Saturday, February 2, 2013

Best Pitching Season of the 1970s

Thought long and hard about Ron Guidry's 1978 here, but decided to go with the sheer volume of Lefty's statistics.

Steve Carlton 1972 (11.7 bWAR)

Carlton was the first great southpaw to emerge in the National League after arthritis forced Sandy Koufax into early retirement following the 1966 World Series. Known as "Lefty," he quietly developed into a reliable number two starter after arriving on the scene in 1965, though the St. Louis Cardinal was often overshadowed by Bob Gibson.

Almost eight years after St. Louis pulled off what may have been the most lopsided trade in baseball history (Ernie Broglio for Lou Brock), the Cards gave up on a future four-time Cy Young winner just as he was coming into his prime. Owner Gussie Busch ordered Carlton to be traded following a salary dispute, so on February 25th, 1972 the Cardinals dealt him to the Philadelphia Phillies for Rick Wise. Straight up.


At the time, the swap looked fair on paper. Carlton had won 77 games (20 of which came the season before) to Wise's 75, and Wise was a year younger. Both were recognized as good pitchers, and Tim McCarver (who caught for both) described the trade as "a real good one for a real good one." Though he pitched well, Wise lasted just two seasons with the Cards before they shipped him up to Boston along with Bernie Carbo in exchange for Reggie Smith and Ken Tatum. The Redbirds won 90 games in Carlton's last season with them, but slipped to 75 and 81 in the two years with Wise on board. It would take a decade before St. Louis made it back to the playoffs.

Carlton made a great first impression in the City of Brotherly Love by debuting with the finest season of his Hall of Fame career. Lefty won the pitching Triple Crown with 27 wins, 310 strikeouts and a 1.93 ERA that translated into the best ERA+ (182) in the majors. His 30 (!) complete games also topped all hurlers, allowing him to amass an NL-best 346.1 innings pitched (over eight innings per start) and rack up those 310 Ks.

His most dominant start of the season came on April 25th in San Francisco against a Giants lineup that featured Bobby Bonds and Dave Kingman. After allowing a leadoff single to Chris Speier, Carlton recorded the next 27 outs without allowing another base hit. He fanned 14 Giants in all, including pinch-hitter Willie Mays and Speier (both looking) to finish a pitching duel in which he got the best of Juan Marichal, who took the complete game loss.

That one-hitter was eventually overshadowed by his incredible streak that ran from June 7th through August 17th, a span of 18 starts in which he won 15 consecutive decisions and posted a 1.51 ERA. This stretch also included a period where he allowed just one earned run in 56 innings.

Carlton cruised to his first Cy Young award, which he won unanimously over the likes of Gibson, Fergie Jenkins and Tom Seaver. He also received the Hickok Belt as the top professional athlete of the year. Despite playing for the last-place Phillies, he still managed to finish fifth in the NL MVP race behind Johnny Bench, Billy Williams, Willie Stargell, and Joe Morgan.

Some more tidbits from his overwhelming 1972 campaign:

  • Opponents batted just .207/.257/.291 off him. Lefties fared even worse, hitting just .197/.233/.258.
  • His average GameScore was a 69
  • Nine starts with double digit strikeout totals
  • Did not surrender a home run during the first 51 and 1/3 innings he pitched that year until the aforementioned father of Barry Bonds took him deep. He allowed just five long balls in his 21 road starts
  • Had three starts in which he completed at least ten frames, including two (July 19th and August 21st) where he finished eleven
  • As most fans know, Carlton won 27 games despite taking the mound for a 59-win team, meaning he was responsible for almost 46 percent of Philadelphia's victories (a modern major league record). Looking at it another way, the Phillies went 29-12 (.707) when he pitched, 30-85 (.261) when he didn't. It's scary to think how bad they would have been without their ace. In the 40 seasons since, no NL pitcher has won 27 or more games
  • Lastly, here is Carlton's earned run breakdown

         0 runs--12 starts
         1 run--9 starts
         2 runs--6 starts
         3 runs--4 starts
         4 runs--8 starts
         5+ runs--2 starts

Best offensive season of the 1970s--Jim Rice (1978)

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