In the 150-year history of Major League Baseball, over 19,000 players have stepped onto the field. This doesn’t include the thousands of players of color who were banned from playing Major League Baseball until 1947. Of those 19,000 players, only 83 pitchers are in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Less than 1% of all pitchers will make it to the HOF. To be the best of all time, you have to be in really small company.
In no particular order, here is a list of the 10 best pitching seasons in MLB history.
From the start of the 1999 season until the end of 2000, Pedro Martinez had a stretch of dominance that will likely never be replicated in baseball history. Over this 430.1 inning span, Martinez held an ERA of 1.90 that was supported with a 1.79 FIP (fielder independent pitching). The league average ERA and FIP over these two seasons was 4.71 and 4.77 respectively. One season after the next, Martinez set a new modern major league record for strikeout percentage and backed that up with a 0.74 WHIP; another modern major league record that passed the names like Walter Johnson and Addie Joss. Martinez’s 11.6 fWAR in 1999 is the highest in Major League Baseball’s modern era and his FIP of 1.39 is the lowest since baseball’s integration. A full 0.3 runs better than the next best. Martinez’s efficiency and excellence is even more impressive when you consider this was at the height of baseball’s greatest offensive environment in it’s history and that he was pitching in baseball’s toughest division in the American League. Pedro was named an unanimous Cy Young Award winner in each season. The only crime is that he did not win the American League’s Most Valuable Player.
Bob Gibson of the St. Louis Cardinals was so insane in 1968 that the MLB lowered the mound from 15 inches to 10 inches. He led the MLB in ERA (1.12!!!), strikeouts (268), and shutouts (13). His 1.77 FIP backs up his 1.12 ERA. In Gibson’s 34 starts, he pitched a complete game in 28 of them. Gibson would go on to win the NL Cy Young and MVP. There wouldn’t be a pitcher in the National League to win the MVP until Clayton Kershaw in 2014.
Clayton Kershaw- 2014 (2016)
In 2014, Clayton Kershaw of the Los Angeles Dodgers had a 1.77 ERA, 21 wins (in only 27 starts), and 239 strikeouts in 198.1 innings. His 6 complete games led the MLB. He pitched a no-hitter against the Colorado Rockies, his only baserunner reaching on an error. Kershaw led the MLB in pitching fWAR with 8 (Corey Kluber was second with 7.1). He was the first pitcher in MLB history to win four straight ERA titles (2011-2014). Kershaw only gave up 9 home runs the entire season. Kershaw would go onto win the NL Cy Young (his third in four seasons) and NL MVP, the first for a pitcher in the NL since Bob Gibson.
Honorable mention goes to Kershaw’s 2016 season, which was limited to 21 starts because of injury, where he had more wins (12) than walks (11) allowed over his 149 innings.
Steve Carlton of the Philadelphia Phillies is the best pitcher you have never heard of. In 1972, Carlton had an ERA of 1.97 in 346.1 innings. He started 41 games, pitching a complete game 30(!) times, and won 27 games. He struck out 310 batters and won the pitching Triple Crown (lead the league in wins, strikeouts, and ERA). Carlton won the NL Cy Young and was fifth in MVP voting despite the Phillies only winning 59 games that season. Carlton won 46% of his team’s victories that season, a modern baseball record.
Roger Clemens- 1997
In 1997, at the height of the steroid era, pitching in the AL East, Roger Clemens had an ERA of 2.05 over 264 innings. Clemens struck out 28% of all batters he faced, with 292 strikeouts on the season. He won the pitching Triple Crown and won the AL Cy Young Award. Clemens led the majors in pitcher fWAR with 10.7 (Pedro was second with 8.5).
Jacob deGrom- 2018
In 2018, Jacob deGrom was on a planet all by himself. He led the majors with a 1.70 ERA. He struck out 269 batters over 217 innings, with a strikeout percentage of 32.2%. deGrom had an fWAR of 9, which led all pitchers by a significant margin (Max Scherzer was second with a 7.4 fWAR). deGrom had the lowest HR/9 of any pitcher in the majors at 0.41. He only gave up 10 home runs THE ENTIRE SEASON. From May 2018 to April 2019, deGrom had 26 straight quality starts (6 innings at 3 runs or less), which tied Bob Gibson for the longest streak ever. deGrom finished off his season winning the NL Cy Young Award.
Sandy Koufax- 1965
1965 was a crazy year for Sandy Koufax. He won the pitching Triple Crown, leading the league in wins (26), ERA (2.04) and strikeouts (382). At the time, Koufax had the most strikeouts in a single season (his record was broken by Nolan Ryan in 1973). Koufax had a FIP of 1.93 and a fWAR of 10.0 (Sam McDowell was second with 8.7). On September 9th, Koufax pitched a perfect game, which at the time was the 6th ever in modern baseball history. Koufax won his second unanimous Cy Young Award. What is most impressive about Koufax is that he had major hemorrhage problems in his arm, leaving his arm constantly black and blue and forcing him to take codeine and other pain killers after every start. Koufax would only pitch one more season before retiring at age 31.
Doc Gooden- 1985
In 1985, Doc Gooden of the New York Mets had one of the most dominant seasons in the live-ball era. Gooden had an ERA of 1.53 (which was second to Gibson’s 1.12 ERA). He also led the league in wins (24) and strikeouts (268) to win the pitching Triple Crown. He led the National League in complete games with 16 and innings pitched with 276.2. Gooden had a quality start in 33 out of 35 starts, the highest percentage ever. Oh, did I mention he was 20 years old? Gooden took home the NL Cy Young, the youngest player ever to do so.
Randy Johnson- 2001
In 2001, Randy Johnson had a 2.49 ERA, 21 wins, and 372 strikeouts in 249.2 innings, good for the pitching Triple Crown. His FIP of 2.13 supports his 2.49 ERA. He led all pitching in fWAR with 10.4 (teammate Curt Schilling was second with 7.2). Johnson won the AL Cy Young for his third season in a row, and would win the award again for a fourth season in 2002. Johnson would take World Series co-MVP with Schilling when the Diamondbacks beat the Yankees in the 2001 World Series. Randy is also the only player in the modern era to kill a bird while on the mound.
Greg Maddux during the strike-shortened 1994 season and the 1995 season compiled some of the best seasons for any pitcher over a two year period. Maddux won the Cy Young both of those seasons, while compiling ERAs of 1.56 in 1994 and 1.63 in 1995, both which led the league. Maddux led the league in complete games both seasons with 10 each (he also led the league with 3 shutouts both seasons). Maddux won the NL Cy Young for four straight years from 1992-1995. Maddux rivals Pedro in his two year dominance.