The seven greatest seasons for pitchers since 1950

I’m pleased to present another guest post from Rory Paap of www.PaapFly.com. Rory made his debut here on Monday with Great pennant races in San Francisco Giants history. Now, Rory expands his focus beyond one team.

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Despite 2010 being the purported “Year of the Pitcher,” no individual has distinguished himself as spectacularly as in years past. Don’t get me wrong, some of these pitchers are having outstanding seasons, they are just not historical in aggregate. Cliff Lee is having one of the best seasons ever in terms of strikeouts per walk. He was a threat to dethrone Bret Saberhagen and claim his record from 1994, but he has since relinquished his once tight grip on this feat. He’s still currently in fourth all-time at 9.83, behind Saberhagen (11) and two seasons by a chap named Jim Whitney (10 and 9.86) in 1884 and 1883.  And though I’ll be focusing on starting pitching, the Cubs’ closer Carlos Marmol is having the greatest strikeout season of all time per 9 IP at 15.94, or 134 in just 75.2 innings.

Roy Halladay is having one of his usual tremendous seasons and Felix Hernandez has been great despite his W/L record (due to the putrid, offensively challenged lineup (not) backing him). But, I’m not sure any of these guys’ cleats are going to the Coop for their efforts this season. Well, maybe Halladay’s perfect game spikes.

So, I set out to find the most outrageous seasons for a pitcher since 1950.  To do this, I went to http://baseball-reference.com and checked out the all-time leaders in WAR per season.  I went down all the way to about the top 200 because obviously a pitcher who threw 350 innings is going to rack up quite a bit more WAR, and I wanted to drill down to those great performances in a five-man rotation.  I then eliminated anything pre-1950.  I also eliminated anyone who wasn’t primarily a starting pitcher, and anyone who hadn’t thrown at least 200 innings. Lastly, I took their WAR, divided it by IP, and multiplied that by 200 innings.

My method may not be the best way, but it’s certainly a way to do this, if not a sound one. Keep in mind this eliminates some fantastic seasons by the likes of Randy Johnson, Steve Carlton, Juan Marichal and Sandy Koufax.  And interestingly, none remaining were left handed pitchers. Without further adieu, the top seven:

7) Bob Gibson, 1968 (7.82 WAR per 200 IP): It almost seems fitting we should start in the sixties, a decade filled with brilliant Hall of Fame pitchers. Gibson dominated with a 1.12 ERA, the best since 1906, and had 13 shutouts! He K’d 268 in 304.2 IP with just 62 walks (4.32 ratio) for an ERA+ of 258. He would yield just 11 HR for a rate of just .3 per 9 IP. His WHIP was just .853. You couldn’t get on, hit a dinger, or do much against Gibson that season. I guess that’s why 38 percent of his starts were shutouts.

6) Zack Greinke, 2009 (7.86): Who knew?  There was concern that Greinke might not win the Cy Young because he 1) had only 16 wins, and 2) pitched for the small market, lowly Royals. But Greinke was spectacular and did win it.  He posted a 2.16 ERA and an ERA+ of 205 in 229.1 IP. He yielded just 11 HR and K’d 242 to 51 walks (4.75 ratio).  His WHIP all said and done was an excellent 1.073.  His season was one of all around excellence in limiting the HR, not walking many and striking out more than a batter per inning. Not bad for a guy whose shortstop was Yuniesky Betancourt.

5) Pedro Martinez, 1999 (7.88): Pedro was untouchable for a time during the height of the steroid era, which is remarkable. In ’99, his ERA was 2.07 in 213.1 IP with an ERA+ of 243.  He finished with just 4 losses and 23 wins while striking out a ridiculous 313 – 13.2 per 9 IP, i.e. second best ever – to 37 walks (8.46 ratio).  What’s more, he limited opponents to just 9 total HR and had a .923 WHIP. His changeup was dazzling, his fastball electric.

4) Roger Clemens, 1990 (8.33): The Rocket is the pitching version of Bonds, another case where a no doubt HoF caliber player will perhaps be shunned from enshrinement due to alleged (and extremely likely) steroid use. There’s a great chance he was clean in ’90, and boy was he good. He went 21-6 with a 1.93 ERA, his ERA+ 213.  Through 228.1 IP, he whiffed 209 and walked just 54 (3.87 ratio).  His WHIP was 1.082 and he gave up just 7 HR – or .3 per 9 IP. Oddly, he’s the only one on this list who didn’t take home the hardware as a not nearly as good Bob Welch (27-6) obviously benefited from his Bash Brother and Rickey Henderson aided wins.

3) Greg Maddux, 1995 (8.41): What would this list be without the professor?  Maddux was brilliant often, but especially in ’95 where his back door and front door sinker flummoxed would be hitters all season long. He went 19-2 and his 209.2 innings included 181 K’s, just 23 walks and 8 HR.  His ERA+ was mesmerizing at 262 and his ERA 1.63. His 7.87 K’s per walk is one of the better ratios ever seen and when coupled with a .811 WHIP and an extreme stinginess to give up the long ball (.3 per 9 IP) – well, maybe it’s a good thing the season was strike shortened, for the hitters anyway.

2) Dwight Gooden, 1985 (8.47): Doc is one of the best examples of what could have been, and of the sadness and devastation substance abuse can bring. In ’85, he went 24-4 and finished with a 1.53 ERA and a 229 ERA+. Perhaps most amazing about his season was the fact that he was just 20 years old. Amidst his 276.2 innings of worked – yes, they handled their young pitchers a tad differently back then – he struck out 268 batters and walked 69 (3.88 ratio). Nearly a quarter of his starts were shutouts.  He relented just the 13 HR and had a WHIP of .965. He would pitch his Mets to a ring the following season.

1) Pedro Martinez, 2000 (9.31): It also seems fitting that (perhaps) the most dominant season in history belongs to the only player that appears on my list of seven twice. He’s the only pitcher to approach 9 WAR in 200 innings, and he nearly beat the second best season by an entire win.  If there was ever an example of how outrageous it is to evaluate pitchers by wins and losses, this is it.  Pedro went 18-6 despite a 1.74 ERA. How? I do not know.  What’s more, his ERA+ of 291 tells us that he was roughly three times better than the average starter in 2000. He threw 217 innings and punched out 284 (11.8 or ninth best ever), while walking just 32 (8.88 ratio or seventh best ever). He somehow gave up 17 HR despite his nasty repertoire.  Had he somehow limited those more, this season would have been even more unfathomable. Some lucky hitters must have just run into a few. His .737 WHIP is the best EVER, dating back to the 1800’s. Is he a first ballot Hall of Famer? Yes, please!

I think this group would probably have a few things to say about the 2010, so called “Year of the Pitcher.

All stats pulled http://baseball-reference.com/

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This guest post was written by Rory Paap, who founded www.PaapFly.com in 2009.

0 thoughts on “The seven greatest seasons for pitchers since 1950”

  1. Excellent piece Rory. Keep them coming.

    Re: Gibson. Do you ever wonder how he lost 9 games?

    Just off hand, what was Denny McLain’s WAR in 68?

  2. These are some impressive seasons. It wouldn’t suprise me if most of the homeruns were hit off hanging changeups or curveballs. His fastball in those days was absolutely nasty.

    Last night I saw a list of pitchers on MLB network that showed pitchers that have had over 30 QS in a season since King Felix has done that this year. Every other pitcher has won the CY Young. Should be interesting to see if King Felix does. He probably wins it on any other team though the field does help his 30 QSs

  3. Ya I figured he was who you were referring to, specifically with my “must have run into a few” within the post. His change and fastball combo was electric. I think the King has a shot and probably should win, but I just don’t know. The voters are swaying a bit, last year was a good sign. But some of these old voters may just be unable to look past the record

  4. Trying to pick the best pitcher seasons from the past 60 years is like trying to pick the best kisser at the Miss Universe contest, but I’m willing to give it a try.

    I think you could take any of the top 50 or so seasons and make a good argument as to why they belong in the top 7, they’re just so many great seasons to choose from.

    For my ratings I compared pitchers to a composite of all starting pitchers who started at least 9 games during in the given season and league. I also gave extra weight to pitchers who pitched a lot of innings.

    Pedro’s 2000 season is clearly number 1. It is unbelievable how well he pitched during the greatest hitter’s era of all time. And I ranked his 1999 season as the 2nd best season.

    Greg Maddux gets the #3 (1995) and #4 (1994) spots on the list.

    I took Roger Clemens (1997) as #5, I ranked it higher than the 1990 season you selected.

    Kevin Brown (1996) came in at #6 and Randy Johnson (2004) came in at #7, edging out Pedro’s 2002 season.

    In looking at my list I can see that it tilts heavily to the steroid era (1994 to 2004). Of my top 20, the only ones from outside that era were :

    #9 Dean Chance 1964
    #10 Ron Guidry 1978
    #14 Sandy Koufax 1965
    #16 Bob Gibson 1968
    #19 Mike Scott 1986

    Gooden’s fantastic 1985 season did not make my top 20, surprisingly, but I attribute that to the fact that the 1985 National League was a poor hitters year.

  5. Joe Horlen twice had a WHIP less than 1.0 and he was a sinker baller pitch to contact guy. Tommy John and Jim Kaat never had WHIP’s under 1.0. John Tudor in 1985 had 10 shutouts and a WHIP less than 1.0, another sinker baller.

    1. Hi Douglas, thanks for commenting and also the kind email you sent earlier this week. Tudor strikes me as one of those pitchers who was great in his day but not good long enough for the Hall of Fame. There are many pitchers like this, from Don Newcombe to Dave Stewart to Frank Viola.

  6. I can only remember the 1985 season Tudor had. Of course 1985 was the year the ump gave the world series to KC and Andujar went nuts in game 7 as the Cards lost 11-0, I believe. Another pitcher I really liked but only had a couple of good years was Wilbur Wood.

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