The one position that has seen the most drastic change over the course of baseball history is the pitcher. There has been changes to the ball, the mound, throwing techniques, use of the bullpen and more. This is one list in which you are unlikely to find a pitcher before 1920 despite the fact that career wins leader Cy Young and a majority of the top career ERA leaders pitched during that time. Those pitchers competing against hitters in the modern era, given the ball specifications and field dimensions of today, would get run out of the league.
Again, this is a very competitive position in terms of doing a “greatest of all time” list for. So, once again we will include our 5 honorable mentions.
Whitey Ford, Dizzy Dean, Nolan Ryan, Justin Verlander, Mordecai Brown
Honorable, Honorable Mention: Satchel Paige
Satchel Paige entered the MLB at the age of 41 and played 6 seasons primarily out of the bullpen. During this time he managed to be a 2x All Star while compiling 288 strikeouts to just 180 walks and had 4 shutouts in 26 starts. His career WHIP of 1.279 puts him just behind Lefty Grove all time and his 3.29 career ERA matches the career mark of Randy Johnson. Had Paige played in the MLB during his prime, he would easily be among the top 5 pitchers of all time.
15) Grover Alexander
Alexander was one the best pitchers during the Dead Ball Era. He had a 2.06 ERA along with 235 wins, a 1.059 WHIP and 1712 strikeouts in the 10 years between 1911 and 1920. During the first half of the century from 1900 to 1950 it was a rare thing to see a pitcher strike out over 200 batters. So rare was this feat that from 1900 to 1950 only 11 pitchers reached the mark in 2 or more seasons compared to 16 since 2013. He was able to reach the 200 strikeout plateau 4 times. However, Alexander’s career took a drastic turn after the Dead Ball Era came to an end after 1920. In the final 10 years of his career his ERA and WHIP soared to 3.30 and 1.215 respectably. He also managed just 138 wins. He also lost the ability to strike batters out. Capable of striking out 200+ during the Dead Ball Era, Alexander couldn’t strikeout more than 77 batters in any of his final 10 seasons.
14) Steve Carlton
The 4x Cy Young winner had a sporadic career. He was inconsistent from year to year. No two years showcase his inconsistency more than 1972 and 73. In 1972, Carlton won the Triple Crown with 27 wins, 310 strikeouts and a 1.97 ERA. In 1973 he collapsed and led the league with 20 losses. Though he did still strikeout a respectable 223 batters, his ERA soared to 3.90. 1972 would be the only season Carlton would lead the league in ERA, though he did have an additional 3 seasons leading the league in wins and 4 additional seasons leading the league in strikeouts. When he retired Carlton was ranked second all time in strikeouts with 4136.
13) Greg Maddux
Maddux was one of the most consistent pitchers of all time. Though he did have a 4 year stretch of pure dominance between 1992 and 1995 when he won 4 consecutive Cy Young Awards. He posted a remarkable 1.98 ERA with 75 wins and a 0.953 WHIP. Outside of that 4 year stretch he won between 14-19 games a season for 16 years. 10 of those seasons he posted an ERA under 3.50, leading the league one more time with a 2.22 in 1998. 1998 was also the only season that Maddux would break the 200+ strikeout mark with 204 Ks that season. A unique quality of Maddux is that he was among the greatest fielding pitchers of all time, winning an incredible 18 Gold Gloves. His 355 wins also rank 8th all time.
12) Christy Mathewson
The only pitcher on this list to spend their entire career in the Dead Ball Era, Mathewson was a step above the competition during that time. Just like Alexander, Mathewson was one of the few pitchers capable of striking out 200+ batters during the first half of the 1900s. He accomplished this feat 5 times during his career. Though his career ERA of 2.13, ranking 8th all time, and 373 wins, 3rd all time, are a testament to the era in which he played, he did lead the league in ERA 5 times and wins 4 times. He also led the league in WHIP 4 times.
11) Bob Feller
Feller is often regarded as one of the fastest pitchers of all time. He missed 3.5 years to serve in World War II. He was at his best during that time as his 3 years before the war and 2 seasons after war were incredible. In those 5 seasons, Feller had a 2.68 ERA with 127 wins and 1370 strikeouts. He led the league in both wins and strikeouts all 5 seasons and led in ERA just once. He struck out 348 batters in 1946 which was just one strikeout short of Rube Waddell’s record at the time. However, outside of those 5 seasons Feller struggled. His ERA through the end of his career was 3.70 while winning just 108 wins and 745 strikeouts over 9 seasons.
10) Bob Gibson
One of the meanest pitchers of all time, Gibson used intimidation to get the best of batters. His methods worked as he posted the lowest single season ERA outside of the Dead Ball Era when he posted an otherworldly 1.12 ERA in 1968. That same season he had 13 shutouts, led league in strikeouts with 268 and also led the league with his 0.853 WHIP. This would be the only time in his career that he led the league in any of those categories. Though he rarely topped the league season to season, he did accumulate impressive career numbers with 3117 strikeouts, 251 wins and a .291 ERA.
9) Warren Spahn
Spahn was a true workhorse throughout his career. He led the league in complete games an impressive 8 times in his career. He also won a ton of games, leading the league in wins 8 times and compiling 363 in his career, 6th all time. Though he never hit the 200 strikeout mark in a single season, he did lead the league in that category 4 times. He won his only Cy Young Award in 1957, though his best season was in 1953 when he posted a league leading 2.10 ERA and 23 wins.
8) Pedro Martinez
Spending a majority of career pitching against the mighty Yankees, Pedro had an impressive 7 year stretch in the heart of the steroid era between 1997 and 2003. At a time when home runs flew out of ballparks, Pedro was shutting down the offensive at a staggering rate. In that 7 year stretch, Pedro had a ridiculously low 2.20 ERA and 0.940 WHIP while winning 118 games and striking out 1761 batters. He even posted the lowest single season WHIP of all time in 2000 with a ridiculous 0.737. Outside of that stretch though, Pedro had an ERA well over 3.70 and a 101-64 in 10 seasons.
7) Tom Seaver
Seaver was as good as they come while pitching for the Mets early in his career. In his 10 seasons with the Mets, Seaver won 3 Cy Young Awards and the Rookie of the Year. He also posted a 2.47 ERA, 182 wins and 2334 strikeouts. He led the league in wins twice, ERA 3 times and strikeouts 5 times while playing for the Mets. However, the second half of his career wasn’t as great. During those 10 seasons he had a 3.37 ERA, 1306 strikeouts and just 129 wins.
6) Clayton Kershaw
The best current pitcher, Kershaw is simply on another level. Outside of his first season, Kershaw has never had his ERA rise higher than 2.91 during his first 9 seasons while leading the league 5 times. Kershaw has won 3 Cy Young Awards and was also the first NL pitcher to win the MVP since Bob Gibson in 1968. In 2015, Kershaw became the first pitcher to strikeout 300+ batters since Randy Johnson last did it in 2002. Kershaw currently holds a career WHIP of 1.005 and ERA of 2.37. Both of which are the lowest by any starting pitcher outside of the Dead Ball Era.
5) Sandy Koufax
Koufax had arguably the best 5 year stretch of all time between 1962 and 1966. During that stretch Koufax led the league in ERA all 5 years on his way to winning 3 Triple Crowns. He posted a 1.95 ERA while winning 111 games and striking out 1444 batters in just 1377 innings. He won 3 Cy Young Awards and an MVP while also posting a 0.926 WHIP. With all of that, why does he land 4th on our list and not higher? Because the other 7 years of his career he had a 3.94 ERA with a 1.368 WHIP and a mediocre record of 54-53.
4) Randy Johnson
Randy Johnson was one of the most intimidating pitchers of all time with his high speed fastball, devastating slider and his 6’11” frame. He was a strikeout machine, holding the career record for K per 9 Innings, most seasons with 300+ strikeouts and is also the career leader by a wide margin in strikeouts by lefthanded pitchers. He is the only pitcher with 2 games of 19+ strikeouts in the same season and tied the record of 20 strikeouts in a single game. He also ranks second all time in most games with 10+ strikeouts with 212 occasions, just 3 behind Nolan Ryan. Third place on that list is Roger Clemens at 110. On his way to that mark he posted the record for most 10+ strikeout games in a single season with 23, a mark he has reached 3 times. Unfortunately Johnson didn’t play for the best teams throughout his career, reaching the World Series just once in 2001 when he won the World Series MVP with an impressive performance. In that Series against the Yankees he had a 1.04 ERA, 0.692 WHIP and 19 strikeouts in just 17 innings while going 3-0 including a shutout. Playing for subpar teams led to Johnson only leading the league in wins once during his last of 4 consecutive Cy Young Awards and his Triple Crown season of 2002. Despite leading the league in wins just once, Johnson did lead the league in ERA 4 times and strikeouts 9 times.
3) Roger Clemens
The biggest rival to Randy Johnson in the 1990s and early 2000s was the Rocket and an argument can be made either way for which pitcher was better. We had to go with Clemens primarily because he dominated while pitching in the tough AL East for a majority of his career. He won back-to-back Triple Crowns in 1997 and 98 with a combined 41 wins, 563 strikeouts and an incredible 2.33 ERA at a time when home runs flew out of ballparks at a frightening pace. He won a record 7 Cy Young Awards and struck out a record 20 batters in a game, twice and 18 on a 3rd occasion, matching Randy Johnson as the only 2 pitchers to have 3 18+ strikeout games. Clemens ended his career with 4672 strikeouts (3rd all time) and 354 wins (9th all time). He also led the league in ERA 7 times.
2) Lefty Grove
The best lefty of all time, Grove just edges out Johnson on this list. While Koufax had arguably the greatest 5 year stretch of all time and Johnson dominated with strikeouts, Grove maintained his dominance over 14 seasons from 1926 to 1939 with a low ERA. In that time he led the league in ERA 9 times while also leading in strikeouts 6 times and wins 4 times. Between 1928 and 1932, Grove won 128 games with a 2.56 ERA and 925 strikeouts, winning the Triple Crown in back-to-back seasons in 1930 and 1931. He was also masterful in the World Series, getting their 3 times in his career and posting a remarkable 4-2 record with a 1.75 ERA and 36 strikeouts.
1) Walter Johnson
The Big Train’s career has stood the test of time as he spent a majority of his career in the Dead Ball Era. During the Dead Ball Era, no pitcher was better than Johnson who recorded a 1.65 ERA, 0.969 WHIP, 297 wins and 2614 strikeouts between 1907 and 1919. During that time he struck out 300+ batters twice, making him just one of 3 players to reach the 300 strikeout plateau between 1900 and 1960. During the Dead Ball Era, Johnson led the league in ERA 4 times, strikeouts 9 times, WHIP 5 times and wins 5 times. Unfortunately, Johnson’s Senators was typically a second division team, only having 10 seasons with a winning record leading to Johnson’s impressive records of 38 1-0 victories and 110 shutouts. If he were on a better team than Cy Young’s wins record would be surpassed. As it was, Johnson recorded 417 career wins while the Senators as a team won 1559 during his career. This means that Johnson won an incredible 27% of the team’s wins during his career. This is compared to just 279 losses, 26 of which were lost in a 1-0 game. His statistics did see a drop after 1919, but he still showed dominance, especially in 1924 when he won his record 3rd Triple Crown and 2nd MVP. That season he posted a 2.72 ERA with 23 wins and 6 shutouts while leading the Senators to their first World Series title.