19-5, 0.96/0.886/.180, 224.2 IP, 176 K, 60 BB, 7.1 K/9, 2.4 BB/9, 2.9 K/BB, 5.6 H/9, 7 SHO, 279 ERA+
Since the birth of the American League 107 years ago, only one starting pitcher has ever finished a season allowing less than one run per nine innings. And it was 22-year-old Hubert Benjamin Leonard – a dead-ball southpaw who would never again do anything remotely as extraordinary in his superb career as he did in 1914.
Leonard would later be known as the player who blew the whistle on Tris Speaker and Ty Cobb for betting on a fixed game in 1919, when the hurler was a member of the Tigers. Before then, however, he had won three World Series in Boston as part of some of the best rotations in baseball history, and in 1914 came up with an ERA so low that even when adjusted for the league average and park effects, it ranks as the second-lowest since 1901.
It’s easy to dismiss Leonard’s 1914, for two reasons – his .229 BABIP, 53 points below his career average, a sure sign that Leonard was amazingly lucky that season, and the era in which he played, when ERAs that seem impossible today were the norm.
But if Leonard was lucky, what of it? Whether through natural talent or blind luck, Leonard still allowed what he allowed; his results cannot be changed, and results are the heart and soul of this list, regardless of how they came about. The deadball argument is more cogent, but let’s say Dutch Leonard was throwing in 1930 – when the most runs per game were scored of any season in history. Let’s say he was in the NL, where scoring was higher. And let’s say he pitched for the Phillies, whose home park increased offense by nearly 10 percent, the most of any NL park – in other words, the most premier offensive environment in the history of the game.
In such an environment, all of Leonard’s numbers skyrocket, with no ERA lower than 4.32 – except 1914, when it’s a miniscule 1.86. How about something more modern, such as Coors Field in 2000: Leonard posts an ERA of 1.83. Fenway Park in 2007: 1.47 (with a 21-2 record, incidentally). Dutch Leonard in 1914 was as stingy or stingier than nearly any pitcher in the history of baseball, regardless of era, league or home park. Not surprisingly, his ERA+ that season was better than any pitcher’s except one – which we’ll discuss later.
Key game: July 27. For the second time in a month, Leonard shuts out the Cleveland Naps, this time an eight-hit, seven-strikeout gem backed by Tris Speaker’s three hits. The Red Sox win 3-0.