Thursday, December 24, 2015

The great pitching season you never really noticed.

When a pitcher has a truly spectacular year, we are normally aware of it because the signs are evident. If you are reading this sentence, you probably know what Jake Arrieta did in the 2015 season after June 15th. It's hard to remain oblivious when a guy goes 16-1 with a 0.86 ERA.

You also know about these:

Dwight Gooden was the Arrieta of 1985, when he was a mere stripling of none-and-twenty years. He started the season 6-3, which was not so bad, but then he decided to take the whole thing seriously and went 18-1 the rest of the way, with a 1.39 ERA. In a tight pennant race when every win was critical, he pretty much won 'em all. Over his last nine starts he drove in as many runs as he allowed.

In 1963, Sandy Koufax was 25-5 with a 1.88 ERA, eleven shutouts and 306 Ks. He then won two complete games in the World Series sweep of the mighty Yankees, thereby placing the icing of a World Series MVP on top of a cake that already included the Cy Young and the regular season MVP. The Dodgers were 34-6 in his starts (.850), 65-57 (.533) with other starters, a W-L differential of .317.

In 1931, Lefty Grove was 31-4 (.886) for the As. His ERA was 2.06 in a league that averaged 4.38. He would have become the only player in history to post a .900 winning percentage with twenty or more wins, but he got shelled by the Yankees in the very last game of the year, a completely meaningless contest, given that the As were leading the league by 14 1/2 games. The only other starts he lost all year were by the scores of 2-1 and 1-0, but the Yankees creamed him in that final game, 13-1. Still and all, the As played .900 ball in his starts (27-3) and .909 ball in his relief appearances (10-1). Incredibly, that magnificent season was only marginally better than Grove's previous one, when he was 28-5 and led the league in both wins and saves, making 32 starts and 18 relief appearances.

In 1972, the Philadelphia Phillies somehow won 29 games started by Steve Carlton. What made that amazing is that they only won 30 more in all the games started by all their other starters. They were 29-12 (.707) when Carlton took the ball, 30-85 (.261) in the other games, for a W-L differential of .446. To establish perspective, take note that .261 is approximately the same level as the infamous 1962 Mets, who finished the season at .246. In other words, those Phillies were right there with the losingest team of all time, yet Carlton finished the season 27-10 with a 1.97 ERA, 310 Ks and 30 complete games. This is an achievement that goes beyond what we normally conceive to be humanly possible, ranking in sheer miraculousness somewhere between DiMaggio's hitting streak and the raising of Lazarus.

Pedro Martinez had a 1.74 ERA in 2000. That would not normally be as eye-catching as some of the other stats on this page until you realize that the second-best ERA in the league was 3.70. To lead the league by one run is a feat seldom accomplished. Pedro almost led by two.

Christy Mathewson was well-nigh unstoppable in 1905. He started three games in the World Series (or the Post Series as it was then called) and won all three - with complete game shutouts. In those 27 innings he allowed exactly one walk. He wasn't so bad in the regular season either. He went 31-9 with a 1.28 ERA. Of course that was all just business as usual for Matty. Based on WAR, he had three better seasons and another one just as good. The newspapers of the day had no trouble recognizing his brilliance, but that didn't encourage them to learn how to spell his name.

In you are interested in the newspaper stories of the day, reflecting how the games were actually reported (it can be fascinating), you can get the complete account from the New York World and the San Francisco Call by clicking on the images to the left and right respectively. The New York story includes a detailed inning-by-inning account of the final game as well as analysis. Because I had some blank space to fill, that file also includes the cover of the Giants' home program from the 1905 Series, showing the team bedecked in their best Sunday finery, presumably to prove to refined New Yorkers that they were no ruffians.

Charlie "Old Hoss" Radbourn finished the 1884 season 59-12 with a 1.38 ERA. He started 73 games and finished every single one. In the early days of baseball, the high sheriffs were still tinkering with the rules. 1884 was the first year when pitchers were allowed to throw overhand with no restrictions on their motion, but the pitching distance had still not been extended to 60 feet. You will see in the bottom image of Old Hoss below that the pitchers of his day worked from neither a mound nor a rubber. Their box was outlined like the foul lines, and they could get as close as 45'6". Some pitchers threw overhand, while others (like Old Hoss) kept firing the ball from below, like fast pitch softball hurlers. Moreover, the poor batsmen needed six balls, not four, to get a free pass, so the batters were generally at a disadvantage that season. Radbourn was not the only pitcher covered with glory that year. In fact, he wasn't the only one on his team. His Providence teammate and bitter rival, Charlie Sweeney, struck out nineteen men in a regulation game that year, a record was not broken for more than 100 years until Roger Clemens did it in 1986. As you might imagine from the presence of those two guys on the mound staff, the Providence Grays were kinda good that year, finishing the season with a .750 winning percentage. Curiously, Old Hoss never seemed to make it onto a baseball card until he left Providence to pitch in Boston. There he was a burned-out sub-.500 pitcher, possibly because he drank to excess, or possibly because he tossed 678 innings in 1884 - and those were long innings; remember a walk required six balls. Though he was no longer a dominant pitcher in his Boston years, his images were ubiquitous in promotion of every conceivable type of tobacco product.

You all know what Bob Gibson did in 1968. He posted a 1.12 ERA, with 28 complete games (three of them in extra innings) and thirteen shutouts. It is not likely that his ERA will ever be bested by a starter again, barring a major rule change. He followed that up by winning games one and four of the World Series, striking out seventeen and ten in complete game victories, and besting 30-game winner Denny McLain both times. You may wonder how he lost nine games that season. You may not remember that he started that season 3-5, even though his ERA was 1.52 at that point. His teammates scored a total of four runs in those five losses.

The Big Train, Walter Johnson, could not be derailed in 1913. He was 36-7 with a 1.14 ERA. The team was 29-7 in his starts. He led the league in wins, winning percentage, shutouts, complete games, strikeouts, WHIP and ERA. Based upon a very significant measurement, WAR, this is the best pitching season of all time under the modern rules. Johnson also won the league's MVP award for his performance that year, beating out Ty Cobb, Shoeless Joe and all the other superstars of the era.

Some of Johnson's fellow deadball stars posted spectacular numbers as well:

Smoky Joe Wood was 34-5 in 1912, with a 1.91 ERA, 35 complete games and 10 shutouts.

In 1904, Happy Jack Chesbro was 41-12 with 48 complete games.

Big Ed Walsh was 40-15 with a 1.42 ERA in 1908. In his spare time, he also led the league in saves.

I could go on because there are other pitchers who could make their way onto this list: Ron Guidry in 1978, Roger Clemens in 1986, Three-Finger Brown in 1909, Cy Young in 1901, Greg Maddux in 1995, and recent seasons from Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw, to name a few. But I think you get the point. Every serious fan knows about these seasons and a few other great ones. Their numbers come alive and jump out from the pages on which they are printed.

But there is one other great season, about as good as the best ones listed above, that didn't attract as much notice because the numbers hide beneath the surface of the main stats. The guy won 18 games. Big deal. His ERA was 2.48. That's nice enough, but pedestrian; certainly not in the same league as those legendary performances. Or is it?

Let's start with the previously unmatched Grove record. The 1931 Philadelphia As played .900 ball in games started by Lefty Grove. That's impressive enough, but remember that those As were 80-42 in games started by other pitchers. That team played .655 ball when Grove wasn't pitching. Over a 154-game schedule, that's 101 wins, which still would have been enough to win the pennant by seven games. Grove was that great because he had a great team behind him (and of course, because he really was great, possibly the best ever).

Some six decades later, another pitcher tied Grove's record, and tied it exactly, as his team played .900 ball by going 27-3 in his 30 starts. But the modern pitcher did not have Jimmy Foxx, Al Simmons and the mighty 1931 A's behind him. When the ace did not take the mound, the team was 52-63, a .452 pace. In tying Grove's previously unmatched mark, he also managed to best Carlton's most amazing record. His W-L differential was .448, just barely breaking Carlton's record of .446.

Enough with the suspense. The pitcher was Randy Johnson and the team was the 1995 Seattle Mariners.

"Wait," you are thinking, "weren't they a great team with A-Rod and Griffey and company?" No, not that year. Griffey was injured most of the year and played only 72 games. When he did play, he stunk. He hit only .258, sandwiched in between two seasons when he batted at least .300 with at least 40 homers. A-Rod was no help. He was a green 19-year-old kid who batted .232 with five homers. The Mariners had some other decent bats, but no other starter with an ERA below 4.50.

To make matters worse, there was another team in their division which was good. The two teams finished in a dead heat at 78-66 in the regular season, necessitating a one-game playoff. If Randy had lost one more game in the regular season, or if he had lost the playoff game, the team would have finished in second.

So he didn't.

Of course he started that playoff game against the California Angels. Was there ever any doubt? He pitched on somewhat short rest, three days, but probably would have pitched some innings even if he had started the day before. It was a do-or-die situation, and the Mariners had nobody else they could rely upon. Fortunately, the Angels' line-up was stacked with left-handed bats. Three of their power hitters, Garret Anderson, J. T. Snow and Jim Edmonds, batted left-handed, and lefties had no prayer against The Unit that year - or most years, but especially that one. In the entire year, he allowed only 11 hits to left-handers in 30 starts, and not one of those hits cleared the fence. Still, the Angels were hopeful. Randy had already beaten them twice that year, but they had finally handed him one of his rare losses in August, and had somehow managed to touch him up for seven runs. Hope springs.

It was not to be their day, however. Their three lefty sluggers were held hitless, and their right-handed counterparts didn't do much better. Through eight innings Randy was nursing a 9-0 lead and had allowed only two hits. He surrendered a harmless dinger in the ninth to finish with a complete game three-hitter. The Mariners had won Randy's last nine starts in the regular season, followed by the all-or-nothing game. The Unit had single-handedly taken his sub-.500 team kicking and screaming into first place.

I wish my story had a happier ending, ala Matty's 1905, but it didn't work out that way. Randy Johnson did win his first Cy Young award that year, and the Mariners did manage to beat the Yankees in the first round of the playoffs, despite falling behind two games to none in games without Randy. They came roaring back in that series with three victories in a row, and the Unit was the winning pitcher in games three and five.

The dream came to an abrupt halt, however, when they were bested by the Cleveland Indians in the ALCS, four games to two. Because of his workload against the Yankees, Randy was only capable of pitching one of the first five games of the Cleveland series. He did start game three, which Seattle won, but when the Mariners were down three games to two, he got the ball again and lost game six by a score of 4-0. You might argue that he was not to blame, since (1) his teammates failed to score even a single run; (2) the first run scored against him was the result of an error by his second baseman, and (3) his catcher made a critical passed ball which allowed the next two runs to score. But the fact of the matter is that all of that was rendered irrelevant when he let Carlos Baerga hit one out of the park in the late innings, precipitating an early walk to the shower room. The Indians took the series and brought one of baseball's most brilliant seasons to a disappointing conclusion.

1 comment:

  1. Reader comment:

    You could have included Rick Sutcliffe's 1984 season too. I believe he went 16-1 after being traded to the Cubs from Cleveland. He propelled them into the post season for the 1st time in about 40 years or so.


    Scoop's note:

    Yup. You have the stats exactly right and it's a great example of a pitcher carrying his club, very comparable to what Johnson did for the 1995 Mariners. In fact, the Cubs did reach the coveted .900 mark in Sutcliffe's starts, although he did not pitch the entire year for them, so he didn't technically have enough starts to join Grove and Johnson in the .900 club. Sutcliffe made 20 starts for the Cubs, and they won 18 of those games. In all other games, the Cubs won 78 and lost 63 (.553), so the W-L differential was .347, almost identical to that achieved by the legendary Big Train in 1913, a season which many consider the greatest in history. Being as good as the greatest in history is pretty effin' impressive! It is also worth noting that the team's .553 without Sutcliffe was not a high enough percentage to win the division - the Mets played .556 ball. The assumption that they could not have won without him is borne out by the fact that after the June 17th game, the last game before Sutcliffe's first start, the Cubs were in second place, two games out. The big guy made the difference.