10 Best Seasons by Pitchers

Walter Johnson – 1913 (age 27)WalterJohnsonPitching

Won-Lost Record 36-7 ERA 1.14 11 Shutouts (best of the 10 best seasons by pitchers)

Walter Johnson was among the most dominating pitchers ever to pick up a baseball. His best season easily qualifies as one of the 10 best seasons by pitchers. In his 1913 season he was the winning pitcher in 40% of his team’s victories. No one in the 108 years since has even come close to his league-leading 36 victories. Only once since has his league-leading shutout total of 11 been surpassed. His microscopic 1.14 ERA led the league and has only been surpassed once since. Johnson led the league in complete games and strikeouts. His record 6.39 strikeout/walk ratio stood for 58 years. He was the MVP. Johnson shut out the opposition 1 out of every 4 starts. In his career he started 666 games and pitched a shutout in 110 of them. Every sixth start was as shutout.

Bob Gibson 1968 (age 32)

Won-Lost Record 22-9 ERA 1.12 13 Shutouts

Bob Gibson was an intimidating pitcher whose presence as well as his pitching were key him having the second-most career strikeouts at his retirement. In 1968 Gibson’s domination reached its zenith, shutting out an all-time record of 13 opponents while surrendering barely 1 run per game. For the remaining 21 games he was 9-9 with a 1.80 ERA. In three of his losses he gave up just 1 earned run, in three others just 2 earned runs. Gibson pitched over 40 consecutive scoreless innings. Being on a weak-hitting team meant that even one run scored by his opposition could easily lead to a loss which makes this season even more remarkable. He won both the Cy Young award and the MVP award. Many believe this was the best season ever by a pitcher. Almost nobody would say it isn’t among the 10 best seasons by pitchers.

Dwight Gooden 1985 (age 20)

Won-Lost Record 24-4 ERA 1.53 8 Shutouts

Dwight Gooden’s season for the ages followed his spectacular rookie year (1984) where, at age 19, he was 17-9 and won the rookie of the year award. In 1985 at the tender age of 20 Gooden compiled one of the most dominant seasons in history. He led the league in wins, strikeouts, and ERA. His ERA was the second-best in the past 100 years (the live-ball era). He won the Cy Young award and finished 4th in the MVP voting. His curve ball was so unhittable that it became known as “lord charles” instead of the traditional “uncle charlie” moniker. He threw 49 consecutive innings without allowing an earned run in this incredible year.

Ron Guidry 1978 (age 27)

Won-Lost Record 25-3 ERA 1.74 9 Shutouts

Among the 10 best seasons by pitchers this may be the most surprising. In just his second major-league year as a starter (converted from a reliever), Ron Guidry set the all-time record for highest win percentage of .893 by a 20-game winner. He lived up to his nickname of “Louisiana Lightning” striking out 268 batters on the year. His 25th and final win of the regular season clinched the division title for his team. He won the Cy Young award and was 2nd in league MVP voting. He won the playoff game he started and garnered a complete game victory in the world series game he pitched. His post-season ERA was under 1.10 for the two post-season games.

Sandy Koufax 1963 (age 27)

Won-Lost Record 25-5 ERA 1.88 11 Shutouts

In 1963 Sandy Koufax had the breakout year that established him as the most dominant pitcher in baseball. His 25-5 record, 306 strikeouts, 1.88 ERA, and 11 shutouts – all lead the major leagues. This led to him being voted the winner of the Cy Young Award and Most Valuable Player Award. He led his team (the Dodgers), to victory in the world series by pitching two complete-game wins, allowing just three runs in those 18 innings. Sandy Koufax had 3 or 4 years that could qualify among the 10 best seasons by pitchers.

Dean Chance 1964 (age 23)

Won-Lost Record 20-9 ERA 1.65 11 Shutouts

Playing with precious little run support (only three major league teams had worse hitting that year), Chance combined guile and a tremendous arsenal of pitches to shut out 11 opponents, compile one of the lower ERA’s of the modern era, and have a sensational season on a relatively poor team. He won the Cy Young award and was fifth in MVP voting. His sinking fastball, sweeping curve, and slider caused Mickey Mantle to say that year, “Every time I see his name on a lineup card I throw up”. Chance had a good fastball and even threw a changeup screwball. During his delivery he turned his back to the hitter.

Steve Carlton 1972 (age 27)

Won-Lost Record 27-10 ERA 1.97 8 Shutouts

Hall-of-Famer Steve Carlton had many excellent seasons and won 4 Cy Young awards as the best pitcher in the league (including the 1972 award). 1972 is far above the rest because of his win total, his very low ERA, and the fact that his team batted just .236 – near the bottom of the league. He lead the league in victories, strikeouts, and innings pitched. Carlton won 27 of the paltry total of 59 victories his team accumulated during the season. The team was 32-87 in games he did not pitch. Carlton accounted for almost 45.8% of his team’s victories…the all-time single-season record in the modern era.

Greg Maddux 1995 (age 29)

Won-Lost Record 19-2 ERA 1.63 10 Shutouts

In an era where baseballs had begun to fly out of stadiums regularly, courtesy of a juiced ball and a few juiced players, Maddux had the lowest ERA of his career and won his 4th Cy Young award. This season was a masterpiece of domination featuring an unimpressive fastball but a dazzling level of control of his entire repertoire. Maddux walked just 23 batters and was almost never hit hard. He led the league in innings pitched, complete games, and ERA. He also was 3-1 in the post season, leading his team to a world series championship. His taming of the otherwise homer-happy batters he faced each week made him a shoo-in pick among the 10 best seasons by pitchers.

Lefty Grove 1916 (age 31)

Won-Lost Record 31-4 ERA 2.06 4 Shutouts

Grove led the league in several statistical categories and led his team to the world series. Sportswriters voted him the most valuable player in baseball. In addition to amassing 31 wins he also saved 5 games as a reliever. His league-leading 31 victories has been matched only once in the subsequent 90 years. Grove led the league in ERA despite the baseball having been “livened up” just one year earlier. Lefty also led the league in strikeouts, shutouts, complete games, and of course, victories. His .886 win percentage was the highest in the modern era for a 20-game winner and stood for 47 years until broken by Ron Guidry in 1978.

Babe Ruth 1916 (age 21)

Won-Lost Record 23-12 ERA 1.75 9 Shutouts

Yes! That Babe Ruth. The most prolific slugger ever was first a force to be reckoned for other hitters in 1916. He even secured a place on our list of the 10 best seasons by pitchers. He set the league record for a left-hander with 9 shutouts. This went unmatched until 62 years later by Ron Guidry. The Babe’s tiny 1.75 ERA also led the league. He batted .272 with 3 home runs, 5 triples, and 5 doubles. Ruth won 4 of 5 games he pitched against the great Walter Johnson. He pitched 13 scoreless innings in the world series, helping his team win.

If you enjoyed this. Go ahead and read more of our blog posts.

-Jeff Linroth

4 Comments

  1. Scotty says:

    Pitchers can have extreme highs and lows in performance

  2. PR says:

    I’m curious about your definition of “best”- W/L record? ERA? Most strikeouts? Just curious.

    • Jeff Linroth says:

      I considered ERA with win/loss pct. and shutouts. Being among the strikeout leaders also helped. I also gave a lot of weight to how much run support you received…if you consistently pitched well knowing that your team’s bats were not likely to help you much, you responded well to pressure and had to dominate to win. For the opposite reason, I believe shutouts are vastly underrated because they do many things at once:
      1 Your entire pitching staff gets a day of rest.
      2 No pressure on offense. Score only 1 run and your team wins.
      3 The other team can’t help but be somewhat demoralized (which can carry over to the next game of a series)
      4 They help a pitcher build and keep momentum. The next team that faces him knows what happened to the last team.

      – Jeff Linroth

  3. Dale S says:

    Great presentation. Liked it a lot.

    This, Jeff, was well thought out and well done. I liked your choice of the ten.

    I certainly like Bob Gibson, who was responsible for changing the height of the pitcher’s mound.

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