Lists. Who doesn’t love them? We love lists so much here at Pitcher List that the word “list” is in our name! Sports and lists go together like hamburgers and french fries, peas and carrots, or dogs and fleas – you get the picture. Baseball may lend itself to lists more than any other sport thanks to, you know, it being around for 150 years. As such, we will celebrate the great sport of baseball with a new series of lists. Welcome to the Top Ten!
Every other week we’ll reveal a new Top Ten list that celebrates the great sport of baseball. For this, our inaugural entry, we pretty much have to start on the mound. After all, the other word in our name is “Pitcher.”
Narrowing down all the great pitchers across several generations to ten was not easy. To do so, we had to pour through a ton of data, keeping in mind the differences between eras. Without getting into too much detail, here are a few notes on how the selections were made:
- Longevity matters! Greatness is achieved over a long period of time. Thus, an accumulation of stats is essential. Pitchers who dominated throughout a long career were rewarded in some of the statistics, including Wins, Shutouts, WAR, and RA9-WAR. For this reason, all-time greats like Sandy Koufax and Rube Waddell didn’t quite make it. Despite their dominance, they couldn’t crack the Top Ten due to their relatively short careers.
- Longevity is important, but so is dominance! In addition to stats positively influenced by long careers, we counter-balanced with averaging stats such as K/BB, ERA, FIP, and WHIP. We also calculated Wins per Game Started and WAR per Innings Pitched to offset the innings eaters.
- Once we set the criteria, there was no fudging. This list is based on analytics, and we strived to balance the changes in the sport across generations. That is why, for example, we used K/BB versus K/9, as strikeouts are much more common in the modern game. The resulting list includes pitchers across every generation.
- The data was sourced from Fangraphs, and thus some of the calculations may differ slightly from other sites. If you’re curious about definitions and formulas, you can find them in their glossary.
Without further ado, let’s get to the fun part. Below in descending order, are our Top Ten Pitchers of all time. Let the debate begin!
10. Clayton Kershaw
Clayton Kershaw is the only active pitcher to make the Top Ten. If he continues to pitch effectively for a few more seasons, he’ll climb higher on the list as the only thing holding him back is longevity. Where Kershaw really shines is in his amazing control. His K/BB ratio of 4.4 and his WHIP of 1.00 are third among pitchers’ all-time (minimum of 2,000 innings). In addition, his WAR/IP is among the highest in history.
Kershaw’s accolades to date include eight All-Star game appearances, three Cy Young awards, and the National League MVP in 2014. He led all of MLB in ERA five times, including four years in a row from 2011 to 2014. To this point, Kershaw has done it all for one team, which you will see is a rarity among the greats.
9. Randy Johnson
Randy Johnson, aka “The Big Unit,” didn’t start to flourish until he was 29-years-old. He was inconsistent and had difficulty throwing strikes early on, but he was spectacular once he figured it out. After he joined the Diamondbacks in 1999 at the age of 35, he proceeded to win four Cy Young awards in a row and was the NL ERA leader in three of the four seasons.
Perhaps in part because of his late ascendancy, Johnson pitched until he was forty-five. As a result of his long career, he is among the all-time leaders in WAR and RA9-WAR (fifth and twelfth, respectively). The Big Unit won five Cy Young awards in total and pitched in ten All-Star games. He was also co-MVP of the 2001 World Series. Johnson was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2015 with 97.3% of the vote. As the remaining starters in the Top Ten are all right-handed, Johnson is thus the greatest lefty in history – unless Kershaw can overtake him in the next few years.
8. Pedro Martinez
Despite showing tremendous promise over his first two seasons, the Dodgers foolish traded Pedro Martinez to the Expos after the 1993 season. Apparently, they were concerned that the slightly-built Martinez wouldn’t be able to hold up. They were wrong. It took a few years, but Martinez started to dominate in 1997 – his last year in Montreal. He won the MLB ERA title and the NL Cy Young award that year. After the season, Martinez was promptly traded to the Red Sox as the Expos feared they would lose him to free agency the following winter.
The American League did not slow Martinez down, as he would win two more Cy Young awards with Boston and finish second in the voting two other times. He made eight All-Star teams altogether and was a key member of the 2004 Red Sox team that finally broke the “Curse of the Bambino.” Martinez had exceptional control, finishing just behind Kershaw in all-time WHIP and K/BB. His WAR/IP ratio is the highest in history. He entered the Hall of Fame the same year as Johnson – in 2015 – with 91.1% of the vote.
7. Greg Maddux
In the modern era, Greg Maddux’s 355 wins are the most by any pitcher. Some of this resulted from playing for some great teams, but primarily it was due to his incredible durability. From 1991 to 1995, Maddux led the league in innings pitched. For his career, excluding his short rookie season, he averaged 207 innings per season. This durability and longevity is a big reason why Maddux ranks fourth in WAR all-time.
His durability shouldn’t overshadow how great a pitcher he was, however. Maddux won four Cy Young awards and four NL ERA titles in his career to go with eight All-Star game appearances. On top of all that, his 18 gold gloves make him arguably the best fielding pitcher of all time. Some people discount Maddux as he wasn’t a big strikeout pitcher in an era when there were many. However, his ability to dominate for so long illustrates how smart and crafty he was in our book. Maddux was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2014 with 97.2% of the vote.
6. Tom Seaver
Tom Seaver is often overlooked on lists such as this one, perhaps because he pitched in the so-called “Second Deadball Era” to start his career. But he shouldn’t be. Seaver’s career was a great mix between longevity and dominance. He ranks high in almost every category, and his 61 shutouts are the highest of any modern-era pitcher.
Seaver’s career started strong and didn’t slow down much until he was in his mid-30s. He was the NL Rookie-of-the-Year in 1967 and pitched in the All-Star game ten out of his first eleven seasons (twelve altogether), winning three Cy Young awards over that span. On top of that, Seaver’s accolades include three NL ERA titles and five strikeout titles. He was the best pitcher of his generation and is the only Top Ten member from this era. Seaver was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1992 with 98.8% of the vote.
5. Roger Clemens
There’s no doubt that Roger Clemens is the most controversial name on this list. After all, many of his outstanding numbers result from his longevity – which many believe resulted from PED usage. However, we have no way of knowing who did what throughout history and thus have chosen to stick strictly to the stat sheet. Based on the data, there’s no doubt that Clemens belongs.
Clemens’s career paralleled Greg Maddux’s in many ways, although Clemens was far better at generating strikeouts. He pitched for a long time and racked up the highest WAR in history in the process. He fell one win shy of Maddux for the most in the modern era, but his seven Cy Young awards are unmatched historically (since its creation in 1956). On top of these accomplishments, add an MVP, seven ERA titles, five strikeout titles, and eleven All-Star games to his resume. “The Rocket” had a fantastic career – unfortunately, one not without controversy.
4. Pete “Grover Cleveland” Alexander
The remaining pitchers on this list all played a long time ago. Thus, it is impossible to know how Pete Alexander would have performed in the modern era. What we do know is that during his time, he dominated. Some of his numbers – 437 complete games and 90 shutouts, for example – are incomprehensible in 2022. However, even compared to his contemporaries, they were pretty amazing.
For perspective, here’s a list of how many times Alexander led the league in a particular category over the course of his career: Wins (6), ERA (5), Complete Games (6), Shutouts (7), Innings Pitched (7), K’s (6), and WHIP (5). Against his peers, he was spectacular. Alexander was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1938 – the third year of the hall’s existence. He was the ninth player voted in overall.
3. Cy Young
Cy Young, the man whom the famous award is named after, checks in at number three on our list. Cy Young is the oldest member of the group, and many of his records will likely never be broken. 7,354 innings pitched? Please. 511 wins? Come on now. 749 complete games? Give me a break. You couldn’t put up these kinds of numbers playing a video game.
How good was Cy Young actually, though? There’s no doubt that much of his greatness is tied to his incredible volume. However, he dominated in his time as well. While not a huge strikeout pitcher, he did lead the league in the category twice. He rarely walked anyone, as evidenced by his leading the league in BB/9 an astounding fourteen times. In addition, Young won the ERA title twice and had the lowest WHIP seven times. They wouldn’t name the award after just anyone, after all. Young made it into the Hall of Fame in 1937 with the second group of electees.
2. Christy Mathewson
Christy Mathewson’s career was a relatively short 17 seasons long. Thus, he didn’t throw nearly as many innings as Pete Alexander, Cy Young, or #1 on this list. He earned his place through dominance. His career ERA of 2.11 and FIP of 2.22 over 4,747 innings are hard to match. Only four pitchers with more than 2k innings pitched had lower lifetime ERAs than Mathewson, and only one of them, Mordecai Brown, threw more than 3k innings. Critics will point out that Mathewson pitched his entire career during the Dead Ball Era (1900 – 1919). However, compared to his peers during this period, Mathewson still shined.
Throughout his 17 seasons, the New York Giant legend had the lowest ERA in the league five times and the lowest FIP eight times. He won the strikeout title five times and had the lowest BB/9 seven times. In 1905 and 1908, Mathewson won the NL pitching triple crown. He was a force to be reckoned with, without a doubt. Mathewson pitched his entire career for the New York Giants except for one game. The last start of his career came as a member of the Cincinnati Reds, where he was traded in July 1916. He pitched a complete game and earned the win despite giving up eight earned runs. Mathewson was among the five players voted into the initial Hall of Fame class in 1936.
1. Walter Johnson
Drumroll, please… The greatest pitcher of all time award goes to… Walter Johnson! But seriously, if you made it this far without scrolling down first, you are to be commended on your discipline. “The Big Train” ranks #1 due to his longevity and dominance. Consider Johnson’s career rank among pitchers who threw 2,000+ innings in their career (397 players):
The dude was good at everything! We see the same thing if we use the contextual approach, ala Mathewson, Young, and Alexander. The Big Train had the lowest ERA in the league five times and the lowest FIP nine. To further this, Johnson’s ERA was under 2.00 twelve times in his first thirteen seasons. He led in IP five times, strikeouts twelve times, and WHIP six times. Oh, and he did it all for one team. We could go on, but you get the picture. Johnson was another member of the initial Hall of Fame class, joining Mathewson, Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, and Honus Wagner. That’s some pretty good company.
Watch for the next Top Ten in two weeks. If you enjoyed this article, check out our All-Franchise Starting Lineup in the between weeks. You can find both, along with tons of other great content, in the We Love Baseball section.
Photo by Ben Gorman/Unsplash | Adapted by Justin Redler (@reldernitsuj on Twitter)