In 1968, twenty pitchers pitched at least 175 innings with ERAs under 2.50. Seven of those twenty had ERAs under 2.00, led by Bob Gibson’s miniscule 1.12 (in 304.2 innings). Detroit’s Denny McLain went 31-6, becoming just the third 30-game winner since the end of the Deadball Era, and the only one ever (Deadball included) to never appear out of the bullpen. Carl Yastrzemski hit .301…and won the AL batting title by twelve points. There were five no-hitters thrown, including no-hitters on back-to-back days involving the same two teams, as well as a perfect game from Catfish Hunter. That was the Year of the Pitcher.
2010 was often referred to as the “Year of the Pitcher” throughout the season. The comparison to 1968 doesn’t hold up. For one thing, Major League hitters as a whole hit .237/.299/.340 in 1968, which is strikingly similar to the abysmal 2010 Mariners’ line of .236/.298/.339. Only two hitters OPSed over .900 (Hall of Famers Willie McCovey and Carl Yastrzemski) and only seventeen OPSed over .800. In 2010, hitters hit .257/.325/.403, fourteen hitters OPSed over .900 (four of whom were over 1.000), while 56, more than one third of qualified hitters, OPSed .800 or better. In other words, unlike 1968, there was plenty of good hitting in 2010. However, because it was a lower-scoring year than we have become accustomed to over the past fifteen years, and because there were some particularly memorable performances, the Year of the Pitcher analogies stuck. It was not the Year of the Pitcher, but it might have been the Year of the Individual Pitching Performance. As voted by you, those performances represent the YCBPness of the 2010 season.
In the early weeks of the season, no one did more to set the “Year of the Pitcher” tone than Colorado’s Ubaldo Jimenez. The big right-hander pitched well in his first two starts, giving up three runs in twelve innings, before facing the Braves in Atlanta on April 17th. He was wild that night, walking six, but he also struck out seven and didn’t allow a hit, throwing the first no-hitter in Rockies history. He followed that up with 13.1 more scoreless innings to finish April 5-0 with a 0.79 ERA. In his first start in May, he struck out 13 Padres in seven innings and by the end of that month he was 10-1 with a somehow even lower 0.78 ERA, capping it with a shutout in San Francisco where he uncorked what some called the greatest pitch ever thrown (it’s not shown anywhere on the gif, but in addition to the ridiculous movement and sink, that pitch was clocked at 99 MPH. That’s just not fair).
To get a sense of how many crazy individual pitching performances there were in 2010, consider that Jimenez was not the only pitcher to throw his franchise’s first no-hitter, and his six walks were also not the most in a no-hitter thrown this year. On July 26th, Tampa Bay’s Matt Garza no-hit the Tigers, leaving the Padres and Mets as the only franchises without no-hitters to their credit. On June 25th, Arizona’s Edwin Jackson no-hit the Rays while walking eight and throwing 149 pitches, the most thrown by any pitcher in a single game since 2005.
While great performances are never really expected, Jimenez is the ace of his staff, and Garza and Jackson were both well-regarded prospects. Dallas Braden was not. Despite starting Opening Day for the Athletics in 2009, most people outside the Bay Area had never heard of him. Early on in the season, his biggest claim to fame was an inane back and forth with Alex Rodriguez over proper etiquette regarding going back to first base after a foul ball. On May 9th, he threw his first career complete game, and made it a perfect game against the Tampa Bay Rays. It was Oakland’s first no-hitter in twenty years. Not bad for a 24th round draft pick.
If you had to pick one player to throw a perfect game, Roy Halladay would be a pretty good choice. After carving up the AL East for most of his career, everyone expected him to dominate upon being traded to the Phillies, and he didn’t disappoint, throwing four complete games in his first nine starts and owning a sub-2 ERA. On May 29th, less than three weeks after Braden became famous for something other than his pride in The 209, Doc Halladay threw a perfect game of his own, striking out eleven Marlins in the process. Lost in the shuffle there is Josh Johnson’s brilliant outing—he threw seven innings and gave up one unearned run.
As if two perfect games were not enough, just four days after Halladay wrote his name in the record books came one just as unlikely as Braden’s. Armando Galarraga, who had never thrown a complete game in his first 56 starts, retired all 28 batters he faced for the first ever 28-batter perfect game. Of course, he is not credited with a perfect game because the 27th batter was called safe at first, but we all know what really happened*. Amazingly, Galarraga only threw 88 pitches, less than 60% of what Edwin Jackson needed.
*I promised an explanation of why we chose the Mets-Cardinals 20-inning game as YCPB Game of the Year over Galarraga’s gem, and here is as good a place as any for it. This blog is dedicated to random, unpredictable events occurring in the context of a baseball game. That Galarraga was one out from a perfect game certainly qualifies but no more so than Braden being there. While the umpire blowing the call at the worst possible time is certainly unpredictable (Jim Joyce is, after all, a good umpire), it wasn’t on the level of Matt Holliday or Luis Castillo dropping the ball at key points. Those guys are a part of the game and vital to the way it unfolds while Joyce is supposed to be outside it. Therefore, we didn’t feel right giving this game the nod as Game of the Year over the craziness that was the Mets-Cardinals.
Speaking of great feats from relatively unheralded Detroit pitchers, Max Scherzer did something completely unprecedented. The young fireballer with the multi-colored eyes joined the Tigers last winter, and struck out a career-high fourteen in his ninth start. That certainly isn’t unprecedented—in fact, three other pitchers struck out 14+ in a game in 2010 alone. What makes Scherzer’s start unique was that he was pulled after 5.2 innings, meaning he recorded only seventeen outs in the whole game. Fourteen strikeouts in less than six innings had never been done before in the history of the game, and that from a guy who was making his first start up from the minors after being demoted—his 5.2 dominating innings lowered his season ERA to 6.42.
One of the other three 14+-strikeout games in 2010 was thrown by a pitcher who certainly had plenty of hype around him. Stephen Strasburg was the first overall draft pick in 2009, and probably the most hyped pitching prospect of the last twenty years, if not ever. He dominated the minors to the tune of a 1.30 ERA, 0.795 WHIP in eleven starts and was called up to the Majors on June 8th to such fanfare that it was referred to as “Strasmas”. Yes, it was against the Pirates, who were awful. Yes, it was against the Pirates away from Pittsburgh, where they were really* awful, but a 21 year-old making his Major League debut and striking out fourteen without walking a batter? Even for the most hyped prospect in ages, that’s unpredictable.
*How awful were the Pirates on the road? They went 17-64 (contrasted with an oddly respectable 40-41 at home) while hitting .231/.293/.354/.647. That’s even worse than Seattle’s numbers on the road (.236/.295/.356/.651).
Still another high-K game was perhaps the best individual pitching performance of the 2010 season. Brandon Morrow was the 5th overall pick in the 2006 draft, taken ahead of Tim Lincecum, Clayton Kershaw, and Max Scherzer, and taken just two picks after Evan Longoria. He showed mixed success as a reliever and part-time starter before being traded to Toronto, where he was made a full-time starter. He had the same control problems that have plagued him throughout his career, walking batters at a higher rate than all but ten pitchers with 100 innings pitched in 2010, but made up for it by striking them out more frequently than anybody. All of that came together on August 8th against the Tampa Bay Rays (who seem to be involved in a lot of these great individual pitching performances), when he took a no-hitter into the ninth having struck out sixteen. In Blue Jay history, there had been one no-hitter (Dave Stieb in 1990), and one 17-strikeout game (Roger Clemens with 18 in 1998). Evan Longoria broke up the no-hitter with two outs, but then Morrow struck out Dan Johnson for his seventeenth of the game.
To get a sense of how rare such games are, in all of baseball history there has been only 37 games where a pitcher struck out seventeen or more batters*. Nearly 40% of those (14) can be attributed to Nolan Ryan, Randy Johnson, or Roger Clemens. The last man to do it before Morrow was Johan Santana in 2007, then Ben Sheets in 2004, then Johnson in 2002. Since 2003, there have been as many 17-strikeout games as perfect games (that’s not including Galarraga’s lost perfect game).
*Plus eleven more where a pitcher struck out 17+ while pitching more than nine innings. The all-time record is 21, set by Tom Cheney over 16 innings in 1962.
Morrow’s gem was the last incredible performance of the season, but the great games didn’t end once the calendar turned to October. After years of fourth place finishes in Toronto, Roy Halladay finally got to pitch in the postseason, and in his first start, he so thoroughly suffocated the Cincinnati Reds’ offense that it was apparent almost from the start that they weren’t going to get a hit. The hardest hit ball the whole game was a lineout from Travis Wood, a pitcher who didn’t even start the game. The very next night, two-time Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum made his postseason debut, and pitched a two-hit shutout with fourteen strikeouts in a 1-0 win over the Atlanta Braves.
Cliff Lee was no stranger to excellent postseason starts, having thrown 40.1 innings in 2009 to a 1.56 ERA. He began his 2010 playoff run by going seven innings and allowing one run with no walks and ten strikeouts in his first start. He followed that up with a complete game one-run effort with no walks and eleven strikeouts in a decisive Game 5 to eliminate the Rays, then turned in his best performance against the Yankees in Game 3 of the ALCS, throwing eight innings of two-hit shutout ball with one walk and thirteen strikeouts, dropping his overall postseason ERA to 1.26 before the World Series brought it back up.
There you have it. There was too much great hitting—from breakout stars like Carlos Gonzalez and Jose Bautista to exciting rookies like Buster Posey and Jason Heyward to mainstays like Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera—to call it the Year of the Pitcher. But it was the Year of Ubaldo Jimenez, Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Roy Halladay. It was the Year of Dallas Braden, Armando Galarraga, Matt Garza, Edwin Jackson, Cliff Lee, Tim Lincecum, and many, many, others. It was the Year of the Pitching Performance.