The 1968 season was special for Denny McLain in many ways. Not only did McLain become a rare 30-game winner that year, but he did so with some stunning numbers on the road. In fact, McLain almost went undefeated on the road that year.
Most, if not all pitchers will tell you that they prefer to pitch at home. They are more familiar with the mound and the surroundings of their home ballpark. In short, there is a comfort that you feel at home that is tough to duplicate on the road.
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Yet for McLain, the road offered no obstacles in 1968. On August 16th of that year, McLain beat the Boston Red Sox 4-0 at Fenway Park, running his road record to a stunning 16-0. He tossed a complete game shutout with 9 strikeouts in the game. It was his 6th shutout of the year.
McLain would not lose his first road game until August 24th, when he lost to the Yankees at Yankee Stadium 2-1. Even then, McLain gave his team a chance to win, scattering just five hits in the loss.
He would go on to finish the season with a remarkable 17-2 record away from Tiger Stadium and more impressively a gaudy 1.44 ERA. Losses to New York and Baltimore were his only setbacks on the road in ’68. In the history of the game, only two pitchers have more road wins in a single season, Walter Johnson (20) in 1913 and Juan Marichal (18) in 1968.
The specialization of relief roles and the five-man rotation have made 300 innings a thing of the past.
Charlie Hough made 40 starts for the Rangers in 1987, the last pitcher to reach that plateau. In an age where the top starters are making no more than 34 or 35 starts a season, winning 30 games becomes a statistical improbability.
As for the Tigers historically, Hal Newhouser won 16 road games in 1944, but while he made 19 starts like McLain, he also made six additional relief appearances as well. More recently, Justin Verlander was 14-2 on the road in 2011 on his way to a 25-4 record, the Cy Young Award and the American League MVP. In 1983, Dan Petry won 13 road games of the 19 he won that season
McLain also pitched in an era where a sore shoulder was treated by sitting under a scalding hot shower for long as one could stand it. Ironically, as training and medical techniques have advanced, the number of innings pitched has declined.
Benchmarks continue to evolve and what was the norm in the 60’s is far from the norm today. If anything, it makes you appreciate what McLain accomplished in 1968. Especially away from the friendly confines of old Tiger Stadium.