10 Best Starting Pitchers

Before listing the top 10 starting pitchers, I want to make an important note about the 162-game averages. This is an especially useful stat for pitchers, because it takes into account that pitchers used to throw way more often than they do now. One season for a pitcher is defined as Games Pitched + Games Started totaling 68. So, 34 starts or 68 relief appearances is one season. This helps when comparing older players to recent players immensely. Also, ERA+ is a stat that compares a pitcher’s ERA to the league average ERA for a pitcher who pitched in the same ballparks that year. For example, a Rockies pitcher with an ERA of 3.00 would have a better ERA+ than a Dodgers pitcher with an ERA of 3.00 because the average ERA in Coors is significantly higher than the average ERA in Chavez Ravine. An ERA+ of 100 is league average, while 105 is 5% better than league average, and 95 is 5% worse than league average. Lastly, the BB and K numbers listed in the 162-game averages are all per 9 innings.

1. Walter Johnson

WSH 1907-1927

162-game average during prime:

(24-11)  1.50ERA  285IP  0.94WHIP  1.7BB  6.5K  199ERA+

Walter Johnson dominated the AL to an unimaginable degree. Yes, his prime occurred during the dead-ball era, but that shouldn’t sway anybody too much. His numbers are absolutely ridiculous no matter what asterisk is placed after them, and nobody was doing better in the same circumstances. From 1910-1919, a full decade, he finished outside of the top 3 in ERA exactly once. In that same decade, he finished out of the top 3 in WHIP just once, as well (he finished 4th that year). As if it weren’t clear already, let me add another stat from that 10-year period; he led the league in strikeouts each year except one 3rd place finish in 1911. Try to comprehend this about his 1916 season: he did not allow a single home run. In 369.2 innings. In fact, he finished with a HR/9 ratio of 0.0 in 7 seasons. Three times, he didn’t allow a home run, and 4 times he allowed either 1 or 2 in at least 296 innings.

2. Randy Johnson

MON 1988-1989  SEA 89-98  HOU 98  ARI 99-04  NYY 05-06  ARI 07-08 SFG 09

162-game average during prime:

(20-8)  2.63ERA  250IP  1.07WHIP  2.6BB  12.3K  175ERA+

Randy Johnson’s 5 Cy Young Awards are the second-most all-time, and his total actually reflects a little poor luck. He finished 2nd behind Roger Clemens twice (I’d argue undeservedly). Then, in 1993 he finished 2nd behind Jack McDowell despite matching innings, bettering him in ERA by .13 and WHIP by .17 and striking out 308 to McDowell’s 158 (almost double!). Randy tamed the opposition during one the most offensive eras in history. He was so unhittable against lefties, the opposing managers sent them to the plate against him a staggeringly-low 12% of the time (compared to 30% of MLB batting left-handed during his career). They batted a mere .199/.278/.294 against him and struck out 13 times per 9 innings. His career K/9 ratio is the highest in Major League history. He created fear and outs wherever he went.

3. Pedro Martinez

LAD 1992-1993  MON 94-96  BOS 98-04  NYM 05-08  PHI 09

162-game average during prime:

(21-7)  2.18ERA  247IP  0.93WHIP  2.0BB  11.6K  215ERA+

Pedro Martinez was fantastic for his entire career, but his 1999 and 2000 seasons could easily be considered the 2 most dominant seasons by any pitcher ever. In those 2 years, he averaged this line:

(24-6)  1.90ERA  0.83WHIP  248IP  344/40 K/BB

His 0.74 WHIP in 2000 was the lowest in any year ever, dead-ball eras included. In fact, the margin isn’t even close: Guy Hecker is 2nd with 0.77 in 1882 (pitching just 102 innings), Walter Johnson is 3rd with 0.78 in 1913, and nobody else is below 0.80. Also, Pedro’s 5.33 H/9 in 2000 is behind only Nolan Ryan and Luis Tyant. His 1999 K/9 ratio of 13.2 is second to only Randy Johnson’s 2001. He dominated the AL East, the scariest division, during the heart of one of the most offensively-explosive eras ever more than any pitcher has ever dominated any era. Beyond that, his career was pretty fine, as well. For his career, he is 1st in ERA+, 5th in WHIP, 11th in H/9, 3rd in K/9, and 3rd in K/BB.

4. Christy Mathewson

NYG 1900-1916  CIN 16

162-game average during prime:

(24-9)  1.69ERA  272IP  0.96WHIP  1.3BB  5.1K  162ERA+

Christy Mathewson was the NL’s counterpart to the AL’s Walter Johnson in many ways. He led the league in strikeouts 5 times, but he wasn’t known as a power pitcher. He is most credited for his ridiculous control. From 1907-1915, he finished at the top for BB/9 in 7 seasons and 2nd in the other 2. In 1913, he pitched 306 innings and walked a mere 21 batters, for a 0.6 BB/9. That is 3rd lowest in the 1900s/2000s (behind Babe Adams in 1920 and Carlos Silva in 2005). His career ERA is 9th and his WHIP is 6th all-time.

5. Greg Maddux

CHC 1986-1992  ATL 93-03  CHC 04-06  LAD 06  SD 07-08  LAD 08

162-game average during prime:

(20-8)  2.13ERA  251IP  0.96WHIP  1.2BB  6.9K  198ERA+

Greg Maddux’s achievements are sadly undermined by Pedro Martinez’s and Randy Johnson’s concurrent freak shows. Many forget him because he was just the 3rd-best pitcher of his generation, but that is a mistake because he belongs in the top 5 pitchers in history. In 1994 and 1995, his respective ERAs were 1.56 and 1.63. His respective WHIPs were 0.90 and 0.81. Known for his control, his walk numbers don’t quite stack up to Mathewson’s due to the time period in which he played. Christy knew that baserunners were the worst outcome, so walks were always to be avoided. Maddux, however, pitched at times where not giving players like Barry Bonds or Mark McGwire a pitch to hit made sense, so walks were sometimes acceptable. His strikeout totals were not diminutive, contrary to expectations, though. He finished in the top 3 in Ks every year from 1991-1995, for example. The Professor played a chess game on the mound that was a pleasure for anyone to watch.

6. Bob Gibson

STL 1959-1975

162-game average during prime:

(21-11)  2.30ERA  288IP  1.05WHIP  2.4BB  7.8K  153ERA+

Bob Gibson struck fear into the hearts of opposing hitters, featuring a blistering fastball. He won 19+ games in 7 seasons, despite the Cardinals’ anemic offense. He completed 28 games twice, and struck out as many as 270 batters in a season. However, his magical 1968 season is his real claim to fame. His 1.12 ERA is the 4th lowest of all-time, and the lowest in the live-ball era (Dwight Gooden is 2nd lowest and he isn’t close at 1.53). His 0.85 WHIP is 4th in the live-ball era, and his 13 shutouts that year is third all-time. Most illustrative of his ability to shut down opposing batters: in June and July of 1968, he pitched 92 innings and gave up 2 earned runs (0.20 ERA).

7. Tom Seaver

NYM 1967-1977  CIN 77-82  NYM 83  CHW 84-86  BOS 86

162-game average during prime:

(20-10)  2.35ERA  267IP  1.03WHIP  2.4BB  8.2K  154ERA+

Tom Seaver dominated over a long period of time. In 11 of his first 12 seasons, he had an ERA under 3.00. He had ERAs of 2.21, 2.20, 2.08, and 1.76 in his first half-decade. He also struck out at least 200 in 9 of his first 10 seasons, and in twice topped 280 in Ks. Most impressively, he had a tremendous knack of keeping runners off base. He kept his WHIP below 1.00 three times.

8. Cy Young

CLV 1890-1898  STL 99-00  BOS 01-08  CLE 09-11  BSN 11

162-game average during prime:

(24-11)  1.93ERA  304IP  0.96WHIP  0.9BB  4.5K  161ERA+

Cy Young is largely a product of the time he played in. Yes, he was a fine pitcher with impressive control, but in 19 of his 22 seasons, he didn’t even make the top 5 in K/9. Remember when looking at his career totals, that he compiled more innings than anyone ever. He topped 400 innings in 5 seasons, 350 in an additional 7 seasons. So, while he does have the record for career wins (511) and complete games (749), he also has the record for most losses (316), earned runs (2147), hits (7092), but not strikeouts (just 2803). Cy Young was a great pitcher. Just not that great.

9. Lefty Grove

PHA 1925-1933  BOS 34-41

162-game average during prime:

(24-6)  2.56ERA  255IP  1.17WHIP  2.2BB  5.9K  172ERA+

Lefty Grove pitched in a time with a notable dearth of elite pitching. Few people know it, but the twenties and thirties were every bit as explosive offensively as the late nineties and early millennium. Yet, he dominated hitters to the tune of a 3.06 career ERA. He won 20 games in 7 consecutive seasons, reaching 31in 1931. He reached exactly 300 career wins, and finished with a miniscule 2.06 ERA one year. While many of his stats aren’t objectively awe-inspiring, he was consistently better than anyone else in the league.

10. Sandy Koufax

BRO 1955-1957  LAD 58-66

162-game average during prime:

(22-7)  1.95ERA  262IP  0.93WHIP  2.1BB  9.4K  167ERA+

Sandy Koufax from 1963-1966 was more dominant than any pitcher 40 years before or 30 years after him. He once had an ERA above 2.00 (at 2.04), he once won fewer than 25 games (19), he once had fewer than 300 Ks (injured in 1964), and never had a WHIP above 1.00. In 1965, he struck out an unbelievable 382 batters. That is 2nd of anyone after 1886 (Nolan Ryan bested him by one). His blazing fastball and disappearing curveball set the standard for unhittable pitches, and it’s scary to imagine what might’ve happened if he lasted until the Year of the Pitcher in 1968.

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