Baseball's Greatest Pitching Seasons: The Prime Nine Revisited

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Baseball's Greatest Pitching Seasons: The Prime Nine Revisited
(Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

The Best Ever Seasons by Starting Pitchers: The Prime Nine Revisited

 

The best seasons ever by starting pitchers emblazon the path of major league history.  They are like signposts or markers along the way that are monuments to the excellence bestowed upon the game by these pitchers. 

MLB network has recently broadcast its choices for the best seasons ever in its series “Prime Nine.”  Their stipulations for selection were that the season be in the modern baseball era, since 1900, and that there be only one season per pitcher.

The following is their list of the top nine all-time seasons in the order they listed, and the salient statistics that accompany each year:

9)  Steve Carlton – 1972; (27 – 10; 1.97 ERA; ERA+ 182; 30 CG, 8 SHO, 346 IP/ 257 H; 310 K/ 87 BB; 0.993 WHIP)

8)  Ron Guidry – 1978:  (25 – 3; 1.74 ERA; ERA+ 208; 16 CG, 9 SHO; 273 IP/ 187 H; 248 K/ 72 BB; 0.946 WHIP)

7) Greg Maddux – 1995:  (19 – 2; 1.63 ERA; ERA+ 262; 10 CG; 3 SHO; 209 IP/ 147 H; 181 K/ 23 BB; 0.811 WHIP)

6) Sandy Koufax – 1965; (26 – 8; 2.04 ERA; ERA+ 160; 27 CG, 8 SHO: 335 IP/ 216 H; 382 K/ 71 BB; 0.855 WHIP)

5)  Christy Mathewson – 1908; (37 – 11; 1.43; ERA+ 168; 34 CG; 11 SHO; 390 IP; 285 H; 259 K/ 42 BB; 0.837 WHIP)

4)  Dwight Gooden – 1985; (24 – 4; 1.53 ERA; ERA+ 228; 16 CG, 8 SHO; 276 IP/ 198 H; 268 K/ 69 BB; 0.965 WHIP)

3) Bob Gibson – 1968; (22 – 9; 1.12 ERA: ERA+ 258; 28 CG, 13 SHO, 304 IP/ 198 H; 268 K/ 62 BB; 0.853 WHIP)

2) Walter Johnson – 1913; (36 – 7; 1.14 ERA; ERA+ 259; 29 CG, 11 SHO; 346 IP 232 H, 243 K, 38 BB; 0.780 WHIP)

1) Pedro Martinez – 2000; (18 – 6; 1.74 ERA; ERA+ 291; 7 CG, 4 SHO; 217 IP/ 128 H; 284 K/ 32 BB; 0.737 WHIP)

 

The program says its aim is to start arguments rather than solve them, so here we go!

Are these truly the nine greatest seasons?  Is the order listed valid?  What other seasons are there worth looking at in the context of this discussion?  

I hope to answer these questions with this article and perhaps open a forum for other writers and readers to respond.

This is undoubtedly a great list.  Every one of these seasons is a significant landmark along the history of pitching. In truth all of these belong in what is probably a top 14 or so seasons, with another four of historical significance. 

The order listed above and the overall selection shows some skewing of the big picture, however.   

Seasons pitched during the lifetime of modern historians got favorable selection.  The program’s editors condensed everything before Sandy Koufax into two seasons, Walter Johnson’s 1913 and Christy Mathewson’s 1908, and left everything else out.

Certainly these two titans of the game deserve the recognition as two of the greatest all-time pitchers.  But there are other pitchers and seasons that deserve mention and attention.  I hope we will not condense baseball history to only the most popular players of the past.

The program said it took special emphasis on ERA+.  While this is an important stat, it is just one aspect of a dominant all-time season.  Some of the more recent seasons don’t have the volume of work of say a Sandy Koufax, or Walter Johnson. 

The ranking on the list above is skewed somewhat to favor the pitchers with less volume of work, and higher qualitative ratios. 

How else do we arrive with seasons of 217 IP as the No. 1 all-time season, or a season with 209 IP and 181 Ks as the No. 7 all-time season?  

From the perspective of these editors, it made sense.  But some of these seasons showed excellence over another 100–180 innings!  It was simply more work accomplished in one season.

So I would probably adjust the ranking somewhat—perhaps moving Pedro’s ‘2000 down to No. 3, and put some of the other modern seasons on notice as well, as we take another look at what got left off the list.

 

The Alternate Prime Nine

The program alludes to other seasons considered when it mentions Lefty Grove’s 1931 as having just missed the list.  This was just one of five years in a row that Grove put up one of the great peaks in baseball history. 

(Several of these pitchers had alternate years that made it hard to choose one for inclusion here.)   But there are perhaps four other excluded pitchers’ seasons begging recognition before this one can make the list.

1)      Grover Alexander – 1915; (31 – 10; 1.22 ERA; ERA+ 228; 36 CG; 12 SHO; 376 IP/ 253 H; 241 K/ 64 BB; 0.842 WHIP) – any way you slice these stats, this is one of the great all-time seasons ever pitched.  I believe it fits in just behind Walter Johnson’s 1913 and just ahead of Christy Mathewson’s 1908!  The Prime 9 editors had to be on some pretty strong “don’t confuse me with the facts” medicine to miss this one!! 

2)      Rube Waddell – 1905; (27 – 10; 1.48 ERA; ERA+ 179; 27 CG; 7 SHO; 328 IP/ 231 H; 287 K/ 90 BB; 0.977 WHIP) – It didn’t take long for the new century to yield its first pitching star.  Waddell’s blazing fastball dominated baseball for four years – 1902 – 1905.  His single season mark of 349 Ks was not surpassed until Sandy Koufax.  1905 was his most dominant all-around year.

3)      Mordecai Brown – 1906; (26 – 6; 1.04 ERA; ERA+ 253; 27 CG; 9 SHO; 277 IP/ 198 H; 144 K/ 61 BB; 0.934 WHIP) – “Three-fingered” Brown’s breaking pitches must have been something to behold!  His duels with Christy Mathewson must have been something to watch!  Don’t you think this season would have made the list if it had happened during our lifetime?

4)      Randy Johnson – 2002; (24 – 5; 2.32 ERA; ERA+ 197; 8 CG;  4 SHO; 260 IP; 197 H; 334 K/ 71 BB; 1.031 WHIP) – “the Big Unit’s” best year puts him with elite company. – I’ll leave it to the readers to decide where this season ranks on the all-time list!

5)      Lefty Grove – 1931; (31 – 4; 2.06 ERA; ERA+ 219; 27 CG; 4 SHO; 288 IP/ 249 H; 175 K/ 62 BB; 1.077 WHIP) – truly an amazing feat for the live ball era!  But the peripheral stats keep it outside the top 10 – only 4 shutouts, 39 fewer hits than IP, less than 200 Ks, and a WHIP over 1.00.

6)      Carl Hubbell – 1933; (23 – 12; 1.66 ERA; ERA+ 193; 22 CG; 10 SHO; 308 IP/ 256 H, 156 K/ 47 BB; 0.982 WHIP) – I put this season here to show the direct parallel with lefty Grove’s ’31.  Hubbell was the “other” dominant pitcher of the era, only in the NL.  The “meal ticket” and his screwball were arguably just as dominant.

7)      Bob Feller – 1946; (26 – 15; 2.15 ERA; ERA+ 153, 36 CG; 10 SHO; 371 IP/ 277 H; 348 K/ 153 BB; 1.158 WHIP) – Feller burst onto the scene before the war, but it was in ’46 that he put it all together – his last great dominant year.  The 10 shutouts, the almost 100 fewer hits than IP, and 348 Ks put him in this discussion.

8)      Juan Marichal – 1966; (25 – 6; 2.23 ERA; ERA+ 167; 25 CG; 4 SHO; 307 IP/ 228 H; 222 K/ 36 BB; 0.859 WHIP)  - style and control personified, a K/BB ratio rivaling Maddux’ ’95 mark, and a WHIP better than Koufax and Gibson’s best years – all while pitching 307 innings!

(Marichal received not a single vote for the Cy Young award for this season!  So much for the award being a measure of a pitcher’s greatness!)

9)      Dazzy Vance – 1924; (28 – 6; 2.16 ERA; ERA+ 174; 30 CG; 3 SHO; 308 IP/ 238 H; 262 K/ 77 BB; 1.022 WHIP)  Dazzy Vance was the most dominant pitcher of the 20s.  During the advent of the live ball era, Vance not only won the triple crown (W, ERA, Ks), but also led the league in CG, K/BB ratio, IP/H ratio, K/9 innings, ERA+, and WHIP.  That’s domination!

 

 

These are seasons I feel also need attention and recognition when talking about the best ever because of their historical significance.  They obviously can’t all fit in a Prime Nine count down. But perhaps some do?

I thought they might be of some interest to students of the game while considering this topic.

I am sure there are other terrific seasons I have not included.

How would you rank the best seasons ever by a starting pitcher?

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