Upon Further Review: Who’s the Greatest Pitcher Ever?
- Updated: June 27, 2012
This article was written by Alexander Herd.
Since the beginning of the “Upon Further Review” series, we’ve looked at several different aspects to the game of baseball. From first basemen who may make the Hall to the importance and significance of a closer.
In this installment, Vinny Ginardi and Greg Kaplan are going to try and do the impossible: examine the history of starting pitchers and picking the greatest of all-time. There have been more eras in baseball than one can count, from the Dead Ball Era, to the Steroid Era. So, how can two die-hard baseball fans possibly put aside their own biases and pick the best?
Let’s find out.
Greg Kaplan: I think the most important distinction that needs to be made before we delve into who was the best is the difference between Greatest Pitcher of All-Time and Most Dominant Stretch in Baseball History.
On the surface, both points seem the same. I mean, if one pitcher was dominant for a long enough period of time, shouldn’t that make him the greatest ever? Instead, I view them all as peaks and valleys. I want a pitcher who didn’t just own the game for a short period of time, but reinvented the art of pitching.
For the first six years of his career, Koufax bounced between the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers rotation and bullpen, showing brief moments of excellence and striking out a ton of hitters, but walking nearly as many. After leading the league in K/9 in 1960 with a 10.1 rate, the Dodgers decided to give Koufax a permanent rotation spot the next season, and there was no looking back for “The Left Arm of God”.
Koufax established new, albeit brief, career highs once in the rotation, winning 18 games, tossing 15 complete games, striking out 269 batters (best in the Majors), posting a 2.80 K/BB rate (best in the NL), all in 255.2 innings pitched and making his first All-Star appearance. It was only up from there for Koufax.
Koufax would make All-Star team in his next five seasons, making Major League hitters look absolutely foolish at the same time. The most important advancement Sandy made during his dominance? An increased ability to throw strikes at will. Limited to only 26 starts in 1962, Koufax managed to average a career-best 10.5 K/9, increased his K/BB ratio up to 3.79, compiled a 2.54 ERA and won 14 games. The next four seasons could possibly be some of the best pitching in the history of the game.
Before seeing some of the numbers, consider that during this four-year peak, Koufax won three Cy Youngs, an MVP, placed 2nd in MVP voting two other times, was apart of two World Championship teams, won the pitching Triple Crown (Wins/ERA/Ks) three times, threw four no-hitters, one perfect game and, well, was awesome. I mean, just look at them for yourself (*indicates MLB leader, ^indicates NL leader)
Note: ‘63, ‘65-’66 Koufax was Cy Young, 1963 was his MVP year
1964: 223.0 IP, 19-5, 1.74 ERA^, 15 CG, 7 SHO*, 223 Ks, 0.93 WHIP*, 4.21 K/BB, 6.2 H/9^
1965: 335.2 IP*, 26*-8, 2.04 ERA*, 27 CG*, 8 SHO, 382 Ks*, 0.86 WHIP*, 5.38 K/BB*, 5.8 H/9*
1966: 323.0 IP*, 27*-9, 1.73 ERA*, 27 CH*, 5 SHO*, 317 Ks*, 0.99 WHIP, 4.12 K/BB, 6.7 H/9
After the ‘66 season, Koufax had to retire due to chronic arthritis in his left elbow. He left at the absolute top of his peak, and we’re all left wondering what was left on the table because injuries cut his career short. For those reasons, nobody can really be made for him being the best of all-time. It was an incomplete career, despite three Cy Youngs and 165 wins. Nevertheless, he was a first-ballot HOFer, and deserved mention in this post.
Much like Koufax, Pedro Martinez had one of the greatest career peaks in the history of the game, but injuries derailed him later on from padding his incredible stat lines with solid-if-not-dominant seasons. Unlike Koufax, Martinez did two things a bit more difficult. The first, his peak lasted longer than the four year apex Koufax worked with. Second, Martinez did it all during the most powerful period in baseball history, the height of the Steroids Era.
Pedro made his debut with the Los Angeles Dodgers at the ripe age of 20, and was productive in his first five seasons, two in LA and the next three with Montreal. He made his first All-Star appearance in 1996, and everything about Martinez trended upwards, having won 48 games before his 25th birthday, and the 222 strikeouts in ‘96 had people believing in his star potential.
Then, 1997 happened.
On the road to winning his first of three Cy Young awards, Pedro went 17-8 with a microscopic 1.90 ERA, 305 strikeouts, 13 complete games, four shutouts, an 11.4 K/9 and a 0.93 WHIP. He effectively pitched himself out of Montreal, becoming too big of a star for the floundering Expos to hold on to. The Boston Red Sox made Montreal an offer they couldn’t refuse, and the rest is really history. After ‘97, Martinez’s peak stretched from 1997 to 2003, with the exception of an injury-plagued 2001. Here’s a view of his dominant numbers (*indicates MLB leader, ^indicates NL leader). Keep in mind that won the Cy Young in 1997, 1999 and 2000, while placing 2nd in 1998 and 2002.
1997: 241.1 IP, 17-8, 1.90 ERA*, 13 CG*, 4 SHO, 305 Ks, 0.93 WHIP*, 4.55 K/BB, 5.9 H/9*
1998: 233.2 IP, 19-7, 2.89 ERA, 3 CG, 2 SHO, 251 Ks, 1.09 WHIP, 3.75 K/BB, 7.2 H/9
1999: 213.1 IP, 23*-4, 2.07ERA*, 5 CG, 1 SHO, 313 Ks^, 0.92 WHIP*, 8.46 K/BB*, 6.8 H/9^
2000: 217.0 IP, 18-6, 1.74 ERA*, 7 CG, 4 SHO*, 284 Ks^, 0.74 WHIP*, 8.88 K/BB*, 5.3 H/9*
2002: 199.1 IP, 20-4, 2.26 ERA*, 2 CG, 0 SHO, 239 Ks^, 0.92 WHIP*, 5.98 K/BB^, 6.5 H/9*
2003: 186.2 IP, 14-4, 2.22 ERA*, 3 CG, 0 SHO, 206 Ks, 1.04 WHIP^, 4.38 K/BB, 7.1 H/9^
On the surface, those numbers don’t seem to compare to the stretch Sandy Koufax ran off at the end of his career. But, you need to keep in mind the level of competition Pedro was working against. ‘98-’02 was the height of the Steroid Era, when McGwire, Sosa, Bonds and others were bashing an insane number of balls out of ballparks at will. Yet, Martinez was continually putting together season after season in which he just ran train through his opponents.
To really drive the point home, in Pedro’s other-worldly 2000 season, he posted a WAR (Wins-Above Replacement) Value of 11.4. You need to understand just how preposterous that figure is. In Bob Gibson’s “Greatest Pitching Year Ever” (MLB-record 1.12 ERA, 22 wins, 13 shut-outs), his WAR was 11.1. He won Cy Young and MVP that year, yet, according to the metric, Pedro’s 2000 season was better!
After 2003, Pedro had good seasons by the measure of his peers, but not prime Pedro Martinez seasons. And, by 2006, his days of making 25+ starts were over because of injury, despite being only 33. For those reasons, it is very difficult to put him ahead of who I believe is the Greatest Pitcher of All-Time:
Maddux makes the cut ahead of Bob Feller (though no fault of his own, serving in World War II did take away from his overall numbers), Randy Johnson (remarkable strikeout numbers and got over the 300 win mark, but something always felt like it was missing), Walter Johnson (holds the single-season record for WAR, but the Deadball Era muddles a lot of what he did to me) and Tom Seaver (as a die-hard Mets fan, I love Tom Terrific, but he did play on some horrific ball clubs in the 70s with the Mets).
So, why Maddux? Its a combination of different factors that separated him from the pack. Maddux didn’t just dominate the era in which he pitched, but he controlled it completely. Pitching in the height of the Steroids Era, Maddux continually bedazzled hitters and won games with reckless abandoned.
From 1988-2004, Maddux won a minimum of 15 games each season, setting a Major League record for most consecutive season with 15+ wins. Thanks mostly to that consistency year in and year out, Maddux set the Modern Era record for wins as a right-handed pitcher (355). He also won an impressive four consecutive Cy Young awards from 1992-1995. Five other times in his career, Maddux finished in the Top 5 of Cy Young voting.
The Professor also won a record 18 Gold Gloves. 18! I understand that some of those awards towards the end of his career were out of respect to his masterful presence on the mound, but still. That’s a number no pitcher will ever come close to matching. Ever. Its hard enough to find a pitcher finish 18 seasons these days, let alone be the best defender on the hill at the same time.
One of my favorite Maddux stats has to be his eight seasons of posting a Wins Above Replacement (WAR) of 5.5 or better, including a career-best 9.5 in his 1995 season. For a comparison, Pedro Martinez had seven such seasons of a 5.5 or better and Sandy Koufax only had four.
Just for kicks, let’s add in some other impressive career statistics: 3,371 strikeouts, despite exceeding 200+ Ks in a year only once, a .610 winning percentage, nine years of a sub-3.00 ERA (including his 1.56 in 1994 and 1.63 in 1995). 1995 was a banner year for Maddux, actually. Going 19-2 with that 1.63 ERA, 0.81 WHIP, 7.87 K/BB and 10 complete games.
Look, Maddux may not have had a season more dominating than Pedro Martinez or Sandy Koufax. But, for me, its not about one banner season, or one strong peak. To me, in order to master the art of pitching (and yes, it is an art), it has to be a full career resume. You have to maintain the same level of fear in the mind of a hitter from your rookie season to your past-prime years. Maddux with the Cubs in the ‘80s controlled a game in a similar fashion that Maddux in the mid-00s did. There is something to be said for that. And when you consider the juiced-out-of-their-mind hitters he was facing, how can you not give Maddux the credit he deserves?
He was the greatest pitcher of all-time. I have no problem saying that.
Vinny Ginardi: Greg, I see your arguments here, but really what is our question? Is it “Who is the greatest pitcher of all time?” or is “Which pitcher had the best career?”. Those are two very different questions and it seems to me that in your selection (and arguments against Koufax and Martinez) you are valuing consistency and longevity over a stretch of dominance.
With baseball, it’s never easy to make an all-time argument. The sport spans over 100 years, which means I haven’t actually seen most of the candidates pitch, leaving me to rely heavily on statistics and stories of effectiveness. But more importantly, it means we have to factor in the era in which the player played. For example, I initially dismissed anyone who played in the Deadball Era. I couldn’t justify calling someone the best of all-time when the home run was essentially non-existent.
Similarly, I eliminated Bob Gibson as well (even though I did consider him for a while). Gibson’s 1968 season is one of the most remarkable in the history of the game. He had a 1.12 ERA, 13 shutouts, and finished with 22 wins. But what hurts his legacy is that this was known as the Year of the Pitcher. In 1968, the league batting average was .231, which is the lowest in the history of the game. While Gibson is certainly one of the game’s greatest (and his performance, along with other pitchers, in 1968 led to the mound being lowered), he only led the league in ERA once. Because of that, I have trouble listing him as the greatest ever.
In addition, pitchers linked to steroids are also eliminated from my list. Much like how I wouldn’t vote for Barry Bonds to make the Hall of Fame, I can’t list someone as the best ever if a) they disrespected the sport by taking steroids and b) had their performance enhanced chemically. So, sorry Roger Clemens, but you and your seven Cy Young awards are out of contention too.
Back to the Deadball Era. I said I initially dismissed these pitchers because it was a time period in the game when teams struggled to score runs.
But then I started looking at the numbers, specifically WAR, which factors in how successful a player was in relation to the other players during that era (which is why WAR is one of the best statistics to use to compare players across different generations.
Because of this, I’m selecting Walter Johnson, who many also believe to be the game’s best pitcher, as my greatest pitcher of all time.
Johnson recorded six separate seasons where he had a WAR of 10 or higher. To put that into perspective, Justin Verlander’s WAR last season, you know the season where he won the MVP and Cy Young and led the American League in almost every pitching category imaginable, was an 8.3. Johnson had a WAR higher than 8.3 eight times in his career. Let’s take a look at his WAR and other key statistics during his four year prime.
1912: 12.9 WAR, 303 strikeouts (led the league), 1.39 ERA (led the league)
1913: 14.3 WAR, 243 strikeouts (led the league), 1.14 ERA (led the league) (Won MVP)
1914: 11.5 WAR, 225 strikeouts (led the league), 1.72 ERA
1915: 10.8 WAR, 203 strikeouts (led the league), 1.55 ERA
This is why statistics like ERA are difficult to measure across different eras. With a 1.55 ERA, Johnson didn’t lead the league in 1915. But we can still see that with a 10.8 WAR, he was still significantly better than most of the league.
So, let’s get this straight. Walter Johnson played more than half of his career in the Deadball Era (including this four year prime), where teams struggled to score runs for a number of reasons (home run wasn’t popular, a different type of baseball, etc.) and in this era where runs were a rarity, Johnson was that much better than every other pitcher? Are you kidding me?
Looking at some of his other career accomplishments, Johnson was a two-time MVP (1913, 1924), led the league in strikeouts 12 times, led the league in WHIP and in wins six times, and led the league in ERA five times. Had the Cy Young award been around, he would have won several.
It’s also important to point out that Johnson’s second MVP season came after the Deadball Era (showing that he wasn’t just dominant because offense was anemic) and that the MVP award wasn’t given out from 1915-1921. Would he have won more MVPs? It’s certainly possible, but we will never know for sure.
What we do know is that Walter Johnson is one of the best pitchers, if not the best pitcher, to ever play the game. And always will be.
Be sure to check out other great articles at The Waiver Wire.