The Five Best Starting Pitchers I’ve Ever Seen
I’ve been a fan of baseball since I can remember being old enough to comprehend sports. Maybe even earlier because my mom says I was enthralled by sports on TV as a toddler. Lately, I’ve been reflecting on the game in general. This has centered around the change in the role of the starting pitcher during the past decade. Which has me reminiscing about all the greats spanning the early 80s to today. And since we love to rank stuff here at REO I’ve selected the 5 best starting pitchers I’ve seen.
#5 Clayton Kershaw (2008-Present)
In my opinion, longevity and sustained excellence are two important factors when determining the best of the best in the realm of sports. Therefore, I rarely ascribe the label of “all-time great” to players who we expect to have a lot of years left. However, Clayton Kershaw has already done enough to cement himself among the best starting pitchers. Kershaw’s massive 12-6 curveball is the nastiest curveball I’ve ever seen. Hitters can know it’s coming and still look foolish.
I can say a lot about Clayton Kershaw, but allow me to throw out a comparative stat: Kershaw’s career ERA of 2.49 leads the modern era of baseball (among SP’s with 2000+ IP). That’s better than Sandy Koufax, Whitey Ford, Tom Seaver, Jim Palmer, and any other starting pitcher that you can name. Kershaw sits alone atop this list. Since his rookie campaign, Kershaw’s worst ERA was 3.55 in 2021 when he was limited by injuries. For most pitchers, a 3.55 ERA is considered good!
Kershaw boasts a .209 Opp BA for his career. And with the state of the game, that number may improve as he continues to play! His career WHIP is 1.0004, which is the best ever during the Live-Ball era (1920-present) among pitchers with 2400+ IP. With 2670 K’s at the present, Kershaw will easily surpass 3000+ K’s when he retires.
Kershaw won 3 Cy Young awards, including in 2014 when he also took home the NL MVP. Only 11 pitchers have won both the Cy Young and MVP.
#4 Nolan Ryan (1966-1993)
Nolan Ryan was intimidation personified on a baseball mound. He didn’t merely want to get hitters out; Ryan wanted to strike them out. All of them. As the ultimate power pitcher, Ryan possessed a legendary fastball that easily topped 100 mph when this was uncommon. Even to this day, a debate continues that modern radar guns would clock Ryan’s fastball in excess of 108 mph. I will pause to let the possibility of that register. Ryan’s approach and heater earned him the nickname, The Ryan Express.
The Ryan Express was a strikeout machine recording 5714 K’s for his career. Not only is that the most all-time, it’s 839 more than 2nd place! While Ryan will always be remembered for his fastball, any hitter who faced him will testify to the quality of his secondary pitches. Ryan was a complete pitcher.
The “argument” against Ryan is that he piled up numbers such as strikeouts only because he played for so long. While this is true it’s impressive and not a detraction to his status as one of the all-time greats. That being said, Ryan was more than longevity. He was dominant. His career .204 Opp BA is better than anyone else on this list. Likewise, his career ERA of 3.19 compares favorably with anyone in the modern era. Even more so when you consider he played for 27 years. Ryan played so long that stats such as these which are averages instead of totals could have been hurt in the twilight of his career but were not.
So, let’s talk about some of Ryan’s totals. He started 773 games which 2nd all-time (appearing in 807 games total). Ryan tossed 5386 innings which is 5th all-time (and only 20 behind 4th place). For the record, the top 3 in IP all played in the 1800s or early 1900s, known as the Dead-Ball era! Ryan was a workhorse. The man played for 27 seasons pitching until he was 46 years old. Move over Tom Brady! But Ryan wasn’t a sentimental fan favorite nor the old guy playing way beyond his prime. At age 40, he led the league in ERA and K’s. Ryan’s skills never diminished until his final season in 1993. Ryan was the epitome of longevity and sustained excellence.
If you still need more evidence, then how about 7 no-hitters (1st all-time), 12 one-hitters (tied 1st all-time), and 324 wins (14th all-time). Ryan racked up 300+ strikeouts in a season 6 times (tied for 1st all-time).
#3 Randy Johnson (1988-2009)
Randy Johnson had the best fastball-slider combo that I ever saw. As a starter, Johnson’s fastball would routinely reach triple digits. An impressive feat in any era of baseball! Couple his fastball with probably the greatest slider of all time and it almost felt unfair to hitters. When at his best Johnson could throw a slider in the low 90s. For mere mortals in his generation, 90-93 mph was considered a good fastball. Imagine the filthiest slider in the history of the game moving at the speed of a top-tier fastball. Both pitches looked/moved very similar until they neared the plate when the slider broke tremendously. Johnson elicited more bad swings and misses than anyone else on this list.
Dubbed “The Big Unit” because of his 6’10’ stature, Randy Johnson was an imposing sight. He looked like a giant on a pitcher’s mound. Equally gigantic are his career accomplishments. Johnson won 5 Cy Young awards (2nd all-time) and 4 of those were consecutive (1999-2002). Only 1 other player won 4 Cy Youngs in a row (keep reading the find out who). Johnson threw a no-hitter and a perfect game. A perfect game is a rarity in MLB. But Johnson made this feat even more extraordinary by doing it at the age of 40, making him the oldest player to pitch a perfect game.
Now is the perfect (pun intended!) time to examine some of Johnson’s career totals. The Big Unit played 22 seasons when he retired at the age of 45. He started 603 games (21st all-time), pitched 4135.1 innings (38th all-time), and won 303 games (22nd all-time). Due to the evolution of the SP in today’s game, Johnson will probably be the last 300-win pitcher. Best known as a strikeout pitcher, Johnson finished his career with 4875 K’s (2nd all-time).
In comparison to his cumulative totals, Randy Johnson’s career averages are just as noteworthy. He had a 3.29 ERA and .221 Opp BA for his career. But to me, the most telling stat of his dominance is 10.6 K’s per 9 which is 6th all-time and 2nd among those with 2500+ IP (Max Scherzer is 1st). I truly believe that if Randy Johnson pitched in today’s era of baseball his K per 9 would be over 11!
Randy Johnson struck out 300+ hitters in a season 6 times (tied for 1st all-time) and struck out 20 batters in a 9 inning game (tied for the most all-time). He also posted some of the best seasons of his career during the Steroid Era (which I will discuss more in my #2 and #1 picks).
#2 Greg Maddux (1986-2008)
The greatest pitchers of all time possessed either a blistering fastball or a wipeout breaking ball. Or both. Greg Maddux had neither of these in his arsenal. Where he was lacking in velocity Maddux compensated with pinpoint control. He used his baseball IQ rather than a filthy breaking ball to get hitters out. Appropriately, Maddux was called “The Professor”. Maddux knew every hitter’s strengths, weaknesses, tendencies, and factored in the situation to determine how to approach every AB. His brain was modern analytics before modern analytics existed! Maddux was also fearless using any pitch at any count.
I realize that Maddux did not invent the tailing fastball, but he was one of the first I ever saw who featured it prominently. And his tailing fastball was ridiculous. The lateral movement of that pitch was so late that hitters were certain it was outside of the strike zone until at the last moment when it would move sideways to clip the edge of the plate.
Maddux won 4 Cy Young awards (tied 3rd all-time) and all of them were consecutive (1992-1995). If you were paying attention then you know that Randy Johnson was the only other player to win 4 consecutive Cy Young awards.
The Professor was among the last of the rubber arm pitchers. He started 740 games (4th all-time), pitched 5008.1 innings (13th all-time), and won 355 games (8th all-time).
Maddux was legendary both for his control and throwing strikes. He did not walk batters and challenged them in the zone. Maddux led the NL 9 times in walks per 9 innings. His career BB/9 is 1.795 (4th all-time among pitchers with 2400+ IP in the Live-Ball era).
Even without the weapons of a strike-out pitcher, Maddux accumulated 3371 K’s (10th all-time). This is even more impressive when you consider that Maddux pitched to contact knowing he would illicit poor contact more often than not. The opposite of Nolan Ryan, Maddux did not attempt to strike out a batter unless the situation called for it. Maddux simply wanted to get outs.
A glimpse inside the numbers provides a testament to Maddux’s dominance. During the heart of the steroid era (1998-2003), Maddux compiled a 3.05 ERA. And Maddux accomplished this without eclectic stuff! By comparison, the MLB average ERA was 4.49 during the same 6-year span. Also worth noting, this was the highest 6-year span for ERA in the Live-Ball era.
Finally, I cannot discuss Greg Maddux’s career without mentioning that he was a complete player. Spending his entire career in the NL, Maddux learned to handle the bat and was more than apt at bunting. Maddux was also the best fielding pitcher I ever saw (and probably ever was and will be). Over his 23 year career, Maddux piled up a whopping 18 Gold Gloves (13 consecutive). That is more Gold Gloves than any other player ever. Note that I said, “player” and not “pitcher”.
#1 Pedro Martinez (1992-2009)
Unlike some on my list, Pedro Martinez was physically unassuming. By modern standards, he was short and skinny for a pitcher. But make no mistake, few pitchers struck fear into the heart of a hitter like Pedro Martinez. Despite his stature, Pedro’s stuff was electric! His toolkit featured 5 pitches, each one distinct from the other (no variations of the same pitch). While that’s not unheard of what made Martinez so special was that each of his pitches was considered the best or among the best in baseball during his career! Undoubtedly, he had the best change-up of all time. Probably the best tailing fastball ever too. Pedro Martinez had more options to get hitters out than any pitcher I ever saw.
As previously mentioned, cumulative stats gained through longevity and sustained excellence are important factors when determining greatness in sports. While respectable, Pedro Martinez comes up short in this regard when compared to other all-time greats. Sadly, injuries cut his career was cut short. And as a result, Martinez’s abilities and stats were up and down throughout his final seasons as he battled not only his opponents but his body as well.
Another factor when determining greatness is to compare a player with their contemporaries. Simply put, Pedro Martinez’s prime was so dominant and far beyond his peers that no one else compares. Pedro’s prime occurred from 1997 to 2003 which encompassed most of the Steroid Era (if not all as the precise start remains unknown). For pitchers, this was without a doubt the toughest era in the history of baseball as hitters recorded career stats and unparalleled feats. Martinez also pitched in the AL during 6 of these 7 seasons which has always had a higher BA, more HRs, and more runs scored since it adopted the DH.
Finally, for good measure consider that Martinez’s home ballpark, Fenway, is renowned as a hitter’s park. No pitcher should be able to thrive during that time and even more so in the AL and certainly not at Fenway! That’s impossible, right? To be good in this environment a pitcher had to be great. To be great a pitcher had to be otherworldly. And to be otherworldly a pitcher had to be Pedro Martinez.
Just how good was Martinez during his prime? Feast your eyes on his averages for 1997-2003: ERA 2.20, .198 Opp BA, 0.94 WHIP, and 252 K’s (which would have been higher had Martinez not missed almost 1/3 of the season in 2001 due to injury). He won the Cy Young award 3 times (1997, 1999, 2000), struck out 300+ twice, and led the league in ERA 5 times (he did not qualify in 2001 due to injury). These stats are amazing in any era, any league, and any ballpark. But they are almost unbelievable when you apply them to the environment outlined above in which Martinez pitched.
Some contend that Pedro’s 2000 Cy Young season was the greatest ever for a pitcher (no disclaimers or parameters). You can count me among those who agree. Martinez’s line for that season was 1.74 ERA, .167 Opp BA, 217 IP, 284 K’s, 0.737 WHIP, and 11.8 K/9. His .167 Opps BA was the best all-time. Again these numbers are mind-boggling. But allow me to emphasize just how difficult it was to pitch in this era/season using a couple of comparisons. The average ERA in the AL for 2000 was 4.91 and the runner-up in the AL for ERA was 3.70 (Roger Clemens). Martinez wasn’t just the best among his peers; he ran laps around them!
Pedro Martinez is 1 of only 2 players who pitched a perfect game without recording a perfect game. In 1995, Martinez was perfect through 9 innings when the game remained tied 0-0. In the 10th inning, Martinez lost both the perfect game and no-hitter when he allowed a double. For me, I find this accomplishment as impressive as any official perfect game.
Despite injuries that resulted in his worst seasons at the end of his career Martinez still had several impressive career averages and totals such as a 2.93 ERA, .214 Opp BA, 1.05 WHIP (2nd all-time among pitchers with 2400+ IP in the Live-Ball era), and 3154 K’s (13th all-time).
Your turn: Who are the greatest starting pitchers of your lifetime?
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10 thoughts on “The Five Best Starting Pitchers I’ve Ever Seen”
The thing about Maddux in 1998-03 vs. the rest of baseball is that that wasn’t even his peak. He was definitely better in 1992-95. Yet even coming down from his prime he was a run and a half better than the average pitcher. Amazing.
He also could have had another Cy Young or two. I definitely think Pedro deserved it for the Expos in 1997 but the same criteria that lost it for Maddux that year, won it for Tom Glavine in 1998. He should have won in at least one of those years. I feel confident had he not won 4 already that would have happened.
Also, I’m curious if left off Rogers Clemens for PED reasons or some other.
Gowdy, I strongly considered Roger Clemens for my list. His career totals, averages, and achievements are all impressive. Ultimately, he didn’t make my cut because:
1) Clemens struggled mightily in the Steroid Era (1998-2003). Excluding 1998, his ERA for the rest of this period was 3.99 which included a 4.60 ERA in 1999. Even if you include 1998, his average ERA for the Steroid Era is a little better but certainly not impressive. This period separated the good pitchers from the average and the great pitchers from the all-time great. Greg Maddux was at a very similar point in his career both in age and years in the league. And he navigated the Steroid Era with better success.
2) Clemens wasn’t consistent. Six times Clemens finished a season with an ERA over 4. That’s 1/4 of his career! And these didn’t all occur from a catalyst such as the twilight of his career because his skills/physique were diminishing, his first seasons while he adjusted to the Bigs, or an injury. These seasons were sprinkled throughout his career.
3) Allegations of PEDs. Most who follow baseball and many with inside knowledge firmly believe Clemens used PEDs. No one on my list has been accused of PEDs.
I hate defending Clemens because I do think he was a cheater and he was rather unlikeable. The PEDs would be the only reason I’d leave him off of a list like this. Assuming he’s innocent I think his resume is Top 2-3. 7 Cy Youngs, 7 times leading the league in ERA, 3rd all time in Ks, 707 starts, 49000 innings pitched, 10th (I think) in Ks per 9 innings among those with 2400+ innings pitched, 355 Wins, A Cy Young + MVP season.
I think his bad seasons being interspersed throughout his career is offset by his great seasons near the beginning and end. That comes out to a wash to me. He did have a lower career ERA than Maddux despite pitching in the AL, at Fenway, etc.
And even in that unofficial window you gave of 98 to 03 he had two Cy Youngs. Since there’s no way to know exactly when the PED era was, I find it harder to count that against him. If you look at 97-04 for example he won 4, or over half, of his CYs.
If stats were the only factor then Clemens would bump Kershaw off my list. I would probably rank him #5 but not higher for the reasons outlined in my prior comment.
For my personal list, the issue of PEDs is significant. There are numerous voices who believe Clemens took PEDs often and for many years. This includes the use of words such as “incontroversial evidence” (or something similar of not those exact words) by federal investigators who helped build the original reports/cases against players.
When I think about the “video game” stats that were recorded in the Steroid Era I have no doubt players who were using PEDs gained a significant advantage over the competition. In my mind such stats aren’t “real”. They are a result of cheating.
When you add both of these together I cannot include Roger Clemens among the best I ever saw.
Those who personally knew Clemens with a “front-row seat” to his career generally say that PEDs gave him another 6-7 years of excellent production that otherwise wouldn’t have been possible. If that’s the case then Clemens would be remembered as an great pitcher with an excellent resume (probably even HOF worthy!) but not among the all-time best of the best. He would be just outside my list which is where he landed when I compiled my final version.
BTW Gowdy, Clemens pitched a ton throughout his career but didn’t quite reach the 49,000 innings that you mentioned, lol! You forgot the period in there. For the record, Clemens had 4916.2 IP.
I’m mostly in favor of the choices but would shuffle them a bit. Nice picks! My list would look like this…
1. Nolan Ryan – totally dominate. Best power pitcher ever.
2. Greg Maddux – No one could pinpoint control and get you out in the strike zone like him. League of his own.
3. Randy Johnson – intimidating. Dominant.
4. Justin Verlander – Workhorse. Nolan Ryan-like.
5. Clayton Kershaw – best regular season pitcher of the last 10-15 years.
Just outside the Top 5 honorable mention:
John Smoltz – Top-notch starter. Playoff clutch. Only pitcher to compile over 200 wins AND 150 saves. Won a cy young. Led the lead and set a Braves record with 24 wins in 1996.
Josh, thanks for sharing your list! Those are excellent selections and you’ll get no argument from me about any of them.
I’m a HUGE Nolan Ryan fan! Just ask Gowdy, lol (years ago we had a now-famous discussion about Ryan and where he stacked up among the all-time greats). I wish I could have seen more of his career. I struggled not whether to include him but at which rank. Before finalizing my list, I think I had Ryan everywhere but #1 at some point.
Justin Verlander is absolutely in my top 10. Excellent choice. He also won the Cy Young and MVP in the same season. He was super close to making my cut.
I considered John Smoltz but since part of his career was spent as a closer (and a mighty fine closer!) I couldn’t include him. Had he been a SP throughout I think he would have bumped Kershaw.
Good article, Mark. You’ve done your research, and your analysis is insightful. You made some good choices, though not everyone will agree with you, including me (probably). I think that some other greats can be included, I e. Sandy Koufax, Walter Johnson, Lefty Grove, and Bob Gibson, but this is the stuff of great arguments over baseball. Thanks.
Thanks, Mr. Steve! Even though it was time-consuming I had a blast researching and calculating stats for my list.
Your choices are all fantastic and absolutely measure up to anyone on my list. However, I could not include any of those players because to be considered a pitcher had to be someone I personally saw play and followed their career. I go back a bit but not far enough to have seen the players you named. But that’s what’s great about this type of list: different people can each focus on the players from the years when they followed the game.
Good point, and you’re exactly right: the best you, personally, ever saw. And it’s hard to argue with your choices!