive for Happ:
1. Believe it or not, you actually can't be a terrible pitcher. You have to be bad enough to lose a ton of games, but good enough to remain in the starting rotation. If you're out-and-out awful (think Jose Lima first year in Enron Field), the manager will yank you from the starting rotation and you'll toil in mop-up duty, or in Oklahoma City (or in mop-up duty in Oklahoma City). Kingman was actually a decent pitcher in 1980, and Maroth led the Tigers in winning percentage in 2003 despite losing 21 games. HAPP: CHECK
2. You need to play for a bad offensive team. It goes without saying that we need our chosen one to lose some close pitcher's duels, but what we really can't have is an offensive outburst either (a) stealing an ugly win or (b) creating a slugfest with a no-decision. We need losses, not runs. HAPP: CHECK
3. You need to be established as a starter with a future in the organization. If it's generally accepted that you are part of the team's long-term plans, then trotting you out there loss after loss won't create the fan unrest that would come with an unestablished starter. Bonus points if there is zero upside to sending the pitcher to the bullpen. Happ was part of the Roy Oswalt trade, so chances are they're going to keep throwing him out there until he gets squared away. Plus, it's not like there's a bunch of young fireballers in the Astros' minor league system breathing down his neck. HAPP: CHECK
If I had to come up with a rating on a scale of one to ten on the conditions for Happ to achieve 20-loss immortality, they are a solid 8.7. The Astros offense isn't getting better any time soon, and Happ should be a fixture in the rotation, barring a total meltdown.
The only thing that can screw our quest to see something special is Happ figuring things out and pitching better. We should be okay -- "guys figuring it out" is one stat in which the Astros aren't close to leading the league.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on 1560 The Game from noon to 3 p.m. weekdays and follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanCablinasian.