Roy Halladay, Bob Gibson and the Top 5 MLB Pitchers from Each Decade
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The best part about this analysis is that as baseball advanced from 1900 into the 2000s, the methods of evaluation consistently changed.
In the early part of the 20th century, starting pitchers were expected to complete games and pitched 300 innings with regularity. Towards the 1950s or so, the innings were still inordinately high as compared to today’s game, but the number dropped to around 270 innings per pitcher.
By the end of the century, with advances in science and medical procedures, a pitcher is now revered if he can consistently throw 200 innings.
Furthermore, there were new statistical measurements that evolved as the game matured. The Cy Young was invented in 1956, and the WAR statistic first started being measured in 1973.
With each change in the way pitchers were used and how their importance was measured, my analysis adjusted as well. The first year in my analysis was 1901, so each decade’s analysis takes into account years in this fashion: 1901-1910.
With that, here are the top-five pitchers from each decade starting in 1900 and ending in 2011.
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No. 1: Roy Halladay
With a 68.5 WAR, Halladay was the clear-cut winner for the best pitcher of the 2000s. His 175 wins were one win behind C.C. Sabathia’s 176, but Halladay’s ERA was more than a half run better than Sabathia—2.96 versus 3.51. The deciding factor for the top spot was that Halladay had 18 less losses than Sabathia.
Halladay finished the decade with two Cy Young awards, finishing in the Top Five in an incredible seven different seasons. With a perfect game in 2010 and a no-hitter in his first ever postseason game, Halladay is well on his way to the Hall of Fame.
No. 2: C.C. Sabathia
Despite losing the top spot to Halladay, C.C. Sabathia is the clear-cut, second-best starting pitcher of this decade.
His WAR of 57.0 was more than seven wins better than the next pitcher on the list, and as I mentioned, he finished with the most wins of all pitchers with 176.
He had five Top Five finishes in the Cy Young race, winning the award once, and has won double-digit games in every one of his professional seasons, averaging 19 wins over the past five years. Of all the active pitchers, Sabathia has the best chance to win 300 games.
No. 3: Mariano Rivera
Mariano Rivera is the best relief pitcher of all time, and many would argue if you need three outs, there has never been a better starter or reliever than Mariano or no pitcher you would rather have.
Rivera’s 26.9 WAR is 10 wins better than second-best Billy Wagner’s 17.1 WAR and is the greatest 10-year stretch of any relief pitcher and it is not close. His 438 saves were 100 more than second-best Trevor Hoffman’s 330, while posting a league best 1.97 ERA, 2.52 FIP. He also made nine All-Star games and had three Top Five CY finishes.
What really defines Rivera, however, is his success on the big stage. In 78 postseason innings since 2001, he is 4-1 with 23 saves and an otherworldly ERA of 0.69, helping the Yankees to a World Series title in 2009.
No. 4: Randy Johnson
Despite starting the decade at age 37 and throwing over 700 less innings than the other top pitchers on this list, Randy Johnson did more than enough to qualify for this decade.
He still finished with the fifth-best WAR for the decade at 45.3, but what really set him apart from the others on this list was his K/9 of 10.04.
Johnson won the first two Cy Young awards of the decade in 2001 and 2002 and helped the Diamondbacks to their first World Series title in franchise history winning an incredible three games in the Fall Classic, splitting the World Series MVP award with Curt Schilling.
No. 5: Johan Santana
In his first season as a full-time starter in 2004, Santana won the Cy Young award. It was his first of two Cy Youngs in a three-year span, and he never finished outside the Top Seven in the Cy Young race over a six-year span from 2003-2008.
That’s perennial dominance.
From 2002-2010 his ERA has never been higher than 3.33, and the only reason he is not higher on this list is because of his injuries these last two seasons.
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No. 1: Greg Maddux
With the most wins in the decade, and the highest WAR of 73.6 of any 10-year stretch since WAR was first calculated, Greg Maddux is far and away the greatest pitcher of the 90s and possibly one of the most underrated pitchers of all time. His 1994 and 1995 seasons are two of the greatest seasons for a starting pitcher in the history of the game.
Maddux won the Cy Young award each year from 1992-1995, pitching over 200 innings every season for the decade, only having an ERA higher than three two times.
The Braves won their division every year from 1995-2005 and a World Series title in 1995 and would not have had nearly the same success without Maddux.
No. 2: Pedro Martinez
Despite his small stature, Pedro Martinez was one of the greatest pitchers who ever lived. His 1999 and 2000 seasons are two of the greatest seasons ever by starting pitchers, and they happened in the middle of the steroid era.
In 430 innings, Martinez went 41-10 with a 1.90 ERA, 0.83 WHIP, 597 strikeouts against only 69 walks for a SO/BB ratio of 8.65! His ERA+ for those two seasons were 291 and 243 respectively, the first-and eighth-best marks in MLB history.
He was an incredible pitcher throughout the decade, winning three Cy Young awards and over 120 games, but these two seasons are why he is so high on this list.
No. 3: Randy Johnson
For a pitcher to have a K/9 rate of 11.54 in over 2000 innings is quite impressive. Randy Johnson won 155 games in the 90s, struck out 2691 batters and took home three Cy Young awards. Johnson earned the nickname “Big Unit” and was just that, finishing with the third- highest WAR of 63.5 and an ERA of 3.03 for the 10-year period.
No. 4: Tom Glavine
Tom Glavine had himself a Hall of Fame Major League career, and he did most of his damage in the 1990s.
Glavine’s 175 wins were the second-most of all pitchers for the decade. He did that with an outstanding 3.13 ERA winning two Cy Young awards and finishing in the Top Three for the CY six different times.
After struggling at the end of his career with the New York Mets, people may forget just how good Glavine was throughout the '90s but with five 20-win seasons and seven All-Star appearances, his performance certainly belongs on this list.
No. 5: Kevin Brown
Even though Roger Clemens won three Cy Youngs in the 1990s, I am choosing to reward Kevin Brown for not using performance enhancing drugs.
Brown burst on the scene as a 27-year-old with the Rangers in 1992 with 21 wins and pitched very well for the rest of the decade. From 1992-2000 Brown averaged 15 wins a season with a cumulative 3.02 ERA, placing in the Top Six of the Cy Young vote five different times.
Dwight "Doc" Gooden
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No. 1: Dwight Gooden
From 1984–1988, Dwight Gooden put together one of the most impressive runs for a starting pitcher in baseball history.
As a 19-year-old, Gooden took the league by storm in 1984, winning 17 games and striking out an incredible 276 batters to win the Rookie of the Year award.
He followed that up in 1985 by going 24-4 with a 1.53 ERA in 276 innings with 268 strikeouts. Gooden won 119 games in the '80s placing him ninth for the decade, but his winning percentage of 72 percent was far and away ahead of the rest.
No. 2: Roger Clemens
Roger Clemens can make this list because from 1986-1990, the non-PED version was the best pitcher in baseball.
He won 100 games over that five-year span, taking home two Cy Young awards and was one of the most feared pitchers in the game. Despite his first full season coming in 1986, Clemens still generated the greatest WAR, 48.5, of any pitcher for the 1980s and finished the decade with a 2.89 ERA and a 69.5 winning percentage.
No. 3: Fernando Valenzuela
The impact Fernando Valenzuela had on the game of baseball was incredible from the get-go.
In his first full season, “Fernandomania” won the Cy Young with a 2.48 ERA and eight shutouts. Valenzuela was a tremendous innings eater, pitching 266 innings on average from 1982-1987 with 16 wins and around 211 strikeouts each season.
The enormous amount of innings so early in his career led to injuries and cut his career short, but for much of the 1980s, he was one of the best in the game.
No. 4: Bret Saberhagen
Much like Doc Gooden, Saberhagen had a ton of success as a young pitcher when he was first called up in the middle of the 1980s.
From 1985-1989, Saberhagen went 82-50, winning two Cy Youngs with an ERA of 3.20. Despite not pitching in 1981-1984, Saberhagen still finished with the seventh-best WAR of all pitchers for the decade.
No. 5: Jack Morris
Jack Morris makes this list because he won the most games, 161, and pitched the most innings, 2443, of any pitcher in the '80s. While he was never overwhelming in terms of ERA or strikeouts, he was a remarkably consistent 15-20-game winner, and he finished in the Top 10 of the Cy Young race five times.
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There is a reason Steve Carlton is known as one of the greatest, if not the greatest left-handed pitcher of all time.
Steve Carlton won three Cy Youngs in the 1970s but his most impressive season came in 1972.
Carlton won an unbelievable 46% of his teams’ games, going 27-10 when his Phillies went 59-97. The fact that Carlton was able to win 192 games in the 1970s, the most of the decade, on Philadelphia Phillies teams that were awful for the first half of the decade is a testament to his pitching ability.
2. Jim Palmer
Seven out of the first eight years in the 1970’s, Jim Palmer won at least 20 games.
From 1971-1978, Palmer averaged 20 wins, 286 innings pitched and a 2.51 ERA, leading the league in wins three times. He was voted into the top five of the Cy Young race seven times, winning the award three times. Palmer also finished second in wins for the decade with 182, with 162 complete games and 39 shutouts to boot.
3. Tom Seaver
Tom Seaver’s 2.65 ERA was the best of the 1970’s, and he was as consistent as a pitcher the game of baseball has ever seen.
From 1971-1979, “Tom Terrific” finished in the top eight of the Cy Young race every year except for two, winning the award twice. Seaver had incredible control, ending the decade with a 1.08 WHIP and only having an ERA above three on three different occasions.
Gaylord Perry makes this list despite pitching for four different teams in the 1970s.
Perry’s 38.4 WAR was the third best of the decade, and his 2.93 ERA was the fourth best for the pitchers who had more than 2,000 innings. He averaged 17 wins a season and won the Cy Young twice one in the American League with the Indians the other in the National League with the Padres in 1978.
5. Nolan Ryan
Despite not winning a Cy Young, Nolan Ryan makes this list because he was striking people out in an era where the strike out were not that prevalent.
Ryan’s k/9 of 9.65 was more than two strikeouts better than the next best pitcher over 2,000 innings, Tom Seaver’s k/9 of 7.55. In 1973, Ryan set the single season strike out record with 383 k’s, and he struck out 300 hitters in five out of six years from 1972-1977. Ryan also threw four no hitters in the 70’s and ended the decade with the sixth best WAR of 35.9.
Bob Gibson Statue Outside of Busch Stadium
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No. 1: Bob Gibson
That was Bob Gibson’s ERA for the 1968 season. In 304 innings, Gibson only allowed 38 runs.
Not only did Gibson win 184 games with a 2.69 ERA in the regular season, but he was dominant in the postseason as well.
Gibson’s 7-2 record with a 1.89 record in nine starts in the World Series, not to mention a WHIP of 0.88 and K/9 of 10.2, combined with his incredible regular-season number and imposing demeanor on the mound is what vaults him above Koufax and Marichal for the No. 1 spot.
Fun fact: Before Gibson was a member of the Cardinals, he was a Harlem Globetrotter.
No. 2: Juan Marichal
Outside of the 1960s, you would be hard-pressed to find a better No. 2 pitcher for a decade. (Just wait for No. 3.) Juan Marichal’s 197 wins, winning percentage of .672 and 2711 innings were all the best marks in baseball for the 1960s.
His ERA of 2.71 was second-best to the aforementioned Bob Gibson, who had a 2.69 ERA. Marichal made the All-Star team eight-straight seasons from 1962-1969, and despite a somewhat low 6.3 K/9, he still struck out over 1,900 batters.
No. 3: Sandy Koufax
There is a reason Baseballreference.com lists “The Left Arm Of God” in parentheses next to Sandy Koufax’s name.
From 1963-1966 Koufax put together the best four-year period any starting pitcher ever has had in the history of Major League Baseball. He averaged 24 wins a season, throwing 298 innings with a 1.86 ERA, 307 strikeouts and a winning percentage of .782.
He won three Cy Youngs and an MVP award in those four years. In the one year he did not win the Cy Young, he finished third, and he managed to fit in two other second-place finishes in the MVP race as well.
So the greatest left-handed pitcher of all time finishes third in his own decade?
While he was incredible, he only did it for four years. He would have won the race if it were a sprint, but as the tortoise and the hare taught us, it was a marathon, and both Gibson and Marichal were dominant for the entire decade.
No. 4: Don Drysdale
From one Dodger to another, Don Drysdale was one of the most intimidating pitchers not only of the 1960s, but of anyone who ever took the mound. An imposing 6’5" on the mound, Drysdale’s power fastball helped him earn All-Star appearances every year from 1961-1968 except for 1966.
He averaged 14 wins a season, with a 2.83 ERA helping the Dodgers to World Series titles in both 1963 and 1965.
No. 5: Denny McLain
I was tempted to go with the relief ace Hoyt Wilhelm here, but I decided Denny McLain’s two Cy Young awards were too much to leave out.
Despite joining the decade late—his first full season as a starter was 1965—McLain made up for lost time and quickly. From 1965-1969 McLain averaged 22 wins a season, earning 31 wins in 1968 to help the Tigers win their first World Series title since 1945.
He won both the MVP and Cy Young that season and followed it up in 1969 with another Cy Young and nine shutouts.
Warren Spahn Statue Outside the Braves' Turner Field
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No. 1: Warren Spahn
It is hard to put into words just how good Warren Spahn was.
Spahn won 20 games eight out of 10 seasons in the 1950s with a cumulative ERA of 2.95, averaging 21 complete games each season with 280 innings. He finished in the Top Five of the MVP race four times and placed in the Top Three for the Cy Young in the first three years after its creation, winning the award in 1957.
No. 2: Robin Roberts
Like the Hall of Famer Spahn before him, Robin Roberts was dominant throughout the entire decade.
In his peak years of 1951-1955, Roberts averaged 24 wins with a 2.91 ERA pitching around 327 innings every season. His 191 wins over the decade placed him second behind Spahn, and that is where he lands on this list.
No. 3: Whitey Ford
The only reason Whitey Ford is not higher on this list has nothing to do with the baseball field. Ford spent two years fighting in the Korean War in 1951 and 1952, but when he returned he was the best pitcher on the Yankees team that won five World Series titles in the 1950s.
Despite always being on the big stage, Ford was at his best when the lights were the brightest, as his 2.71 ERA in the postseason is nearly identical to his 2.70 regular season ERA. He never lost more than 10 games in a season, and his winning percentage of 68 percent was the best mark of the decade.
No. 4: Early Wynn
With 183 wins, six All-Star appearances and a Cy Young award to his name, Early Wynn did more than qualify for this list.
He finished third on the wins list for the decade, 26 wins ahead of fourth-place Billy Pierce, and his 3.31 ERA was the third-best for those who threw more than 2,000 innings.
No. 5: Hoyt Wilhelm
Hoyt Wilhelm was Major League Baseball’s first “ace in the hole.”
Despite making his first professional appearance at the age of 29, Wilhelm did nothing but impress and had a 21-year career. In his first season, he pitched 159 innings, all as a reliever, going 15-3. From 1952-1960, he threw a combined 1170 innings mainly as a relief pitcher, only accumulating 48 starts.
Wilhelm became well known for his knuckleball and at the time he retired, he had the lowest ERA of any pitcher after 1927 who had thrown more than 2,000 innings.
Bob Feller Statue Outside the Indians' Progressive Field
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No. 1: Bob Feller
For the first time in this slideshow, the fight for the No. 1 slot was not even close.
After winning 25 games in 1941, Bob Feller served in the U.S. military for the next three seasons, but when he came back, it was like he never left. From 1946-1950, Feller averaged 19 wins a season, appearing in the All-Star game four times.
Despite missing three of his prime seasons, Feller still finished with the third-most wins for the decade and has widely been regarded as one of the best pitchers that ever pitched.
No. 2: Hal Newhouser
Much like first place on this list, Hal Newhouser blew away the competition for spot No. 2.
With 176 wins for the decade, Newhouser had 40 more than the guy in second place. What is even more impressive is that he pitched by far the most amount of innings in the decade with 2533, 482 more than second place and 700 more than third.
He pitched so many innings because he was so effective. Newhouser made the All-Star team six times and earned back-to-back MVP awards in 1944 and 1945, finishing second in 1946 to some guy named Ted Williams.
No. 3: Paul Howard "Dizzy" Trout
How could we not put a guy whose nickname was "Dizzy" on the list.
Trout finished in between Newhouser and Feller in both wins and innings for the 1940s with 136 and 2051 respectively. From 1942-1948 he won double-digit games every year, peaking at 27 wins in 1944 finishing second to pitcher No. 2 on this list, Hal Newhouser.
No. 4: Bob Lemon
Like his teammate Bob Feller, Bob Lemon had an outstanding decade despite dedicating three valuable years of his life to serve in the U.S. Army.
Lemon did not pitch professionally before his days in the service, but when he returned, he made a name for himself very quickly. Lemon won 76 games from 1947-1950 with a winning percentage of 66 percent and made the All-Star team every year starting in 1948 through 1954.
No. 5: Harry Brecheen
Harry Brecheen was a very good Major League pitcher. He won 96 games from 1944-1949 and helped the Cardinals to two World Series titles in 1944 and 1946. Over the course of the decade, Brecheen posted a 2.85 ERA with 113 complete games and 24 shutouts as well.
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No. 1: Carl Hubbell
The only pitcher who out-pitched Lefty Grove over 20 years of baseball was Carl Hubbell. Not only did he have the most wins in baseball from 1931-1940, but he had the league’s best ERA at 2.68 as well.
From 1933-1937, Hubbell was at his very best.
He averaged 23 wins each season, making the All-Star team every year and finished in the Top 10 of the MVP vote each year as well, taking home the award twice.
No. 2: Lefty Grove
The Lefty Grove of the 1920s was just the beginning.
After four-straight 20-win seasons to end the '20s, Grove was even better in the '30s, starting the decade with a 31-4 season, beating out Lou Gehrig for the league’s MVP award.
For the decade, Grove won 178 games, good for second-most with an incredible 70 percent win mark leading to six All-Star appearances and his eventual election into the Hall of Fame in 1947.
No. 3: Red Ruffing
When Red Ruffing was traded from the Boston Red Sox to the New York Yankees in 1930, he became a brand new pitcher. From 1925-1929 on the Sox, Ruffing was 39-93 but went 175-102 with the Yanks from 1931-1940 with a 3.50 ERA, which was the third-most wins in the decade.
Ruffing made it to four All-Star games, finished in the Top 10 of the MVP vote three separate times and eventually was elected into the Hall of Fame in 1967.
No. 4: Lefty Gomez
Another Hall of Fame pitcher from the 1930s, Lefty Gomez was an absolute stud for the Yankees. Gomez made seven consecutive All-Star teams from 1933-1939, in addition to three Top 10 finishes in the MVP race.
Over the course of the decade, Gomez won 166 games which was good for fifth among all pitchers, and his .656 winning percentage was also one of the best in the league.
No. 5: Lon Warneke
From 1932-1940, Lon Warneke won at least 13 games every season averaging out at 18, and made four All-Star teams. Warneke finished in the Top 30 of the MVP race seven out of those nine years, finishing as high as No. 2 in 1932.
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No. 1: Dazzy Vance
Look back and talk about strikeouts.
Vance averaged 18 wins and 21 complete games from 1922-1930 and also won the MVP in 1924 with a 28-win season and a 2.16 ERA.
No. 2: Lefty Grove
Even though Lefty Grove only won 115 games in the 1920s, he only began pitching professionally in 1925.
Not only did Grove post the lowest ERA of all pitchers from 1921-1930 with a 2.98 mark, but he had one of the greatest winning percentages and K/9 rates as well at 67 percent and 6.09 respectively. Grove got better as the decade went on, going 92-32 in in four years from 1927-1930, leading to an even better decade in the 1930s.
No. 3: Burleigh Grimes
Burleigh Grimes was outstanding from 1921-1930, racking up the most wins and innings out of any pitcher in the decade. He earned the nickname “Ol’ Stubblebeard” averaging 18 wins a season and completing 66 percent of his starts, earning an election into the Hall of Fame in 1964.
No. 4: Walter Johnson
Even at the tail end of his career, Walter Johnson was one of the best pitchers in baseball. From 1921-1927 Johnson averaged 16 wins a season and earned his second MVP award with 23 wins and a 2.72 ERA in 1924. Despite pitching from ages 33-39, he was still one of the most intimidating pitchers to face throughout the 1920s
No. 5: Pete “Grover” Alexander
Much like Walter Johnson, Grover Alexander continued his sparkling success from the 1910s into the 1920s. Alexander averaged 16 wins a season from 1921-1928 with an ERA of 3.63 or lower every season. From 1921-1928, Alexander completed two-thirds of his starts, winning 21 games as a 40-year-old with the Cubs in 1927.
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No. 1: Walter Johnson
When it comes to the best decade ever thrown by a Major League pitcher, we have just two decades to choose from, and they sure put up a good fight.
Walter Johnson won an unbelievable 248 games for the Washington Senators from 1911-1920, averaging an obscene 25 wins a season and an even more ridiculous 31 from 1912-1925.
Johnson’s ERA for the decade was a minuscule 1.69, his complete game percentage was 90 percent and he had the greatest strikeout rate of anyone over 1,100 innings.
While this was an era of incredible hitting where the greatest home run hitter for the decade was Gavvy Cravath with 117 over the 10 years (Babe was well on his way), Johnson’s performance was still incredible.
No. 2: Pete "Grover" Alexander
Somehow, Grover Alexander put up a good fight for the top spot.
Alexander won 235 games over the 10-year span with a 2.06 ERA completing a still amazing 79 percent of his starts. At his peak from 1914-1917, Alexander averaged 30 wins a season with a 1.74.
An incredible run for sure, but not quite at Johnson’s level.
No. 3: Eddie Cicotte
Eddie Cicotte is most well-known for his role on the “Black Sox” in throwing the 1919 World Series. Without that incident, Cicotte would most assuredly been elected into the Hall of Fame.
Cicotte won 168 games over the course of the decade, good for third-most in the league and was especially good towards the end of the 1910s, winning 90 games from 1917-1920, averaging 22 wins a year with a 2.30 ERA.
No. 4: Eddie Plank
While “Gettysburg Eddie” made a name for himself in the first decade of the 20th century, he was no slouch in the 1910s.
Outside of Walter Johnson and Grover Alexander, Plank had the best winning percentage of all pitchers sitting at 68 percent, averaging 20 wins a season from 1911-1916.
No. 5: Babe Ruth
This is how incredible a baseball player Babe Ruth was.
Ignore his name for a second and imagine a left-handed pitcher who wins 65 games in his first three full seasons in the Major Leagues playing at the ripe ages of 20 through 22.
That is what Babe Ruth did.
In his only three seasons as a full-time starting pitcher, Ruth averaged 22 wins a season with a 2.02 ERA. In 1917 as a 22-year-old, Ruth had his best season winning 24 games and completing 35 of 38 starts.
He had more wins, less losses, a better ERA and more complete games than Walter Johnson.
I know it was only for three seasons, but I would be remiss if I left off the Sultan of Swat from this list because had he continued his career on the mound, he may have been equally as impressive.
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No. 1: Christy Mathewson
All you can really say is wow.
From 1901-1910, Christy Mathewson had the best decade a starting pitcher has ever had statistically speaking, winning an insurmountable 263 games. His 69 percent win rate and his ERA of 1.94 were both in the Top Five for pitchers with more than 2,000 innings, but his wins were leaps and bounds beyond his competition.
His 1908 season where he went 37-11 with a 1.43 ERA and a ridiculous 390 innings will never be matched again.
No. 2: Denton True “Cy” Young
You knew the pitcher whose name is now synonymous with the best pitcher in baseball had to crack the list somewhere, right? Well, his performance backs up the award.
Young was the second-best pitcher of the decade, winning 218 games with a 2.05 ERA. As was the custom in this era, Young finished most of the games he started, completing 91 percent of his starts leading to over 3,000 innings in this 10-year span.
No. 3: Eddie Plank
Eddie Plank makes his second appearance and with good reason, as his decade from 1910-1920 was just a teaser.
In his first 10 seasons of pro ball, Plank won 202 games with a 2.38 ERA from 1901-1910. Those 202 wins ranked third of all pitchers from this decade, and he ended 1910 with the third-most innings pitched as well.
No. 4: Joe McGinnity
Joe McGinnity is one of the more underrated pitchers in the history of the game.
Despite only pitching for 10 seasons, McGinnity won 246 games and was elected into the Hall of Fame in 1946. From 1901-1908, his last eight seasons pitching, McGinnity averaged 24 wins a season. He had one of the most impressive winning percentages of his era of 62 percent, sitting only behind Mathewson, Young and the next pitcher on this list.
No. 5: Mordecai Brown
Another Hall of Famer, Mordecai Brown makes this list because of his sparkling ERA and winning percentage.
After having a good first couple of seasons, Brown really turned it on from 1906-1909. Over these four seasons, Brown went 102-30, good for a .773 winning percentage while posting a 1.31 ERA, completing 85 percent of his starts as well.