If you ask any baseball fan who the greatest starting pitcher in baseball history was, you'll get several answers—Cy Young, Nolan Ryan, Christy Mathewson among many others. However, to me, the answer comes down to two players—Walter Johnson and Pedro Martinez.
Why those two? Basically, they were the most dominant pitchers of their time and if you look at the stat lines of other starting pitchers like Greg Maddux, Lefty Grove etc, they are far behind Pedro and Walter in almost every category or they have glaring weaknesses.
An example of a weakness is Nolan Ryan's control. Even though he had a lot of strikeouts, he also gave up a lot of walks and thus has a higher WHIP than the other great pitchers in baseball history. To me, the best starting pitchers need to be great in all key pitching areas—runs allowed, base runners allowed, power and control. It's in these areas where Pedro Martinez and Walter Johnson set themselves apart from every other starting pitcher in history.
How do we decide who was greater? There is only one way to do this correctly. First, you have to compare each player's statistics. Then, you have to figure out how the era each player played in affected those stats and finally, you have to decipher what the statistics actually mean.
A cursory look at their player pages on Baseball-Reference reveals the following.
2 MVPs (and 2 other top-5 finishes) One American League Pitching Triple Crown, two MLB Pitching Triple Crowns, 417 Wins, .599 Win percentage, 666 Games Started, 531 Complete Games, 110 Shutouts, 5914.2 Innings Pitched, 2.17 ERA, 147 ERA+, 1.061 WHIP, 3509 Ks, 1363 BBs, 2.57 K/BB Ratio and 5.3 K/9 Ratio.
Three Cy Youngs (and 4 other top-5 finishes), two top-5 MVP finishes, one AL Pitching Triple Crown, 219 Wins, .687 Win %, 409 Games Started, 46 Complete Games, 17 Shutouts, 2827.1 Innings Pitched, 2.93 ERA, 154 ERA+, 1.054 WHIP, 3154 Ks, 760 BBs, 4.15 K/ BB Ratio, 10.0 K/9 and an eight time All-Star.
If you quickly compare their stats, you'll see that Johnson has the advantage in MLB Pitching Triple Crowns, Wins, Games Started, Complete Games, Shutouts, Innings Pitched, ERA and Ks. You'll also see that Martinez has the advantage in Win percentage, ERA+, WHIP, BBs, K/BB Ratio and K/9 Ratio.
If you notice, I didn't mention Cy Youngs, MVPs and All-Star games. Those awards didn't exist during Johnson's time (the Cy Young and All-Star game) or they were handled differently in Martinez' time (MVP for a pitcher isn't the same anymore due to the Cy Young award).
In the 14 categories listed, Walter Johnson has the edge in eight and Pedro Martinez has the edge in six. If you stopped right here and didn't investigate further, you would deem Johnson the best pitcher of all-time. However, that wouldn't be right—you need to delve deeper than just a cursory look.
A knowledge of baseball history comes in handy for knowing how each era they played in affected their stats. During Walter Johnson's time, starting pitchers were used more often and left in games longer than they were during Martinez' time resulting in more games started and more complete games for pitchers. Does this mean we can just throw out Johnson's advantage in games started, complete games, shutouts and innings pitched?
For the most part, yes we can because Pedro didn't really have much say in how many games he started or how long he stayed in the game. Doing this, gets rid of three categories (complete games, games started and innings pitched) that Johnson had the edge in over Pedro and now takes the tally to 6-5 in Pedro's favor.
Now we begin a deeper look into the stats and what they actually mean—this is when we begin to truly understand who was the better pitcher.
Let's start with Wins and Win percentage. If you look back at the 2010 Cy Young voting, you'll remember that Felix Hernandez won the Cy Young Award with "only" 13 wins. What this finally shows is people are starting to realize what many of us have understood for years—wins for a pitcher are almost completely out of the pitcher's control. It relies heavily on run support and, in today's game, having a bullpen that is able to keep a lead.
So while Johnson's 417 Wins is a huge number and Pedro's .687 Win percentage is outstanding, they are not indicative of whether they were great pitchers or not. They were on great teams that ensured they had leads when they left the game and were able to maintain those leads.
So, we can remove those stats, bringing the tally to 5-4 in Pedro's favor (ERA+, WHIP, BBs, K/BB ratio and K/9 for Pedro and Shutouts, ERA, Ks and MLB Pitching Triple Crowns for Walter).
Let's take a closer look at shutouts. Walter Johnson has the all-time record for shutouts with 110. This is extremely impressive and is the goal of any pitcher—don't let the opposing team score.
There are two ways to consider shutouts. You can either take the number at face value or you can account for how pitchers were used changed between then and now. I choose the latter method because it accounts for the games that Pedro got pulled in the ninth inning of a one run game so the closer could come in.
How do I account for this? It's rather simple. I simply figure out what the pitcher's shutout percentage was and out of all their complete games, what percentage resulted in a shutout?
After doing the math, it is revealed that Walter Johnson pitched a shutout in 21 percent of his complete games and Pedro Martinez pitched a shutout in 37 percent of his complete games. What does this mean? When given the chance to pitch a complete game, Pedro was more likely to throw a shutout even though Walter threw more of them. In my opinion, that moves the shutout advantage to Pedro, giving him a 6-3 lead.
If we look at Major League Baseball Pitching Triple Crowns, we see that Johnson won two and Pedro didn't win any (they each won one AL Pitching Triple Crown). While the Pitching Triple Crown relies on one stat, wins, a statistic that isn't dependent on the pitcher actually pitching well, it does show how dominant the pitcher was in relation to the rest of the league in three categories (Wins, ERA and Ks). Dominance in comparison to peers is something that should be accounted for when comparing players and in this case, Walter Johnson was better than Pedro.
Now we finally get to the stats that I believe are key in determining a pitcher's greatness because they measure the areas I mentioned above—runs allowed, base runners allowed, power and control.
Let's start with the stats that measure power and control—BBs, Ks, K/BB ratio and K/9.
Strikeouts are the perfect measure of a power pitcher and walks allowed show control. In this case, Johnson and Pedro split those categories. However, the perfect pitcher would have more strikeouts while allowing fewer walks (K/BB ratio) and have more strikeouts per inning pitched (K/9). Pedro's almost 2 to 1 difference in K/BB ratio shows that for every walk he allowed, he struck out more batters than Johnson did. His almost five more strikeouts per nine innings pitched ratio, explains why even though Johnson pitched in over 3,000 more innings than Pedro, he only ended up with 355 more strikeouts.
In my opinion, the pitcher that had more strikeouts per inning (power) and had the better walk to strikeout ratio (control), gets a bigger edge than what BBs or Ks are shown by themselves. So, while the tally hasn't changed and remains 6-3 in Pedro's favor, two of Pedro's six have more "weight" assigned to them.
What stats measure a pitcher's main goals of not allowing base runners and not allowing runs? Why, ERA, ERA+ and WHIP of course.
These are the three most important stats for a pitcher in my opinion. The better a pitcher does in these areas, the better chance he gives his team to win. The worse a pitcher does in these areas, the harder his team has to work to win. Also, all the other stats such as Ks, BBs, innings pitched etc. all are accounted for in some form or fashion in these stats. If these stats are good, chances are so are the rest and vice versa.
ERA is a great stat because it shows you how many earned runs the pitcher allowed and of course the less runs allowed, the better chance the team has to win.
In this case, both pitchers are under 3.00 which is truly outstanding and the difference between the pitchers (0.76) is huge. This is where ERA+ comes into play because it shows you just how good a player's ERA actually was for their era.
Walter Johnson pitched during the "Deadball Era", so ERAs were down across the board and this explains why even though is ERA is lower than Pedro's his ERA+ is actually worse (if you consider an ERA+ of 147 worse). Pedro pitched during the "Steroid Era" where offenses were scoring tons of runs so his ERA was actually much better in comparison to his peers. Basically, having an ERA just under 3 in the Steroid Era is very impressive and this accounts for his better ERA+. As with K/BB ratio and K/9, they split the stats but Pedro's victory in ERA+ carries more weight.
Finally we get to what I believe is the first stat you should look at when comparing players; WHIP. Why WHIP? Well, if you don't allow base runners, you won't allow many runs and this is what WHIP shows. In this case, both pitchers have outstanding WHIPs with Pedro having a slight edge. However, if you look at the league average WHIP during each player's career, you'll see that during Johnson's career from 1907-1927, the average WHIP was 1.325 and during Pedro's career from 1992-2009, the average WHIP was 1.423.
What this tells us is during Johnson's time, WHIPs were lower for all pitchers (the Deadball Era) and during Pedro's WHIPs were higher (Steroid Era). Pedro's WHIP was better than Johnson's not only because it was lower as a stat by itself but also because it was much better in comparison to the other pitcher's during there time (think of it as WHIP+).
So, what does all this mean? If you look just at straight stats, Pedro wins in six categories and Johnson wins in three. However, by delving deeper we also saw that Pedro had significant advantages in ERA+, WHIP, K/BB ratio and K/9. the most important stats in showing just how great a pitcher was.
When I initially started breaking down who the greatest players of all-time were several years ago for Informative Sports.com and then the Sports Nickel.com, I always thought Walter Johnson was the greatest pitcher ever. However, when Pedro finally "retired", I was able to take a look at his career and was truly amazed at just how completely dominant he was in comparison to other pitchers of his era. Not only did his career stack up well compared to the great pitchers in baseball history, he actually blew them all away and is the greatest starting pitcher of all-time.
What do you think? Do you agree? Do you want to make a case for someone else? Please leave a comment with your thoughts. Also, if you liked this breakdown and want to see me compare other players, please suggest them—players at the same position work best, but I'll compare any position to any position if needed (except pitchers of course, they can only be compared to each other).