MLB: The 10 Best Pitching Seasons of the Last 10 Years
There's no arguing that over the last few years, a pitching-dominant trend has emerged in Major League Baseball.
Last year's seven no-hitters (the most in a season since 1884) and this year's slew of 20-game winners and two-decade valley of 4.28 runs per game are clear indicators that the Steroid Era is gone, with a neo-Deadball Era ushering in.
But with such a quick transition from a generation of heavy hitting to one of stellar pitching, how do we standardize standout pitching seasons or attempt to compare them? Surely Justin Verlander's 2011 is the apple to 1999 Pedro Martinez's orange, right?
Right. However, there's a nifty statistic called Wins Above Replacement, WAR, that measures how much impact a particular player has on his team against the average player at his position for that season. This sabermetric attempts to fill in some of the discrepancies between how hitters and pitchers impact a game, among others.
I will use WAR and the conventional pitching stats to put some of 2011's dazzling pitching masterpieces in perspective.
One of the best control pitchers in baseball history, Schilling aged gracefully with teammate Randy Johnson, finishing runner-up in both 2001 and 2002 to Johnson for the NL Cy Young.
- 2001: 22-6, 2.98 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 256.2 IP, 293 K, 1.4 BB/9, 10.3 K/9, 7.3 WAR
- 2002: 23-7, 3.23 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, 259.1 IP, 316 K, 1.1 BB/9, 11.0 K/9, 6.8 WAR
A dazzling combination of power and precision, Martinez's 1999 and 2000 seasons would top any on this list if within the designated period. His late-20s and early-30s prime is one of the most productive in baseball history. His low WAR in 2002 is the unlucky result of such captivating dominance by Randy Johnson and other pitchers.
- 2002: 20-4, 2.26 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, 199.1 IP, 239 K, 1.8 BB/9, 10.8 K/9, 5.7 WAR
- 2003: 14-4. 2.22 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 186.2 IP, 206 K, 2.3 BB/9, 9.9 K/9, 7.4 WAR
In just his second year, at 24 years old, Lincecum garnered his first Cy Young award with a year littered with strikeouts.
- 2008: 18-5, 2.62 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 227 IP, 265 K, 3.3 BB/9, 10.5 K/9, 6.9 WAR
A minor-leaguer less than a year before his Cy Young year, Lee uncorked one of the biggest winning streaks and best win percentages of any pitcher in any season.
- 2009: 22-3, 2.54 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 223.1 IP, 170 K, 1.4 BB/9, 6.9 K/9, 7.3 WAR
Lost for all of 2011 to injury, Wainwright's 2010 season was Cy-worthy.
- 2010: 20-11, 2.42 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 230.1 IP, 213 K, 2.2 BB/9, 8.3 K/9, 5.9 WAR
The touted Yankee prospect has finally become the ace many thought he'd be, except he's in the Arizona desert instead of the Bronx.
- 2011: 21-4, 2.88 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 222 IP, 198 K, 2.2 BB/9, 8 K/9, 5.5 WAR
10. Mark Prior, 2003 Chicago Cubs
18-6, 2.43 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 211.1 IP, 245 K, 2.1 BB/9, 10.4 K/9
6.2 WAR, best in NL
Had to include Mark Prior's career year on this list, partly because it was a fantastic year, partly because he was arguably the most hyped pitching prospect in baseball history and partly because 2003 was the year of Steve Bartman and the Cubs' NLCS implosion.
Just for one year of his five, Prior put it all together to show us just how good he was. His limitless potential was the talk of baseball for a few years before he actually realized it.
Unfortunately, injury submarined the rest of his career, causing him to miss at least six turns in each of his other four seasons.
He got knocked off the horse a few times after 2003, but he was never able to get back on to replicate his electrifying 2003 at age 22.
9. Tim Lincecum, 2009 San Francisco Giants
15-7, 2.48 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 225.1 IP, 261 K, 2.7 BB/9, 10.4 K/9
6.3 WAR, best in NL
Tiny Tim's second consecutive Cy Young checked in with a lower WAR than his first Cy in 2008, but was a better season in my opinion.
First, Lincecum threw four complete games and two shutouts, as compared to just two and one in 2008.
Second, he made one less start in 2009 and pitched just 1.2 less innings, meaning he stayed on the mound longer per start during that year, with lower walk and hit rates to boot.
Overall, the 2009 campaign represented a more mature pitcher who compounded a Cy Young season by becoming more efficient and durable, both impressive improvements.
Both his Cy seasons are topped, though, by his 2010 postseason, the first of his career, when Lincecum led the Giants to a World Championship with a 4-1 record, 2.43 ERA and 10.5 K/9 in 37.1 innings.
He's had a pair of historically good seasons, but he's also proven that he can put a team on his back in the playoffs, a vital part of any pitcher's legacy.
8. Jake Peavy, 2007 San Diego Padres
19-6, 2.54 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 223.1 IP, 240 K, 2.7 BB/9, 9.7 K/9
6.2 WAR, best in NL
Remember him? He's the guy who used to carve up the National League virtually unnoticed because he played in San Diego.
Jake Peavy was up and down for a few years, turning in some nice efforts in 2004 and 2005.
His 2007 season, though, is the crown jewel of a rollercoaster career. Peavy brought it all together to set career highs in wins, innings and strikeouts while not missing a start and winning his one and only Cy Young.
His stellar year might not have propelled his team to the playoffs, but he was the best pitcher of 2007 and anchored the second-best pitching staff in the majors in runs allowed.
7. Roy Halladay, 2011 Philadelphia Phillies
19-6, 2.35 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 233.2 IP, 220 K, 1.3 BB/9, 8.5 K/9
7.4 WAR, best in NL
Roy Halladay has arguably been the best starting pitcher in all of baseball over the last 10 years. He has dazzled to complete games and otherwordly walk rates in the toughest of baseball locations, the AL East and NL East. He's won 20 games three times and the Cy Young twice, but even though his 2011 can't claim either of those honors, it is quite possibly his best work yet.
At age 34, Doc put together eight complete games and the highest K/9 rate of his career. His innings count was the lowest in five seasons, but so were his hits allowed, WHIP, earned runs and HR/9 rate.
Playing for the ML-best Phillies this year could afford Doc some room to breathe and relax, but he did not. He put up his career best ERA and made 25 out of 32 quality starts. He started well, continued well and finished well when the stakes were low.
Halladay threw a no-hitter in his first postseason start of 2010. What can he do for an encore this October?
Whether he tops that performance or not, one thing is for sure: at 34, Doc Halladay continues to sweeten with age.
6. Clayton Kershaw, 2011 Los Angeles Dodgers
21-5, 2.28 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, 233.1 IP, 248 K, 2.1 BB/9, 9.6 K/9
6.9 WAR, fourth in MLB
It's hard to believe that Clayton Kershaw made just $440,000 this year. It's hard to believe that he won the NL Triple Crown, the seventh in baseball's last 26 seasons, and was just the fourth best pitcher in baseball by the win replacement measure. Most of all, it's hard to believe that he did it all prior to his 24th birthday.
In the second half of 2011, Kershaw was as unhittable as any pitcher for a half season in recent memory.
12-1 in 14 starts, 1.31 ERA, 0.88 WHIP, 102.2 IP, 101 K, 1.7 BB/9.
Just to recap, Kershaw's ERA was 1.31 over an entire half season. That's not a hot streak; that's a historic run of sustained success. He's had a rising trajectory for three years now, but Kershaw's 2011 season will be remembered as his Leap year, when he vaulted himself into the top of baseball's elite starting pitchers.
And he's only 23 years old.
5. Johan Santana, 2004 Minnesota Twins
20-6, 2.61 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, 228 IP, 265 K, 2.1 BB/9, 10.5 K/9
7.4 WAR, best in AL
Like Jake Peavy, Johan Santana is a mostly forgotten entity in 2011. Many don't recall how utterly dominant Santana's changeup was in his prime of 2003-2006.
Santana was graced with the Cy Young in 2004 for his efforts, which included were marked by durability; he made all 34 starts that year in leading the Minnesota Twins to the playoffs. They were overmatched by the Yankees in the Division Series, but Santana's lone start resulted in a 2-0 Twins' victory, their only one in the series.
He would go on to register campaigns in three of the next four seasons, but none found Santana more dominant than he was in 2004.
4. Randy Johnson, 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks
Strap on your seatbelts, folks. This is where the pitching performances start to get a little more difficult to believe.
21-6, 2.49 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 249.0 IP, 372 K, 2.6 BB/9, 13.4 K/9
8.4 WAR, best in MLB
Looking back, it is incredible to gaze at the marvel of Randy Johnson's career. Some of the numbers he put up in his mediocre years would be unfathomable in today's age of pitch counts and bullpen specialists.
At 37, Randy Johnson won his third of four straight Cy Young awards, which is unthinkable just 10-15 years later. His 372 punchouts would never be topped before or after in his 22-year career, nor would his 35 games pitched, both testaments to his durability and longevity.
This 2011 season, of course, is infamous for being pushed into November following the attacks of Sept. 11, and famous for a dramatic World Series in which Johnson won three games, pitched 17.1 innings and tossing 19 strikeouts against two earned runs.
Stay tuned. If you think Johnson's 2001 season is hard to fathom, just wait until you see what he did the next year.
3. Justin Verlander, 2011 Detroit Tigers
24-5, 2.40 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, 251 IP, 250 K, 2.0 BB/9, 9.0 K/9
8.6 WAR, best in MLB
Justin Verlander's maddening potential had only resulted in a string of ho-hum mid-three ERA, 19-win seasons up until 2011. Coming into the year, he had the memory of a disappointing 2010 looming large in his rear view mirror, hoping to put it behind him with a Leap year of his own.
Well, leap he did in 2011. Verlander won 24 games, including 12 straight (!) to finish, which is the most in a single season since Randy Johnson took 24 in 2002.
Most of his season's ERA was spent under 2.00, but he dealt with a serious bout of ineffectiveness, and his ERA ballooned above two. Excepting his sluggish April, Verlander tallied a 22-2 record over his final 28 starts. In those 28 starts, he surrendered a paltry 50 earned runs. That's a shade over two per start for you math illiterate. This is just nasty stuff.
Most important about Verlander's season is the impact it had on the division race and his team's fate. If your team has a pitcher that is a virtual lock to win every fifth day no matter what else is going on with the team, you count yourself lucky.
With Verlander, the Tigers, whose lackadaisical first half forced them to come from behind, knew they were getting at least two wins per week. That is a powerful propeller toward prolonged winning streaks. Verlander almost single-handedly turned the tide in the AL Central, which was a three-team race until mid-August. His impact was such that the Tigers definitively seized the division and ran away with it because of his mastery.
Note: just to put Verlander's rare year in historical perspective, his 250 K would be the 10th-highest season total for Randy Johnson. His 8.6 WAR and likely first Cy Young would be mere footnotes in the careers of Roger Clemens, Pedro Martinez and Johnson, whose primes reached their heights just eight to 12 years ago.
2. Zack Greinke, 2009 Kansas City Royals
16-8, 2.16 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 229.1 IP, 242 K, 2.0 BB/9, 9.5 K/9
9.0 WAR, best in MLB
Sorry, Zack. You've got the best single-season WAR on this list and over the last 11 seasons, but your dominance was paralleled by the next guy on the list.
The striking period of Greinke's watershed 2009 was the first half. He threw five complete games in 18 starts, tallying a 2.12 ERA and 129 strikeouts in 127.1 innings. In April, he was 5-0 with a 0.50 ERA with 44 K in 36.0 innings.
These numbers were totally unexpected from an immensely talented young pitcher who battled social anxiety and depression for years before his seminal season. His performance in 2009 was the validation of many predictions that he would someday be an ace and All-Star and, possibly, a Cy Young winner.
For Greinke, still just 27, it was the jump start he needed to spark a career that hung in the balance. Now, he's hungry for a World Series as the anchor of the Milwaukee Brewers.
1. Randy Johnson, 2002 Arizona Diamondbacks
24-5, 2.32 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, 260 IP, 334 K, 2.5 BB/9, 11.6 K/9
8.8 WAR, best in MLB
Isn't it a reasonable assumption that Randy Johnson would have begun to decline after his third straight Cy Young at 38 years old?
Yes is the logical answer, but that's not how things played out in 2002.
The Big Unit hit a second peak of sorts, setting a career high in wins and ERA for a full season. Again, he didn't miss any of 35 rotation turns and tossed a ridiculous four shutouts to accompany eight complete games.
The strikeout and hits against rates slipped a little, but his 260 innings and league-leading win and ERA numbers were actually better than his ludicrous 2001 totals.
After 2002, Johnson really began to slip, but for one last day, the sun shone very, very bright in the Arizona desert for one of the greatest hurlers in the history of baseball.
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