Not long ago when Eric and I were discussing Whitey Ford, I mentioned something like Ford was the best pitcher in the American League for an eleven-year span. Surely if you’re the best pitcher in your league for a decade, you belong in the Hall of Miller and Eric. Or do you? Since I was offering the argument, I thought I should at least make sure I believed it myself. And it turns out I don’t. From 1976-1986, the best pitcher in all of baseball was Ron Guidry. He was also the best if we add another year. So for a dozen seasons, there was no better pitcher in the game than Louisiana Lightning himself. But we understand Ron Guidry’s career. Such a run isn’t at all sufficient to make him a no-brainer HoMEr, so Ford’s lesser run shouldn’t be enough to overcome Eric’s pretty persuasive data that suggests Ford is right near the borderline.
Having the list of every pitcher who was baseball’s best over an eleven-year run got me to thinking. Who were baseball’s best pitchers every five years? How about every twenty-two? There was only one way to find out, at least as far as I knew. Open up a spreadsheet, go to Seamheads.com, and do a ton of work. Luckily for you, my work is your reward. I found the best pitcher in 1871, then from 1871-1872, then from 1871-1873, and straight through to 1871-2013. Then I found the best pitcher in 1872, then from 1872-1873, and so on. You get the point, right?
I don’t think I’m uncovering anything groundbreaking here, but I did come up with 10,296 names. Those names are the best of the best, like Cy Young, who was listed 2,549 times. And they were guys who were good for only a short period, like Hal Carlson, who was the best pitcher in baseball by WAR in 1926 and from 1925-1926. In case you’re wondering, I wasn’t familiar with him either.
Below is a chart, a big long chart, with every pitcher whose name came up even twice in my database (ranking, pitcher, number of periods leading baseball in WAR). Take a look, and then I’ll make some comments.
1 Cy Young 2549 2 Walter Johnson 2206 3 Roger Clemens 1216 4 Tom Seaver 1102 5 Lefty Grove 856 6 Warren Spahn 674 7 Bob Gibson 174 8 Kid Nichols 112 9 Tim Keefe 108 10 Hal Newhouser 90 11 Randy Johnson 85 12 Bert Blyleven 65 13 Christy Mathewson 62 14 Bob Feller 61 John Clarkson 61 16 Jim McCormick 60 17 Phil Niekro 57 18 Don Drysdale 56 19 Greg Maddux 50 20 Robin Roberts 47 21 Pedro Martinez 43 22 Dave Stieb 42 Tommy Bond 42 24 Roy Halladay 40 Dazzy Vance 40 26 Pete Alexander 37 27 Bucky Walters 27 28 Johan Santana 25 29 Al Spalding 22 30 Steve Carlton 17 31 Urban Shocker 16 32 Old Hoss Radbourn 15 Sandy Koufax 15 34 Ed Walsh 13 35 Juan Marichal 10 36 Dwight Gooden 10 37 Rube Waddell 8 38 Amos Rusie 7 Carl Hubbell 7 40 Jim Bunning 6 Red Faber 6 42 Clayton Kershaw 5 CC Sabathia 5 Curt Schilling 5 Wes Ferrell 5 Gaylord Perry 5 Justin Verlander 5 Ron Guidry 5 Silver King 5 50 Camilo Pascual 4 Bob Caruthers 4 Cliff Lee 4 Dizzy Dean 4 Dizzy Trout 4 Early Wynn 4 Jim Devlin 4 Joe McGinnity 4 Stan Coveleski 4 59 Bobby Mathews 3 Fergie Jenkins 3 Mort Cooper 3 Ned Garver 3 Ted Lyons 3 Wilbur Wood 3 65 Bob Lemon 2 Frank Tanana 2 Hal Carlson 2 Jim Palmer 2 Jim Whitney 2 Jose Rijo 2 Mel Parnell 2 Zack Greinke 2 74 47 tied at 1
- It’s utterly flabbergasting that it took Bert Blyleven as long to get into the Hall as it did. I don’t think I’m revealing anything when I say it won’t take him that long to get into the HoME.
- Dave Stieb’s name looks out of place, doesn’t it? That’s only because he played in Canada for some pretty mediocre teams and had only five playoff starts, not because he wasn’t that great. If you’re looking for the real pitcher of the 1980s, look no further. For comparison, you won’t see Jack Morris’ name anywhere on the above chart. Of course, Ed Morris was baseball’s best pitcher from 1885-1886.
- For those who ever took part in the Roger Clemens/Greg Maddux debate like I did, we now have one data point that says it’s not even close. Clemens led baseball 1216 times, while Maddux led on just 50 occasions.
- Don Drysdale led more frequently than Sandy Koufax. Hell, Johan Santana led more than Koufax. I think we forget how great Santana was.
- I would have predicted a higher number for Steve Carlton. But with the likes of Tom Seaver, Phil Niekro, and Bert Blyleven as contemporaries, there wasn’t a whole lot of room.
- You might notice that Whitey Ford’s name is nowhere to be found. He was never baseball’s best pitcher, though Russ Ford was in 1910.
There’s a lot more that can be said about the chart, no doubt. Hopefully I’ll use parts of it in future conversations to help to establish who belongs in the HoME. But for now, I’m happy to know that eleven seasons as the best in your league isn’t enough by itself to earn my vote.