The Ten Greatest Left-Handed Pitchers: A Legacy Worth Knowing

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The Ten Greatest Left-Handed Pitchers: A Legacy Worth Knowing
(Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)

The Top Ten Left-handed Pitchers of the Modern Era

“Daddy—What’s a southpaw?” was the line I recently heard watching “Field of Dreams,” in the scene where Kevin Costner’s adorable daughter is watching a baseball game.  All of us at one time or another learned what a southpaw was. 

While listening to Reds radio broadcasts as a youth, I remember the announcers referring to “typical lefty control problems,” or jokingly referring to southpaws as “odd, off the wall, or quirky.”  Of course, the color announcer, Joe Nuxhall, himself had been a left-handed pitcher and signed off every broadcast with “the old left-hander rounding third and heading for home!” 

Quality left-handed pitching is still at a premium today.  Lefties have an advantage against left-handed batters, who are closest to first base.  A left-handed pitcher who has mastered his craft can stay in the game a long time—i.e. Randy Johnson, Jamie Moyer.

While researching the top pitchers from each era, it became apparent to me that there seemed to be one dominant lefty from each period of baseball history.  Some eras produced a second left-handed pitcher not quite as good, usually in the other league. 

This phenomenon gives us a remarkable cross-section of baseball history, as we ferret out the game’s best southpaws.

Composing a list like this can help make clear this topic in the mind of the average baseball fan.  Once exposed, the list is not that hard to remember.

I have ranked the pitchers in reverse order, from tenth to first.  I ranked them according to excellence and stamina, taking into consideration their whole career, and evaluating the following categories:  W – L; ERA; ERA+; CG, SHO; IP; H/9; K/BB; K/BB ratio; WHIP.

I think it needs to be mentioned that not every era delivered the same emphasis on certain stats.  A pitcher from the deadball era could be forgiven a low K total if the WHIP was decent.  A pitcher from the live ball era could be forgiven a higher H/9 if their ERA was in line. 

By the time the raised mound era was over, a pitcher was expected to be good at everything—all-around excellence.  This philosophy has continued to today, but we have gradually taken the endurance requirement away from the starting pitcher, so they can focus on all-out pitching from the beginning of the game.

So when you look at each pitcher on this list, and consider ranking, ask yourself if they delivered what their era was about.

Although this ranking is my effort to break down the relative greatness of these careers, I’m certainly willing to admit someone could legitimately see it differently. 

Some pitchers just missed the list.  Selecting between #10 and these candidates was particularly difficult. Historical significance played the biggest role in my current decision.  Honorable mentions here go out to:

Tommy John—288 wins.  Perhaps the missing complementary pitcher to Steve Carlton and his era.

Billy Pierce—211 wins and a nifty ERA+ of 119, and consistent work in the '50s leaves him just outside the top ten.

Mickey Lolich—2,855 Ks, an excellent K/BB ratio, 217 wins, and ’68 World Series heroics put him close.

On the Horizon—the next generation of lefties are on their way.  One pitcher of particular note is Johan Santana, who already possesses one of the top 20 peaks of the modern era.  He is definitely a product of his times, with only 9 CGs and 6 shutouts on his resume thus far, but he is on track to make this list as he completes his career. 

 

The Top Ten

10) Eppa Rixey—(266–251; 3.15 ERA; ERA+ 115; 290 CG; 37 SHO; 4,494 IP; 9.3 H/9; 1,350K/ 1,082 BB; K/BB ratio 1.25; 1.272 WHIP) 

Eppa Rixey broke in with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1912.  His career bridged both the deadball and the live ball eras. 

After returning from a year at war in 1918, he struggled through the next two years.  After arriving in Cincinnati at the beginning of the live ball era in 1921, he began to flourish.  His best years were to follow, winning 19 or more games five of the next eight years.

At 6’ 5”, Rixey was an imposing figure on the mound.  He featured a sidearm delivery and a sinking fastball. 

When pitching, he was a great competitor, but off the field he was good-natured and amiable.  More than one historian has noted how his positive outlook helped him deal with many a discouraging situation throughout his career.

His 266 wins (somewhat of a suppressed total because of pitching for second division teams for most of his years) were the most in the NL for a left-handed pitcher until topped by Warren Spahn at the end of the 1959 season.

Eppa Rixey was selected for the HOF by the veteran’s committee in 1963, but died before the the induction ceremony that same year.

 

9) Tom Glavine—(305–203; 3.54 ERA; ERA+118; 56 CG; 25 SHO; 4413 IP; 8.8 H/9; 2,607 K/ 1,500 BB; K/BB ratio 1.74; 1.314 WHIP)

Tom Glavine broke in with the Atlanta Braves in 1987.  By 1991, he was the lead pitcher on the staff that won the pennant.  He led the league in wins five of the next ten years.  He was the Cy Young award winner twice.

He reached his 300th win with the New York Mets in 2007.

Glavine was a tough mental competitor.  He used a fastball, curve, and change up to keep hitters off balance enough to make outs.  He worked the outside part of the plate as extensively as any modern pitcher has, and refused to give in to the hitter, accepting 1,500 walks along the way. 

Tom Glavine was a player representative to the union, and became known as a spokesman for the players.

Throughout his career he was quite fortunate to have a team that won 14 consecutive division titles, an excellent manger in Bobby Cox who was adept at managing a pitching staff, a pitching coach who taught him how to avoid injury and gave him a pitching strategy that led to much success, and a surrounding rotation with two other HOF caliber pitchers, whose success kept the pressure off just one member. 

In addition, Glavine worked in pitcher friendly ballparks for all his home games throughout his career.  With all his good fortune, Tom was prepared, focused and skilled enough to make it all work.  When he finally decides to retire, he will undoubtedly be voted into the HOF, joining every other 300-game winner.

8)  Sandy Koufax — (165–87; 2.76 ERA; ERA+ 131; 137 CG; 40 SHO; 2,324 IP; H/9 6.8; 2,396 K/ 817 BB; K/BB ratio 2.93; 1.106 WHIP)

Sandy Koufax began his career in 1955 with the Brooklyn Dodgers.  He was still mostly a prospect with a great fastball, but erratic control when the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles in 1958.

He took on a more prominent role in the rotation after the move, but was still unable to control situations because of his control problems, having lost four more games than he had won, and sporting a career ERA of 4.10 after three years in the rotation.

Things began to click for Sandy after a conversation with his catcher before the 1961 season.  His control improved as he learned to relax on the mound.  Now that the hitters had to put bat on ball, or face striking out, his fortunes began to reverse.  Koufax's fastball and drop off the table curve were overpowering.

When the mound was raised and the strike zone made larger before the 1963 season, Koufax's career took off like a comet blazing across the raised mound era.  In 1963, he won 25 games, struck out over 300 batters, won the ERA title with 1.88, and pitched 11 shutouts.  (These were all firsts for his career.)

After winning the triple crown (most wins, lowest ERA, and most strikeouts) in ’63, he repeated the feat in ’65 and ’66.  He broke Rube Waddell’s single season strikeout record of 349, which had stood since 1904, with his total of 382 in ’65.

He helped the Dodgers to a World Series victory in ’63.  The Dodgers won the ’65 series riding Koufax’s pitching line of two wins, a 0.38 ERA, 29 strikeouts, and only 13 hits in 24 innings pitched.  Again the Dodgers reached the series in ’66, but were sent home by the Baltimore Orioles. Koufax pitched and lost one game.

Sandy retired after the series in 1966, succumbing to progressive arthritis in his pitching elbow.

For his pitching heroics, Koufax was awarded a NL MVP, and three Cy Young awards.

Koufax was inducted into the HOF in 1972.

For this four-year period, ’63–’66, Sandy Koufax was the best pitcher in baseball.  Baseball writers of the time say they have not witnessed a more dominant stretch of pitching before or since.

 

7) Whitey Ford — (236–106; 2.75 ERA; ERA+ 133; 156 CG; 45 SHO; 3,170 IP; 7.9 H/9; 1,956 K/ 1,086 BB; K/BB ratio 1.80; 1.215 WHIP)

Whitey Ford pitched his entire career with the Yankees from 1950–67.  This coincided with a period of dominance by his team, winning 11 American League pennants and six world series titles. 

By the mid ‘50s, Ford was the lead pitcher on the Yankees staff.  He fronted the great teams he represented admirably, posting winning records every year of his career until ’66. 

His manager Casey Stengel often held Ford back for the biggest pitching match-ups against their biggest rivals and to keep him fresh for the post season.  Ford became well-known for his duels with Billy Pierce of the Chicago White Sox. 

His best year came in 1961 when he won 25 games against only four losses.  He led what was one of the best teams and offensive juggernauts in Major League history, winning  the Cy Young award that year.

Ford relied on good stuff, excellent breaking pitches and a healthy dose of guile and game savvy.  His career ERA of 2.75 is lowest in the live ball era since 1921.  His ERA+ of 133 is also one of the highest marks. 

During interviews since, Ford has admitted to doctoring baseballs with the help of his catcher Elston Howard.

He was an excellent big game pitcher under the greatest pressure, gaining the nickname “slick."  His World Series performances help make him one of the best postseason pitchers throughout baseball history.

Whitey Ford was inducted into the HOF in 1974.

 

6) Carl Hubbell — (253–154; 2.98 ERA; ERA+ 130; 260 CG; 36 SHO; 3,590 IP; 8.7 H/9; 1,677 K/ 725 BB; K/BB ratio 2.31; 1.166 WHIP)

Carl Hubbell was signed by the Detroit Tigers in the '20s.  However, on two successive looks, in ’26 and ’27, player manager Ty Cobb and pitching coach George McBride were not impressed with Carl or his screwball. 

The Tigers didn’t invite him back for the ’28 season and sent him to the Beaumont Exporters of the Texas league.  Hubbell was ready to quit baseball after the season when Giants scout Dick Kinsella watched him pitch against the Houston Buffs and called Giant manager John McGraw. 

Hubbell later said that being released by the Tigers was the best thing that ever happened to him.  (Twenty years later the Tigers followed this up by turning away team legend Tommy Bridges after the war, and letting Billy Pierce go to the White Sox!)

McGraw was less concerned about the screwball, saying Christy Mathewson had thrown one and had done fine by it.  Hubbell was signed by the Giants, finishing the year 10–6, and pitched the rest of his career until 1943 for them.

Hubbell won 20 games five consecutive years from ’33–’37.  During that time he was named NL MVP twice.  He also led the league in ERA three times, had the lowest WHIP six out of eight years, and led in K/BB ratio five times.

He won 24 consecutive games between the ’36 (16) and ’37 (8) seasons.  This is still a Major League record today.

He led the Giants to the World Series three times—’33, ’36 and ’37.  His series performances include a 4–2 record and a 1.79 ERA.

In a well-documented occasion during the ’34 all-star game, Carl struck out five consecutive future HOF players, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons and Joe Cronin.

These performances led to his nicknames of King Carl and “the meal ticket."  One famous baseball historian stated that if there were one game to win, he’d pick Carl Hubbell to pitch it.

Hubbell offered his screwball with a very slow delivery.  He relied on pinpoint control, leading to his WHIP and K/BB ratio titles.  His total of 725 BB in 3,590 IP is remarkable.

Carl Hubbell was the dominant pitcher in the National League during his career.  He was voted into the HOF in 1947.

 

5) Steve Carlton — (329–244; 3.22 ERA; ERA+ 115; 254 CG; 55 SHO; 5,217 IP; 8.1 H/9; 4,136 K/ 1,833 BB; K/BB ratio 2.26; 1.247 WHIP)

"Lefty" broke in with the St. Louis Cardinals briefly in 1965.  By 1967, he was an integral part of the rotation which included Bob Gibson.  He became known as a power pitcher, throwing a strong fastball and a heavy slider. 

The Cardinals became frustrated with him after a contract dispute before the 1970 season, and the team owner ordered that he be traded.  He was finally traded to the Philadelphia Phillies for the 1972 season.

Carlton peaked in a big way that year!  He went 27–10, at one point winning 15 consecutive games.  During one stretch he gave up only one earned run over a span of 56 innings!  He led the league in wins (46% of his team’s total), ERA, ERA+, games started, complete games (30), innings pitched, and strikeouts (310).  This is one of the greatest single season performances in the books.

Carlton had erratic seasons in between his great ones.  He had off years in ’70 and ’73, losing 19 and 20 games respectively.  During the ’73 campaign, he became so frustrated with his situation that he stopped talking to the sportswriters, and didn’t for most of his career.

Before the 1982 season, three pitchers of the era stood within 100 Ks of Walter Johnson’s all-time strikeout total of 3,508, (Nolan Ryan, Gaylord Perry, and Steve Carlton).  During the 1982 season, they all passed the long-standing mark.  The lead eventually switched back and forth between Ryan and Carlton 11 times over the next two years.

Carlton struggled through the ’85 campaign.  After leaving the Phillies, he bounced between San Francisco, the White Sox, Cleveland, and Minnesota, without success.  He was released at the beginning of the ’88 season by the Twins.

He pitched well in one game for the Cardinals in the ’67 series.  He led the Phillies as their ace to the ’80 series, claiming the title.  Some of his other post-season appearances were not as successful in divisional playoff games and the ’83 World Series.  His post-season record of 6–6, a respectable 3.26 ERA, and a WHIP of 1.480 is a mixed bag.

Each year he led the league in wins — ’72, ’77, ’80, ’82 — he won the Cy Young award.  He was the first pitcher to win the award four times.

Among left-handed pitchers in the modern era, Carlton is second in innings pitched and strikeouts.  His 1,833 BB are second all-time behind his contemporary Nolan Ryan.

He was inducted into the HOF in 1994.

 

4)  Eddie Plank — (326–194; 2.35 ERA; ERA+ 122; 410 CG; 69 SHO; 4,495 IP; 7.9 H/9; 2,246 K/ 1,072 BB; K/BB ratio 2.10; 1.119 WHIP)

Eddie Plank hit the ground running when he pitched as a rookie with Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics in 1901, going 17–13.  By the next year, he would win 20 games for the first of eight times in his career.  (He won 19 games two other years.)

Being from Gettysburg, PA, and having pitched for their college team, he was given the nickname of “Gettysburg Eddie."

In 1902, he teamed up with Rube Waddell for six years on the A’s pitching staff to form one of baseball’s most formidable 1–2 pitching combinations.

Plank was Christy Mathewson’s opponent on the mound when he threw three complete game shutouts against the A’s and Plank.  (They had faced each other in their college days—Bucknell vs. Gettysburg.)  Eddie finally beat Mathewson for the first time in the 1913 series, when both pitchers were on the back side of their careers.

The A’s made five World Series appearances behind Plank: ’05, ’10, ’11, ’13, ’14.  Plank was unable to pitch in the ’10 World Series because of a sore arm.  His series record of 2–5 also sports a 1.32 ERA, 54 innings, 37 hits and a 0.878 WHIP.  The A’s won the ’11 and ’13 series.

After losing the ’14 series, Connie Mack disbanded the team.  Plank played in St. Louis for the Terriers of the Federal League and the Browns of the AL through the 1917 season.  He was traded to the Yankees before the 1918 season but refused to report. 

Plank’s 305 wins still lead the American league among left-handed pitchers.  His 69 shutouts are 5th all-time.

He had a side-arm delivery, and featured a sweeping curveball.  He was also known for his long pauses on the mound, prompting poet Ogden Nash to write in his “Lineup for Yesterday”:

"'P' is for Plank
The arm of the A’s;
When he tangled with Matty
Games lasted for days."

He was the first great left-hander of the modern era, and was inducted into the HOF in 1946.

 

3)  Lefty Grove — (300–141; 3.06 ERA; ERA+ 148; 298 CG; 35 SHO; 3,940 IP; 8.8 H/9; 2,266 K/ 1,187 BB; K/BB ratio 1.91; 1.278 WHIP)

When Lefty Grove broke in with the Philadelphia Athletics in 1925, he was already a pitching star with the Baltimore Orioles of the International League from 1920–1924.  His owner/manager, Jack Dunn, who had been free of any team affiliations, finally sold his rights, after refusing several major league offers, to the Philadelphia Athletics in 1925 for $100,000.

During his first two seasons, he experienced some control problems, walking 131 batters in ’25 and 101 the next year.  By ’27 he had improved his command, and won 20 games for the first of seven consecutive seasons for the Athletics.

He spearheaded his team’s success over the next several years, appearing in the World Series from ’29–’31, winning in ’29 and ’30.  His World Series line includes a 4–2 record and a 1.75 ERA.

His seasons from ’28–’33 represent one of baseball’s all-time pitching peaks.  During his peak years, he led the American League in wins four times, had the lowest ERA four times, the most strikeouts four times and led the league in WHIP three times.

Owner Connie Mack sold him to the Boston Red Sox after the ’33 season.  An arm injury led to a poor ’34 season with a 6.50 ERA and an 8–8 record.

He entered his afterglow years with the Red Sox.  He won 20 games for the last time in ’35.  He maintained winning records over the next several years, but his years of dominance were behind him.  Hitters bats caught up to him the last couple of years, seeing his H/9 and ERAs rise considerably.  He retired after finally winning his 300th game in 1941.

His peak, ERA titles, and career ERA+ of 148 are remarkable.  He was the most dominant pitcher of his era.  He was inducted into the HOF in 1947.

 

2) Randy Johnson — (at time of printing) (303–166; 3.29 ERA; ERA+ 136; 100 CG; 37 SHO; 4,131 IP; 7.3 H/9; 4,869 K/ 1,497 BB; K/BB ratio 3.25; 1.17 WHIP)

(At the time of this writing, (7/16/09), Randy Johnson is on the disabled list.  He has been pitching this year for the San Francisco Giants with mixed results.)

Randy Johnson was a product of the Montreal Expo farm system.  He first saw major league action in ’88.  After a slow start the following season, the Seattle Mariners snagged him.  He spent the next nine-plus seasons with the Mariners, winning his first Cy Young award in ’95 and leading the league in strikeouts four consecutive years.

"The Big Unit" had his best years after landing in Arizona, ’99 – ’02, winning the Cy Young award each year.  His peak over those four seasons ranks in the top ten all-time, and includes leading the National league in ERA+ four times, ERA and CG three times, IP twice, and wins and WHIP once.

His ability to strikeout batters is among the most impressive ever.  From ’98 – ’02 Randy Johnson struck out over 300 batters each year.  This five year stretch is a major league record.

Johnson stands 6’ 10”, the second tallest major league player ever.  With long hair and a demeanor with a no frills mean streak, Johnson struck a more than intimidating figure on the mound.  His 189 hit batters are a good deal more than the second place pitcher in the live ball era! 

His fastball often topped 100 mph, and his slider, which he calls “Mr. Snappy,” dives down toward the right-handed batter’s back foot, and arrives in the low 90s.

In 2001, he helped lead the Diamondbacks to the World Series where they faced the Yankees.  Between the league championship series against the Braves and World Series, Johnson went 5 – 0 with two complete games, 38 Ks in 33 innings and successive ERAs of 1.12 and 1.04. 

His relief stint in the 7th game of the World Series is legendary, allowing his team to tie and eventually win the series in the bottom of the 9th inning.  He was named the MVP of the series.

His five Cy Young awards are second-most in baseball.  He won his 300th game earlier this year.

Randy Johnson has a plaque waiting for him in the HOF.

 

1)  Warren Spahn — (363–245; 3.09 ERA; ERA+ 118; 382 CG; 63 SHO; 5,243 IP; 8.3 H/9; 2,583 K/ 1,434 BB; K/BB ratio 1.80; 1.195 WHIP)

Spahn first saw major league action in ’42 for the Boston Braves for only four games.  He fought in WWII with an exemplary record.  He rejoined the Braves in ’46 and his career took off from there!

In 1947, he won 20 games for the first of 13 times!  His league leading categories start in ’47 (ERA, shutouts, IP, ERA+, and WHIP), and continue all the way though ’63 (complete games — and 23 wins to boot!).  He led the league in wins five consecutive years (’57–’61) and in complete games during seven season in a row (’57–’63).

Spahn featured an assortment of pitches, later relying more on a screwball,  but he said he needed only two—“the one the batter’s looking for, and the one I’m going to throw."  His plan was to out-think the hitter.

He had a high leg kick which he used to conceal his move to first base. 

His 35 home runs as a batter are one of the highest totals for a pitcher.

Spahn was instrumental in reaching the World Series three times—’48, ’57 and ’58.  His team won once, beating the Yankees in ’57.  His record in the series is 4–3 with an ERA of 3.05 and a sparkling 1.07 WHIP.

In 1963 at age 42 he hooked up against the Giants and Juan Marichal in one of the most epic pitching duels in history.  After 14 innings with the score tied 0–0, the Giant manager, Alvin Dark, went to the mound to check on his pitcher.  Juan refused to come out of the game, noting that his opponent was 42 years old—he was 25—he couldn’t come out!  (Perhaps this was a little machismo from the Latin ace!)

The Giants eventually won the game in the 16th inning with a home run from Willie Mays.  After the game, Carl Hubbell, who had been in attendance, stated Warren Spahn should donate his body to science!

Spahn’s 363 wins are the most ever by a left-hander, and the most wins in the live ball era since 1921.  His 63 shutouts are also the most in the live ball era by any pitcher.  His 2,583 strikeouts were 3rd all-time when he retired.

Warren Spahn was inducted into the HOF in 1973.

These left-handed pitching greats have left us a legacy.  One which is worth knowing!

 

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