In it’s history, baseball has bared witness to countless spectacular season performances on the mound. In that time, the game has evolved many times over, as have the hurlers who have graced the rubber of America’s timeless classic. In baseball’s infancy, the pitcher ruled, as wins soared and ERA’s plummeted. Pitchers dominated in such a way prior to the turn of the century, the mound was pushed down five inches to literally even the playing field. This change – and the introduction of genetically enhancing drugs – led to the hitter’s era; a time where the home run ruled and dominant pitching was scant. Today, a delicate balance has seemingly been found.
Regardless of the era, dominant pitchers have prospered. In fact, some of baseball’s greatest arms have put up seasons so impressive, hitters may well have been better off not leaving the dugout. While there have been far too many brilliant pitching seasons to recall, here is a list of the very best.
10. Cy Young, 1901 Americans
33-10, 1.62 ERA, 371.1 IP, 324 H, 37 BB, 158 SO, 6 HR
Every so often, a sports figure becomes much more than just a name. In baseball, one of those figures was Cy Young. The name itself transcends baseball, specifically pitching. Often seen as one of the game’s ambassadors, Young help take baseball from its earliest stages to the popular sport we know and love today. Pitching for the Boston Americans in 1901, Young finished the season with a 33-10 record and a 1.62 ERA, while winning the pitching Triple Crown. Of course, it’s no wonder why Cy Young’s name is etched on baseball’s most prestigious pitching award each year.
9. Sandy Koufax, 1966 Dodgers
27-9, 1.73 ERA, 323 IP, 241 H, 77 BB, 317 SO, 19 HR
Sandy Koufax was undoubtedly one of the greatest pitchers in baseball. Unfortunately, he was forced into early retirement in 1966 at the age of 30 after being diagnosed with traumatic arthritis two years prior. While his exit from baseball was premature, Koufax finished his career in the most dominating way possible. After being told his arm could not possibly take on the load of another baseball season, Koufax proceeded to pitch his best season ever. He pitched 27 complete games in 41 appearances, while leading the league with a career-best 1.73 ERA and winning the Triple Crown for the second straight season. Koufax’s Dodgers fell short of winning back-to-back championships, losing to the Baltimore Orioles in four games. After the loss, Koufax announced his retirement.
8. Roger Clemens, 1997 Blue Jays
21-7, 2.05 ERA, 264 IP, 204 H, 68 BB, 292 SO, 9 HR
There is a case to be made that Roger Clemens may have been the greatest pitcher ever to set foot on a major league mound. In 24 seasons, Clemens went 354-184 with a career ERA of 3.12 and 4,672 strikeouts. Clemens also appeared in 11 All-Star games, and earned a record seven Cy Young Awards – all during baseball’s age of steroid-fueled offense. Ironically enough, Clemens also was an integral part of the steroid age, widely accused of steroid use later in his career.
Controversy aside, Clemens dominated the 1990’s like no other. In 1997, Clemens had perhaps his best season, striking out 292 hitters in 264 innings of work. Clemens also held hitters to a meager .213 batting average, while the league average was an impressive .271. Clemens also took home his fourth Cy Young award in 1997, while earning the first of back-to-back Triple Crowns.
7. Randy Johnson, 2001 Diamondbacks
21-6, 2.49 ERA, 249.2 IP, 181 H, 71 BB, 372 SO, 19 HR
Randy, the Big Unit, Johnson dwarfed hitters like no other pitchers could dream of during his 20-year reign. Standing 6-feet, 10-inches, fully equipped with a mullet and a mustache, Johnson quickly developed a reputation as a menace to opposing hitters.
Behind a fearless sneer and a leather mitt plastered before his face, Johnson’s triple-digit fastballs and knee-buckling breaking balls left hitters virtually helpless – even in the golden age of offense. But in 2001, hitters simply didn’t have a chance. The tall lefty went 21-6 that season while recording a league best 2.49 ERA. Johnson also pitched the Diamondbacks to a World Series victory over the Yankees alongside fellow pitching legend Curt Schilling. Johnson also tallied a total of 372 strikeouts that season, becoming only the third pitcher in the modern era to reach 370 strikeouts, and the only pitcher to do so in the last 40 years.
6. Dwight Gooden, 1985 Mets
24-4, 1.53 ERA, 276.2 IP, 198 H, 69 BB, 268 SO, 13 HR
Dwight Gooden’s 1985 season was easily one of the most dominant pitching performances in history. Gooden led baseball in ERA (1.53), strikeouts (268), complete games (16), and innings pitched (276.2). For stretches of time, Gooden was literally unhittable. He once went an unfathomable seven straight games, spanning 49 consecutive innings, without allowing a single earned run. In 35 games pitched, all but two were quality starts.
While Gooden’s 1985 season was one for the record books, what made it all the more impressive was that he was just 20 years old at the time. Having won the NL Rookie of the Year Award the previous season, Gooden quickly proved he was no fluke in his sophomore campaign – fostering unequivocal enthusiasm for the potential stardom that lay ahead. But while Gooden found success in three World Series rings and four All-Star appearances, arm troubles and reported substance abuse hampered his chances at being an all-time great pitcher. Gooden would never again have a season like that of his 1985 campaign.
5. Steve Carlton, 1972 Phillies
27-10, 1.97 ERA, 346.1 IP, 257 H, 87 BB, 310 SO, 17 HR
In 1972, the Philadelphia Phillies won 59 total games. Steve Carlton, the team’s ace pitcher, recorded 27 of those wins in one of the most dominant seasons ever by a starting pitcher. A year after coming to Philadelphia in one of the most lopsided trades in baseball history, Carlton quickly established himself as the most dominant pitcher in baseball. And while Carlton would eventually go on to win four Cy Young Awards and a second World Series win, his 1972 season was unquestionably his best.
Carlton held hitters to a .207 batting average, completed 30 of his 41 starts, and led the league in strikeouts (310) and ERA (1.97). Carlton might also be the best pitcher to ever record double-digit losses in a season, largely because of the futility of Philadelphia’s offense. After starting the season 5-1, Carlton went on to lose five straight games as the Phillies managed only 10 total runs in those games. Despite the lack of run support, Carlton still remains the last NL pitcher to win 25 or more games.
4. Walter Johnson, 1913 Senators
36-7, 1.14 ERA, 346 IP, 232 H, 38 BB, 243 SO, 9 HR
Possibly the greatest pitcher of all time, Walter Johnson fittingly put up one of the greatest statistical pitching seasons of all time in 1913. Of course, 1913 was just one of a number of seasons in which Johnson dominated baseball, as he put up similar numbers in 1912, 1915, 1918, and 1919.
Johnson’s 1.14 ERA in 1913 marks the second best single season ERA to date, and his 36 wins rank as the third most in a season since the turn of the century. Johnson was also revolutionary on the mound, mastering the art of the strikeout and introducing power pitching as a newfound way to record outs. Johnson also completed 29 of his 36 appearances, while leading the league with 243 strikeouts and 11 shutouts. Johnson went on to win the MVP award, edging out ‘Shoeless’ Joe Jackson.
3. Greg Maddux, 1995 Braves
19-2, 1.63 ERA, 209.2 IP, 147 H, 23 BB, 181 SO, 8 HR
If this were a list titled “Pitchers with the best command,” Greg Maddux would be head and shoulders above his competition. Maddux didn’t have the most dominant arsenal of pitches, but he certainly knew what pitches to throw at the right times, and where to throw them. Raw talent aside, Maddux was probably the greatest to ever touch a rubber.
In 1995, Maddux pitched one of the greatest seasons the baseball world has ever seen, recording the third lowest ERA (1.63) since Bob Gibson’s historic 1.12 mark in 1968. Maddux’s 19-2 mark propelled his Braves to a 15th consecutive postseason birth, ending in a World Series victory. The season also marked a record fourth consecutive season in which Maddux won the Cy Young Award. To add to the insanity of his season, the two losses marked the fewest losses ever recorded by a pitcher with 19 or more wins.
2. Bob Gibson, 1968 Cardinals
22-9, 1.12 ERA, 304.2 IP, 198 H, 62 BB, 268 SO, 11 HR
1968 will always be remembered as the year of the pitcher. It was a year in which pitchers held a collective 2.98 ERA, while hitters averaged just .237. Seven pitchers recorded ERAs of less than 2.00 and tallied at least 20 win seasons. Luis Tiant, Sam McDowell, and Denny McLain all were among pitchers who dominated the game unlike any other year, while McLain is still the last pitcher to reach the 30-win mark in baseball.
But in a year defined by great pitching, no one was better than the great Bob Gibson of the St. Louis Cardinals. Gibson set a new live-ball era record with his staggering 1.12 ERA, which was the third lowest average in baseball history, and will likely remain so throughout the rest of time.
1. Pedro Martinez, 2000 Red Sox
18-6, 1.74 ERA, 217 IP, 128 H, 32 BB, 284 SO, 17 HR
Nasty. If you had just one word to describe Pedro Martinez, that’s it. Nasty. When he first entered the league, Pedro Martinez was an afterthought. But it took little time for the lanky five-foot, 11-inch Dominican pitcher to stun the baseball world, specifically the hitters he faced.
It’s hard to choose which season Pedro was ‘nastiest,’ but his 2000 campaign likely was not only his best season ever, but also was the most dominant pitching season baseball has ever seen. In the 2000 season, Martinez led the league with a career-best 1.74 ERA, nearly three points less than the league average 4.91 ERA and two points better than Roger Clemens’ second best ERA of 3.70. Despite recording only 18 wins, Martinez was absolutely dominant, even in losses. In his six losses, Martinez had 60 strikeouts with an ERA of 2.44. In wins, he was even better.
However, what makes Martinez’s 2000 season the best pitching season ever is the dominance relative to the era he pitched. The year 2000 was in the thick of an era defined by power and, unfortunately, steroids. That season, 16 players hit more than 40 home runs, while 53 players hit .300 or better. In 2013, only two players slugged 40 home runs or more, and just 24 players hit above .300. All told, the offensive era in which Pedro Martinez pitched and the pure dominance of his pitches make his 2000 season the most dominant pitching season ever.