Pitching is an art that few can master, but those who have succeeded hold a special place in the annals of baseball history.
Enter the pitcher
Pitching a baseball effectively is an art and skill possessed by very few, and fewer still are consistently good at it. Of all the ‘top ten’ lists in team sports, this is hands down the most difficult to select. There have been so many great pitchers over baseball’s long history that a list like this one is certain to stir up controversy. I am well aware that incredibly gifted pitchers like Lefty Grove, Greg Maddux, Carl Hubbell, Pedro Martinez, Juan Marichal, Rollie Fingers, Don Newcombe, Don Drysdale, and Nolan Ryan (the all-time strikeout king) could very deservedly be on anyone’s top ten list. Roger Clemens would be on the list but for his use of performance-enhancing drugs, which has to eliminate him. Perhaps you can come up with a list that is even better than this one, but here is my ten best baseball pitchers of all time:
Tom Seaver – No. 10
Tom Seaver, “Tom Terrific”, pitched for twenty years for the New York Mets and the Cincinnati Reds, from 1967 through 1986, when he won a total of 311 games. Winning over three hundred games is an automatic ticket to baseball’s Hall of Fame since it is a feat so rarely accomplished. Tom led the league in strikeouts five times, won over 20 games five times, and had a lifetime earned run average (average runs scored against a pitcher per every nine innings pitched) of 2.86. An ERA of under 3.00 is always considered outstanding because it puts you in a very elite company. Sparky Anderson, the manager of the Cincinnati Reds when Seaver pitched there, once said, “My idea of managing is giving the ball to Tom Seaver and sitting down and watching him work”
Warren Spahn – No. 9
“Spahnny,” Warren Spahn, pitched an astounding 24 years in the big leagues, from 1942 through 1965, all with the Boston and Milwaukee Braves, except for short stints with the Mets and the Giants at the end of his career. Spahn labored for some very mediocre Braves teams in the forties and early fifties. The club had only one other pitcher who was an ace, Johnny Sain. During this period, the mantra of Braves fans became “Spahn and Sain, and pray for rain.” Warren Spahn won 363 games in his career and won twenty or more games an astounding thirteen times. Spahn had a most amazing windup, kicking his right leg higher to the sky than any pitcher who ever lived, and it was very distracting to the batters he faced. He was a model of excellence and consistency for over two decades, as reliable as they come.
Steve Carlton – No. 8
Steve Carlton pitched twenty-four seasons in the big leagues, mostly for St. Louis and Philadelphia, winning a total of 329 games and amassing the amazing total of 4136 strikeouts. He led the league in strikeouts five times. His most memorable achievement, at least in the eyes of this observer, came during the 1972 season, when he played on a Philadelphia Phillies team that was as inept as they come. That club won only 59 games that year and lost 97, yet Carlton had a year that defied understanding, winning 27 games and losing only 10. He alone accounted for just under fifty percent of the team’s total wins for the year. He accomplished the feat by chalking up an unheard-of ERA of 1.97.
Bob Gibson – No. 7
Bob Gibson, all six-foot-five inches and 235 pounds of him, would stand on the pitcher’s mound wearing a permanent scowl, staring you down as he went into his windup and fired a one-hundred-mile-an-hour pitch under your chin. He was downright scary out there. Gibson played seventeen years in the majors, all with the St. Louis Cardinals. His 1.12 ERA in 1968 stands as the all-time low for a starting pitcher. In his seventeen years, he led the National League in strikeouts seven times. In the three World Series, he pitched, in two of them he won three games, and his total won-lost record was 7-2. His World Series earned run average was an incredible 1.68. Whenever the Cardinals needed to win a big game, they handed the ball to Gibson.
Bob Feller – No. 6
Bob “Rapid Robert” Feller, an Iowa farm boy, came to the big leagues in 1936 and retired in 1956, missing the years 1942, 43, and 44 due to service in World War II. Feller had the fastest fastball in baseball for most of those years. He won twenty or more games six times in his eighteen seasons, and he led the league in strikeouts seven times. Rapid Robert held the single-game strikeout record of eighteen until Roger Clemons broke it many years later. If Feller had been able to pitch during the war years, there’s no telling how many more records he might have set. Ted Williams, who hardly ever met a pitcher he couldn’t hit, said that Feller was by far the toughest pitcher he ever faced. Coming from Williams, that was the ultimate compliment a pitcher could ever receive.
Christy Mathewson – No. 5
Christy Mathewson, in a career which spanned from 1900 through 1916, playing for the New York Giants in all but his final season, won a total of 373 games, an average of twenty-two every year. Five times he led the league in strikeouts. He won thirty or more games four times, and twenty or more nine times. Thus in a seventeen-year career, he won twenty or more thirteen times. No one before or since has matched that level of consistent excellence.
Cy Young – No. 4
We have to go way back to look at the career of Cy Young, who pitched from 1890 through 1911, playing mostly for the Cleveland Indians and the Boston Braves. Young’s records are simply off the charts. He started 815 games in his twenty-two years, and he won in his career 511 games, the record for wins by a pitcher, which works out to an average of twenty-four plus wins every year. He won more than thirty games on five different occasions. Since the 1950’s the American and National Leagues have chosen the best pitcher of the year for the prize named after him, the Cy Young award. I am well aware that many would place Cy young at the very top of this list.
Walter Johnson – No. 3
Walter “Big Train” Johnson is on many lists as the greatest pitcher of all time, with a career win total of 417 in 21 years from 1907 to 1927. That’s an average of twenty wins every year. Johnson was voted the league’s best pitcher during ten of those twenty-one seasons. He won twenty or more games an unbelievable twelve times and twice chalked up over thirty wins in a single season. with a high of 36 in 1913.
Mariano Rivera – No. 2
Mariano Rivera, now in his seventeenth year as the ace reliever – the closer – for the New York Yankees, is the only relief pitcher on our list. Perhaps there should be a separate list for relievers, but Rivera’s record is so remarkable he must be included here. At the age of thirty-nine, Rivera shows not a single sign of slowing down any time soon, as he leads the league in saves in the current year at the time of this writing. His trademark pitch is his “cutter”, which he invented. It starts at you low, comes at you rising, at 97 or 98 miles an hour, crossing the plate at chest level, virtually unhittable. He has “saved” 572 games, an average of over thirty-five a year. We can only imagine the records he will hold when he hangs up his glove for good.
Sandy Koufax – No. 1
Sandy Koufax had a rather brief career with the Dodgers, cut short by the excruciating pain caused by arthritis in his left elbow, which was brought on by the stress of throwing his screwball pitch. His brief career, however, was characterized by absolute excellence every time he took to the mound. From 1963 through 1966, Koufax amassed an amazing record of 24 wins and only 7 losses per year, and over that span, his earned run average was 1.86 runs a game, an all time record for four years. Koufax had a blazing fastball and screwball, and his curveball would come to within inches of the plate before it would appear as if it were falling off a table. Nobody, but nobody, could hit Sandy Koufax with consistency.