1971 Orioles: A Record That Will Never Be Broken

Let me ask you, the reader, a very simple baseball question. How many times have you heard the “that’s a record that will never be broken” phrase?

I assume that is something you hear quite often, especially when it comes to the individual records of Joe DiMaggio’s 56 consecutive games hitting streak, Pete Rose’s 4,256 career hits, and Barry Bonds’ 763 Home Runs.

Well, I have one that seems to be forgotten, and believe this will never be duplicated again in this day and age: the 1971 Baltimore Orioles four 20-game winners.

Now, of course, pitching in baseball has drastically changed in the last 40-45 years, so it’s not likely we’ll ever see this feat again. In this day and age, starting pitchers are considered “workhorses” if they get in 30 starts and 200 innings for the season.  In measuring starting pitchers’ effectiveness, “complete game” stats have been superseded by “quality starts” (a game in which a pitcher completes six innings yielding three earned runs or less).

Teams have built their relief staffs with a specialist for the last three innings of a game (think lefty on lefty, righty in righty, situation specialism, et al.). Also, these days, managers are pretty darn quick to use the hook on starting pitchers to get a fresh arm from the bullpen in the game, whether the starter is getting bombed or even they are ahead in the score.  And of course, pitch counts are often used as a gauge by managers to decide when to yank a starter off the mound.

The 1971 Baltimore Orioles, with pitchers Jim Palmer, Dave McNally, Mike Cuellar, and Pat Dobson, were a formidable rotation and dominated the landscape during that magical season.  It is not surprising that they would lead the Orioles to the American League pennant, only to lose the World Series to the Roberto Clemente/Willie Stargell led Pittsburgh Pirates.

Palmer is the most familiar name among this group, since he is in the Baseball Hall of Fame, but McNally and Cuellar were no strangers to 20-win seasons, having recorded four each in their underrated careers.  In fact, Palmer, McNally and Cuellar also recorded 20 or more wins for the Orioles during the 1970 season. For Dobson, his 20 wins in 1971 was the only season in which he accomplished this milestone, although the journeyman hurler would later come close in 1974 with 19 for the New York Yankees.

Now, to contrast the Orioles’ accomplishment with state of the game today, there were only THREE pitchers in ALL of Major League Baseball with 20 or more wins last season: the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw, the Reds’ Johnny Cueto, and the Cardinals’ Adam Wainwright.

Even during the Atlanta Braves historic run of division championships during the 1990s and early 2000s, there was only ONE season when two of the Braves’ Hall of Fame pitchers on those teams, Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, and John Smoltz, recorded 20 or more wins.

And here is this little tidbit for all to see – Prior to the Orioles’ achievement in 1971, the 1920 Chicago White Sox was the only other team, since 1900, with four 20-game winners.  There have been only 22 occasions in baseball history when a team had three 20-game winners in a season, the most recent being the Oakland A’s in 1973. So, you can start to get a perspective of the significance of the Orioles pitchers’ historic season.

You think to yourself while reading this, what else could I add to this historical feat. Well, here are some more additional fascinating facts surrounding the 1971 Orioles’ season, to juxtapose with current pitching staffs.

1) Palmer, McNally, Cuellar and Dobson started all but sixteen games for the Orioles for the entire season.  All of today’s teams use five-man starting rotations, with some even having experimented with a rotation of six starters pitching every fifth day.

2) The Orioles’ foursome threw a total of 70 complete games for the season. In 2014, there were 118 complete games during the entire season—for all 30 teams.  The Giants and Cardinals teams tied for Major League Baseball lead with eight.

3) The 1971 Orioles used a total of 13 pitchers on the staff for the entire season, compared to 20 used by the 2014 Orioles.   The 2014 Texas Rangers used a total of 40 pitchers.

Indeed, it’s a different world in the game of baseball today.

Many of the performance standards of yesteryear, pitching and hitting, don’t exist anymore.  However, that shouldn’t detract from the fabulous performances of the four Orioles hurlers of that 1971 team.

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Nick Ficorelli
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