I’ve got a little trivia question to start this week – can you name this pitcher? I went 26-7, threw 291 IP, and stuck out 419 batters while posting an 0.97 WHIP, en route to a NL CY Award. Who am I…? Hint, since the record for strikeouts in a single season is 383, this is a bit of a trick question.
Last week’s piece on Andy Pettitte got me wondering, what pitchers might have had incredible seasons when considering their regular season plus postseason stats? Why not do a fresh take on some old numbers to see what surprises one might find? My curiosity immediately paid dividends, as a new strikeout king is one of several revelations I’ll later discuss. I went through 48 years of stats starting in 1969 to present, as 1969 is the first year of playoff expansion. Prior to 1969, the teams with the best record in each league played each other directly in the World Series. Today, the playoffs have expanded to so many rounds, a team must win 11-12 games total to win the World Series, instead of 4. As a result, today’s pitchers can significantly increase their complete season totals, sometimes creating unrecognizable stat lines. I’m only looking at pitching seasons that include multiple rounds of postseason action, so a player like Pedro Martinez who won the 2000 AL CY with one of the greatest seasons ever, but played on a Red Sox team that didn’t make the playoffs would not be included. Here is my list of The Top 20 Greatest Pitching Seasons that include multiple rounds of postseason action.
Picking the Top 20 was an equally enjoyable and agonizing task, as there were incredible seasons that didn’t make the list – I could have gone 50 deep. Some of the noteworthy highlights include; Randy Johnson as the answer to the trivia question and new strikeout king with an absolutely ridiculous 419 strikeouts. This is a number I’d expect from playing a season of Ken Griffey Slugfest on N64, but “The Big Unit” miraculously made it a reality in 2001. He also carried the Diamondbacks past the Yankees to capture the franchise’s first and only World Series Championship. Two other surprises in the strikeout column were John Smoltz and Kevin Brown, each logging their first and only 300+ strikeout season in ’96 and ’98, respectively. There have only been five pitchers to reach 300+ K’s in the past 30 years, so the addition of two more is significant. Coming third on my list is Pedro Martinez’s 1999 season, as he won 25 of 31 starts while striking out a whopping 336 batters in only 230 IP. Had he made close to 40 starts like the rest of the list, he’d sit at #1. Leading the list in the win column, Hall of Famer John Smoltz logged a monster 28 W’s in 1996, which is also tied for the second highest total since WWII behind Denny McLain’s 32 wins in 1968 (regular + postseason). Suddenly, his 1996 season goes from CY Young caliber to historic. After leading the regular season with 24 wins, he added another four victories during the payoffs, ultimately losing to an underdog Yankees team in the World Series. Perhaps even more impressive, is “Gator” Ron Guidry’s 27-3 record to go along with his 1.71 ERA while carrying the Yankees to a 1978 World Series Championship. That’s as close to the perfect season I can find for a pitcher since 1968, with only Johnson edging him due to his 179 additional strikeouts. In my rankings, eight of the top 10 pitchers went to the World Series for their respective seasons, demonstrating the impact their dominant pitching had on their teams. Plenty of fresh insight from some old numbers!
Taking into account the increasing volume of postseason numbers provides a more accurate and complete standpoint for analysis. I’m surprised more emphasis isn’t placed on viewing players stats from this perspective. Continuing with this total statistical analysis approach, for the 2017 season my prediction is Clayton Kershaw joins the list by bumping Dave Stewart out of the Top 20. He’s due to finally have a big postseason and the Dodgers will again be playoff contenders. Kershaw is currently the best pitcher on the planet and not only would have won his 4th CY last year had he not gotten hurt; he also would have won the NL MVP over Kris Bryant. Since the introduction of the CY Award in 1956, no pitcher has ever won multiple MVP and CY Awards. Having won the NL CY and NL MVP in 2014, I think Kershaw makes history and changes this in 2017.