Over the first half of their nearly seven-decade history, the Orioles came to be known more for their pitching prowess than their position players. They had six American League Cy Young Award winners from 1969-1980, including four in a six-year stretch to close out that decade. So it makes sense how many of the franchise’s top single-season pitching performances would come from that timeframe, when the Orioles built an AL East dynasty behind some of the best starting rotations in baseball history.
Here’s a look at the five best seasons by a pitcher in Baltimore:
1. Jim Palmer, 1975
Key stats: 23-11, 2.09 ERA, 25 complete games, 10 shutouts, 169 ERA+, 8.4 bWAR, 6.9 fWAR
In terms of both Baseball Reference and Fangraphs’ versions of WAR, Palmer’s 1975 season was the best in Orioles history. At 29, Palmer captured the second of three AL Cy Young Awards he’d win over a four-year stretch, a run that saw him also win three consecutive league win titles and cement his future Hall of Fame candidacy.
He padded that resume in ’75 by pacing AL hurlers in victories, ERA and shutouts, while logging a franchise-record 323 innings and finishing sixth in MVP voting. No Major League starter since has matched Palmer’s 10 shutouts from that season -- during which he permitted 44 hits total. Palmer would pitch for better teams, but this was him at his peak.
2. Dave McNally, 1968
Key stats: 22-10, 1.95 ERA, 18 CG, 273 IP, 150 ERA+, 0.842 WHIP, 5.9 WAR, 4.5 fWAR
The Tigers’ Denny McLain won the AL Cy Young unanimously in 1968. But viewed through a modern lens, clearly more consideration should’ve been paid to McNally, who also finished a distant fifth behind McLain in the AL MVP voting that year. The lack of hardware says more about the circumstances than it does McNally’s performance; ’68 was the start of a dominant seven-year stretch for the left-hander in Baltimore, where McNally still ranks among the franchise leaders in wins, stats, complete games, shutouts and strikeouts.
1968 was the year of the pitcher, and McNally took advantage. His 1.95 ERA remains the O’s single-season record for a starter. His 0.842 WHIP was the best recorded by a pitcher with at least 200 innings since 1913 at the time; only five have eclipsed it since.
3. Hoyt Wilhelm, 1959
Key stats: 15-11, 2.19 ERA, 226 IP, 173 ERA+, 1.13 WHIP, 7.6 bWAR, 4.1 fWAR
One of the few knuckleballers enshrined in Cooperstown, Wilhelm arrived in Baltimore in 1958 as a 35-year-old career reliever. But his career was far from over. It was Orioles manager Paul Richards who tried Wilhelm as a starter, yielding to immediate results: he tossed a 1-0 no-hitter against the Yankees in his third start with Baltimore. Wilhelm opened the ’59 season 9-0 with a 1.00 ERA, ultimately becoming the first Oriole to win an American League ERA crown. His 2.19 ERA from ’59 remains the fourth best single-season mark in Orioles history; by the advanced metric ERA+, no full-time Oriole starter has ever been better relative to his peers.
4. Mike Cuellar, 1969
Key stats: 23-11, 2.38 ERA, 149 ERA+, 1.00 WHP, 4.4 bWAR, 6.6 fWAR
The Orioles were buying low when they acquired Cuellar, coming off a down year and mired in personal problems, from the Astros for Curt Blefary as part of a five-player swap in December 1968. What they got was the best of “Crazy Horse,” who debuted in Baltimore with a career year that earned him co-AL Cy Young honors.
It was the first of four (and three consecutive) 20-win seasons for Cuellar with the Orioles, but objectively the most complete: Headlining a rotation also featuring McNally and Palmer, Cuellar set then-club records for wins and innings pitched and tied the club mark with 18 complete games. He followed it up by pitching to an 1.13 ERA in 16 World Series innings, though the O’s would famously fall in the to the underdog Mets.
5. Mike Mussina, 1992
Key stats: 18-5, 2.54 ERA, 241 IP, 157 ERA+, 1.08 WHIP, 8.2 bWAR, 5.3 fWAR
A model of consistency and the most recent player with serious Orioles ties inducted into the Hall of Fame, the best season of Mussina’s Cooperstown-worthy career may have been his first full campaign. The 8.2 bWAR Mussina compiled in ’92 remains the second highest single-season total for a pitcher in O’s history; his ERA, WHIP, W/L percentage and fourth-place Cy Young finish all rank among the best of Mussina’s career. ’92 was also the year Mussina experienced the first of many career near-misses: a one-hitter against the Rangers in July. Additionally, he earned the first of five All-Star nods that season.
Honorable mention: Palmer also claimed AL Cy Young honors in 1973 and ’76, while Mike Flanagan ('79) and Steve Stone ('80) did so later in seasons that were contenders to make this list. … Mussina was one of the AL’s top performers during the strike-shortened ’94 campaign, as well as the ace of playoff-bound O’s teams in ’96 and ’97. … The most valuable Oriole pitching season of the 21st century came in 2007 from Erik Bedard, who set the franchise single-season record for strikeouts (221) that year. … No O’s pitching discussion is complete without mention of Zack Britton’s near perfect 2016 season, one of the most dominant ever by a single-inning reliever.