The Very Best

Long-time readers will recall my Translated Pitcher Records project from four years ago. Hopefully, I’ll get back to that one some day. But a simpler way of comparing the very best pitchers over time is ERA+,’s comparison of a pitcher’s career ERA to a park-context-adjusted league average. There are two problems, however, with the leaderboard: it has a very low innings pitched threshold, and thus is loaded at the top with relief pitchers; and, unlike my Translated Records, it isn’t translated back into a recognizable ERA benchmark.
So I thought I’d do both; I separated out the pitchers by groupings of innings pitched, and translated their ERAs back into a uniform context of a league ERA of 4.50, which is around midway between the NL and AL ERAs in 2004:
3000 Career Innings or More

# Pitcher ERA IP
1 Lefty Grove 3.04 3940.2
2 Walter Johnson 3.08 5914.2
3 Randy Johnson 3.13 3368
4 Roger Clemens 3.19 4493
5 Greg Maddux 3.19 4181.1
6 Kid Nichols 3.24 5056.1
7 Three Finger Brown 3.26 3172.1
8 Cy Young 3.26 7354.2
9 Grover Alexander 3.33 5190
10 Christy Mathewson 3.33 4780.2
11 John Clarkson 3.36 4536.1
12 Whitey Ford 3.41 3170.1
13 Kevin Brown 3.46 3183
14 Carl Hubbell 3.46 3590.1
15 Amos Rusie 3.46 3769.2

You can see why I stick to the view that Walter Johnson was the greatest of all pitchers, as he stands second only to Lefty Grove here, and in 40% more innings. This list is dominated by pre-1920 and active pitchers, other than Grove and Ford. While I knew he was on the edge of making a Hall of Fame case, I was as surprised as anyone to see Kevin Brown on a list this elite. And this is also further confirmation of precisely how great Kid Nichols was, and why he really gets a raw deal when the great pitchers of old are being ranked.
2000-3000 Career Innings
This second list is guys who have had fairly substantial careers but not a full, 15-years-at-200-innings career:

# Pitcher ERA IP
1 Pedro Martinez 2.69 2296
2 Hoyt Wilhelm 3.08 2254.1
3 Ed Walsh 3.10 2964.1
4 Addie Joss 3.17 2327
5 Al Spalding 3.17 2890.2
6 Rube Waddell 3.36 2961.1
7 Noodles Hahn 3.41 2029.1
8 Sandy Koufax 3.44 2324.1
9 Curt Schilling 3.44 2812.2
10 Hal Newhouser 3.46 2993

You can see here why, for all my mixed feelings about the warning signs and the Mets overpaying, I’m still excited about the possibility of Pedro coming to Shea: he’s been head and shoulders above anybody else who’s ever pitched, he’s still just 33, and a guy that good is worth a gamble. . . Noodles Hahn? Yeah, I’m not too sure about that one either, but Hahn’s the classic forgotten type of pitcher, a guy whose big years came with the turn-of-the-century Reds, a dismal franchise in a quiet period in the game’s history. . . Curt Schilling is close to qualifying for the next list up, although he’s also close to dropping off the bottom if he finishes with a few bad seasons.
The rest of the guys in the under-2000 IP bin fall into three groups: relievers, starting with Dan Quisenberry at 3.08 and including John Franco, Bruce Sutter, John Hiller, Lee Smith, Kent Tekulve, and Doug Jones; very-short-career starters, from Smoky Joe Wood at 3.08 down through Jim Devlin (who was banned from baseball for throwing the 1877 pennant race), Harry Brecheen, Spud Chandler, and Dizzy Dean; and one active starter, Tim Hudson at 3.26.

12 thoughts on “The Very Best”

  1. This is my first time reading, I just wanted to comment about the Mets signing Pedro. I am a Mets fan, have been for most my life (26). Pedro is a typical Mets signing, old, not much left, and overpaid. I can’t believe they made another mistake like this. Why would they sign him? He can’t make it thru 7 innings anymore, his eccentric ways won’t work with the NY media, he’s a DL waiting to happen and now that he’s got a world series, what’s he got left to play for (I’m not buying shoring up his stats for the Hall, he’s either going to make it based on previous numbers and I think voters have already made up their minds based on past performance)? What makes this a success for the Mets? One season, two seasons? He’s not going to get the run support that they got in Boston, I think the defense is worst, this is bad news. Typical Mets signing, the GM is trying to make a name for himself and as soon as the Yankees reopen talks with Unit the Mets do this. This is just a never ending cycle of bad free agent signings. I hope I’m wrong, but I’m sorry I can’t feel your optimism.

  2. I’m sad to see one of my all-time favorite pitchers didn’t make your list. Ok, sad is probably too strong a word. We’ll go with disappointed.
    That pitcher being Steve Carlton. I’m guessing those years he hung around too long must have done him in.
    Would be intrested to see how he fared if his numbers were cut off at 1984.

  3. Carlton’s not in the top 100 all time; his ERA+ for his career is 115 (the guys mentioned here are all at 130 or better, which translates to a 3.50 ERA or better in modern terms), and he was at 120 or better in a full season only 6 times in a 24-year career. Carlton was more done in by being a workhorse who took his share of lumps even in his prime. The guys from the 70s who would make this list if I went down a bit further are Seaver and Palmer.

  4. If you flip over Carlton�s baseball card, you see back to back seasons with just staggering numbers. Staggering for different reasons.
    In 1972 he was 27-10 with a 1.98 ERA. He pitched 346 innings with 30 complete games. Of course that begs the question, how do you lose 10 games with a 1.98 ERA?
    1973 holds the answer. Carlton slipped to a 3.90 ERA and lost 20 games. A 3.90 ERA today gets you at least #2 starter money, unless of course Boras is your agent and then your�re getting Cooperstown money. But Carlton LOST 20 games.
    In the history of getting no run support, Carlton�s �73 season stands out. No wonder he was quiet with the press. With some of the line-ups he had behind him, most of his quotes probably weren�t family-friendly anyway.

  5. I think Pedro will do well in NY. Part of the game is getting the back cover of the tabloids; Pedro’s mouth is sure to help the Mets in that regard. The question is does Willie have a bullpen he can go to in the seventh?

  6. Damn, I never realized how good of a lifetime ERA Pedro Martinez had…
    Too bad now he is on the Mets with a partially torn arm ligament.
    By the way, I just started a website with my friends. It’s a web forum for serious MLB fans. It is going to have discussions about trades, signings, and general baseball talk. You should check it out, we will have a new skin soon as it is being made to resemble the MLB website.

  7. Pedro’s great, but he’s the latest in a pattern for Mets fans.
    Mo Vaughn, Roberto Alomar, Robin Ventura, Greg Maddux and now Pedro…..the Mets are paying big bucks for great players who are still good but are on the downside of their careers. They could’ve used a lot less money to go get Vladimir Guerrero last year & then trade for Hudson this year instead of signing Pedro & Glavine to overpriced contracts.
    I’m a baseball fan & I like ’em both (a lot) but if the Mets don’t win big in the next three years, I fear a long summer in 2008 with two aging arms with huge contracts.
    Any truth to the rumor that the Mets are considering a 3 year deal to Rick Rueschel? 🙂

  8. Ricky,
    It was the Cubs who signed Maddux. But then I think it’s worked out pretty good for them — so far. I wasn’t so sure in April, but by June and August he looked pretty good.

  9. Ack!
    I had the wrong former Braves pitcher on the brain….I meant Glavine (whom I correctly referenced later in the paragraph). Thx.

  10. I’m with the Sports Guy on this one. I’ll miss Pedro as a Sox fan, and thank him for his service, but I realize the terms to keep him in Boston were just too steep in dollars and years. I can’t blame the Sox for saying goodbye, I’ve felt like Pedro’s body’s been on borrowed time for a season or two now, and the Mets are going to end up eating a lot of money over the course of that deal. At the same time I can’t blame Pedro for making the move to the NL, and taking the money. I wish (for his sake) he was going to a better team though.

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