Sunday, April 26, 2015

How Incredible Were These Pitchers' Days?

In a "What's Next" article last week, MLB.com proclaimed "Harvey Day in Bronx on tap." Matt Harvey made a Subway Series appearance at Yankee Stadium on Saturday, and it was an event that lived up to the hype. The Dark Knight just missed a complete game after giving New York fans a reason to celebrate baseball all day. The weekly festival that is Harvey Day mirrors unofficial hurler holidays across the country.

The discussion of eponymous pitcher Days seems to have exploded this season. I don't know if I've just been spending more time on the Internet, but I see it all over the place. "Happy Strasburg Day!" "It's King Felix Day!" "Can't wait until we finally reach the next Fernandez Day!" During Spring Training, after watching Masahiro Tanaka pitch two dominant innings, I got caught up in the craze and wrote, "Start the countdown to his second start. I, for one, can't wait 'til the next Tanaka Day."

The popularity of naming days after starting pitchers got me thinking about which pitcher's typical Day was the most incredible in history. In what pitcher season did the average start produce the most excitement and buzz?

In order to answer that question, I analyzed the top 50 starting pitcher seasons since the end of the Deadball Era in 1919.* I used Baseball-Reference's list of pitcher WAR totals to organize those incredible seasons. The aim here isn't to determine the best pitcher or even the best pitcher season of all-time. Rather, we're trying to figure out which pitcher seasons captured fans' attention most and created circus-like atmospheres in those pitchers' ballparks.

*Sadly, the 1919 starting point disqualifies pitchers like Twitter mini-celebrity Old Hoss Radburn and the phenomenally-named Ice Box Chamberlain. It also means you won't see Cy Young on this list, even though you'll see a multitude of Cy Young winners. 

After I arranged those top 50 pitcher WAR seasons in an Excel spreadsheet, I graded each of them on a 40-point scale according to four criteria: pitcher dominance, pitcher personality, team relevance, and game-day atmosphere. In order for a pitcher's start be a true holiday, a perfect storm of those four factors is needed. Yes, I realize that this exercise was highly subjective, but the four criteria at least provide the guise of objectivity. In that way, my process was similar to the Salem Witch Trials, the NFL's Mueller Report, and baseball's Hall of Fame voting. Let's take a closer look at my quartet of deceptively subjective criteria:

Dominance of Pitcher
Imagine Cy Young representing a 10 and Anthony Young representing a 1. Now, where does each pitcher's dominance rank on that continuum? Obviously, most hurlers who make the list will sport a high Dominance score. Since pitchers were bunched so closely together on the season WAR list, I gave the top 20 a score of 10, the next 20 a score of 9, and the last 10 a score of 8. Good thing pitcher dominance isn't the only -- or really even the most important -- factor in determining which pitcher's Day was the best one ever.

Pitcher Personality/Uniqueness
I had a high school English teacher who railed against the phrase "more unique." If something is truly unique, Dr. Meade said, there is no comparative qualifier needed. Anything unique is one-of-a-kind. Still, Uniqueness is one of the criteria I used to determine how special each pitcher's Day was. I considered each pitcher's personality, so fan favorites like Tom Seaver scored higher than less captivating guys like Bert Blyleven. This criterion also includes stylistic considerations. Randy Johnson wasn't the most charismatic person but he was one of the most unique -- sorry, Dr. Meade -- players ever. Only two pitchers notched perfect grades of 10 in this category. Stay tuned.

Quality of Team Season
Tremendous pitching matters so much more when it occurs in the heat of a pennant race. Some of the best pitcher Days we'll examine occurred during World Series-winning campaigns. On the other end of the spectrum, in 2009 Zach Greinke put together one of the most brilliant seasons of my lifetime, but he did it while toiling for a 65-win team in Kansas City. The 2 he received in this category bumped him well out of the running for the best pitcher Day in history, despite his otherworldly numbers.

Stadium/Game-day Atmosphere
This factor is linked to the quality of the team, and I'd argue that it's the most important consideration in determining the best pitcher Day. Obviously, I couldn't attend the games in which most of these guys pitched, so attendance figures, newspaper and eyewitness accounts, and other measures were used to determine the electricity in the air for each of the starters' outings. This criterion disqualifies pitchers like Wilbur Wood, who put together magical seasons in 1971 and '72 in front of measly crowds of about 11,000 fans per game.

Now that we're clear on the criteria that I used to support my preconceived opinions, here are a few ground rules before we get started:

One season per pitcher
Pedro Martinez's 1999 and 2000 seasons were two of the most incredible individual years ever. Here's what Joe Posnanski wrote last year when he tried to determine which hurler he'd choose to pitch for his soul:

"Inning-by-inning, no pitcher was ever as good as Pedro Martinez in 1999.

Unless … it’s Pedro Martinez in 2000."


However, you'll read about Pedro Day from only one of those years. It would be a little boring if I included multiple seasons from Pedro, Sandy Koufax, or Roger Clemens.

Subjectivity = Fun!
Here's what I wrote when I tracked the history of the New York Athlete Championship Belt:

"I realize that this list is incredibly arbitrary, and that's by design. ... Feel free to hit me over the head with a beer bottle if you disagree with me."

That all applies here, too.  On a related note...

Any tie will be subject to a judgment call.
By me! Feel free to dissect my scores and let me know about any boners you think I made.

IMPORTANT: Here's a link to the sorted spreadsheet of my scores for each pitcher season and how I arrived at them. Skip over it until the end if you want to be surprised by my findings.

Okay, now let's do this thing. We'll start with a dozen honorable mentions. Some of these guys cracked the Baseball-Reference top-50 WAR list above and some didn't, but all of them produced truly memorable seasons. As always, hold onto your butts.

Honorable Mention

Please forgive me if I show a bit of a recency bias....

Palmer Day, 1971

Dominance of Pitcher: 5
Pitcher Personality/Uniqueness: 7
Quality of Team Season: 9
Stadium/Game-day Atmosphere: 9
TOTAL SCORE: 30

Palmer probably had better seasons in '70 and '72, but '71 was special because almost every Orioles hurler had a Day that season. Palmer, Dave McNally, Mike Cuellar, and Pat Dobson all won 20 games for the O's during a time when the win was the most important pitching statistic. Palmer was the ace of that amazing staff, which had led the team to a World Series title the year before. The pitcher's performances on Palmer Day throughout his career later led to turns as an underwear model and successful announcer.

Ryan Day, 1989
Dominance of Pitcher: 6
Pitcher Personality/Uniqueness: 9
Quality of Team Season: 7
Stadium/Game-day Atmosphere: 9
TOTAL SCORE: 30

This wasn't his best statistical season, but Nolan Ryan was a legend by this point in his career. The 42-year-old Texas native thrilled fans in Arlington on the way to his final 300-strikeout season. Take a look at this screenshot of single-season strikeout leaders -- on which 1989 Ryan is tied for No. 62 -- and note the pitchers' ages in parentheses:



The Ryan Express was still chugging along even though the righty was at least eight years older than anyone else with similar skills. Granted, I rigged the above screenshot so that the 40-year-old Randy Johnson* was cut off, but look at all those ages. Ryan's performance as a quadragenarian was incredible.

*We'll talk about the Big Unit later.

Even though the Rangers drew only about two million fans in '89, Ryan's starts were different. A 2014 study conducted by Russell Ormiston and later reported by Jim Pagels found that Ryan increased home attendance by an average of 21.3 percent on days that he pitched. Ryan Day, indeed! One of the major reasons for that boost was the real sense that he could throw a no-hitter on any given day. (He had five by '89, and he'd throw two more before the end of his career.)

Moose Day, 1997
Dominance of Pitcher: 6
Pitcher Personality/Uniqueness: 7
Quality of Team Season: 8
Stadium/Game-day Atmosphere: 9
TOTAL SCORE: 30

Our second Orioles righty! (And our last, although O's fans can dream about Gausman Day in the near future.) After the deluge of new stadiums in the last two decades, it's easy to take Camden Yards for granted. But in '97, the O's led the AL in attendance. Those sellout crowds made their "MOOOSE!" chants reverberate throughout Baltimore as Mike Mussina dominated batters in an ultra-heightened offensive environment. Mussina's teammate Brady Anderson had slugged 50 homers in '96, for God's sake! Still, Moose put up stats that would look good in any time period. Moose Day, like Mussina himself, shouldn't be overlooked.

Dizzy Dean Day, 1934
Dominance of Pitcher: 6
Pitcher Personality/Uniqueness: 8
Quality of Team Season: 10
Stadium/Game-day Atmosphere: 7
TOTAL SCORE: 31

Dizzy was a lunatic and a fan favorite who led the Gashouse Gang Cardinals to the World Series title in '34. His performances were so special that he earned a Time Magazine cover shot in early '35. As an added bonus, the alliteration of Dizzy Dean Day is a marketer's dream.

Grove Day, 1931
Dominance of Pitcher: 8
Pitcher Personality/Uniqueness: 8
Quality of Team Season: 10
Stadium/Game-day Atmosphere: 6
TOTAL SCORE: 32

Five of Lefty Grove's seasons made the top-50 WAR list, but his teams' performances and the relatively uneventful game-day atmospheres of his time usually made Grove Day a bit less special than some other legendary pitchers' starts. The A's drew just 627,424 total fans in '31, which was still good for second in the AL. More people can now watch each Matt Harvey inning than saw Grove pitch in his entire career. If I could time travel, I'd make a stop on Grove Day.

Fidrych Day, 1976
Via latimes.com
Dominance of Pitcher: 9
Pitcher Personality/Uniqueness: 10
Quality of Team Season: 4
Stadium/Game-day Atmosphere: 9
TOTAL SCORE: 32

I was so excited when I saw that Fidrych cracked the top-50 WAR list. Surely, Fidrych Day should claim one of our top spots, right? Actually, Detroit's mediocre 74-87 record kept him from making the top 10. However, the raucous crowds at Tiger Stadium on Fidrych Day earned an Atmosphere score of 9.

The Bird was one of only two guys to score 10 in the Uniqueness category. Fans attending a game on any Fidrych Day were pretty much guaranteed to see a complete game, as the zany right-hander twirled 24 of them in 1976. Alas, it was probably for that reason that Fidrych Day was really only celebrated for one year in Detroit.

Halla-Day, 2011
Dominance of Pitcher: 7
Pitcher Personality/Uniqueness: 7
Quality of Team Season: 9
Stadium/Game-day Atmosphere: 9
TOTAL SCORE: 32

Roy Halladay had some great statistical years with the Blue Jays (including a 266-inning scorched-earth campaign in '03) but his 2010-11 campaigns with the Phillies were even better. The '11 season makes the Honorable Mention section because of the buzz Halladay created after throwing a postseason no-hitter in '10. Additionally, the '11 Phils boasted a rotation featuring four dynamic hurlers on par with the '71 Orioles, making every start a must-see event for fans. Halla-Day was the most special occasion of all at Citizens Bank Park.

Lincecum Day, 2009
Dominance of Pitcher: 7
Pitcher Personality/Uniqueness: 9
Quality of Team Season: 7
Stadium/Game-day Atmosphere: 10
TOTAL SCORE: 33

Tim Lincecum had won the Cy Young Award in '08 and Giants fans adored him by the time he was selected to start the All-Star Game in '09. The Freak's windup, free spirit, tremendous stats, and second consecutive Cy Young nod combined to make Lincecum Day one of the wildest box socials on record.

Kershaw Day, 2014
Dominance of Pitcher: 8
Pitcher Personality/Uniqueness: 8
Quality of Team Season: 9
Stadium/Game-day Atmosphere: 8
TOTAL SCORE: 33

In early March, Baseball Prospectus titled an article "Kershaw Day" in which Jeff Long argued that Kershaw is underrated. Long pointed out that only five pitchers since 1900 have posted better seasons by FIP+ than Kershaw last year. (Incidentally, four of those guys will be featured in our top 10 and the other pitched during Deadball.) Even though Kershaw Day seems like it doesn't inspire as much fanfare as it deserves, I don't think Dodgers fans take Kershaw Day for granted. Let's just hope that we haven't already seen the best Kershaw Day seasons.

Hershiser Day, 1988

Dominance of Pitcher: 7
Pitcher Personality/Uniqueness: 8
Quality of Team Season: 10
Stadium/Game-day Atmosphere: 9
TOTAL SCORE: 34

The fact that Orel Hershiser's amazing '88 season didn't crack that top-50 WAR list should tell you everything you need to know about all the seasons that did. The Bulldog twirled 10 scoreless innings against the Padres at the end of the season to extend his record streak to 59. Hershiser Day during September of '88 geared Dodgers fans up for a run to a World Series victory over the heavily-favored A's.

Valenzuela Day, 1981
Dominance of Pitcher: 6
Pitcher Personality/Uniqueness: 10
Quality of Team Season: 9
Stadium/Game-day Atmosphere: 9
TOTAL SCORE: 34

Valenzuela's impact on Southern California was so profound that the Los Angeles Dodgers Wikipedia page has a subsection called "The 1980s: Fernandomania and the Bulldog". We just discussed the Bulldog, but Fernandomania had been even bigger than Hershiser Day. Despite -- and partly because of -- the fact that he spoke only Spanish, Valenzuela captured Dodgers fans' attention immediately. He started Opening Day in '81 and proceeded to lead the league in innings. The Mexican lefty would later post better seasons, but in '81 Fernandomania was basically just an earlier, more prolonged version of Linsanity. One of the saddest aspects of that year's strike was fans being deprived of Valenzuela's brilliance.

Wood Day, 2003
Dominance of Pitcher: 7
Pitcher Personality/Uniqueness: 8
Quality of Team Season: 9
Stadium/Game-day Atmosphere: 10
TOTAL SCORE: 34

After Kerry Wood struck out 20 batters in a game as a 21-year-old in 1998, every Wood outing amounted to a joyful bacchanal at Wrigley Field. In '03, the righty fireballer led the league in strikeouts while pushing the Cubs to the cusp of an elusive World Series berth. Wood actually pitched better away from the Friendly Confines that season, but Cubs fans were definitely too drunk and giddy to notice.

Consider the Honorable Mention pitchers honored and mentioned. Apologies to proponents of Verlander Day, McLain Day, Harvey Day (there's still time), Spahn Day, Santana Day, CC Day, and any others I missed. Now, let's get to the seasons in which pitcher starts produced the biggest holiday atmospheres:

Top 10 All-Time Pitcher Days

10. Seaver Day, 1973
Dominance of Pitcher: 10
Pitcher Personality/Uniqueness: 8
Quality of Team Season: 8
Stadium/Game-day Atmosphere: 9
TOTAL SCORE: 35

New Yorkers loved Tom Terrific so much that in addition to winning the '73 Cy Young Award, he also reclaimed the New York Athlete Championship Belt from Walt Frazier. Like Nolan Ryan, Seaver possessed a magnetic personality that brought fans to the ballpark, and he helped the Mets outdraw the Yankees for about a decade. Seaver Day was enough to make even Shea Stadium seem cozy.

The Mets captured the '73 World Series after outlasting the Cardinals and Pirates in one of the closest division races ever. In September of that year, Seaver contributed three complete games, including an 11-inning triumph over the Phillies. The right-hander didn't move any higher on this list because of the Mets' pedestrian 82-79 regular-season record.

9. Carlton Day, 1980
Dominance of Pitcher: 9
Pitcher Personality/Uniqueness: 8
Quality of Team Season: 10
Stadium/Game-day Atmosphere: 9
TOTAL SCORE: 35

Via gifsoup.com
No, not that Carlton.

Via realclearsports.com
That's better.

In his second-best season ever (after '72), Steve Carlton led the "Cardiac Kids" to a World Series title, the first in Phillies history. He had the team build him a sound-proof "mood behavior" room so that he could meditate before each Carlton Day. Lefty threw 57 innings in September and every start provided the Phils with an overwhelming chance at a win. Numerous quirks aside, Carlton owned each day he pitched like few other guys in baseball history.

8. Maddux Day, 1995
Dominance of Pitcher: 9
Pitcher Personality/Uniqueness: 8
Quality of Team Season: 10
Stadium/Game-day Atmosphere: 8
TOTAL SCORE: 35

I had trouble with the Uniqueness score for Greg Maddux. On the one hand, here's what Tim Kurkjian wrote in his book Is This a Great Game, or What?:

"I see Greg Maddux with his shirt off, with his concave chest and no discernible muscles, and I marvel: This is one of the six greatest pitchers in the history of the game?"

Maddux dispatched hitters with surgical precision, owned the strike zone, and inspired a wonderful new statistic. On the other hand, he was less intriguing than contemporaries like Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, and Pedro Martinez. I ended up giving Maddux an 8 for Uniqueness, just below the game's most interesting pitchers.

In terms of team quality, this was the Braves' only title season of the Cox Years. Mad Dog played a huge part in that, and the team actually drew plenty of fans in '95. Maddux Day had the added bonus of allowing fans to return home at a reasonable hour after each quick Braves win.

7. Guidry Day, 1978
Dominance of Pitcher: 8
Pitcher Personality/Uniqueness: 8
Quality of Team Season: 10
Stadium/Game-day Atmosphere: 9
TOTAL SCORE: 35

In 1978, there was a film about a predator who again rampaged and left a bloody wake of destruction. That film was Ron Guidry's grainy game-tape. Jaws 2 was also released in '78.

Guidry lost just three games in '78 during the Yankees' magical World Series run. My father happened to attend one of the Gator's losses that summer. In that defeat, by a score of 2-1 to the Orioles, the lefty still hurled a complete game and struck out 10 batters. Even the worst Guidry Day was awesome that year.

6. Rocket Day, 1990
Dominance of Pitcher: 10
Pitcher Personality/Uniqueness: 9
Quality of Team Season: 8
Stadium/Game-day Atmosphere: 8
TOTAL SCORE: 35

Long before Boston fans came to regard Roger Clemens as the Antichrist, the Rocket was a messiah in a Red Sox uniform. By 1990, he had reached the peak of his powers and he treated hitters like Michael Scott and Dwight Schrute treat watermelons. The Fenway Faithful saw Rocket Day as a Boston-centric celebration on par with Patriots' Day. And Rocket Day almost invariably ended with a Red Sox win in a season full of them.

5. Big Unit Day, 2002
Dominance of Pitcher: 10
Pitcher Personality/Uniqueness: 9
Quality of Team Season: 8
Stadium/Game-day Atmosphere: 8
TOTAL SCORE: 35

Arizona was fourth in attendance in the season after their World Series win. The D-Backs won 98 games, Johnson and Curt Schilling were reigning Sportsmen of the Year, and the Unit was en route to his fourth straight Cy Young Award.* Hashtags didn't exist in 2002, but if they had, #BigUnitDay would've been wildly popular.

*FOURTH STRAIGHT CY YOUNG AWARD!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

4. Gooden Day, 1985
Dominance of Pitcher: 10
Pitcher Personality/Uniqueness: 8
Quality of Team Season: 8
Stadium/Game-day Atmosphere: 9
TOTAL SCORE: 35

When I started this exercise, I suspected that Dr. K might end up in the top spot. I contemplated giving Gooden bonus points in the Dominance category to rig the results, but made-up rules are made-up rules. I had to respect the process.

Over the weekend, I was at a party with my uncle Pat, one of the biggest Mets fans I know. He said that beginning in '84, he left work early to watch every Gooden start. In Pat's mind, the only events on par with Gooden Day were Guidry Day, Pedro Day, and -- a little surprisingly -- Mike Scott Day.

3. Pedro Day, 1999
Dominance of Pitcher: 9
Pitcher Personality/Uniqueness: 9
Quality of Team Season: 8
Stadium/Game-day Atmosphere: 10
TOTAL SCORE: 36

Pedro Day was a true Fiesta Del Lanzador. (Sorry about the probably-butchered Spanish.) Last year, Ben Lindbergh pointed out the superiority of Pedro's prime over Kershaw's 2014 season. In an era of hulking sluggers, the diminutive Martinez dominated opponents. In terms of atmosphere, not many sporting venues in history can compare to Fenway Pahk at the turn of the 21st century. It was pretty much the equivalent of the Roman Colosseum on days when Maximus Decimus Meridius performed. Pedro Day was an event on the road, as well, and I'm grateful that I got to experience it on a few occasions.


2. Gibson Day, 1968
Dominance of Pitcher: 10
Pitcher Personality/Uniqueness: 9
Quality of Team Season: 9
Stadium/Game-day Atmosphere: 9
TOTAL SCORE: 37

Of course. Just look at the statistics compiled by Bob Gibson during Year of the Pitcher. An ERA of 1.12. Thirteen shutouts. An ERA+ of 258, indicating that he was 158 percent better than the league-average hurler that year.

When you combine Gibson's performance and intimidating presence with the Cardinals' success in baseball-crazed St. Louis, you have the recipe for a real hardball holiday. It seems like God Himself would have to pitch in order to top Gibson Day...

1. Koufax Day, 1963 
Via waterandpower.org
Dominance of Pitcher: 10
Pitcher Personality/Uniqueness: 9
Quality of Team Season: 10
Stadium/Game-day Atmosphere: 9
TOTAL SCORE: 38

...Or just Sandy Koufax with God's Left Arm on loan. During Koufax's amazing '63 campaign, the Dodgers led the league in attendance in their second season in beautiful Dodger Stadium. Look at that above photo; it doesn't seem like many people used the bathroom when Koufax was on the hill. When I tallied up the scores from all of the pitcher Days mentioned here, Koufax's '63 and '66 seasons claimed the top and third spots on the list, respectively. Nobody else boasted two seasons in the top 12. That's how eventful Koufax Day was for about a half-decade.

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Do you agree with my assessments? Do you think I'm an idiot who got it all wrong? Please let me know with a comment or vote in the poll on the right side of the page. Which pitcher Day do you think was the greatest ever?




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