Bonds 73, McGwire 70, Sosa 66…
Gibson 1.12, Gooden 1.53, Maddux 1.56…
Hornsby .424, Sisler .420, Williams .406
There are single season numbers like the home run totals listed above that the average baseball fan has committed to memory (even if some fans would prefer to remember Maris 61, Ruth 60, Ruth 59…). There are others, like Gibson’s 1.12 ERA and Williams’s .406 batting average, that may not actually be all-time records, but if we look past the deadball era, they stand out so far above more recent accomplishments that we can’t forget them.
One thing we as fans seem to have lost during the SABR revolution is the ability to memorize truly meaningful numbers. Sure, Gibson has an amazing ERA, but how much of that came from pitching from a high mound in a cavernous stadium in a pitcher’s era? Williams hit .406, but why do we care so much about a number that ignores walks (for the record, his OBP that year was an absurd .553).
Perhaps this is all for the best. There’s nothing wrong with memorizing numbers that blew our minds decades ago and recognizing at the same time that those numbers don’t evaluate those players’ true abilities as well as metrics developed since.
Still, it seems to me there are a few numbers that modern fans should pass down to our kids the way .406 and 1.12 and 61* were passed on to us. Fielding-Independent Pitching is a better way to evaluate a pitcher’s true talent than ERA. By including only strikeouts, walks, and home runs allowed, it focuses on the outcomes most within a pitcher’s control, ignoring all the variables that can happen once a ball is put in play.
Who had the best single season FIP of all time? It seems to me that we should all know that. Even without memorizing leaderboards, you might guess correctly, as the season and the pitcher who accomplished it are equally legendary in SABR circles. You may be surprised, though, to know that, since 1920, when Babe Ruth essentially invented the home run, and today, there have been just seven seasons in which a pitcher has qualified for an ERA title and kept his FIP under 2. Here they are, in ascending order of greatness:
Hal Newhouser, 1946 (1.96)
This was the second of Newhouser’s consecutive MVP seasons. His 1.94 ERA didn’t match the 1.81 he put up in ’45, but in 292 2/3 innings, he did strike out 275, while walking just 98 and giving up only ten homers.
By today’s standards, Newhouser was quite the workhorse in ’46, starting 34 games and appearing in relief in three others, but those numbers were in line with many of his prime seasons and far shy of the 313+ innings he pitched in 40 games (36 starts) the prior year. Based on volume, one can make a solid case that Newhouser was better in ’45, when he struck out fewer and walked more, but gave up just five homers and, thanks in part to a .259 BABiP (batting average on balls in play), yielded the same number of earned runs and four fewer runs in total.
We should note that Newhouser’s 1945 numbers were compiled during wartime, when many of the great players were overseas. In ’46, Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, and others returned to action, but Newhouser kept mowing them down as if they were scabs crossing the picket line.
Tom Seaver, 1971 (1.93)
Another Hall of Famer in his prime (Seaver was 26, Newhouser was 25), Seaver was utterly dominant for the ’71 Mets. In 286 1/3 innings, Seaver struck out 289 and walked just 61. He did give up 18 home runs, but they came in a more homer-friendly environment than Newhouser’s. Seaver wouldn’t match that .57 HR/9 again until ’75, by which time his strikeout rate had plummeted.
Remarkably, hitters fared even worse against Seaver when they put the ball in play, averaging just .263 and being stranded almost 86% of the time when they did reach base. His 1.76 ERA was the second best in the decade.
Sandy Koufax, 1965 (1.93)
At least until the late ’90s, Koufax’s run from 1962 until he retired after the ’66 season was the most dominant in the game’s history. In ’65, he threw a stunning 335 2/3 innings (he started 41 games and appeared twice more; any guesses why he retired at 30 a year later?). His 382 strikeouts are one short of Nolan Ryan’s 20th century record. He walked just 71 hitters, which at 1.9 per nine innings was the second lowest of his career. Had he not given up 26 home runs, this might be the best season of all time.
I’d be remiss not to mention that the National League batted just .246 as a whole in ’65, ten points lower than Newhouser’s AL in ’46 and three points lower than Seaver’s NL in ’71. Koufax also pitched in a ballpark that suppressed scoring by eight percent, so the odds were in his favor.
Sandy Koufax, 1963 (1.85)
In ’63, Koufax pitched 311 innings, averaging nearly eight innings per start. He struck out 306 and walked just 58, an even better walk rate than he’d have in ’65, and gave up eight fewer home runs. The league batting average and Dodger Stadium’s park factor were the same as in ’65. His 1.88 ERA was right in line with his FIP and well ahead of his 2.04 mark in ’65. This was less a factor of his BABiP (a fantastic .238, but still worse than ’65’s .234) and more a factor of his strand rate. He left 82.9% of baserunners on the bases in 1963, scattering what few hitters he allowed on base more effectively then he would two years later.
Bob Gibson, 1968 (1.77)
This one is commonly cited as the greatest pitching season ever. Everything went right for Gibson in ’68. He pitched 304 2/3 innings despite making “just” 34 starts (in case you don’t have a calculator handy, that rounds up to nine innings per start). He struck out 268, which is not quite Koufaxian, but does represent nearly eight batters per nine innings, and walked just 62. Only 11 batters, or less than one every three games, made home run trots against Gibson in ’68. Furthermore, luck was on his side, as the league hit just .230 on balls in play against him, which helps explain the .65 difference between his ERA and his FIP.
This time, we can’t help but note that the National League hit just .237 in 1968, the lowest mark for either league in baseball history. Scoring was so hard to come by that the mound would be lowered after the season and has never been raised to the pre-’69 height since. Gibson was truly remarkable in ’68, but his 1.12 ERA could not have been accomplished at any other time.
Dwight Gooden, 1984 (1.69)
Here’s the first guy on our list who isn’t in the Hall of Fame and likely never will be. Try telling someone in 1984, though, that the best pitcher they’d ever seen would have no compelling Hall case almost 30 years later. Gooden was a 19-year-old rookie in ’84, and made just 31 starts, but he pitched 218 innings and struck out 276 helpless hitters. His 11.39 K/9 are better than anyone we’ve seen on this list so far. His walk rate, at 3.01/9, is also the highest yet, but he gave up just seven homers in a more challenging run scoring environment (the league hit .260 in ’84 and Shea Stadium played neutrally).
Batters hit .296 on balls in play against Gooden, a truly average mark, but he struggled to strand runners (72.5% left on base). This, combined with the highest walk rate in the early part of his career, left him with a still-impressive, but perhaps not legendary 2.60 ERA. In the following year, Gooden shaved more than a point off his ERA, despite a 25% reduction in his strikeout rate and six more home runs allowed. He did this by walking four fewer hitters in almost 60 more innings. He also cut his BABiP by 27 points and increased his strand rate to a historic level (86.9%). One might argue that the reduced strand rate shows growth from a player who had finally entered his 20s, and that his much improved ERA was not all a factor of luck. Either way, both seasons were historically great (his FIP in ’85 was 2.13, and his 9.0 fWAR in ’85 tops his 8.6 in ’84).
Pedro Martinez, 1999 (1.39)
Have I mentioned that FIP is not park- or era-adjusted? Think about this for a minute. Pitching in Fenway Park in 1999, Pedro Martinez was .30 points better in FIP than any other pitcher in the history of the game. Even before we adjust for his home park and the hitters he faced, Martinez’s FIP in 1999 probably exceeded the next best season ever by a more impressive margin than any other single season record in any stat.
Let’s get to the numbers.
213 1/3 innings.
313 strikeouts (13.2/9)
37 walks (1.6/9)
9 home runs (0.36/9)
Batters hit .323 when they put the ball in play against Martinez that year. That’s a combination of horrible luck and a field that inflates batting average like few others (it played nearly run-neutral in ’99, due in large part to suppressing homers, but it still ranks tied with Tiger Stadium in ’46 as the friendliest offensive environment on our list). Despite the bad luck, bad fielding, and tough park to pitch in, he led the majors with a 2.07 ERA.
It gets better. In 1999, the American League hit .268, the highest average since 1937. Manny Ramirez hit .333/.442/.663 for the Indians. Edgar Martinez hit .337/.447/.554. Even John Jaha hit .276/.414/.556. Twelve American Leaguers hit 35 or more home runs. Yet, in this environment, Pedro Martinez struck out 8 1/2 batters for every one he walked and 35 for every one who homered off him.
After Pedro’s 1.39, the next best FIP in the American League was Mike Mussina’s 3.25. Aaron Sele was third at 3.85.
The following year, Pedro saw his strikeout rate dip by a batter and a half per inning, while walking just five fewer hitters. He gave up almost double the home runs in just four more innings. Despite all this regression, he turned in a 1.74 ERA.
I urge you all to commit the number 1.39 to memory. I guarantee you you’ll never have to replace it.