In 1984, Dwight Gooden made his MLB debut with the New York Mets at the ripe age of 19. While it would be understandable for a pitcher that inexperienced to struggle, the young pitcher dubbed “Doc” did not show any signs of weakness.
Gooden’s first game was a five-inning, one-run victory and he got better with every outing after that. By the end of the season, despite the fact that the 90-win Mets had missed the playoffs, Gooden had had one of the best rookie seasons on the mound ever. Gooden was named Rookie of the Year, was a Cy Young runner-up, and even received MVP votes.
The pitcher who did win the Cy Young award was Rick Sutcliffe, who was arguably worse than Gooden in just about every measurable way, including ERA, WHIP, strikeouts, and WAR.
If Gooden had won the Cy Young award, he would have been the youngest to ever win the title, with the next youngest being 23-year-old Dean Chance in 1964.
Fresh off his dominant rookie season, it would be reasonable to expect a sophomore slump, but that didn’t happen. Instead, he put together the best season by a pitcher ever. Gooden’s ERA was 1.53, the second-best of the modern era, behind only Bob Gibson in 1968. His WAR was 12.2, which is the best by any pitcher of the modern era. Only two pitchers since 1900 have had better single-season WARs and they were Cy Young and Walter Johnson.
The difference is that those two compiled that WAR while pitching well over 40 games.
Gooden did it in only 35 games.
Nobody has come close since and nobody ever will.
Gooden would go on to win the 1985 Cy Young, allowing him to claim his rightful crown as youngest to ever win the award, even though it should have been his second title. He then took a step back in 1986 but was still electric. He pitched to a 2.84 ERA, 200 strikeouts, and 4.5 WAR. Most importantly, despite a worse season, he anchored the Mets’ pitching staff en route to 108 regular season wins and a World Series victory.
The day after the World Series, the Mets had their parade down the Valley of Champions but Gooden was nowhere to be found. He was drunk and strung out on cocaine at a drug dealer’s apartment on Long Island. His problems didn’t end there; when he went home to Tampa for the offseason, he was encircled by many negative influences, making his issues worse.
Gooden missed the beginning of the 1987 season in a rehab facility. When he returned in June, he pitched adequately but posted an ERA greater than three for the first time in his career. He had, for now, gotten over his cocaine problem but still drank heavily and wasn’t the same pitcher, pitching to three-plus ERA the next year, too. In 1989, he began to struggle with injuries, missing two months to a torn shoulder muscle. (He still managed a 2.89 ERA in the 19 games he did pitch.)
That was the last time he’d ever have an ERA below three, and for the next four years, he was only an average pitcher, struggling with both his drinking and injuries. Early into his 1994 season, he was caught using cocaine again and suspended for 60 games. He was then caught for a second time two months later, subsequently resulting in his ban for the entire 1995 season.
Gooden would go on to have one more shining moment in 1996, when he threw a no-hitter.
All in all, the story of Dwight Gooden is no doubt a sad one, but the sadness often overshadows his greatness that deserves to be talked about. Even though all young baseball players should learn the story of Doc Gooden as a cautionary tale that you aren’t invincible, every baseball fan should also learn his story to understand one of the greatest pitchers of all time.
Even though Dr. K’s legacy is mostly as a tragedy, it is important that the world does not forget that for a few years, he was truly one of the most talented humans to ever grace a baseball field.