The Best Players of the Last 50 Years - Part XI - Starting Pitchers (11-20)

July 5, 2021
Continuing the countdown with the next 10 in the rankings (11-20)......
 
Up until this point, we've only encountered 3 Hall of Famers, one in each group of 10 - Jack Morris at #48, Catfish Hunter at #38, and Don Sutton at #23, as well as probably a couple more (C.C. Sabathia and Zack Greinke) that I'd say are likely to make it. From this point forward, though, we're shifting into the next gear, as we'll be pretty much looking at either current or (likely) future Hall of Famers, with a couple of cases (Roger Clemens and Curt Schilling) who are in the "I'm not sure what to make of their chances" bucket.
 
#20-John Smoltz
Best category: All Star Games (6th with 8), WAA (18th with 40.4)
Worst category: W-L% (58th with .579)
 
#19-Mike Mussina
Best category: WAA (10th with 48.7), WAR (11th with 82.8)
Worst category: ERA+ (28th with 123)
 
#18-Curt Schilling
Best category: K/BB Ratio (5th with 4.4), WAA (6th with 52.9)
Worst category: Games Started (52nd with 436)
 
I'm going to review Smoltz, Mussina, and Schilling together. They're a natural grouping, with key differences but a lot of similarities. The trio were direct contemporaries with Schilling and Smoltz debuting in 1988 and Mussina joining the majors 3 years later in 1991. They all enjoyed long, successful careers, ultimately retiring in 2007 (Schilling), 2008 (Mussina) and 2009 (Smoltz).  
 
If you take that time frame (1988-2009), I believe there are 2 clear quartets/tiers of starting pitchers. The very elite (the "A+" group) would include Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson, and Pedro Martinez comprising one tier, and the next group down ("A" or "A-") would consist of Schilling, Mussina, Smoltz, and Smoltz's team mate, Tom Glavine (who I'll review shortly). 
 
As to how to rank the 3....well, I think it's awful close. Several years ago in the Reader Posts section of this site, there was a poll conducted asking members to rank the three. 47 members voted, assigning each player a 1st place vote, a 2nd place vote, and a 3rd place vote.   Those results are below, along with a "points" total that awards 3 points for a first place vote, 2 for a second place, and 1 for a third place:
 
Player
1
2
3
Points
Smoltz
19
15
13
100
Mussina
15
15
17
92
Schilling
13
17
17
90
 
In other words, pretty damn close all the way around.   Those results would put the ranking at
Smoltz/Mussina/Schilling, while my ranking has it exactly the reverse, but I think it's razon-thin.
 
What does each one bring to the table?
 
I tried a little experiment, a little 3-man battle. I expanded the category review to 20, and then ranked Smoltz, Schilling, and Mussina in each one. 
 
WAR
WAR7 (top 7 WAR)
All Star Games
Wins
W-L%
ERA
ERA+
Games Started
K/BB Ratio
WAR per 200 Innings Pitched
Wins Above Average (WAA)
JAWS
Complete Games
Shutouts
Saves
Innings Pitched
Strikeouts per 9 Innings Pitched
Walks per 9 Innings Pitched
Hits Allowed per 9 Innings Pitched
Home Runs Allowed per 9 Innings Pitched
 
I ranked each pitcher in each category. If he finished first, he got 3 points, and then 2 for second, and 1 for third, and then I tallied the points. Here are the results:
 
Player
1st
2nd
3rd
Points
Schilling
9
8
3
46
Mussina
6
8
6
40
Smoltz
5
4
11
34
 
Which, as it turns out, is the same order I have them in. But, in reality, I think there's very little separating them. Schilling was the first to appear on the Hall of Fame ballot, Mussina was 2nd, and Smoltz was third, but Smoltz went in right way, Mussina is in but took a few years, and Schilling close but still on the outside looking in, and I think we all know why.
 
I will always think of them together.
 
#17-Tom Glavine
Best category: All Star Games (3rd with 10)
Worst category: K/BB Ratio (185th with 1.74)
 
I mentioned Glavine in the post with the prior 3 (Schilling, Mussina, Smoltz) as he was in that 2nd tier of late 80's to late 00's pitchers. I broke him out from the other 3 as the only lefty and because he was a little different animal than the others. Unlike the other 3, Glavine did not have a very good K/BB ratio (185th out of 226 pitchers in the database). But still great in his own right.
 
Another category in which Glavine did not excel (although it was not a category I used in the methodology) is the fantasy-familiar category of WHIP (walks plus hits per innings pitched). Glavine is the only post-expansion (1961) Hall of Fame pitcher with a WHIP higher than 1.3.  
 
I noticed some general similarities between Glavine and Jim Palmer (coming up shortly at #12).  Both struck out around 5 hitters per 9 innings with walk rates around 3 per 9 innings, and therefore their K/BB ratios (around 1.7) were not really all that good. However, both were multi-season 20 game winners (Palmer 8 times, Glavine 5), and both did extremely well in Cy Young voting (Palmer won 3 awards, had 2 runner up finishes, a third-place finish and 2 fifth-place finishes, while Glavine won 2 with 2 runner up finishes and 2 third-place finishes). Like Palmer, I'm sure Glavine benefitted from being on a great team that provided him substantial offensive and defensive support, but he wasn't an innocent bystander. It took Glavine a few seasons to hit his stride, but from 1991 through the balance of his Braves seasons, he posted a 3.15 ERA, a 134 ERA+, and won two-thirds of his decisios. He was a quality pitcher, a durable pitcher, and was a key part of the team's success.
 
#16-Phil Niekro
Best category: Games Started (4th with 716), WAR (5th with 95.9)
Worst category: K/BB (162nd with 1.85)
 
Let's talk knuckleballers.....
 
Phil Niekro is surely the consensus #1 knuckleballer ever, although I'm sure Hoyt Wilhelm would gather a few votes. Niekro and Wilhelm are the only 2 who I would classify as "primarily" knuckeballers in the Hall of Fame, although Ted Lyons, Early Wynn, and Jesse Haines all had it in their arsenals to various degrees, and they could probably successfully crash the knuckleballer family reunions.
 
Some other knuckleball odds and ends:
 
·         Knuckleballers are already rare, but lefty knuckeballers are virtually non-existent.   By far the most prominent lefty knuckleballer in history was Wilbur Wood, who enjoyed success as both a starting pitcher and a reliever. After Wood, the next most successful lefty knuckleballers were Mickey Haefner, who had some decent years in the 1940's for Washington, and Gene Bearden, who famously won 20 games as a rookie for the 1948 Cleveland Indians, and then topped it off by pitching a shutout in game 3 and saving the clinching game 6 in the World Series championship over the Boston Braves, sealing his place in Cleveland sports lore forever.

·         My vote for the "knuckleball franchise", if there is one, would be the Chicago White Sox. 4 of the most prominent knuckleballers in history pitched primarily for the White Sox - Hoyt Wilhelm, Wilbur Wood, Eddie Fisher, and Eddie Cicotte, with 3 of those (Wilhelm, Wood, and Fisher) logging significant time out of the bullpen during the 1960's.

Although, a special nod should go out to the mid-1940's Washington Senators, who for a while featured 4 knuckleballers in the rotation (Dutch Leonard, Mickey Haefner, Roger Wolff, and Johnny Niggeling). In 1945 that quartet accounted for 111 of the team's 154 games that year. And, they were pretty successful with that group, as the team went 87-67, finishing only 1.5 games behind the Tigers. To the shock of no one, Rick Ferrell led the league with 21 passed balls that season, which at the time was the highest total in more than 30 years.
.
·         As you might expect, several knuckleballers appear prominently on their franchises' all-time innings pitched leaders. Tim Wakefield is the all-time Red Sox leader, Charlie Hough is the all-time Rangers leader, and Ted Lyons (who had a knuckleball in his repertoire) is the White Sox leader (Wilbur Wood is 5th, and Eddie Cicotte is 8th). Phil Niekro (Braves), Joe Niekro (Astros), and Jesse Haines (Cardinals) are all #2 in innings pitched for their respective franchises (behind Warren Spahn, Larry Dierker, and Bob Gibson, respectively)
 
Other knuckleballers with significant careers not mentioned include Eddie Rommel (often considered to be the "father of the modern knuckleball"), Tom Candiotti, Bob Purkey (3-time All Star for the Reds in the 50's and 60's), R.A. Dickey (the lone knuckleballer to win a Cy Young), Steve Sparks, and Jim Bouton.
 
#15-Nolan Ryan
Best category: Games Started (1st with 773), All Star Games (6th with 8)
Worst category: W-L % (154th with .526), K/BB ratio (138th with 2.04)
 
After doing a deep dive into his numbers in my "Nolan vs. Nolan" article last year, I feel I don't have much left to say about Ryan at this point. He's a clear Hall of Famer, but I think there's still a lot of split decisions on whether Ryan was truly a great pitcher, or whether he was more of a very good pitcher who was extremely durable, immensely spectacular, but very flawed. I suppose it's how you look at it. 
 
In my database of 226 pitchers for this project, Ryan is 12th in WAR, but only 96th in WAR per 200 innings pitched. His ERA+ of 112 is good, but far from great - he's ranked 75 out of 226 in my database by that measure. But, lest I be accused of being unfair to Ryan, I should say he ended up #21 in my pure rankings, but I gave him a subjective boost to 16th.
 
Ryan did show consistent improvement in his control as he aged. His BB/9 improved from the Mets (6.1) to the Angels (5.4) to the Astros (3.9) and, finally, the Rangers (3.8).
 
#14-Bert Blyleven
Best category: WAR (6th with 94.5) WAA (8th with 50.2)
Worst category: W-L % (134th with .534)
 
If I had to pick a player whose image has changed the most (for the better) from when he was active until the present, it would probably be Blyleven. I have to admit I was slow to come around on him. I think it's accurate to say that, while he was active, the image I (and many others) had of Blyleven was that of a very talented pitcher, but one who underachieved. His W-L record wasn't good. He rarely was an All-Star. He didn't win any Cy Young awards, and he seldom even placed among the top finishers (2 third place finishes, a fourth place, and a seventh place). He got a lot of attention for giving up a lot of home runs late in his career. When he came up for Hall of Fame consideration, I, like many, thought he had a case, but just not a particularly strong one.
 
I was wrong. Blyleven was a much better pitcher than the consensus of opinion at the time. He was an excellent pitcher, but too often didn't have the necessary team support to stand out, and thus was labeled as "disappointing" or "underachieving". On those few occasions where he got the necessary support, he ended up being a key part of championship teams (1979 Pirates, 1987 Twins). It's notable that in 6 postseason starts, Blyleven never pitched fewer than 6 innings or gave up more than 3 runs. He always gave his team a fighting chance in those games, and his team won 5 of his 6 starts.
 
Blyleven is exhibit A in why it's healthy to have an extended period of Hall of Fame evaluation. Blyleven debuted on the ballot at 17.5%, dropped to 14% the next season, but then started an annual ascent that culminated in getting elected in his 14th attempt. Many voters were surely influenced by the writings of a fellow named Rich Lederer who, beginning in the early 2000's, started writing articles (using a heavy dose of analysis) in favor of Blyleven's election (I know I was influenced by them as well). Blyleven notably shared his appreciation for Lederer's efforts.
 
I'm going to go off on a brief rant here, but it galls me that every year we hear from people who question why a player's Hall of Fame vote totals may fluctuate from year to year. After all, they lamely observe, "his stats haven't changed". This, quite frankly, is one of the stupidest arguments I've ever heard.   I'm not sure how else to express that.
 
Re-evaluating a player's Hall of Fame case is a good thing. It's healthy to look at a player's case with fresh eyes. It's healthy to hear others' perspectives, and to consider new information that may be relevant. That's how we grow, not by locking ourselves in to yesterday's decisions, but by keeping the discussion open. And that goes for more than just baseball......
 
In any case, I'm glad I was persuaded to reconsider his case, and I did a complete 180 on him. Blyleven is fully deserving of his Hall of Fame status. I'm glad he's in.
 
#13-Fergie Jenkins
Best category: WAR (9th with 84.1), WAR7 (9th with 51.4)
Worst category: W-L % (91st with .557)
 
In my formative baseball years (1970's), I played a lot of table-top (dice) baseball simulations. One of the joys of that endeavor was keeping the stats and compiling the various category "leader boards". For some reason, I was drawn to the Strikeout/Walk Ratio stat, even though that wasn't something that you would see regularly published at the time. There seemed something very pure about it to me, even then. A stat that captured outcomes of the one-on-one battle between pitcher and batter that didn't involve defense. Two of the three "true outcomes", as it were. Jenkins was generally at or near the top of the leader boards whenever I would compile those stats.
 
At the time that he retired (1983), Jenkins and Juan Marichal were essentially the kings of the K/BB ratio category. These are the pitchers with the highest career K/BB ratios at the end of the 1983 season, minimum 1,000 innings. I only included AL/NL post 1900:
 
Player
SO/BB
IP
BB
SO
Juan Marichal
3.25
3,507.0
709
2,303
Fergie Jenkins
3.20
4,500.2
997
3,192
Dick Hall
3.14
1,259.2
236
741
Christy Mathewson
2.96
4,788.2
848
2,507
Sandy Koufax
2.93
2,324.1
817
2,396
Don Drysdale
2.91
3,432.0
855
2,486
Jim Merritt
2.89
1,483.0
322
932
Bert Blyleven
2.89
3,177.1
865
2,499
Rube Waddell
2.88
2,961.1
803
2,316
Jim Bunning
2.86
3,760.1
1,000
2,855
 
Hall and Merritt are kind of the oddballs in that group - Hall was primarily a reliever, and neither he nor Merritt were great strikeout pitchers, but both had outstanding control.  If I increased the threshold to 1,500 innings, those 2 would be replaced by Ed Walsh and Don Sutton (with Sutton still being active). In any case, a good K/BB ratio is typically indicative of a quality pitcher.
 
That was then, and this is now. One of the by-products of the historic increase in strikeouts in baseball that has been going on for several years now is that K/BB ratios have exploded upward as well. Since 1983, BB/9 have been relative stable, but K/9 are about 75% higher. As a result, the current league K/BB ratio is 2.67, meaning that the average pitcher today would almost make the top 10 career leader board as of 1983.  A sign of the times.....
 
So where would Jenkins rank now? Instead of being #2, he's now all the way down to #49 (!). 19 of the pitchers currently ahead of him are still active in 2021. 

But, in context, I still consider Jenkins one of the best ever in this category. He led the league 5 times in K/BB ratio, and in my 50+ years of following baseball, only Curt Schilling and Roy Halladay have been able to match that feat. Jenkins' mark of 7.11 in 1971 (263 K's vs. 37 walks) was, at the time, the record for a single-season for ERA qualifiers (again, excluding the old-time era pitchers), and, in the context of his time (league average of 1.67 in 1971), is probably the equivalent of 11.0 or 12.0 in today's baseball environment. 
 
In my 226-pitcher database, Jenkins is 35th in K/BB ratio. Without exception, every single pitcher above him began his career after Jenkins retired. Normalizing for era, Jenkins surely remains one of the greats in this category, an impressive combination of strikeout ability and control of the strike zone.
 
#12-Jim Palmer
Best category: Cy Young Points (4th with 70)
Worst category: K/BB Ratio (192nd with 1.69)
 
In my formative years, Jenkins was synonymous with 20-game winners, having won 20 six seasons in a row (1967-1972), and 7 overall in his career. Palmer, on the other hand, did Jenkins one better. Although he didn't get 6 in a row, he had two streaks of 4 consecutive 20-win seasons, separated by his off year in 1974 (when he only won 7).
 
Is Palmer underrated or overrated? I think he's lost a little luster over the years, and he certainly benefitted by being on a great team, and, in particular a historic defense led by various combinations of Brooks Robinson, Mark Belanger, Paul Blair, Bobby Grich, among others. 
 
However, Palmer ranks in the top 25 in every category in my methodology except for WAR per 200 innings (he's 62nd) and in K/BB ratio, in which he's towards the bottom (192nd out of 226 with a 1.69 ratio). I count 34 Hall of Fame pitchers who pitched primarily since the 1961 expansion season, and Palmer's K/BB ratio is dead last among those. 
 
I don't mean to knock him, merely to point out some facts.   He was a terrific postseason performer, and he was part of 3 World Series champions. He has an excellent 125 ERA+. He was the best pitcher on a great team, and an easy Hall of Famer.
 
#11-Gaylord Perry
Best category: WAR (8th with 90.0), WAR7 (8th with 52.3), Games Started (8th with 690)
Worst category: W-L % (114th with .542)
 
Like a lot of the other pitchers in this section of the top 50 (like Blyleven, Ryan, and Niekro), Perry didn't have a great W-L % record, in part because he rarely ended up on good teams. However, he was a durable and very effective pitcher, and he did post some big seasons (his WAR7 is the 8th highest in my dataset). Unfortunately, his biggest season (24-16, 1.92) in 1972 with Cleveland was in the same year as Steve Carlton's epic 27-10, 1.97 season, and I think it gets a little overlooked.
 
Perry didn't get much of a chance to show off his talents in the postseason. Despite pitching 22 years in the big leagues, Perry only pitched in one postseason (Giants, 1971), and with mixed results - he had a complete game victory vs. the Pirates in game 1 of the NLCS, but then got hammered for 7 runs in game 4.
 
Perry has a case as the best pitcher of the first half of the 1970's, although I think I'd select Tom Seaver. Perry's top 4 seasons by WAR all fell into that 5-year slice.
 
Here are some candidates (sorted by WAR) for the best pitchers from 1970-1974, and I think Perry more than holds his own:
 
Player
WAR
W
L
W-L%
IP
ERA
ERA+
Wilbur Wood
38.1
99
82
.547
1,512.0
2.86
128
Tom Seaver
38.0
89
55
.618
1,365.0
2.53
143
Gaylord Perry
37.0
103
73
.585
1,617.2
2.75
133
Fergie Jenkins
34.3
105
69
.603
1,526.2
3.19
123
Bert Blyleven
31.2
80
75
.516
1,335.2
2.74
134
Mickey Lolich
28.6
93
83
.528
1,592.2
3.40
108
Steve Carlton
27.4
86
71
.548
1,457.2
3.21
117
Bob Gibson
26.2
81
54
.600
1,252.2
3.04
122
Phil Niekro
24.9
76
67
.531
1,328.0
3.14
124
Jim Palmer
23.4
90
50
.643
1,336.1
2.58
134
 
 
 
Next Article
 
I'll post profiles for the top 10 starting pitchers as soon as I complete them.
 
Thanks for reading.
 
Dan
 
 
 
 
    
 
 

COMMENTS (11 Comments, most recent shown first)

evanecurb
Chuck posted some research in Reader Posts a few months ago showing that Palmer, Hunter, and Tiant induced pop ups at a rate that was above the league average. Since FIP does not pick up the ability to induce pop ups, their fWAR and FIP are less impressive than they would be if those pop ups had been strikeouts. Nothing further to add, except to note that our measurements are imperfect and can always be improved.
4:24 PM Jul 14th
 
evanecurb
My two favorite Gaylord Perry stats:

1967-1975 (9 years) - AVERAGED 315 innings, 23 complete games a year.

June 27, 1980: Pitched a four hit shutout at age 41. Game time temperature 109 degrees.
11:38 AM Jul 14th
 
Gibbo1224
Hi Dan,

Trying to compare your list of 50 years to another list of 70 years, do you happen to have rankings of following players by position?

CF Mays & Mantle
LF Williams and Musial
RF Aaron, F Roby, Clemente, Kaline

3B Brooks, Mathews, & Santo
SS Banks
2B J. Robinson
1B D Allen
C Berra

I am sure all the OF Guys will be tops at their position except for Bonds in left, assume he will be # 1.

This maybe asking for TMI so thanks in advance
5:48 PM Jul 12th
 
DMBBHF
Hi guys,

Thank you for all the comments.

Dave,

So if I told you that you missed somebody, would that drive you nuts?

Note, I'm not saying you are missing someone....just asking if it would drive you nuts if I said that :)

Chuck,

Thanks for the comment and the thread in Readers Post. Always interested to see other ways of ranking.

Manush,

Thanks - I grew up Fergie and Gaylord, and I do kind of miss the days where the starting pitchers were used in a more workhorse type of manner.

Bear,

Always nice to see how different rankings, compare, even though you clearly have the order of Schilling, Mussina, and Smoltz wrong :)

MWeddell,

Thank you. One of the things I try to pass along to my kids is that, for example, when you sparingly using something like profanity, it's much more effective and impactful when you do actually use it, which is essentially the same as what you were observing about my "rant".

Gibbo,

Thanks for the comments and continued interest. As to Koufax and Gibson (and I'll go ahead and add Marichal as well), if I only introduced those 3 into the rankings with no other new additions from pre-1970, I'd have Gibson #9, Koufax #10, and Marichal #16.

Thanks,
Dan
9:09 AM Jul 8th
 
Gibbo1224
Hi Dan,

If you were including the sixties any idea where Gibson and Kaufax would rank?

Thanks
8:59 AM Jul 7th
 
chuck
Dan, thanks again for the installment of this interesting series. I was going to post comments here about some of the pitchers' starting pitcher rankings, but instead I started a thread on it over in Reader Posts, reviewing an old study I'd done.
1:19 AM Jul 7th
 
DaveNJnews
So, we've got (in some order):

Kershaw
Pedro
Clemens
Maddux
Seaver
Carlton
Scherzer
Verlander
Randy Johnson
Halliday

10:41 PM Jul 6th
 
Manushfan
Like the high placements of Fergie and Gaylord
Both Awesome.
6:00 PM Jul 6th
 
Gibbo1224
Great job again Dan, interesting that 8 out of your top 20 will be from the seventies decade once Seaver and Carlton are placed in top 10. Supports my claim that SP that pitched complete games are more valuable as they have more control out game out come. Also like to see that you have the Big 3 from 2010 decade in the Top 10.
9:55 AM Jul 6th
 
MWeddell
Thank you, Dan. I especially enjoyed your "rant," probably because your writing usually is so calm and measured, making a rare rant even more effective.
9:21 AM Jul 6th
 
bearbyz
Thank you I enjoy these articles. I have Mussina the 25th best pitcher in history, Smoltz the 26th and Schilling way back in 28th. they are basically on top of each other. By the way Juan Marichal is 27th.
5:02 PM Jul 5th
 
 
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