Max Scherzer and the Greatest Single-Season Pitching Performances in MLB History

Jason MartinezContributor IAugust 26, 2013

Max Scherzer and the Greatest Single-Season Pitching Performances in MLB History

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    With a win over the Mets on Saturday, Detroit Tigers right-hander Max Scherzer ran his regular-season record to 19-1, which would give him the highest single-season winning percentage (95%) in major league history. 

    Pirates reliever ElRoy Face holds the current record (94.7%) with an 18-1 record back in 1959. While Face pitched in a total of 57 games with a 2.70 ERA and 10 saves during his first of three consecutive All-Star seasons, he averaged less than two innings per outing. There is no comparison to the impact that Scherzer's having during a season in which he's on pace to pitch over 220 innings and strike out over 240 batters. 

    The 29-year-old Scherzer, who had a career 52-42 record coming into the season and has been very good since the Tigers acquired him prior to the 2010 season, appears to have jumped into the elite class of starting pitchers in 2013. While he leads the majors in run support (5.92), his offense hasn't had to bail him out of too many poor starts. 

    In the five games in which he's allowed more than three earned runs—he's allowed four earned runs three times and five earned runs twice—his record is 3-1. Seventeen times, his offense has only had to score three runs to win the game. It's hard to imagine Tigers hitters feeling much pressure when Scherzer is on the mound. 

    There's no question that Scherzer's season is shaping up to be one of the greatest in the history of the game. But how does it stack up among some of the greatest of all time? I won't attempt to go too far back because the game has changed in many ways, but here's a look at 10 contenders from the past 50 years.

    Feel free to use the comments section to make an argument for someone I left out.

Steve Carlton, Philadelphia Phillies (1972)

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    For a pitcher to accumulate 329 victories in his career, he would've had to be really good for a long period of time. This was the case for Hall of Fame lefty Steve Carlton, one of the most dominant pitchers in the game for over a decade. 

    After Carlton posted his first 20-win season in 1971, the St. Louis Cardinals traded their three-time All-Star to the Phillies for right-hander Rick Wise, who had been an All-Star himself in '71.

    But this trade ended up very one-sided, as Carlton proceeded to win 236 games for the Phillies over the next 13 seasons while posting a 3.01 ERA and leading the league in innings pitched and strikeouts five times each. He won the NL Cy Young Award four times during that span.

    But his best season may have been his first in Philly.

    The 27-year-old posted career bests in wins (27), ERA (1.97), starts (41), complete games (30), shutouts (8), innings pitched (346.1), strikeouts (310), WHIP (0.993), H/9 (6.7) and K/BB (3.56) to capture his first Cy Young Award. Carlton averaged over 8.1 innings per game, which makes the fact that he allowed more than three earned runs just 10 times such an amazing feat.

    Known for having one of the nastiest sliders of all time, Carlton tossed over 5,200 innings in his career before he finally threw his last big league pitch in 1988 at the age of 43. When asked how he threw his slider, Carlton explained, via Crashburn Alley, "I hold it like this and I throw the ---- out of it."

Bob Gibson, St. Louis Cardials (1968)

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    One of the fiercest competitors in baseball history, Cardinals pitcher Bob Gibson was nearly unhittable during a 1968 season that was dominated so much by pitching that the MLB rules committee decided to enforce a smaller strike zone and lower the pitching mound from 15 to 10 inches the following season. 

    While Gibson's season, along with all pitchers, was certainly aided by the larger strike zone and higher pitching mound, it was clear who was the best pitcher in baseball that season. Not only was he an NL All-Star and Gold Glove winner, but Gibson also won the NL Cy Young Award and NL MVP. 

    The 32-year-old Gibson, who had a 125-88 career record and 3.12 ERA coming into the season, finished the season with a 22-9 record, 1.12 ERA, 5.9 H/9 and 4.32 K/BB. He completed 28 of his 34 starts, including 13 shutouts. The bullpen knew it would most likely be having the day off when Gibson was on the mound.   

    His dominance didn't end there. Although the Cardinals lost to the Tigers in the World Series, Gibson had two of the best postseason starts ever in Game 1 (9 IP, 0 R, 5 H, BB, 17 K) and Game 4 (9 IP, ER, 5 H, 2 BB, 10 K) wins before losing in the deciding Game 7 (9 IP, 4 ER, 8 H, BB, 8 K). This was only the third time he'd allowed more than three earned runs on the year.

Dwight Gooden, New York Mets (1985)

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    Dwight Gooden's career was already on the decline at an age when most pitchers are just entering their prime. By the time he was 25 years old, he had a resume that included a Cy Young Award, five top-seven Cy Young Award finishes, an NL Rookie of the Year award, World Series ring, a 119-46 record, 2.82 ERA and 1,391 strikeouts.

    So despite an up-and-down career marred by drug use, Gooden's complete dominance of the league when he debuted as a teenager makes him one of the most unforgettable pitchers in baseball history. And no season was as memorable as his second in the majors in 1985. 

    After bursting on the scene with one of best rookie seasons ever for a pitcher in 1984 (17-9, 2.60 ERA, 218 IP, 161 H, 73 BB, 276 K in 31 starts), Gooden proved there was still room for improvement. Not only did he avoid a sophomore slump, but the 20-year-old was, arguably, the best pitcher in baseball in 1985.

    He finished with a 24-4 record, 1.53 ERA, 16 complete games, eight shutouts and 268 strikeouts in 276.2 innings pitched. Gooden had one bad start the entire season, a five-inning stint in which he allowed five earned runs and eight hits to the Phillies in mid-August, including a two-run homer to Mike Schmidt. The Mets came back to win 10-7. 

    Despite a 98-win season, the Mets fell short of the playoffs, but it was clear that the Mets, led by their young ace, were a force to be reckoned with. They won it all the next season.

Ron Guidry, New York Yankees (1978)

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    From 1923-1962, the Yankees were one of the greatest dynasties in sports history with 20 World Series championships. Led by Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, the Yankees have won five more titles since 1995. The time in between these two eras weren't as dominant, but there were some very good Yankees teams in the late '70s and early '80s. 

    In fact, they went to the World Series four times in six years, winning back-to-back titles in 1977-1978. The ace of those staffs was left-hander Ron Guidry, who followed up a terrific first full season in the majors in 1977 by posting a 25-3 record with a 1.73 ERA the following year. The 27-year-old also had 16 complete games, nine shutouts and 248 strikeouts in 273.2 innings pitched while allowing no more than three earned runs in 31 of his 35 starts.

    Two full seasons in the majors, and Guidry already had two World Series rings, a Cy Young Award and a career 41-11 record. While it would be tough to go anywhere but down after that, Guidry had a nice 14-year career with the Yankees (170-91, 3.29 ERA, four All-Star selections).

Randy Johnson, Seattle Mariners (1995)

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    Pitching in the midst of the so-called Steroid Era, Randy Johnson was an intimidating presence on the mound who consistently overpowered the musclebound sluggers who had become prevalent during his career. 

    While some of his best years came with the Diamondbacks in the early 2000s (64-18, 2.48 ERA between 2000-2003), it was hard to match his 1995 season with the Seattle Mariners.

    A late bloomer, Johnson was in his late-20s by the time he was finally considered to be one of the better pitchers in the game. At age 31, he joined the elite class of starters after he went 18-2 with 2.48 ERA in 1995 to lead the M's to their first postseason appearance since entering the league in 1977. 

    Just three seasons earlier, Johnson had walked a league-leading 144 batters while posting an awful 6.2 BB/9. All the strikeouts likely made the walks more tolerable. But by 1995, he was in complete control. His BB/9 dipped to 2.7 while his strikeout-per-nine-innings rate was a then-career-high 12.3. Walks were never an issue again for the remainder of his career, which ended in 2009 at the age of 45.

Sandy Koufax, Los Angeles Dodgers (1963)

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    The Dodgers currently have, arguably, the top left-handed pitcher in the game in Clayton Kershaw. They also had one of the best when Fernando Valenzuela broke in to the majors in the early '80s. But the legacy began much earlier when Sandy Koufax was one of the top pitchers in the game from 1961 until his final season in 1966.

    Despite an arthritic condition that forced him into retirement at age 30, Koufax never stopped dominating hitters. He went out in style, collecting Cy Young Awards in each of his final two seasons. But his best might have come a few years earlier in 1963 when he went 25-5 with a 1.88 ERA, 20 complete games, 11 shutouts, 58 walks and 306 strikeouts in 311 innings pitched. 

    In addition to winning the NL Cy Young and MVP awards for his regular-seasons brilliance, the 27-year-old went on to win the World Series MVP when he outdueled Whitey Ford in two complete-game victories over the Yankees (18 IP, 3 ER, 12 H, 3 BB, 23 K).

Greg Maddux, Atlanta Braves (1995)

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    Over a 16-year period, Greg Maddux may have been the best starting pitcher in baseball. It's hard to argue with a 281-145 record to go along with a 2.76 ERA in 539 starts. Right in the middle of that span, however, he put together one of the best four-year stretches of all time. 

    From 1992-1995, Maddux won four consecutive NL Cy Young Awards by posting a 75-29 record with a 1.98 ERA. The last of those years might've been his best, though. Not only did he win 19 of 21 decisions with a 1.63 ERA and a ridiculous 23 walks in 209.2 innings pitched, but he also helped lead the Braves to their lone World Series championship during an era where they finished in first place in 14 of 15 seasons (1991-2005).

    In Game 1 of the 1995 World Series, Maddux set the pace with a masterful performance against a powerful Indians lineup that included Carlos Baerga, Albert Belle, Kenny Lofton, Manny Ramirez and Jim Thome. He allowed two unearned runs on two hits with no walks and four strikeouts in the complete-game victory.

Pedro Martinez, Boston Red Sox (1999)

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    Take your pick. Pedro Martinez was flat-out dominant in several of his big league seasons. The 5'11" right-hander had the lowest ERA in the league five times from 1997-2003. He won at least 14 games in a season nine times. He won an NL Cy Young Award with Montreal in 1997 and then back-to-back Cy Young Awards with Boston in 1999-2000. 

    When you look at the numbers, it probably comes down to a coin flip between those two seasons (23-4, 2.07 ERA, 213.1 IP, 160 H, 37 BB, 313 K in 1999; 18-6, 1.74 ERA, 217 IP, 128 H, 32 BB, 284 K in 2000). And since we're comparing Max Scherzer's year, which stands out because of his record, we'll go with 1999 when Martinez had a career-best .852 winning percentage.

    In 19 of his 21 starts, the 27-year-old Martinez struck out at least 10 hitters. He had at least 15 strikeouts six times. His dominance continued into the playoffs where he struck out 23 hitters and allowed just five hits over 17 scoreless innings. 

    Fortunately for the Sox, Martinez was still in his prime—barely—when they won the World Series in 2004. The then-33-year-old pitched seven scoreless innings against the Cardinals to win Game 3 of the eventual four-game sweep. It was the last start of Martinez's Red Sox career.

Denny McLain, Detroit Tigers (1968)

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    Bob Gibson and the Cardinals were coming off of a World Series title in 1967 and appeared well on their way to another in 1968. But while Gibson was dominating in the National League, Tigers pitcher Denny McLain was having an equally impressive season in the AL. 

    With a 31-6 record and 1.96 ERA in 41 starts, including 28 complete games, McLain went on to win the AL MVP and Cy Young Award. And while he was roughed up in his first two World Series starts, both losses to Gibson, the 24-year-old proved to have one more great start in him. 

    In a complete-game victory to clinch the Tigers' first championship in 23 years, McLain allowed just one earned run on nine hits—all singles—with no walks and seven strikeouts as the team cruised to a 13-1 win. 

Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers (2011)

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    Before Scherzer became known as one of the top pitchers in the game, his teammate, Justin Verlander, stood alone as the undisputed Tigers ace and best pitcher (and player) in the American League. 

    In 2011, Verlander won the AL Cy Young Award and AL MVP after compiling a 24-5 record with a 2.40 ERA in 251 innings. The 28-year-old also had a league-leading 250 strikeouts and an 82 percent quality start (at least six innings, no more than three earned runs allowed) percentage. 

    It's amazing that Scherzer's 2013 season could actually be viewed as better than Verlander's in 2011. And I'm sure his agent will do everything in his power to drive that point home when he negotiates his client's next contract. Verlander signed a five-year, $140 million contract prior to this season.