Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Twins Top 10 Pitching Seasons

Clayton Kershaw is in the midst of one of the best pitching seasons in baseball history. He looks to be a lock for the National League Cy Young and there's a chance he could win the NL MVP. Even after missing a chunk of games at the beginning of the season, he has rebounded to post one of the best seasons on record.

Starting pitching seems to be one of the areas the Twins are struggling to find success. There hasn't been a player of Kershaw's caliber in the Twins rotation since the Johan Santana days in the Metrodome. However, there have been some very good seasons from past Twins pitchers.

Last week ESPN tried to rank the top 20 pitcher seasons of the last 50 years. There were no Twins on the list but some Minnesota members were on the honorable mentions list. For the purposes of this post, WAR is the average between the Baseball Reference and FanGraphs version of the statistic. ERA+ is ERA that is adjusted for home park and league context. Postseason performance was also considered.

1. Bert Blyleven, 1973
W-L: 20-17 |  2.52 ERA | 325.0 IP | 258 SO | ERA+: 156 | WAR: 10.5
"[Blyleven's] best season came in 1973, when he went 20-17, with a 2.52 ERA in 40 starts. He pitched 325 innings and tossed nine shutouts. But in 10 starts in which he allowed one or two runs, he went just 5-4 -- even though he pitched at least 8 1/3 innings in all of those games."--- David Schoenfield, ESPN's SweetSpot Blog
The sheer number of innings thrown by Blyleven at such a high level makes this season the most impressive in Twins history. His record could have been even more impressive if the Twins would have given him more run support. The Twins finished with a .500 record so there was never a shot for Blyleven to strut his stuff in the postseason that year. Surprisingly Blyleven received one lone vote in the AL Cy Young balloting that year. Jim Palmer won the award because he had more wins and a lower ERA. Blyleven bested him in innings, complete games, and shutouts. He also struck out over 100 more batters.

2. Johan Santana, 2004
W-L: 20-6 |  2.61 ERA | 228.0 IP | 265 SO | ERA+: 182 | WAR: 8.1
"He's the only guy I know who at times has a 20-mile-per-hour differential between his fastball and his change-up. Usually guys have a 10-mile-per hour difference." --- Brett Boone, Seattle Mariners second baseman
The toughest choice on this list was between Santana and Blyleven for the top spot. Santana was so dominant in 2004 that it was painstakingly hard not to put him in the top spot. His season didn't even get off to the best start. Through his first 12 starts, he had a 5.50 ERA and he had allowed 12 home runs in just under 69 innings. Things turned quickly as he had a 1.64 ERA and 75 strikeouts over his last 55 innings before the All-Star break. He got even better after the Mid-Summer Classic. He started 15 games with a 1.21 ERA and struck out 129 in 104.1 innings. He walked 23 and batters were only able to muster a .443 OPS and they only coaxed 23 walks.

3. Bert Blyleven, 1974
W-L: 17-17 |  2.66 ERA | 281.0 IP | 249 SO | ERA+: 142 | WAR: 8.3
"It (his curveball) was nasty. I'll tell you that. Enough to make your knees buckle. Bert (Blyleven) was a terrific pitcher -- a dominating pitcher." --- Brooks Robinson, Hall of Fame Third Baseman
In the follow-up season to his best professional season, Blyleven continued his dominating form. Many of his numbers dropped off but he was still very good. He was especially good in front of the Metropolitan Stadium crowd. In home games, he had a 1.91 ERA and he threw 12 completed games. He struck out 150 over 160 innings and he limited his walks to 45. The second half of the season was also particularly strong for Blyleven. He had a 2.00 ERA and he struck out 107 in just under 113 innings. Over his last 12 starts, he threw 98 innings with a 1.65 ERA.

4. Johan Santana, 2006
W-L: 19-6 |  2.77 ERA | 233.2 IP | 245 SO | ERA+: 162 | WAR: 7.3
"Santana fiddled with a change-up before 2002, but that was when the pitch blossomed. After Minnesota sent Santana to Class AAA Edmonton to covert him from a reliever to a starter, Bobby, Cuellar, the pitching coach there preached about the significance of trusting his change-up in any situation." --- Jack Curry, The New York Times
The 2006 season was the last season in a very dominant three year stretch for Santana. He led all of baseball in ERA and strikeouts and he had the most innings pitched and games started in the American League. Among pitchers who compiled a minimum of 600 innings between 2004 and 2006, Santana led in ERA, ERA+, strikeouts, and K/BB ratio. He was the undisputed best pitcher in the baseball world even if it was only for three seasons.

5. Frank Viola, 1987
W-L: 17-10 |  2.90 ERA | 251.2 IP | 197 SO | ERA+: 159 | WAR: 6.9
"It's a tremendous feeling. MVP is a great, great honor but I couldn't do it without the other 23 guys and they all should share in this."--- Frank Viola, 1987 World Series MVP
Some people might look at Viola's 1988 campaign as being more dominant since won the Cy Young that year. His 1987 campaign gets moved into the top 5 on this list because of his playoff performance. Viola was credited with three of the team's eight postseason victories that season. His Game 1 and Game 7 starts at the Metrodome were particularly strong as he pitched eight innings in both games and he limited the Cardinals to three runs. During the regular season, he allowed under 100 runs for the first time in his career and he posted the best ERA+ mark for his entire 15-year career.

6. Johan Santana, 2005
W-L: 16-7 |  2.87 ERA | 231.2 IP | 238 SO | ERA+: 155 | WAR: 7.4
In his first All-Star season, Santana lost some Cy Young support because of his low win total. He struck out more batters than everyone else in the baseball world. There were seven starts during the season were Santana didn't allow more than two earned runs and he was either charged with a loss or given a no decision.

7. Frank Viola, 1988
W-L: 24-7 |  2.64 ERA | 255.1 IP | 193 SO | ERA+: 154 | WAR: 6.9
Vioal road a World Series high into the 1988 season and rattled a league high 24 victories. He posted double-digit victories at home and on the road. Over the first half of the season, he had a 14-2 record with a 2.24 ERA including five complete games. In the month of May, he was a perfect 6-0 with a 1.53 ERA including two complete game shutouts.

8. Bert Blyleven, 1971
W-L: 16-15 |  2.81 ERA | 278.1 IP | 224 SO | ERA+: 126 | WAR: 6.9
There wasn't much of a sophomore slump for Mr. Blyleven. The 1971 season marked the beginning of a six year stretch where he would post an ERA of 3.00 or lower. It would also be the start of an eight year stretch where he threw a minimum of 11 complete games. Blyleven was starting his march toward the Hall of Fame.

9. Dean Chance, 1968
W-L: 16-16 |  2.53 ERA | 292.0 IP | 234 SO | ERA+: 124 | WAR: 6.6
Chance was coming off a 20-win season during his first season in Minnesota. His ERA was .20 points lower in 1968 and he tossed more innings. He had 15 complete games and six of those starts were shutouts. His 234 strikeouts were a career high that he would never break and his 0.98 WHIP was the only time he finished a season below 1.00 in this category.

10. Bert Blyleven, 1975
W-L: 15-10 |  3.00 ERA | 275.2 IP | 233 SO | ERA+: 129 | WAR: 6.4
The 1975 campaign would be Blyleven's last full season in Minnesota before he came back a decade later. His 20 complete games were his second highest total as a Twin behind his 1973 season. He struck out over 220 for the fifth straight year. In seven of his losses or no decisions, he pitched at least seven and gave up three runs or less.

Honorable Mentions: Dean Chance (1967), Camilo Pascual (1962), Dave Goltz (1977), Jim Perry, (1970), Jim Katt (1966), Jim Katt (1967), Jerry Koosman (1979), Francisco Liriano (2006)

Leave a COMMENT and start the discussion. Who would be in your top 10 list?

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