The Top Pitchers of the (Steroids?) Era: 1990-2009

Jonathan StilwellCorrespondent IMarch 8, 2009

These are the pitchers we all know. They have dominated the starting pitching world for the most part of the last 20 years. It does feel like the end of an era, with so many of these pitchers coming to the end of brilliant careers. 

We’ve seen continued strikeout dominance, incredible exploration into pitching efficiency, a throwback to the “Golden Years” winning pitcher, and new heights with K/BB ratio and WHIP. 

We’ve seen the expansion of the relief pitcher role into setup specialist and situational left and right-handed pitchers, leaving the starting pitcher free of real responsibility to end what he started. 

We’ve seen a dominant starting pitcher become a dominant closer, and then return to be a dominant starter late in his career. It has been an historic period for the starting pitcher.

I refrain from detailed ranking and evaluation for different reasons. One, some of these pitchers are still rounding out their careers. Tom Glavine, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, and John Smoltz are all planning to pitch this year in varying capacities. I hesitate to put an exact ranking on their careers, there being so much finality about the judgment. 

Second is the healthy skepticism that surrounds many performances from this era because of the use of performance enhancing substances—steroids and HGH. Three pitchers studied for this article have already been linked to usage.

How do we evaluate their careers? From what we know, many top performers have been involved with using. Can we assume all of our other pitchers are without blame here?  We may never know the answer to this with any complete certainty.

My conclusions are that records are records. They were accomplished within the game, and need to stand on the merit of the accomplishment, and be understood within the context of the period. Some batting records and pitching records were accomplished with aid. Also, a skepticism with historical perspective should be brought to understanding the accomplishments of this era.

The Epic, All-Time Greats

Greg Maddux

(355-227; 3.16 ERA; ERA+132; 35 SHO; 109 CG; 5008 IP/ 4726 H; 3371 K/ 999 BB; 3.37 ratio; WHIP 1.14; Neut. Stats: 360-200; ERA 3.02; WHIP 1.116)

Maddux pitched the majority of his career for the Cubs and Braves and finished up with the Padres and Dodgers.

Maddux was an artist with the baseball.  He was always prepared, studying the opposing batters and developing a strategy for each hitter and for the game at hand.  His peak came in the mid '90s when he won four Cy Young awards in a row—’92–’95.  His career follows a natural arc of uptake, peak, and gradually declining skills that could be studied as an example.

Randy Johnson

(295-160; 3.26 ERA; ERA+137; 37 SHO; 100 CG; 4039 IP/ 3249 H; 4789 K/ 1466 BB; 3.27 ratio; WHIP 1.167; Neut. Stats: 299-159; 2.94 ERA; 1.10 WHIP)

After making his illustrious career with the Mariners, Diamondbacks, and Yankees, “the Big unit” is pitching for the Giants this year.  Johnson has had an overpowering fastball and a slider.  At 6’ 10” he is an imposing figure on the mound, and has intimidated his share of batters with his no-nonsense demeanor and 100+ mph fastball. 

Johnson is the top lefty from this era.  He is approaching 300 wins this year.  His strikeout total is second all-time,  and his K ratio to IP is an all-time mark for starting pitchers.  Johnson won five Cy Young Awards, beginning in 1995.

Roger Clemens

(354-184; 3.12 ERA; ERA+ 143; 46 SHO; 118 CG; 4916 IP/ 4185 H; 4672 K/ 1580 BB; 2.96 ratio; WHIP 1.17; Neut. Stats: 373-181; 2.79 ERA; 1.099 WHIP)

Clemens pitched for Boston, Toronto, the Yankees, and Houston during his career.  Clemens had overpowering stuff.  He developed a split-fingered fastball as his “out” pitch part-way through his career.  He won an unprecedented six Cy Young awards for his pitching exploits.

Roger was being lauded as one of the greatest pitchers of all time (his numbers support this conclusion) until allegations of steroid use surfaced about two years ago.  Now, baseball history will have to sort out his place—ranking and HOF.

Pitchers of All-Time Significance

Pedro Martinez

(214-99; 2.91 ERA; ERA+ 154; 17 SHO; 46 CG; 2782 IP/ 2173 H; 3117 K/ 752 BB; 4.14 ratio; 1.05 WHIP; Neut. Stats: 221-94; 2.66 ERA; .993 WHIP)

Martinez broke in with the Los Angeles Dodgers, but came to prominence with the Montreal Expos and the Boston Red Sox before recently finishing a contract with the New York Mets.  Along the way, Pedro has won three Cy Young awards.

Pedro always had incredible “stuff” on his pitches.  He possessed a plus fastball, change-up, and curve, using varying angles for each pitch to confuse batters.  His approach yielded incredible ratios for IP/ H, K/ IP, K/BB, ERA, and ERA+.  His physical delivery placed a heavy amount of torque on his shoulder and arm.  After delivering one of the greatest all-time peaks in baseball history, 1998–2000, Pedro has succumbed to arm problems of late.  His 3,000 Ks, career ERA+ of 154, and other ratios make him an all-time great and HOF worthy despite his relatively short career.

Tom Glavine

(305-203; 3.54 ERA; ERA+ 118; 25 SHO; 56 CG; 4413 IP/ 4298 H; 2607 K/ 1500 BB; 1.74 ratio; 1.314 WHIP; Neut. Stats: 285-208; 3.44 ERA; 1.291 WHIP)

Glavine defined pitching excellence with the Atlanta Braves during the '90s.  He teamed with Greg Maddux and John Smoltz to form one of the greatest pitching staffs in history, himself winning the Cy Young award twice.

Known for his cool demeanor and precision pitching, Glavine won 20 games five times on his way to 300+ wins.  Never overpowering, Glavine relied on moving his pitches inside and out, up and down.  He worked the outside part of the plate perhaps more than any other pitcher, often getting called strikes hitters questioned.  But he rarely gave in, accepting 1,500 BB along the way.  Glavine is one of only a handful of left-handed pitchers to win 300 games.

More Likely HOF Pitchers

John Smoltz

(210-47; 3.26 ERA; ERA+ 127; 16 SHO; 53 CG; 3395 IP/ 2979 H; 3011 K/ 992 BB; 3.04 ratio; 1.17 WHIP; Neut. Stats; 233-148; 3.20 ERA; 1.15 WHIP)

Smoltz pitched for the Atlanta Braves since 1988 until signing with the Red Sox this offseason.  He is one of the great competitors of the game and rises to big game challenges. 

He won the Cy Young award in 1996 with 24 wins.  After undergoing Tommy John surgery, he agreed to work as the Braves' closer, and began his closing career the last part of 2001.  In  2002, he logged 55 saves.  Smoltz was fearless on the mound, going after the toughest hitters, and for long stretches was virtually unbeatable.  After two more standout seasons as a closer, he petitioned to return to the starting rotation in 2005.  He pitched three more excellent seasons as a starter before his injury last season. Smoltz is the only pitcher in baseball to have 200 wins and 150 saves.

Curt Schilling

(216-146; 3.46 ERA; ERA+ 127; 20 SHO; 83 CG; 3261 IP/ 2998 H; 3116 K/ 711 BB; 4.38 ratio; 1.137 WHIP; neut. Stats; 224-141; 3.15; 1.080 WHIP)

Schilling has made his sterling career with the Phillies, Diamondbacks, and Red Sox.  He is currently a free agent and has spoke of wanting to pitch again this year.  With a postseason record of 11–2, Schilling is known as one of the best postseason pitchers.  He helped lead the Diamondbacks to the world series title in 2001, and the Red Sox in 2004.

Possessing pinpoint control, and a split-fingered fastball as on out pitch, he has established the highest K/ BB ratio of all time.  He perhaps reached his peak in 2001–2002 with Arizona, winning 22 and 23 games.  He struck out over 300 batters three times. 

Mike Mussina

(270-153; 3.68 ERA; ERA+ 123; 23 SHO; 57 CG; 3562 IP/ 3460 H; 2813 K/ 785 BB; 1.19 WHIP; Neut. Stats: 247-161; 3.25 ERA; 1.11 WHIP) 

Known as a winning pitcher, Mussina pitched for Baltimore and the Yankees from 1991–2008.  Only once did he pitch a full season with a losing record.  Mussina was known for excellent control, intelligence, and high style.

Not until his last year did he win 20 games.  However, he won 17, 18, or 19 games six times.  He was traded to the Yankees after his only losing season in 2000.  Not really a strikeout pitcher, he did reach over 2,800 for his career.  His 3.58 K/ BB ratio is historically significant.

The Best of the Rest

Kevin Brown

(211-144; 3.28 ERA; ERA+ 127; 17 SHO; 72 CG; 3256 IP/ 3079 h; 2397 K/ 901 BB; 2.66 ratio; 1.222 WHIP; Neut. Stats: 226-140; 3.19 ERA; 1.205 WHIP)

Brown was a highly effective pitcher for the Texas Rangers, Florida Marlins, and, later, the Padres and Dodgers.  He had great movement on a tailing fastball, slider, and split-finger pitch.

He is perhaps best known for his postseason exploits, helping lead the Marlins to their first World Series title in 1997.  Brown has been more recently attached to the Mitchell report and use of steroids while a Dodger.

David Cone

(194-126; 3.46 ERA; ERA+ 120; 22 SHO; 56 CG; 2898 IP/ 2504 H; 2668 K/ 1137 BB; 2.35 ratio; WHIP 1.256; Neut. Stats: 196-133; 3.33 ERA; 1.228 WHIP) 

Cone was best known for pitching with the Mets, Yankees, Blue Jays, and Kansas City Royals.  He helped the Mets to the postseason in ’88, the Blue Jays in ’92, and the Yankees from ’95–2000.

Cone won the Cy Young award in 1994 with the Kansas City Royals.  He led the NL in strikeouts in ’91 and ’92.  Following a perfect game in July of ’99, he seemed to lose effectiveness, walking 90 batters that season. The next year was a disaster, 4–14, 6.91 ERA.  Cone’s days as an effective starter were over, and his last efforts to pitch came in 2003. 

Bret Saberhagen

(167-117; 3.34 ERA; ERA+ 126; 16 SHO; 76 CG; 2562 IP/ 2452 H; 1715 K/ 471 BB; 3.64 ratio; 1.14 WHIP; Neut. Stats: 177-112; 3.17 ERA; 1.108 WHIP)

Saberhagen was an outstanding pitcher with the Kansas City Royals, New York Mets, and Boston Red Sox.  He won the AL Cy Young award twice.  He had outstanding control and great movement on his pitches. 

Honorable Mention: David Wells, Dwight Gooden, Orel Hershiser, Chuck Finley, and Jamie Moyer.

The Next Generation

Ten for the next list—here are 10 up and coming pitchers well on their way to making the list as the top pitchers of the next generation: Johan Santana (109 W – 1587 K), C.C. Sabathia (117 W – 1393 K), Roy Oswalt (129 W – 1335 K), Roy Halladay (131 W – 1287 K), A.J. Burnett (87 W – 1278 K), Jake Peavy ( 86 W – 1256 K), Carlos Zambrano (96 W – 1172 K), Josh Beckett ( 89 W – 1131 K), Brandon Webb (87 W – 1063 K), and John Lackey (91 W – 1062 K).

Discussion on Evaluation

How do these pitchers and their stats fit in with what has previously been accomplished by the greats of the game?

We have been asked to bring understanding to evaluating pitching stats from previous eras.  The modern dead ball era enabled pitchers to control damage with lower scoring games.  Strikeouts were non-essential, but a flashy part of a pitcher’s repertoire.  Most pitchers reserved their strength for the big moments, and were expected to complete a high percentage of the games they started.  The shutout, however, was an important stat of dominance.

The initial live ball era saw scoring surge to new heights.  Pitchers were tremendously challenged not to be engulfed by the offensive surge.  There were careers of brief dominance, but very few who could maintain mastery over several years.

The raised mound era was kind of like putting pitchers on steroids, but within the rules of the game!  The strike zone was enlarged as well.  ERAs plummeted, high strikeout totals abounded, and  K/BB ratios reached never before seen heights.  Several careers were made from this brief six-year period in baseball history.  Their records need to be understood within the context they were accomplished.

Now we have the steroid era, which history has not yet fully dealt with.  The problems begin here when we start to evaluate and rank these pitchers not only within their era, but also across eras because of the unknown and uneven use of PEDs.  We can’t assume every pitcher used some form of illegal aid to produce their career numbers.  But it’s obvious some did.  I would be naïve to think it was only Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, and Kevin Brown.

How could PEDs help a pitcher?  He doesn’t need bulk or power strength to hit a baseball further.  The use of HGH enables the body to recover more quickly from the normal wear and tear of the grind of pitching.  This becomes especially valuable to the pitcher trying to recover say from an arm injury—rotator cuff, or any muscular injury.  Also, it becomes especially valuable to the pitcher recovering between starts.

When the pitcher begins to age, it becomes more difficult to get ready for the next start, and he decides to use HGH.  His body is rejuvenated.  He pitches with the vigor he had five or six years earlier because of his muscles being charged and ready to go. 

Also, the pitcher is aided by increased leg strength.  He gains more stability and drive toward the plate.  Also, his shoulder is able to handle the increased torque placed on it for breaking balls. The pitcher has more control over his pitches.  They break more sharply.

So a cursory examination into the potential benefits shows how PEDs could help a pitcher prolong the peak of a career and reach new levels of effectiveness.

Natural counter measures to suspect use do exist.  Players physically train their bodies to withstand the punishment of the baseball season.  We know Roger Clemens used a very stringent personal workout program.  We know Greg Maddux’ body never broke down over 5,000 innings of pitching!

Second is the psychological factor.  Pitchers know they can go all out from the beginning of the game.  When they run out of gas, the manager brings in the middle inning relievers.  But he is able to pitch at peak effectiveness for five to seven innings without the responsibility of being expected to finish the game.

These two factors can account for some ratio enhancement.  Also, all of these pitchers have tremendous natural skills without ever considering the use of PEDs. 

What I did find in this era were ceiling breaking marks of ERA+ and K/BB ratio.  Before, when we saw record breaking ERAs, and a group of pitchers breaking before set K/BB records, it was because of the raised mound.  Now, we find career marks in these categories beyond previous set records.

Are these career marks the natural progression of tremendous skill aided by advanced training and going all-out until the relief corps takes over?  Or was a little something extra added to the mix?  I’ll leave that for history and the reader to sort out.

A cursory check of ERA+ records across the eras reveals that the dead ball era (1901–1921) produced several historically low marks:  Walter Johnson  +147, Ed Walsh +146, Addie Joss +142, Mordecai Brown +138, and Christy Mathewson +135.  This makes sense because low ERAs were a product of the period.

From the beginning of the live ball era until now we have: Lefty Grove +148 and Carl Hubbell +130—bulwarks against the offensive onslaught of the time; Whitey Ford +133, Sandy Koufax +131, Tom Seaver +127, Bob Gibson +127, and Jim Palmer +126.  This is a sampling of the best marks across the history of baseball from 1901–1990.

The other category we need to keep in mind is the K/BB ratio.  The best marks from each era are as follows:

Dead Ball era:  Christy Mathewson 2.96, Rube Waddell 2.88

Live Ball era: Dazzy Vance 2.43, Carl Hubbell 2.31

Golden Years: Robin Roberts 2.61

Raised Mound: Juan Marichal 3.25, Koufax 2.93, Drysdale 2.91, and Bunning 2.86.

Post–Raised Mound: Ferguson Jenkins 3.20, Bert Blyleven 2.80

So we see that when pitchers had aid—with the dead ball or with the raised mound—the K/BB ratios were higher.  The two listed in the most recent era, 1969–1990, stand out from their contemporaries. The other greats were closer to Robin Roberts’ mark.


History will need to ferret out the truth regarding PED use in this era.  Certainly, there have been many great accomplishments both in total wins and strikeouts, as well as ERA+ and K/ BB ratios.  There may not be quite the depth in excellence there was in the previous generation, but a solid eight or nine HOF candidates is still pretty good depth.

The Future

How will standards for excellence change with the modern use of the starter?  This has begun already.  There will still be emphasis on wins and strikeouts, but ratios like ERA+, K/ BB, OBP percentage, and WHIP will become more important.  Totals like complete games and shutouts are less relevant today.  I still think relative longevity will remain important if not essential to the resume of a great pitcher.

We have been through two generations of establishing 3,000 Ks as a career mark of distinction (beginning with Bob Gibson).  I think we need to begin to acknowledge this as a benchmark achievement, like 300 wins, 3,000 hits or 500 HRs.

Also, the complete game shutout remained a significant historical stat until around 1985.  The leaders on this list are the most dominant pitchers of all time.  The shutout totals should be a strong factor to HOF consideration.  Any total over 50 should be deemed HOF worthy.  Forty-five to 50 shutouts is still very strong and should gain the attention of the HOF voters.


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