|Farewell, Mike Maroth||| Print |||Send|
Written by Justin Zeth (Contact & Archive) on January 30, 2011
Mike Maroth has retired.
My first response to reading this news -- and I consider myself a fairly serious baseball fan -- was "wait, Mike Maroth was still around?" Well, yes, but just barely: Maroth hasn't thrown a pitch in the major leagues since 2007, and threw 11 innings for the Twins' AAA team in Rochester in 2010.
Maroth is always going to be fondly remembered in Detroit for gamely taking the ball every fifth day for a team so bad it's already passed into myth and legend. Maroth was, of course, the staff ace of the 2003 Tigers.
Well...actually Nate Cornejo (remember him?) pitched one more inning than Maroth did, with an ERA almost a full run lower, but that was a luck illusion: Cornejo struck out 2.1 BATTERS PER NINE INNINGS. No, that was not a typo. Two. Point. One. You can tell anyone you please that I think Nate Cornejo squeezing a 4.67 ERA -- just barely below league average -- out of 194 innings with only 2.1 strikeouts per nine innings, with the 2003 Tigers playing defense behind him, was one of the most amazing achievements in the history of organized baseball. Cornejo's ERA should have been about 7.45.
You couldn't mistake Mike Maroth for Sandy Koufax no matter how hard you squinted, either; he struck out 4.1 per nine, which isn't enough to be even an average major league pitcher. But he and Jeremy Bonderman were the best pitchers the Tigers had; they were the ONLY major league pitchers the Tigers had.
They sparked much controversy by announcing Bonderman, who was only two years out of high school, would be on the Opening Day roster; Bonderman made his debut for the second-losingest baseball team of all time when he was still 19 years old. The Tigers rushed him to the majors because, well, they had to. They just didn't have more than a handful of AAA pitchers, much less major league pitchers.
Other than Bonderman, the Tigers had one guy who could reasonably be called a major league quality starting pitcher: Mike Maroth. And so Mike Maroth started -- and lost, of course -- on Opening Day. Actually, he pitched well, giving up 2 runs in 7 innings, but the Tigers of course scored only one lonely run and Maroth took his first loss of the season.
Then he took his second in Chicago, and his third against Kansas City, and his fourth in Minnesota, and his fifth in Kansas City, and his sixth in Seattle. He started the season 0-9, not pitching well but not pitching awfully either, before he finally broke through against Baltimore. (Baltimore has been Baltimore for a long time now.)
Maroth was only in his second season in the major leagues, was only 25 years old, when the mantle of Baseball's Losingest Pitcher found him. People like to talk about a man embracing his destiny, but the truth is, most of the time, your destiny chooses you whether you like it or not.
Maroth said the right things and went out there and did what he had to do, every fifth day, that whole miserable 2003 season. It's one thing to place a franchise's pennant hopes and dreams on the shoulders of a young man in his second year in the Show; that happens occasionally, but usually when it's a preternaturally gifted pitcher working for a good team. It's a much rarer, perhaps much more remarkable thing, to ask an only modestly talented young pitcher to bear the burden of being the best pitcher on a terrible team. Maroth handled it as gracefully as you could hope.
And as season's end approached it became clear somebody was going to have to take 20 losses and beyond. That was the big story of the 2003 season; Brian Kingman, who 20 years before had been the last pitcher to lose 20 games in a major league season, was in the papers every day for three straight months, I think.
Everyone agreed it wasn't going to be Jeremy Bonderman, the team's one stud young pitcher; no need to risk messing him up in the head by making him answer a million questions about how it feels to be such a loser. (The Yale Institute of Research has determined that a 6-20 record is 61% more psychologically harmful than a 6-19 record, though 6-19 is only 4% more harmful than 6-18.) So after Bonderman recorded loss number 18 on August 28, he was shipped off to the bullpen, where he would appear only when the Tigers were well behind.
They sent him back out to start on September 19 against the Twins; he lost, of course. (It's odd that they started him against the Twins when, both before AND after the Twins series, they played the Royals, but I imagine it must have been a spot start when somebody else couldn't go.) So that dropped him to 6-19, and he went back to the bullpen to stay.
But they couldn't do that with everyone, because they just didn't have many pitchers. So when Bonderman was sent to the bullpen, and with Cornejo eking out no-decision after no-decision, it became generally understood that Mike Maroth, who actually had the same 6-18 record as Bonderman when Bonderman was shut down, was going to go ahead and lose 20 games. Which, being the good solider he was, he went right ahead and did, losing to the White Sox and Blue Jays to drop to 6-20. He actually posted a winning (3-2) record the rest of the way to finish 9-21.
I just wrote all that because it was interesting to me. You probably knew most or all of that story. But what really fascinates me is -- well, I'll state it as an assertion for debate:
Mike Maroth will forever, or at least for the rest of all our lifetimes, be the last man to lose 20 games in a major league season.
I'm not sure I actually believe that, but to get another 20-game loser you would have to duplicate Maroth's circumstances pretty exactly: A mediocre/below-average pitcher, good enough to keep his job but not good enough to win much, pitching on a historically terrible team that has to keep sending him out there because it has no other viable options, and staying healthy all season. Any one of those things isn't true, the guy doesn't lose 20. (And Maroth also got 30 decisions in 33 starts, a very high percentage.
At first glance it looks absurd to say no one's going to lose 20 again; during the 2000s, nine pitchers lost at least 18 in a season. But looking through some of the items on that list is instructive. Tanyon Sturtze (2002 Rays) was almost there, but the Rays weren't quite bad enough, and he went 4-18. Bobby Jones (no, the other Bobby Jones) went 8-19 for the 2001 Padres; they skipped him a couple times after he lost his 18th in early September, and no doubt would have taken him out of the rotation had he lost his 19th on September 22nd. Darrell May (remember Darrell May?) went 9-19 for the 2004 Royals; he was actually 9-12 on August 12, at which point, like the whole team that year, he cratered, and got lit up like a Christmas tree for two straight months to finish 9-19. But he was never in any real danger of losing 20.
Circumstances have to be just right for a pitcher to have a serious chance to lose 20 games; otherwise the team will be a little too good, or the pitcher a little too bad, or the pitcher will be semi-valuable to the team and so will be pulled from the rotation in September to avoid losing 20.
Twenty-game winners are nearing extinction as Bullpen Mania spreads and spreads, and, just as the most unbreakable record in baseball isn't Cy Young's 511 wins but rather his 316 losses, it's a lot harder to lose 20 in a year than it is to win 20. The reason, in case it isn't obvious, is that usually if you're bad enough to lose that much, you're not good enough to keep a job in the rotation the entire year.
This is Mike Maroth's legacy, like Brian Kingman's before him except that it will probably last most or all of Maroth's life: the last guy to lose 20 games. That's a shame, because Mike Maroth was a good pitcher and a good person and should be remembered for that, but time and history are cruel. They're not going to remember you or me at all. You know why they won't? Because you and I were nowhere near good enough to lose 20 games in a season in the major leagues.