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.
Best remembered as the season bifurcated by a players strike, 1981 was also a year dominated by pitching. The rate of run scoring in 1981 effectively ties it with 1976 as the toughest run-scoring year since 1972 (3.998 R/G in 1981 to 3.994 in 1976). There were two no-hitters five days apart in May, the latter a perfect game by the Indians' Len Barker. After play resumed, Nolan Ryan pitched his fifth career no-hitter in late September. Ryan (11-5) led the majors that year with a 1.69 ERA while allowing just two home runs in 21 starts, but the pitching sensation of the year was Fernando Valenzuela, the 21-year-old rookie lefty of the eventual world champion Dodgers. Valenzuela won the Rookie of the Year and Cy Young awards by going 13-7 with a 2.48 ERA, and a major-league-best 180 strikeouts and launched "Fernandomania" by twirling five shutouts in his first seven starts of the season on his way to a major league-leading and rookie record-tying eight shutouts on the season.
Though the shortened season placed an artificial limit on win and strikeout totals (Tom Seaver and four American Leaguers led the majors with 14 wins, Seaver going 14-2 with a 2.54 ERA for the Reds and finishing a close second to Valenzuela in the Cy Young voting), the dominance of pitching in 1981 can be seen by looking at the season's ERA leaderboards, where 26 qualifiers finished with an ERA below 3.00, the most since 1972 and six more than in 1976. Among that number were Hall of Famers Seaver, Ryan, Steve Carlton, and Don Sutton, stars such as Bert Blyleven, Ron Guidry, Tommy John, and Vida Blue, and AL Rookie of the Year Dave Righetti. That list does not include two other Hall of Famers, AL MVP and Cy Young award winner Rollie Fingers who posted a 1.04 ERA while saving 28 games for the Brewers, or Yankees' closer Goose Gossage, who posted a 0.77 ERA while saving 20 for the eventual American League champions.
On the heels of the hitting-heavy environment in the 1930s, the balance tipped decidedly in favor of pitching during the war years. That was never more true than in 1943, a season which saw the fewest runs scored per game between 1919 and 1968. The growing popularity of night baseball and the reduced quality of the ball itself due to the wartime demand on materials and manufacturing were factors, but nothing affected the lack of offense quite like the fact that roughly 500 players -- many of them hitters and among them four of the game's best hitters (Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Hank Greenberg, and Johnny Mize) -- enlisted in the military during World War II.
When the players returned in 1946, however, the pitchers still had the advantage, resulting in a rate of scoring comparable to 1981. Bob Feller, one of the first ballplayers to enlist, led the way, twirling a no-hitter against the Yankees on April 30 and going on to become the first pitcher to strike out 300 men since Walter Johnson in 1912, setting a modern major league record with 348 strikeouts to go with his 26-15 record, 2.18 ERA, and major league best 10 shutouts. Feller kept wartime horse Hal Newhouser of the Tigers from winning his second-straight pitching triple crown, leaving Newhouser only the ERA title (1.94), and a share of the wins lead (26-9) to go with his second-place 275 strikeouts. Newhouser had won the AL MVP in 1944 and '45 and the man who won it in 1943, the Yankees' Spud Chandler, also returned from the war with a strong season (20-8, 2.10 ERA). Over in the NL the Boston Braves' Johnny Sain (later to be immortalized in the famous "Spahn and Sain and pray for rain" couplet) returned to post a 20-14 record with a 2.21 ERA, while young Cardinals lefty Howie Pollet, who had been an All-Star at age 22 before enlisting, went 21-10 with a 2.10 ERA.
Just because offenses dominated in the late '90s doesn't mean there wasn't great pitching going on. Between the strike year of 1994, when 4.92 runs were scored per game, and 2000, when the era peaked with 5.14 runs scored per game (the most since 1936), 1997 represented a relative low point for run scoring with "just" 4.77 runs crossing the plate per contest. The sheer quantity of star pitching talent on display that season, the last before the most recent round of expansion and the homer-happy season of 1998was staggering.
Start with the Braves' rotation headed by future Hall of Famers Greg Maddux (19-4, 2.20 ERA), Tom Glavine (14-7, 2.96 ERA), and John Smoltz (15-12, 3.02 ERA, 241 K's) and complimented that year by a career year from lefty Denny Neagle (20-5, 2.97 ERA). Those four men combined for a 2.80 ERA over 962 innings (an average more than 240 innings per pitcher). None of them took home the Cy Young award, however, as that was claimed by a breakout season from 25-year-old Expos righty Pedro Martinez (17-8, 1.90 ERA, 305 K's). Despite those 305 punchouts, Martinez finished second in the league in strikeouts to the Phillies' Curt Schilling (17-11, 2.97, 319 K's), marking one of just six seasons in baseball history in which two pitchers each struck out 300 men. Schilling's 319 strikeouts remain a record for a right-handed National Leaguer.
In the American League, the Cy Young went to pitching triple crown winner Roger Clemens (21-7, 2.05 ERA, 292 K's) in his first of two such seasons for the Blue Jays. Runners up included Seattle's Randy Johnson (20-4, 2.28 ERA, 291 K's), who twice struck out 19 men in a game that season, the Orioles' Mike Mussina (15-8, 3.20 ERA, 218 K's), and the Yankees' Andy Pettitte (18-7, 2.88 ERA). Other strong 1997 seasons were turned in by the Yankees' David Cone (12-6, 2.82 ERA, 222 K's), the Astros' Darry Kile (19-7, 2.57 ERA, 205 K's) and the eventual world champion Marlins' Kevin Brown (16-8, 2.69 ERA, 205 K's), who pitched the season's only single-pitcher no-hitter falling a two-out, eighth-inning hit-by-pitch shy of a perfect game. In total, 13 qualified pitchers posted an ERA below 3.00 in 1997, which through the start of this season remained the most since 1992.