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Great Pitching Seasons

 

   Do people recognize how great a 1999 and 2000 Pedro Martinez really had?  In my view, he has established himself as the best pitcher in at least 40 years, surpassing even the run Greg Maddux had in the early 1990s.

     Want evidence?  OK, try this - in 1999, Martinez pitched 213.1 innings, giving up 160 hits and walking 37 batters.  That means that he allowed 8.31 baserunners per 9 innings.  The next best in the AL was Eric Milton, who allowed 11.04 baserunners per 9 innings - a gap of 2.7 BR9.  That is an astonishing number, one that the game has never seen before - for instance, in 1968, Bob Gibson smoked the National League with a 22-9 record and a microscopic ERA of 1.12.  He allowed just 7.68 BR9, yet 8 NL pitchers were within 2 BR9 of this mark (Tom Seaver was the closest to Gibson, allowing 1.1 BR9 more).

     Remember Ron Guidry's 1978 season, when he went 25-3?  He allowed just 8.52 BR9, but the nearest competitor was within 1.05 BR9.

 

     In his heyday, Sandy Koufax was widely heralded as the most dominant pitcher the game had ever seen.  Indeed, he racked up 3 unanimous Cy Young Awards in 4 years, something that has never accomplished before or since.  In none of those years did he beat the nearest competitor by more than 0.8 BR9 - in 1965, Koufax's best year in this regard, 9 pitchers were within 2.7 BR9 of him.

    In fact, go way back to Walter Johnson, maybe the best pitcher who ever lived.  Only once did he approach the kind of edge that Pedro had in 1999 - in 1913, Johnson's MVP season, he went 36-7 and had a 1.14 ERA.  He allowed 7.02 BR9, about 2.3 BR9 lower than the competition.

     Now remember that both Johnson and Koufax had extremely favorable pitcher's parks to throw in throughout their careers - Koufax absolutely loved cavernous Dodger Stadium (which has the lowest run index of any ballpark in the game's history), and Johnson and the Senators played in Griffith Stadium, with one of the ten lowest run indexes the game has ever seen.  Martinez pitches in Fenway Park, one of the game's liveliest ballparks.

     Based on the foregoing, then, one can make a good case that no pitcher was ever stingier than Pedro Martinez in 1999 when it came to allowing baserunners.

 

     Now consider this: in 2000, he pitched 217 innings, allowing 128 hits and issuing 32 walks.  That means he allowed 6.64 BR9, more than 4 BR9 better than second-place Mike Mussina.  

     Case closed.

 

     A very good way to measure a pitcher's success is to look at his ERA compared to the league average ERA.  Here are the top 20 relative ERAs since WWII - the "relative ERA" is the ratio of the pitcher's ERA to the league average ERA:

 

 

Pitcher

W-L ERA Lg. Avg. ERA RERA
2000 Pedro Martinez 19-9 1.74 4.91 .354
1994* Greg Maddux 16-6 1.56 4.21 .365
1968 Bob Gibson 22-9 1.12 2.99 .375
1995* Greg Maddux 19-2 1.63 4.18 .379
1999 Pedro Martinez 23-4 2.07 4.86 .425
1985 Dwight Gooden 24-4 1.53 3.59 .426
1996 Kevin Brown 17-11 1.89 4.34 .435
1997 Roger Clemens 21-7 2.05 4.57 .449
1997 Pedro Martinez 17-8 1.90 4.22 .451
1964 Dean Chance 20-9 1.64 3.63 .455
1981* Nolan Ryan 11-5 1.69 3.70 .456
1978 Ron Guidry 25-3 1.74 3.76 .463
1966 Sandy Koufax 27-9 1.73 3.61 .479
1953 Warren Spahn 23-7 2.10 4.29 .490
1964 Sandy Koufax 19-5 1.74 3.54 .492
1990 Roger Clemens 21-6 1.93 3.91 .494
1955 Billy Pierce 15-10 1.97 3.96 .497
1997 Randy Johnson 20-4 2.28 4.57 .499
1971 Tom Seaver 20-10 1.76 3.47 .507

* Strike-shortened

   How does one choose among these seasons?  In an era of five-man rotations and early hooks, the impressive stats posted by Martinez and Maddux should probably be looked at with some skepticism.  For instance, Warren Spahn threw 265 innings in 1953, and threw 24 complete games; Koufax in 1965 and 1966 completed 27 games each time.  Martinez threw 7 complete games in 2000, and just 5 in 1999; he didn't have more than 220 innings in either season.

 

     Notice that Denny McLain's 1968, when he went 31-6, does not appear here - his ERA of 1.96 was spectacular, but relative to the league average his relative ERA of 0.658 doesn't come close to the top seasons on this list.  Of course, he logged a league-high 336 innings; but given that his ERA was only good enough for fourth place that year in the AL, you have to believe that he wasn't as valuable to his team as Bob Gibson was to the Cards.

 

     Prior to the expansion in 1961, my chosen statistical measure can be misleading because of the concentration of talent, the various live ball and dead ball eras that have gone by, and the fact that pitchers often threw vast numbers of innings relative to contemporary hurlers.  But a few seasons stand out (bold indicates led the league):

 

 

 

Pitcher

W-L ERA RERA IP
1914 Dutch Leonard 19-5 1.00 .366 224.2
1913 Walter Johnson 36-7 1.14 .389 346.0
1906 Mordecai Brown 21-7 1.04 .397 277.0
1912 Walter Johnson 33-12 1.39 .416 369.0
1905 Christy Mathewson 31-9 1.28 .428 338.2
1909 Christy Mathewson 25-6 1.14 .440 275.0
1901 Cy Young 33-10 1.62 .443 371.1
1915 Pete Alexander 31-10 1.22 .444 376.1
1918 Walter Johnson 23-13 1.27 .458 326.0
1919 Walter Johnson 20-14 1.49 .463 290.1
1884 Old Hoss Radbourn 59-12 1.38 .463 678.2
1907 Jack Pfiester 14-9 1.15 .467 195.0
1931 Lefty Grove 31-4 2.06 .470 288.2
1907 Carl Lundgren 18-7 1.17 .476 207.2
1902 Jack Taylor 23-11 1.33 .478 324.2
1908 Addie Joss 24-11 1.16 .486 325.0
1933 Carl Hubbell 23-12 1.66 .519 308.2
1894 Amos Rusie 36-13 2.78 .522 444.0
1884 Guy Hecker 52-20 1.80 .539 670.0
1912 Smokey Joe Wood 34-5 1.91 .572 344.0

 

     In addition, Pete Alexander's 1916 deserves special mention: he went 33-12, posted an ERA o f 1.55 and a relative ERA of 0.598, all in a ballpark - the Baker Bowl - that was all of 280 feet down to the right-field foul pole.  And Big Ed Walsh went 40-15 in 1908, logging 464.0 innings of work (139 more than Joss, his nearest competitor) and posting a miniscule ERA of 1.42 (RERA of 0.594), a tremendous accomplishment for a very high workload.  Jack Chesbro did something very similar back in 1904: a 41-12 record for the Yankees, over 454.2 innings pitched, an ERA of 1.82 (a RERA of 0.70).

     But for sheer relative dominance over an extended cycle of innings pitched, my vote goes to Charlie "Old Hoss" Radbourn, who carried the 1884 Providence Grays on the back of his microscopic ERA of 1.16, when the league average was 2.98 - exactly what it was in 1968.  Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson might have been better in single seasons, but Old Hoss pitched twice the number of innings that the Big Train and Matty put up.

 

 

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