The Guys From 1988

August 6, 2021

The Guys from 1988


This is a list (from Baseball Reference) of the top 10 pitchers in the American League in 1988, by WAR:

1.   Mark Gubicza           7.8

2.   Frank Viola               7.7

3.   Teddy Higuera          7.4

4.   Roger Clemens         7.1

5.   Greg Swindell           5.9

6.   Tom Candiotti          5.7

7.   Mark Langston          5.6

8.   Allan Anderson         5.2

9.   Charlie Leibrandt      5.2

10.       Dave Stewart       4.4

There were 14 teams in the league, so there are 14 #1 starters from that league/season.  Our list of the 14 #1 pitchers in that league includes all of those names, and adds Dave Stieb, Charlie Hough, Mike Boddicker and Bret Saberhagen. 

Roger Clemens in 1988 had the usual Roger Clemens season, although he finished just 18-12 so he didn’t win the Cy Young Award.   He led the league in complete games (14) and shutouts (8); no American League pitcher since then, by the way, has thrown more than 5 shutouts in a season.  He led the league in Strikeouts (291), FIP, Strikeouts per nine innings, Strikeout to walk ratio, etc., but he did not lead in WAR, pitcher’s WAR or win the Cy Young Award, so it doesn’t show up as a "special" season for him. 

But here’s what I didn’t know, until I did this study.  Roger Clemens in 1988 had probably the greatest season of all time in terms of mowing down the other best pitchers in the league.

On April 9 (1988) he faced Charlie Hough in Texas.  A Wade Boggs error let in an un-earned run in the 4th inning.  Otherwise, Clemens pitched 8 shutout innings, allowing only 5 hits and striking out nine, beating Texas 2-1. 

On April 24th, he faced Teddy Higuera in Milwaukee.  He pitched a 3-hit shutout, beating Higuera 4-0.

On May 9th, he faced Mark Gubicza, perhaps the league’s best pitcher that season, in Kansas City.  He pitched a 3-hit shutout, striking out 16, and beating Gubicza 2-0. 

On May 25th, he faced Mark Langston in Seattle.  He pitched a 4-hit shutout, beating Langston 4-0.

On June 29, he faced Tom Candiotti of Cleveland in Boston.  He gave up 3 hits and one run in 7 innings, striking out 10, and beating Candiotti 5-1.

On July 15 he faced Bret Saberhagen of Kansas City in Boston.  He gave up five hits and one run, an un-earned run on an error by Todd Benzinger.  He struck out 16 Kansas City batters for the second time in the season, and beat Saberhagen 3-1.

On July 25 he faced Charlie Hough in Texas for the second time that season.  He pitched a 3-hit shutout, striking out 14, and beating Hough 2-0. 

In his next start, July 30, he faced Teddy Higuera in Boston.  BJ Surhoff got to him for a two-run homer, but he pitched a complete game, struck out 13 batters, and beat Higuera, 3-2.

On August 30, he faced Dave Stewart in Oakland.  He gave up one run, on a suicide squeeze, but lost the game, 1-0, as Stewart pitched a shutout. 



What everybody remembers is that Clemens couldn’t beat Dave Stewart.  It has become one of those things that everybody knows, everybody remembers.  I probably mention it myself three or four times a year on this web site. 

But what nobody remembers, nobody knows, is that Clemens in 1988 had the greatest season of the last 100 years in terms of taking on the best pitchers in the league and out-dueling them.  In his nine games opposing #1 starters that season, he was 8-1, had an ERA of 0.48, struck out 97 batters and allowed only 42 hits in 75 innings.   Six of the nine games were on the road, and his team scored a total of 25 runs for him in 9 starts.  He threw four shutouts in the nine games; un-earned runs prevented it from being six.  It’s a fantastic record, but all anybody remembers from it is:  Dave Stewart beat him.  One to nothing.

To me, that is symbolic of Clemens’ career.  Clemens has become a figure that many people choose to hate, and, because they choose to hate him, everything that he did is interpreted against him, interpreted to his maximum possible disadvantage.  Nobody chooses to remember the good stuff that he did, the great stuff that he did and still does sometimes. 


Juan Marichal in 1963 is the only pitcher to beat #1 starters nine times in a season, going 9-6 against them in 16 starts.   Jack McDowell, 15-10 with the Yankees in 1995, also made 9 starts against number one pitchers, and also went 8-1, although his season isn’t anything remotely like Clemens’. 

Six other pitchers have also posted eight wins in a season against #1 starters, but the one who should be mentioned is Robin Roberts, 1950 and 1955. 

You probably know this about Robin Roberts and 1950.  The Phillies had not won the pennant since 1915, 35 years earlier, and for almost all of that time, the Phillies were the worst team in baseball or very close to that.  Since winning their last pennant they had lost 100+ games 12 times, and had lost 90 or more 23 times. 

In the late 1940s the Phillies were getting better, and on September 1, 1950, they were six games in front of the Dodgers, 1949 and 1947 league champions, 8 and a half in front of the Braves, 1948 champions, and 11 in front of the Cardinals, the champions of 1944 and 1946.  Then their world started to collapse.  Two of their starting pitchers got hurt.  Their #2 starter, Curt Simmons, was drafted by the US Army, pitched on September 9 and was gone for the season. 

Robin Roberts began a super-human effort to save the season.  In September, 1964, Jim Bunning started three times on two days rest.  After September 4, 1950, Robin started four times on two days rest—or less.  He started on September 4, and again on the 7th.  He started on September 12th, pitching a shutout, and again on the 15th.  He started on September 27th, facing 20 batters before he was knocked out of the game, and then started again on the 28th, pitching 8 good innings on zero days rest.  Two days off, and it was the last day of the season, October 1.  And the Dodgers were one game behind them.  And they were playing the Dodgers.  In Brooklyn.    

That last game is famous, of course, and most of you know at least that part of the story. When Roberts took the mound that day, it was his 7th start in 20 days.  He had lost most of those games, as the Phillies were collapsing, but he had pitched well, losing 1-0 to the Cubs, 3-2 to the Dodgers, and 3-1 to the Giants.  On October he was facing Don Newcombe.  Roberts was 19-11; Newcombe was 19-10.  After nine innings the game was tied, 1-1, both starters still working.  Roberts batted for himself in the top of the 10th inning and singled, triggering a three-run rally paid off when Dick Sisler homered. 

OK, so Roberts was superman, but here’s what I didn’t know about the season.  That game was the sixth time that season that Roberts had faced off against Don Newcombe—and Newcombe had never beaten him.  Roberts went 4-0, and the Phillies went 6-0.  Think about what that means:  the Dodgers were the defending champions, and the race between the Dodgers and the Phillies went down to the 10th inning of the last day of the season.  And Roberts vs. Newcombe was 6-0, Phillies.  Reverse that, and the Dodgers beat the Phillies by ten games.  Split those six games, and the Dodgers win the pennant by four games. 

Roberts faced another #1 starter 11 times that year.  He was 8-1 in those games, with a 2.05 ERA.  On top of everything else, he had one of the best seasons ever in terms of knocking down the other team’s top guy.

Roberts also faced 7 #1 starters in 1955, and went 7-0; he faced Johnny Antonelli three times that year, and Newcombe twice.  The Phillies weren’t in the pennant race in 1955, but only four pitchers have ever gone 7-0 against Ace opponents in a year, and no one has ever gone 8-0, other than Clemens, who made it to 8-0 but then lost to Stewart.


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