Cubs: What were Fergie Jenkins’ five best seasons?

(Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
(Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images) /

Chicago Cubs legend Fergie Jenkins finally has his own statue on Gallagher Way, unveiled last Friday and anchoring a day of celebration in a season sorely needing one. This is a good excuse to look back at the most remarkable seasons of this remarkable pitcher’s career. In the stat lines below, league leading stats are in italics.

#5 1968 – 6.2 WAR, 2.63 ERA, 121 ERA+, 40 GS

In his first season with the Cubs Jenkins would achieve the best ERA of his career, barring a 1965 cup of coffee with the Phillies. This season would be the last of the second dead ball era, which in part explains why this was Fergie’s best ERA season. But it was far from his best ERA+ season. After MLB decided to make it harder on pitchers by lowering the mound and shrinking the zone, Jenkins got better. His first below-average ERA season would not come until 1975 with the Rangers, when he was 32 years old.

#4 1969 – 7.2 WAR, 3.21 ERA, 126 ERA+, 42 GS, 273 K, 3.85 K/BB

It’s axiomatic that the 1969 Cubs fell apart because manager Leo Durocher ran the regulars into the ground, leading to the epic late season collapse that still gives fans of a certain age night sweats. Nowhere was the problem more acute than in the starting rotation: Durocher actually used a three-man rotation for much of the season. Jenkins, Bill Hands, and Ken Holtzman each made 39 or more starts; Dick Selma (25 starts) was the only other pitcher in double digits.

Even the relentless Jenkins couldn’t withstand this workload. His OPS allowed ballooned to .794 in September, over 100 points higher than his next highest month that year. This was very uncharacteristic of his career as a whole. Jenkins was not only astonishingly consistent from year to year, but also within a season. His career monthly OPS in September was virtually identical to his mark in June.

#3 1970 – 7.3 WAR, 3.39 ERA, 132 ERA+, 24 CG, 1.04 WHIP, 1.7 BB/9, 4.57 K/BB

Fergie Jenkins absolutely, unreservedly, unabashedly hated walks. He was the first pitcher to retire with more than 3000 Ks and fewer than 1000 walks. While a few others have since achieved that amazing feat, only Greg Maddux had more strikeouts with fewer than 1000 walks. Fergie pitched for 19 seasons; in ten of them he walked fewer than 2 batters per 9 innings.

The dark side of this approach, of course, was the homers: Jenkins led the league in homers allowed seven times, and the majors twice. But his career demonstrates that pitchers can have success by dominating two of the Three True Outcomes; his strikeout and walk rates were significantly better than the MLB averages.

#2 1974 – 7.7 WAR, 2.82 ERA, 126 ERA+, 25 W, 29 CG, 1.2 BB/9, 5.00 K/BB

Year 1 A.D. (After Durocher) was 1973, in which the Cubs began another long sojourn into baseball irrelevance. It was the worst year of Jenkins’ career thus far, and the Cubs decided to move on, sending the 30-year-old hurler to the Texas Rangers in a blockbuster trade for Bill Madlock.

Jenkins responded by producing the third-best season WAR for a pitcher in Rangers history (albeit not a crowded field) and the second best of his career. The Rangers would finish second in the AL West, by far the best finish for the franchise that had begun its benighted existence as the hapless Washington Senators 2.0.

It is perhaps an underappreciated aspect of Jenkins’ career that he flourished playing for two of the most famously difficult managers in the game: Leo Durocher and Billy Martin. It certainly didn’t hurt these relationships that Jenkins had Hall of Fame ability, but other talented Cubs chafed or melted under Durocher’s regime.

#1 – 1971 10.1 WAR, 2.77 ERA, 141 ERA+, 39 GS, 30 CG, 325 IP,  1.0 BB/9, 7.11 K/BB

The Durocher Show was wearing thin by 1971, with some of the players in open rebellion. Jenkins responded to the turmoil by posting a ten WAR season, one of just 22 such seasons by pitchers since integration, and the best single season in Cubs pitching history. It even featured an Ohtani moment.

That phenomenal strikeout-to-walk ratio was a modern era record (edging out Cy Young, yeah, that Cy Young). It would stand until 1994, when the Mets’ Bret Saberhagen shattered it; his 11.00 rate remains the second best in the modern era.

Next. Ranking the worst Cubs trades of the last 50 years. dark

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This was Fergie’s last outstanding season with the Cubs. While much success still lay ahead for Jenkins, the Cubs front office wasn’t entirely wrong in thinking that he began wearing down after this stellar campaign. The 1971 season was the fourth straight year in which Jenkins threw over 300 innings; he would achieve that only once more in his career, in 1974. That said, the “worn down” Jenkins remained a reliable starter for most of the remainder of his career before hanging up his spikes, fittingly as a Cub once again, at age 40.