I think that all of us, myself definitely included, fall in love with dominant seasons from a pitcher. Or rather, I should say, we fall in love with a given pitcher thanks to their dominance. I know this was the case with myself and Kyle Hendricks in 2016. He’d always been a pitcher I liked and thought was a really good undervalued starter. Then in 2016, he was dominant and as the year went on he became a pitcher whose flag I waved heading into any argument over the best pitchers in baseball. In the case of Hendricks, and so many others, it ends up being more than one season of dominance, but still, it is that one unforgettable season that is so often used to frame their careers.
With that in mind, I fired up Baseball Reference and went in search of the greatest single season by a pitcher in the history of Major League Baseball. However, with all due respect to the deadball era, I felt it was a little unfair to include guys from the era when they were starting 80+ games a year and not playing against the very best that baseball had to offer (sincerest of apologies to Pud Galvin and his WAR of 20.8 for the 1884 Buffalo Bisons). My search criteria ended up being the years 1947-2018 with a minimum of 25 games. That search yielded twenty-three times when a pitcher accumulated a WAR of 10.0 or higher over the entire season.
It’s important to note that since I am using Baseball Reference for this search and list that their version of pitcher WAR is calculated differently. The main difference between Baseball Reference’s rWAR for pitchers is that their base starting statistic is ERA. This leads to a much different outcome than say, Fangraphs, who uses FIP as their base starting stat. This essentially means that Baseball Reference is interested mainly in the raw take of a pitcher allowing runs. Conversely, Fangraphs is interested in how a pitcher fares independent of his fielders. Because of this, a search for the top pitcher according to fWAR would yield different results than the list I am about to write discuss, so just keep that in mind.
There are many familiar names in the top twenty-three, and a few names I was not expecting. Aaron Nola showing up at #12 with a WAR of 10.5 for his 2018 season with the Philadelphia Phillies was extremely unexpected. The pitcher I expected to see from 2018 was Jacob deGrom, but it turns out that in terms of bWAR Nola was almost a full game better as a pitcher in 2018 than deGrom was. I definitely was not expecting Wilbur Wood to make the list twice, first at #4 and again at #9, with WARs of 11.8 and 10.7 respectively for his 1971 and 1972 seasons with the Chicago White Sox.
The rest of the list was full of the names we’d all expect to see. Roger Clemens shows up twice, posting WARs of 11.9 and 10.5, and placing 3rd and 13th for his efforts with the Toronto Blue Jays in 1997 and Boston Red Sox in 1990. It is somewhat surprising to see Clemens’ season with the Blue Jays so high but that’s mainly because for me the Blue Jays years have been erased from Clemens history and I only ever see him in a New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, or Houston Astros jersey in my mind. Bob Gibson also appears twice, for his 1968 and 1969 seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals. His WARs of 11.2 in 1968 and 10.4 in 1969 were good enough for 6th and 15th place on the list. There are also multiple appearances from Randy Johnson, Sandy Koufax, Pedro Martinez, and Steve Carlton.
All told the list of twenty-three is a nice mixture of players who had great careers, those who put together a great run for a few years, young stars who still have the chance to expand the list, and the outlier who was elite for one year and then no more. It’s what you would expect from a baseball list, especially one spanning from 1947 to the present. The player at #1, well, it doesn’t surprise me that he’s on this list, but I guess I never thought his 1985 season was best of all time dominant.
According to bWAR the best pitching season of all-time belongs to Dwight Gooden and his WAR of 12.2 in 1985 for the New York Mets. I should clarify that it is no surprise that Gooden was great, I recall watching him embarrass my Chicago Cubs quite often as a very young tyke. I also recall my Grandpa telling me how great Doc’s stuff was and how he was one of the best in the game. But, his 1985 season occurred when I was only 4 and thus was just a bit before the window of me knowing what the heck I was watching when I had a baseball game on in front of me.
Just how dominant was Gooden’s 1985 sophomore season? He appeared in 35 games, threw 16 complete games, and had 8 shutouts. In 276.2 innings he struck out 268 while only walking 69 batters. He led the National League in ERA at 1.68 and ERA+ at 229. His ERA+ ranks as 6th best of all-time using the same criteria as the WAR list. He recorded a FIP of 2.13 and a WHIP of 0.965 behind a H/9 of 6.6 and BB/9 of 3.0. These are all impressive, but that should be expected for the best single season ever recorded by a pitcher.
There’s also the eye test, and scouring YouTube for clips or full games that Gooden pitched in 1985 reveals a pitcher who was better than just about everyone who stepped to the plate against him. He mainly relied on his fourseam fastball and giant hook of a curveball. That’s all he needed though because he could locate his fastball on the inner half of the plate like no other and his curveball was known for its knee-buckling capabilities. I cannot stress enough just how overmatched hitters look against Gooden’s stuff in 1985; it’s something special to watch.
Doc ended up winning the National League Cy Young in 1985, and though most at the time recognized his season as a great one it took some time for people to realize the other level Gooden achieved that year. His spot at #1 is the only time Gooden appears on the list, but it’s the only appearance he needs. On a list of nothing but dominant seasons, Gooden’s 1985 is the most dominant of them all and still ranks as the greatest season ever by a pitcher in the modern integrated era.Next post: A Positive Revision to Miguel Cabrera’s Legacy
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