Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Best of the Best: The Greatest Pitchers

Last week, in the beginning of a discussion of the greatest pitchers of all-time, I wrote about how few recent and current pitchers are among the leaders in (career) ERA and promised I would look at other categories this week. I mentioned that I would not use wins or strikeouts but I should have added that, for obvious reasons, I was not going to include complete games. 

In addition to not accumulating complete games, recent and current pitchers have a much poorer chance of getting shutouts because managers now go to the bullpen even when a guy is pitching a shutout if he reaches a certain number of pitches, has a sweaty brow, or scratches his groin more than twice in the same inning. Here are the pitchers who racked up 50 or more shutouts, there are no recent or current hurlers, but there are a few names that may surprise you.

  1  Walter Johnson  110 (pictured at right)
  2  Grover Cleveland (Pete) Alexander  90
  3  Christy Mathewson 79
  4  Cy Young  76
  5   Eddie Plank  69
  6  Warren Spahn  63
  7  Nolan Ryan  61
  7  Tom Seaver  61
  9  Bert Blyleven  60
10  Don Sutton  58
11  Pud Galvin  57
11  Ed Walsh  57
13  Bob Gibson  56
14  Mordecai Three-Finger Brown  55
14  Steve Carlton  55
16  Jim Palmer  53
16  Gaylord Perry  53
18  Juan Marichal  52
19  Rube Waddell  50
19  Vic Willis  50

(Don Drysdale, Fergie Jenkins, Luis Tiant, and Early Wynn all just missed the list with 49. It's really weird that Smoky Joe Wood didn't get 50, he had only 28.)

Let's look at another stat that may not preclude as many recent or current pitchers as shutouts and ERA do - career WHIP. Is it going be dominated by ancient (dead) guys too? I am leaving out guys who pitched in the 1880s and ’90s and include only newer guys toward the bottom. 

Career WHIP

  1  Addie Joss
  2  Mariano Rivera
  3  Ed Walsh
  4  John Montgomery Ward
  5  Pedro Martinez
  6  Christy Mathewson
  7  Trevor Hoffman
  8  Walter Johnson
  9  Three-Finger Brown (right)
13  Smoky Joe Wood
18  Juan Marichal
19  Rube Waddell
23  Sandy Koufax
32  Tom Seaver
33  Pete Alexander
35  Hoyt Wilhelm (right)
36  Cy Young
41  Johan Santana
44  Catfish Hunter
46  Curt Schilling
47  Cole Hamels
57  Jared Weaver
87  Roy Halladay
91  Matt Cain
100 Jake Peavy

Totals? There are 7 current players in the top 100, 7 from 101 to 200, 5 from 201 to 300, 3 from 301 to 400, and 8 from 401 to 500. That's 30 out of 500. Well, that's better than ERA at least.

Another criterion for evaluating and comparing pitchers that seeks to factor out the effect of the team behind them is Fielding Independent Pitching. The formula, if you're interested is (13*HR + 3*BB - 2*K)/IP, plus a constant that is usually around 3.2 to put it into a scale similar to ERA.

Here are the best. Rube Waddell  1.70     2  Cy Young   1.93   3  Ed Walsh   1.95
Addie Joss  2.04  Smoky Joe Wood  2.15  Christy Mathewson   2.16  Chief Bender  2.17

Leaving out several more old-timers, here are a few more modern types for comparison.
Sandy Koufax  2.69   Mariano Rivera  2.75   Babe Ruth   2.79   Bob Gibson  2.89
Pedro Martinez  2.91   Bruce Sutter  2.94   Rollie Fingers   2.96   Nolan Ryan  2.97
Clayton Kernshaw  3.01  Don Drysdale  3.02  Tom Seaver  3.04  Roger Clemens  3.06
Tim Lincecum   3.12   Steve Carlton  3.15   Randy Johnson  3.19   Mickey Lolich   3.23
Curt Schilling   3.26   Greg Maddux   3.26  Adam Wainright   3.31   Roy Halladay  3.33
Justin Verlander  3.41  David Price   3.48   C.C. Sabathia   3.50    Jared Weaver   3.65
Once again, the top pitchers from the early part of the 20th century dominate.

I will now go to WAR, Wins Above Replacement that is. Here are the leaders. I have obviously omitted hitters, who dominate the list by the way — turns out guys like Willie Mays were hard to replace.

  2 Cy Young (they should name an award after that guy)
  4 Walter Johnson (Ty Cobb would always crowd the plate against him because he knew the Big Train wouldn't want to hit him with his fastball – unlike all the other pitchers Cobb faced)
16 Kid Nichols (okay he is a bit old for this list, he had seven 30 win seasons in the 1890s)
21 Tom Seaver (what if he'd played on stronger teams?)
25 Greg Maddux (what a starting three he and Glavine and Schmoltz made)
27 Lefty Grove (a great pitcher with an awesome bunch of hitters to help, Walter Johnson would have loved to have Foxx, Simmons, et al)
28 Christy Mathewson (nobody is as idolized as this true gentleman was in his day)
30 Randy Johnson (the most feared hurler of his day – 'til he got to the Yankees)
31 Warren Spahn (the greatest leftie of all-time, or what is Ed Plank, Rube Waddell or Sandy K?)
36 Phil Niekro (he and Wilbur Wood rivalled Hoyt Wilhem as great knuckleballers)
39 Burt Blyleven (what a curvevball that guy had!)
43 Bob Gibson (think he wouldn't throw inside on ya? Think again. Was he the greatest non-white pitcher of all time or was it Pedro Martinez?)
43 Ed Plank (he had a 2-5 World Series record in spite of a 1.32 ERA! Of course going against Christy Mathewson  didn't help; Plank had a habit of stalling on the mound to bug hitters. In his poem Lineup for Yesterday Ogden Nash included the stanza "P is for Plank / The arm of the A's/ When he tangled with Matty / Games lasted for days."  Nash sure wouldn't be too thrilled to sit through a game today!)
45 Steve Carlton (of the 18 main years of his career I was surprised to learn that he won 20 only five times)
46 Gaylord Perry (he had a rulebook in one pocket and a jar of vasoline in the other)
48 Tim Keefe (the first pitcher to effectively use a changeup; one of six Hall of Famers on the Giants in the late 1880s)

This has all been about dominant pitchers and I am going to be really arbitrary here in looking at - apart from their ERAs or strikeouts or anything – which guys have been truly dominant among their peers. Here are the pitchers who have been among the top 3 in baseball in WAR over the years. Again, top WAR lists tend to be dominated by hitters. It's tough for a pitcher to get into the top three, especially more than occasionally. 

Of late, here are the pitchers who have made it into the top three in baseball.
2012   Justin Verlander  (3rd)
2011   Cliff Lee (1st) and Roy Halladay (3rd)
2010   nobody
2009   Zack Greinke (1st)
2008   Tim Lincecum (3rd)

And here are the pitchers in each decade who have made it into the top three in WAR more than twice in those ten years.

2001 - 2010     nobody   
1991 - 2000     Roger Clemens and Greg Maddux
1981 - 1990     Roger Clemens
1971 - 1980     Tom Seaver
1961 - 1970     Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, Juan Marichal
1951 - 1960     Robin Roberts
1941 - 1950     Bob Feller
1931 - 1940     Lefty Grove
1921 - 1930     nobody
1911 - 1920     Walter Johnson (first six times!)
1901 - 1910     Christy Mathewson and Rube Waddell

So, readers, you decide, so many great ones. As for me, I would really love to see how Roy Halladay would have done in 1905 and how Walter Johnson would do today.


Rick Blechta said...

Great post, Will! And really informative. Thanks for all the hard work you must be putting in at the library for this series.

I do have a quibble: the greatest non-white pitcher? To my mind, based on all accounts, it would have to be Satchel Paige. It is a great misfortune that he didn't make it to the major leagues until he was really ancient -- and was still effective. If he'd had a full career playing with "the big boys", I think he'd be right up there with Johnson, Young and all the others. Even though he only played them in exhibition games, his record in his prime against major league ball players is still very, very good.

You could look it up!

Will Braund said...

Absolutely true, Rick. Satchel pitched for the Indians when he was way past his prime. He was pretty much unhittable in exhibition games against big leaguers. I love what he said when they wanted him to run (like the other pitchers) between starts. "If runnin' helped, Jesse Owens woulda bin a 20 game winner." And of course, "Never look back, somebody might be gainin' on ya."