Who is the Greatest Pitcher in Orioles History?

Oct 9, 2015; Kansas City, MO, USA; A general view of a ball and glove on the field before the Kansas City Royals and the Houston Astros play in game two of the ALDS at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 9, 2015; Kansas City, MO, USA; A general view of a ball and glove on the field before the Kansas City Royals and the Houston Astros play in game two of the ALDS at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports /

What Orioles pitcher had the greatest single season of all time? Who’s the greatest pitcher in Orioles history? I gathered a bunch of research to find out.

Who is the greatest of all time? It’s the question that’s fueled bar arguments for decades. Who was the greatest quarterback of all time? The greatest pitcher? The greatest NBA player? Everyone has a different opinion, and honestly the question is pretty subjective, but I asked myself, who is the greatest pitcher in Orioles history? Who had the greatest single season in the history of Orioles pitchers? So I combined my love of nerdy statistics that no one else cares about and baseball history to figure it out.

There were two ways that I went about compiling this data. First, I used what’s called game score, a metric designed by Bill James to numerically measure how well a pitcher pitched. Here’s how game score is measured:

  1. Begin with 50 points
  2. Add one point for each out recorded
  3. Add two points for each inning completed after the fourth
  4. Add one point for each strikeout
  5. Subtract two points for each allowed hit
  6. Subtract four points for each allowed earned run
  7. Subtract two points for each allowed unearned run
  8. Subtract one point for each allowed walk

A game score of 50 is essentially a quality start, anything over 70 is exceptionally good, and below 30 is really bad.

With that in mind, I took the game logs of some of the best seasons from Orioles pitchers and figured out their average game score for the year. Here’s the top ten:

NameYearAverage Game Score
Dave McNally196868
Jim Palmer197264
Jim Palmer197364
Hoyt Wilhelm195962
Jim Palmer197562
Mike Cuellar196962
Jim Palmer197061
Jim Palmer197661
Jim Palmer197761
Jim Hardin196861

If you asked any Orioles fan “who had the greatest pitching season in team history?” most of them would probably answer “Probably Jim Palmer right?” Now it’s no surprise that Palmer consists of six of the top ten seasons of all time, but there are a few interesting nuggets in there, like number one; Dave McNally in 1968, when he averaged a game score of 68 on any given night, his best being two nights of an 87 game score: July 11th against the Washington Senators, when he pitched a complete game shutout with six strikeouts and two hits, and August 9th against the California Angels when he threw another complete game shutout with four hits and eight strikeouts.

We also have Hoyt Wilhelm’s amazing 1959 year (more on that later), Mike Cuellar’s year in 1969, and Jim Hardin’s year in 1968. Of the top-ten average game scores in the table above, the best individual game score came from Jim Hardin who, on August 19th, 1968, threw a complete game shutout against the California Angels, giving up only two hits, zero walks and eight strikeouts, for a game score of 91.

Embed from Getty Images

Now, you may have noticed that two of the top-ten game score seasons happened in 1968, and that leads me to the second statistic I used in this venture.

Statistically speaking, 1968 was a really interesting year for pitchers. It had the lowest league ERA of the modern era (2.98) and the lowest number of runs scored per game of the modern era (3.42). In other words, it was the year of the pitcher, everyone pitched well. There were seven pitchers who finished the 1968 season with sub-2.00 ERAs (including Dave McNally), with the lowest being the current record holder for best season ERA, Bob Gibson, who threw a 1.12 ERA that year.

It was because of this that I thought using traditional stats and game score might be a bit misleading. Sure, Dave McNally had an amazing year in 1968, but so did everyone else. What I want to know is, who had the best season relative to the league, who dominated the league?

To determine this, I took the season ERAs of some of the best pitchers in Orioles history, compared them to the league ERA of that season and calculated the differential. So essentially, the question I was asking was, who most outperformed the rest of the league?

The example I like to use to explain why I like this stat is Pedro Martinez’s 2000 season with the Red Sox. In 2000, the league ERA was 4.77, the highest of the modern era, right in the midst of the so-called steroid era, and in that season, Pedro Martinez ended the year with a 1.74 ERA. That number alone would be phenomenal in any year, the fact that Pedro was able to have that low of an ERA in a year where 15 different players hit at least 40 home runs (for reference: only six players did it last year and only one did it in 2014) is incredible.

So along with game score, I used ERA differential to help determine the greatest season from an Orioles pitcher. There are some similarities in the top ten in ERA differential and the top ten in average game score, but there are some interesting differences:

NameYearSeason ERALeague ERADifferential
Hoyt Wilhelm19592.193.901.71
Jim Palmer19752.093.711.62
Jim Palmer19732.403.751.35
Mike Cuellar19692.383.611.23
Jim Palmer19782.463.691.23
Mike Mussina19922.543.751.21
Jim Palmer19722.073.261.19
Jim Palmer19702.713.891.18
Jim Palmer19772.914.001.09
Dave McNally19681.952.981.03

First thing that’s obvious, Palmer dominates again (are we surprised?), as he takes six of the top ten seasons in ERA differential for an Orioles pitcher, though not the same six seasons as game score. With this chart, we also get the most modern pitcher for the Orioles in this article, Mike Mussina in his first full year as a starter with the Orioles, and subsequently, the best year of his career.

So which Oriole had the best season in team history? It’s close, but I think I’m going to give it to Hoyt Wilhelm in 1959, though Jim Palmer’s 1973 season comes in a close second.

Hoyt Wilhelm was an incredible pitcher, and I don’t think that really needs to be said, the guy is in the Hall of Fame, but it’s true. He had one of the best, if not the best, knuckleballs in baseball history, and in that 1959 season, he caused a major headache for Orioles’ catcher Gus Triandos. Triandos was a big, slow catcher, and that resulted a lot of passed balls when Wilhelm was pitching. In the words of Triandos, “Heaven is a place where no one throws a knuckleball.”

Here is a fascinating video of Wilhelm talking about his knuckleball, with a little footage of the actual pitch:

While mostly known for being a reliever, 1959 was the year that Wilhelm started the most games in his career, and he won the American League ERA title with his 2.19 ERA. However, the next year, the Orioles were blessed with an excess of viable starting pitchers, and Wilhelm moved to the bullpen, starting only on occasion. Eventually he got traded White Sox for Luis Aparicio and Al Smith, and went on to be an excellent closer for Chicago.

While Wilhelm had the best season for a pitcher in Orioles history, I think it’s safe to say, looking at both the game score and ERA differential stats, that Jim Palmer is statistically the greatest Orioles pitcher of all time. Which, to be honest, is sort of like saying water is wet and fire is hot, we all know this, but to see just how dominate Palmer and other Orioles greats were from a statistic perspective is fascinating.