Joe Magrane

How Joe Magrane won the 1988 ERA title with just five wins

In 1988, Cardinals lefthander Joe Magrane put together one of the most unusual seasons in MLB history, winning the National League ERA title with a miniscule 2.18 ERA while somehow managing to win just five of his 24 starts.

The dichotomy between Magrane’s mound dominance and his relatively small win total still stands as the record for the fewest wins by an ERA champion in a non-strike-shortened season.

A former first-round draft pick out of the University of Arizona, Magrane raced through the Cardinals’ minor leagues, making his major-league debut as a 22-year-old in 1987. That season, he went 9-7 with a 3.54 ERA in 170 1/3 innings, finishing behind only Padres catcher Benito Santiago and Pirates pitcher Mike Dunne in the NL Rookie of the Year balloting.

Though Magrane sought to build upon that success early in 1988, he encountered early frustrations, receiving no decision in his first three starts before he was sidelined with a strained rib cage that kept him out until June. In his second start back, he earned his first win of the season, a 7-3 victory over the Pirates in which he allowed two earned runs over eight innings. It was the worst performance he would have in a win all season.




In July, Magrane made five starts, compiling a 1.75 ERA over 36 innings. In all five starts, he went at least seven innings while allowing two or fewer earned runs; nonetheless, he went 0-2 that month, dropping his season record to 1-4.

After dropping his first two starts of August, including a loss to the Phillies in which he allowed two runs (one earned) over eight innings, Magrane finally claimed his second win of the season on August 12. Wearing a T-shirt under his uniform that read, “Throw Strikes. Babe Ruth’s Dead,”[1] Magrane was dominant, throwing a complete-game one-hitter and striking out six in a 4-0 win over the Cubs.

“I thought it was going to take an effort like that to get over the hump,” he said.[2]

It proved to be Magrane’s only win that month. Incredibly, he went 1-4 in August despite posting a 2.03 ERA in 44 1/3 innings. As he entered the final month of the season, he had a 2.32 ERA over 18 starts, yet had just a 2-8 record to show for it.




With Magrane’s innings total beginning to pile up, it was becoming more and more likely that he would become eligible for the NL’s ERA crown. When asked by reporters, Magrane expressed mixed feelings about celebrating his ERA in an era when pitchers’ won-loss record was significant in measuring their success.

“I would rather have 15 victories and a 5-something ERA,” he said. “There’s really no barometer for a pitcher except wins. I’m not focusing on the ERA thing.”[3]

In another interview, he said, “I can’t lie, (it) would be nice. In the scheme of things, it doesn’t mean anything. Winning ballgames is what’s going to keep me here. I heard (Rick) Sutcliffe allude to it earlier this year. He said that there was no better feeling than to be out there in the ninth inning and get out with a win. That is your job.”[4]

Ultimately, pitching all nine innings was how Magrane earned his final three wins of the season. On September 2, he shut out the Astros over nine innings, allowing just three hits and two walks.




“That guy should be a 20-game winner,” Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog said after the game.[5]

Five days later, Magrane threw a complete-game shutout against the Phillies, scattering seven hits and three walks while striking out seven. It was his first home win of the season and the first time all year that he had won back-to-back games.

“The run support hasn’t been outstanding this year, but that certainly has made me a much better starting pitcher,” Magrane said. “I’m thinking more about things that can hurt me in a close game.”[6]

Magrane struggled in his next start against the Expos, then received no decision in his next two, including an eight-inning, one-run performance against the Mets. In his final start of the season, Magrane threw another complete game, this time holding the Pirates to one run on eight hits.




“I’m pleased because when I wasn’t hurt, I went out there and kept us in the game for seven, eight, nine innings,” he said. “That’s the earmark of a good starting pitcher. I know I’m going to be involved in a lot of low-scoring games as long as I’m a Cardinal, so I have to do the little things that can help me – like quickening my move to home plate.”[7]

The win improved Magrane’s record to 5-9 and lowered his ERA to 2.18. That placed him .05 below David Cone of the Mets and .07 below John Tudor, who had been traded to the Dodgers a few weeks earlier. Both Cone and Tudor still had regular-season starts upcoming. If Cone threw five scoreless innings against the Cardinals, he once again would pass Magrane.

“Right now, I don’t think my chances of keeping it are very good,” Magrane said.[8]

Herzog said he would use Magrane in the Cardinals’ regular-season finale against the Mets if the Cardinals southpaw fell behind in the ERA race, but Magrane said he didn’t want to pitch again solely to try and win the ERA title.




“I would prefer that things like that be accomplished on things done during the season, and not ducking in for one or two innings,” he said. “I’d say that more than likely this was my last start.”[9]

It proved to be a non-issue. Though Cone shut out the Cardinals through the first five innings of his start on September 30, the Cardinals scratched across two runs in the sixth inning and Cone finished the season with a 2.22 ERA, .04 behind Magrane.

The Dodgers’ Orel Hershiser finished the year with a 2.26 ERA, Tudor was fourth with a 2.32 ERA, and the Reds’ Jose Rijo posted a 2.39 ERA to rank fifth among National League hurlers. While the win over the Cardinals marked Cone’s 20th of the season, Hershiser finished with 23, Rijo won 13 games, and even Tudor – who spent most of the season with the same Cardinals offense as Magrane – won 10.

“I would like to have gotten a lot more offensive support this year, but it could be a different case next year,” Magrane said. “I could have 15 wins and a 5.00 ERA and I’d be more than pleased with that.”[10]




Three of Magrane’s five wins that season came via shutout. In his other two wins, he allowed one and two runs.

“I’m more than satisfied with this,” Magrane said before adding, “I’m more than relieved that the season is over.”[11]

Magrane did get better run support in 1989, as he went 18-9 with a 2.91 ERA. He finished tied for fourth in that year’s NL Cy Young Award voting.

After such a promising start, however, arm injuries derailed Magrane’s career. He went just 10-17 with a 3.59 ERA in 1990, then missed all of the 1991 and most of the 1992 season with injuries. He never regained his previous form, posting a 4.97 ERA in 1993 before the Cardinals released him.

In six seasons for the Cardinals, he went just 51-54 despite posting a 3.34 ERA. Following his retirement in 1996, Magrane became a broadcaster for the Tampa Bay Rays and the MLB Network.





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[1] Rick Hummel, “Magrane One-hits Cubs,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 13, 1988.

[2] Rick Hummel, “Magrane One-hits Cubs,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 13, 1988.

[3] John Sonderegger, “Magrane Keeps Throwing 0’s,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 9, 1988.

[4] Rick Hummel, “Magrane Makes Do With Two,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 4, 1988.

[5] Rick Hummel, “Magrane Makes Do With Two,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 4, 1988.

[6] John Sonderegger, “Magrane Keeps Throwing 0’s,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 9, 1988.

[7] Rick Hummel, “Magrane Takes Lead In Race For ERA Title,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 30, 1988.

[8] Rick Hummel, “Magrane Takes Lead In Race For ERA Title,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 30, 1988.

[9] Rick Hummel, “Magrane Takes Lead In Race For ERA Title,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 30, 1988.

[10] Rick Hummel, “Magrane Takes Lead In Race For ERA Title,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 30, 1988.

[11] Rick Hummel, “Magrane Takes Lead In Race For ERA Title,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 30, 1988.

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