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Who Was the Best Pitcher of the 1960s?

The 1960s. The Decade of the Pitcher. The Second Deadball Era. Thirty wins for the first time since Dizzy Dean. Modern-record ERA of 1.12. We all know the story. So in this time of extreme pitching supremacy, who was baseball’s best moundsman?

gibson and marichal

Miller and Eric World is rating the pitchers this time!

This question arose for me when reader verdun2 wrote in response to a recent post:

At his peak, the best pitcher I ever saw was Sandy Koufax. For an entire career, the best was Tom Seaver. Gibson is probably second on both lists.

I’m going to define the 1960s as the ten seasons 1960–1969. Seaver isn’t really a 1960s pitcher, but those other two gentlemen qualify for certain. In fact, using BBREF’s Play Index to sort this decade by WAR, I could immediately narrow down to five names: Jim Bunning, Don Drysdale, Gibson, Koufax, and Juan Marichal. No one else was close to them. Even then, two of them are easy to cull out:

NAME       W-L    PCT  CG SHO  INN   ERA+ WAA  WAR A-S CYA MVP
---------------------------------------------------------------
MARICHAL 191-88  .685 197  45 2549.2 136 31.6 55.3  8   0   0
GIBSON   164-105 .610 164  41 2447.0 135 31.6 54.4  6   1   1
KOUFAX   137-60  .695 122  37 1807.2 147 30.7 48.0  6   3   1
BUNNING  150-118 .560 108  35 2590.1 121 23.8 46.2  5   0   0
DRYSDALE 158-126 .556 135  40 2629.2 119 19.7 44.6  7   1   0

We thank Bunning and Drysdale for playing and have some lovely parting gifts for them. Trailing in WAR while hurling the most innings puts them far enough behind the top three to make this an easy call.

So about these other three guys…. Verndun2 mentioned Koufax’s peak, so let’s start there. He had 6 great years before being forced out due to elbow problems. Since Koufax retired after 1966, he needs to lead this trio handily in peak value to have much of a chance to beat them. Here’s the same table as above but with only their six best nonconsecutive years in the period 1960–1969.

NAME       W-L   PCT  CG SHO  INN   ERA+ WAA  WAR A-S CYA MVP
--------------------------------------------------------------
KOUFAX   129-47 .733 115  35 1632.2 156 30.9 46.6  6   3   1
MARICHAL 140-55 .718 146  36 1817.0 150 29.7 46.3  6   0   0
GIBSON   117-71 .622 128  35 1718.0 163 29.8 45.6  4   1   1

I don’t blame anyone for picking any of them. Koufax is likely best unless you value 100 to 200 innings of replacement-level pitching. Koufax was the furthest above average, the furthest above replacement by a hair and took home lots of hardware. On the debit side, Koufax did throw the fewest innings of the trio despite playing in a fantastic pitcher’s park (easier outs mean easier innings, which theoretically should lead to more innings). We can make all kinds of little arguments back and forth, but these guys are awfully close, which means that unless Gibson and Marichal stunk it up outside their peaks, Koufax is in trouble.

Here’s what all three did outside those outstanding peaks:

NAME       W-L   PCT CG SHO INN   ERA+ WAA WAR A-S CYA MVP
-----------------------------------------------------------
MARICHAL  51-33 .607 51  9  732.1 114  1.9 9.0  2   0   0
GIBSON    47-34 .580 36  6  729.1 111  1.8 8.8  2   0   0
KOUFAX     8-13 .381  7  2  175.0 101 -0.2 1.5  0   0   0

And so we now say goodbye to Mr. Koufax. His peak isn’t far enough ahead of the others that he can walk away from 1967–1969 and still win out. Aided by traditional stats that were heavily influenced by the extreme run-suppressing nature of his home park and of the era in general, Koufax’s legend has grown to somewhat outsized proportions over the past fifty years. But his peak was similar enough to our other two contenders that it can’t lift him enough to crown him The Best Pitcher of the 1960s.

We’re down to Gibson and Marichal, and we’re talking about a razor’s edge of difference. On one hand, Marichal has slight advantages in the value stats and in some trad stats (especially winning percentage). Heck, both have a single no-hitter.

Here’s what it boils down to. Marichal earned 1 more measly WAR in the regular seasons of the 1960s than Gibson did. Just one more win of value despite 27 more victories and 17 fewer losses. The analytical stats tell us that Gibson’s advantage on team defense and Marichal’s advantage in ballpark friendliness cancel each other out. So the bare truth is just that Gibson saved about as many runs and got less credit from the baseball accountants for it. To be fair, Marichal did it in 100 fewer innings so he was more effective per inning.

This race is close enough that we need to explore one other avenue: The World Series.

Gibson’s World Series line in the 1960s covering three Fall Classics: 7-2, 1.89 ERA, eight complete games including two shutouts in nine starts and 81 innings. He was twice named the World Series MVP (1964 and 1967).

Marichal’s: In one 1962 start, he went four shutout innings before injuring his hand in an ill-fated bunt attempt in the top of the fifth.

Now I’m not the first one in line for the World Series bandwagon when it comes to judging players’ careers. Obviously there’s an huge opportunity issue between these two. But just take the worst of Gibson’s three World Series appearances (1964, for which he won an MVP), and he still has a tremendous edge on Marichal: 2-1, three starts, two complete, 3.00 ERA with outstanding peripherals (31/8 K/BB ratio in 27 innings). October is a clear line of separation.

So here’s what we’ve got. Marichal has the slightest of leads on Gibson in regular season play. Their peak is pretty much even, though Gibson owns the two best seasons between them. Marichal has more All-Star appearances, but Gibson owns more hardware. Ultimately, it’s down to the World Series, and here Gibson finally lurches well ahead. A real post-season hero with October bona fides. Gibson is The Best Pitcher of the 1960s.

Gibson scaryGibson has the better career without doubt. He turned in two other great years in the 1970s, one more borderline All-Star year, and one more above-average campaign. Marichal was done as a great pitcher after 1969. If you add hitting into the mix and consider the totality of their contributions, Gibson’s eight batting wins extend his advantage even further. But for the decade of the 1960s, it’s so close that we have to resort to October to finally get our answer.

Maybe it’s a silly question in the end. Like asking whether you’d rather win ten million dollars or inherit it from an uncle you never met. Gibson vs. Marichal. Marichal vs. Gibson. In the sixties you could take either one and win yourself a pennant or three.

—Eric

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