It was a fitting capper to a dazzling season. On this date, September 25, 1996, Kevin Brown pitched seven shutout innings in a 3-0 win over the first-place Atlanta Braves in his last start of the season, as Jeff Conine and Greg Colbrunn both drove in runs and Kurt Abbott hit a homer in the eighth inning for good measure. Most significantly, the performance lowered Brown’s ERA to 1.89, clinching the National League (and MLB) ERA title for the 31-year-old right-hander.
The performance was simply par for the course for Brown in a spectacular individual season; if it wasn’t the best year of his career, it was second-best. After beginning his career with the Texas Rangers, who made him the fourth overall pick in the 1986 draft, Brown signed with the Baltimore Orioles for one season before moving on to Florida before the 1996 campaign. The Marlins managed to land Brown right at the beginning of what proved to be his peak years. Immediately becoming the ace of an improving Florida team, Brown set the tone as soon as the 1996 season got underway. He allowed just one run in seven innings against the Pirates on Opening Day and followed it with eight shutout innings against San Francisco in his second start. And that was only the beginning of Brown’s superb summer. He allowed four or more earned runs in just four of his 32 starts; he pitched fewer than six innings in just three of his starts, all of which came in May. After the season’s opening weeks, Brown’s ERA first went below 2.00 after his outing on June 21. It only went back to 2.00 or higher on three more occasions the rest of the season, and it never went higher than 2.01. His ERA rose to the 2.00 mark for the final time after his start on September 9 against the Mets, and Brown steadily lowered it over his final three outings to the eventual 1.89.
Brown’s season raises two questions. First, was it the best of his career, or was his 1998 season with San Diego better? It’s certainly close, and Brown’s 1.89 ERA and 0.944 WHIP (which also led the NL) in 1996 are the best of his 19 Major League seasons. His 1998 performance, though, appears to be slightly—emphasis on slightly—better. He notched 8.6 WAR in 1998, compared to 8.0 in 1996, according to Baseball-Reference. Defense explains the disparity. Brown benefited from his fielders more in 1996 compared to 1998, posting FIPs of 2.88 and 2.23, respectively.
The second question is how the hell did Brown fail to win the Cy Young Award in 1996? Not only did he lead the league in ERA, but it wasn’t close—the Braves’ Greg Maddux came in second, well behind at 2.72. The answer can be found in wins, both Brown’s and his team’s. In 1996, advanced stats and sabermetrics were hardly on the minds of most Major League franchises, let alone those of the baseball media. As such, the traditional stats carried the day, especially the most traditional of them all, the win stat. Cy Young winner John Smoltz certainly had an excellent year, finishing second behind Brown in WAR for pitchers with 7.3. But Smoltz was more fortunate than Brown in that he played for a much better team, helping him accrue a 24-8 record; Brown finished 17-11. That discrepancy, as well as the narrative element of Smoltz pitching for a division winner and Brown pitching for a non-contender (and one that happened to be in just its fourth year of existence), probably explains why the overwhelming majority of Cy Young voters sided with Smoltz. Smoltz received 26 first-place votes, while Brown, who finished second in the voting, received just two.
But the Marlins, who finished with their best record yet in 1996 with Brown a significant reason why, certainly appreciated what they had. And on September 25, Brown ended his season in apt fashion: by pitching dominantly, just as he had all summer.