Dodgers History: 'Best Pitcher in Baseball'

Cliff Corcoran

The conversation about the Best Pitcher in Baseball is one I always enjoy. When there is no debate to be had, as was the case during Clayton Kershaw’s prime in the first half of the last decade, the title holder’s dominance is a marvel to behold. When the title changes hands, the focus is still on the positive, weighing one sustained elite performance against others.

I took a deep dive into that debate twice in the last three offseasons, first in November 2017 for Sports on Earth, when the question was whether or not Max Scherzer had surpassed Kershaw for the title (my conclusion: he had . . . in 2016). Then again this past November after Jacob deGrom won his second consecutive National League Cy Young award, arguably eclipsing Scherzer.

In both cases, I turned to a formula Nate Silver developed at Baseball Prospectus when he was trying to determine the Best Player in Baseball in what proved to be the final weeks of Barry Bonds’ career. It was Silver’s formula that pinpointed the timing of Scherzer’s succession of Kershaw and that revealed that, coming out of the 2019 season, deGrom, Scherzer, and Justin Verlander were in a virtual three-way tie for the title.

Dodgers fans may have disagreed with the formula’s conclusions in 2016 or ’17, but in retrospect, Kershaw’s fall from the top rung is clear. That’s the great thing about math: it is objective. Indeed, while the formula showed Kershaw’s time on the throne to be shorter than previously believed, it also revealed the forgotten dominance of a pair of Dodgers aces from years gone by.

The Dodgers fare extremely well overall according to the formula. Having run the numbers all the way back to the 1890s, I found that the Dodgers were one of just three teams to have four pitchers hold the title outright in the last 125 years (joining the Red Sox [1] and Braves [2)). Since the birth of the American League in 1901, only the Red Sox have boasted the Best Pitcher in Baseball in more seasons (19) than the Dodgers (16).

Silver’s formula is a blunt tool, but its results largely correspond to our general understanding of baseball history. It gives us Bob Gibson in 1968, Greg Maddux in 1995, Pedro Martinez in 2000, Johan Santana in 2006, and Kershaw in 2014, among other expected results. It does so by calculating a rolling average of each pitcher’s wins above replacement (Baseball Prospectus’s WARP in Silver’s original formulation, Baseball-Reference’s version in my calculations), giving the most weight to the year in question and supporting weight to the three previous seasons and the two that follow [3]. The goal is to measure sustained performance and correct for spikes and flukes. We have the Cy Young award to honor single-season pitching dominance in each league. The Best Pitcher in Baseball is a higher, albeit informal and entirely imaginary, honor reserved for pitchers who have proven themselves over multiple seasons to be the best at their craft in the major leagues.

According to the formula, Kershaw’s rose to the top of the pitching heap in 2012, in the wake of his first Cy Young season in 2011 (a considerable leap forward for the 23-year-old), and remained there for four seasons. He slipped behind Scherzer in 2016, when the Dodgers’ ace threw just 149 innings due in part to a teres major strain, and has since slid further down the list in each of the last three seasons as his workloads have remained low and his dominance has declined.

Kershaw is thus responsible for four of the 16 seasons in which the Dodgers boasted the Best Pitcher in Baseball. You can probably guess that another handful were thanks to Sandy Koufax. Indeed, Koufax topped the list outright from 1963 to 1965, was effectively tied for the title in 1962 (given the bluntness of the formula, Silver determined that any result within five percent of another would count as a tie), and was a close (but not five-percent close) second to Juan Marichal in his final season of 1966. That last is one of the few results to trip over Silver’s use of future seasons in his calculations, but is also recognition that Marichal was nearly Koufax’s equal that season and in the midst of his own remarkable run of dominance that would last for three more seasons.

That’s eight seasons total between Koufax and Kershaw. As for the other eight seasons in which the Dodgers boasted the Best Pitcher in Baseball, many fans might be tempted to mention Orel Hershiser in 1988 or Fernando Valenzuela in his remarkable, strike-shortened rookie year in 1981. However, neither sustained that elite performance long enough in the years surrounding their Cy Young seasons to unseat the Roger Clemens or Steve Carlton, respectively.

The correct answer starts with the pitcher Koufax was effectively tied with in 1962, one of just three seasons since 1893 (which is as far back as I’ve looked) that two teammates tied for the title (the Diamondbacks’ Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling both tied with Pedro Martinez in 2003 and Martinez and Santana in 2004). Though Don Drysdale is most often remembered as Koufax’s wingman, the right-handed 1A compliment to the left-handed legend, there were several seasons prior to Koufax’s full flowering during which Drysdale was not only the Dodgers’ ace, but the Best Pitcher in Baseball.

Though just 20 years old in 1957, Drysdale posted a 153 ERA+ in 221 innings in the Dodgers’ final year in Brooklyn. He was more of a league-average swing man the next year in Los Angeles, but in 1959 he emerged as the full-blown ace of an eventual World Series winner, starting both of that year’s All-Star Games, leading the majors with 242 strikeouts, and posting a 122 ERA+ over a whopping 270 2/3 innings. Drysdale threw another 269 frames in 1960, again leading the majors in strikeouts, with 246, while all of his other numbers improved from L.A.’s championship year. He had a relative off-year in 1961, but was still above-average over 244 innings. In 1962, he rebounded, leading the majors in innings (314 1/3), strikeouts (232), and wins (25), and winning the major-league Cy Young award.

Koufax had his breakout season in 1961, but, per his 3.53 ERA, still wasn’t as dominant as he would become. In 1962, he missed two months after injuring his pitching arm on the bases, the injury which would ultimately lead to his early retirement. As a result, Drysdale, who had claimed the title from an aging Warren Spahn in 1959, held it through 1962, unseated only by Koufax’s first truly mind-bending season in 1963. Drysdale’s best season was still to come in 1964, but by then Koufax had moved way out ahead of everybody.

With Koufax and Drysdale sharing 1962 [4], that leaves five more seasons in which the Dodgers boasted the Best Pitcher in Baseball, all of them due to the work of Charles Arthur “Dazzy” Vance.

Vance didn’t stick in the major leagues until his age-31 season, spending 10 seasons in the minors and getting cups of coffee with the Pirates and Yankees before an arm surgery unleashed his potential and he landed in the Brooklyn rotation in 1931. A hard thrower with a wicked curveball (Dazzy was short for dazzling), Vance broke out and won the National League’s MVP award in 1924, going 28-6 with a 2.16 ERA (174 ERA+) and 262 strikeouts in 308 1/3 innings, all but the losses and innings leading the majors. With two solid years behind him and a relative dearth of competition in the window between the peaks of Walter Johnson (Best Pitcher in Baseball 1911-19) and Lefty Grove (1928-1933 and ’35-38), Vance immediately claimed the title of Best Pitcher in Baseball.

Vance was particularly notable for being a strikeout pitcher in a contact era. For seven straight years from 1922 to 1928, Vance led the NL in both strikeouts and strikeout rate, leading the majors in strikeout rate in six of those seven years and in raw strikeouts in five of them. At a time when the league strikeout rate was 2.8 per nine innings, Vance was striking out 7.5 per nine, more than two and a half times the league average. A comparable performance relative to the major league average in 2019 would have been 23.8 strikeouts per nine innings. Vance’s 15 strikeouts against the Cubs on August 23, 1924 set an NL record for a nine-inning game.

Vance regressed a bit in 1925 but struck out 17 Cardinals in ten innings on July 20 and no-hit the Phillies in September. He battled injuries in ’26 but retained the tile as the runner-up, Yankees’ lefty Herb Pennock, had an off-year. Vance then rebounded in 1927 with a 147 ERA+ over 273 1/3 innings and, in 1928, had a season to rival his MVP campaign, leading the majors with a 2.09 ERA and 190 ERA+ to go with his usual major-league-leading strikeout total (200 exactly), while also leading the NL in WHIP (1.06), FIP (2.83) and, for the fifth of eight consecutive seasons, strikeout-to-walk ratio.

Vance had one more great season in 1930, but by then Grove had emerged in Philadelphia, claiming the crown in 1929. Still, for a franchise renowned for its dominant aces, no Dodgers pitcher has spent more time as the Best Pitcher in Baseball than Vance’s five years from 1924-28.

Of course, the book is hardly closed on the franchise. When asked to rank the top 10 pitchers in baseball by the MLB Network in January, I placed 25-year-old Dodgers righty Walker Buehler seventh on my list, just behind fellow up-and-comer Jack Flaherty. With deGrom, Scherzer, and Verlander 32, 35, and 37, respectively, it might not be long before the Dodgers once again have the Best Pitcher in Baseball.

[1] Cy Young (1901-03), Lefty Grove (1935-38), Roger Clemens (1986-92), Pedro Martinez (1998-2000, 2003-04)

[2] Kid Nichols (1897-99), Warren Spahn (1949-50, 1956-58), Phil Niekro (1976-79), Greg Maddux (1993-96)

[3] Here are the weights Silver assigned:

7 percent: Year N-3

13 percent: Year N-2

22 percent: Year N-1

31 percent: Year N

18 percent: Year N+1

9 percent: Year N+2

[4] For the record, Drysdale held a slim lead in 1962 with a rolling average of 5.66 bWAR to Koufax’s 5.55 that season. Koufax peaked at 7.97 in 1964, the best mark by any Dodger. Drysdale’s best was 5.74 in 1960.

Cliff Corcoran covers baseball for The Athletic and is a former lead baseball writer for SI.com. The co-author or editor of 13 baseball books, including seven Baseball Prospectus annuals, he has also written for USA Today, SB Nation, Baseball Prospectus, Sports on Earth, The Hardball Times, and Boston.com, among others. He has been a semi-regular guest analyst on the MLB Network and can be heard more regularly on The Infinite Inning podcast with Steven Goldman. Follow Cliff on Twitter @CliffCorcoran.

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DDiNoto
DDiNoto

*fare well in paragraph 5.


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