The 5 best seasons by an Astros pitcher

December 1st, 2021

HOUSTON -- Perhaps no team in the expansion era can brag about top-flight starting pitching as much as the Astros, whose history includes four Cy Young winners -- Mike Scott in 1986, Roger Clemens in 2004, Dallas Keuchel in '15 and Justin Verlander in '19 -- and dominating seasons by Larry Dierker, J.R. Richard, Nolan Ryan, Roy Oswalt and Gerrit Cole that were Cy worthy.

Not included in those names are three of the four pitchers to win at least 21 games in a season with Houston -- Mike Hampton won a club-record 22 in 1999, while Joe Niekro ('79) and Jose Lima ('99) were 21-game winners like Verlander ('19). With those names in the history books, it’s no surprise there have been many jaw-dropping individual performances throughout the years.

Here are the franchise’s top individual seasons by a pitcher:

1. , 1986
Key stat: Led National League in strikeouts (306), ERA (2.22), shutouts (five) and innings (275 1/3).

Scott, having picked up a split-fingered fastball, put himself on the map when he came out of nowhere and went 18-8 with a 3.29 ERA in his age-30 season in 1985, but no one could have imagined what he and the Astros did in 1986. Behind Scott, the Astros -- picked to finish last -- won 96 games to win the National League West, with Scott throwing a no-hitter against the Giants to clinch the division title.

That all but wrapped up the NL Cy Young Award for Scott, who went 18-10, but he was far from done. He threw two complete games, allowing one run in 18 innings, to beat the vaunted Mets twice in the NL Championship Series and was set to start Game 7 before the Mets rallied to win Game 6 in 16 innings in the Astrodome. Still, Scott was named the MVP of the NLCS.

Because of Scott’s sudden dominance, rumors circulated all season that he was scuffing the baseball, earning the nickname “Mike Scuff” by some doubters. Even Roger Craig, the Giants manager who taught Scott the split-fingered fastball, was skeptical.

“It was tough, annoying,” former Astros manager Hal Lanier said, “especially when we played the Giants. Roger Craig made a big, big thing about it. There were other clubs, also. The Cubs made a big deal about it. They had cameras on him throughout the games every time he started. The Mets during the playoffs were keeping baseballs. Mike and I talked and I said, ‘Mike, just go out there and do what you’re doing, what you’ve done all year.’”

2. , 2019
Key stat: His 0.80 WHIP was the second-lowest in the last 100 years.

After finishing second to Blake Snell in the 2018 AL Cy Young race, Verlander found himself running a neck-and-neck race a year later with Cole, his teammate. Verlander and Cole finished first or second on all 30 ballots cast by members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, with Verlander winning by taking 17 first-place votes for 171 points and Cole getting 13 first-place votes for 159 points.

At age 36, Verlander had one of the best seasons of his career, perhaps trailing the 2011 season in which he won his first Cy Young and the MVP Award. In 34 starts, he went 21-6 with a 2.58 ERA with 300 strikeouts in 223 innings.

Verlander led the Majors in batting average against (.172), which was the seventh-lowest since 1900, wins and innings pitched, while ranking second in the AL in ERA behind Cole (2.50). He reached 300 strikeouts for the first time in his career and threw his third career no-hitter on Sept. 1.

“It was starting to become disappointing every time I came so close and it just didn’t happen,” Verlander said. “I put up some historic numbers in the history of baseball [in ‘18], and every time somebody had done something similar, they had won the Cy Young. Is it meant to be for me to win another one? I don’t want to call [winning a second] a relief, because it wasn’t. It just put things in perspective and made it all the better, all the more exciting for me and my family.”

3. , 2019
Key stat: Went unbeaten in his final 22 starts, going 16-0 with a 1.78 ERA.

Had he not started the season by going 4-5 with a 4.11 ERA in his first 11 starts, Cole would have bested Verlander for the Cy Young. Cole was unbeatable after that, but Verlander’s consistent body of work allowed him to edge Cole for the award. Still, Cole’s season went down as one of the most dominant in Astros history.

Cole went 20-5 with a 2.50 ERA, a club-record 326 strikeouts and a 0.89 WHIP in 212 1/3 innings pitched. He led the AL in ERA, strikeouts, ERA+ (1.85), strikeouts per nine innings (13.8) and FIP (2.64), yet didn’t throw a complete game. The Astros won each of the final 13 games that Cole started in the season. He started five games in the playoffs and was 4-1 with a 1.72 ERA, including a 15-strikeout performance against the Rays in Game 2 of the ALDS.

“I have never seen a run like that,” Verlander said. “Pretty incredible to be a part of it and witness it. Really, we just kind of pushed one another. It wasn’t ever competitive in the sense that it got overly competitive. We always kind of competed against one another, but in a friendly way.”

4. , 1969
Key stat: Set club records with 20 complete games and 305 1/3 innings pitched

Dierker started 37 games and finished 20 of them, which is unthinkable in today’s game. Dierker became the franchise’s first 20-game winner when he went 20–13 with a 2.33 ERA in 1969 and made the All-Star team en route to being named the team’s MVP.

It was during that season that Dierker had one of the best games of his career, when he threw 12 innings against the Braves on Sept. 13 and allowed four hits, four walks and struck out five. He got a no-decision in a 3–2 loss, and the Astros faded in the final three weeks.

“That was a momentous game for me because it was the first year in Astros history we were actually a contending team in September, and that one game blew us right out of contention and seemed to launch [the Braves] on a streak that took them to the NL West title," Dierker said.

In his 14-year career, which ended with an 11-game stint with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1977, Dierker went 139–123 with a 3.31 ERA, 106 complete games and 25 shutouts. More than 40 years after his last game, he still holds the club record for games started, complete games, innings pitched and shutouts.

5. , 2015
Key stat: Led AL pitchers in wins (20), innings pitched (232) and WHIP (1.017).

Coming off a breakout 2014 season that proved to be no fluke, the lefty took his performance to another level in '15 by going 20-8 with three complete games and a 2.48 ERA in 33 starts to become the first Astros pitcher to win the AL Cy Young Award. He was the starting pitcher for the AL in the All-Star Game, earned three AL Pitcher of the Month Awards (April, May and August) and won the AL Gold Glove.

"He's the definition of an ace," Astros manager AJ Hinch said then.

Keuchel was the Astros' first 20-game winner since 2005 and only the second lefty 20-game winner in franchise history (Hampton, 1999). His 27 quality starts were the most by an Astros pitcher since Hampton had 27 in 1999.

At Minute Maid Park, Keuchel was untouchable in 2015, going 15-0 with a 1.46 ERA and 139 strikeouts. He was the first pitcher in modern Major League history to go 15-0 at home, and his home ERA was the lowest by an AL pitcher in the Majors since Nolan Ryan had a 1.07 mark for the Angels in 1972.

Keuchel had pitched at least six innings in 40 consecutive games before lasting 4 2/3 innings in a loss to the Rangers on Sept. 16 in Arlington. That's the longest such streak in the Majors since Verlander (2010-12). He rebounded to win his 20th game in his final start of the regular season on Oct. 2 against the D-backs at Chase Field and threw six scoreless innings against the Yankees in the AL Wild Card Game in New York.

Honorable mention
Before Mike Cuellar won a Cy Young with the Orioles, the lefty went 16-11 with 16 complete games and a 3.03 ERA in 32 starts for the 1967 Astros.

Don Wilson (1971) went 16-10 with a 2.45 ERA and 18 complete games in 268 innings.

J.R. Richard (1979) went 18-13 with a 2.71 ERA, 19 complete games and 313 strikeouts, both of which rank second in club history.

Joe Niekro (1979) went 21-11 with a 3.00 ERA and five shutouts to finish second in the Cy Young voting.

Nolan Ryan (1987) led the NL in ERA (2.76) and strikeouts (270) and finished fifth in the Cy Young voting with an 8-16 record.

Mike Hampton (1999) set a club record by winning 22 games (22-4) and posted a 2.90 ERA with two shutouts in 34 starts to finish second in the Cy Young voting.

Billy Wagner (1999) finished fourth in the Cy Young voting when he saved 39 games in 42 chances and posted a 1.57 ERA. His 14.95 strikeouts-per-nine innings ratio was the best single-season total in MLB history at that time. In his 74 2/3 innings, he allowed just 35 hits while striking out 124 batters.

Roger Clemens (2004) won his record seventh and final Cy Young when he went 18-4 with a 2.98 ERA and 218 strikeouts in 214 1/3 innings in his first season with the Astros. He led the Majors in ERA (1.87) the following season.

Roy Oswalt (2005) finished fourth in the Cy Young voting -- one of five seasons he was in the top five -- by going 20-12 with a 2.94 ERA with four complete games. He also threw a gem in Game 6 of the NLCS to clinch Houston’s first pennant.

Verlander (2018) finished second in the AL Cy Young voting despite going 16-9 with 2.52 ERA and 290 strikeouts in 34 starts.