The 1990s were a strange time in baseball. Steroids aren’t unique among the transgressions of baseball players through time, but the way they transformed the fundamental balance of the game may have been. The time between their banning in 1991 and the implementation of official testing in 2003 was a heady one, featuring unbelievable offense on both the individual and team level.
The steroid era — which I’ll define as the decade running from 1995 to 2004, encompassing the thrilling home run chases of 1998 and ‘99 as well as Barry Bonds’s incredible run from 2001–04 — is known as baseball’s foremost era of inflated offense, and for good reason. It’s stunning, therefore, that the same era also produced the highest concentration of outstanding pitcher seasons baseball has ever seen.
The last decade hasn’t seen a single qualified pitcher with more than 9 WAR in a single season; the same is true of two decades in the first half of the twentieth century. Most decades average fewer than one such season every three years. The decade from 1995 to 2004 – the steroid era, almost exactly – saw ten.
And this isn’t a trick of usage, either. Starters in the modern era throw far fewer innings than their older counterparts, and thus have fewer chances to accumulate WAR; if we look for outstanding pitchers on a per inning basis, the contrast is even starker.
In all of baseball history, there have been eleven qualified pitcher seasons with more than 7.5 WAR per 200 innings, and nine of them came between 1995 and 2004.
Baseball’s peak offensive era was also its peak pitching era.
We have four people to thank for this, each of whom dominated at some point during this decade, and each of whom has a legitimate claim as the best pitcher of all time.
Roger Clemens’s career began well before 1995, of course, and he was exceptionally dominant in the 1980s. His major-league tenure spanned an unbelievable 24 seasons, the first 12 of which were spent with the Red Sox. Those included some outstanding years; in 1988, he threw 264 innings, struck out 291 batters, and walked only 62, yielding a 2.93 ERA and 2.17 FIP. But his best season didn’t come until 1997, firmly in the midst of the offensive spike, the fourth consecutive year with a runs-per-game figure that would’ve been the highest of the previous 40 years.
In his first season with the Blue Jays, Clemens’s performance was nearly identical to his 1988 in several key respects; he threw 264 innings, struck out 292 batters, and walked 68. But he allowed only 9 home runs, compared to 17 in 1988, and thus produced a gleaming 2.05 ERA and 2.25 FIP. While those would be amazing in any era, in the offensive environment of 1997, they translated to a 45 ERA- and 50 FIP-, and 10.7 WAR (8.1 WAR/200).
Greg Maddux was nearly the opposite of Clemens on the mound. Where the former was a hulking righty with a fastball that could push triple digits and a temperament to match, Maddux sat in the 80s and excelled through his pinpoint control and command. He never quite reached the heights of Clemens, but he mirrored him in his consistency and longevity.
In 1995, a season relatively early in the offensive explosion of the steroid era, Maddux had his best per-inning season. Coming after Clemens, Maddux’s 181 strikeouts in 209 2⁄3 innings might seem pedestrian, but his 23 walks (issued at a 2.9 percent clip) were anything but. His ERA- of 39 and FIP- of 52 reflected that dominance, as did his 7.9 WAR (7.5 WAR/200).
Pedro Martinez was a hurler the likes of which the world may never see again. His diminutive stature — 5’11”, 170 lbs — contained a ferocious pitcher, with nearly a half-dozen distinct pitches, including what many consider to be the best changeup of all time. His career was shorter than that of Maddux and Clemens, though his dominance was even more pronounced, with three of the seasons with more than 7.5 WAR/200 falling under his name.
The final season, 2003, pales in comparison to the other two, but was nonetheless incredible. In 186 2⁄3 innings, Martinez struck out 206, walked 47, and allowed only seven home runs, earning a 2.22 ERA, a 2.21 FIP, and 7.4 WAR (7.9 WAR/200). But the two seasons he’s best known for are 1999 and 2000, and with good reason, as they represent perhaps the greatest two-year run by any pitcher, ever. In 1999 — one year removed from the McGwire/Sosa race — across 213 1⁄3 innings, Pedro struck out an incredible 37.5 percent of batters faced, and walked only 4.4 percent. With a 42 ERA-, 32 (!) FIP-, and 11.6 WAR (10.9 WAR/200), this season may well have been the best of all time.
Which is not to denigrate the following season at all. 2000 was a year known for a number of memorable moments, but running beneath all of them was Pedro’s continued status as one of the best pitchers of all time. He pitched slightly more innings (217), striking out fewer batters (284) but also walking fewer (32). Sustaining a good portion of his damage on 17 long balls, Pedro was still outstanding, as shown by his 35 ERA-, 48 FIP-, and 9.4 WAR (8.7 WAR/200).
And, finally, we have Randy Johnson, leading this group with four — four! — of the 11 seasons with more than 7.5 WAR/200. Johnson had an odd career, struggling with serious control problems until his breakout at age 30. But what a breakout it was. The four seasons that make this list — 1995, 2000, 2001, and 2004 — cover the very beginning and the very end of this period, and highlight a 10-year stretch that no pitcher has matched. In each of those seasons, he lead the National League in strikeouts, topping out with 372 in 2001. While his strikeouts began to fall as his career wound down, he showcased a new side in 2004, making up for his downright pedestrian 30.1 percent strikeout rate with a 4.6 percent walk rate, the lowest of his career to that point.
Throughout this period, Johnson dominated a league known for incredible offensive prowess. In these four years, his WARs, and WARs/200 — 9.5 WAR (8.9 WAR/2000) in 1995, 9.6 (7.7) in 2000, 10.4 (8.3) in 2001, and 9.6 (7.8) in 2004 — set a benchmark that no other decade has ever matched, never mind any other pitcher.
The obvious question — why did all these outstanding pitchers play in the same decade? how were they so dominant, in an age of such incredible offense? — is probably impossible to answer, meaning all we can do is speculate. It could, of course, be nothing more than a freak coincidence. That’s not a satisfying answer, but it’s a legitimate one, and can’t be dismissed.
It could be a reflection of the modern, reduced role of a starting pitcher. As starters stopped throwing over 300 innings a season, and as even 250 innings became rare, it’s likely that they were able to focus their talent more on that smaller number of innings. Where the greats of past decades had stayed in for 150 or 200 pitches as a matter of course, probably accumulating WAR but driving down their per-inning rate, the greats of the ‘90s and ‘00s were pulled earlier, leaving their stat lines intact.
But the balance between bullpen and rotation hasn’t really changed in the last twenty years, and if anything, it’s swung even further toward a smaller workload for starters. This theory can’t explain why the years since 2004 haven’t seen any pitcher seasons as dominant as one of the above nine.
That’s why I think the third theory is the most compelling. These incredible seasons didn’t happen in spite of the steroid era, but because of it. I think this pattern suggests that steroids gave hitters an advantage over pitchers, but for whatever reason, that advantage was nonexistent against the ultra-elite. While the bottom 99 percent of pitchers saw their home run rates spike, and started walking more batters and striking out fewer as they tried to minimize the damage, the top 1 percent were unaffected, and continued pitching like they had before chemical enhancement became widespread. Because WAR is keyed to leaguewide trends, the pitchers who remained the same as their peers collectively worsened appeared to improve, yielding the kind of seasons never seen in any other era.
This theory has the advantage of explaining not only why these pitchers arrived in the ‘90s, but why they vanished after the ‘00s. It could even be that Johnson, Martinez, Maddux, and Clemens aren’t truly any better than the elites of previous decades, or even the elite pitchers of the current day, and simply benefitted from the circumstances of their time. Perhaps Clayton Kershaw would also maintain his dominance against steroid-aided hitters, and would turn in some 10-WAR seasons of his own if the leaguewide offensive trends suddenly spiked for everyone but him.
Like most hypotheses about the effects of steroids, this is impossible to verify. Without knowing exactly who was chemically enhanced, in what way, and when, we can only guess and theorize, and try to fit our ideas to the few facts that are observable. That means there’s no neat conclusion to this article, and that we can’t solve this mystery conclusively. All we can do is marvel at the transcendent pitching performances of the decade. Luckily, that’s pretty enjoyable.
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Henry Druschel is the Managing Editor of Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @henrydruschel.