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Celebrating Bob Gibson’s 1968 Season

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It’s the Golden Anniversary of a fabled pitching season by a Cardinals legend.

Astros V Cardinals

The 2018 Cardinals season is rapidly reaching its conclusion, and it’s ending with a thud. There are three games remaining as of this writing and they need to make up a game on the Dodgers just to force a one-game playoff... for the right to to reach another one-game playoff in Milwaukee. It’s a nasty ending after a thrilling second half that saw the Cardinals vault themselves back into contention and even take command of their own destiny. It’s the equivalent of eating a five-star meal and chasing it down with a big glass of rancid milk (the appetizer kind of sucked, too, if I’m being honest). I’m not here to talk about all of that today, though I’ll have lots of thoughts about the direction of the off-season in coming weeks. Today, I want to right a wrong. You see, this season marks the 50th anniversary of Bob Gibson’s 1.12 ERA in 1968. It has barely received a mention here, lost in a topsy turvy season from the current squad. Gibson’s 1968 was too good to ignore. The Cardinals have been celebrating the accomplishment all season under the hashtag #CompleteGamer. Let’s join in on the fun and do a deep dive on one of baseball’s most sacred individual seasons.

Perhaps the best way to begin describing this season is by pointing out that Gibson had three miniature seasons within his 1968. This graph will tell the story:

I realize the irony of using RA/9 (runs allowed per nine innings) instead of ERA when the entire article is predicated on celebrating Gibson’s legendary 1.12 ERA. That said, RA/9 will tell a more accurate story here, unfiltered through the prism of official scorers from five decades ago. The inclination might be to think that RA/9 will make Gibson look worse, but it’s quite the opposite. Look at that graph. He spent the majority of the season running up RA/9 figures that would lead most seasons in ERA.

Act I: Flirting with Greatness

After starting the opening end of a June 2nd doubleheader against the Mets, Gibson had a 2.12 RA/9 across his first 11 games. The season had started well enough. Even in a season where run-scoring was suppressed to the tune of 3.4 runs per team per game, a 2.12 RA/9 is very impressive. During this stretch, Gibson was dinged for 3 runs on four occasions. Once, he even gave up five whole runs in a single game- a 5-1 complete game loss to the Cubs in his third start. He had yet to throw his first of many shutouts on the season. Through June 2nd, his record was a modest 4-5.

In games where he didn’t give up 3 runs, he flashed the form that would eventually anchor his mythological season. He rang in the new season with 7 innings of one-run ball against Atlanta on Opening Day, earned a complete game 2-1 victory over the Pirates late in April, and tossed 12(!) innings in a complete game victory over Houston on May 2nd.

His May 6th outing against the Mets registered his best game score all season. In a purist’s dream, Gibby and Tom Seaver locked horns for for 11 innings, each yielding a single run entering the bottom of the 11th. Lou Brock tripled to lead off the inning and Orlando Cepeda brought him home to send Gibson home with the win. By the time the smoke cleared that day, he had twirled 11 innings, struck out 11, yielded just three singles and a walk, and accrued a game score of 97.

His 4-5 record was clearly not his fault. His teammates were giving him a mere 2.1 runs of support per game. Twice, the Cardinals were shut out backing Gibson, including a maddening 1-0 loss to the Phillies in 10 innings. It was part of a three game stretch from May 17th through the 28th in which they collectively scored a single run in support of their ace. As great as he’d been, run support or not, things were about to change in early June.

Act II: A Legend is Born

Gibson kicked his great season into overdrive beginning on June 6th. Over an 18 game stretch, he transformed his season from a truly great season into one of the very best ever. Most of the heavy lifting was done in the first 11 games in the middle section of the season. From June 6th until the end of the month, he didn’t give up a single run, a span stretching a breathtaking 45 innings. Coupled with the final two innings he shut down the Mets on June 2nd, it added up to 47 consecutive scoreless innings.

In that June stretch, he shut down the Astros featuring Le Grand Orange, Rusty Staub; a Braves lineup loaded with Hank Aaron, Joe Torre, and Felipe Alou; the Reds, who possessed the Big Red Machine in its infancy; a matchup with Ron Santo and Billy Williams of the Cubs; and a Pirates lineup peppered with future Hall of Famers Roberto Clemente and Bill Mazeroski. In the end, the quality of opposition made no difference. From June 6th until the end of the month, he yielded a slash line of .141/.174/.161, a .335 OPS. He turned every single hitter into something approximating Luke Weaver or Jack Flaherty at the plate.

Gibson followed up his 0.00 RA/9 June with a 0.50 RA/9 in July. From June 6th until the end of July, Gibson threw 99 innings and allowed three runs. That’s a 0.27 RA/9 (and ERA). Those are video game numbers before video games existed. He gave up one run approximately every four games. For three out of four Gibson starts, opposing hitters could have replaced their bats with a pool noodle and gotten comparable results.

There is nothing like that in the history of the game, even adjusting for a depressed run environment. Peruse the list of ERA+ kings, take a look at their game logs during their best seasons, and you won’t find any stretch approaching 99 innings with even five or six runs allowed, let alone Gibson’s three. The best I could find with a cursory glance is Orel Hershiser, who closed the season in 1988 with four runs allowed in 82 innings. Hershiser’s run was preceded by a start in which he was torched for 8 runs in 2 innings.

Including the June 2nd start against the Mets, Gibson earned a win in 12 consecutive starts. When the calendar turned to August, he was roughed up for five runs in 11 innings against the Cubs on August 4th. Then he went right back to business, throwing three straight complete game victories, yielding just one run along the way. That mini-stretch ended when the Pirates hammered him for six runs on August 24th, all scored in the 7th inning or later. He still managed to extract his pound of flesh by striking out 15 Bucs.

Gibson then closed out his divine stretch with back-to-back shutouts against the Pirates on August 28th and Reds on September 2nd. He threw 10 shutout innings in the latter, closing out his blistering summer. Here’s how it all looked:

Bob Gibson, June 6-September 2, 1968

Category Stat
Category Stat
RA 0.82
ERA 0.6
Opp. AVG 0.167
Opp. OBP 0.211
Opp. SLG 0.203
BB% 4.70%
K% 25.00%

During the run, 13 of his 18 starts registered game scores of 80 or higher, with another one just missing at 79. He cracked 90 three times- June 15th against Cincinnati, August 19th against Philadelphia, and August 28th facing the Pirates. He threw complete games in 17 of the 18 starts, ergo the Cardinals’ hashtag celebrating his legendary season. Two-thirds of them- 12 of 18- were shutouts. It is almost certainly the best stretch any pitcher has had in baseball history.

By the end of his run of dominance, he shaved two-thirds of a run off of his ERA. It had shriveled to a minuscule 0.99. Through the first 262.2 innings of the 1968 season, Bob Gibson’s ERA was below 1.

Act III: A Return to (Spectacular) Normalcy

Gibby’s September 6th start against the Giants was splendid by any normal standard. It was only through the lens of his previous three months that an observer would even bat an eyelash. He pitched 8 innings, struck out seven, walked none, and allowed three runs in a 3-2 loss. In a vacuum, it was enough to earn a victory even if it didn’t do so in reality. That was followed by a complete game 5-4 victory in which the Dodgers reached Gibson for 11 hits and four runs. He lost his next two, on the road against the same Giants and Dodgers, on September 17th and 22nd. Both were one-run losses in which he was nicked for a homerun. He closed out his regular season with a 1-0 shutout against the Astros on the 27th, a masterful game in which Gibson racked up 11 strikeouts against zero walks, and allowed just one hitter to advance past second base.

During his five-game stretch to close out the 1968 season, Gibson allowed 2.35 runs per 9 innings (a 1.93 ERA). An elevated homerun rate, a few more hits, a slight upturn in walks, and poor run support (2.0 runs per game from his offense) all conspired to give him a 2-3 record over the closing stretch. In many ways, it was a reflection of the beginning of his season. One way he excelled in this stretch was an elevated strikeout rate. He punched out 26.63% of hitters he faced, up from 25% during his dominant stetch and 18.42% through June 2nd.

Big Picture

Here are how the three sections of his season break out using some rate stats:

The Three Gibsons of 1968

Dates 4/10-6/2 6/6-9/2 9/6-9.27
Dates 4/10-6/2 6/6-9/2 9/6-9.27
AVG 0.188 0.167 0.240
OBP 0.246 0.211 0.287
SLG 0.249 0.203 0.331
BB% 6.32% 4.74% 5.33%
K% 18.42% 25.00% 26.63%
HR% 1.32% 0.50% 1.78%

There’s no doubt that his mid-season stretch was the most dominant. However, the bookends are amazing in their own right. In the opening stretch that left him with a 4-5 record, the worst stretch of his season, he gave up a .495 OPS and had a 1.66 ERA. Extend that .495 OPS against over a full season and it’d be the 6th best for a starting pitcher since integration (1947). And that was the worst stretch of his season. The end of his season featured a K% of 26.63. That was in an era where those kind of K rates didn’t exist other than from Gibson’s flamethrowing peers, Sandy Koufax and Sam McDowell.

Gibson’s average game score in 1968 was 76.1. That’s the second best all-time, just behind Ed Walsh of the White Sox in 1910. His 8.014 Win Probability Added (WPA) led all players in 1968. It was the 9th best pitcher season by WPA since integration (1947), and the 3rd best pitching season by WPA/LI (context-neutral WPA) going all the way back to 1908. It trails only Pedro Martinez in 2000 and Lefty Grove in 1931. It’s the 21st best season by WPA/LI amongst all players- pitchers and hitters- since integration, meaning it was better than most peak seasons from legends like Hank Aaron, Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, and Willie Mays, amongst so many others.

It was a season for the ages. The number 1.12 sits comfortably in the pantheon of other hallowed baseball numbers like Ripken’s 2,632, Dimaggio’s 56, Rose’s 4,256, and Ted Williams’ .406. It’s the pièce de résistance in a Hall of Fame career for the greatest living Cardinal. Happy 50th anniversary, Mr. Gibson.