Thursday, January 31, 2013

Best Pitching Season of the 1980s

Dwight Gooden 1985 (11.9 bWAR)

During the mid-1980s, young "Doc" Gooden might have been the best pitcher baseball saw in the thirty years between Sandy Koufax and Pedro Martinez. Over his first three seasons (1984-'86), the young phenom piled up 58 wins, 744 strikeouts and maintained a 2.28 ERA. He started an All-Star Game, was named Rookie of the Year, captured a Cy Young award (unanimously) and won World Series ring, all before his 22nd birthday. If there was ever a pitcher destined to win 300 games and wind up in Cooperstown, Gooden was the guy.

Now, the only way he's getting into the Hall of Fame is with a ticket. When he came up for induction in 2006, he received just 17 votes--fewer than fellow first-timers Orel Hershiser, Albert Belle, and Will Clark--and fell off the ballot. His once limitless potential had been sabotaged by overuse, cocaine addiction, and his inability (or unwillingness, or both) to adjust to batters after they "figured him out."

Much like his era's pitching equivalent of Don Mattingly, Gooden's flame burned out and he was unable to sustain the early success that put him on the fast track to baseball immortality. He enjoyed several more good seasons but never again approached the heights he reached before he could legally buy a beer. He never won 20 games again, made just one more All-Star team and was washed up at 30. While he was arguably the best pitcher of the 1980s (right there with Roger Clemens, and don't even mention Jack Morris), he peaked too soon. As a whole, his career can only be viewed as a disappointment.

But in 1985, the year Marty McFly traveled back in time, Gooden's problems were all in the future. At the tender age of 20, Dr. K was at the peak of his powers, blessed with an overpowering fastball and devastating curveball known as "Lord Charles." As an encore for what was probably the best rookie season any pitcher ever had, he delivered one of the most statistically dominating campaigns in baseball history. For starters, he won the major league pitching Triple Crown by leading all hurlers with his 24 wins, 268 strikeouts and a 1.53 ERA. His microscopic Earned Run Average is still the second-lowest of the live ball era, trailing only Bob Gibson's impeccable 1.12 from 1968 aka the Year of the Pitcher.

For good measure, he also topped both leagues with his 229 ERA+, the sixth highest mark since World War I. A man who finished what he started, Gooden paced the Senior Circuit with his 16 complete games and 276.2 innings. He ranked second in a bunch of other categories too: WHIP, K/9 rate, winning percentage, H/9 rate, and shutouts, to name a few.

While his season lacked a signature moment, like a no-hitter or memorable playoff victory, he capped his career year with a magical run.  Between August 31st and October 2nd he fired 49 consecutive scoreless innings. Nobody took him deep in his final 75 innings of the season. Untouchable all season long, Gooden was flawless as he pitched the New York Mets to within three wins of the postseason.

Gooden cruised to his first and only Cy Young award, which he won unanimously.. In the process, he became the youngest player to win a Cy in the history of the sport. He was named Pitcher of the Year by the now-defunct Sporting News, the youngest to receive that honor as well. He also placed fourth in the MVP race behind Willie McGee, Dave Parker and Pedro Guerrero, but received just one first place vote! Teammates Gary Carter (sixth) and Keith Hernandez (eighth) also placed in the top-ten, so it's possible he lost some votes to one or both of them. Had the Mets won the division instead of McGee's St. Louis Cardinals, I'm willing to bet Gooden walks away with the trophy that year.

Here are some more fun facts from Gooden's sensational season:

  • Opponents batted just .201/.254/.270 off him
  • He was the youngest pitcher ever to have an ERA+ over 200
  • His average GameScore was a 70
  • In the 24 games he won, Gooden compiled a 1.07 ERA. In the four games he lost, he posted a 5.60 K/BB ratio
  • With those two dozen wins, he became one of 14 African-American pitchers to have a 20-win season. CC Sabathia is the most recent member of the club
  • After Gooden's first start of the season, his ERA never rose higher than 1.89
  • Incredibly, he did not start the Midsummer Classic in Minnesota that summer. Instead, the honor went to LaMarr Hoyt, who won a dozen more games and retired after 1986. Last summer Tony LaRussa bypassed R.A. Dickey in favor of Matt Cain, even though the former had a first half for the ages and went on to win the Cy Young award over Clayton Kershaw
  • Had eleven starts with double digit strikeout totals
  • Surrendered just four home runs in his 17 starts away from Shea Stadium
  • The Mets went 28-7 (.800) when the Doctor was in versus 70-57 (.551) when he wasn't. Four of their losses when he was on the mound were of the one-run variety. From July 9th through August 25th, New York was victorious in all 11 of his starts
  • Had just one start all year in which he allowed more than three earned runs. On August 15th the Philadelphia Phillies roughed him up for five runs in five frames as Mike Schmidt and Rick Schu took him deep. The Mets backed him with a five-spot in the first, and Gooden was actually in line for the win before New York's bullpen blew the lead (though the Mets rallied to win 10-7). Check out his earned run breakdown from his 35 starts:
         0 runs--13 starts
         1 run--6 starts
         2 runs--9 starts
         3 runs--6 starts
         4+ runs--1 start

Best offensive season of the 1980s--George Brett (1980). And happy birthday Jackie Robinson!

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