For baseball, the new year began with the debut of the 24-hour-a-day MLB Network, and it has been a welcome tonic for The Void, that generally dark (and this winter, wickedly frigid here in Cooperstown) purgatory between seasons. I don't know how I missed the network's inaugural telecast of Don Larsen's World Series perfect game, but I hope they'll see fit to show it again. Like ESPN in its infancy, the MLB Network is relying on a lot of pre-packaged programming, but their lineup includes such treasures as Ken Burns' documentary, recent postseason games, and Lew Fonseca's breezy newsreel summaries of 1940s World Series.
Apart from their "Hot Stove" nightly studio recap and discussion of current baseball, the network's only original programming so far is a show titled "Prime 9." Each show lists and details the top 9 in a certain baseball category. Here are the subjects covered to date: centerfielders, shortstops, rookie seasons, "characters," unbreakable records, pitching seasons, and hitting seasons (I may have missed one or two). I hope to comment on all of their rankings, and will start with their show on the best individual pitching seasons since 1900.
Of their nine chosen seasons, seven are also amongst the 25 I detailed in my book "UNHITTABLE!" One difference was unavoidable. My book went through the 1999 season, so I chose Pedro Martinez's 1999 season while MLB Network chose his 2000 season. More on Pedro later. The other difference is that I went with 1905 for Christy Mathewson instead of their 1908. Both were fantastic years, but in 1908 Mathewson's season ended with his disastrous loss to the Cubs in the pennant-deciding game; his 1905 season ended with his glorious three shutouts of the Athletics in six days in a victorious World Series.
In "UNHITTABLE!" I deliberately avoided ranking the seasons, but I did provide a hint about my feelings on the front cover. Along the left-hand edge are photos of five left-handed pitchers, with five righties pictures on the right-hand edge. From top to bottom, they represent my picks for the top five seasons from each side. Of those ten choices, six also made the MLB Network's "Prime 9" list. For the most part we were on the same wavelength.
When asked what I think is the best post-1900 pitching season, my answer is Walter Johnson's 1913. He began the season by allowing a run in his first inning, then reeling off 56 consecutive shutout, setting a record that lasted until 1968. He won his first ten decisions and allowed only two earned runs in his first 70 innings. At the tail end of the season, he had another stretch where he won seven straight games and allowed just two earned runs over 58 2/3 innings. In between -- independent of all the games I've mentioned so far -- he put together a 14-game winning streak! At one point his record was 15-5; after that, he went 21-2 the rest of the season, and both losses were in extra innings. In one of those losses he retired 26 batters in a row and lost 1-0 because a ground single went through the legs of centerfielder Clyde Milan. I could tell you more, but that's enough. A handful of pitchers have matched each of those feats, but nobody has come close to matching all of them in the same season. For the year, Johnson went 36-7 with a 1.14 ERA and 11 shutouts. That's #1 in my book. The folks on "Prime 9" say it was #2.
Let's count down the "Prime 9" choices and see where our views intersect and diverge.
#9: Steve Carlton 1972. This has to be on anybody's list of top pitching seasons. Carlton won 27 games while the rest of the Phillies pitching staff won just 32. On June 9, with the Phillies having lost 19 of their last 20 games, Carlton beat the Astros 3-1. They began a 15-game winning streak for Carlton during which the team had a record of 26-40. So he went 15-0 while his fellow pitchers went 11-40. He won the first of four Cy Young Awards with a 27-10 record, 1.98 ERA, and 310 strikeouts.
#8: Ron Guidry 1978. In only his second season as a regular starter, Guidry began the season with a 13-game winning streak and ended it with a victory over the Red Sox in the one-game playoff decided by Bucky Dent's famous home run. His record was 25-3 with a 1.74 ERA, including 9 shutouts and an 18-strikeout game. The only reason I'd rank Carlton's season higher is that Guidry had much better support on a much better team.
#7: Christy Mathewson 1908. As noted earlier, I picked 1905 for Matty, but both years were fantastic. In 1908 he went 37-11 with a 1.43 ERA and led the league in almost every category, including strikeouts, shutouts, innings pitched, and complete games. In 1905, he was 31-8 with a 1.27 ERA and a 15-game winning streak. Take your pick, but I wouldn't rank either one in the top 9 because they occurred right in the heart of the weak-offense Deadball Era. Matty admitted that he was often able to coast with two outs or two strikes, giving batters hittable pitchers because it would take three hits to do any damage.
#6: Sandy Koufax 1965. I'd also rank this season a little bit ahead of Carlton and Guidry, mainly because Koufax was already battling the arthritic elbow problems which ended his career after the 1966 season. Forced to use painkillers before and after every start, Koufax still logged 335 innings, striking out an NL-record 382 batters and compiling a 26-8 record. He capped it off by pitching a pair of shutouts in the World Series, including a 3-hitter with only two days' rest to beat the Twins in Game 7. Nobody has ever done more with a less healthy pitching arm.
#5: Greg Maddux 1995. This strike-shortened season kept Maddux from winning about 25 games in his fourth straight Cy Young Award season. Only four times in 28 starts did he allow more than two runs. The man with impeccable control allowed less than one walk per 9 innings pitched, and his 19-2 record would've been even better if his bullpen hadn't blown two leads for him. His 1.63 ERA in the middle of the NL's offensive explosion is difficult to fathom. On the cover of "UNHITTABLE!" he takes the third spot among righties, ranked behind only Johnson and the #3 season on the "Prime 9" list. So I have no quarrel with their ranking of #5.
#4: Dwight Gooden 1985. "If nothing happens to him," said Sandy Koufax after Gooden's 1985, "he may set and break all the records realistically within reach." Gooden had the kind of talent that only drugs or injury could ruin, and that's what happened. Gooden's stats for 1985 were comparable to Guidry's 1978 or Roger Clemens' 1986: a 24-4 record, 1.53 ERA, and 268 strikeouts in 276 innings, which is why I wouldn't rank it as high as "Prime 9" did. What set Gooden apart was that he did this when he was only 20 years old, with a blazing fastball and a devastating fall-off-the-table curve. It should have been the start of an unprecedented career. Instead, cocaine got him, and he never came close to matching his prodigious sophomore season.
#3: Bob Gibson 1968. Even though 1968 was the "Year of the Pitcher" and lots of hurlers put up impressive numbers, Bob Gibson was still well ahead of the pack. His 1.12 ERA was the lowest since the Deadball Era, and featured an 11-start stretch during which he tossed eight shutouts and allowed only one run in each of the other three games. The big mystery is how he lost nine games to go with his 22 victories. Here's how: two of the losses were 1-0, one in extra innings to the Phillies and one to Gaylord Perry (who no-hit the Cardinals); he lost 2-0 to Don Drysdale despite allowing only one hit and one run; he lost to the Pirates on a pair of 9th-inning unearned runs despite striking out 15; and he lost 3-2 to Don Sutton when the winning run scored on an errant outfield throw. Five of his nine losses were to fellow future Hall of Famers, and he wasn't knocked out in the middle of an inning all season.
#2: Walter Johnson 1913. See above.
#1: Pedro Martinez 2000. I was stunned when this appeared on the TV screen as the best post-1900 pitching season. At one point they noted that "some historians think 1999 was even better." Put my name in that column. Here's a statistical comparison between those two outstanding seasons:
Won-Lost: 23-4, 18-6
W-L %: .852, .750
ERA: 2.07, 1.74
Starts: 29, 29
Innings: 213 1/3, 217
Baserunners allowed: 206, 174
HR allowed: 9, 17
Strikeouts: 313, 284
10+-K games: 19, 15
15+-K games: 6, 3
Complete games: 5, 7
Shutouts: 1, 4
The most important categories are the three Triple Crown categories, where 1999 has a sizable margin in two and 2000 in the other. In addition, there were two other starts in 1999 when Pedro left with the lead but the bullpen blew the game. So his record should've been 25-4. There were no bullpen fiascos for him in 2000. He had more complete games and shutouts in 2000, but seven times in 1999 he was spared the effort of pitching the 9th inning after building up a safe lead, so that disparity was largely due to the manager's decision, not his inability to finish games. The significant different in high-strikeout performances probably has something to do with that as well. For instance, in his 20th win of the season, on September 4, he pitched eight innings of two-hit and struck out 15 before leaving with a 4-0 lead.
Add it all up, and while Pedro was stingier with hits and runs in 2000, he overpowered more hitters in 1999 and had a much better won-lost record. In addition, he was the MVP of the 1999 All-Star Game, striking out five of the six hitters he faced (including Barry Larkin, Larry Walker, Sammy Sosa, and Mark McGwire to start the game), and in the 1999 playoffs he was 2-0 without allowing a run in 17 innings of work, striking out 23 and surrendering a mere five singles. That included his memorable six innings of no-hit ball in relief to pick up the win in the deciding game of the ALDS against the Indians. I know those games don't count as part of his "season," but they do help tell us how good a year he had. If you include the stats from those games, he emerges with a 1999 ERA of 1.90 and 342 strikeouts in 232 1/3 innings.
To me, there's no question that 1999 was a better season for Pedro. He won the pitching Triple Crown and finished 2nd in the MVP voting compared to 5th in 2000 (and easily won the Cy Young Award and the pitchingboth years). But I still wouldn't rank it #1 (and by the way, how can you possibly say that the best season ever was by a pitcher who won only 18 games?). I'd put it around #4 on this survey.
Even more shocking to me than putting an 18-game winner at the top of the ladder was the total omission of Lefty Grove's incredible 1931 season. I was sure it would be #1 or #2 along with Johnson's 1913. The show's producers were gracious enough to give Grove an "honorable mention" mention after the list was done. That angered me (an admission of their guilt in not placing him anywhere in the top 9?), but I'm sure I wasn't as angry as Grove himself, turning over in his grave and wishing he could get his hands on a locker room and do some damage, as he did more than once after taking a tough loss. Let me explain why we're so pissed at this inexcusable slight.
One big argument in Pedro's favor is that in 2000 he posted the best "adjusted ERA" since 1900. That is, his ERA was smaller relative to the overall league ERA than anyone else's best season (1.74 compared to 5.07). In fact, Pedro has four of the best 24 adjusted-ERA seasons since 2000, partly from excellence and partly as a function of pitching in a heavy-offense cycle. (His 1999 season ranks #8.) To put it another way, Pedro simply pitched as well as he could; he couldn't control how bad everybody else was. Lefty Grove, who ranks third to Pedro's second on the career adjusted-ERA list, came in at #16 for his 1931 season, in which he recorded a 2.06 ERA compared to the American League's 4.51. Not exactly chopped liver.
But that isn't what makes his 1931 the best season ever by a left-handed pitcher in my book. As I detailed in "UNHITTABLE!" Grove won not only the pitching Triple Crown and the league's MVP title, but he should have recorded baseball's only undefeated season. He went 31-4 (the AL's last 30-game winner before Denny McLain in 1968) and could easily have been 34-0. Here are the accounts from my book about the four games he lost:
#1: April 18, at Washington--"He struck out 10 and gave up only five hits, but two of the hits beat him. In the fourth inning, he walked Heinie Manush, who scored on Joe Cronin's triple to tie the game 1-1. With two outs, Ossie Bluege lifted a fly ball to short right field. Second baseman Max Bishop raced under the ball and was set to make the catch, but right fielder Bing Miller banged into Bishop and knocked the ball loose. Somehow it was scored a double, and Cronin scored what turned out to be the run that beat Grove [2-1]. . .In the locker room, he ripped up his uniform, heating up for the long season ahead." After this loss, he ran off an eight-game winning streak, until. . .
#2: June 5, vs. Chicago--"Grove was more stunned than anybody. Two days later [after pitching a complete game], having pitched 52 1/3 innings in twenty days, he got the call again from Connie Mack. It was the seventh inning, and the Athletics led Chicago 5-4, but Grove let the tying run score, and the game went into extra innings. The Athletics couldn't score off reliever Hal mcKain, who pitched seven innings of two-hit ball. Grove faltered in the 12th [his sixth inning in relief], when Lew Fonseca's home run broke the tie and another run made the final score 7-5. If Mack had given Grove more rest, his eight-game winning streak wouldn't have been threatened. If the Athletics had found a way to get a run off McKain (18-23 lifetime), Grove streak would have reached nine games. Instead, he took the loss. He was so angry that he ignored his teammates, drove home to Maryland, and didn't rejoin the club for three days, until his next turn [to start]. Forced by fate to go back to square one, he resumed his dismemberment of American League hitters with redoubled resolve, and the result was a streak twice as long as the last."
#3: August 23, at St. Louis--That's right, Grove won 16 games a row, tying the AL record and raising his season's record to a ridiculous 25-2. The streak included 13 complete games and two wins in relief. Then came his infamous start against the Browns. Here's the passage from "UNHITTABLE!": "His mound opponent, Dick Coffman, had recently pitched a one-hitter, but his nine victories in 1931 represented a career high, and he hardly seemed like a threat to end Grove's 16-game streak. Yet he did. The Athletics got exactly three hits off Coffman and never threatened to score. The Browns didn't do much with Grove, amassing six singles and a double. The double was the story of the game. In the third inning, Fred Schulte reached on a two-out bloop single. Oscar Melillo followed with a line drive to left field. Jimmy Moore. . .had to battle a bright sun and the toughest trajectory--the ball was lined right at him. He took two steps in, then saw the ball and darted back, but it ticked off his glove and rolled to the fence. Schulte raced around from first base to score, and that tainted run ended Grove's magnificent streak. He stifled the Browns the rest of the way, but Coffman beat him 1-0. After this bitter loss, Grove threw a legendary tantrum, wrecking nearly the entire clubhouse between games of the doubleheader. He threw everything he could find, tore off his uniform and jumped up and down on it, smashed lockers in, tried to break down doors, broke chairs, and attacked the showers. Grove's biographer, Jim Kaplan, termed it 'perhaps the most complete clubhouse demolition in baseball history.'. . .As it turned out, Grove wasn't mad at Moore." No, he was mad at fellow future Hall of Famer Al Simmons, the regular left fielder, who was suffering from an infected foot and had left the team to see his own physician in Milwaukee. "If Simmons had been here and in left field, he would have stuck that ball in his back pocket," he yelled at his teammates. "What the devil did he have to go to Milwaukee for?" Grove never did forgive Simmons. In 1972, when he attended a Steve Carlton start during this other Lefty's great season, he told a reporter, "I should have tackled that St. Louis runner rounding third and nailed his butt to the bag."
#4: September 27, at New York: Following that loss, Grove reeled off six more wins, raising his record to 31-3 as the Athletics easily clinched their third straight AL pennant. In the season's final game, Connie Mack decided to give his three top starters a tuneup for the World Series, using them for three innings apiece. Grove went first, gave up some runs, and took the loss.
There you have it. Four losses: one on a collision in the field; another in extra innings when his team couldn't score a run for him; a third on an outfield misplay; a last-day loss in a game he surely would not have started if he had still been undefeated. Only Lew Fonseca really beat him all year. This capped a three-year stretch during which Grove went 79-15 (!). It marked his second straight Triple Crown, his fourth of nine career ERA titles, and his seventh straight year leading the AL in strikeouts. Oh yeah--he added two more victories in the World Series.
You can't tell me that this season doesn't belong somewhere in the top 9. I'd put it #2. Which season would I jettison to make room? Mathewson's. He got battered by the arch-rival Cubs in the game that decided the pennant. I'm taking off a lot of points for that failure. Where does that leave my list?
1. Johnson 1913
2. Grove 1931
3. Gibson 1968
4. Martinez 1999
5. Koufax 1965
6. Gooden 1985
7. Carlton 1972
8. Maddux 1995
9. Guidry 1978
Scramble them as you wish, or lop off two or three near the bottom and replace them with other great seasons (remind me sometime to tell you all about Ed Walsh's incredible 1908 season), and I'll be okay. But don't mess with Lefty Grove. First you'll have to answer to me. . .but more frighteningly, someday you might have to deal with Lefty Grove, who will be lurking somewhere in a locker room and quite prepared to teach you a history lesson you won't forget.