Designated HitterJune 10, 2005
Gibson Was Great in '68
By Bill Deane

Bob Gibson was a very good pitcher for several years through the 1967 season, and a very good pitcher for several more years starting in 1969. But in 1968, particularly during a two-month stretch in mid-season, Gibson was arguably the greatest pitcher of all time.

His period of dominance actually began after he suffered a broken leg on July 15, 1967. Returning to action on September 7, Gibson went 3-1 with a 0.96 ERA the rest of the regular season, then led the Cardinals to the world championship with a 3-0, 1.00 World Series performance. Picking up right where he left off, Gibby was 4-0, 1.64 in spring training of the next year.

Then followed his epic 1968 season: a 1.12 ERA, the lowest ever for anyone pitching as many as 300 innings. In fact, he flirted with a sub-one ERA, entering August with a 0.96 mark, and still standing at 0.99 after Labor Day.

One of the reasons Gibson's season doesn't receive the recognition it deserves is his relatively modest 22-9 won-lost record. How does someone lose nine games with a 1.12 ERA? It was mostly a case of poor offensive and defensive support:

  • April 20: 5-1 vs. Chicago (CG, 3 ER). Hall of Famer Fergie Jenkins three-hit the Cardinals, not allowing a run until two were out in the ninth inning.

  • May 12: 3-2 vs. Houston (8 IP, 2 ER).

  • May 17: 1-0 vs. Philadelphia (CG, 1 ER). The game's only run scored with two out in the tenth inning.

  • May 22: 2-0 vs. Los Angeles (8 IP, 1 H, 1 ER). Hall of Famer Don Drysdale pitched his third of a record six straight shutouts.

  • May 28: 3-1 vs. San Francisco (CG, 3 ER).

  • August 24: 6-4 vs. Pittsburgh (CG, 3 ER). Unearned runs ended his 15-game winning streak.

  • September 6: 3-2 vs. San Francisco (8 IP, 2 ER).

  • September 17: 1-0 vs. San Francisco (CG, 1 ER). Ron Hunt hit one of his two homers of the year, and Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry no-hit the Cards.

  • September 22: 3-2 vs. Los Angeles (CG, 2 ER).

    In those games, Gibson went 0-9 despite a 2.14 ERA. Had the Cardinals scored but four runs in each of Gibson's 34 starts, he would have gone 30-2. Yes, 1968 was a historically low-scoring season, with only 3.43 runs per team per game in the NL. OK, if the Cards had scored 3.43 runs in each game Gibson pitched, he STILL would have gone 30-4. If they had scored merely three runs in each game, Gibby would have been 24-4. Even if St. Louis had scored only two runs in each game, he would have gone 23-10. And -- ready for this? -- if they had scored just ONE RUN in each game he pitched, Gibson would still have had a winning record, at 13-10.

    There is also the perception that EVERY hurler dominated in The Year of the Pitcher. But Gibson's ERA was 63% better than the rest of the National League's 3.03 mark, and 44% better than that of the runner-up in the ERA race.

    Gibson pitched 13 shutouts in '68, and easily could have challenged Grover Alexander's record of 16. Besides the May 17 heartbreaker, Gibson twice pitched a complete game victory in which the only run he allowed was unearned. In all, he had 11 games in which he allowed just one run, several of them flukish. Five times during the season, he had a streak of 20+ scoreless innings. Remarkably, Gibson had a 1.83 ERA (but only a 9-9 record) in games he did NOT pitch a shutout.

    From June 2 through July 30, 1968, Bob Gibson put on the greatest two-month display of pitching in baseball history. In a stretch of 99 innings, he gave up just TWO RUNS. One scored on a wild pitch ("a catchable ball," according to opposing first baseman Wes Parker), and the other on a bloop double which was fair by inches. Those were the only things standing between Gibby and ten straight shutouts.

    It started with a complete-game, 6-3 victory on June 2, in which Gibson whitewashed the Mets in the last two frames. He then ran off five shutouts in a row, beating the Astros (June 6), Braves (June 11), Reds (June 15), Cubs (June 20), and Pirates (June 26). Over the 45 innings, he surrendered just 21 hits and five walks. He was threatening the records of six straight shutouts and 58 consecutive scoreless innings set by the Dodgers' Don Drysdale just a month earlier. And his next start would be on July 1 –- against Drysdale!

    The drama ended early, when a low fastball eluded back-up catcher Johnny Edwards in the first inning, allowing a Dodger run to score. Undaunted, Gibby blanked L.A. the rest of the way to win, 5-1, then shut out the Giants five days later. On July 12, Gibson gave up just three hits in a win over Houston, but one was Denis Menke's seventh-inning blooper that landed just inside the left field foul line and plated a run.

    On July 17, the Giants paid Gibson the supreme compliment, scratching scheduled starter Juan Marichal so as not to waste their ace against an invincible opponent. It paid off: Gibson had a 6-0 lead after four innings, but the game was rained out, just short of official status, and Marichal won the next day.

    Gibby followed with shutouts over the Mets (July 21) and Phillies (July 25) before allowing a fourth-inning run against New York on July 30. He won that game and added three more victories in August to complete a 15-game winning streak, including ten shutouts and a 0.68 ERA.

    Gibson was never knocked out of the box during the season, completing 28 of 34 starts and being pinch-hit for late in the other six, as he averaged 8.96 innings per start. Gibson's worst ERA in any month was 1.97 in April. His worst against any team was 2.11 vs. Los Angeles. Help from his home park, Busch Stadium? Gibson's road ERA that year was 0.79.

    Gibson continued his dominance into Game Seven of the 1968 World Series against Detroit. In his first 24-2/3 innings of the Fall Classic, he struck out 34 batters, and allowed just 11 hits, three walks, and one run for a 0.36 ERA. Suddenly, he ran out of magic, coughing up four runs on seven hits in the last 2-1/3 innings of the finale. Fittingly, the Cardinals didn't score until there were two out in the ninth inning, and lost, 4-1.

    And so ended a pitching season for the ages.

    Bill Deane has authored hundreds of baseball articles and six books, including Award Voting, winner of the 1989 SABR-Macmillan Award. He served as Senior Research Associate for the National Baseball Library & Archive from 1986-94. He has since done consulting work for Topps Baseball Cards, Curtis Management Group, STATS, Inc., and Macmillan Publishing, and also served as Managing Editor of the most recent Total Baseball.

    [Additional reader comments and retorts at Baseball Primer.]

  • Comments

    Thanks, Bill, for a well-researched and written article.

    There is a worthwhile discussion at Baseball Primer for those interested in whether Gibson's season was superior to those put up by Pedro Martinez in 1999 and 2000, Greg Maddux in 1994 and 1995, and Walter Johnson in 1913 (among others). The debate also discusses how much value should be ascribed to the number of "extra" innings thrown by Gibby vs. Martinez and Maddux in their best years.

    Thanks for the great work, guys.

    You guys should do a comparison between George Brett and Mike Schmidt. It's been somewhat-widely accepted that Schmidt is, give or take, better. But I would strongly disagree. Not only was Brett more important to his team, but his overall production was just better, too (OBP, etc). Sure, Schmidt hit twice as many home runs as Brett, but Brett did practically everything else better. Brett played longer, harder, and was just more valuable.

    I'd love to get your take on this.

    Bill Deane writes: "But in 1968, particularly during a two-month stretch in mid-season, Gibson was arguably the greatest pitcher of all time."

    Okay, let's argue. Well, actually, I already have argued quite a bit on the SABR-list, maybe more than necessary. Email if you care to know what I said.

    I am interested in what made Gibson's ERA so low that year? It was more than a run lower than his next lowest year (It would be interesting to know how many pitchers did this). Did he strikeout more batters than normal for him? Walk fewer? Fewer HRS?

    His strikeout rate (strikeouts per batter faced or BFP) was .231, about 19% higher than for his entire career. But only 2% better than his next best season.

    His walk rate was 36% below his career average, walking only 5.3%. That is 7.2% better than his next lowest season. But that was 1967, when he was hurt and pitched just 175 innings. The 1968 walk rate was 24% lower than the next best full season. His walk rate was about at the league average for his entire career. Yet in 1968, he had about 1 walk per 5 IP, while for his career it was about 1 for every 3 IP. The league average walk rate in 1968 was 7%. So he went well below the league average, unusual for him.

    He allowed .009475 HRs per batter. That was about 59% below his career average (although his early years were in Sportmans Park which might have been a better HR park than Busch Stadium)His next best year was 1969 at .009449 and 1970 was almost as good.

    His batting average on balls in play was .230, the lowest of his career (the next lowest was .240). It was .268 for his career. All Cardinal pitchers had .274 from 1960-75. So he was normally pretty close to the team average. But the team average in 1968 was .267. Some years he was higher than the team, some lower (I actually did not remove Gibson from the team calculation, so in years where he was lower than whole the team, he was even lower than the rest of the team by a few more points and vice-versa).

    In 1967 he was higher than the whole team(.280 vs .270). In 1969 he was higher, .270 vs .269. I have not check every year, but 1968 is most likely the year where he went below the entire team the most.

    Gibson also had allowed just a.141 average with runners in scoring position (RISP). With none on it was .180. For his career, his RISP average was .004 below his NONE ON average. Without the 1968 season, the two averages are probably very close and in general, most pitchers are a few points higher with RISP. So 1968 may have been ususual in this regard for him (although he may have had some other years where his RISP average was well below his NONE ON average and vice-versa-I will need to check Retrosheet).

    Gibson was .039 lower with RISP. If I recall correctly, he had 177 RISP ABs against him that year. That amounts to about 7 hits and by some other calculations which I won't get into here, that should be about 1 run per hit. Over 305 IP, that is about .21. So we could say that he shaved that off of his ERA (so it would have still been very low, at 1.33).

    But his OBP allowed with RISP was just .206, well below his NONE ON OBP of .231. Generally OBP goes up with RISP, even if you factor out intentional walks. By getting guys out with RISP, he must have prevented some rallies from taking place that would have normally made a pitcher's ERA higher.

    So all of these factors combined to make his ERA so low. Which is most important, I don't know. But the low average on balls in play and low walk rate might be the biggest.

    Sorry. The Cardinals allowed a .263 average on balls in play in 1968. NOt the .267 I say above.

    Also, for his career, Gibson allowed a higher OBP with RISP than with NONE ON (.291 vs .299). Probably not due to intentional walks, since his IBB rate was about the same as his career rate.


    I love George Brett. However, I don't think Brett was as good as Mike Schmidt who, I believe, is the best third baseman in the history of the game.

    As I summarized in an article on Wade Boggs last December, "No matter whether one prefers basic counting stats, rate stats, more advanced metrics, peak value, or career value, the conclusion is the same: Schmidt is the best third baseman of all time while Brett, Boggs, and Mathews rank second through fourth in whatever order you like."

    In addition to what I covered in the article referenced above, Schmidt had three MVPs and ten Gold Gloves vs. one of each for Brett. Michael Jack led the league in HR and OBP three times and SLG and OPS five times. George led the league in OBP once and AVG, SLG, and OPS three times.

    Schmidt's and Brett's peak values were about the same. Brett's counting stats may be better but only because he played a few more years, thanks to the switch to 1B as well as the DH spot the last three years of his career. Schmidt's rate stats (.267/.380/.527) were slightly superior to Brett's (.305/.369/.487).

    The fact that I rank Schmidt ahead of Brett in no way minimizes the latter's accomplishments. He is one of the greatest players ever and an inner circle Hall of Famer. Brett was one of my favorite players, and I have a nephew who was named after him. As such, my regard for Brett is very, very high.

    Dept. of Irony: Brett and Schmidt were chosen back-to-back in the 1971 amateur draft by the Royals and Phillies. In the SECOND ROUND!

    Cyril, I didn't get a chance to read through all your stat analysis, but if you ask Tim McCarver what *caused* it, he'd say it was Gibby's curve ball during that time period. It swooped in like a wiffle ball (looking at first like it might hit you, or be 2 feet off the plate, depending how you batted), and he could place it within a 2-baseball high range on any part of the plate. That would explain higher K rate, lower BB rate and weaker balls in play.

    The explanation for Gibson's 1968 success is testament to the validity of "Moneyball".

    The key to pitching success, according to Moneyball is 3 primary factors ...

    1. Strikout a high percentage of batters faced
    2. Walk very few batters
    3. Don't give up many HR's

    If a pitcher can accomplish the above 3 items ... the only thing that will put him to astronomical statistical heights (as Gibson reached) is to "luck" out and have a low opposing batting average for balls put into play.

    I say LUCK because there is really no way a pitcher can control what happens to a batted ball that is in play. What is a base hit up the middle could easily be a routine grounder to short if hit just a little more to the left. A routine flyball to centerfield could just as easily been a double in the gap had it been hit further one way or the other.

    Statistics indicate that no pitcher has shown any year-after-year tendency with regards to his success (or lack thereof) for getting batters out on balls put into play. Even Gibson is no except in that regard as the previous year (1967) he actually had a higher batting average than the other pitchers on the Cardinal staff.

    The explanation for Gibson's tremendous success in 1968 is the convergence of his skills (the ability to strikeout batters while, at the same time, minimizing walks) and the luck of simply getting batters out when they put the ball in play. When those two things come together in a single season ... you've hit the jackpot.

    So why can't pitchers who get "lucky" with balls being put in play get similar numbers? The answer is that not too many pitchers can get the number of strikeouts *AND* the minimal number of walks while, AT THE SAME TIME, getting "lucky."

    It's not an accident that most closers are strikeout pitchers. Very little is left to chance when a pitcher can strikeout batters. Once the ball is put into play ... ANYTHING can happen. Pitchers who can be counted upon to strikeout batters out, for the most part, control their own destiny. Pitchers who rely on outs primarily through flyballs and grounders have to cross their fingers.

    David Emerling
    Memphis, TN