As balance shifts to mound, a look at other pitching-heavy years
Baseball history has had gradual tilts of power between pitchers and hitters
Led by Bob Gibson and Denny McLain, 1968 was the ultimate year of the pitcher
Pitchers like Tom Seaver and Steve Carlton helped pitchers dominate for years
Baseball is a game of balance between the batter's box and the pitcher's mound. Because that balance is so delicate, the history of the game is often marked by gradual tilts toward one side or the other resulting in several distinct periods of high or low run scoring. Thus far, 2010 looks like a year in which the balance has tilted decidedly in favor of pitching, but that hasn't been a sudden change. The major leagues as a whole have been trending back toward pitching and defense in the wake of the offensive explosion of the late 1990s. Indeed, run scoring has decreased in each of the last four seasons from a high of 4.86 runs per game in 2006 to the current pace of 4.47 R/G (though with the hot summer months still to come, that current-year figure is likely to increase).
What follows are not the most pitching-dominated seasons in the game's history, as even if limited to the live-ball era (1920 to present), such a list would likely consist almost entirely of a clump of seasons from the late-1960s. Rather, it is a sample of five pitching-dominated seasons from the game's live-ball history determined not just by the overall run-scoring environment, but by the aggregation of top pitching performances within that year, starting with the obvious and proceeding with some that might get overlooked for one reason or another.
Any discussion of pitching-dominated seasons must begin with 1968, which was the Year of the Pitcher. In the entire history of major league baseball dating back to 1871, only one season saw fewer runs scored per game than the 3.42 of 1968, and that was the 3.38 of 1908, deep in the heart of the dead-ball era. In 1968, 49 qualifying pitchers had ERAs of below 3.00, still the most since 1917. Seven pitchers had ERAs below 2.00, still the most since 1919.
The signature numbers from 1968 are 31 and 1.12. The former was the number of wins -- against just six losses -- by 24-year-old righty Denny McLain of the eventual world champion Tigers. McLain, who also had a .196 ERA and 280 K's, thus became the last man to win 30 games in a season and the only man to do so since Dizzy Dean in 1934. The latter was the ERA of Bob Gibson of the eventual NL champion Cardinals. Gibson, who went 22-9 and had 268 strikeouts, posted the lowest qualifying ERA since 1914 and the fourth-lowest of all time. Gibson tallied that ERA in part by twirling 13 shutouts, the third-most ever in a single season and still the most since 1916.
There were five no-hitters in 1968, including a perfect game by 22-year-old Jim "Catfish" Hunter and no-hitters in consecutive games of a series between the Cardinals and Giants at Candlestick Park in mid-September, the first pitched by Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry of the Giants and the second by Ray Washburn. There were three total runs scored in those two games.
There's not enough room to list all of the great individual pitching seasons from 1968, but worth special mention are National League Hall of Fame righties Juan Marichal of the Giants (26-9, 2.43 ERA, 218 K), Ferguson Jenkins of the Cubs (20-15, 2.63 ERA, 260 K), Tom Seaver of the Mets (16-12, 2.20 ERA, 205 K's) and Don Drysdale of the Dodgers, who went just 14-12 but had a 2.15 ERA and set a record, since broken, of 58 consecutive scoreless innings.
In the AL, the Indians' Luis Tiant went 21-9 with 264 K's and a 1.60 ERA, still the fourth-lowest single-season ERA of the live-ball era. Other big seasons came from Tiant's rotation-mate Sam McDowell (15-14, 1.81 ERA, 283 K's) and the Orioles' Dave McNally (22-10, 1.95 ERA, 202 K's). The Tigers' Mickey Lolich had a comparatively pedestrian regular season (17-9, 3.19 ERA, 197 K's), but followed that with one of the great World Series pitching performances of all time, completing and winning all three of his starts against the Cardinals including a 4-1 victory over Gibson in Game Seven.
Amid all those great pitching performances, perhaps the most telling statistic of all was the .301 batting average with which Carl Yastrzemski led the American League. No other ALer hit better than .290 in 1968.
Pitching so dominated the game in 1968 that Major League Baseball lowered the pitchers mound prior to the 1969 season. There is a general assumption that the lowering of the mound put an end to the pitching dominance of the 1960s, but just four years later, pitching again wrested control of the game with a season in which just 3.69 runs were scored per game, the ninth-lowest scoring rate of all time and the second lowest since 1918 (after 1968, of course).
The signature performance of 1972 was that of Steve Carlton, the 27-year-old lefty who had just been traded from the Cardinals to the Phillies for Rick Wise in late February of that year. Carlton won the NL pitching triple crown and Cy Young award with a 27-10 record, 1.97 ERA, and 310 strikeouts, but what made that season even more impressive is that the Phillies won just 32 other games, giving him a modern record of 46 percent of his teams' wins. The AL Cy Young award winner that year had also just been traded as the Giants sent Gaylord Perry to Cleveland for Sam McDowell in November 1971 only to watch Perry go 24-16 with a 1.92 ERA and 234 strikeouts in his first year with his new club. Other key faces in new places in 1972 included Nolan Ryan, who went 19-16 with a 2.28 ERA and 329 strikeouts in his first season with the Angels after being dealt by the Mets with three other players for Jim Fregosi in December, and fireman Sparky Lyle, who posted a 1.92 ERA in 107 2/3 relief innings for the Yankees and finished third in the MVP voting after being traded from the Red Sox for Danny Cater in late March.
Forty-four pitchers posted an ERA below 3.00 in 1972, second only to 1968 since 1917. Four of those men finished with ERAs below 2.00, also second to 1968 in the live-ball era. Luis Tiant, who fell on hard times after his tremendous 1968 season, resurrected his career in the Red Sox's bullpen in 1972, then moved to the rotation in August and twirled six shutouts in his final 11 starts to lead the AL with a 1.91 ERA.
Including Carlton, Perry, and Ryan, nine Hall of Famers received Cy Young votes in 1972. The others were Tom Seaver (21-12, 2.92, 249 K's), Don Sutton (19-9, 2.08, 207 K's), Jim Palmer (21-10, 2.07), Ferguson Jenkins (20-12, 3.20), Catfish Hunter, who helped launch the Oakland A's dynasty with a 21-7 record and 2.04 ERA, and 1968's icon Bob Gibson (19-11, 2.46, 208 K's). Mickey Lolich was still around, too, going 22-14 with a 2.50 ERA and 250 K's of his own. There were also three no-hitters thrown in 1972, including Milt Papas' infamous near-perfect game which became imperfect when he walked the 27th batter.