Decade Wrap: A Contextual Look at Pitching in the 2010s Part 2

By Louis Addeo-Weiss

Image courtesy of Getty Images
Image courtesy of CBS Sports

With the month of October entering its second week, fall is in the air, and that means two things: carving pumpkins and playoff baseball, but that’s not why we’re here today.

Last week, we discussed starting pitching in the 2010s and posed the question of how it compared to previous eras, delving into the art of pitching in the 1990s and 2000s.

It is important to note, as we delve deeper into the preceding eras, we’ll see larger variances in strikeout-rates, complete games, and innings pitched, a reflection of how the sport has changed from a game management standpoint over time.

As order suggests, and for brevity’s sake to ensure these series of stories don’t extend the length of say, the Game of Throne saga, we’ll be discussing starting pitching in the 1970s and 80s, the first time where this variation in number truly begins to become present.

Baseball in the ‘70s could best be remembered as the sports’ age of the dynasty, where we saw four teams win multiple World Series Championships: Pittsburgh (‘71, ‘79), Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine (‘75-’76, with NL pennants in 1970, ‘72), NY Yankees (‘77-’78, with a pennant in 1976), and the Oakland Athletics (‘72-’74), while also noting teams such as the Baltimore Orioles, who beat the aforementioned Reds in 1970 and won pennants in ‘71 and ‘79.

Simply put, the 1970s could best be described as the era of the super team.

As for pitching during this decade, the balance between overall value is similar to that of the 2010s, where we saw only a difference of 3.2 WAR between the top 3 pitchers in the sport (Kershaw, Verlander, Scherzer). 

After the last pitch was thrown during the 1979 regular season, it was Tom Seaver who held the distinction of the decade’s most valuable performer.

With 67.1 WAR (Wins Above Replacement) amassed from 1970-79, Seaver put forth a decade of dominance, collecting two Cy Young Awards, and posting a 138 ERA+, the highest such mark of any pitcher who threw at least 1800 innings during this period.

Image courtesy of Mets Merized

Being that Seaver reigns as the decade’s best, comparing him to this decade’s current champion, Dodgers’ left-hander Clayton Kershaw, is only appropriate.

By way of the aforementioned metric of ERA+, Kershaw was far better, posting a mark of 164 to Seaver’s 138. Kershaw also struck out 28% of the hitters he faced, while Seaver did so 21.7% of the time, respectively.

But the difference here, as we’ll soon see, comes by way of innings pitched. In his respective decade, Seaver threw 147 complete games, seventh most during this period, with Gaylord Perry leading the bunch with 197. As for Kershaw, the left-hander completed just 25 games during the 2010s, still the most for his era of dominance, but further indicative of where the game has gone.

Justin Verlander, who posted the second highest WAR of the decade, 56.2, lead the sport in innings pitched during this period with 2142. Referring again to Perry, the spitballer one-upped Verlander by nearly 900 innings, ending the 1970s with 2905 innings pitched.

1976 saw 1,039 complete games thrown league-wide. During the 2019 season, a total of just 45 complete games were thrown, with just two teams, the Chicago White Sox and Cleveland Indians, throwing as much as six the entire season. For a bit more in terms of context of the era, 1976 saw an average of 43 complete games per team. This, a substantial drop off in pitchers finishing games (2309% decrease from 1976-2019), can largely be attributed to specialization, with a larger emphasis being placed on bullpens.

During the 2010s, there was only one occurrence of a starting pitcher throwing 10 or more complete games in season, done so in 2011 when James Shields, then of the Tampa Bay Rays, went the distance 11 times. 

For comparison sakes, the most complete games thrown by a pitcher during a season during the 1970s belongs to three pitchers, Steve Carlton (1972), Fergie Jenkins (1971), and Catfish Hunter (1975), who each threw 30 in a season.

Interestingly enough, walk rates in these two respective eras don’t show much in the way of variation. 

Of the top 10 pitchers by WAR during the 1970s (listed below), not one had a walk-% (BB%) higher than 14.5% (Nolan Ryan).

Pitching Leaders (1970-79) Per Baseball Reference Play Index

1Tom Seaver (2652.1 IP)67.12.611382.65
2Phil Neikro (2881 IP)64.53.261223.51
3Gaylord Perry (2905 IP)59.02.921253.03
4Bert Blyleven (2624.2 IP)57.82.881302.81
5Jim Palmer (2745 IP)54.12.581373.29
6Fergie Jenkins (2706.2 IP)44.63.381173.30
7Steve Carlton (2747 IP)44.63.181183.27
8Nolan Ryan (2465 IP)41.43.141133.06
9Rick Reuschel* (1834.1 IP)40.83.431163.12
10Vida Blue (2398.2 IP)35.33.071133.13

* Reuschel debuted 1972

Between the number one slot, Seaver, and the number ten slot, Blue, the drop off in total WAR is 31.8, a larger degree of separation between Kershaw (1) and Stephen Strausburg’s (10) 59.3-32.6 WAR totals (27.6).

The difference between Blue and Seaver is the similarity in innings pitched, with just 253.2 innings separating the two.

As for Kershaw and Strasburg, that difference balloons to 557.2 innings pitched, due in large part to Strasburg’s extensive injury history, as he missed the final two months of the 2010 and a majority of the 2011 season after undergoing Tommy John Surgery.

With all of this, it is apparent the difference in pitching during these respective eras, so now, it is only appropriate we look at how the best arms of today stack up against the giants of the 1980s.

To begin, we must do the same do diligence we’ve done for all other previously mentioned eras, but before doing so, it is important to note that the idea for this series originated from a thought I pondered when examining pitching during the days of Prince, Thriller, and MTV.

This thought entailed that, respective of other eras we have and will later discuss, the 1980s appears to be the weakest decade for starting pitching.

Pitching Leaders (1980-89) Per Baseball Reference Play Index

1Dave Stieb (2328.2)48.03.321263.78
2Bert Blyleven (2078.1)38.13.641133.56
3Roger Clemens* (1284.2)35.53.061392.79
4Bob Welch (2082.1)35.23.211133.35
5Fernando Valenzuela (2144.2)33.13.191113.21
6Orel Hershiser+ (1457)32.92.691323.01
7Bret Saberhagen*32.03.231283.11
8John Tudor31.13.131243.63
9Dwight Gooden* (1291)30.62.641322.53
10Nolan Ryan (2094)30.43.141112.83

*Clemens, Saberhagen, and Gooden debuted 1984

+Hershiser debuted 1983

As we can see, the decade’s most valuable pitcher by means of WAR was the Toronto Blue Jays Dave Stieb.

Of the five decades we’ve discussed thus far, Stieb’s 48 WAR sits as the lowest mark for a decade leader in the respective category. 

With the ‘80s, the drop off in value from pitcher one to pitcher two is drastic, with the number two slot on this list, held by Bert Blyleven, being 9.9 WAR lower than Stieb. 

Stieb’s 27 shutouts, along with then-Dodgers’ pitcher Fernando Valenzuela, led all pitchers in baseball during the decade, which is even more impressive considering that Jack Morris, who won more games than any other pitcher in the decade (162), and also tossed 133 compete games to Stieb’s 92.

Using the metric ERA+, for pitchers in the top 10, the one with the best such mark is Roger Clemens at 139, who didn’t even enter the league until 1984. Clemens, according to WAR, was the third best pitcher during the ‘80s, a decade which saw him capture his first pair of what would be seven Cy Young Awards.

Topps Set 1988

Of the 10 pitchers on this list, as was the case during the 2010s, two of them finished with ERA’s below 3, with those names in question being Hershiser and Gooden. For the two who did so during the 2010s, Kershaw and deGrom, Kershaw, between the four of them, was the only pitcher to maintain a sub-3 ERA for the entirety of the decade, doing so with a sparkling 2.31 ERA.

The old adage these days tells us that the stars of today would’ve been eons better had they played in eras that preceded them, and that can certainly be said for the likes of this decade’s top 10.

With regards to the 1980s, a trend we can see is that of the slowly decreasing occurrence of the complete game.

As already noted, 2019 saw just 45 complete games thrown between all thirty teams, but looking at a year such as 1985, we are shown that the number of complete games, while not as far dispersed as 1976, the numbers are still staggering.

With just 26 teams in the league in 1985, there were a total of 627 complete games thrown. That year’s league leader in complete games, veteran Bert Blyleven, then pitching for the Minnesota Twins, tossed 24 complete games, still an absurd amount for a starting pitcher, but reflective of the diminishing importance of finishing what you started.

While yes, the 1980s may’ve been the weakest decade we’ve discussed thus far, the emergence of pitchers such as Clemens, who would lead all pitchers in WAR during the 1990s, and the continued production of the likes of Blyleven, showed us that an ace is never absent, but like everything, they come in all shapes, sizes, and in this case, total WAR!

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