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Friday Five: Favorite pitching seasons

SINGLE-SEASON ERA BY A STARTER: DWIGHT GOODEN (1985),

SINGLE-SEASON ERA BY A STARTER: DWIGHT GOODEN (1985), 1.53
Runner up: Tom Seaver (1971), 1.76

Gooden's 1985 season was one of the most dominant in Major League history. Since 1919, only Bob Gibson pitched to a lower single-season ERA (1.12 in 1968). In addition to his MLB-best ERA, Gooden led the majors with 24 wins and 268 strikeouts and led the NL with 16 complete games in '85. And he was just 20 years old.

(Credit: Paul J. Bereswill)

Justin Verlander starts tonight for the Tigers against the challenger White Sox, and Detroit's ace looks to raise his record to 21-5. This Verlander season just feels special, fairly or not, and it brings up personal memories of other dominant pitching campaigns.

So here are my five favorite such seasons. To be clear, this is a personal, visceral list. I could've gone to Baseball-Reference.com and dug up the best pitching years of my lifetime, by WAR. As a matter of fact, I did just that, here.

But this is for pitchers and years to which I paid enough attention that I can recall living through it, being aware that something special was occurring. Like Verlander tonight, I knew the guy's turn was up, and I made sure to see how he did, if not actually watch the game. 

Without further ado:

1. DWIGHT GOODEN, 1985

He was 20 years old, for crying out loud, in his second season, and you were surprised when Doctor K actually gave up a run. Or especially a home run - he allowed 13 in 276 2/3 innings.

Speaking of which: 276 2/3 innings at age 20?! Ay caramba! 

Eleven double-digit strikeout games. Sixteen complete games. A picture of not only dominance, but also youth and hope.

We know that the rest of Gooden's career didn't go as swimmingly. But the reason he still gets a huge ovation at Citi Field today is because, primarily, people will never forget how awesome he was in '85 (and, to a slighty lesser extent, his rookie season of 1984).

2. RON GUIDRY, 1978

While Gooden's remarkable year came with a lack of surprise, because of how well he pitched in '84, Guidry's career campaign came out of nowhere. Sure, he finally established himself as a good starting pitcher in 1977, the year he turned 27, but that didn't forecast the sort of 1978 he put together.

What made Guidry's year all the more special was its context. As the Yankees fell far behind the Red Sox in the AL East, and as George, Billy and Reggie attacked each other publicly and privately, you could count on Guidry to take the ball every fifth day and dominate. He won 10 straight starts from May 5 to June 22.

And he capped his regular season, of course, by starting on three days rest in the one-game playoff against the Red Sox, on Oct. 2. His fatigue showed, yet he limited the dangerous Red Sox lineup (sound familiar?) to two runs in 6 1/3 innings and picked up his 25th win when Bucky Dent took Mike Torrez deep in the top of the seventh.

It was a heck of a year, and it evoked a great debate over who deserved the AL MVP award, Guidry (who finished second in the voting) or Jim Rice of the rival Red Sox. FWIW, I would've voted for Guidry.

3.  PEDRO MARTINEZ, 1999

You could argue that his 2000 season was superior to this one, but I'll always recall this one as the year Pedro graduated from elite to supernatural. In an era that stood out as hitting-dominant, Martinez lapped the field.

He struck out 313 batters to lead the AL. Who finished second? Chuck Finley, with 200. So Pedro exceeded the second-place guy by more than 50 percent. His strikeouts-to-walks ratio was 8.460. The next-best in the AL? Oakland's Gil Heredia, at 3.441. 

His ERA+ was 243, meaning he was 143 percent better than the league-average pitcher. Second place? David Cone, at 137.

Throw in his fun All-Star Game start - a performance, we should mention, that seemed to drain Pedro, as he wound up on the disabled list shortly after - and his phenomenal relief outing in ALDS Game 5 at Cleveland, and, well, yeah. It was pretty cool stuff.

4. OREL HERSHISER, 1988

This would be your run-of-the-mill, excellent season if not for the way he wrapped it up: First, by not allowing a run in his final six-plus starts, breaking Don Drysdale's MLB record with 59 1/3 consecutive scoreless innings. 

And then, with that posteeason: Five starts, one relief appearance, two shutouts a save and, in all, a 1.05 ERA in 42 2/3 innings. Pretty, pretty, pretty good.

5. RANDY JOHNSON, 2005

Yup, I stipulate that including this one is officially nutty. But as I wrote at the outset, it's a personal, visceral list. Make your own darn list if you don't like it.

When Johnson put together all of those remarkable years with Seattle and Arizona, they were hard to follow from the East Coast. Hard to really get a feel for them, in the same way I did the others here (with Hershiser, his late-season starts became events because of his pursuit of Drysdale's mark). 

So when the Big Unit bullied his way to the Yankees for the '05 season, it was our first chance to get a regular, up-close-and-personal look at him.

History recalls Johnson's two-year Bronx stint as a failure, and I continue to argue that it's a little more nuanced. In '05, Johnson, at age 41 turning 42, clearly struggled with his switch back to the American League, and his ERA hovered in the 4s for much of the season.

But in a year when the Yankees rallied from 39-39 to 95-67, on the backs of such unlikely heros as Aaron Small, Shawn Chacon, and an on-his-last-lap Al Leiter, Johnson pitched like an ace in the second half, putting up a 3.31 ERA after the All-Star break. He was the aging warrior, his best years behind him, who managed to come through at the end.

Well, not the very end. He pitched very poorly in his one playoff start, against the Angels, and the last time I spoke with him, in 2009, he was still convinced that he was tipping his pitches. He rebounded with a strong relief performance in Game 5 of that ALDS, however, and perhaps if the Yankees had figured out a way to prevail in that do-or-die game, Johnson would've received a second chance in the ALCS. 

Instead, his "second chance" came the next year, at ALDS Game 3 in Detroit, and Johnson was so broken down by that point that he didn't give the Yankees much of a chance at all to win.

--Here's my column off last night's Yankees-Red Sox game.

--Have a great day.

Tags: Dwight Gooden , Ron Guidry , Pedro Martinez , Orel Hershiser , Randy Johnson

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