Much like Williams’ .406 batting average, Bob Gibson’s 1.12 ERA in 1968 isn’t really a record, but it’s by far the lowest in the last 100 years. Since then, a handful of pitchers have pushed 1.50, such as Dwight Gooden (1.53 in 1985), Greg Maddux (1.56 and 1.63 in 1994 and 1995) and Zack Greinke (1.66 in 2015), but no one has come close to Gibson.
Gibson benefited from an elevated mound that year, but in a different way, a shortened season could be just as much of an advantage. In mid-June of last year, Dodgers ace Hyun-Jin Ryu’s ERA was as low as 1.26. (He’s since signed with the Blue Jays.) By the end of May, rookie Braves hurler Mike Soroka featured a 1.07 mark, even though he was a few innings short of qualifying for the ERA title at the time.
Ryu and Soroka are both very good pitchers, but neither is considered among the elite starters in baseball. Jacob deGrom, the two-time defending Cy Young Award winner, posted a 1.70 ERA in 2018. He is the odds-on favorite to approach this record. Rays lefty Blake Snell also posted a sub-2.00 ERA two years ago. The other usual suspects, such as Gerrit Cole, Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander, remain in contention.
Team ERA (in a bad way)
Not many people remember the 1930 Phillies, but they were a pretty good hitting team. Chuck Klein and Lefty O’Doul both hit higher than .380, and the team batting average was .315, but Philly finished only 52-102 due to their obscene 6.71 ERA — the worst in MLB history. Since then, only the 1999 Rockies have had an ERA worse than 6.00.
It will be tough for a 2020 team to top (bottom?) the 1930 Phillies record, but the Rockies’ more recent mark could be matched for three reasons. First, the baseball itself was different last year, and homers flew out of ballparks at record numbers. Maybe the ball will have changed for 2020 and maybe it won’t, but the baseball landscape was littered with bloated ERAs in 2019.
Second, the rules might be different, allowing for marginal pitchers to throw a higher percentage of innings this year. To accommodate a breakneck-pace schedule, MLB could use expanded rosters and some sort of taxi squad. Starting pitchers already don’t go as deep into games as they used to, and all of this means more Triple-A-caliber pitchers could take the mound in the middle and late innings.
Finally, there are a lot of tanking teams these days. The Orioles (5.67) and Rockies (5.58) both came close to the 6.00 mark last year. The Tigers, Royals and Pirates certainly haven’t gotten much better in the pitching department. If that was the best Baltimore could do with a 13-man pitching staff, imagine what it’ll look like with two more fringe relievers in the bullpen. Certainly, this isn’t a record any team will want to break, but just like all of the above, the short schedule puts it within reach.
OTHER RECORDS THAT COULD FALL:
Team stolen base percentage
Current record: 2007 Phillies (87.9 percent)
Challengers: Diamondbacks (86.2 percent in 2019) and Dodgers (85.0 percent in 2019)
Current record: 2014 Phil Hughes (11.63)
Challengers: Corey Kluber (Rangers, if healthy), Max Scherzer (Nationals) and Justin Verlander (Astros)
Lowest on-base percentage
Current record: 1968 Hal Lanier (.222, he must have faced Bob Gibson a lot.)
Challengers: Chris Davis (Orioles, .276 in 2019) and Austin Hedges, (Padres, .252 in 2019)
Lowest team winning percentage
Current record: 1916 Athletics (.235, 36-117 win-loss record)
Challengers: Orioles (.333, 54-108 in 2019) and Tigers (.292, 47-114 in 2019)