The 5 greatest seasons for Twins pitchers

December 14th, 2020

MINNEAPOLIS -- The mound at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome weighed 23,000 pounds and could be lowered beneath ground level when the stadium needed to transition to football configuration.

When that mound was raised, it was the workplace for some of the most iconic players in franchise history.

Only one pitcher has been inducted to the National Baseball Hall of Fame as a member of the Twins, but there's still a proud pitching legacy in Minnesota anchored by a small handful of fan favorites who paved the way for two World Series championships, 12 division titles and four American League Cy Young Awards.

It comes as no surprise, then, that only three names dominate this list of the five best pitching seasons in Twins history, setting a high bar for Kenta Maeda, José Berríos and others that look to make similar marks in the club's ultimate trajectory.

1. , 1973
Considering that Blyleven is the only pitcher enshrined in Cooperstown with a Twins cap, it's only fitting that he tops this list. Though the Dutchman's first seven seasons in Minnesota were all exemplary, his 1973 season stood above the pack. He pitched a career-high 325 innings that season, including an MLB-best nine shutouts, and posted career bests in FIP (2.32), ERA (2.52) and strikeouts (258). He received only one American League Cy Young Award vote that year, despite posting the highest WAR (9.7, per Baseball-Reference) among all nine pitchers receiving votes -- and the highest single-season WAR among pitchers in Twins history.

Blyleven's performance that year was a microcosm of the skillset -- driven by his knee-buckling curveball -- that made him Minnesota's all-time leader in complete games (141), shutouts (29) and strikeouts (2,035).

2. , 2004
Santana's three-year peak began with the first of his two Cy Young Awards in 2004, when he led the AL in ERA (2.61), strikeouts (265), FIP (2.92) and WHIP (0.92), earning a sixth-place finish in MVP voting. He also established himself as a workhorse by pushing past 200 innings for the first time, pitching 228 frames in 34 starts. Santana's dominance was a big part of why the Twins were able to three-peat as AL Central champions, as he finished the season with 22 consecutive starts of three or fewer earned runs. The Twins began to distance themselves from the AL Central pack in July, coinciding with Santana posting double-digit strikeouts four times in six starts.

He finished the regular season strong, allowing only two earned runs in six September starts, and he carried that performance into a win over the Yankees in Game 1 of the AL Division Series. The Twins haven't won a playoff game since then.

3. , 1988
"Sweet Music" made his biggest impact on the Twins in 1987, when he was the ace of the playoff rotation that led the club to its first World Series championship, but he was statistically better in '88, when he won his only Cy Young Award -- earning all but one of the first-place votes -- after pitching to a career-best 2.64 ERA in 35 starts. The Twins went 27-8 in his starts that season, and he won eight straight decisions from late April to early June to key his first career All-Star nod.

That marked his final full season with the Twins before he was moved to the Mets at the 1989 Trade Deadline for Rick Aguilera, Tim Drummond, Kevin Tapani and David West. Aguilera and Tapani both played significant roles in the club's next World Series championship in '91.

4. Bert Blyleven, 1974
Blyleven's position on a middling Twins team held back his win totals and limited his vote-getting ability for the national awards, but he followed his stellar 1973 by lowering his hit rate while raising his strikeout rate, posting a 2.66 ERA in 37 starts and recording the second-highest strikeout total of his career (249). Blyleven was traded to Texas two years later in a big, six-player swap before he returned to the Twins for four more seasons in the twilight of his career and pitched behind Viola in the rotation during the '87 World Series.

5. Johan Santana, 2006
There's a good argument for Santana's 2005 season to be included on this list (that's its own story, as Santana probably should have won the Cy Young Award over Bartolo Colon). Instead, his '06 campaign rounds out this list because he not only won his second Cy Young by a unanimous first-place vote, but also claimed the Major League pitching Triple Crown with 19 wins, a 2.77 ERA and 245 strikeouts. He was the last pitcher to accomplish the feat until Cleveland's Shane Bieber also led MLB in all three categories in 2020. If Santana had also won the '05 Cy Young Award, he would have joined Randy Johnson and Greg Maddux as the only players to win three consecutive times.