Commentary

Recalling the real Year of the Pitcher

Led by Cardinals great Bob Gibson, pitchers in 1968 were as dominant as ever

Originally Published: May 17, 2011
By Tim Kurkjian | ESPN The Magazine

A trusted colleague and friend recently wondered if it is time, in this second consecutive season of dominant pitching, to lower the mound. No, it is not time to lower the mound. The last time Major League Baseball did that was 1969, and it was done out of necessity because of what had happened in 1968 -- the original, the one and only, Year of the Pitcher.

The pitching we saw in 2010 was exceptional, and it has been even better this season, but statistically, it doesn't compare to 1968, when the mound was 15 inches high (a 10-inch height limit has been in place since the start of the 1969 season) and hitters were made to feel that tall nightly thanks to, among others, Bob Gibson, Denny McLain, Juan Marichal and Luis Tiant. That was the Summer of 4-to-2 because that essentially was the average game score that year, a year in which Carl Yastrzemski won a batting title with a .301 average. Ken Harrelson hit 35 homers and had 109 RBIs that season. He has been in broadcasting since 1974, including the last 21 years as the television voice of the Chicago White Sox. He will serve as our guide for the 1968 season, and how it compares to 2010-11.

[+] EnlargeBob Gibson
Focus on Sport/Getty ImagesBob Gibson had a microscopic 1.12 ERA in 1968.

"I remember 1968, it felt like every pitcher was right on top of you that year,'' Harrelson said. "It felt like they weren't 60 feet, 6 inches away. It felt like they were 40 feet away.''

The numbers are staggering, even when compared to 2010-11. In 1968, the average of runs per game was 6.8, compared to 8.4 in 2011. There were 1.2 home runs per game in 1968, compared to 1.7 this season. The major league batting average was .237, compared to .250. And the major league ERA was 2.98, compared to 3.86. That bears repeating: The average pitcher in 1968 had an ERA under 3.00. The highest team ERAs in baseball that season -- 3.64 by the Washington Senators (American League) and 3.56 by the Cincinnati Reds (National League) -- would be in the top 10 today.

"Those pitchers that year were awesome, they were something to behold,'' Harrelson said. "All you have to know about that year is that Denny McLain won 31 games, and he wasn't the best pitcher in the league. Looie Tiant was. He had a 1.60 ERA. That's still the best ERA in the history of the league. We knew every pitch that Tiant was going to throw -- we read pitchers back then -- and still couldn't hit him. Sam McDowell was on Tiant's team. Sam had the best four pitches of anyone I've ever seen. You would go into Cleveland and see Tiant, Sam McDowell, [Sonny] Siebert and [Jim] Hargan. They were a bitch.''

The Indians had a 2.66 ERA that year, tying the Orioles for the lowest ERA in the AL. McLain went 31-6 that season. Cliff Lee, one of the best starting pitchers in the game last season, had as many starts -- 28 -- in 2010 as McLain had complete games in 1968. And McLain didn't have the most complete games in the major leagues -- the Giants' Marichal had 30 complete games, which was 10 more than the NL Central and AL East had in total in 2010.

Marichal didn't get one first-place vote for the Cy Young Award that season despite going 26-9 with a 2.43 ERA, 30 complete games and 46 walks in 326 innings. That's because Gibson posted the greatest ERA -- 1.12 -- in major league history, leading a Cardinals staff that had a 2.49 ERA. Gibson threw 13 shutouts that season: in 2010, the AL leader had only two. Gibson lost nine games in a season in which he had a 1.12 ERA, which is all you really need to know about the remarkable pitching in 1968. But he didn't lose from June 6 through July 30, during which he made 11 starts, threw 99 innings (nine straight complete games) and allowed three runs. To repeat: 99 innings, three runs. He had a 47-inning scoreless streak that season, which was longer than Tiant's (41) or Ray Culp's (39), but it wasn't the longest that season, the Dodgers' Don Drysdale threw 58 consecutive scoreless innings, a record that stood until 1988 when Orel Hershiser threw 59 scoreless innings.

Gibson was one of 10 NL pitchers with an ERA under 2.45. Tiant was one of five AL pitchers with an ERA under 2.00. In 1968, the Yankees hit .214, or 22 points lower than the 2010 Mariners, who were historically bad, and the Astros hit 66 home runs, 35 fewer than the inept Mariners of last year. In 1968, with 10 fewer teams than are in the major leagues today, there were 82 1-0 games, or 5 percent of the games. Last year, there were 62 1-0 games, or 2.6 percent. This year there have been nine 1-0 games, or 1.3 percent.

"Back then, pitchers would look at a hitter and say, 'I'm not going to let that SOB beat me,''' Harrelson said. "And the strike zone was different then. Today, it's the size of a cigar box. Back then, with the balloon [chest] protectors on umpires, everything below the belt was a ball, but everything from the belt to the bottom of the neck was a strike. That's why there were so many right-handed hitters that were high-fastball hitters. We don't have 10 right-handed hitters today that are high-fastball hitters. Back then, umpires also called the inside strike all the time. Now, 87-88 percent of the umpires don't call that pitch.''

In 1968, Yastrzemski led the AL with a .301 average, next was Danny Cater at .290 and only five players in the league batted as high as .280. Pete Rose led the NL with a .335 average. The league home runs leaders were Frank Howard (44) and Willie McCovey (36). Harrelson (109) and McCovey (105) were the RBI leaders. Those numbers can't compare to today's league leaders. Granted, there are 250 more players in the game today at any time, but Harrelson's 109 RBIs in 1968 would have tied for seventh in the AL.

I remember 1968, it felt like every pitcher was right on top of you that year. It felt like they weren't 60 feet, 6 inches away. It felt like they were 40 feet away.

-- Former player and current White Sox broadcaster Ken Harrelson

"Another big difference back then was you always had to worry about getting drilled,'' Harrelson said. "I hit behind Yaz in '68, and when he hit one out, I might get knocked down. They'd knock you down if you took a good swing. There also was a lot of bench jockeying going on back then that doesn't go on today. Even the managers did it. I hit a three-run homer of John Buzhardt [in 1967], and my next at-bat, [White Sox manager Eddie] Stanky was on the top step of the dugout screaming, 'Buzz, stick one in his [f------] ear.''

Harrelson laughed and said, "And the spitter was very much in order back in those days.''

It was a great time to be a pitcher in 1968. Pitchers got away with throwing a spitter, the mound was high, the strike zone was big and the ballparks were huge. The sensational pitching numbers in '68 dwarf those of 2010-11, but they're only numbers, Harrelson says.

"In my 52 years in baseball,'' Harrelson said, "I've never seen as many good young pitchers as we have today. It's day after day after day. I've never in my life seen the caliber of pitching that our club [the White Sox] just saw in 11 straight games. In 1968, there were four-man rotations, and you'd get two or three really good pitchers, but there was always one cookie in there. Today, you see a team for three or four days, and there are no cookies. Look at the Angels' staff, the A's staff. And the pitchers are so big. The biggest guy I ever faced was 6-foot-6, and that was [Dave] DeBusschere (who pitched for two years for the White Sox while he was playing in the NBA). We saw Tampa Bay, and they started [Jeff] Niemann, who's 6-9, and replaced him with Adam Russell, who's 6-8½.''

Harrelson said there are several differences between the pitching in 1968 and the pitching today.

"Back in '68, you would face the same guy [starting pitcher] three or four times every year,'' he said. "Back then, bullpens were places where bad starters went. The game today is a battle of the bullpens. Also, Ted Williams used to say the hardest pitch to hit was the slider, but the cut fastball is the pitch that everyone has developed today. Today's guys are throwing in the 90s with movement, two-seamers, cutters. It's a bitch today, too.''

The last two years have been called The Year of the Pitcher, but that may always be the property of 1968. But every year, we are getting closer to '68. And that likely will continue.

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback in May 2008. Click here to order a copy.

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