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Thursday, April 10, 2008
Bob Gibson Was Great, But...

Scott Miller gushes a bit about his 1968 season:

"Hey Russell, did you know that Bob Gibson had a 1.12 ERA back in '68 and still lost nine games?" Torre asks.

Martin pauses, digests the thought and then, confounded, comes back with a really revealing question.

"They make a lot of errors behind him?" Martin asks.

Forty years ago, Gibson produced one of the most incredible pitching performances ever, a season so dominating that the only aspect more impressive than the raw statistics is the fact that he single-handedly changed the game.

Of course there is a simple reason why Gibson compiled that great ERA and still lost nine ballgames: scoring in 1968 was the lowest in any year since the deadball era. To give you a comparison, National League teams that year averaged 3.43 runs per game. Last year, NL teams averaged 4.71 runs per game, about 40% more than in 1968.

Second, Gibson did have a higher than normal unearned run average; 22% of his runs were unearned, as compared to the rest of the league's 11%, and the Cardinals average of 12% when not backing up Hoot.

The reason he lost nine games is because he pitched 304 2/3 innings in '68, racking up 28 complete games. Start after start, he worked into the late innings, with games on the line and decisions being earned.

And yet his ERA didn't suffer? Nope, I can tell you with some degree of confidence that Bob Gibson lost a bunch of low-scoring games, 1-0 and 2-1 games. It's obvious, isn't it? If you go 22-9 with a very low ERA, you can't be losing any blowouts, you've got to be losing those tight games.

Let me emphasize here, that I'm not saying "choker". Gibson obviously won some close ballgames two years later, when his ERA was a full 2 runs higher per game, and yet he went 23-7. And he did toss an astounding 13 shutouts that year. It's just one of those one-year things, probably caused by 1968 being the year of the pitcher. The second lowest ERA in the league that year was Bobby Bolin; he went 10-5. The third lowest ERA was Bob Veale at 2.05; he actually went 13-14, which is probably even more mind-blowing than Gibson losing 9 games; how exactly do you combine the third best ERA in the league with a losing record?

How many men become so good that a sport changes its rules as a result? In most of our lifetimes, we've seen only two: The NCAA banned dunking for a time in reaction to Lew Alcindor's dominance while at UCLA, and baseball lowered the mound from 15 inches to 10 after Gibson's extraordinary season of 1968.

Close. Alcindor (Kareem) did indeed change the rulebooks in college hoops. But baseball did not change the rulebooks in reaction to Gibson's season. They changed it in reaction to Carl Yastrzemski's season. Yaz won the batting title in the American League that year with a .301 average. Nobody much minded Gibby getting a very low ERA; they didn't want the batting champion to be a .290 hitter like Danny Cater, who came in second that season.

Gibson was an excellent player having an excellent year. But it was not some freakish season.
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