MLB History: 9 Dominating Seasons of Pitching in Baseball Since 1968
Make no mistake about it. The pitching in baseball has improved over the past two seasons. It might be a natural and overdone correction. It may have to do with the increased testing and public scrutiny regarding Performance Enhancing Drugs. It could be in part because young, talented pitchers like Justin Verlander and Jarred Weaver are playing to their potential while seasoned veterans like Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee are still in their primes as well.
It's probably a combination of all of those factors. That being said, since the conclusion of the 1968 season, a season in which the American League Batting Champion hit only .301 ( Carl Yaztremski) while The Major League earned run average leader set an all-time single season best of 1.12 ( Bob Gibson), baseball has made some changes.
Following that season when pitchers really dominated, baseball lowered the pitching mound from 15 inches to 10. That's a one third decrease. They also shrank the strike zone from top of the shoulders to the knees to armpits to knees. These changes were intended to increase offensive production, and they worked.
While no season in baseball has been dominated by pitching like the 1968 season, there have been some very memorable individual seasons since then.
Steve Carlton 1972
It's impressive when a pitcher finishes a game isn't it? A complete game is not something that happens all that often these days and a lack of Steve Carlton in baseball is one of the reasons why.
In 1972 The Philadelphia Phillies were flat out bad. They finished the season with a record of 59-97, good for sixth place in the National League East. As bad as Philadelphia was, Carlton was every bit the opposite. For younger readers who might not be used to seeing numbers like this—have a seat.
Carlton started 41 games that year and finished with a 27-10 record. His final ERA was 1.97. He pitched 30 complete games and had eight shutouts. For the season he threw 346.1 innings. Carlton registered 310 strikeouts and finished with a WHIP of 0.993. For those wondering, yes he won the Cy Young award that season and even finished fifth in the MVP voting which is impressive considering his team's ugly record.
The durability is what's really impressive. No pitcher in baseball has amassed more than 300 innings pitched since 1980. That pitcher? Steve Carlton with 304.
Nolan Ryan 1973
Hitters have the home run and pitchers have the strikeout. Each action an emphatic display of the best quality either player can posses. A home run is a display of solid contact and power, while nothing shows a pitcher's ability to make a hitter miss more than a strikeout.
Performance enhancing drugs have muddled the debate about home run hitters but no such debate exists regarding baseball's greatest strikeout pitcher. His name is Nolan Ryan and his pinnacle was reached in the 1973 season.
Baseball hasn't seen a pitcher break the 300 strikeout barrier since Randy Johnson in 2002 with 334 K's. In 1973 Ryan amassed 383 strikeouts. He finished that season with a record of 21-16 and a 2.87 ERA. He had 26 complete games and four shutouts while throwing 326 innings.
Of note, Ryan didn't even win the Cy Young that year which was awarded to Jim Palmer of the Orioles. But as time has passed, this season by Ryan is still one for the ages.
Dwight Gooden 1985
The most talented young pitchers can be frustrating. They're generally inconsistent, often displaying only glimpses of the ability that's created the hype only to fall into habits that will produce walks, or poor performances. Not Dwight Gooden.
Gooden took the National League by storm in 1984. A 19-year-old prodigy, he had a blazing fastball paired with a curveball that defined the term "knee-buckling." Pitching in New York City meant that Gooden would embark on his 1985 season with a seemingly irrational amount of hype heaped on him by fans and media. Surely there would be no way for him to fulfill those expectations? Too bad no one told Dwight Gooden that.
In 1985 as a 20-year-old, Gooden was totally dominant. He finished the season with a record of 24-4, a 1.53 ERA and 268 strikeouts in 276.2 innings. Gooden threw 16 complete games and eight of them were shutouts. His whip was a minuscule 0.965 and yes, he won the Cy Young award as well.
Gooden was never able to come close to duplicating his success of 1985 and his troubles with drugs and alcohol would ultimately derail his career, but his 1985 season was remarkable.
Roger Clemens 1986
Since the conclusion of the 1968 season only two starting pitchers have won MVP awards. One of them is Roger Clemens and his 1986 season was indeed MVP worthy.
Clemens, who was a highly touted Red Sox pitching prospect, was coming off an injury plagued 1985 season. He wasted no time in showing Boston and the rest of the nation that he was healthy. On April 20th, Clemens set the all-time single game strikeout record by striking out 20 Seattle Mariners. There wasn't much in the way of let-up after that either.
Clemens started the season 14-0 and finished 24-4 with a 2.48 ERA, a 0.969 WHIP and 238 strikeouts. He led the Red Sox to the playoffs which likely played a role in his MVP award. The Cy Young was his as well. It was his first of seven Cy Young awards. Clemens career has been marred by accusations of steroid use but very few would debate or question his dominance in 1986.
Vida Blue 1971
Vida Blue isn't in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Yet if one season could gain a player entry to Cooperstown, then Blue's 1971season would have worked like a charm.
When the 1971 season started, Vida Blue was only 21 years old, but by the end of the season he had a Cy Young award and an MVP award on his mantle. To this day Blue remains the youngest man to ever win an MVP award in baseball history.
The numbers from 1971 are pretty good as you might imagine: 24-8 with a 1.82 ERA, 24 complete games, eight shutouts, 301 strikeouts in 312 innings pitched and a whip of 0.952.
Blue's career was not as disappointing as Gooden's but he never came close to another season like the one he had in 1971.
Like Gooden, Blue also battled problems with drugs, specifically cocaine.
Greg Maddux 1995
No pitcher wants to issue a walk. It ups the pitch count, puts men on base and aggravates the manager. Walks allow opposing players, coaches, managers, scouts and fans to question a pitcher's control. Every pitcher knows they will inevitably issue a few walks but they'd all like them to be minimized.
In 1995 Greg Maddux really minimized walks. In fact he almost totally negated them from his starts as a member of the Atlanta Braves. If Ryan's 1973 season was the greatest display of power pitching since 1968, then Maddux's 1995 season might have been the greatest display of control.
Maddux would win a World Series ring, a gold glove and a Cy Young award in 1995. He was 19-2 with an ERA of 1.63. He fanned 181 batters and walked only 23! That's 23 walks in 209.2 innings which created a an astounding WHIP of 0.811. Maddux won four Cy Young awards in his illustrious career.1995 was his final Cy Young victory and arguably his most impressive.
Randy Johnson 2001
Not many pitchers have ever been blessed with the rare combination of height, power, attitude and toughness as Randy Johnson. Perhaps no modern pitcher with the exception of Nolan Ryan has ever been as intimidating and certainly only Ryan can boast of more impressive strikeout numbers.
On May 8th 2001, Johnson took the mound against the Cincinnati Reds. He pitched nine innings, gave up one earned run, had 20 strikeouts and issued no walks. He didn't get a win since Arizona won the game in 10 innings, and since Major League Baseball doesn't classify it as a nine inning game, it's not listed with other 20 K performances in the record books. But everyone knows Johnson is on the short list of pitchers to record 20 K's in nine innings.
From 1999 through 2002 Randy Johnson had his own personal award. Most people would refer to it as "The National League Cy Young Award." Johnson won four in a row and 2001 was possibly his best in that era of dominance. Along with the 20 K game, a 21-6 record and a 2.49 ERA, Johnson also had 372 strikeouts in 2001, good for third all time in the single season modern baseball era.
Johnson's WHIP was a league leading 1.009, which would end up being the second best single season mark for his career. Johnson also claimed the all-time highest single season mark for strikeouts per nine innings pitched ratio at 13.40.
Johnson capped off his memorable 2001 season with a truly stunning postseason. He won three of the four games that led to his Diamondbacks beating the New York Yankees in the World Series, including the decisive Game 7 when he came in as a relief pitcher. That would earn him co-MVP honors with his teammate Curt Schilling.
Ron Guidry 1978
1978 was a memorable one for Yankee fans. The Yankees stormed back from a 14.5 game division deficit in July to eventually overtake their rivals the Boston Red Sox. They won their division in a dramatic one-game playoff following the final regular season game. New York would move on to win their second World Series in a row by defeating the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Bucky Dent won fame for his home run in that one-game playoff but no Yankee won more than Ron Guidry did that season. He was the unanimous choice for Cy Young award winner. Guidry went 25-3 that season with an ERA of 1.74. He threw 16 complete games and nine shutouts. Guidry fanned 208 and led the league with a WHIP of 0.946 as well.
Guidry's amazing 1978 season turned out to be by far his greatest single-season performance. He never won another Cy Young award and would win 20 games only one more time in his career in 1985. Still, Guidry's 78 season was astounding. He was clearly the most dominant pitcher in baseball that season and he led the Yankees to a World Championship.
Pedro Martinez 1999
The case could be made that Pedro Martinez's 1999 was the best season since the rules were altered in 1968. First of all, baseball was in the midst of an offensive explosion the likes of which the game has never seen. In 1999 American League hitters batted .275, one of the three highest marks since 1968. Teams scored an average of 5.18 runs per game, the fourth highest total since 1968. Baseballs were flying out of the park in the late 90's and Pedro Martinez stood out as the most dominant pitcher from1997-2000.
Martinez won three Cy Young awards in those four seasons. In 1999 he put together some of the more memorable pitching performances of that season.
He was the starting pitcher for the American League All-Star team and with the game being played in Fenway Park, Martinez wasted no time in displaying his dominance to his National League opponents. Martinez started the game by striking out Barry Larkin, Larry Walker, and Sammy Sosa.
In the top of the second inning, Pedro fanned Mark McGwire for his fourth consecutive strikeout. Matt Williams would reach base on an error but Martinez got Jeff Bagwell to strikeout with Williams running and the double play concluded Pedro's dominant appearance. He would be selected as the game's MVP.
Next came the performance on September 10th 1999 in Yankee Stadium. The Yankees were in the midst of their dynasty. Winners of the 1998 World Series and once again headed toward the playoffs with their sites on another ring. That night in the Bronx, Pedro put together what some have referred to as one of the best individual efforts ever. In the second inning, Pedro gave up a solo home run to Chili Davis. It was the only hit the Yankees would get that night as Boston won 3-1. Pedro retired the final 22 batters he faced and finished with 17 strikeouts, including the final five outs of the game.
When the playoffs rolled around the Red Sox were a wild card entry and were matched up in a best-of-five opening series against the Cleveland Indians. Pedro left Game 1 with a strained back and the Red Sox fell into an 0-2 hole. The Sox battled back to force a decisive Game 5 and when both team's starters were hammered creating an 8-8 tie in the third inning, out popped Pedro from the Red Sox bullpen. Martinez's back hampered his velocity but he somehow pitched six no-hit innings against the Indians and led the Red Sox to the series victory.
For the season, Pedro finished 23-4 with an ERA of 2.07. Pedro would finish the season with 313 K's in only 213.1 innings pitched. His 13.2 K's per nine innings pitched ratio is good for second best ever. Pedro's whip of 0.923 also led the American League.
Pedro also led the American League in wins, ERA, strikeouts and WHIP. What was most astonishing was that the second place finisher in ERA that season was David Cone, who finished with a 3.44 mark. That means that Pedro gave up a full run and a quarter less than the next best pitcher in his league. It's also indicative of how good Pedro was while surrounded by some of the most potent offenses in recent memory.