Past Time: The Doctor Sneaks In

On April 6, 1984, a 19-year-old pitching phenom sat in his hotel room, eager to make his Major League debut. So antsy was this pitcher that he didn’t wait for the team bus to the Astrodome. Instead, he walked, and found himself at the gates much too early.

And so, unable to contain his excitement for the first start of his Major League career, Dwight Gooden walked the perimeter of the Astrodome’s fences until he found one low enough to climb. The future ace snuck into the empty stadium.

Later that evening, on the same pitching mound that the great Nolan Ryan assaulted strikeout records with his blistering fastballs and relentless work ethic, Doc Gooden would begin his own pursuit of the all-powerful “K.” He was successful enough over his 16 seasons to earn the nickname “Dr. K.”

Gooden’s career was infamously curtailed by drug and alcohol problems, but talk to anyone who watched him pitch early in his career and they’ll tell you: Doc was nasty. He made the All-Star team his rookie season en route to 17 wins and 276 strikeouts in 218 innings. And oh, by the way, sporting a sparkling 2.60 ERA, good enough to earn him the Rookie of the Year. You’d be hard pressed to find many rookie seasons among hurlers that were better than Doc Gooden’s.

More importantly, Doc finished 2nd in Cy Young voting. I’m here to tell you he should’ve won it. Rick Sutcliffe took the award, but Doc had a better ERA (2.60 to 2.69), better WHIP (1.073 to 1.078), struck out more hitters per inning (1.27 to 1.03), and started 11 more games. Sutcliffe received all 24 first place votes. How can this be? Well, it came down to the records: Gooden went 17-9, Sutcliffe went 16-1. Even before “advanced metrics” was a conversation, it seems rather absurd that the “L” column held such weight that the rest of Gooden’s better numbers didn’t win out.

Though he would go on to have several stellar years, none would come near to his second season in 1985. Doc pitched out of his mind that year, going 24-4 with a miniscule 1.53 ERA, good for league best. He also threw a staggering 16 complete games, 8 of which were shutouts. He also struck out 268 hitters and this time there was no doubt who earned the National League Cy Young: Dwight Gooden. It was the only in his career.

Gooden was solid again in the Mets’ championship season in 1986, with a 2.84 ERA and 200 strikeouts. After this campaign is when the drugs began to take their toll, and only once more did he finish with a sub-3 ERA. He was still plenty good, posting a 3.21 in 1987 and a 3.19 in 1988, as well as a handful of other mid-3’s. He finished his career with a respectable 3.51 ERA and 2,293 career K’s in 2800.2 innings.

It’s pretty amazing to think about how dominant the Doctor truly was in just his age 19 and 20 seasons. It begs the question: had he remained clean, could he have been one of the all-time greats? His 1984 and 1985 campaigns sure show that he had the goods.

Dwight Gooden was a solid Major League pitcher for many years, but for about four seasons, he was arguably the best pitcher in the game. One of those “what could’ve been,” stories.

But, we like to focus on the positive, and here is one of Gooden’s crowning moments.

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