Let The Big Train Rumble 
by Tim Connelly

There are many ways of looking at the greatness of a pitcherís season. What I wanted to do in this article was to spend a little time evaluating the very best way of looking at a pitcher while determining which pitcher had the greatest season ever.

I am going to start from a small list of great seasons and expand the search from there:

In 1968, Bob Gibson had the lowest ERA of any pitcher in this century who threw at least 300 innings. Anytime you accomplish something beyond what anybody else has done, youíve done good. But the question becomes, how great an accomplishment is Gibsonís feat? Here is a list of the top 15 all time with at least 300 innings. 

ERA

 

 

YEAR

ERA

IP

Bob 

Gibson 

1968 

1.12 

305 

Walter 

Johnson 

1913 

1.14 

346 

Addie 

Joss 

1908 

1.16 

325 

Grover

Alexander

1915

1.22

376

George

Bradley

1876

1.23

573

Ed

Walsh

1910

1.27

369.2

Walter

Johnson

1918

1.27

326

Christy

Mathewson

1905

1.28

338.2

Jack

Coombs

1910

1.3

353

10 

Three Finger

Brown

1909

1.31

342.2

11 

Jack

Taylor

1902

1.33

324.2

12 

Walter

Johnson

1910

1.36

370

13

Old Hoss

Radbourn

1884

1.38

678.2

14

Walter

Johnson

1912

1.39

369

15

Ed

Walsh

1908

1.42

464

 
Gibson threw 13 shutouts that season. He completed 28 out of 34 games. He set a World Series record. that still stands today: 17 strikeouts in a game. Gibsonís year was beyond fantastic.

It can be argued that his record was only 22-9. But weíre going to step around that and say that runs were at an all-time low. He pitched in a pitchers park in a pitchers era. That had to help.

But when looking at his ERA against the league average, it is still the best ever of any pitcher throwing at least 250 innings.

ERA

 

 

YEAR

RATE

PLAYER

LEAGUE

1

Bob

Gibson

1968

266

1.12

2.98

2

Walter

Johnson

1913

256

1.14

2.92

3

Three Finger

Brown

1906

253

1.04

2.63

4

Walter

Johnson

1912

240

1.39

3.34

5

Dwight

Gooden

1985

235

1.53

3.60

6

Christy

Mathewson

1905

235

1.28

2.99

7

Christy

Mathewson

1909

226

1.14

2.59

8

Cy

Young

1901

225

1.62

3.66

9

Grover

Alexander

1915

225

1.22

2.74

10

Roger

Clemens

1997

224

2.05

4.57

11

Dean

Chance

1964

220

1.65

3.63

12

Walter

Johnson

1918

218

1.27

2.77

13

Ron

Guidry

1978

217

1.74

3.78

14

Walter

Johnson

1919

217

1.49

3.22

15

Old Hoss

Radbourn

1884

216

1.38

2.98

 We know that 1968 was the ďYear of the PitcherĒ so the tendency is to lower our evaluation of Gibson based on that. But actually there have been more than 25 seasons just since 1900 where the league ERA was lower than the National League ERA of 2.99 that season. And it wasnít like there were lots of other pitchers with terribly a low ERA, the second lowest mark in the league was by Bobby Bolin who had an ERA of 1.99. Terrific yes, but still 87 points behind Gibson.

So weíre going to move from Gibson aware that the conditions helped but also aware that this is not some kind of a meaningless statistical illusion.

The greatness of Lefty Groveís 1931 season would seem to rest on his winning 31 games with only 4 losses. Actually Denny McLain won the same number of games, while pitching many more innings with a slightly lower ERA in 1968. McLain lost 2 extra games but thatís not really what separates the 2 seasons. Grove had a 2.06 ERA when the league was at 4.38. So the real greatness of Groveís season rests on the combination of a great record and a great ERA, once it is placed in perspective.

The job of a pitcher is not only to prevent the other team from scoring: It is also to manage his allowance of runs in such a way as to bring victory to his team as often as possible. Nobody has ever done that quite as well as he did during a season where they won that many games. But pitchers do not start from an even base. The Athletics were a great team even when Grove was not pitching. There record was 76 and 41 in the decisions Grove was not involved in. Thatís a winning percentage of .650. Groveís winning percentage was .886!

Still, all things considered, I would rank Groveís season below Gibsonís.

Steve Carlton won 27 and lost 10 in 1972. Thatís an excellent record but it's not that special. Note the pitcher we just talked about.

But Steve pitched for a miserable team. The Phillies won only 32 games when Carlton wasnít on the mound! The team was an unbelievable 32 and 87 in the decisions he was not a part of. That's a winning percentage of .269. That's within a stone's throw of being at the bottom for any modern team: The NY Mets of 1962 had a winning percentage of .250.

The Phillies finished next to last in runs scored and were better at pitching than at hitting. I mention that to show he wasnít a great pitcher playing for a lousy pitching team that gave good offensive support. At least if they did give him good offensive support, it was a matter of some luck: This was a lousy hitting ball club.

I give Carlton a lot of credit. To be able to win on a team as lousy as the Phillies were is a heck of an accomplishment. But I would have to say that ďwins above team,Ē while a very interesting stat, is not the final word. Carlton was pitching far away from the pressures of a pennant race. Even though he pitched some great baseball, the fact that every game he pitched after the all-star game had no bearing on his team even getting out of last place, makes me feel like it could never be rated as the greatest season ever. He also led the league in ERA with a very nice 1.97 but his ERA was only the league's best by 2 points. This was a great, great season and I won't quarrel with anybody who rates his accomplishment a little higher than I do.

Walter Johnsonís 1913 season has to get my vote for the best season ever. I think the key to being a strong student of the game is to be open to looking at everything. So rather than looking at one thing, Iím trying to focus my vision on the bigger picture. Johnsonís ERA is within a couple of points Of Gibsonís. In fact many old writings refer to his ERA as 1.09. And his record is comparable to Groveís. He was either 34 and 7 or 36 and 7. Different encyclopedias list his win total differently. With his ERA on the same block as Gibsonís and a winning percentage pretty close to Groveís, it looks like The Big Train is the big man!

Here is a list of the top 15 pitchers in winning percentage with at least 27 wins:

W%

 

 

YEAR

PCT

W

1

Lefty

Grove

1931

0.886

31

2

Joe

Wood

1912

0.872

34

3

Lefty

Grove

1930

0.848

28

T4

Denny

McLain

1968

0.838

31

T4

Bill

Hoffer

1895

0.838

31

6

Walter

Johnson

1913

0.837

36

7

Old Hoss

Radbourn

1884

0.831

59

T8

Jim

Hughes

1899

0.824

28

T8

Jack

Chesbro

1902

0.824

28

T8

Dazzy

Vance

1924

0.824

28

11

Bob

Welch

1990

0.818

27

12

Joe

McGinnity

1904

0.814

35

13

Dizzy

Dean

1934

0.811

30

14

Eddie

Cicotte

1919

0.806

29

T15

Robin

Roberts

1952

0.800

28

T15

Mickey

Welch

1885

0.800

44

 
He also shares a common characteristic with Carlton: his team was 54 wins and 57 losses in the games he did not get the decision. But with Walter's record tacked on the Senators were 90 and 64 for a second place finish in the league.

Walter led in more departments than any pitcher in baseball history. Here is his ranking among the league leaders:

1913 AL
WINS 1ST 36
WINNING PERCENTAGE 1ST .837
GAMES T2ND 48
GAMES STARTED T2ND 36
COMPLETE GAMES 1ST 29
GAMES FINISHED T9TH 11
INNINGS PITCHED 1ST 346
STRIKEOUTS 1ST 243
ERA 1ST 1.14
RSAA 1ST 74
HOMERUNS T1ST 9
HITS/9 IP 1ST 6.03
BASERUNNERS/9 IP 1ST 7.26
STRIKEOUTS/9 IP 1ST 6.32
WALKS/9 IP 1ST .99
STRIKEOUTS/WALKS 1ST 6.39
SHUTOUTS 1ST 11
BATTERS FACED 1ST 1305
NEUTRAL WINS 1ST 37

There have been some phenomenal seasons that I didnít mention here. Smokey Joe Wood went 34 and 5 for the 1912 Boston Red Sox. Greg Maddux and Pedro Martinez had some fantastic seasons: Martinez in the year 2000 had the highest ERA above the league average in major league history. If he had pitched more innings, I would have to give him serious consideration for having the greatest season ever. But with Walter Johnson consistently going all 9 and pitching more than 125 more innings than Pedro, I think his 1913 season surpasses any other season in baseball history.

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