The Most Dominant 'Ace' in the History of Every MLB Franchise
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The word “ace” can be used in many different forms—as a noun, verb or adjective. As a noun, ace is used in a variety of sports, including tennis, badminton, golf, even handball.
However, in baseball, the word ace has significant meaning for every single MLB franchise, as an ace is the most coveted prize possession for each team.
To be considered an ace, a pitcher must possess certain qualities that places him at the top of the starting rotation—sharp command, the ability to beguile hitters with an array of various pitches, for some a blazing fastball that is near unhittable, and one who can throw any pitch at any given time, in a pressure situation.
Quite frankly, it's the guy you want to give the ball to in a do-or-die game.
There are other qualities as well, however, for the sake of time, the above qualities will suffice.
Tens of thousands of pitchers have tried to prove that they are worthy of being an ace, but only a small percentage have actually reached that goal.
Here then is a list of the most dominant pitchers in the history of each MLB franchise.
Arizona Diamondbacks: Randy Johnson
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In his first six-year stint with the Arizona Diamondbacks, southpaw Randy Johnson put together one of the most remarkable runs for any pitcher in Major League Baseball history.
From 1999 to 2004, Johnson won four consecutive Cy Young awards (1999-2002), capturing the triple crown of pitching categories twice during that span, finished runner-up in Cy Young Award balloting in 2004 and helped lead the Diamondbacks to an improbable World Series Championship in 2001, becoming the fastest expansion team in the majors to win a championship in just their fourth season.
Johnson’s performance in the 2001 World Series was legendary, winning Games 2 and 6 and coming on in relief to pick up the victory in Game 7, just one day after throwing 104 pitches in the Game 6 win.
One hundred and eighteen of Johnson’s 303 overall victories came in the desert, and his 11.5 K/9 rate while with the D-Backs is among the highest of all time.
Atlanta Braves: Greg Maddux
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This may have been one of the toughest calls on this list, as it’s difficult to ignore the accomplishments of the MLB all-time leader in wins for a left-hander, Warren Spahn.
However, as great as Spahn was during his career with the Boston/Milwaukee Braves, right-hander Greg Maddux was simply more dominant during his 11-year career in Atlanta.
While with the Braves, Maddux collected three consecutive Cy Young awards, finished in the top five in Cy Young Award balloting on four other occasions, and in 1995 put together one of the most remarkable seasons in MLB history, posting a 19-2 record, 1.63 ERA, 0.811 WHIP and an ERA-plus of 262.
Baltimore Orioles: Jim Palmer
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The Baltimore Orioles have been blessed with a number of great pitchers in their storied existence, however one in particular stands out as the unquestioned dominant pitcher in franchise history—Jim Palmer.
In his 19-year career, all of them spent with the Orioles, Palmer won three Cy Young Awards and finished in the top five in Cy Young Award balloting five other times, won 20 or more games eight times, helped lead the O’s to six World Series, winning three of them, and posted a career postseason record of 8-3 with a 2.61 ERA.
Remarkably, Palmer gave up 303 homers during his career, yet never once surrendered a grand slam home run.
Boston Red Sox: Pedro Martinez
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In the long and storied history of the Boston Red Sox franchise, they have been home to some of the greatest pitchers that ever lived, including the legendary Cy Young and seven-time Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens. However, for one seven-year stretch, one pitcher outdid both of them—Pedro Martinez.
From the time he arrived in Boston in 1998 until the day he left in 2004, Martinez was easily the most dominant pitcher in the majors. In his seven years in Boston, Martinez won two Cy Young Awards, was runner-up two other times and finished in the top five in Cy Young Award balloting in every year except 2001.
Martinez’ 1999 season was one of the most dominant single-season performances by a pitcher in major league history, with a 23-4 record, 2.07 ERA, 313 strikeouts, 0.923 WHIP and a 13.2 K/9 rate. While Clemens won three of his Cy Young Awards in a Red Sox uniform, Martinez was simply brilliant throughout his entire career in Boston.
Chicago Cubs: Mordecai Brown
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Part of what makes a pitcher an ace is his ability to lead his team to postseason glory, and for the Chicago Cubs, that really only leaves one man standing—Mordecai Brown.
Brown, who lost parts of two fingers on his throwing hand in a farming accident, was simply magnificent for the Cubs, with a career record of 188-86, 1.80 ERA and 0.998 WHIP during his 10 seasons in Chicago.
In 1908, Brown was 29-9 with a 1.47 ERA and led the Cubs to victory in the World Series, winning Games 1 and 4. While the Cubs have featured other great pitchers since that time, no one gave Cubs fans what Brown supplied—a world championship.
Chicago White Sox: Ed Walsh
During the early part of the 20th century, a number of pitchers, including Cy Young, Christy Mathewson and Eddie Plank, put up dazzling performance in a period known as the dead-ball era. For the Chicago White Sox, they had their own dazzling star on the mound—Ed Walsh.
In his 13 seasons with the White Sox, Walsh was 195-126 with a 1.81 ERA, and his lifetime ERA of 1.82 is the lowest recognized ERA in MLB history among pitchers with at least 200 starts.
Walsh won a remarkable 40 games in 1908, and in 1910 led the American League with a 1.27 ERA despite also leading the league with 20 losses. Walsh was also a key figure in the White Sox’s six-game victory over the cross-town rival Chicago Cubs in the 1906 World Series, winning Games 3 and 5.
Cincinnati Reds: Jose Rijo
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Cincinnati Reds starting pitcher Jose Rijo never won more than 15 games in any one season, but during his 10-year career in Cincinnati, Rijo knew how to win.
Rijo posted a 97-61 record with the Reds, with an ERA of 2.83, an ERA-plus of 139, a WHIP of 1.187 and finished in the top five for Cy Young voting twice.
However, Rijo will forever be remembered in the Queen City for his performance in the 1990 World Series, winning two games, including a masterful performance in the series-clinching Game 4.
Cleveland Indians: Bob Feller
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When considering each team’s most dominant ace, there may have been no bigger no-brainer than the selection for the Cleveland Indians—Bob Feller.
Debuting for the Indians as a 17-year-old in 1936, Feller quickly gained fame with his blazing fastball, believed to be the fastest at the time. In a career that spanned 18 seasons, interrupted by his service to the country during World War II, Feller won 266 games, posted 20-win seasons six times, led the American League in strikeouts seven times, threw three no-hitters and 12 one-hitters and threw 279 complete games, representing well over half of his career starts.
No less than Hall of Fame legend Ted Williams called Feller, “the fastest and best pitcher I ever saw during my career. . . . He had the best fastball and curve I’ve ever seen.’’
When the Splendid Splinter gives props, it's time to stand up and take notice.
Colorado Rockies: Ubaldo Jimenez
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The Colorado Rockies have but a short history in the overall scheme of things, and with its high-altitude presence in Denver, it has been difficult for pitchers to truly show dominance.
However, during his time in Colorado, Ubaldo Jimenez may have represented the closest thing to dominance. In five-plus seasons, Jimenez posted a record of 56-45, with an ERA of 3.66, an ERA-plus of 128 and a WHIP of 1.284. Jimenez’ 2010 season was special as well, with a 19-8 record, 2.88 ERA and a near-miss perfect game.
Detroit Tigers: Hal Newhouser
Many fans and experts have discounted the career and accomplishments of Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Hal Newhouser, primarily due to the fact that his MVP seasons came at a time when many of baseball’s biggest stars were fighting in World War II.
Newhouser dominated in 1944 and 1945, winning back-to-back Most Valuable Player awards and capturing the triple crown of pitching categories in ’45, with 25 wins, a 1.81 ERA and 212 strikeouts.
However, even when baseball’s stars returned from war in 1946, Newhouser was equally as dominant, with a record of 26-9, a 1.94 ERA and 275 strikeouts, narrowly missing out on his third consecutive MVP Award to Boston Red Sox star Ted Williams.
Newhouser again won 20 games in 1948 and finished his 15-year career in Detroit with a 200-148 record and 3.07 ERA.
Houston Astros: Roy Oswalt
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This one was a bit of a close call, as local favorite Nolan Ryan spent nine of his 24 MLB seasons with the Houston Astros, however, in terms of overall effectiveness, Roy Oswalt is the man.
Before the trade that sent him to the Philadelphia Phillies in 2010, Oswalt spent his entire career in Houston, amassing a record of 143-82 with a 3.24 ERA.
A two-time 20-game winner, Oswalt was the ace of the Astros’ staff for many years, and his performance in the 2005 ALCS against the St. Louis Cardinals was a key factor in the Astros’ first-ever World Series appearance.
Kansas City Royals: Bret Saberhagen
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In the 1980s, the Kansas City Royals were defined by three players who were among the best at their craft, and those three players were instrumental in leading the Royals to their first and only World Series championship—third baseman George Brett, closer Dan Quisenberry and starting pitcher Bret Saberhagen.
In 1985, Saberhagen, then just 21 years old, won the American League Cy Young Award with a 20-6 record and 2.87 ERA, and then lifted his Royals to victory over the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series with two brilliant complete-game victories, including a masterful five-hit shutout in the seventh and deciding game.
Saberhagen would win another Cy Young Award in 1989 and finished his Royals’ career with a 110-78 record and 3.21 ERA. Saberhagen was inducted into the Kansas City Royals Hall of Fame in 2005.
Los Angeles Angels: Nolan Ryan
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This was a tough call as well, as former pitcher Dean Chance and current pitcher Jered Weaver merited serious consideration. However, Nolan Ryan as just downright nasty during his eight seasons with the Los Angeles Angels.
From 1972 to 1979, Ryan terrified opposing hitters in the American League, setting the all-time strikeout record in 1973 with 383 strikeouts and throwing four no-hitters in a three-year period from 1973 to 1975.
Ryan ended his Angels career with a record of 138-12, a 3.07 ERA, a 10.0 K/9 rate and five seasons with over 300 strikeouts.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Sandy Koufax
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The Los Angeles Dodgers have featured some of the great pitchers in baseball history, including Don Newcombe, Don Drysdale, Johnny Podres and Don Sutton. However, one stands out for one of the most dominant performances in a six-year period ever in MLB history—Sandy Koufax.
For the six years of Koufax’ career with the Dodgers, Koufax struggled with control and command, compiling a 36-40 record with a 4.10 ERA.
However, starting in 1961, Koufax started to figure things out, winning 18 games and lowering his ERA to 3.52. The next five years were simply magical, as Koufax won three Cy Young Awards, led the National League in ERA in all five seasons and posted a 111-34 record with a 1.95 ERA during that time.
Koufax helped lead the Dodgers to World Series Championships in 1963 and 1965, retiring in 1966 at the age of 30 due to arthritis in his left elbow.
Miami Marlins: Josh Johnson
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In their short 19-year history, the Miami Marlins have won two World Series Championships, however, very few players have left a lasting impact on the team. While Kevin Brown, Al Leiter, Josh Beckett and Dontrelle Willis all made significant contributions, all of them were gone after just a few short seasons.
One current pitcher may just stick around, and before all is said and done, could go down as one of the dominant pitchers of the early 21st century—Josh Johnson.
Shoulder issues have slowed Johnson’s progress, however, when healthy, few pitchers in baseball are able to reach the level of unhittability (new word) quite like Johnson.
In 2010, Johnson posted the lowest ERA in the National League at 2.30, with an ERA-plus of 180. At just 27 years of age, Johnson still has a ways to go to prove his overall worth, but when on top of his game, Johnson is as close to unhittable as there is in baseball.
Milwaukee Brewers: Teddy Higuera
In nine seasons, all spent with the Milwaukee Brewers, southpaw Teddy Higuera seemed destined for greatness until injuries eventually took their toil and derailed a promising career.
From 1985-1988, Higuera was 69–38, with 766 strikeouts and a 3.25 ERA. Higuera had clearly become the ace of the Brewers staff, and at just 30 years old seemed poised to continue in that role for the foreseeable future.
However, back injuries and a torn rotator cuff limited Higuera to just 25 more victories over the next six seasons, and he retired in early 1995. Incredible promise that was far too short-lived.
Minnesota Twins: Walter Johnson
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The Minnesota Twins debuted as the Washington Senators when the new American League was formed in 1901, and while the Senators only won one World Series Championship (1924), they are forever remembered for one of the game’s greatest pitchers—Walter “Big Train” Johnson.
Johnson spent his entire 21-year career with the Senators, amassing a record of 417-279 with an ERA of 2.17. His 110 shutouts are by far the best in MLB history, and Johnson also lost 65 games during his career due to a weak Senators lineup that couldn’t score a single run during those contests.
New York Mets: Tom Seaver
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In 1967, the New York Mets finished up their sixth season in the National League in typical fashion up to that point, losing 101 games and finishing dead last in the NL for the fifth time during that span. However, the Mets saw a glimmer of hope with the debut of a young right-handed fireballer—Tom Seaver.
Seaver was 16-13 in that first year with the Mets, with an impressive 2.76 ERA that earned him the Rookie of the Year Award. Just two seasons later, Seaver completely dominated, posting a 25-7 record and 2.21 ERA in leading the Mets to an improbable National League pennant. Seaver and teammate Jerry Koosman helped in leading the Mets to victory over the heavily-favored Baltimore Orioles in the 1969 World Series.
Seaver won three Cy Young Awards overall during his time with the Mets, amassing a record of 198-124 with a 2.57 ERA. Seaver also led the NL in strikeouts five times during his stay in New York as well.
New York Yankees: Whitey Ford
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One of the primary characteristics of an ace pitcher is his ability to win, and that is something that New York Yankees pitcher Whitey Ford did consistently throughout his illustrious career.
During his 16-year career with the Yankees, Ford helped guide his team to 11 World Series appearance, winning six world championships. Ford led the American League in victories three times, had a league-low ERA on two occasions and captured the Cy Young Award in 1961.
Ford retired in 1967 after compiling a 236-106 record and is the Yankees’ all-time leader in wins, innings pitched and strikeouts.
Oakland Athletics: Lefty Grove
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While the Oakland Athletics have had an array of dazzling pitchers, some of them who were key components to the great A’s of the early 1970s, one has to go back to the franchise’s time in Philadelphia to find the most dominant pitcher in Athletics history—Lefty Grove.
In his nine seasons with the A’s, Grove was 195-79 with an ERA of 2.88, an ERA-plus of 152 and a WHIP of 1.250. Grove helped lead the A’s to straight AL pennants from 1929 to 1931, winning World Series Championships in ’29 and ’30. Grove had one of the greatest single seasons ever in 1931, with a 31-4 record, 2.06 ERA and 175 strikeouts.
Grove led the American League in strikeouts in each of his first seven seasons with the A’s.
Philadelphia Phillies: Steve Carlton
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This may have been one of the toughest choices on this entire list, as it came down to two finalists—Grover Cleveland Alexander and Steve Carlton.
In the end, I gave the slight nod to Carlton, if only for longevity, because both of them enjoyed their best seasons with the Philadelphia Phillies.
Here are the comparative numbers:
Carlton: 15 seasons, 241-161, 3.09 ERA, ERA-plus of 120, WHIP of 1.211, 185 complete games and 39 shutouts.
Alexander: Eight seasons, 190-91, 2.18 ERA, ERA-plus of 140, WHIP of 1.075, 219 complete games and 61 shutouts.
Carlton won all four of his Cy Young Awards while with the Phillies, and his performance in 1980 (24-9, 2.34 ERA, 286 strikeouts) helped lead the Phillies to the World Series, where his two wins helped propel the Phillies to their first-ever World Series Championship.
Pittsburgh Pirates: Deacon Phillippe
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At the turn of the century, the Pittsburgh Pirates were consistently one of the best teams in the National League, and one of its leaders was young right-hander Deacon Phillippe.
Phillippe was a control pitcher, known for having a rubber arm. Phillippe was instrumental in guiding the Pirates to three straight National League pennants from 1901 to 1903, and became the first pitcher in MLB history to win a World Series game, defeating Cy Young and the Boston Red Sox in Game 1 of the inaugural World Series.
Phillippe pitched an amazing five times during that series, winning three of them, however, the Pirates still lost to the Red Sox, five games to three.
Phillippe eventually threw out his arm later that decade, but not before compiling a career 168-92 record and 2.50 ERA. In addition, Phillippe has the lowest BB/9 ratio in MLB history.
San Diego Padres: Jake Peavy
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The overall body of work for right-handed pitcher Jake Peavy still remains to be written, however, for his time in San Diego, Peavy stands alone as the most dominant ace in team history.
In his eight seasons with the Padres, Peavy was 92-68, with an ERA of 3.29, a winner of the Cy Young Award in 2007, a two-time NL strikeout leader and two-time ERA leader.
Who knows, if Peavy can recover from shoulder issues, maybe he can one day make this list for the Chicago White Sox as well.
San Francisco Giants: Christy Mathewson
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In a 17-year career with the New York Giants, Christy Mathewson stands alone at the top of greatness for the Giants franchise.
Mathewson won 20 or more games in a season 13 times, 30 games or more four times, was the NL league leader in ERA five times, the league leader in strikeouts five times and the league leader in shutouts four times.
By the time all was said and done, Mathewson finished with a 373-188 record and 2.13 ERA, leading the Giants to four pennants and one World Series Championship.
Seattle Mariners: Randy Johnson
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Before southpaw Randy Johnson became the most dominant pitcher in Arizona Diamondbacks history, he was busy doing exactly that with the Seattle Mariners as well.
Traded by the Montreal Expos to the Mariners in 1989 in one of the more lopsided trades in history, Johnson came to blossom in Seattle, winning the first of his five Cy Young Awards in 1995, and finishing in the top five in Cy Young Award balloting three other times.
Johnson also led the AL in strikeouts four consecutive seasons (1992-1995) and won an ERA title in 1995.
St. Louis Cardinals: Bob Gibson
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The St. Louis Cardinals are tied for second all time in MLB history with 18 World Series appearances, and stand alone in second with 11 World Series wins. A big reason for that success comes from one pitcher—Bob Gibson.
In his 17-year career, all with the Cardinals, Gibson was 251-174 with a 2.91 ERA, two Cy Young Awards, 3,117 strikeouts, 56 shutouts and 255 complete games, representing nearly half of his total starts.
However, it was in the postseason that Gibson shined, posting a 7-2 record and 1.89 ERA in nine starts, eight of them complete-game efforts, leading the Cards to World Series titles in 1964 and 1967.
Tampa Bay Rays: James Shields
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This was a tough call, as the Tampa Bay Rays have only been in existence for 14 seasons. In their first 10 seasons, the Rays were woeful, with a collection of pitchers made up of literally scrap heap left behind by other MLB teams.
However, in the late 2000s, the Rays’ farm system finally kicked in with some promising young prospects, one of them being James Shields.
Making his debut in mid-2006, Shields sported a lively fastball in the 90 MPH range with a devastating changeup. In 2008, Shields helped lead the Rays to their first-ever playoff appearance, posting a 14-8 record and 3.56 ERA. While the Rays were defeated by the Philadelphia Phillies in the 2008 World Series, Shields won the only game for the Rays.
In 2011, after experiencing two down years, Shields again was the catalyst for the Rays, with a 16-12 record, 2.82 ERA and 11 complete games, helping the Rays erase a nine-game deficit in the beginning of December to push past the Boston Red Sox on the final day of the regular season to make the playoffs.
Through six seasons with the Rays, Shields is 72-63, the all-time leader for the franchise in wins.
Texas Rangers: Nolan Ryan
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Nolan Ryan enjoyed a 24-year career, one of the longest in major league history, and the last five seasons with the Texas Rangers were special indeed.
In 1989, Ryan’s first year in Texas, he led the American League with 301 strikeouts. While 300 strikeouts in a season is an accomplishment very few pitchers in MLB have achieved, consider the fact that Ryan was 42 years of age when he reached that mark.
In addition, Ryan threw two of his seven no-hitters with the Rangers, at the age of 43 and 44. Ryan finally called it quits in 1993 at the age of 46, and even at that age he was bringing it to the plate at 98 MPH.
Did I mention that Ryan was an octogenarian when he performed all of the above?
Okay, so he wasn't quite that old.
Toronto Blue Jays: Roy Halladay
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Another man whose final career accomplishments have yet to unfold, however during his time with the Toronto Blue Jays, Roy Halladay indeed became the best pitcher in franchise history.
In 12 seasons with Toronto, Halladay compiled a record of 148-76, a 3.43 ERA, and ERA-plus of 134 and won the Cy Young Award in 2003. Halladay wasn’t fortunate enough to play on a contending team, and he etched his name in the history books once he did make it—however, it wasn’t with the Blue Jays.
Washington Nationals: Steve Rogers
Since the Washington Nationals began as the Montreal Expos back in 1969, they have yet to make it to the World Series. However, in the 1970s and 1980s, the Expos had some pretty decent teams, anchored by its ace, Steve Rogers.
Rogers’ overall record with the Expos was only 158-152 in 13 seasons, however in the early part of his career, he was often plagued by a complete lack of run support, as evidenced in his 1976 campaign, during which he led the National League in losses with 17, yet posted a terrific 3.21 ERA.
Rogers led the NL with a 2.40 ERA in 1982 and retired as the franchise’s all-time leader in wins, innings pitched, strikeouts, complete games and shutouts.
Doug Mead is a featured columnist with Bleacher Report. His work has been featured on the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, SF Gate, CBS Sports, the Los Angeles Times and the Houston Chronicle. Follow Doug on Twitter, @Sports_A_Holic.