Ranking the Top Pitchers of the Modern Era
This article is really the culmination of a series of studies looking at each era of the game and aspects of what makes a pitcher great.
I endeavored to find the best pitchers from the Modern Dead-ball Era (1901–1921), the initial Live-ball Era (1921–1945), the Golden Years and the Raised Mound Era (1946– 1968), the Post-Raised Mound and Divisional Era (1969–1991), and the Wild Card, or Steroid, Era (1992 – 2009).
On the way, I discovered many of the salient characteristics of what pitching was about in each era. Different eras emphasized different aspects of pitching greatness.
In addition, in order to gain a complete perspective, great individual seasons and peaks of dominance were studied and acknowledged.
I studied pitching and the great pitchers from the pre-modern era as well as identifying and ranking the great left-handed pitchers in the game.
What makes a pitcher great?
This is the question that must be answered in order to rank pitchers from across over 100 years of pitching history.
I broke my assessments of pitching greatness into three essential categories: Dominance, Endurance, and Excellence or Quality. The greatest pitching careers display some combination of these ingredients that makes them stand out from pitchers of their own era and across eras.
Dominance conjures up visions of Nolan Ryan’s seven no-hitters, Sandy Koufax’s pitching over the last four years of his career, or Bob Gibson’s performance in the ’67 series and his 1.12 ERA in the ’68 season. Baseball writers and fans have been drawn to displays of pitching dominance throughout the history of the game!
Dominance can be expressed in relation to one’s competition. This is exemplified by wins, ERA+, and League Leading Categories (LLCs). Most often we see dominance during a peak in a pitcher’s career. This is a naturally occurring period of three to four years when a pitcher is at their absolute best.
Dominance can also be expressed by dominating the individual match-ups that occur along the way to a great career. This type of dominance we see in strikeouts, shutouts, and command of the strike zone over the batter, expressed by the strikeout- to-walk ratio. (K/BBr).
The Win - Traditionally, wins have been the No. 1 measuring stick for pitching greatness. On the positive side, large numbers of career wins suggest some sustained success by the pitcher, and perhaps a good team behind him. It means the pitcher and his team were good at getting to the fifth inning or beyond ahead of their opponents. So this pitcher probably has some good game skills, can escape jams, and has a competitive nature.
Focusing on career wins, one gets an overall feel for the career success of the pitcher at his best.
But there are drawbacks to focusing on wins as a primary measuring stick to pitching greatness.
The win itself has a nebulous meaning. It means your opponent scored less than your team, you pitched at least five innings, and no subsequent pitcher for your team allowed the opposition to tie the score or relinquish the lead, (even if you eventually won the game).
So much is out of the pitcher’s control! The win is subject to your run support, the whims of your manager, and the quality of the pitching that follows your efforts.
One win does not equal the quality of another. It is an inexact science when measuring pitching greatness.
So it becomes imperative to look past the win to gain a more exact and complete look at a pitcher’s body of work.
The Peak – Great pitchers often display a peak level of performance when they are at their very best. This usually occurs after a few learning years, but still in the first half of a pitcher’s career. Pitching dominance is usually expressed by the peak over a course of three to five years. These years identify the nature of a pitcher’s greatness.
The following is a link to a study on the greatest pitching peaks of the modern era. http://bleacherreport.com/articles/213490-peak-performance-the-top-20-pitching-peaks-of-the-modern-era
The dominance of a peak can be checked by seeing how often a pitcher finished in the top in important pitching categories. (Baeballreference.com lists LLCs with bold type on a pitcher’s career record. They also list top ten finishes in categories farther down the player page.)
The Strikeout – a pitcher’s dominance over individual batters is expressed best by the strikeout. The strikeout represents a complete failure by the batter. He was unable to put the ball in play, and no runners advanced.
The meaning of a strikeout has changed through the eras.
From 1901–1963, strikeouts were the by-product of effective pitching. The greatest strikeout totals were held by great pitchers:
1) Walter Johnson – 3508
2) Warren Spahn – 2583
3) Bob Feller - 2581
4) Christy Mathewson - 2502
5) Robin Roberts - 2357
6) Early Wynn - 2354
7) Rube Waddell - 2316
8) Lefty Grove - 2266
9) Eddie Plank - 2246
10) Grover Alexander - 2198
There were no flukes who made this list!
The raised mound brought the strikeout into prominence. Seasonal strikeout totals soared. The single season mark, held for 61 years by Rube Waddell (349 in ’04), fell in ’65 to Sandy Koufax (382). “Sudden Sam" McDowell pumped out 1652 strikeouts in six years – more than any pitcher had totaled for the entire decade of the 50s. (Early Wynn led the decade with 1544).
By the end of the raised mound era, the significance of the strikeout had changed. It was now viewed as an important expression of pitching excellence. It had become a goal to strive after of itself.
Walter Johnson’s mark of 3508 Ks had stood since the late 20s. Nobody else had approached this career total. Bob Gibson broke the 3000K plateau in 1974. In the next 10 years, Gaylord Perry, Steve Carlton, Nolan Ryan and Tom Seaver were to follow.
Today, we are two generations removed from Bob Gibson’s feat. There are 16 pitchers with over 3000K. This is quickly becoming a pitching milestone, like 300 wins.
ERA+ - is a stat that has been developed to show how a pitcher performed in allowing earned runs in relation to the league average. There is also an adjustment for the park(s) in which a pitcher performed. A high ERA+ is an expression of dominance by showing how much better a pitcher performed than the average of the league.
Some of the greatest single season marks for ERA+ start at +160 or so and go up from there. Pedro Martinez’ mark of +291 in the 2000 season set a record for ERA+.
I will discuss career ERA+ as a quality stat further on in this study.
The Shutout – No other single pitching accomplishment exemplifies mastery and dominance like the shutout.
From 1901–1985 or 1990 the shutout was an important part of the pitching landscape. It perhaps gets overlooked historically because you don’t see the totals so much on a yearly basis. Some of the greatest single-season totals were tallied by Grover Alexander in 1916 (16), Bob Feller in ’46 (10), and Bob Gibson in ’68 (13)!
Just like a single shutout is not a fluke, but an expression of pitching excellence and endurance, so the career shutout list contains no flukes. It is virtually a Who’s Who of the most dominant pitchers in history.
1) Walter Johnson 110
2) Grover Alexander 90
3) Christy Mathewson 79
4) Cy Young* 76
5) Eddie Plank 69
6) Warren Spahn 63
7) Nolan Ryan 61
8) Tom Seaver 61
9) Bert Blyleven 60
10) Don Sutton 58
11) James Galvin* 57
12) Ed Walsh 57
13) Bob Gibson 56
14) Mordecai Brown 55
15) Steve Carlton 55
16) Jim Palmer 53
17) Gaylord Perry 53
18) Juan Marichal 52
19) Rube Waddell 50
20) Vic Willis 50
21) Don Drysdale 49
22) Ferguson Jenkins 49
23) Luis Tiant 49
24) Early Wynn 49
* These pitchers were part of the pre-modern era.
Just as the shutout is the single greatest expression of pitching dominance, so the career shutout total is the single greatest expression of career greatness.
Shutouts were somewhat easier to come by in the dead-ball era. There was less scoring. Another era of suppressed scoring is the raised mound era.
Endurance itself is an expression of dominance. It is expressed by the ability to win battle after battle with opposing hitters. A complete game is the ability to win 27 individual battles without giving up significant scoring damage by the other team. It is based on the mental resolve to win each battle as you go along.
Endurance is this ability to win individual and opponent match-ups game after game and season after season. It is an expression of pitching success.
Career stats that show endurance are found in the complete game (CG), total innings pitched (IP), the shutout (SHO), and to a lesser degree, the win (W).
Throughout baseball history, many of the greatest pitchers have had great endurance. The best were able not just to show this quality at their peak, but also bring it with prominence late into their careers.
The Complete Game – Today the complete game is certainly more the aberration than the norm. Relief specialists take over in the sixth-eighth innings. The starter is truly no longer responsible for finishing the game.
This was not always the case! In the pre-modern era, it was embarrassing not to finish a game you started. The starting pitcher was called on to start 45 – 60 games. For example, John Clarkson, one of the greats of the era, started 518 games and completed 485!
In the dead-ball era, 1901 – 1921, the starting pitcher was still expected to finish the game. The greats of the era completed the vast majority of their games. Ed Walsh completed 250 of 315 games started, and Eddie Plank completed 410 of 529 games he started.
After the live ball era began in 1921, pitchers were forced to pitch with more intensity from the beginning of the game. Many arms burned out trying to keep up with the increased scoring. Pitchers didn’t always make it to the end of the game. Sometimes other starters were brought in to finish up games.
Lefty Grove picked up 55 saves finishing games for others. (The development of the relief pitcher will have to be saved for another article!)
As the Golden Years moved into the raised mound era, teams were developing relief specialists. By the end of the era, most teams employed a pitcher who specialized in finishing games.
Beginning around 1970, pitchers were expected to pitch at their top level of effort throughout a game. The complete game became more an expression of option by the manager, rather than an expectation. So the complete game for the next generation was an expression of dominance by the pitchers with the greatest endurance.
Total Innings – the total number of innings a pitcher throws represents how many outs that pitcher generated throughout their career. In a way, it is a record of how many individual battles a pitcher won.
Throughout baseball history there were only 27 pitchers who reached what I label as an “epic” career of 4500 innings. 39 pitchers made it to 4000 innings. Seventy pitchers made it to 3500 innings pitched, and 129 have pitched 3000 innings or more.
In judging across eras, I have used this number of 3000 innings to establish an expected level of endurance for a pitcher to be ranked in the very top echelons of the game.
The long career – It is my firm belief that there should be some natural respect for the pitcher that has won so many individual battles as to have made it to 4500 innings. No pitcher hangs around too long if they can’t get the job done. On a pitcher’s career chart, you can notice decline setting in when you see reduced numbers of innings, higher ERAs, a higher WHIP, and more hits than innings pitched.
This is common to see at the end of a great career. Only if a pitcher tries to stretch this period out for more than two or three years should they be accused of hanging on too long.
There are some pitchers of note who never made it to 3000 innings. The very best of these made it into the top 30.
These factors of endurance are one aspect of pitching greatness.
Quality Stats or Excellence –
While the tell-tale signs of decline show up in ERA, ERA+, K/BB, H/9, and WHIP (walks plus hits divided by innings pitched), high quality pitching also shows itself in these same stats.
Earned Run Average – This is the number of earned runs a pitcher averages for every nine innings pitched. Historically, the best ERAs have varied somewhat from era to era.
The dead-ball era produced ERAs from 2.00 to 2.50 as the top marks for the best careers.
The live-ball era, beginning in 1921, witnessed a rise in scoring production, and the best ERAs were around 3.00.
This level stayed until the raised mound era pushed the mean ERA down about .50/ run per game.
Since 1969, when the mound was lowered and the strike zone made smaller, the best career ERAs have shown a range of 2.90 – 3.40.
ERA+ - ERA+ shows the percentage of variance a pitcher demonstrates from the league average - the average being 100. It allows also for the park(s) in which a pitcher performed.
A pitcher with an ERA+ of 125 allowed ¼ fewer runs than the league average. This would be a very good season. If the league average ERA was 4.00, this pitcher’s ERA would be 3.00.
It is a tool that is designed to help judge pitching effectiveness across eras. It is a very helpful tool in this regard. It is best used comparing individual seasons, or careers of similar length.
There are a couple of periods of time that make the ERA+ stat a little hyper-sensitive as well.
As a tool for ranking pitchers’ careers across eras, it has its limitations. ERA+ is sensitive to longevity.
The marks for excellence in ERA+ for a shorter career (<3000 IP) are from +125 and up.
For an epic career of 4500+ innings, sustained excellence is accompanied by an ERA+ of +113 or better.
H/9 – The number of hits allowed for every nine innings pitched is another indication of the quality of pitching. Historically, allowing fewer than a hit per inning pitched is good work. The greatest single seasons are marked by displays of dominance in this category.
In 1913 Walter Johnson allowed only 232 hits in 346 innings for a ratio of 6.0. In 1910, Ed Walsh allowed 242 hits in 369 innings for a 5.9 H/9 ratio. In 2000 Pedro Martinez allowed only 128 hits in 217 innings for an incredible ratio of 5.3.
The initial live-ball era (1921 – 1945) pitchers had a tough go with this stat. The best pitchers for H/9 in the era were Lefty Gomez’ 8.2, and Dazzy Vance’ 8.5 ratios for their careers.
Like ERA+, this stat is somewhat sensitive to longevity. The great short careers demonstrate a marked difference from the 9.0 H/9 standard. The great long careers maintain a rate under 9 for the career.
There is some variance here for the style of pitching. Control artists tend to give up a few more hits per nine innings over the career, but fewer walks.
WHIP –This concept of measuring how many base-runners a pitcher allows per inning is known as WHIP. This stands for walks plus hits divided by innings pitched.
This is a stat especially important for the control pitcher. It is much less sensitive to longevity, because allowing more than 1.350 runners per inning is leading to trouble in any season, era or part of a pitcher’s career!
Historically, the great careers line up like this: <3000 IP, 1.10; 3000 - 4000 innings, 1.15; and over 4000 IP, 1.20.
When judging the relative merits of great careers, WHIPs of 1.20 – 1.30 should be accompanied by another stat, like a high strikeout rate, or high win totals. (There are no pitchers on this list in the top 20 with a career WHIP over 1.300.)
K/BB ratio – This is a naturally occurring stat demonstrating dominance of the strike zone. Does the pitcher’s stuff and command give them the upper hand in the strike zone, or does the batter rule this area? It is also a stat of pitching quality.
Historically, only great pitchers have had the highest K/BB ratios.
In the dead-ball era, Christy Mathewson (2.96) and Rube Waddell (2.88) led the way.
The best of the live-ball era were Dazzy Vance (2.43) and Carl Hubbell (2.31).
The great command pitcher of the Golden Years is Robin Roberts (2.61).
The raised mound era broke the mold, pushing career rates higher. Not surprisingly, the best were Juan Marichal (3.25), and Sandy Koufax (2.93).
After that six-year aberration from normal rates, the next generation produced Ferguson Jenkins’ 3.09 ratio and Bert Blyleven’s 2.80.
From around 1985 and after, managers and pitching coaches abandoned the complete game as a normal game progression. Relief specialists began making their mark on the latter innings of games.
Pitchers were allowed to go all out from the beginning of the game, knowing they would be bailed out when they ran out of gas.
During this time we begin to see ratios breaking the standard norms set. Both K/BB and K/9 ratios were boosted by these pitching practices.
Another factor affecting these ratios is the prevalent use of PEDs during our most recent era. I have avoided ranking pitchers implicated with PED use. I expect more names to eventually be revealed.
HGH, currently undetectable by testing, enables the body to repair tissue damage more quickly. This is especially helpful for the pitcher between starts. He is able to pitch at a higher level, with greater strength in all of the supporting muscles for the pitching motion, creating greater torque.
Greater torque equals greater stuff, equals greater K/BB ratios and K/9 ratios.
We may never know the full breadth of PED use by pitchers from our era.
Therefore, the ratios established by the pitchers of our most recent era should be understood in the context in which they were accomplished.
Outside of the raised mound era and the most recent era, the norms for excellence in K/BB range around 2.00. Eddie Plank (2.10), Lefty Grove (1.91), and Warren Spahn (1.80) illustrate this range of excellence.
K/BB is mildly sensitive to longevity. Pitchers lose their “stuff" at different points in their careers. An epic career with an historically high K/BB mark is especially impressive. (Walter Johnson – 5914 IP and a 2.57 K/BB ratio, Greg Maddux – 5008 IP and a 3.37 K/BB ratio and Bert Blyleven – 4970 IP and a 2.80 K/BB are examples of this).
Historical Perspective –
Each aspect of measuring a pitcher’s career went through changes from era to era. It is important to understand these in order to accurately approach ranking careers over the course of 100+ years.
Here’s a quick review to get the feel for the flow of pitching from era to era:
1901-1921 – The Dead-Ball Era – Run production was low. Strikeouts were a by-product of effective pitching, not a goal to strive for. Complete games were expected. Shutouts were more common than other eras, but a significant symbol of pitching dominance.
1921-1945 – The Initial Live-Ball Era – Numbers of home runs and run production soared. Only the power pitchers excelled until Hubbell. H/9 ratios were high. The pitching level was relatively low, yielding high league average ERAs.
Shutouts were harder to come by. Red Ruffing (45) and Carl Hubbell (37) led the era.
Many pitchers blew out their arms early in their careers – Dizzy Dean and Lefty Gomez.
There were no epic careers from this period due to difficulty of pitching, level of talent, and the interruption of WWII.
1946-1962 – The Golden Years – The theme was to find a way to win. Pitchers knew how to “pitch”. They tried to out-think the hitter, and disrupt his timing. They saved their greatest effort for crucial game situations.
The shutout was again a symbol of dominance and endurance, if not as prevalent as during the dead-ball era.
The strikeout, (after Bob Feller blew out his arm striking out 348 batters in ’46), was again the by-product of effective pitching. The best pitchers of the era, Warren Spahn and Bob Feller, finished third and fourth on the all-time list at the time of their retirement, but never approached 3000K.
1963-1968 – the Raised Mound Era – the mound was raised from 10” to 15” and the strike zone was enlarged to stem a perceived offensive dominance. The result was an era of pitching dominance unseen before or since in the game.
Strikeout totals soared. ERAs plummeted. K/BB ratios reached new historic high marks.
Pitching records were skewed by the rule changes. New levels of pitching dominance were realized. Even after the rule changes were reversed, the expectation for these levels of dominance was passed on to the next generation.
1969-1991 – Post-Raised Mound, Divisional Era – The mound was lowered to 10”, and the strike zone was made smaller. (It seemed like anything over the belt was a ball.)
Pitchers were expected to perform at raised mound levels of dominance without the advantages. This was the era of all-around excellence. Pitchers broke the 3000K barrier, won 300 games, completed lots of games, threw plenty of shutouts, posted low ERAs, and established high levels of quality.
The use of a closer became standard for every team, but trusted pitchers were allowed to finish well-pitched games.
1992 – Present – The Wild Card (and Steroid) Era – Baseball expansion brought the number of major league starters up to over 150, supplying four new teams.
Use of relief specialists, set up relievers, and closers allowed starters to pitch at their peak levels for an average of five to seven innings. he complete game and the shutout completed by the starter became unexpected. Only the very best pitchers racked up decent totals.
Performance Enhancing Drug use was prevalent. Players looked to take advantage of physical training developments and aids, not realizing how it would affect the game and the established records. Some pitchers and hitters gained advantage.
Without the complete game to measure endurance, we have to look at total innings and a career of consistent winning totals (Greg Maddux) to establish levels of excellence.
Historic perspective of ERA+
In addition, baseball has been a product of its own rule changes and growth, and has responded to social, economic and world events.
There are three periods of time when the standard level of pitching for the league was depressed, allowing a greater variance from the league norm by the quality pitchers during those periods.
This would produce ERA+ marks slightly higher than at other times during the history of the game.
The first of these periods came before the modern era, but illustrates clearly how this phenomenon occurs.
In 1890, the players, tired of the abuse they perceived from the owners, started a league of their own. They left their NL teams, and pitched for newly formed player’s league teams. Most of the best pitchers went to the player’s league.
This naturally left a dearth of pitching for the teams in the National League. They were forced to hire new, and often inferior pitchers to fill out the vacated positions.
Some pitchers returned to their teams after the player's league folded the next year. Some did not.
In 1892 “the Hoosier Thunderbolt”, Amos Rusie, one of the new pitchers hired in 1890, threw and hit a HOF shortstop, Hugh Jennings, leaving him comatose for 4 days. He gradually recovered, but baseball owners changed the distance from which one pitched from 55’ to 60‘ 6”.
This rule change effectively ended the careers of almost all of the top pitchers from the previous era. The talent pool was devastated, and pitching was forced to start over.
The league scoring rose dramatically. ERAs skyrocketed, and consequently, ERA+ marks for the best pitchers rose as well. Cy Young, Kid Nichols and Amos Rusie were pitchers hired in 1890 whose ERA+ marks were the beneficiaries of this era.
The second period of a depressed talent pool was the 20s and 30s. World War I had an effect, as did the depression, creating greater stress on people’s lives.
During this time MLB rejected the possibility of allowing black players to join the major leagues, further limiting the player pool.
Baseball had not completely recovered when soldiers went off to WWII.
Pitchers were further stressed by the effects of the live ball. League scoring averages reached new highs during this time, aided by a depleted pool of pitching talent.
Quality pitching was able to reach a somewhat elevated variance from the league norms.
The third period witnessing a depleted pool of talent is the one we are just emerging from. The 1990s witnessed two successive stages of expansion. The Florida Marlins, Colorado Rockies, Arizona Diamondbacks, and the Tampa Bay Rays were added to the major league total, making 30 teams.
Suddenly, 150+ starting pitchers were required to fill the rosters. Before 1960, this total was barely 64! League scoring rose accordingly, and quality pitching was able to maintain a relatively higher variance from the league average ERA.
I believe this most recent depletion of the talent pool is correcting itself.
(Conversely, the highest levels of pitching took place from 1904–1917, and 1965–1980 or so. The 1980s were a small step back in the level of pitching.)
In conclusion, the elevated ERA+ figures from these eras need to be understood in the context from which they were achieved. They still represent great quality pitching, but need to be somewhat tempered when comparing them to figures outside of their eras.
Post-Season pitching - For each pitcher, I included a look at their post-season record. This was not to discount pitchers with limited post-season opportunities, but mostly to see who brought their game to a new level when it counted most. It adds an interesting perspective to pitcher’s careers.
In order to develop a system for ranking pitchers across eras, I believe you first have to gain a clear picture of what makes a great pitching career. You have to examine each aspect of dominance, endurance, and quality in a comprehensive manner, giving each category its due.
Pitching accomplishments need to be understood in the context of historical perspective.
Ultimately, assigning values to each category of accomplishment is subjective. How do you value Christy Mathewson’s 2503 Ks in the dead-ball era compared to Tom Seaver’s 3640? These tough questions are endless, and suggest there will never be one definitive ranking of these great careers.
My guiding light has been sustained excellence. I acknowledge every aspect of pitching discussed, but look especially for that pitcher who can bring good quality productive work well into the second decade of their career.
I would like to present two examples: At age 37 in ’24, Walter Johnson led the AL in wins, ERA, ERA+, games started, shutouts, strikeouts, WHIP, H/9 ratio, and K/BB ratio!
At age 40 in ’61, Warren Spahn led the NL in wins, complete games, shutouts, and WHIP!
Awards and accolades such as Cy Young awards, TSN pitcher of the year awards, MVP awards, all-star appearances, and HOF inductions were excluded from consideration and not a factor in the assessments and rankings.
Although not every pitcher on this list is equal, they are the greatest starting pitchers of the modern era. I endeavor to appreciate and admire each of these pitchers for their accomplishments and unique contributions to pitching greatness.
To Be Continued: Part Two: The Greatest Pitching Careers of the Modern Era