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The Pitching Championship Belt, Part 1

Which of these historic aces wore the undisputed MLB crown?

So, last month, I’m reading The 30 by Jonah Keri, just as I do every Monday afternoon during baseball season. As he got toward the end of this installment, Keri started wondering aloud whether Felix Hernandez was the best pitcher in baseball, given how phenomenal he was through two months of the 2014 season. It got me thinking whether Hernandez has ever been the best pitcher in baseball and how long Clayton Kershaw has been the best pitcher in baseball, and that got me thinking about Justin Verlander and Cliff Lee and CC Sabathia before him.

Then I remembered I had come up with this goofy idea for a running back championship belt before applying the same idea to quarterbacks last year. After spending so much time over the next two days on Baseball-Reference.com that it sent me a restraining order, I had gone all the way back to 1900 and identified the Best Pitcher Alive throughout each of the past 114 seasons of professional baseball. I sent the list around to a small committee (including Mr. Keri) to get brighter minds on the case, changed a few of my choices, and finished up with the list I present to you now.

Before going through the holders of this not-especially-prestigious title, let me first explain my logic. Here are some things to keep in mind:

The goal is to identify the pitcher the majority of baseball fans would have picked as the best pitcher on the planet at the end of the season. You know, Family Feud style. Imagine a poll in the back of Baseball Digest or Sporting News where only people who really cared about baseball responded.

That means we have to measure it in statistics that most fans use. Yes, I think pitcher wins are basically a useless statistic, just like you do. But we’re in the minority. So wins, ERA, strikeouts, and innings pitched are the four numbers I’m relying upon most heavily.

So advanced stats aren’t a huge part of the equation … xFIP is definitely a better measure of a pitcher’s performance than those four traditional statistics. But people also weren’t using it to judge Hal Newhouser against Bob Feller at the time, and that’s what this list is attempting to consider. I’ll use advanced stats occasionally to try to put a player’s performance into the broader context, but as useful as they are, advanced metrics aren’t the primary focus of this discussion. If you want to make a list of which pitcher produced the best WAR in each season, the Baseball-Reference.com play index is happy to assist you.

… and it’s mostly going to include starting pitchers. There are probably a couple of reliever seasons that might be in the running — a stray Mariano Rivera season here, Dennis Eckersley’s peak there — but if you’re picking one player, the best starter beats the best reliever every time.

The most recent season’s performance matters most, but it isn’t necessarily enough to change the titleholder. In 1996, John Smoltz had a career year, going 24-8 with a 2.94 ERA en route to a virtually unanimous Cy Young Award. Greg Maddux, the reigning titleholder, went 15-11 with a 2.72 ERA. Smoltz had the better year in 1996, but who would you consider the ace of that Braves staff and the better pitcher of the two, even at the time? Maddux, of course.

Failing all else, chill. Let’s all have fun out here in Web Content Land. I’ll get to some notable omissions at the end of Part 2 (coming Thursday), but this is an entirely arbitrary exercise. And if you’ve actually read this part of the article without skipping ahead to the list and angrily posting a comment about how stupid I am, I thank you.

In the interest of keeping this article down to something resembling a readable length, I’m going to give 1900–1955 the lightning-round treatment and start with 1956, which marks the debut of the Cy Young Award. There was one Cy Young Award handed out across both leagues between 1956 and 1967, at which point the more familiar practice of Cy Young Awards for each league came about. Below, you can run through the first 56 years of Best Pitcher Alive champions:

As we head into 1956, then, Robin Roberts has been our champion for a whopping five years running, the longest reign since Lefty Grove held the belt1 from 1928 through 1932. Roberts is at the peak of his powers with little reason to think he will suddenly decline … and yet that’s exactly what happens. He leads the league in losses, and while he still manages a winning record at 19-18 and makes the NL All-Star team, he posts a 4.45 ERA that translates to an 83 ERA+. Roberts leads the league in losses again in 1957, and while his career continues for another decade, he never makes another All-Star team or contends for this title again. Who takes over instead? Thought you would never ask.

 

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1956: Don Newcombe

The NL Rookie of the Year in 1949, Newcombe had been among the league’s best starters for three seasons before heading to Korea and missing his age-26 and age-27 seasons. He struggled a bit upon his return in 1954, but he made his fourth All-Star team in 1955 before posting his best season in 1956. Newcombe went 27-7 during a season in which nobody else won more than 21 games, and his 3.06 ERA was ninth in baseball. In a league where the average qualifying starter walked 3.7 batters per nine innings, Newcombe walked a mere 1.5 batters per nine innings, second only to Roberts. He claimed that year’s Cy Young Award and NL MVP, too. The only complaint you can make is that Newcombe was awful in the World Series; he failed to make it to the fourth inning in both of his starts and allowed 11 earned runs in just 4.2 combined innings.

Newcombe had been an All-Star-caliber pitcher for virtually his entire career up to that point. He was never the same guy again, producing average-or-worse seasons over the next three years. By 1961, his major league career was over.

 

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1957-61: Warren Spahn

Spahn had appeared on this list earlier in his career, but after the ascension of Roberts during the 1951 season, Spahn had to settle for being one of the best pitchers in baseball. He led the NL in wins and ERA in 1953, but Roberts was only a half step behind, not far enough to lose the title. It seems unlikely that a 36-year-old would take over the title as baseball’s best pitcher, but Warren Spahn was no mortal hurler. As the ace of the World Series–winning Milwaukee Braves in 1957, Spahn claimed his first Cy Young Award by leading baseball in wins (21) while finishing second in innings pitched and fifth in ERA. Was that the last great hurrah for a future Hall of Famer? Hardly. Spahn proceeded to lead the National League in wins and complete games for each of the next four seasons, finishing no worse than second place in the Cy Young race in three of those four seasons. The only season when his reign was really in question was 1960, when he posted a 3.50 ERA, which translates to a 98 ERA+. He still received four Cy Young votes to the eight of the winner, Pittsburgh’s Vern Law, who wasn’t of Spahn’s caliber as a pitcher, even in the context of the time. Over the five-year run — which, again, included Spahn’s age-36 to age-40 seasons — Spahn was 106-60 with a 3.04 ERA (116 ERA+) in 1,381 IP. That’s averaging 21-12 five years in a row.

Spahn still had two solid years left in his arm, including a 23-win campaign at the age of 42 in 1963, but others surpassed him in 1962. He finishes having been the Best Pitcher Alive for seven seasons across two reigns; nobody else can top that, and only one pitcher still to come matches it.

 

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1962: Don Drysdale

This is really a three-horse race between Drysdale, his Dodgers teammate Sandy Koufax, and Yankees ace Whitey Ford, who had gone 25-4 while winning the Cy Young in 1961. Ford’s ERA improved from 3.21 to 2.90, but as often happens to 25-game winners who don’t get to start nearly 50 games a year like Mathewson or Young, Ford couldn’t keep up his lofty win-loss record, falling to 17-8. (He would be 24-7 in 1963.) Koufax was arguably better than Drysdale on a per-pitch basis, as he posted a 2.54 ERA to Drysdale’s 2.83, but Koufax threw just 184.1 innings and won a mere 14 games while suffering through a hand injury. Drysdale went 25-9 in 314.1 innings, and while the Dodgers lost a three-game pennant tiebreaker to the Giants, Drysdale won 14 of 20 votes for his only Cy Young Award.

Drysdale was just as good in 1963 (19-17, 2.63 ERA) and 1964 (18-16, 2.18 ERA). He didn’t get worse. Sandy Koufax simply turned into Sandy Koufax.

 

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1963-66: Sandy Koufax

It’s become almost impossible to talk about Koufax in this enlightened era of baseball information, because we know too much. His legacy is that of the greatest pitcher of his generation, if not the greatest pitcher who ever lived at his peak. The sepia-toned memories of Koufax all capture him in his peak because arm injuries forced him to retire in his prime at age 30, leaving those who were watching then with no images of a broken-down Koufax throwing junk to get by for, say, the 1970 Washington Senators. And advanced metrics rightly note that a good chunk of Koufax’s majesty comes down to timing, as he spent that peak in a pitcher’s paradise, Dodger Stadium during the mid-1960s. Using Baseball-Reference.com’s wonderful translations,2 here are some notable seasons from the past 20 years, how they would translate to the run environment Koufax enjoyed in 1965, and how Koufax’s incredible 1965 season (26-8, 2.04 ERA, 335.2 IP, 382 K) would look in their times and stadiums:

What’s old is new: Kershaw’s run environment isn’t all that different from Koufax’s all those years ago.

Of course, it’s fairest to say that both sides have a point. Koufax’s numbers were undoubtedly aided by his environment to an extent perhaps unmatched by any post-expansion hurler. He also would have been pretty freaking incredible in any stadium at any time. Over this four-year stretch, Koufax’s average season saw him go 24-7 with a 1.86 ERA (172 ERA+), with 307 K in 298 IP. He won the Cy Young Award three times in four seasons to go along with an MVP award and an unprecedented two Hickok Belts.3 The only other starting pitcher to post an ERA+ over 135 during that time frame was Juan Marichal (152). Koufax is the only player on this list who retired as the Best Pitcher Alive.

 

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1967: Jim Bunning

There was no obvious candidate to replace Koufax immediately upon his retirement, and nobody took a massive step forward in 1967 to become the clear choice as Best Pitcher Alive. With a Cy Young Award handed out to the best pitcher in each league for the first time, the winners were … simply not that special. Both Cy Young winners (Jim Lonborg and Mike McCormick) were previously marginal starters who had out-of-nowhere seasons. Bob Gibson pitched only 175 innings and wasn’t dominant. Tom Seaver was a rookie. Ferguson Jenkins of the Cubs and Joe Horlen of the White Sox were viable candidates, but I think the title would go to Bunning, whose 2.29 ERA was fourth in the league after three consecutive seasons atop the Philadelphia rotation with an ERA under 3.00. He also led the league in innings pitched (302.1) and strikeouts (253). It’s a compromise pick, perhaps, but nobody was going to compare to Koufax. 1967 was also the end of Bunning’s career as an ace; he was traded to the Pirates during the offseason and promptly went 4-14 with a 3.88 ERA. He never posted a below-average ERA again, but did famously rebound to represent Kentucky in both houses of Congress.

 

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1968: Bob Gibson

This is not a fun one to choose. Gibson won the National League MVP and was a unanimous choice as NL Cy Young. Denny McLain won the American League MVP and was a unanimous choice as AL Cy Young. Gibson posted the lowest ERA from a starting pitcher since 1906. McLain was the first pitcher in 34 years to win 30 games.4 Here, you pick:

I pick Gibson, but I’m sure some would have chosen McLain at the time. McLain was actually better than Gibson the following year, as he won the AL Cy Young Award for a second consecutive campaign before disintegrating amid controversy in 1970. Gibson’s ERA rose by a full run, and while that’s still good for a 164 ERA+ in 314 innings of work, he was pipped to the award by the ace of the Miracle Mets.

 

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1969: Tom Seaver

It’s not just that Seaver was great in 1969, when he led the Mets to a stunning World Series title while winning a league-high 25 games and capturing 23 of 24 NL Cy Young votes. It’s that he had never really been anything but good. Seaver was 16-13 with a 2.76 ERA while winning rookie of the year in 1967 and was 16-12 with a 2.20 ERA in 1968 before he went 25-7 with a 2.21 ERA in the championship season. You could make a viable case that Seaver should hold this award through the end of 1973, especially given that he would lead the National League in ERA in three of those four campaigns. There were too many impressive seasons happening elsewhere to keep the belt on Seaver, though, even if Seaver was consistently among the contenders.

 

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1970: Bob Gibson

Seaver had a fantastic season, going 18-12 with a 2.82 ERA and 283 strikeouts. For his efforts, he finished seventh in NL Cy Young voting. Gibson won 23 of 24 Cy Young votes, thanks to a 23-7 record with 274 strikeouts in 294 innings. There was no clear candidate in the AL, where three Baltimore starters received first-place votes in a Cy Young race that eventually went to Twins ace Jim Perry, the Brad Radke of his day.

Gibson would make only one All-Star team (1972) in his five remaining seasons as a pro. That left the door open for …

 

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1971: Vida Blue

It pains me not to give this to Seaver, who posted a ridiculous 1.76 ERA in 286.1 innings for the Mets, but he didn’t even come close to winning the Cy Young. With Seaver a mere 20-10, Ferguson Jenkins won 17 of 24 Cy Young votes by going 24-13 with a 2.77 ERA. And even Jenkins comes up short, because there was a magician hurling in the American League. In his first full season in the majors, Vida Blue was an absolute phenomenon. Blue was second in the American League in wins (24), first in ERA (1.82), first in shutouts (eight), and second in strikeouts (301). Blue won the Cy Young Award and American League MVP, narrowly beating out teammate Sal Bando for the latter.

Blue held out before the 1972 season, missed half the year, and never lived up to those lofty heights again, although he would make five more All-Star teams in a fine career.

 

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1972: Steve Carlton

Seaver has the misfortune of having his worst professional season to this point in 1972, posting a 2.92 ERA that leaves him as a down-ballot Cy Young candidate. The unanimous winner there was Phillies ace Steve Carlton, who had been traded to Philadelphia in a contract dispute the previous winter, after making three All-Star teams as a young starter in St. Louis. All Carlton did was lead the National League in wins (27), ERA (1.97), complete games (30), innings pitched (346.1), and strikeouts (310). He even hit a home run. The Cardinals famously received Rick Wise in the deal, who was roughly a league-average starter in his two seasons with St. Louis. It seems strange to imagine the Phillies winning a trade, but Ruben Amaro Jr. was only 7 years old at this point and surely had only a small amount of influence on Philadelphia’s decision-making at the time.5

Carlton continued to lead the National League in things in 1973; unfortunately, they were losses (20), hits allowed (293), and earned runs (127). We’ll catch up with him later.

 

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1973: Tom Seaver

The title seemingly had to come back to Seaver at some point, and he regained the belt as the Mets made a return trip to the World Series in 1973. Seaver claims his second Cy Young by comfortably leading NL starters in ERA at 2.08 while going 19-10. His toughest competition came from Orioles ace Jim Palmer, who won the AL Cy Young over Nolan Ryan, but I think Seaver’s been so close to the title for so long that he’s almost the pick by default. Now, if we’re talking commercial pitchman abilities? Palmer all day. Look how smooth he is! It’s just a shame he didn’t guest on that Death Grips album. Seaver, meanwhile, is all #toldja and awkward poses in his commercials.

For all his uncontestable brilliance through the first seven years of his career, Seaver really doesn’t have much black ink to his name the rest of the way. He pitches for 13 more seasons, making five All-Star teams, but he leads the league in wins only twice and adds two strikeout titles. Nearly half his bWAR (51.7 of 106.3) is already in the books. Seaver is surpassed in 1974 and never really in the running for this award after he gets traded to Cincinnati in 1977.

 

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1974-75: Catfish Hunter

The new hotness is Catfish, who was coming off three consecutive 21-win seasons while slowly creeping his way toward an AL Cy Young trophy. After finishing fourth in the voting in 1972 and third in 1973, he won the award in 1974 by tying for the major league lead in wins (25) while leading the AL in ERA (2.49) before pitching Oakland to its third consecutive World Series victory. He then became baseball’s first big-money free agent that offseason, after winning his freedom via an arbitrator. Setting a disappointing precedent, he signed with the Yankees. While he didn’t push the Yankees into the playoffs until 1976, Hunter was as good as advertised during his debut season in New York, leading the American League in wins (23) and complete games (30) as he finished second in the Cy Young voting behind Palmer.

Hunter actually had a disappointing season in 1976, going 17-15 with a 3.53 ERA while making his final All-Star team.

 

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1976-77: Jim Palmer

Much as was the case with Seaver, Palmer had been so close to the strap for so long that he was basically going to fall into the title by default at some point. By 1976, he was unquestionably at the zenith of his powers, winning his second consecutive Cy Young Award and his third in four seasons. Furthermore, while he’d been part of a legendary staff with the likes of Mike Cuellar and Dave McNally performing at a similar level in the early ’70s, Palmer had clearly become the undisputed ace of the team by 1976; the only pitcher on the team in his league was Wayne Garland, who was in his first year as a starter. Palmer’s numbers are actually inferior to those of rookie Mark “The Bird” Fidrych’s, as Fidrych6 was ahead of Palmer in terms of ERA (2.34 to Palmer’s 2.51), winning percentage (.679 to Palmer’s .629), and bWAR (9.6 to Palmer’s 6.6), but Palmer’s track record wins the day here. He also retains the title in 1977, when he pitches Carlton, Seaver, and the 1978 champion roughly to a draw.

 

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1978-79: Ron Guidry

If you lived in New York in 1978, you could have gone to see Ron Guidry pitch in an empty Yankee Stadium and had enough time to make it to the Lower East Side to see DNA open up for Television in some empty loft. Now you can’t see anything resembling either of those things in either of those places, but you can get Papa John’s in both spots, which … well, that’s not as good.

Guidry went 25-3 with a 1.74 ERA in 1978, so it wasn’t a contest. In 1979, he was “merely” 18-8, and his ERA rose by more than a run, but it was still good enough to lead the American League. He finished third in Cy Young voting behind Tommy John and winner Mike Flanagan, who had an impressive season that wasn’t in line with his past (or, we would find out, future) performance. Guidry would slip to league-average in 1980 and wouldn’t be in the discussion for this nod again until 1985.

 

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1980-83: Steve Carlton

He’s back! In the seven seasons since he’d last held the Best Pitcher Alive moniker, Carlton won a Cy Young (1977) and made three All-Star teams, but he was always a step or two away from the top spot. In 1980, he wrested the title back with a hugely impressive season. He was first in the National League in wins (24) and second in ERA (2.34) while carrying the league lead in strikeouts by a terrifying margin; he had 286 strikeouts without anybody else making it over the 200-strikeout mark. He won the Cy Young and pitched well in two World Series victories to help Philadelphia prevail over Kansas City.

Carlton pitched well enough (13-4, 2.42 ERA) in the strike-shortened 1981 season to retain the title, even as Fernandomania swept Los Angeles and earned Fernando Valenzuela a Cy Young and rookie of the year combo. And Carlton was back up to form in 1982, winning his fourth and final Cy Young while leading the National League in wins, complete games, shutouts, innings, and strikeouts. (He even posted the best FIP.) The 1983 season is tougher, because Carlton wasn’t especially good. He went 15-16 with a 3.11 ERA (116 ERA+), and I don’t believe there’s a single other season on this list from a pitcher with a losing record. That being said, no other candidate really stands out. The NL Cy Young winner was Carlton’s Phillies teammate John Denny, who led the NL in wins and was second in ERA, but Denny had been a below-average pitcher in three of his previous four seasons and had never even made an All-Star team before his career year at 30. (Scott Kazmir’s 30 and on pace to finish 18-6 with a 2.61 ERA. That might win him the Cy Young, but would anybody say he was the Best Pitcher Alive after that season? Of course not.) Mario Soto was a fringe candidate. LaMarr Hoyt was 24-10 and won the AL Cy Young, but he had a 3.66 ERA; was he really better than Carlton? Hell, Jesse freaking Orosco got a first-place Cy Young vote in 1983. It was his last such vote. He would pitch for 20 more seasons. Orosco was teammates with Ed Kranepool and Shane Victorino. Orosco pitched more innings with a better ERA+ than Max Scherzer has in his career. Orosco has … OK, I need to stop and move on. Jesse Orosco is an entirely different type of list.

 

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1984-85: Dwight Gooden

It seems almost impossible to think that a pitcher straight out of the minors could be the Best Pitcher Alive by the end of his rookie season, but Doc Gooden was no average rookie. He finished 17-9 with a 2.60 ERA, but advanced numbers would look on him kindly. He struck out 11.4 batters per nine innings in an era when that wasn’t your typical middle reliever’s K/9 rate, and in part thanks to Shea Stadium, Gooden allowed just seven homers in 218 innings. The result: Gooden’s FIP during his rookie season was a staggering 1.69. The second-best FIP in the league was Alejandro Pena, then a starter for the Dodgers. He was at 2.61. Gooden’s mark was the best in the post–Archduke Ferdinand era, and it’s been topped only once since. He won rookie of the year and was second in the Cy Young vote to Rick Sutcliffe, who went 16-1 in the NL after being traded midseason.

In 1985, Gooden was 24-4 with a 1.53 ERA. In his second season. You know what happened from there, sadly.

 

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1986-87: Roger Clemens

Gooden’s Mets famously prevailed over Roger Clemens’s Red Sox in the 1986 World Series, but Clemens was the better pitcher of the two. All of Gooden’s peripherals ran in the wrong direction in 1986; his ERA ballooned to 2.84, and while he was great in the NLCS, he allowed eight earned runs in nine innings over two World Series losses. Clemens, meanwhile, went 24-4 with a 2.48 ERA in a stunning breakout season, leading the league in both categories and claiming the Cy Young and league MVP. He was hardly dominant during the postseason, but he pitched well in the crucial Game 7 of the ALCS and allowed one earned run in seven innings during that fateful Game 6 in New York.7 Clemens was again the Cy Young winner in 1987, and while he posted a dominant 2.17 FIP in 1988, nobody knew about BABIP back then. Clemens was good enough to keep the title if nobody stood out as an obvious replacement, but somebody made his way to the front of the line on the West Coast …

 

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1988-89: Orel Hershiser

Orel Hershiser won his first Cy Young on the back of an excellent season for the Dodgers, going 23-8 with a 2.26 ERA. Even more than those numbers, though, Hershiser ensured his title reign with the ancillary stuff. He broke Drysdale’s record by pitching 59 consecutive shutout innings at the end of the season, then followed that by winning MVP awards in both the NLCS and the World Series. To summate: In a 12-start stretch from the beginning of September through the end of October, Hershiser went 11-1 with a 0.65 ERA. That would swing a few voters in his direction. Now, since this is a baseball article on the Internet, look at this blind comparison table:

Eagle-eyed readers will recognize that Player A is Hershiser in 1988. Only the hardiest of Dodgers fans will remember that Player B is Hershiser in 1989. That category off to the right is run support, the average number of runs the Dodgers scored in Hershiser’s starts in each respective season. In 1988, Hershiser went 23-8 and won the Cy Young. In 1989, with nearly one run fewer per game to work with and virtually the same pitching statistics across the board, Hershiser went 15-15 and finished fourth in the Cy Young balloting behind reliever Mark Davis, famed (alleged) scuffer Mike Scott, and 23-year-old Cubs starter Greg Maddux. Bret Saberhagen had a dominant season (23-6, 2.16 ERA) in the AL to win his second Cy Young, but given his relative averageness in between the two awards, I think Hershiser would probably hold him off at the end of 1989. Hershiser would then tear his rotator cuff, and when he returned, it was as an innings-eating midrotation starter.

CLICK HERE FOR PART 2.

Filed Under: MLB, Pitchers, Baseball, Bill Barnwell

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Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell