There are only three pitchers who have any legitimate claim as the best in baseball history, at least for my money. One is Roger Clemens. In order for you to call him the best ever, you have to adjust quite a bit for era, which is something a reasonable person may choose to do. Clemens pitched at a time of diminishing innings, five-man rotations, and changing expectations. Of course, you may also have to ignore PED allegations to say he’s the best. As someone who hardly adjusts for era, I couldn’t call Roger the best ever. Nor could I give that title to Satchel Paige. Oh, he may have been. But even with the incredible work Eric is doing to help us better understand Negro League statistics, there is too much left to legend and guesswork to anoint Satch the best ever.
That leaves one guy.
Oh, wait, I’m not an ex-player voting for the Hall of Fame using only selected memories.
That leaves one guy.
Walter Johnson was the Babe Ruth of pitchers. He was the Willie Mays of pitchers. He was the Mike Trout of pitchers. Hell, he was the Cy Young of pitchers. Just in terms of straight pitching WAR, he was over 10 on six occasions. Since 1910, he’s had the best season on the mound. And the second best. And five of the best 16. So since 1910, there have been 16 seasons of at least 11.2 on the mound. The Big Train had five of them. All other pitchers in the last 118 years had the other 11.
Yeah, Walter Johnson is the best pitcher in baseball history.
The Best Pitchers of the 1910s
#10 Wilbur Cooper: To me, Cooper is a borderline HoMEr, though just on the wrong side of the borderline. And he’s my favorite pitcher ever named “Wilbur”, which is saying something in a battle with Wilbur Wood. Cooper was more very solid than great, eight times in the period we’re covering reaching 3.8 WAR on the mound but never topping 7.0. Still, Cooper is an all-time great Pirate, first in wins, second in pitching WAR, and third in strikeouts in the team’s history. Alas, the Pirates never made it to the World Series during Cooper’s time there, instead waiting until the first season he was gone to get there. A fine pitcher, Cooper is worth just 29% of that of our decade leader.
#9 Nap Rucker: It’s a little surprising to see Rucker on this list since his last full season was 1913, though at only 32% of our leader, I guess nothing is too surprising. The lefty’s 134-134 career mark somewhat obscures his talent since his team played at a frighteningly bad .430 rate when he wasn’t on the mound. I think it’s so interesting how team names change. The team for whom Clayton Kershaw has played his whole career was the Brooklyn Dodgers for 47 years. We all know that. But they were the Brooklyn Robins for 18 years before that. And they were the Brooklyn Superbas for 15 years before that, the Brooklyn Bridegrooms for the eleven before that, the Brooklyn Grooms for the previous five, the Brooklyn Gray for the three prior, and the Brooklyn Atlantics in their inaugural campaign of 1884. Ask a Dodger fan what names his/her team has gone by. I’d bet not more than 2% can name them all.
#8 Eddie Plank: We’re taking a guy with 35% of our decade leader a little out of order here. Plank was more of a pitcher of the previous decade, and a great one at that, charting #3 on our list. We drop him one spot here since a little more of his “decade” total than I want is based on his work outside the decade. On the other hand, he did pitch further into the decade than Rucker. At 326 wins without a victory title, I soooo wanted to say that Plank had the most in his career without such a title. But I can’t. Pud Galvin won 46 games in both 1883 and 1884. But Old Hoss Radbourn beat him both years. And Charlie Buffinton beat him in 1884 too. For trivia, we can call him the all-time lefty victory leader until he was passed by Warren Spahn and later Steve Carlton.
#7 Hippo Vaughn: Yes, he was given his nickname for reasons you can imagine. Known most today for a 1917 game in which he and Fred Toney each threw no-hitters, Vaughn was indeed a star, particularly from 1916-1919 when his pitching WAR never fell below 6.5. At just 34% of our decade leader, he was still a great pitcher. The end came quickly for Vaughn though. A 1921 season that saw him post a 6.01 ERA through 17 games ended on July 9 outing. After that, he never again showed up to the team. Read about this story. Fascinating. Odd.
#6 Babe Adams: Were it not for the four innings tossed for the 1906 Cardinals, Adams would be a member of the HoME’s Pirate Rushmore. As it is, he’s a borderline HoMEr with over 50 career WAR and 36% of our decade’s leader in what I’m calling value. Adams had an interesting career, not really getting going until he was 27, basically getting released because of a bum shoulder, pitching in the minors for two years, and returning to star or quasi-star status from age 37-40. No blurb about Adams is complete without mention of his three complete game victories against the Tigers in the 1909 World Series.
#5 Ed Walsh: At fifth best, he still clocks in at only 39% of our decade leader. Walsh is in the Hall, he was 7th on last decade’s list, and he has the best ERA ever. I should make a resolution for 2019 where I read one SABR Bio Project profile every day. Walsh’s suggests he was somewhat of the pitching equivalent to Keith Hernandez, attacking bunts like a hungry animal might attack a fresh kill.
#4 Eddie Cicotte: You may know Cicotte as the pitcher whose plunking of Morrie Rath to open the 1919 World Series let the conspirators know that the fix was in. He was also one of the greatest pitchers ever. Since the start of the American League, there have been only five better pitchers from age 33-36 in either league. And despite his removal from the game when he was still near his peak, he’s 73rd in career WAR on the mound. At 41% of our decade leader, he’s the only one of our top four who isn’t among the ten best ever to play the game.
#3 Christy Mathewson: Perhaps you could say that Mathewson is to Walter Johnson as Greg Maddux is to Roger Clemens – one of the absolute greatest ever but pretty clearly a shade behind. In this decade he went 2-4 in the World Series with a 1.33 ERA in eight starts. In the previous decade, 1905 specifically, he made three starts, threw three shutouts, and won games 1, 3, and 5 as his Giants beat the A’s in five games. The second best pitcher of the previous decade, Big Six boasts 42% of the value of our decade leader.
#2 Pete Alexander: I love fun trivia! ‘Ol Pete was named for President Grover Cleveland and portrayed by President Ronald Reagan in The Winning Team. Since 1915, Alexander had three seasons of 30 or more wins. All other pitchers in the game did so on only four occasions. He shares the record for most pitching triple crowns (3) with Walter Johnson and Sandy Koufax. And in what was one of the greatest decades by a pitcher ever (one of seven pitchers ever with 100 points by my formula), he’s not quite worth 2/3 of our leader.
#1 Walter Johnson: With apologies to Cy Young’s shortened decade of the 1890s, I have absolutely no trouble saying that Walter Johnson’s 1910s represent the best decade by any pitcher ever. For this decade, I count 100% of WAR from 1910-1919, 90% from 1909 and 1921, 80% from 1908 and 1922, 70% from 1907 and 1923, and 10% of his career mark for reasons I sort of explain here. There are the best seven scores I referred to above:
Player Decade Score Walter Johnson 1910s 151.34 Cy Young 1900s 115.06 Cy Young 1890s 112.48 Roger Clemens 1990s 103.75 Lefty Grove 1930s 102.21 Tom Seaver 1970s 101.50 Pete Alexander 1910s 100.02
Can the Big Train produce another championship in the 1920s? Find out in a week.