The 5 Best Pitchers in Every Baseball "Era"

Robert Knapel@@RobertKnapel_BRCorrespondent ISeptember 7, 2011

The 5 Best Pitchers in Every Baseball "Era"

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    Debating about the best pitchers in baseball history is a difficult task because the game has changed so much between its different eras. However, it is very easy to compare pitchers who played during the same time period.

    Some of the best pitchers in the game all were in the majors at the same time. This means that fans have gotten to see Walter Johnson face Cy Young and Pedro Martinez go toe-to-toe with Roger Clemens.

    Keep in mind that a number of the players on this list had their careers overlap two eras.


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    The game of baseball was continually evolving before 1900. Rules were changing and the distance from the mound to the plate was being shifted. However, that did not stop a number of pitchers from dominating their early era counterparts. 

    Some of the most impressive numbers in baseball history actually come from this era as pitchers were on the mound for almost every one of their team’s games.

    Photo Credit: 19th Century Baseball

5) Al Spalding

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    Career Stats: 252-65, 2.13 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 248 K, 132 ERA+ (7 seasons)

    These days, the name Spalding is synonymous with sporting equipment. Albert Spalding created the company with his brother. Not only was he an entrepreneur, but he was also an outstanding baseball player. 

    While 252 wins is an impressive number, it is low compared to some of the other pitchers from Spalding’s era. However, it is important to note that it took him only seven seasons, including one year where he only made four appearances, to reach this total. Spalding holds the record for highest winning percentage for a pitcher in his career.

    Photo Credit: Baseball Reference

4) Pud Galvin

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    Career Stats: 365-310, 2.85 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 1807 K, 108 ERA+, 70.5 WAR (14 seasons)

    While the debate rages on about whether or not players who have taken performance enhancing drugs should be allowed in the Hall of Fame, that did not impact the inclusion of Pud Galvin. He was the best pitcher of his generation, possibly as a result of the fact that he used the Brown-Sequard elixir.

    Galvin was a workhorse and put together back-to-back 46-win seasons during his career. He earned his nickname, Pud, because of the fact that he made hitters look like pudding when they stepped to the plate.

    Photo Credit: Baseball Reference

3) Tim Keefe

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    Career Stats: 342-225, 2.63 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 2564 K, 127 ERA+, 82.5 WAR (14 seasons)

    Tim Keefe burst onto the scene as a 23-year-old during the 1880 season. He posted a 0.86 ERA and a 295 ERA+, both of which are records that still stand today.

    Keefe continued to show his mastery throughout his time in the majors even while dealing with the fact that the rules of the game were still changing. He posted six 30-win seasons even as the league moved the mound further back.

    Photo Credit: Baseball Reference

2) Charley "Old Hoss" Radbourn

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    Career Stats: 309-194, 2.68 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 1830 K, 120 ERA+, 71.6 WAR (11 seasons)

    Charley “Old Hoss” Radbourn put together what was arguable the greatest season in the history of professional baseball in 1884. He won the National League Triple Crown by going 59-12 with a 1.38 and 441 strikeouts. His 20.3 WAR that season is the highest total every tallied in a single year.

    While Radbourn would never match that level of success again in his career, he was very impressive during his other 10 seasons in the majors. He holds the record for most wins in a single season.

    Photo Credit: Baseball Reference

1) Kid Nichols

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    Career Stats: 361-208, 2.96 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 1881 K, 140 ERA+, 102.3 WAR (15 seasons)

    Kid Nichols has the ninth most wins in MLB history and that total likely would have been higher if not for the fact that he spent two years dominating the minors after the Boston Beaneaters let him go in an effort to save money. He finally returned to the majors and posted a 21-win season in his first year back.

    Nichols led the National League in wins for three consecutive years during his career. He also posted seven 30-win seasons during his time in the major leagues.

    Photo Credit: Baseball Reference

Dead-Ball Era (1900-1919)

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    The Dead-ball Era is considered to be the beginning of the Modern Era of baseball. This time period featured some of the best pitchers that the game of baseball has ever seen. Four of the top 10 pitchers of all-time pitched during this era.

    Games were very low scoring during this era and there were few home runs hit. The elite pitchers had a lot to do with this, but there were other factors such as the ball not being replaced for as many as 100 pitches as well as the dimensions of some stadiums.

    Photo Credit: Ballparks of Baseball

5) Mordecai "Three Fingers" Brown

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    Career Stats: 239-130, 2.06 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 1375 K, 139 ERA+, 56.1 WAR (14 seasons)

    Even more impressive than Mordecai Brown's numbers is the fact that he learned to pitch with only three fingers on his hand. Brown actually used his hand as an advantage as it allowed him to put unique spin on the ball.

    Brown has the sixth lowest ERA in major league history. He is often overlooked because of the fact that he had to face some of the best pitchers in MLB history.

    Brown actually had a 13-11 record in his career against Christy Mathewson. During four different seasons in his career, Brown had 20+ wins and also led the league in saves.

    Photo Credit: Baseball Reference

4) Grover Alexander

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    Career Stats: 373-208, 2.56 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 2198 K, 136 ERA+, 104.9 WAR (20 seasons)

    Grover Alexander made a very good first impression in the majors. In his first season, Alexander won 28 games which remains as the modern-day rookie record. His fantastic numbers led him to a third place finish in the MVP voting.

    Alexander built on his success that year and continued to dominate hitters. During his career, Alexander led the NL in wins six times. He was also a four-time ERA leader and six-time strikeout king.

    Photo Credit: Baseball Reference

3) Christy Mathewson

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    Career Stats: 373-188, 2.13 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 2507 K, 136 ERA+, 87.7 WAR (17 seasons)

    Christy Mathewson was one of the first five players elected to the Hall of Fame in the Hall's inaugural class. He earned this honor by having one of the best careers in baseball history.

    Mathewson finished in the top 10 of multiple categories including wins, ERA, WHIP and shutouts. Twice in his career, 1905 and 1908, Mathewson won the NL Pitching Triple Crown. He also threw two no-hitters during his time in the majors.

    Photo Credit: Baseball Reference

2) Cy Young

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    Career Stats: 511-316, 2.63 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 2803 K, 138 ERA+, 146 WAR (22 seasons)

    Cy Young's career spanned both the pre-1900 and Dead-ball eras. His name is on the most famous award for pitchers in the majors, but he was not even the best pitcher in his era, let alone baseball history.

    Young does hold a number of the game's records. He is the all-time leader in wins, losses, innings pitched, games started and innings pitched. Young also threw a perfect game in 1904.

    Photo Credit: Baseball Reference

1) Walter Johnson

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    Career Stats: 417-279, 2.17 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 3509 K, 147 ERA+, 127.7 WAR (21 seasons)

    Walter Johnson is not only the best pitcher from the Dead-ball Era, but he is the best pitcher in the history of Major League Baseball. Johnson was dominant from the beginning of his career right up until the end of it.

    When looking through the MLB record books, Johnson's name is seen throughout. He is the all-time leader in shutouts and is second all-time in wins. He is also in the top 10 for WHIP, strikeouts, innings pitched and complete games. Johnson won two MVP awards and three AL Pitching Triple Crowns in his career.

    Photo Credit: Baseball Reference

Live-Ball Era (1920-1945)

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    The Live-Ball Era began with the emergence of power hitters such as Babe Ruth. Home runs became much more common and teams began to score more and more in their games.

    As a result, pitchers' numbers were no longer as gaudy as they once were. However, there were still a number of good pitchers who played in the Live-Ball Era.

    Photo Credit: Baseball Reference

5) Dazzy Vance

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    Career Stats: 197-140, 3.24 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 2045 K, 125 ERA+, 56.4 WAR (16 seasons)

    It is incredible that Dazzy Vance did not break into the major leagues for good until he was 31-years-old. Despite his late start, Vance still managed to be one of the best pitchers of the Live-Ball Era.

    Vance was a strikeout artist and led the National League in K's during his first seven full seasons. He also led the NL in wins twice during his career and was a three-time NL ERA leader. In 1924, Vance won the NL Pitching Triple Crown and the NL MVP Award. The following year he threw a no-hitter.

    Photo Credit: Baseball Reference

4) Lefty Gomez

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    Career Stats: 189-102, 3.34 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 1468 K, 126 ERA+, 43 WAR (14 seasons)

    Lefty Gomez was a key part of the New York Yankees' World Series teams in the 1930s. He was one of the aces of the New York Yankees' staff.

    From 1933 through 1939, Gomez was an All-Star. He also won the AL Pitching Triple Crown twice during that time period, once in 1934 and once again in 1937.

    Photo Credit: Baseball Reference

3) Dizzy Dean

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    Career Stats: 150-83, 3.02 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 1163 K, 131 ERA+, 39.6 WAR (12 seasons)

    Dizzy Dean's career was limited by injuries, but for a six-and-a-half year period, he was arguably the best pitcher in baseball. He was known for his bravado and often made predictions about his performances.

    During his career, Dean was the ace of the "Gashouse Gang." He led the NL in strikeouts four different times and led the NL in wins twice. Dean was selected to four All-Star teams and he won the NL MVP Award in 1934.

    Photo Credit: Baseball Reference

2) Carl Hubbell

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    Career Stats: 253-154, 2.98 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 1677 K, 130 ERA+, 64.4 WAR (16 seasons)

    Carl Hubbell is perhaps most well-known for his performance in the 1934 All-Star Game. Hubbell consecutively struck out Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmy Foxx, Al Simmons and Joe Cronin. Each one of these players would eventually be enshrined in Cooperstown.

    Hubbell was also incredibly impressive during the regular season as well. At one point, Hubbell won 24 consecutive decisions. Hubbell was a two-time NL MVP winner and was also selected to nine All-Star Games.

    Photo Credit: Baseball Reference

1) Lefty Grove

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    Career Stats: 300-141, 3.06 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 2266 K, 148 ERA+, 98.3 WAR (17 seasons)

    Lefty Grove managed to become a superstar on the mound in an era that was dominated by power hitters. He did with his impressive pitching abilities and he managed to win the AL MVP Award in 1931.

    Grove won the AL Pitching Triple Crown during consecutive years (1930 and 1931) with the Philadelphia Athletics. Grove would lead the AL in wins four times. He also was a nine-time ERA king and he wore the AL strikeout crown for seven consecutive years.

    Photo Credit: Baseball Reference

Integration Era (1946-1960)

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    One of the biggest problems with the MLB was the fact that some of the best baseball players in the world were not able to play in the league. Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell had to play in the Negro Leagues because the MLB would not let African-Americans play.

    However, that all changed in 1946 when Jackie Robinson became the first African-American to play in the MLB since Moses Fleetwood Walker played his last game in 1884. The game would be changed for the better once integration occurred.

    Photo Credit: Baseball Reference

5) Early Wynn

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    Career Stats: 300-244, 3.54 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, 2334 K, 107 ERA+, 39.2 WAR (23 seasons)

    Early Wynn may be one of the least recognizable names in the 300 Win Club. While Wynn had a number of good years in his career, there were also a number of years where he struggled sandwiched in between the good ones.

    He was part of the Indians pitching staff that also featured Bob Feller. Wynn had a few years where he out-shined Feller including 1954 when he won 23 games. He also won an AL Cy Young Award in 1959 and was a eight-time All-Star selection.

    Photo Credit: Baseball Reference

4) Whitey Ford

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    Career Stats: 236-106, 2.75 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 1956 K, 133 ERA+ 55.3 WAR (16 seasons)

    Whitey Ford's career numbers would be even better than they are if he did not miss two seasons early on in his career because of the Korean War. Ford worked his way up from being the number four pitcher on the New York Yankees' staff to being their ace.

    Ford appeared in 10 All-Star Games during his career. In 1961, Ford had the best season of his career. He went 25-4 with a 3.21 ERA. He won the Cy Young Award, finished fifth in the MVP voting and won the World Series MVP.

    Photo Credit: Baseball Reference

3) Robin Roberts

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    Career Stats: 286-245, 3.41 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 2357 K, 113 ERA+, 80.9 WAR (19 seasons)

    From 1952 until 1955, Robin Roberts was the best pitcher in the National League and possibly in all of the majors. He led the NL in wins each of those seasons and also twice led the NL in strikeouts during that time frame.

    Roberts was elected to All-Star Games in seven different years during his career. The Hall of Famer was a member of a Philadelphia Phillies organization, which was struggling, which is why despite his great peripherals, Roberts has a number of losses in his career.

    Photo Credit: Baseball Reference

2) Bob Feller

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    Career Stats: 266-162, 3.25 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 2581 K, 122 ERA+, 66 WAR (18 seasons)

    Bob Feller would almost certainly be a member of the 300 Win Club if his career wasn't interrupted by his four years of service during World War II. When Feller return to the majors, he quickly regained the form that he had shown before the war.

    On six different occasions during his career, Feller led the American League in wins. The ace of the Cleveland Indians' staff also led the league in strikeouts in seven different seasons. Feller was an eight-time All-Star and was known for having the hardest fastball of his era.

    Photo Credit: Baseball Reference

1) Warren Spahn

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    Career Stats: 363-245, 3.09 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 2583 K, 119 ERA+, 93.4 WAR (21 seasons)

    Just like Bob Feller, Warren Spahn missed four years of his career as a result of his service in World War II. Had Spahn not had to go to war, he could have become the third player in MLB history to reach the 400 win plateau.

    Spahn was a member of the Braves organization and dominated both when the team was in Boston as well as when it was in Milwaukee.

    He led the NL in wins eight times in his career. The 17-time All-Star also won a Cy Young Award in 1957. An award is now given out in his honor to the game's best left-handed pitcher.

Expansion Era (1961-1976)

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    Between 1961 and 1976 the MLB added seven new franchises: the Kansas City Royals, California Angels, Texas Rangers, New York Mets, Montreal Expos, Houston Astros and San Diego Padres.

    With more teams in the MLB more players were now in the majors as well. This meant that talent was more widely dispersed between the different franchises.

    Photo Credit: New York Mets History

5) Gaylord Perry

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    Career Stats: 314-265, 3.11 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 3534 K, 117 ERA+, 96.3 WAR (22 seasons)

    Gaylord Perry threw a spitball for years during his career but he was never ejected from a game for throwing the illegal pitch until his 21st season. Perry was also notorious for throwing the “puffball” before it was banned.

    During his career, Perry bounced around to eight different teams. He was a five-time All-Star and he pitched a no-hitter in 1968. Perry was the first player to win both the AL and NL Cy Young Awards.

    Photo Credit: Baseball Reference

4) Juan Marichal

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    Career Stats: 243-142, 2.89 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 2303 K, 123 ERA+, 64 WAR (16 seasons)

    Juan Marichal was not afraid to throw the high heat to intimidate opposing hitters. His tactics worked well as he was one of the best pitchers in MLB history.

    Marichal was known for his pinpoint control as well as his ability to get batters out. He won at least 25 games three times in his career and he was a 10-time All-Star. He won the All-Star Game MVP in 1965. Marichal also threw a no-hitter in 1963.

    Photo Credit: The Old Ball Game

3) Sandy Koufax

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    Career Stats: 165-87, 2.76 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 2396 K, 131 ERA+, 54.5 WAR (12 seasons) 

    Had Sandy Koufax’s career not been cut short in the middle of his prime as a result of his injuries, Koufax would likely be much higher on than this. A case can certainly be made that Koufax was the best pitcher in the majors between 1962 and 1966. 

    He won three NL Cy Young Awards in four seasons and finished in third place the only year that he did not win the award. Koufax also won the NL MVP Award in 1963.

    Koufax was a three-time NL Pitching Triple Crown winner. He also threw four no-hitters including a perfect game. Koufax was also outstanding in the playoffs and won two World Series MVP awards.

    Photo Credits: Topps

2) Bob Gibson

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    Career Stats: 251-174, 2.91 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 3117 K, 128 ERA+, 85.6 WAR (17 seasons)

    In 1968, Bob Gibson put together one of the best seasons by a pitcher in the modern era.  Gibson went 22-9 with an incredible 1.12 ERA and 0.85 WHIP. He won the Cy Young and MVP Awards that season.

    Gibson was also outstanding throughout the rest of his career. He would go on to win the Cy Young Award again two years later. Gibson was a nine-time All-Star as well as a nine-time Gold Glover. He had one of the most impressive starts in World Series history. He struck out 17 batters in a one-hitter.

    Photo Credit: Baseball's Black History

1) Tom Seaver

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    Career Stats: 311-205, 2.86 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 3640 K, 128 ERA+, 105.3 WAR (20 seasons)

    Tom Seaver earned the nickname “Tom Terrific” with his outstanding performances on the mound. He was the best pitcher in baseball during the Expansion Era and he helped turn the New York Mets around. 

    Seaver was an All-Star during his first season in the majors. He would go on to appear in 11 more All-Star Games during his career. Seaver also won the Rookie of the Year Award after his outstanding first season. He won three Cy Young Awards and pitched a no-hitter a year after the Mets traded him to the Cincinnati Reds.

    Photo Credit: Britannica

Free Agency Era (1976-1994)

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    There was limited player movement up until 1976. Players would only change teams if they were traded, sold or released. There was no free agency.

    Just before the 1976 season the players won the right to free agency. Now players would freely be able to move around the league, which created a new dynamic for the game.

    Photo Credit: Real Sports Heroes

5) Orel Hershisher

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    Career Stats: 204- 150, 3.48 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 112 ERA+, 51.5 WAR (18 seasons)

    Orel Hershiser has a slight edge over Jack Morris when it comes to this list. Hershiser is most well known for his streak of 59 consecutive scoreless innings.

    1988 was an outstanding year for Hershiser. He won the NL Cy Young Award, the NLCS MVP Award, a Gold Glove and the World Series MVP Award. Hershiser never matched his production after that but he was selected to three All-Star Games during his career.

4) Dwight Gooden

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    Career Stats: 194-112, 3.51 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 2293 K, 111 ERA+, 47.6 WAR (16 seasons) 

    Dwight Gooden quickly showed that he was worth being selected fifth overall in 1984. Just two years later, he was up in the majors at age 19 and he put together an outstanding season which won him the Rookie of the Year Award and allowed him to finish second in the NL Cy Young voting.

    The following season Gooden would put up even better numbers and he would win the Cy Young as a 20-year-old. He was also a key piece in the New York Mets’ 1986 World Championship team.  Gooden pitched well for the next few years but drug use and injuries brought Gooden’s career to a halt.

3) Bert Blyleven

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    Career Stats: 287-250, 3.31 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 3701 K, 118 ERA+, 90.1 WAR (22 seasons) 

    Bert Blyleven’s talent and performances were not truly appreciated until the advent of sabermetrics. As a result of this new way of evaluating performance, Blyeven finally was voted into the Hall of Fame.

    Blyleven lacks the awards that many other pitchers have. He was only a two-time All-Star. However, Blyleven did throw a no-hitter. He was known for his nasty curveball which caused hitters’ knees to buckle.

2) Nolan Ryan

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    Career Stats: 324-292, 3.19 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 5714 K, 112 ERA+, 84.8 WAR (27 seasons)

    Nolan Ryan was an outstanding pitcher but he is very often overrated. He is the game’s all-time leader in strikeouts and he threw an impressive seven no-hitters during his career.

    Ryan never won a Cy Young Award during his career, but he was an eight-time All-Star selection. He was also selected as a member of Major League Baseball’s All-Century Team.

1) Steve Carlton

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    Career Stats: 329-244, 3.22 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 4136 K, 115 ERA+, 84.4 WAR (24 seasons)

    Steve Carlton is the best pitcher in Philadelphia Phillies history and is one of the best pitchers of all-time. Carlton managed to win almost half of the Phillies games in 1972.

    Despite the fact that Carlton played on a number of bad teams, he ended his career with an impressive win total. His career strikeout total is the fourth highest in MLB history. Carlton won four NL Cy Young Awards during his career and was also selected to play on 10 All-Star teams.

Steroid Era (1995-Present)

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    After the players’ strike in 1994, baseball needed something to help bring the fans back. It turns out that they found it in the impressive numbers of home runs that were being hit as well as the home run race between Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire.

    Steroids had entered the game and became a major part of its culture. Yes, some players had used steroids in the late 80’s and early 90’s, but their use was much more wide spread after 1995.

5) Roy Halladay

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    Career Stats (As of 9/6/11): 185-91, 3.25 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 1909 K, 138 ERA+, 60.7 WAR (14 seasons)

    Roy Halladay is still in the middle of his career and yet he finds himself on this list because of his sheer dominance. He was the best pitcher in baseball during the last decade.

    Halladay has won both an AL and NL Cy Young Award already during his career. He has finished in the top five of the voting four other times. Halladay is an eight-time All-Star and has already thrown two no-hitters. He could move further up this list before his career is over.

4) Greg Maddux

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    Career Stats: 355-227, 3.16 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 3371 K, 132 ERA+, 96.8 WAR (23 seasons)

    What often gets lost because of the fact that he was a control wizard is the fact that Maddux was also a strikeout artist. He has over 3,000 K’s during his illustrious career.

    Maddux is also known not only for his ability to pitch but also for his ability to field the position. He won 18 Gold Gloves during his career. From 1992 to 1995, Maddux was the sole owner of the NL Cy Young Award. He also was selected for eight All-Star Games during his career.

3) Randy Johnson

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    Career Stats: 303-166, 3.29 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 4875 K, 136 ERA+, 91.8 WAR (22 seasons)

    Randy Johnson was incredibly imposing on the mound with his 6'10'' frame and his blazing fastball. Hitters often looked clueless after facing Johnson. 

    Johnson has the highest K/9 rate of any pitcher in MLB history and is second all-time in strikeouts. He is a five-time Cy Young Award winner (four NL and one AL) and a 10-time All-Star.

    Johnson has thrown a no-hitter and a perfect game. He also won the 2001 World Series MVP Award along with Curt Schilling.

2) Roger Clemens

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    Career Stats: 354-184, 3.12 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 4672 K, 143 ERA+, 128.4 WAR (24 seasons) 

    It has been brought up that Roger Clemens may have taken steroids during his career. If that is ever proven to be true, than his spot will drop on this list.

    Clemens was dominant in three different decades and won a Cy Young Award in each one. Clemens won the Cy Young Award an impressive seven times (six AL and one NL). He also won the AL MVP Award in 1986.  Clemens also appeared in 11 All-Star Games.

1) Pedro Martinez

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    Career Stats: 219-100, 2.93 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 3154 K, 154 ERA+, 75.9 WAR (18 seasons)

    There is certainly a case to be made that Pedro Martinez is the best pitcher of the Steroid Era. While his win total may not support this claim, a number of his other stats do. He has a better ERA+ than any other starting pitcher in MLB history.

    Martinez had the best season in the Modern ERA in 2000 when he went 18-6 with a 1.74 ERA and an astounding 291 ERA+. He also won the Triple Crown that season.

    From 1997 until 2003, Pedro Martinez was the best pitcher in baseball. He won three AL Cy Young Awards and went to eight All-Star Games.

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