November 27, 2022

The Best Pitcher Ever is?

December 15, 2010 by · 3 Comments 

Who is the best pitcher of all-time?  This is a difficult question to answer due to the vast changes in the game over the past century.  For the purpose of this exercise, relief pitchers, such as Mariano Rivera, have been eliminated from contention to increase the value of innings.  Meanwhile, qualifiers must have played for a minimum of ten seasons and compiled at least two thousand innings pitched.  Longevity is a significant component in the process but simply accumulating numbers to bolster a pitching resume will not count for everything.

511 Wins

In the present era, the statistical value of wins has become less important when evaluating the overall dominance of a pitcher.  However, this numerical criterion should not be totally eliminated while determining the best pitcher of all-time.  After each season, the award presented to the most outstanding pitcher in the American and National Leagues is named after the immortal, Denton True “Cy” Young.  Unequivocally, the legendary right-hander is the greatest statistical compiler in the history of baseball.  511-wins.  It is a preposterous career win total that should not be understated.  Young collected ninety-four more wins (22.5%) than any other pitcher in history. This is the safest record in the history of organized baseball.

However, the role of the pitcher has evolved considerably over time.  Young, along with most of his contemporaries, started every third game and completed the majority of their starts.  In the present day, starting pitchers work in a five-man rotation closely monitored on strict pitch counts and rarely completes games.  In essence, the combination of less starts and complete games equals fewer victories and innings pitched for a pitcher during their career.  To illustrate, Cy Young started a record 815 games during his twenty-two year career and completed an astonishing 749 of those contests.  Over the past five years, Major League Baseball pitchers have tossed fewer complete games combined than Young hurled during his entire career.

Strikeouts are an important indicator of the overall dominance of any pitcher but they should not be overvalued when determining their place in history.  However, the ratio of strikeouts to walks (K/BB) is more valuable when rating the greatest of all-time.  This measure compares power versus precision in relation to their effectiveness on the mound.  Similarly, the modern hitter strikes out at a higher rate than a player in the early twentieth century.  As a result, the majority of career strikeout and K/BB leaders have pitched during the past three decades.

The following statistics were used to determine the best pitcher of all-time based on the career total rankings of seven pitching categories.  Adjusted ERA+, WHIP (base runners per inning), K/BB, Innings Pitched, Strikeouts, Wins, and Winning percentage.  These statistics measure controlled factors such as strikeouts and walks but also include longevity, durability, era, and ballpark effect.

Here is a sample of twenty-six pitchers in baseball history.  The group contains every 300-game winner plus two other extraordinary hurlers.  Each pitcher was assigned points according to their rank in all seven categories.  The highest possible total is 182 points (26 pitchers multiplied by 7 categories).

Walter Johnson 147 1.061 2.57 5914 3509 417 0.599 144.0
Roger Clemens 143 1.173 2.96 4917 4672 354 0.658 136.5
Cy Young 138 1.130 2.30 7356 2803 511 0.618 136.0
ChristyMathewson 136 1.058 2.96 4789 2507 373 0.665 136.0
Pedro Martinez 154 1.054 4.15 2827 3154 219 0.687 124.0
Greg Maddux 132 1.143 3.37 5008 3371 355 0.610 122.0
Grover Alexander 136 1.121 2.31 5190 2198 373 0.642 120.0
Randy Johnson 136 1.171 3.26 4135 4875 303 0.646 111.0
Tom Seaver 128 1.121 2.62 4783 3640 311 0.603 107.0
Don Sutton 108 1.142 2.66 5282 3574 324 0.559 99.0
Tim Keefe 127 1.123 2.08 5049 2564 342 0.603 98.5
Sandy Koufax 131 1.106 2.93 2324 2396 165 0.655 93.0
Gaylord Perry 117 1.181 2.56 5350 3534 314 0.542 92.0
Kid Nichols 140 1.224 1.48 5067 1881 361 0.634 91.0
Eddie Plank 122 1.119 2.10 4496 2246 326 0.627 90.0
Steve Carlton 115 1.247 2.26 5218 4136 329 0.574 89.0
Warren Spahn 119 1.195 1.80 5244 2583 363 0.597 88.0
Pud Galvin 108 1.191 2.43 6003 1807 365 0.541 80.5
Nolan Ryan 112 1.247 2.04 5386 5714 324 0.526 80.0
John Clarkson 134 1.209 1.66 4536 1978 328 0.648 79.0
Lefty Grove 148 1.278 1.91 3941 2266 300 0.680 75.5
Phil Niekro 115 1.268 1.85 5404 3342 318 0.537 70.5
Charles Radbourn 120 1.149 2.09 4527 1830 309 0.614 69.0
Tom Glavine 118 1.314 1.74 4413 2607 305 0.600 52.0
Mickey Welch 114 1.226 1.43 4802 1850 307 0.594 44.0
Early Wynn 107 1.329 1.31 4564 2334 300 0.551 29.5

Best Picher Ever Data

The metrics show that Pedro Martinez is the best pitcher of all-time based on his ERA+, WHIP, K/BB, and W%.  His low win total and innings pitched are a product of the modern pitching era, injuries, and longevity compared to  other pitchers quantified in the analysis.  Meanwhile, Sandy Koufax has been regarded as one of the greatest pitchers  in history despite retiring prematurely.  However, his lifetime pitching totals and ratios fail in comparison to those of  Martinez.

Nolan Ryan is unquestionably the most dominant pitcher in history.  He compiled 5714 strikeouts, authored seven no-hitters, and held opponents to the lowest batting average (.204) during his brilliant twenty-seven year career.  Undeniably, these are untouchable pitching records.  However, his lifetime .526 winning percentage and record, 2795 bases on balls (2.04 K/BB), eliminates him from the discussion.  Conversely, the most surprising statistical finding is the placement of Don Sutton.  Nearly every baseball expert would agree that Sutton is not the tenth best pitcher in history but simply an anomaly within the context of this breakdown.

The remarkable Christy “Big Six” Mathewson compiled a 373-188 record over a stellar seventeen-year career.  He won 20+ games, twelve consecutive seasons (1903-14), still an MLB-record.  Meanwhile, Grover Alexander established an MLB-rookie record, 28 wins, in 1911 for the Philadelphia Phillies.  Over the next nineteen seasons, “Old Pete” collected the third most wins (373), tied with Mathewson, in baseball history.  Despite their amazing careers, only one pitcher can hold the title as Best Pitcher Ever.

The Best Pitcher Ever

Walter Johnson is the greatest pitcher of all-time based on the combination of metrics, longevity, dominance, and career statistical totals (144 points accumulated on the seven category scale).  Despite the greatness of Roger Clemens, Pedro Martinez, and Greg Maddux in the modern hitter friendly/PED era, the undeniable greatness of Johnson is the epitome of pitching excellence.  The right-hander tossed an astounding 110-shutouts during his twenty-one year career for the Washington Senators.  Incredibly, of his 417 wins, 26.4% of them were complete-game shutouts.  Johnson allowed only 9.55 base runners per nine innings and logged nearly six thousand innings pitched.  With all due respect, Cy Young, Christy Mathewson, Grover Alexander, and every other pitcher in history must follow the lead of the “Big Train”.

There is a very prominent pitcher excluded from this ranking, Leroy Satchel Paige.  The legendary Negro League hurler spent the majority of his career barred from MLB competition for segregation purposes.  From most accounts, Paige might have been the greatest pitcher in history.  At 59, he pitched three-scoreless innings for the Kansas City Athletics in 1965.  His unmatched longevity, tremendous control, and passion for the game might have challenged Cy Young’s inconceivable 511-win total.  Unfortunately, his excellence on the mound will never show up in the MLB record book.  Therefore, Walter Johnson is deemed the Best Pitcher Ever according to this ranking method.


3 Responses to “The Best Pitcher Ever is?”
  1. Mike Hoban says:

    Where is Bob Gibson?

    You have a very serious problem with your approach if Bob Gibson is not on your list. Is there a serious baseball analyst who would not take Gibson over half the pitchers on this list?

    My advice – figure out why Gibson is not on the list and then use that info to try to improve the method.


  2. Josh Robbins says:

    I took all 24 300-game winners plus Pedro and Koufax. This list could have extended forever. I chose a small sample size and worked with those names. Gibson was a great pitcher but Sutton had a better WHIP than him and he pitched a great era for pitching. I don’t think Sutton is one of the 30 best pitchers in history. I could have included Feller, Palmer, Blyleven, Marichal, etc. I needed to cut it off somewhere. thanks for your response.

  3. Henry Gonzalez says:

    Perfect articles about baseball pitchers!

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