Riders on the Storm: Pitchers Who Dominated the Steroid Era

Strike ThreeCorrespondent IFebruary 18, 2009

When historians look back at the Steroid Era, they will undoubtedly focus on the spike in offensive production.  Whether you look at home runs, slugging percentage, or runs scored, the game of baseball was clearly impacted by the use of performance enhancing drugs. 

Historians will also focus on the guys hitting all of those home runs.  Mighty sluggers like Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, and Sammy Sosa have already become synonymous with the Steroid Era, and their association with the passing ere is unlikely to fade over time.

But despite the gaudy offensive numbers and the bulked up ballplayers standing in the batter’s box, the Steroid Era also featured some wonderful pitchers.  In fact, some of the pitchers that graced the mounds of our modern day ballparks will rightly take their place among the greatest hurlers of all time. 

Although the exact dates that define the Steroid Era are open to debate, thesteroidera.blogspot.com suggests 1992-2006 as a period of fairly unregulated and potential extensive use.  Several of the pitchers under discussion pitched before the era began, and several are still active.  This article, however, will only look at their performance during the Steroid Era. 

My goals in writing this article are to a) document that pitchers performed at the highest level during the era and b) speculate on how they will be remembered by future generations of baseball fans and historians

Randy Johnson led the era by winning the Cy Young award five times.  His first was in 1995 when he pitched for the Seattle Mariners.  He then ripped off four in a row (1999-2002) as a member of the Arizona Diamondbacks.  Johnson also made nine All-Star teams. 

A number of players (e.g., Andy Pettitte) have cited injuries as their reason for using steroids.  Given the number of back surgeries that Johnson endured, he must have been tempted to use as a way of speeding up his recovery.   But Johnson was not named in the Mitchell report and, to the best of my knowledge, has never tested positive for a banned substance.  The revelation of a failed test seems to be the only thing that could prevent Randy Johnson as being regarded as the best pitcher of the Steroid Era.

Roger Clemens won four Cy Young awards and pitched on seven All-Star teams.  He is the highest profile pitcher to be implicated as a user of a banned substance.  Although he still maintains his innocence, his reputation is forever tarnished.  Based purely on the numbers, Clemens is one of the greatest pitchers of all time.  But like Bonds and Sosa, the perception of his accomplishments will likely be diminished because of his suspected use and the tawdry nature of the unfolding story.

Like Clemens, Greg Maddux won four Cy Young awards and pitched on seven All Star teams. Unlike Clemens, Maddux has never been linked to steroids.  In fact, the often-quoted joke is that seeing Maddux without his shirt off is all the evidence you would ever need that he did not use steroids.  His four Cy Young awards coincide with the initial years of the Steroid Era (1992-1995).  Some will identify Maddux, and not Johnson, as the best pitcher of the era.

In his prime, Pedro Martinez may have been the most electric pitcher of the Steroid Era.  He was a great pitcher, as evidenced by the three Cy Young awards and seven All-Star appearances.  He was also a tremendous showman.  He developed a reputation as a headhunter, and of course once threw Don Zimmer to the ground.  But his name has not been associated with any banned substances, and he is proud of his legacy. "I dominated that era and I did it clean," he said in February of 2008. "I can stand by my numbers and I can be proud of them."

Johan Santana is the only other pitcher to win multiple Cy Young awards during the Steroid Era.  He is not mentioned in the Mitchell report and has not been associated with any banned substances.  While his overall numbers do not put him in the same class as Johnson, Maddux, or Martinez, he will certainly be remembered as one of the great pitchers of the era.

Twelve other pitchers won a single Cy Young award during the Steroid Era.  Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, along with Maddux will be remembered as anchoring the Atlanta Braves rotation through so much of the era.  Glavine actually tied Johnson with nine All-Star appearances, while Smoltz made the team six times.

Eric Gagne won the award in 2003 after his remarkable 55 save season.  For a brief period, he was the most dominant reliever in baseball.  But Mariano Rivera will likely be regarded as the best reliever of the Steroid Era.  Gagne’s inclusion in the Mitchell Report, coupled with recent inability to perform at a high level, will likely define his reputation going forward.

Other Steroid Era Cy Young winners: Dennis Eckersley, Brandon Webb, Chris Carpenter, Bartolo Colon, Jack McDowell, Pat Hentgen, David Cone, Roy Halladay,  and Barry Zito.

All of the pitchers mentioned in this article were able to thrive during the Steroid Era.  Some were able to excel for a single season, and others were able to dominate throughout the era.  Although it is always dangerous to predict how history will judge recent events, it seems likely that their accomplishments will shine even brighter because they pitched during the Steroid Era. 

Clemens will be remembered as a fallen hero and a reminder that the hitters were not the only players who looked to steroids, HGH, and other performance enhancers to give themselves a competitive edge.

Based on Cy Young awards and All-Star appearances (and assuming that Clemens and Gagne remain the only pitchers implicated as users of banned substances), Johnson, Maddux, and Martinez, Glavine, and Smoltz will be remembered as the best pitchers of the Steroid Era.  Johnson and Maddux will also be rightly regarded as two of the greatest pitcher of any era will certainly end up in Cooperstown.  Martinez, Glavine, and Smoltz will likely join them in the Hall of Fame.