We, the hip and enlightened, know that individual pitcher wins aren't meaningful. Team wins and losses are everything. Individual pitcher wins are an often arbitrary act of accounting in which sole credit is awarded to an individual for a group triumph. Remember Bartolo Colon winning 18 games with a 5.01 ERA in 2004? Storm Davis fooling the Royals into offering him a lucrative free-agent contract by going 19-7 for the World Champion A's despite posting a 4.36 ERA in a pitcher's park? Conversely, AL 2010 ERA leader Felix Hernandez won the Cy Young award despite going only 13-12 because voters chose not to penalize him for the failings of his team. In short, they recognized that individual wins did not accurately portray the value of the pitcher.
Having said that, pitcher wins can be kind of fun.
Jered Weaver of the Angels is a case in point. His 15-1 record in no way makes him the most valuable starter in the league, but it sure is pretty to look at. His ability to pile up wins also brings to mind a time when a pitcher's record said a bit more about his value.
Weaver has won ten consecutive decisions, having been charged with his only loss of the season back on May 13 in a game at Texas. Since then he has made 12 starts, all victorious but for two no decisions.
This would seem like quite an accomplishment, and given baseball's ever-increasing reliance on the bullpen, it does say something about Weaver's effectiveness and stamina. Yet, ten straight wins without a loss is not in any way close to the record, or even of recent note; for example, you might recall Roger Clemens opening the 1986 season with a 14-0 record in 15 starts, or an older Clemens winning 16 in a row with the Yankees in 2001. The all-time record for consecutive wins was set by the screwball master Carl Hubbell, who won 24 straight decisions from July 17, 1936 through May 17, 1937. This is nice, as it goes, but lacks poetry. The Giants won the pennant in both seasons, then were handily dispatched by the Yankees in consecutive World Series, Hubbell going 1-1 in each.
Of more interest are three consecutive-wins streaks begun almost exactly 100 years ago, during the summer of 1912. In the National League, Giants southpaw Rube Marquard won 19 straight games from the start of the season, not losing a contest until July 3.
The American League saw two huge consecutive-wins streaks of its own that year. On July 3, 24-year-old Washington Senators hurler Walter Johnson kicked off a winning streak that would see him convert 16 straight decisions. He didn't drop a decision until August 25, when he came on in relief against the St. Louis Browns. This wasn't the first time that Johnson had relieved during his streak. For example, in his second appearance during this stretch he was called on in the fourth inning and entered with his team trailing 5-2. The Senators would tie the contest and force extra innings, eventually winning 6-5 in the 16th inning, Johnson having thrown 12⅓ innings of scoreless relief. Unfortunately, in the August 25 contest, he entered in a tie and allowed an inherited runner to score. At that time in the NL, and subsequently in the AL, the loss resulting from that run would have been charged to the pitcher who put the runner on, but AL president Ban Johnson, an arbitrary kind of guy, made an arbitrary decision that the loss should be Johnson's, and so the record streak came to an end.
Five days after Johnson began his streak, 22-year-old Red Sox righty Joe Wood, soon to be known as Smoky Joe, began a streak of his own. By late August, he had won 12 straight decisions. It was suggested by Senators owner Clark Griffith that Johnson should have a chance to defend his own record, and with a series between the two teams coming up, Wood's schedule was adjusted so he and Johnson would go head-to-head on September 6.
The two pitchers admired each other. "Can I throw harder than Joe Wood?" Johnson said that year. "Listen, my friend, there's no man alive can throw harder than Smoky Joe Wood." For his part, Wood said in The Glory of Their Times, "In my opinion, the greatest pitcher who ever lived was Walter Johnson."
Both gave a good accounting of themselves that day at Boston's new Fenway Park. Wood pitched in and out of jams all day, Johnson matching him but for the sixth, when the Red Sox hit consecutive ground-rule doubles into an overflow crowd that had been seated on the field. The contest went Wood's way, 1-0, and the streak went on. Like Johnson, Wood bowed while attempting to pick up his 17th consecutive victory. His streak had included six shutouts.
The American League record has been tied three times since, most recently during the aforementioned Clemens campaign of '01. Lefty Grove equaled the mark in 1931, and Schoolboy Rowe did so in 1934. Except for Johnson, whose Senators finished second in 1912, all of the main streakers mentioned here went to the World Series. Wood, who finished the season with a record of 34-5 and an ERA of 1.91, went on to face Marquard's Giants in the Fall Classic. Wood picked up four decisions in eight games (Game 2 had ended in a tie), going 3-1; having lost Game 7, he came on in relief in Game 8, pitching with no rest, and picked up the clinching victory in extra innings.
It was 100 years ago, in a game that only superficially resembled our own. Yet, if Weaver continues to pile on wins in the starts remaining to him, imagine the excitement of a September 6 of our own, with Weaver facing a Johnson or a Wood with a personal stake in the outcome of the game beyond his team's place in the standings. Rarely has baseball been so personal as it was that day. We probably won't see such a day again, and September 6, 2012 will probably pass, unremarked upon.