Pitching Dominance: Justin Verlander’s and Clayton Kershaw’s Historic Seasons

While Matt Kemp came up short in his bid for the Triple Crown this season, two pitchers completed the pitching Triple Crown. Both Justin Verlander and Clayton Kershaw led their leagues in wins, ERA, and strikeouts. However, like the hitting Triple Crown, the pitching Triple Crown has a stat that does a poor job at measuring pitching performance; the win. One need only look at Felix Hernandez’s 2010 season or Russ Ortiz’s 2003 season.  Since wins are such a poor measure of pitching performance (not to say ERA and Ks are perfect but at least they are far more dependent on the pitcher), let’s replace wins with WHIP. Then the question becomes whether Verlander and Kershaw achieved this version of the pitching Triple Crown and who has claimed that title in the past. Looking at the AL/NL era, let’s see what the numbers say:

Year Name Team ERA WHIP K
1901 Cy Young BOS 1.62 0.972 158
1905 Christy Mathewson NYG 1.28 0.933 206
1908 Christy Mathewson (2) NYG 1.43 0.827 259
1912 Walter Johnson WSH 1.39 0.908 303
1913 Walter Johnson (2) WSH 1.14 0.780 243
1915 Pete Alexander PHI 1.22 0.842 241
1916 Pete Alexander (2) PHI 1.55 0.959 167
1918 Walter Johnson (3) WSH 1.27 0.954 162
1918 Hippo Vaughn CHC 1.74 1.006 148
1919 Walter Johnson (4) WSH 1.49 0.985 147
1924 Walter Johnson (5) WSH 2.72 1.116 158
1924 Dazzy Vance BRO 2.16 1.022 262
1928 Dazzy Vance (2) BRO 2.09 1.063 200
1930 Lefty Grove PHA 2.54 1.114 209
1931 Lefty Grove (2) PHA 2.06 1.077 175
1934 Lefty Gomez NYY 2.33 1.133 158
1939 Bucky Walters CIN 2.29 1.125 137
1940 Bob Feller CLE 2.61 1.133 261
1948 Harry Brecheen STL 2.24 1.037 149
1963 Sandy Koufax LAD 1.88 0.875 306
1965 Sandy Koufax (2) LAD 2.04 0.855 382
1968 Bob Gibson STL 1.12 0.853 268
1971 Tom Seaver NYM 1.76 0.946 289
1973 Tom Seaver (2) NYM 2.08 0.976 251
1986 Mike Scott HOU 2.22 0.923 306
1995 Randy Johnson SEA 2.48 1.045 294
1997 Roger Clemens TOR 2.05 1.03 292
1999 Pedro Martinez BOS 2.07 0.923 313
2000 Pedro Martinez (2) BOS 1.74 0.737 284
2001 Randy Johnson (2) ARI 2.49 1.009 372
2002 Pedro Martinez (3) BOS 2.26 0.923 239
2005 Johan Santana MIN 2.61 0.921 265
2006 Johan Santana (2) MIN 2.77 0.997 245
2007 Jake Peavy SDP 2.54 1.061 240
2011 Justin Verlander DET 2.40 0.920 250
2011 Clayton Kershaw LAD 2.28 0.977 248

*Bold for numbers that led all Major League Baseball

Not only have Justin Verlander and Clayton Kershaw pitched fantastically this season, they have done something rather rare. Only two other times has a season seen a pitching Triple Crown winner and (prepare Tim Kurkjian voice) the last that happen was 1924. It is also the first time that baseball had two Triple Crown pitchers but did not have one achieve the Major League Triple Crown.

This list also testifies to how great Walter Johnson pitched. He leads all pitchers in winning this Triple Crown. Along with the five Triple Crowns, he has three Major League Triple Crowns. Pedro Martinez takes second place with three Triple Crowns and Sandy Koufax is second in Major League Triple Crowns with two.

Most of the names that make up this list would not surprise baseball fans. However, there is one name that came out of the blue (at least to me) on the list:

’86 Mike Scott

This name shocked me and probably because I only heard in his name while he sat in the dugout. In watching Game 6 of the 1986 NLCS, you can hear the announcers talking about how the Mets needed to win this game to avoid Mike Scott in Game 7. So who is this mystery pitcher?

Mike Scott made his Major League debut with the Mets in 1979 and the Mets traded him to the Astros in 1982. During that period, you could consider Scott a below replacement level player. Here are his numbers during that period:

W-L ERA WHIP K/9 BB/9 ERA+ WAR
29-44 4.45 1.427 4.2 2.9 78 -2.4

In fact, in the 1984 season Mike Scott starting 29 games for the Astros put up a WAR of -2.2. So what changed for Scott to become the most dominant pitcher in 1986?

In the offseason before the 1985 season, Mike Scott came under the tutelage of Roger Craig. Roger Craig invented the split-finger fastball and was pitching coach of the Detroit Tigers in 1984. Many view his teaching of the splitter to many on the Tigers as an important aspect of their World Series run. That success got him the job as manager of the San Francisco Giants in 1985.

During that off-season Mike Scott learned the splitter. He scrapped his slider and change-up and became a fastball-splitter pitcher. In 1985 he pitched the best season of his career up to that point. A year later, he put together the most dominant pitching season of the 1980s. He pitched a no-hitter against the Giants (Roger Craig’s team ironically) to clinch the NL West title. While the Astros lost the NLCS to the Mets in six, their two wins came on the back of two fantastic starts by Scott. He outpitched Doc Gooden in a 1-0 Game 1 victory by posting a five-hit shutout. In Game 4, he pitched a three-hit, one-run, complete game. In his two starts Mike Scott has a 0.50 ERA, a 0.500 WHIP, 19 Ks, and 1 BB. His Game 1 performance got a Game Score of 90 and his Game 4 start got a score of 82. One can see, especially with Game 6 going 16 innings, the Mets could not afford to go against Scott in Game 7.

As his career went on, while he never reached the level he did in ’86, he remained an All-Star caliber pitcher in ’87 and ’88 along with having a good season in ’89. However, by ’90, the wear and tear of the splitter had led to consistent injuries. He retired in ’91.

One should not ignore the potential controversy with Mike Scott’s ascendancy. Many players and baseball insiders thought that Mike Scott scuffed the ball and that gave him the insane movement on his splitter. While that idea does persist, there has not been any conclusive evidence to back up the claims. This might be why we do not talk about Mike Scott’s season in the same way we discuss the other great pitching performances of all-time.

Both Verlander and Kershaw have given us dominant pitching performances this season, and, like Mike Scott, they have put themselves in a class with Walter Johnson, Sandy Koufax, Pedro Martinez and other pitching legends of the game. Many called 2011 the Year of the Pitcher and we have two who epitomized why this season deserved that title.

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