Who was the best starting pitcher of all time, at his peak?
I’ve done a few different approaches to this question over the years, and still mean to do a more detailed and systematic look down the road when I have more time to devote to the issue. But here’s one quick take. This is a list of all the starting pitchers I could find – I’m pretty sure I got everyone – to post an ERA+ of 150 or better over a period of 5 or more seasons. I found 25 of them (this excluded Jim Devlin, whose career ERA+ stood at 151 when he was banned from baseball in 1877 after 3 seasons for throwing games, and Al Maul, who posted a 155 ERA+ from 1895-99, but appeared in only 59 games over those 5 seasons and threw 140 innings in only one of them; I may have missed somebody else with a flukey pattern like Maul’s. And I left off Hoyt Wilhelm, who was a full time starter for only a year and a half). ERA+, for those of you not familar with the concept, is baseball-reference.com’s computation of how much better a pitcher’s ERA was than the league average, after adjusting for park effects; a pitcher whose ERA is half the league average is twice as good as the league and thus has an ERA+ of 200. As you can see, an ERA+ that’s 50% better than the league is a pretty hard thing to sustain over a 5 year stretch.
A more systematic approach would examine two additional questions I handle only anecdotally here. The major one is workloads – I’ve listed each pitcher’s average innings per year here, but as you can see from my examination of pitcher workloads between 1920-2004, the average innings thrown by a #1 starter or by an average rotation starter has changed a lot over the years; the changes are even more dramatic as you go through the period from 1871-1910. The other item to consider is how much of pitcher ERAs even over an extended period can be attributable to defense, not only because different pitchers had better or worse defenses behind them but because the pitcher’s share of the load has changed over time – as I demonstrated here and here, the percentage of plate appearances resulting in a ball in play has dropped from a high of 96.7% in the National Association in 1874 to a low of 69.7% in the National League in 2010. Clearly, the modern pitcher has far more responsibility for keeping runs off the board than his distant ancestors. (One could also examine changes in the quality of competition over time, but while I note a few guys here who cleaned up on war-weakened leagues, I generally ignore that issue in these kinds of studies; the best we can ask is who did the most with the competition of their day).
Here’s the chart; as you can see, while for most of these guys the “peak” was easy to identify, in a few cases of guys who peaked over a long period or more than once (or in the case of Greg Marddux and Randy Johnson, were close enough to the top of the list to justify closer examination), I broke out their careers in more groups of seasons than one. QI/Yr is Quality Innings, a quick-and-dirty metric I use to multiply Innings Pitched by ERA+. Helps give some perspective to the quantity vs quality debate.
|4||Three Finger Brown||29-33||5||292||182||53144||25||9||0.743|
|17||Smokey Joe Wood||20-25||6||205||156||31980||18||8||0.686|
Pedro Martinez has clearly earned the distinction of the most effective starting pitcher of all time at his peak, swimming upstream against Fenway Park and an era of sluggers gone wild. Pedro didn’t carry a heavy enough innings load to be considered quite the best ever, even adjusted for his era, but when he was on the hill, there’s never been better. And moreso than anyone on this list except Randy Johnson, Pedro did most of it himself – fewer than 60% of plate appearances against Pedro in those years ended in a ball in play, compared to a little under 75% for Maddux, a little over 75% for Walter Johnson, 77% for Lefty Grove, and 82% for Three Finger Brown. (Randy Johnson was a little under 55%).
Greg Maddux just might be the best ever – he led the league in innings every year from age 25-29, finished second at age 30 and third at age 32. His innings total looks lower here than it might be because of the strike seasons right at his age 28-29 pinnacle. That said, he has to be knocked just a peg for the fact that we don’t know if he would have ground down just a little if he’d had a full schedule to pitch those two years. But no matter how you slice it, Maddux was one of the very best.
Walter Johnson remains my choice for the best starting pitcher of all time, utterly dominating an entire decade from age 22-31, during which he led the AL in innings pitched five times (Johnson’s 1918-19 seasons, age 30-31, were shortened slightly by World War I. One of my favorite factoids is that Johnson allowed just two home runs in 616.1 innings those two seasons, and both of them were hit by Babe Ruth. But he was at his very best in 1912-13, when he averaged 34-10 with an ERA+ of 250 and averaged 358 innings a year.) There’s a significant dropoff after the top three to the next tier.
Three Finger Brown gets a little bit of short shrift in discussions of the very, very best pitchers, in part because his career started late, and he certainly had a lot of help from one of the two best defensive teams of all time. Pitchers in Brown’s era didn’t throw a ton of breaking balls – they had to conserve energy over the high innings workloads of the day, they could afford to save their best stuff for the ‘pinch’ in the absence of home runs (Mathewson supposedly threw his fadeaway only about 10 times a game) and sports medicine was nonexistent, so if you strained your elbow throwing curveballs, you just pitched through it or gave up. But Brown, being missing a chunk of his pitching hand, could throw a breaking ball with a fastball grip (no need to strain the wrist with an unnatural grip), and that made him deadly.
I also think we haven’t fully absorbed the impact of Randy Johnson just yet. Johnson was a Paul Bunyanesque freak of nature and a generally crotchety guy, but in his prime was a super-elite pitcher.
I looked more at Grover Alexander in this 2003 column – Alexander’s prime here includes the 1918 season, in which he appeared in just three games before going off to fight in World War I, and the 1919 season, which played a shortened schedule. That artificially conceals what an amazing workhorse Old Pete was – Alexander averaged 384 innings a year from 1915-17 (age 28-30), often leading the league by enormous margins. By 1920 he’d picked up another monstrous workload, clearing 355 innings for the sixth time in a decade, all of them league-leading totals. Alexander might well have won 400 games, and would have been very close, if not for the war (he won 45 in the minors in addition to 373 after arriving in the NL at age 24). Note that our top six here includes a guy with a mangled hand and three pitchers who regularly threw some sort of sidearm (the two Johnsons and Alexander).
Which brings us to Lefty Grove, who like Walter Johnson (and a young Satchel Paige) broke into the league throwing nearly nothing but fastballs before gradually expanding his repetoire. Grove’s real peak was age 28-32, but his ERA+ is slightly better for his age 35-39 seasons with the Red Sox, when he was gradually scaling back to being a ‘Sunday pitcher’ and no longer doing double duty as his team’s ace reliever. As Bill James has noted, Grove won 300 games in the majors after winning 111 games in the minors, 108 of them for the Baltimore Orioles of a highly competitive International League.
Christy Mathewson probably got more help from his offense than any other great pitcher, with the arguable exceptions of Grove, Kid Nichols and Warren Spahn. But Matty in his prime didn’t really need all that much help. This includes his epic 1908 season, when a 27 year old Mathewson threw 390.2 innings in the heat of the legendary pennant race, only to lose to Brown (pitching in relief) and the Cubs in the replay of the Merkle game on the season’s last day.
Sandy Koufax is considered the gold standard for guys who scaled a really dizzying peak, and he surely is among the best, but when you take the air of Dodger Stadium and the mid-60s out of his numbers, Koufax pulls up short of the guys at the very top. (Another reason Koufax stood out so much at the time: notice there’s nobody on this list between Hal Newhouser in the mid-1940s and Koufax in the first half of the 1960s, Whitey Ford having just missed)
Kevin Brown is not a guy you expect to see quite this high up a list like this, but Brown at his best was really, really good. The last two years of Brown’s peak include the first two of his famous contract; over the first five seasons of that contract, Brown’s ERA+ was 148, although with injuries he averaged just 175 innings, and then he went to the Yankees and unraveled.
Cy Young was relentlessly good and consistent for a very long time – back when I was running translated pitching stats, I noticed that when you adjusted him for the league average, Young’s rate of walks per 9 innings was nearly the same every year for two decades. As I demonstrated in my essay on Baseball’s Most Impressive Records, there was a generational change from the guys in the 1880s-1890s who carried ridiculous 400+ inning a year workloads to pitchers who started having long careers in the 1900s, but Young was really the one and only guy to do both, which is why his career numbers have that oceanic vastness that defies analysis. Note that Young benefits a little from the fact that these were the American League’s first five seasons, the first year or two of which featured a somewhat lower level of competition than the NL of the day.
Hal Newhouser had his best seasons against a war-depleted American League in 1944-45 and a lot of rusty returning veterans in 1946, so he’s probably several notches higher here than he’d otherwise be, but he was a nasty power lefty who was a legitimately great pitcher for a few years.
“Peak value” isn’t exactly the best way to measure Roger Clemens, who is ranked here on his 1986-92 peak with the Red Sox, although like Grove he had an even better ERA+ over his second peak, which spans the strike-shortened 1994-95 seasons and runs through his 1997-98 tenure with the Blue Jays. Clemens also posted an ERA+ of 180 in 180 innings a year from age 41-43 with the Astros (career ERA+ by team: 196 with the Jays, 180 with the Astros, 145 with the Red Sox, 114 with the Yankees). It’s the cumulative effect of those multiple peaks that makes his career one of the inner-circle ones.
Ed Walsh, the big spitballer, threw a staggering 375 innings a year over his six-year prime (including a ridiculous even for the day 464 innings in 1908’s equally insane American League pennant race, which the Tigers won at the expense of Walsh’s White Sox), at the end of which his arm gave out.
I was there with my two older kids for the last game of Johan Santana‘s prime, the epic, arm-weary last win at Shea Stadium. I hope we see even a little of the old Santana again some day, but we’ve now had a few years’ remove to reflect on how great he was in his two Cy Young, three ERA title prime.
Kid Nichols, a contemporary of Cy Young who also might have won 400 games if he hadn’t spent two years in mid-career (age 32-33) as a pitcher-manager in the Western League (a 361 game winner in the majors, he won 47 games in those two seasons – among his 74 career minor league wins – and then picked up where he left off, going 21-13 with a 2.02 ERA at age 34). At his peak from 1895-99, Nichols was the ace of a Boston Braves juggernaut that repeatedly defeated the legendary Baltimore Orioles of the day.
The peak years here for Smokey Joe Wood include a litany of arm injuries following his monster season in 1912, when he went 34-5, threw 35 complete games and pitched 22 innings in the World Series at age 22; Wood averaged just 139 innings the next three seasons. Walter Johnson said it hurt his shoulder just watching Wood’s straight overhand delivery. Then again, Wood had second and third careers as an outfielder and college baseball coach and lived to be 95.
Spud Chandler barely merits this list, as he appeared in just 5 games in 1944-45 and 17 at age 39 in 1947, his last season, and won his MVP award in 1943 against war-weakened competition. But when he was on the mound, he was outstanding.
The peak years for Tom Seaver run 1969-73, the two Mets miracle seasons, when he was truly The Franchise.
The last of these seasons for the great lefty screwballer Carl Hubbell is 1936, when he won his last 16 decisions before being beaten by the Yankees in the World Series, and don’t include the following year when he won his first 8 on his way to a 22-8 season; his peak also includes the 1934 season when he staged his famous All-Star Game strikeout streak. Hubbell was another late starter, debuting at age 25 after an itinerant minor league career.
Bob Gibson is here for 1966-70; note that his ERA+ for 1966-67 was 132, and his ERA+ for 1969-70 was 146, but his 1968 season puts him over the top.
Addie Joss lost the pennant race in 1908 and was dead by April 1911, but for one glorious day in October 1908, the 28 year old Joss was perfect, beating Walsh in what has to be baseball’s greatest pitching duel.
Roy Halladay’s peak here runs through 2011. Appreciate this while it lasts, folks.
Rube Waddell from age 26-28 averaged 313 strikeouts in 345 innings a year, at the time an unheard-of strikeout rate; it may have helped Waddell a bit that batters were just getting acclimated to the new “foul ball counts as a strike” rule, but then again flamethrowing lefties were not that common in 1904; in fact, lefties were still something of a novelty at the time.
Ed Reulbach appears here for his first five seasons, 1905-09; his teammate Three Finger Brown appears for 1906-10. Other than Jim Palmer, there are probably few pitchers in the game’s history who owe more to their defense than Reulbach, who like Brown got a lot of help from the team with the famous Tinker-Evers-Chance infield. Still, the only man ever to throw shutouts in both ends of a doubleheader could use to be remembered a little in his own right; an awful lot of pitchers in baseball history, and even in the Hall of Fame, didn’t make this list.
PS – For obvious reasons, this list is limited to guys who pitched in the major leagues. But for what it’s worth, Satchel Paige‘s ERA+ for his first two seasons in the American league was 146, and that’s at age 41-42, albeit as a reliever and spot starter. It’s pretty safe to say he’d have made this list in his prime.