Eric Gartman / Salaries & Business
RATING THE TOP PITCHERS
By Eric Gartman
As great as I think the win shares system is for position players, I don't think its fair for pitchers. There are two main problems with it. One is that it values quantity over quality. A mediocre pitcher with an extended career fares better than a great pitcher with a shorter career. More importantly, it doesn't effectively allow for fair comparison for pitchers from the dead ball era to the lively ball era. For example, Walter Johnson pitched 5900 innings in his career; Grover Cleveland Alexander threw 5200, and Cy Young 7356! Modern pitchers, throwing against beefy hitters in a five-man rather than four-man rotation, simply can't match those totals, and it's not fair to hold it against them. Fortunately, shortly after James published his win shares system, a new system was put forth by G. Scott Thomas, in his book "Leveling the Field." Thomas' idea is simple: Establish a baseline for all players across time based on one five-year period (1996-2000), and compare players based on that era's numbers. We can now finally compare Earned Run Averages across baseball history. Thomas sets up his own formula to compare pitchers based on his revised stats, but like James' system, it could use a little fine-tuning. Whereas the Jamesian system favors quantity over quality, Thomas system makes the opposite mistake. By taking career Earned Run Averages and "Summit" Earned Run Averages (defined as the average of a player's five best years), Thomas' system favors players with shorter careers, as it makes no allowance for longevity. This leads him to include several lesser-known players with fairly short careers in his top ten lists, such as Ron Guidry, Lefty Gomez, and Addie Joss. Thomas also separates Right-Handed and Left-Handed pitchers, a useless differentiation. The James and Thomas system come out with very different ratings for their top pitchers. For example, whereas Thomas rates Greg Maddux as the best pitcher of all-time, James rates him a meager 14. In general, the James system favors older players, while the Thomas system favors current ones.
I propose that in order to fix the Thomas system we continue to examine career and summit ERA's while taking longevity into account as well. To do so, we will look at the number of full seasons a pitcher threw, rather than innings pitched or number of starts. The problem with innings and starts is that dead-ball era pitchers were able to throw many more innings and games than live-ball era pitchers, and we cannot compare pitchers from the two based on those statistics. Full seasons of course are somewhat hard to define, but I simply view a full season as a season when a pitcher's totals were comparable to the league's average of a full load for that time period. I will also count two half-seasons as one full season. When we examine pitchers in this fashion, we find two players whose ERA's are far ahead of anyone else: Walter Johnson and Greg Maddux. The Big Train had an adjusted career ERA of 3.00 (from henceforth all ERA's are adjusted unless otherwise noted) over 20 years, and a summit ERA of 2.17. Greg Maddux, through the 2001 season has a career ERA of 3.05 over 15 seasons and a summit ERA of 2.15, the best in history. Thomas rates Maddux slightly ahead of Johnson since his summit ERA is lower. There is an important point Thomas misses, however. Maddux career ERA is only slightly lower than Johnson, but Johnson pitched for 20 years vs. Maddux 15. Surely Maddux career ERA will be higher by the time he reaches 20-21 years in the bigs. I would therefore have to rate Johnson over Maddux. Incidentally, since the 2001 season, Maddux pitched brilliantly in 2002, actually lowering his career ERA, and maybe even his summit ERA with a 19-9 record and a 2.66 non-adjusted ERA that year. He faltered a bit in 2003, as one would expect from a 37 year-old, and seems well on his way to posting a higher career ERA. After Johnson and Maddux there is a sizeable gap in performance. The third spot is close call between Roger Clemens and Pete Alexander. Alexander pitched for 20 years in the bigs, although he missed most of the 1918 and 1930 seasons. He compiled a lifetime adjusted ERA of 3.31 and a summit ERA of 2.73. Clemens has now pitched for 20 years in the majors, although his adjusted stats only go through 2001. He has a lifetime ERA of 3.38 and a summit ERA of 2.63. I'd give Clemens the edge based on his superior summit stats, and the fact that his career was slightly longer than Alexander's.
After Clemens and Alexander, the next few contenders are very closely matched. Lefty Grove, Christy Mathewson, and Cy Young had career ERA's of 3.32, 3.35, and 3.37 respectively. Mathewson's summit ERA was 2.78, while Young's was 2.87, and Grove's was 2.88. Young pitched 21 years in the majors, while Mathewson pitched 15 and Grove threw 17. A good case can be made for all three: Mathewson's summit ERA was considerably lower than the other two, while Grove's career ERA was the best (in fact Grove led the league in ERA a record nine times, but he didn't have much competition). Young pitched for much longer than Mathewson or Grove, however. In order to break the tie we shall have to look into some additional information. Lefty Grove was forcibly kept in the minors in 1923-24 when he was already a great pitcher. It may be fair to rank him slightly higher due to missed time. Young's best years were from 1901-1903, when the American League was still forming, and the quality of play was not very high. I would therefore rank Grove fifth, Mathewson sixth, and Young seventh.
Tom Seaver, with a 3.56 lifetime career average and a 2.72 summit average over 19 years, edges Carl Hubbel, who also had a 2.72 summit average, but had a 3.25 lifetime ERA over only 15 years, for the eighth spot. Certainly Hubbel has a big advantage over Seaver in average ERA, but Tom Terrific pitched five more years, and that should count for something. Rounding out the top ten is Warren Spahn with a 3.62 lifetime ERA and a peak of 2.97 in 20 years. Jim Palmer, with a 3.56 career average and a 2.94 peak during a 18-year career for the Baltimore Orioles, has slightly better numbers than Spahn, but Spahn pitched three more years. For the twelfth spot, I'd give the edge to Kid Nichols and his 3.01/3.43 line in 15 and a half seasons over Bob Gibson's 2.92/3.71 also in 15.5 seasons. Number 14 goes to Steve Carlton, who posted 3.06/3.95 in 20 seasons. Carlton is followed by his strikeout rival, Nolan Ryan, who posted a very similar 3.20/3.88 in an astounding 24 seasons. Ryan is followed by one of the more underrated pitchers in recent decades, Gaylord Perry, who had a 3.22/3.92 line in 20 big league seasons.
After Carlton, Ryan, and Perry, there are no pitchers who pitched as effectively for so many years. There are several pitchers who were more effective in fewer years, however. Number 17 goes to fireballer Randy Johnson, who had impressive credentials though the 2001 season: A 3.40 lifetime ERA in eleven full seasons with a peak of 2.50! A stellar 2002 season only bolstered his resume. If Johnson can beat father time and continue to pitch well for another three or four seasons, he could vault up this list. The same goes for another current pitcher, number 18, Pedro Martinez. Through 2001, Pedro had a stunning 2.39/2.74 line in eight full years. Pedro was great again in 2002-2003, leading the league in ERA both seasons. If Pedro stays healthy, at the tender age of 32 he has a chance to join the highest ranking pitchers off all time. At number 19 is Mordechai "Three-Finger" Brown, with a 2.75/3.30 line in twelve seasons. He is followed by Whitey Ford at number 20, with a 3.17/3.27 line in 13 seasons. Ford just edges Juan Marichal who also pitched for 13 seasons, posting a 3.05/3.71 record. Number 22 is an active player, Tom Glavine, who posted a 3.13/3.69 record in 14 seasons through 2001. An impressive 2002 season may have served to boost him past Marichal, but I'd like to see the adjusted stats before making any changes. Glavine pitched very poorly in 2003, however. Glavine is followed by Bob Feller who posted a 3.12/3.69 record in 13 seasons. Feller's low rating may surprise some, but the numbers don't lie. Feller had a fairly short career, due perhaps to overuse. Some claim that the years he lost to World War Two hurt his career record, but as Rob Neyer argues, the time off probably saved his arm for a few more seasons.
By number 24 many people may be wondering where Sandy Koufax is. Koufax posted an impressive peak ERA of 2.71, and a career ERA of 3.38, but in only 10 full seasons. Koufax was forced to retire due to injury at age 30; otherwise he may have posted some of the best numbers in history. I don't think it's fair to argue what could have happened, however. Certainly, Koufax isn't the only one with a great career cut short. Addie Joss was 2.99/3.14 in eight seasons before succumbing to tubercular meningitis in 1914. And Big Ed Walsh was even better than Koufax, going 2.72/2.93 in eight seasons, before his arm went dead. Who knows what they could have done? I think it only fair to rank Walsh 24 and Koufax 25, well below the pitchers who had longer careers, but higher ERA's.
One deserving player who is not on this list is Kevin Brown. For some reason, Brown isn't even mentioned in Thomas book. It's a shame since his career numbers are slightly better than Tom Glavine's. If his numbers were listed, he would easily make this list. Another pitcher has career stats that would seemingly earn him a place on this list. Detroit's Hal Newhouser had a 2.95/3.62 line in 13 seasons. But Newhouser's best years were 1944-46. Most players were off fighting the war in 1944-45, and the quality of play was very low. Many had not yet returned by 1946. Take away those three years and Newhouser is a very ordinary pitcher.
Here are the top Twenty-Five Pitchers, with adjusted summit/career ERA's, number of full seasons pitched, and for active players, number of seasons through 2001 with total number of seasons in parentheses:
1. Walter Johnson 2.17/3.00, 20 Seasons
2. Greg Maddux 2.15/3.05, 15 (17) Seasons
3. Roger Clemens 2.63/3.38, 18 (20) Seasons
4. Pete Alexander 2.72/3.31, 18 Seasons
5. Lefty Grove 2.88/3.32, 17 Seasons
6. Christy Mathewson 2.78/3.35, 15 Seasons
7. Cy Young 2.88/3.37, 21 Seasons
8. Tom Seaver 2.72/3.56, 19 Seasons
9. Carl Hubbel 2.72/3.25, 15 Seasons
10. Warren Spahn 2.97/3.62, 20 Seasons
11. Jim Palmer 2.94/3.56, 18 Seasons
12. Kid Nichols 3.01/3.43, 15.5 Seasons
13. Bob Gibson 2.92/3.71, 15.5 Seasons
14. Steve Carlton 3.06/3.95, 20 Seasons
15. Nolan Ryan 3.20/3.88, 24 Seasons
16. Gaylord Perry 3.22/3.92, 20 Seasons
17. Randy Johnson 2.50/3.40 11 (13) Seasons
18. Pedro Martinez 2.39/2.74 8 (10) Seasons
19. Three-Finger Brown 2.75/3.30, 12 Seasons
20. Whitey Ford 3.17/3.27, 13 Seasons
21. Juan Marichal 3.05/3.71, 13 Seasons
22. Tom Glavine 3.13/3.69, 14 (16) Seasons
23. Bob Feller 3.12/3.69, 13 Seasons
24. Ed Walsh 2.72/2.93, 8 Seasons
25. Sandy Koufax 2.71/3.38, 10 Seasons