10 best pitching seasons in my lifetime

The only Cubs news is that the team has brought back Kerry Wood on a 1-year deal. The contract includes a club option for $3 million in 2013. Since there’s not much to talk about regarding the Cubs, I thought I’d post the 10 best pitching seasons in my lifetime as measured by rWAR. I was born in 1974, but since I wasn’t a fan the day I was born I’m going with 1980 as the cutoff point.

10. Jose Rijo, 1993, 8.6 rWAR

Despite Rijo being a very good pitcher in the late 80s and early 90s, this season came out of nowhere. It’s kind of funny at this point to look back and see that his 257.1 innings didn’t even lead the league. His 227 strikeouts and 7.9 K/9 did. He made 36 starts and only completed 2 of them. His 2.48 ERA and 168 ERA+ was among the best in the league, but his 14-9 won-loss record prevented him from finishing higher than 5th in the Cy Young Award voting. The winner that year was Greg Maddux who was 2 rWAR worse than Rijo.

Side note: when I decided to look into this I had 5 seasons in mind. Only one of them wasn’t in the top top 10 so I’ll get to the others. Bret Saberhagen’s 1989 season did not appear in the top 10. It is ranked 11th with 8.6 rWAR so only marginally worse than Rijo and the next pitcher on the list.

9. Justin Verlander, 2011, 8.6 rWAR

I figured this one had to be in the top 10 and it was. Verlander threw a league high 251 innings. He allowed a league best 6.2 H/9 while also leading the league in strikeouts, ERA+ and WHIP. He allowed only .92 runners per 9 innings. He had nearly 200 more strikeouts than walks. He won the Cy Young Award and he also won the American League MVP. The Tigers signed him to a 5-year, $80 million contract that began in 2010. That’s quite a team friendly contract for someone as good as Verlander is.

8. Greg Maddux, 1995, 8.8 rWAR

Maddux doesn’t appear on the list higher than this and not again until 17th. In fact, he only has 3 of the 30 single seasons. Maddux was just consistent year in and year out and was exceptionally good. The 1995 season began late and Maddux made only 28 starts, but completed 10 of them (league high). He was also atop the leaderboard with 19 wins and he only lost twice. He allowed only 147 hits in 209 innings. He walked just 1 batter per 9 inning while striking out 7.9. Yes, His K/BB was 7.9. He had a league best .81 WHIP, 1.63 ERA and 262 ERA+. Despite Maddux not appearing higher on the list, his 1995 season ranks 2nd in ERA+. Desite the shortened seasons, Maddux was worth nearly 9 WAR. I remember going to a bar to watch Maddux pitch that season. I had a long day coming up so I was only going to stay until the game was over. That game lasted about an hour and a half. Despite Maddux’s dominance that night, that was not even the most dominating pitcher performance I watched at that bar. That would be this game.

7. Randy Johnson, 2002, 8.8 rWAR

If you’ve been a fan of this game for more than a decade you surely remember the insane strikeout totals the Big Unit was collecting from 1998 to 2002. 329. 364. 347. 372. 334. Do you remember Crash Davis in Bull Durham talking about the difference between .250 and .300? If not, here it is:

Know what the difference between hitting .250 and .300 is? It’s 25 hits. 25 hits in 500 at bats is 50 points, okay? There’s 6 months in a season, that’s about 25 weeks. That means if you get just one extra flare a week – just one – a gorp… you get a groundball, you get a groundball with eyes… you get a dying quail, just one more dying quail a week… and you’re in Yankee Stadium. — Crash Davis

The difference between RJ’s 372 strikeouts in 2001 and 400 freaking strikeouts is basically one per week. One more strikeout per week. One more called strike. One more foul tip catch. One more swing and miss. One more time the batter can’t pull the trigger.

The thing is, it’s not even the 2001 season that I most remember other than their World Championship. The 2002 season is the one that makes the list and it’s the one I immediately thought of when I thought about writing this. He was atop the leaderboard in wins with 25, a winning percentage of .828, ERA of 2.32 right smack in the middle of an offensive explosion around him, 8 complete games, 260 innings pitched, 334 strikeouts, 1035 batters faced, 197 ERA+ and a K/9 of 11.6, which was less than previous years. It’s mindboggling how fucking good Randy Johnson was over these 5 years, but especially this one. Remember when I said that Verlander nearly had 200 more strikeouts this past season than walks? In 2002 RJ more than 270 strikeouts more than walks. The year before he actually had 301 more strikeouts than walks. Unbelievable.

6. Zack Greinke, 2009, 9.0 rWAR

This one was so recent that I don’t think anybody could forget. I remembered this season for the same reason I remembered Verlander’s 2011. It was just too recent. And not as awesome as I thought. Unlike many of the others on the list, Greinke didn’t lead the league in nearly as many categories on Baseball Reference. He did in WAR, ERA and ERA+. While he struckout an impressive 9.5 per 9 and walked just 2, neither were league bests. His 1.07 WHIP was. Perhaps most impressive is that he was 16-8 on a very bad Royals team. Probably the most important metric that Greinke excelled at was getting people to attend Royals games. I saw a few of his starts that year and the place was packed.

5. Steve Carlton, 1980, 9.4 rWAR

I don’t remember much about this season. Carlton did lead the league in starts, wins, IP, strikeouts, ERA+ and wild pitches. The best season in Carlton’s Hall of Fame career was one of the best pitching seasons ever. He was worth 12.2 rWAR in 1972 at the age of 27. Only Walter Johnson’s 1913 season was more valuable (12.4 rWAR). Carlton was interesting player. He won 4 Cy Young Awards, had 2 tremendous seasons, but a lot of very good seasons for the most part. He went from 4.6 and 4.3 rWAR to 12.2. He then went to 2.3, 4.5, and 2.3. He rebounded a bit to 3.7 and 5.8 the following 2 years, but then dropped to 2.8 and 2.6 before his 9.4 rWAR season.

4. Roger Clemens, 1990, 9.5 rWAR

In 1986 Clemens had won the Cy Young Award and MVP. He nearly did it again in 1990 though he didn’t take home either award. He finished 2nd in Cy voting and 3rd in MVP. Rather than award the best pitcher that season by far, Bob Welch and his 27-6 record took the award. Welch was worth only 2.5 rWAR. Off the top of my head I can only think of the 1990 Cy Young Award winner being more of an joke than Andre Dawson winning the award in 1987. In 1990 Clemen’s 1.93 ERA and 4 shutouts led the league. His ERA+ was 213, he struckout 3.87 batters per walk and allowed only 7 home runs in 228 innings.

3. Pedro Martinez, 2000, 10.1 rWAR

American League teams scored 5.3 runs per game in 2000. The league hit .276/.349/.443. That’s close to an .800 OPS. Pedro allowed 2.32 runs per 9 that year. His ERA 1.74 in a league where the ERA over 4.9. Batters hit just .167/.213/.259 against Pedro in 2000. I think there are a lot of fans who do not realize how unbelievably good Pedro was in his prime. He wasn’t just great. He was very good compared to great pitchers. Brad Radke was 2nd in the AL in rWAR that year. He had 5.6. Randy Johnson was best in the NL. He had 7.6. Pedro was a full 2.5 wins better than the second best pitcher in all of baseball. He was nearly 5 full wins better than the second best pitcher in the American League. His ERA+ was 291. His WHIP was .737. He allowed only 5.3 hits per 9. FIVE POINT THREE! He struckout 11.8 per 9 and walked just 1.3. His 8.88 K/BB obviously lead the world.

There has never been a better pitcher than Pedro Martinez was from 1997-2003. His peak is the best ever. He was the most exciting pitcher to watch. He didn’t walk anybody. He struck everybody out. Nobody could hit him. He was posting ERAs that would have been very good in a low scoring environment and it teams were scoring 5 runs per game. If you didn’t get to enjoy Pedro during these years it’s unfortunate because I don’t believe you’ll ever see a pitcher more dominant than he was the rest of your life.

To think that two of the best 5 to 6 year stretches by a pitcher in baseball history both took place at the same time is amazing. Fans got to witness some of the best offense they’d ever seen and if you paid attention they could also see some of the best pitching they’ll ever see in their lives. Between RJ’s insane strikeout totals and Pedro just complete and total domination of Major League hitters it was a blast. Add in the home runs by Sosa, McGwire, Bonds and others and baseball had never been more fun than it was during those years. Next time you’re watching a ballgame just think to yourself that you’ve already witness the best offensive and pitching seasons you’ll witness in your life. It’s fucking depressing.

2. Roger Clemens, 1997, 10.3 rWAR

Who can forget Roger Clemens in a Blue Jays uniform? It just didn’t look right. It never did. I remember thinking in his first season with the Blue Jays (1997) that it almost looked as if he’d been sent to the minor leagues. I’m sure I was thinking the same thing that Red Sox fans were all throughout that 1997 season: why did the Red Sox let Clemens leave? Clemens led the league in wins, ERA, complete games, shutouts, IP, strikeouts, ERA+, and WHIP.

1. Dwight Gooden, 1985, 11.7 rWAR

Gooden’s 1985 season was 1.4 rWAR better than the second best season since 1980. I don’t know how many of you were fans at the time, but if you were, you were Dr. K fans. I knew this would be the best season when I started this. It had to be. Dwight Gooden was the best pitcher I ever saw in my life. When Doc was on, he was unhittable, which made what Tuffy Rhodes accomplished against him that much more special. 1986 was only Gooden’s second in the big leagues. He was only 20 years old and despite his age he would throw a league leading 276 innings. He also led the league in wins, complete games, ERA, strikeouts and ERA+. Between the ages of 19 and 21 Gooden threw nearly 750 innings. It’s no wonder his arm fell off and he was never the same. That’s too bad because I’m pretty sure he’d have gone on to become the best pitcher in baseball history.