Baseball All-time Top 10 Starting Pitchers

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 ever.  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 is a logjam of “great” players).  I will say if the player is in the Hall of Fame, list any major awards the player won and provide their key stats.  All stats and awards were obtained from Baseball Reference. 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 left field and first base); any stats in italics mean they were the leader in that category out of the players in the list and players will be listed for the position they are most known for (for example, Pete Rose played the most games in the outfield as a whole, but he played the most games there in left , so he will be included there, however, Ernie Banks, though he played the most games at first, is recognized as a shortstop because that is where he had his best seasons).  At the end, I will then describe any reasoning behind my choices regarding their actual ranking.

Only two caveats to my lists:

  1. The players have to actually be retired.  They cannot be unsigned players who haven’t officially retired yet (i.e. Pedro, Bonds, Clemens etc).
  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).

We’ve covered the greatest catchers, the greatest first basemen, the greatest second basemen  the greatest shortstops, and the greatest third basemen, and the greatest left fielders, and the greatest center fielders; the right fielders ; now it’s the starting pitchers’ turn.  Here are the rankings:

  1. walter johnsonWalter 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
  2. 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
  3. 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
  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. 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
  6. 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
  7. 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
  8. 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
  9. 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
  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. 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
  12. 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
  13. 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
  14. 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
  15. 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:  Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Johan Santana and John Smoltz

Roger-Clemens-First, let me explain a little something about the stats I look at first and which I use last to evaluate a pitcher.  To me, the first stats you should look at when evaluating pitchers are those stats which are solely on the pitcher and not dependent on the support the pitcher receives from his teammates.  So, with that in mind, the stats I look at first are; ERA, WHIP, ERA+, K/BB Ratio and K/9 Ratio.  Next are the era-dependent stats, the ones that change depending on when the pitcher played due to changes in how pitchers are used — Games Started, Complete Games, Shutouts and Innings Pitched.  Then you have the stats that are team-dependent, so they really depend on how good or bad the team the pitcher is on: Wins and Win %.  Then the awards, keeping in mind whether the pitcher could win an award (did it yet exist?) or the competition for that award. These awards include Cy Youngs, MVPs, Triple Crowns, All-Star appearances and Gold Gloves.  Then I look at the stats that determine other stats — Ks and BBs.  Finally, I take into account “intangibles”… for example, did the player miss prime seasons to military service (Feller)? Was he affected in comparison to other pitchers in his era because he played on a 5-man rotation while everyone else was still on 4-man rotations (Ford)? Was he a dominant pitcher on a bad team or just a good/great pitcher on a bad team (comparing Carlton to Blyleven)?  There is no key stat to determining a pitcher’s greatness and if you compare the number of stats I used for pitchers to hitters (18 areas for pitchers, 13 areas for hitters), you’ll see it takes more information to better evaluate a pitcher than a hitter.

To rank these players, I started with a list of 29 pitchers, ranked by how I thought they’d line up 1-29 without actually looking at the stats. (For instance, Steve Carlton was much higher initially than where he finished.)  I then collected the data and compared their stats, moving players up or down, based on how they stacked up in order of the areas I mentioned above.  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 instance, are a lot closer than you would initially think).  I then took the top fifteen for the rankings, made numbers 16-20 the honorable mentions and left off the remaining nine (players such as Mordecai Brown just missed the honorable mentions, and players like Gaylord Perry were considered but were outside the top 20).

cy-young-imageLet’s now take a look at why I ranked the pitchers the way I did, starting with the Top 5: Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Cy Young, Sandy Koufax and Greg Maddux.  Any one of these five pitchers could have the case made for greatest pitcher of all-time.  Maddux edged out Bob Gibson for number five on this list by the slimmest of margins (Maddux actually started the list at 6th and Gibson at 5th).  Maddux’s longevity and advantages in ERA+, WHIP and K/BB Ratio were the deciding factors.  Koufax only played for 12 seasons; however, in the last 6 of those seasons, Sandy was as dominant a pitcher as you can be, winning three MLB Pitching Triple Crowns and three Cy Youngs in a four-year span and sweeping the Cy Young and MVP in the same season.  Yes, Maddux won four Cy Youngs in a row, but when Koufax won his, they only awarded one Cy Young for all of baseball — not one per league like in Maddux’s time.  Cy Young has the award named after him; however, the era he played in has to be taken into account and this is where he falls behind Johnson and Mathewson into third.  In my opinion, the competition Young faced wasn’t on par with what Johnson and Mathewson faced, so even though Young was the best pitcher of his time, Johnson and Mathewson were both better pitchers.  Young wins the categories that are team- or era-dependent (wins, complete games, etc.) while Johnson and Mathewson did better in the pitcher-dependent stats like ERA+, WHIP, K/9 Ratio and so on.  So, it came down to a battle for number one between Johnson and Mathewson.  Their stat lines are very similar, but it was the MLB Pitching Triple Crowns, Shutouts and ERA+ that were the deciding factors that earned Walter Johnson the number one spot over Mathewson.

Spots six on through were tough.  Many pitchers I had initially ranked in the top 10 (Carlton and Spahn for example) dropped down and a couple (Ford, Alexander and Seaver) moved up.  As I said before, Gibson narrowly missed out on the top five and his advantages over Grove in ERA, WHIP, Ks, K/BB Ratio and K/9 Ratio were the deciding factor.   Lefty’s advantage in ERA+ over Grover Alexander was the key in Lefty getting 7th.  Even though Grover’s ERA itself was better, the ERA+ shows how much better Lefty’s ERA was for his time than Grover’s was for his. (During Grover’s time, ERAs were lower across the board.)  Grover’s advantage in WHIP over Ford earned him the 8th spot.  In comparing Ford and Seaver, the ERA and ERA+ advantage for Ford plus the fact that he basically lost time because the Yankees were one of the first teams in baseball to use a five-man rotation along with regular relief pitchers hurt his overall numbers, so I gave Ford the 9th spot.  Seaver barely beat out Spahn for the 10th spot because of significant advantages in ERA, ERA+ and WHIP.

koufax SIThe final five spots (11-15) were tough as well.  Eleven and twelve went to two pitchers who I always thought were top 10 pitchers, but they had key “weaknesses” in their careers in comparison to other pitchers on this list.  Spahn’s ERA+ wasn’t very good, and Carlton had a “bad” ERA+ and WHIP.  However, both these pitchers had other stats that were clearly dominant in comparison to those in spots 13, 14 and 15 — mainly wins, Ks and awards.  Spots 13, 14, and 15 pretty much came down to my own personal preference.  Jim Palmer is in the discussion for the best pitcher of the 1970s, so I ranked him 13th.  Bob Feller was a power pitcher who missed all or parts of four seasons due to military service; however, in his first full season back after not facing Major League talent for that time, he picked right up where he left off and struck out 348 batters.  Would his numbers have been slightly better if he had those 4 years back?  I think so, so that’s why I ranked him 14th.  Blyleven in my opinion has always been slightly underrated and his Hall of Fame voting bears this out.  If you compare his stats to Steve Carlton’s, they are eerily similar… and better in some areas.  Blyleven was a great pitcher on a bad team while Carlton was a dominant pitcher on bad teams, and to me that is the key difference.  That is why Blyleven rounds out this list at 15 — if I have Carlton on here, it’s hard to leave off Blyleven.

A quick note about the honorable mentions: they all could be argued as worthy of making this list between 13 and 15, but I felt 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 to many people (owning the Major League record for walks in a career) and gave up far to many basehits (career WHIP of 1.247) and had a bad ERA+ (111) to be considered amongst the best ever.  For the other players, era played a factor, as key stats not matching up well to others on this list were all factors in them just missing the cut.

World Series Phillies Yankees BaseballFor those of you looking forward to a closers/relievers list, don’t.  The position/responsibilities have changed so drastically from 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 and/or 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.  In order to make the overall list, the player had to actually be ranked, so no honorable mentions.  Next week will be numbers 76 – 51, the following week numbers 50-26 and then we will end with a breakdown of the top 25 ever.

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.

Submitted 7/11/09

 

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