It’s really hard to put Denny McLain’s 1968 season into words. Yeah, he probably wasn’t even the best pitcher in 1968 (Bob Gibson) but his numbers are still nothing short of staggering. And it’s also worth keeping in mind that McLain was 24 years old throughout most of the season (his birthday is September 21, 1963). Still, this is a guy who had a 20 win season as a 22 year old and he might have come closer to touching that mark in 1067 if not for the mysterious ankle injury that cost him most of September (and possibly cost the Tigers the pennant) so 1968 shouldn’t have come as a complete surprise.
In 1968, McLain won his first five decisions and his longest winning streak was nine games. He (and the Tigers for that matter) lost back to back starts just one time all season. He held the opposition to a nice, even .200 batting average and he was just as good against lefties (.206) as he was against righties (.193). It’s hard to pick his best month because his worst ERA in a given month was just 2.29 in September. Oddly, the only month he lost two games (August) was the month he posted his best ERA with a 1.40. McLain was 16-2 at the break and he finished off the season half with a more then respectable 15-4 record.
McLain was among the American League leaders in just about everything. He led in wins (31), innings (336), starts (41) and complete games (28). His 1.96 ERA was fourth in the league while his WHIP of 0.905 was third. He was second in strikeouts (280) and also second in shutouts (6). Oddly, he also led the league in homeruns given up with 31, his third straight year that he had led the league in that category.
McLain is the last player to win 30 games in a season. Dizzy Dean and Lefty Grove are the only other two pitchers to win 30 games in a season since 1921 so he’s in pretty select company. And just to put it in perspective, only eight other players have won at least 25 games in a season since McLain in 1968. And the closest anyone’s gotten was 27 wins (Bob Welch in 1990 and Steve Carlton in 1972).
One of McLain’s more memorable moments in 1968 was a homerun he gave up. With the pennant in the bag, McLain served up a fat pitch to Mickey Mantle who belted his final homerun at Tiger Stadium that day. It would turn out to be the second to last homerun of Mantle’s career.
His postseason didn’t go quite as well. He lost game one to the Cardinals but he was outpitched by Bob Gibson in a 4-0 loss. He was then bombed in game four but he bounced back when the Tigers needed him in game six with his only career postseason victory.
For a spectacular season, he nabbed both the Cy Young and Most Valuable Player award. He’d repeat as Cy Young in 1969 but after that, his career fizzled out. By 1970, he was traded and his final season was 1972 at the young age of 28.
Here are McLain’s numbers in 1968.
Games Started 41
Complete Games 28
Innings Pitched 336
Earned Runs 73
Neutral Wins 18
Neutral Losses 13
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