This is the ninth in a series of articles dealing with baseball’s greatest players, position by position, culminating in an overall list of the greatest players. This volume covers Starting Pitchers. Who are the greatest in MLB History? Continue reading to find out.
First, a brief description of what this series of articles will be – for the most part, they will be top ten type lists; though they may be shorter (if there aren’t enough “great” players) or longer (if there’s a log jam of “great” players). I will say if the player is in the HOF, list any major awards the player won and provide their key stats. All stats and awards were obtained from Baseball-Reference. This series was originally published on Informative Sports in 2009, however, they have been edited for publication here - some players added, some rankings adjusted etc.
A couple of notes about the stats – they will include their total offensive numbers, not just stats for their main position (for example, Yogi Berra’s stats include his batting stats when he played LF or 1B) and any stats in italics mean they were the leader in that category out of the players in the list. Also, players will be ranked where they were best known at (Ernie Banks at SS for example) or where they played the most games (Pete Rose played the most games at 1B as a single position but he played more total games in the outfield and of those at LF, so that’s where he ended up getting ranked). At the end, I will then describe any reasoning behind my choices and why I ranked them where I did.
Only three caveats to my lists:
1 – the players have to actually be retired. They cannot be unsigned players who haven’t officially retired yet
2 - sorry, but no Negro League players will be on these lists unless they had long-term MLB service (any records or stats from the Negro Leagues are “questionable” at best due to the record keeping; i.e. Josh Gibson’s HR totals etc)
3- no confirmed or heavily-suspected PED users. This includes anyone who admitted to using steroids knowingly or unknowingly (so guys like Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Gary Sheffield are not on these lists) and guys where the evidence is very strong that they used (Roger Clemens for example)
We covered the greatest catchers, greatest first basemen, greatest second basemen, greatest shortstops , greatest third basemen, the greatest left fielders, the greatest center fielders and the greatest right fielders so now we step onto the mound. Starting Pitchers is the one position on the field that has the most players that could be argued for best all-time and for top 10. For the other positions, the top 10 is going to be the same with slight changes for the rankings, no matter how many people you ask. However, you could ask 100 different people for their top 10 starting pitchers all-time and you’d get 100 different ones with 30 different people all being ranked. I’ve done this list several times now and it has never been the same as a previous time. Each person places a different value on pitching stats, so their final rankings end up drastically different. Some people believe that because Cy Young has the award named after him, he deserves the top spot. Others believe that Nolan Ryan’s strikeouts and no-hitters mean more than the rest of his stats even though those are the only aspect of pitching Ryan did well. So, who did I rank number one? Keep reading to find out!
#1 – Pedro Martinez: 3 Cy Youngs (and 4 other top-5 finishes), 2 top-5 MVP finishes, 1 AL Pitching Triple Crown, 219 Wins, .687 Win %, 409 Games Started, 46 Complete Games, 17 Shutouts, 2827.1 Innings Pitched, 2.93 ERA, 154 ERA+, 1.054 WHIP, 3154 Ks, 760 BBs, 4.15 K/ BB Ratio, 10.0 K/9 and 8 time All-Star
#2 – Walter Johnson: HOF, 2 MVPs (and 2 other top-5 finishes) 1 AL Pitching Triple Crown, 2 MLB Pitching Triple Crowns, 417 Wins, .599 Win %, 666 Games Started, 531 Complete Games, 110 Shutouts, 5914.2 Innings Pitched, 2.17 ERA, 147 ERA+, 1.061 WHIP, 3509 Ks, 1363 BBs, 2.57 K/BB Ratio and 5.3 K/9 Ratio
#3 – Greg Maddux: 4 Cy Youngs (and 5 other top-5 finishes), 2 top-5 MVP finishes, 355 wins, .610 Win %, 740 Games Started, 109 Complete Games, 35 Shutouts, 5008.1 Innings Pitched, 3.16 ERA, 132 ERA+, 1.143 WHIP, 3371 Ks, 999 BBs, 3.37 K/BB Ratio, 6.1 K/9 Ratio, 8 time All-Star and 18 Gold Gloves
#4 – Sandy Koufax: HOF, 3 Cy Youngs (and 1 other top-5 finish), 1 MVP (and 2 other top-5 finishes), 3 MLB Pitching Triple Crowns, 165 Wins, .655 Win %, 314 Games Started, 137 Complete Games, 40 Shutouts, 2324.1 Innings Pitched, 2.76 ERA, 131 ERA+, 1.106 WHIP, 2396 Ks, 817 BBs, 2.93 K/BB Ratio, 9.3 K/9 Ratio and 6 time All-Star
#5 – Randy Johnson: 5 Cy Youngs (and 4 other top-5 finishes), 1 NL Pitching Triple Crown, 303 Wins, .646 Win %, 603 Games Started, 100 Complete Games, 37 Shutouts, 4135.1 Innings Pitched, 3.29 ERA, 136 ERA+, 1.171 WHIP, 4875 Ks, 1497 BBs, 3.26 K/BB Ratio, 10.6 K/9 and 10 time All-Star
#6 – Lefty Grove: HOF, 1 MVP (and 1 other top-5 finish), 2 MLB Pitching Triple Crowns, 300 Wins, .680 Win %, 457 Games Started, 298 Complete Games, 35 Shutouts, 3940.2 Innings Pitched, 3.06 ERA, 148 ERA+, 1.278 WHIP, 2266 Ks, 1187 BBs, 1.91 K/BB Ratio, 5.2 K/9 Ratio and 6 time All-Star
#7 – Bob Gibson: HOF, 2 Cy Youngs (and 1 other top-5 finish), 1 MVP (and 1 other top-5 finish), 251 Wins, .591 Win %, 482 Games Started, 255 Complete Games, 56 Shutouts, 3884.1 Innings Pitched, 2.91 ERA, 127 ERA+, 1.188 WHIP, 3117 Ks, 1336 BBs, 2.33 K/BB Ratio, 7.2 K/9 Ratio, 8 time All-Star and 9 Gold Gloves
#8 – Christy Mathewson: HOF, 2 top-5 MVP finishes, 2 NL Pitching Triple Crowns, 373 Wins, .665 Win %, 551 Games Started, 434 Complete Games, 79 Shutouts, 4780.2 Innings Pitched, 2.13 ERA, 135 ERA+, 1.059 WHIP, 2502 Ks, 844 BBs, 2.96 K/BB Ratio and 4.7 K/9
#9 – Grover Alexander: HOF, 1 top-5 MVP finish, 2 NL Pitching Triple Crowns, 1 MLB Pitching Triple Crown, 373 Wins, .642 Win %, 599 Games Started, 437 Complete Games, 90 Shutouts, 5190.0 Innings Pitched, 2.56 ERA, 135 ERA+, 1.121 WHIP, 2198 Ks, 951 BBs, 2.31 K/BB Ratio and 3.8 K/9 Ratio
#10 – Tom Seaver: HOF, 3 Cy Youngs (and 5 other top-5 finishes), 1 top-5 MVP finish, 1 ROY, 311 Wins, .603 Win %, 647 Games Started, 231 Complete Games, 61 Shutouts, 4782.2 Innings Pitched, 2.86 ERA, 127 ERA+, 1.121 WHIP, 3640 Ks, 1390 BBs, 2.62 K/BB Ratio, 6.8 K/9 and 12 time All-Star
#11 – Cy Young: HOF, 1 AL Pitching Triple Crown, 511 Wins, .618 Win %, 815 Games Started, 749 Complete Games, 76 Shutouts, 7354.2 Innings Pitched, 2.63 ERA, 138 ERA+, 1.130 WHIP, 2803 Ks, 1217 BBs, 2.30 K/BB Ratio and 3.4 K/9
#12 – Whitey Ford: HOF, 1 Cy Young (and 1 other top-5 finish), 2 top-5 MVP finishes, 236 Wins, .690 Win %, 438 Games Started, 156 Complete Games, 45 Shutouts, 3170.1 Innings Pitched, 2.75 ERA, 133 ERA+, 1.215 WHIP, 1956 Ks, 1086 BBs, 1.80 K/BB Ratio, 5.6 K/9 Ratio and 8 time All-Star
#13 – Warren Spahn: HOF, 1 Cy Young (and 4 other top-5 finishes), 4 top-5 MVP finishes, 363 Wins, .597 Win %, 665 Games Started, 382 Complete Games, 63 Shutouts, 5243.2 Innings Pitched, 3.09 ERA, 118 ERA+, 1.195 WHIP, 2583 Ks, 1434 BBs, 1.80 K/BB Ratio, 4.4 K/9 and 14 time All-Star
#14 – Steve Carlton: HOF, 4 Cy Youngs (and 2 other top-5 finishes), 3 top-5 MVP finishes, 1 NL Pitching Triple Crown, 329 Wins, .574 Win %, 709 Games Started, 254 Complete Games, 55 Shutouts, 5217.1 Innings Pitched, 3.22 ERA, 115 ERA+, 1.247 WHIP, 4136 Ks, 1833 BBs, 2.26 K/BB Ratio, 7.1 K/9 Ratio, 10 time All-Star and 1 Gold Glove
#15 – Jim Palmer: HOF, 3 Cy Youngs (and 5 other top-5 finishes), 1 top-5 MVP finish, 268 Wins, .638 Win %, 521 Games Started, 211 Complete Games, 53 Shutouts, 3948.0 Innings Pitched, 2.86 ERA, 126 ERA+, 1.180 WHIP, 2212 Ks, 1311 BBs, 1.69 K/BB Ratio, 5.0 K/9, 6 time All-Star and 4 Gold Gloves
#16 – Bob Feller: HOF, 4 top-5 MVP finishes, 1 AL Pitching Triple Crown, 266 Wins, .621 Win %, 484 Games Started, 279 Complete Games, 44 Shutouts, 3827.0 Innings Pitched, 3.25 ERA, 122 ERA+, 1.316 WHIP, 2581 Ks, 1764 BBs, 1.46 K/BB Ratio, 6.1 K/9 and 8 time All-Star
#17 – Bert Blyleven: 3 top-5 Cy Young finishes, 287 Wins, .534 Win %, 685 Games Started, 242 Complete Games, 60 Shutouts, 4970.0 Innings Pitched, 3.31 ERA, 118 ERA+, 1.198 WHIP, 3701 Ks, 1322 BBs, 2.80 K/BB Ratio, 6.7 K/9 and 2 time All-Star
Honorable Mention: Carl Hubbell, Ferguson Jenkins, Juan Marichal, Kid Nichols and Nolan Ryan
Will/may be on this list someday: CC Sabathia, Johan Santana, Roy Halladay (all three have a legit shot at cracking the top 17)
Evaluating pitchers isn’t easy, there are a lot of stats that have to be accounted for and compared. In order to understand how I value and use these stats, read the article I wrote regarding pitching stats.
To rank these players, I started with a list of 31 pitchers, ranked by how I thought they should be without actually looking at the stats 1- 31 (for instance, Steve Carlton was much higher initially than where he finished). I then collected the stats and compared them, moving players up or down. The closer two pitchers were in the top level stats (ERA, WHIP etc), the further down the list of stats I went until I had a clearer picture of who was better than who. This led to some surprises (Bert Blyleven and Steve Carlton for example are a lot closer than you would initially think). I then took the top 17 for the rankings, made numbers 18 – 22 the honorable mentions and left off the remaining nine (players such as Mordecai Brown, just missed the honorable mentions while players like Gaylord Perry were considered but were outside the top 22).
My top 10 changed too many times to count (not who was in it, just the order). Walter Johnson was number one, Pedro number 2, then I switched them. Cy Young was 3rd then 4th, then dropped to 8th, then to 10th and finally had him settle at 11th. Even as I’m writing this, I’m still debating some moves in the top 10 – should Mathewson be dropped because of the era he played in, should Maddux and Randy Johnson be given more credit for pitching in the steroid era, should Koufax’ first 5 or 6 “poor” seasons be thrown out and only give him credit for his completely dominating final 5 seasons? Questions like that are why ranking players all-time is a pain – there is no 100% correct answer (for the most part, Ruth as the number 1 right fielder was pretty simple). Let’s take a look at each pitcher in the top 10 individually to see why I ranked them where I did starting with number one, Pedro Martinez.
Pedro Martinez – earned the top spot by having the best ERA+, WHIP and K/BB ratio and the second best K/9 ratio of the players ranked. Also, the fact that his career ERA is under 3.00 even though his career spanned the steroid era is truly amazing. Guys like Walter Johnson, Bob Gibson etc all had career ERAs under 3.00 but they did the majority of that with a higher mound (favored the pitcher), in more pitcher-friendly parks (at least compared to the small stadiums today). Also, Pedro’s WHIP was much better than the league average WHIP during his career than Walter Johnson’s was for his (thank you baseball-reference.com for all the great breakdowns of stats!). I initially thought the battle for number one between Pedro and Walter Johnson was going to be close; turns out it wasn’t close at all.
Walter Johnson – easily earned the number 2 spot and if it wasn’t for Pedro, would be the greatest starting pitcher ever. While some of his stats are 2nd only to Cy Young in history (wins, games started etc), in actual pitching stats what he did as a pitcher was truly amazing. 110 shutouts is an untouchable number – Randy Johnson for example only had 100 complete games with 37 shutouts. His multiple MLB Pitching Triple Crowns and MVPS show just how dominant in comparison to the other pitchers (and to the normal positions players) of his time he was.
Greg Maddux – has an argument for best pitcher ever. While he was more consistent than Pedro for a longer period of time, he wasn’t as dominant. Maddux played in an offensive-heavy era but looking at his stats, you wouldn’t know this. The best control pitcher on this list. He didn’t rely on power pitching, but instead relied on his control and guile and still managed to get over 3,000 strikeouts. Putting Maddux 3rd was tough just couldn’t come up with a good enough reason to put him ahead of Pedro and/or Walter Johnson.
Sandy Koufax – what earned Koufax the number 4 spot was the fact that his final 5 years are arguably the greatest 5 years any pitcher has ever had – 3 MLB pitching Triple Crowns, 3 Cy Youngs and winning the Cy Young and MVP in the same season. What prevented him from being ranked higher was the first 5 or 6 years of his career weren’t that good overall, which hurt his final stats in comparison to the players ahead of him.
Randy Johnson – similar to Koufax in that his career started off “bad” then he became one of the most dominant pitchers of his era. You could easily argue he should be ranked higher than Koufax because he was almost as dominant but did it over a longer period of time.
Lefty Grove – the only thing that stopped Lefty Grove from being ranked higher was his K/BB ratio was much worse than the pitchers ahead of him (his was under 2, the others all over 3, some well over 3) and his WHIP was close to 1.3 while the others were all under 1.20. Fine distinctions like that is what separates a top 5 pitcher from a top 10 pitcher.
Bob Gibson – the only thing that stopped him from being higher was basically his ERA+. All the pitchers above him had an ERA+ over 130, his was 127. Yes, he was basically the reason the mound was lowered and the fact that ERAs in general during his playing days were lower can account for the “worse” ERA+ but as in Grove and his WHIP, 1 single stat can make all the difference. Don’t get me wrong, if it’s game 7 of the World Series, Gibson is probably the pitcher you want starting the game for you and if these rankings were based on who you want on the mound for 1 game, he’d be number 1, but they are for entire career, thus the “lower” ranking.
Christy Mathewson – why is he so low? Basically he’s penalized because of the era he played in. His ERA was fantastic, however, if you look at his ERA+, it’s lower than Pedro’s or Walter Johnson’s meaning, ERAs during his time were lower overall. His WHIP was fantastic, however, because it was the Dead Ball Era, everyone’s WHIP was much lower. Mathewson started off being ranked 2nd, then slowly dropped as I took into account many factors like era played in.
Grover Alexander – the only reason he’s ranked as low as he is? His stats when compared to the other pitchers ahead of him, fall just short; for example, he may have a better ERA than one player but his ERA+ was not as good as the same player or his WHIP was better, but too many other stats were worse. Keep in mind, being ranked 9th overall is not a slight against his career at all. Grover was one of the best pitchers the game has ever seen.
Tom Seaver/Cy Young – this was one of the toughest decisions to make – who gets the number 10 spot and who gets bumped down to 11th? The final kicker for me was the era each played in and the competition they faced. Yes, the award is named after Cy Young, but if you go back and look at the stats, the only stats that Cy Young is number 1 in of the players listed are the ones the pitcher doesn’t really have that much control over (innings, games started etc). Today’s pitchers (and most of those from the 60s on) had less control over how long they stayed in games etc because of bullpens, five man rotations etc. Each time Cy Young pitched, he basically pitched a complete game, however, the talent level he faced in the pre-1900s was not the same as Seaver faced in the 60s/70s and Seaver put up similar key stats (ERA, WHIP, ERA+ etc). So, with that being said, I gave the slight edge to Seaver. I know not having Cy Young as a top 10 pitcher all-time is not going to be a popular move, but baseball in the pre-1900s is not the same as it was even in the 40s let alone in the decades since.
The final six spots (12-17) were very tough as well and personal preference played a bigger part in whom was ranked where. The reason the players in this group are this “low” is because each had key “weaknesses” in their careers in comparison to other pitchers on this list – WHIP wasn’t as good, ERA+ was low, too many “bad” seasons mixed in with dominant ones or never had a dominant stretch of seasons. Let me address one question I’m sure you immediately asked when you got to number 17 – how can Bert Blyleven be on this list? If you look at his stats and compare them to Steve Carlton’s they are eerily similar. The only difference is Carlton had completely dominant seasons where Blyleven (whose career is highly undervalued in my opinion) never had that one truly dominant season, he just was very consistent (where Carlton would have 2 or 3 great seasons, followed by a bad one). Blyleven’s career numbers match up well with others on this list and other pitchers in the Hall of Fame.
A quick note about the honorable mentions; they all could be argued for making this list between 14 and 17 however there was something missing or holding them back in my opinion. For example, Nolan Ryan was a great pitcher when he was “on”. Problem is he was just as likely to throw a no-hitter as he was to give up a ton of walks or hits. He walked way too many people (owns the Major League record for Walks in a career) and gave up far too many base hits (career WHIP of 1.247) and a bad ERA+ (111) to be considered amongst the best ever. For the other players, era played in, key stats not matching up well to others on this list were all factors in them just missing the cut.
For those of you looking forward to a closers/relievers list, don’t. The position/responsibilities have changed drastically decade to decade that it makes it extremely hard to compare them so that ranking would basically come down to my own personal preference (innings over saves etc). I do believe however, that some of these guys could be in the discussion of all-time greatest pitchers. Here are the closers I believe are the best all-time and your team would do very well with any one of these guys locking down the 8th/9th innings:
- Mariano Rivera
- Goose Gossage
- Dennis Eckersley
- Bruce Sutter
- Rollie Fingers
- Hoyt Wilhelm
- Trevor Hoffman
- Sparky Lyle
Beginning next week, we will begin the countdown of the greatest overall players all-time, based on the rankings in these lists to find out who the greatest overall player in MLB history is. In order to make the overall list, the player had to actually be ranked, so no honorable mentions will be included on the Greatest Overall rankings.
So, what do you think? Do you have a problem with the order? Did I leave someone off? If so, let me know. Don’t just say “you left off so-and-so” — give me a good explanation of why they belong and where in the order they belong. If you present a good enough case, I just might add them to the list.