Lists. Who doesn’t love them? We love lists so much here at Pitcher List that the word “list” is in our name! Sports and lists go together like hamburgers and french fries, peas and carrots, or dogs and fleas – you get the picture. Baseball may lend itself to lists more than any other sport thanks to, you know, it being around for 150 years. As such, we will celebrate the great sport of baseball with a new series of lists. Welcome to the Top Ten!
Every other week we’ll reveal a new Top Ten list that celebrates the great sport of baseball. For this, our inaugural entry, we pretty much have to start on the mound. After all, the other word in our name is “Pitcher.”
Narrowing down all the great pitchers across several generations to ten was not easy. To do so, we had to pour through a ton of data, keeping in mind the differences between eras. Without getting into too much detail, here are a few notes on how the selections were made:
- Longevity matters! Greatness is achieved over a long period of time. Thus, an accumulation of stats is essential. Pitchers who dominated throughout a long career were rewarded in some of the statistics, including Wins, Shutouts, WAR, and RA9-WAR. For this reason, all-time greats like Sandy Koufax and Rube Waddell didn’t quite make it. Despite their dominance, they couldn’t crack the Top Ten due to their relatively short careers.
- Longevity is important, but so is dominance! In addition to stats positively influenced by long careers, we counter-balanced with averaging stats such as K/BB, ERA, FIP, and WHIP. We also calculated Wins per Game Started and WAR per Innings Pitched to offset the innings eaters.
- Once we set the criteria, there was no fudging. This list is based on analytics, and we strived to balance the changes in the sport across generations. That is why, for example, we used K/BB versus K/9, as strikeouts are much more common in the modern game. The resulting list includes pitchers across every generation.
- The data was sourced from Fangraphs, and thus some of the calculations may differ slightly from other sites. If you’re curious about definitions and formulas, you can find them in their glossary.
Without further ado, let’s get to the fun part. Below in descending order, are our Top Ten Pitchers of all time. Let the debate begin!
10. Clayton Kershaw
Clayton Kershaw is the only active pitcher to make the Top Ten. If he continues to pitch effectively for a few more seasons, he’ll climb higher on the list as the only thing holding him back is longevity. Where Kershaw really shines is in his amazing control. His K/BB ratio of 4.4 and his WHIP of 1.00 are third among pitchers’ all-time (minimum of 2,000 innings). In addition, his WAR/IP is among the highest in history.
Kershaw’s accolades to date include eight All-Star game appearances, three Cy Young awards, and the National League MVP in 2014. He led all of MLB in ERA five times, including four years in a row from 2011 to 2014. To this point, Kershaw has done it all for one team, which you will see is a rarity among the greats.
9. Randy Johnson
Randy Johnson, aka “The Big Unit,” didn’t start to flourish until he was 29-years-old. He was inconsistent and had difficulty throwing strikes early on, but he was spectacular once he figured it out. After he joined the Diamondbacks in 1999 at the age of 35, he proceeded to win four Cy Young awards in a row and was the NL ERA leader in three of the four seasons.
Perhaps in part because of his late ascendancy, Johnson pitched until he was forty-five. As a result of his long career, he is among the all-time leaders in WAR and RA9-WAR (fifth and twelfth, respectively). The Big Unit won five Cy Young awards in total and pitched in ten All-Star games. He was also co-MVP of the 2001 World Series. Johnson was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2015 with 97.3% of the vote. As the remaining starters in the Top Ten are all right-handed, Johnson is thus the greatest lefty in history – unless Kershaw can overtake him in the next few years.
8. Pedro Martinez
Despite showing tremendous promise over his first two seasons, the Dodgers foolish traded Pedro Martinez to the Expos after the 1993 season. Apparently, they were concerned that the slightly-built Martinez wouldn’t be able to hold up. They were wrong. It took a few years, but Martinez started to dominate in 1997 – his last year in Montreal. He won the MLB ERA title and the NL Cy Young award that year. After the season, Martinez was promptly traded to the Red Sox as the Expos feared they would lose him to free agency the following winter.
The American League did not slow Martinez down, as he would win two more Cy Young awards with Boston and finish second in the voting two other times. He made eight All-Star teams altogether and was a key member of the 2004 Red Sox team that finally broke the “Curse of the Bambino.” Martinez had exceptional control, finishing just behind Kershaw in all-time WHIP and K/BB. His WAR/IP ratio is the highest in history. He entered the Hall of Fame the same year as Johnson – in 2015 – with 91.1% of the vote.
7. Greg Maddux
In the modern era, Greg Maddux’s 355 wins are the most by any pitcher. Some of this resulted from playing for some great teams, but primarily it was due to his incredible durability. From 1991 to 1995, Maddux led the league in innings pitched. For his career, excluding his short rookie season, he averaged 207 innings per season. This durability and longevity is a big reason why Maddux ranks fourth in WAR all-time.
His durability shouldn’t overshadow how great a pitcher he was, however. Maddux won four Cy Young awards and four NL ERA titles in his career to go with eight All-Star game appearances. On top of all that, his 18 gold gloves make him arguably the best fielding pitcher of all time. Some people discount Maddux as he wasn’t a big strikeout pitcher in an era when there were many. However, his ability to dominate for so long illustrates how smart and crafty he was in our book. Maddux was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2014 with 97.2% of the vote.
6. Tom Seaver
Tom Seaver is often overlooked on lists such as this one, perhaps because he pitched in the so-called “Second Deadball Era” to start his career. But he shouldn’t be. Seaver’s career was a great mix between longevity and dominance. He ranks high in almost every category, and his 61 shutouts are the highest of any modern-era pitcher.
Seaver’s career started strong and didn’t slow down much until he was in his mid-30s. He was the NL Rookie-of-the-Year in 1967 and pitched in the All-Star game ten out of his first eleven seasons (twelve altogether), winning three Cy Young awards over that span. On top of that, Seaver’s accolades include three NL ERA titles and five strikeout titles. He was the best pitcher of his generation and is the only Top Ten member from this era. Seaver was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1992 with 98.8% of the vote.
5. Roger Clemens
There’s no doubt that Roger Clemens is the most controversial name on this list. After all, many of his outstanding numbers result from his longevity – which many believe resulted from PED usage. However, we have no way of knowing who did what throughout history and thus have chosen to stick strictly to the stat sheet. Based on the data, there’s no doubt that Clemens belongs.
Clemens’s career paralleled Greg Maddux’s in many ways, although Clemens was far better at generating strikeouts. He pitched for a long time and racked up the highest WAR in history in the process. He fell one win shy of Maddux for the most in the modern era, but his seven Cy Young awards are unmatched historically (since its creation in 1956). On top of these accomplishments, add an MVP, seven ERA titles, five strikeout titles, and eleven All-Star games to his resume. “The Rocket” had a fantastic career – unfortunately, one not without controversy.
4. Pete “Grover Cleveland” Alexander
The remaining pitchers on this list all played a long time ago. Thus, it is impossible to know how Pete Alexander would have performed in the modern era. What we do know is that during his time, he dominated. Some of his numbers – 437 complete games and 90 shutouts, for example – are incomprehensible in 2022. However, even compared to his contemporaries, they were pretty amazing.
For perspective, here’s a list of how many times Alexander led the league in a particular category over the course of his career: Wins (6), ERA (5), Complete Games (6), Shutouts (7), Innings Pitched (7), K’s (6), and WHIP (5). Against his peers, he was spectacular. Alexander was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1938 – the third year of the hall’s existence. He was the ninth player voted in overall.
3. Cy Young
Cy Young, the man whom the famous award is named after, checks in at number three on our list. Cy Young is the oldest member of the group, and many of his records will likely never be broken. 7,354 innings pitched? Please. 511 wins? Come on now. 749 complete games? Give me a break. You couldn’t put up these kinds of numbers playing a video game.
How good was Cy Young actually, though? There’s no doubt that much of his greatness is tied to his incredible volume. However, he dominated in his time as well. While not a huge strikeout pitcher, he did lead the league in the category twice. He rarely walked anyone, as evidenced by his leading the league in BB/9 an astounding fourteen times. In addition, Young won the ERA title twice and had the lowest WHIP seven times. They wouldn’t name the award after just anyone, after all. Young made it into the Hall of Fame in 1937 with the second group of electees.
2. Christy Mathewson
Christy Mathewson’s career was a relatively short 17 seasons long. Thus, he didn’t throw nearly as many innings as Pete Alexander, Cy Young, or #1 on this list. He earned his place through dominance. His career ERA of 2.11 and FIP of 2.22 over 4,747 innings are hard to match. Only four pitchers with more than 2k innings pitched had lower lifetime ERAs than Mathewson, and only one of them, Mordecai Brown, threw more than 3k innings. Critics will point out that Mathewson pitched his entire career during the Dead Ball Era (1900 – 1919). However, compared to his peers during this period, Mathewson still shined.
Throughout his 17 seasons, the New York Giant legend had the lowest ERA in the league five times and the lowest FIP eight times. He won the strikeout title five times and had the lowest BB/9 seven times. In 1905 and 1908, Mathewson won the NL pitching triple crown. He was a force to be reckoned with, without a doubt. Mathewson pitched his entire career for the New York Giants except for one game. The last start of his career came as a member of the Cincinnati Reds, where he was traded in July 1916. He pitched a complete game and earned the win despite giving up eight earned runs. Mathewson was among the five players voted into the initial Hall of Fame class in 1936.
1. Walter Johnson
Drumroll, please… The greatest pitcher of all time award goes to… Walter Johnson! But seriously, if you made it this far without scrolling down first, you are to be commended on your discipline. “The Big Train” ranks #1 due to his longevity and dominance. Consider Johnson’s career rank among pitchers who threw 2,000+ innings in their career (397 players):
The dude was good at everything! We see the same thing if we use the contextual approach, ala Mathewson, Young, and Alexander. The Big Train had the lowest ERA in the league five times and the lowest FIP nine. To further this, Johnson’s ERA was under 2.00 twelve times in his first thirteen seasons. He led in IP five times, strikeouts twelve times, and WHIP six times. Oh, and he did it all for one team. We could go on, but you get the picture. Johnson was another member of the initial Hall of Fame class, joining Mathewson, Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, and Honus Wagner. That’s some pretty good company.
Watch for the next Top Ten in two weeks. If you enjoyed this article, check out our All-Franchise Starting Lineup in the between weeks. You can find both, along with tons of other great content, in the We Love Baseball section.
Photo by Ben Gorman/Unsplash | Adapted by Justin Redler (@reldernitsuj on Twitter)
Way to recognize greatness with Kershaw at the end.
I have respect for what the old-timers like Alexander and Mathewson did, but I feel like Unit should be higher than he is. Clemens and others technically have more longevity/some edge in counting stats, but it feels like Unit was the perfect blend of longevity and consistent dominance. He seems more like a guy who’s 5th or 6th best at worst.
Thanks for your thoughts Ben! You could certainly make an argument for the Big Unit as he was so dominant during the middle of his career. His early and late years drove his ERA, FIP, and WHIP up, which is what kept him from ranking higher using my methodology. It all depends on your preference though – there’s no wrong answer!
Right, his first dominant year (when he finally got the walks under control) wasn’t until age 29!!
He must have one of the best decades after 30 of anyone in baseball history though.
The real greatest pitcher was Sandy Koufax.
In terms of dominance, you may be right. Unfortunately, Sandy only played 12 seasons, was a full-time starter for only nine, and a dominant starter for five. Those last five seasons of his career may be the best of any pitcher in history, though. Perhaps that could be a future Top Ten – the greatest five-year runs!
You are absolutely right. Greatest pitcher of all time undoubtably was Sandy Koufax. Ask some of the greatest players of all time, Mantle,Mays,Aaron. Casey called him the Greatest and he saw all the old timers pitch. Greatest ever Sandy Koufax!!!
The real number two was Lefty Grove. He is “Everest over Kansas” better than Koufax if you use the relevant data.. Why Grove keeps getting left off the recent “fan” type lists is an indictment of our historical knowledge of the game of baseballs This is the REAL top ten list of pitchers all-time
10 Greg Maddux.
9. Kid Nichols.
8. Tom Seaver
7. Pete Alexander
6. Pedro Martinez
5. Cy Young
4. Randy Johnson
3. Roger Clemens
2. Lefty Grove
1. Walter Johnson
If I deconstruct this list using the best stats WAR and WAR?250, the three top pitchers which I cannot meaningfully sepearate aare Johnson, Grove and Clemens. Between them they had 38 seasons of all-star quality pitching (5.0 WAR or better: Grove, 13; Clemens 13; Johnson; 13) WA does not lie or conceal. If a pitcher even avoided competition it will show up in WAR War is a full context stat. It confirms what I learned 25 years ago when Walter Johnson was first, Lefty Grove second and Pete Alexander 3rd with Roger Clemens fourth and ready to pass Alexander.
Sandy Koufax is the most overrated pitcher in MLB history if you even think he is the GOAT; otherwise Nolan Ryan is the ost overrated.
How can you discount Nolan Ryan on the 10 greatest pitchers of all time? 27 seasons, 7 no hitters, 5,714 strikeouts, and batters feared him!
If not for the stroke, J. R. Richard would be here too! Can you imagine having to face these two on back to back nights? Then throw in a Joe Niekro….. wicked!
Thanks for your thoughts, Wayne. Nolan was close – he came out #14 in our rankings. His WAR was strong, in large part due to his long career. What held him back was his lifetime ERA of 3.19 and especially his WHIP of 1.25 which were on the high side compared to the other all-time greats. He also never won a Cy Young, which all the other modern pitchers had at least three. He might win the award for most feared, though. Perhaps a tie with Randy Johnson! J.R. Richard must’ve been scary to face too. 6’8″ throwing 100 mph and wild – no thanks!
I don’t think Cy Young Awards should be considered that defining of a factor, because Nolan Ryan had an amazing season in 73 but somehow did not win. Jim Palmer won that year.
Ryan has the most strikeouts of any pitcher of all time, and the most no-hitters (7). Those are simple, objective records, not subjective formulas or pseudo-statistics. Not mentioning these records in your reply is a huge red flag.
Pedro Martinez being on this list and not Nolan Ryan is a bigger red flag though.
Well hey, at least you have a good domain name though.
I agree I think Nolan Ryan not being on this list is unfair
The red flag is Ryan’s career record on important outcomes. IN 5386 innings he had a WAR of 83.6 in 5386 innings and WAR/250 of 3.88. In just over half as many innings Pedro Martinez, 2827.1, had a WAR of 86.1 and the highest WAR per 250 among pitchers in the top 100 for WAR of 7.61, almost double that of Ryan. It is not even a contest. The name of the game for pitchers is to not give up runs and to help win ball games not to strikeout a bunch of people and have a mediocre career won-lost record or ERA+. Ryan’s won-;ost record was 324-292 and his ERA+ was 112; Martinez had a 210-100 won olst record and an ERA+ of 154. Game set match, Martinez
Flawed ranking. Without the greatest of all time
Sir, if y’all think Nolan Ryan, the all-time leader in strikeouts, fewest hits allowed per nine innings, and no-hitters (7) was the FOURTEENTH greatest pitcher of all time, you and whoever wrote this absolute joke of a list need to excuse yourselves from any conversation that even mentions anything related to baseball. Nolan Ryan is one of the top 3 of all time without the feeblest shadow of a doubt. The fact that he’s not even on this list is an absolute slap in the face to anyone that knows the slightest thing about baseball. “He came out #14 in our rankings” HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA. I desperately need whatever drugs you guys are consuming.
No BOB Gibson, no Nolan Ryan..
If there was a list of worst lists, this one is #1
Yeah! Nolan played on many bad teams with no hitting to back him up. He lost many games 1-0, 2-0, And 2-1 that I witnessed first-hand in the Astrodome while many of these other pitchers had hitting machines backing them.
It’s definitely the worst baseball list I’ve ever seen, easily.
NO Warren Spahn??? This list of really just opinion
no one has won 31 game’s in one season like Denny McLean has
If we ever do a Top Ten Greatest Seasons McLain’s 1968 will surely be up there. Maybe his 1969 too!
The worst list I’ve ever seen!! Top 10 Pitcher
list with no BOB GIBSON!! They changed the mound because of his dominance! Bob Gibson ERA record never will be broken. We will never see a pitcher pitch Game 1, 4, and game 7 in the World Series all complete game wins, 2 SO’s and 10+ Ks in the 3..
Stick to list about your favorite Barbie collections
Thanks for your kind words Tim! Bob Gibson was #11 on our list, so he just missed the Top Ten. He’s certainly among the all-time greats, but we can only choose ten. Gibson’s 1968 was spectacular for sure and if we ever do a Top Ten Greatest Seasons I’m sure it would be near the top.
Again a terrible list
Sorry pitchers from the 1890s-1920 don’t count. They threw 80mph
1968 Bob Gibson the best season ever for a pitcher
I’ve always hated the arguments against Nolan Ryan. Some lists have him as high as 2 or 1. Others outside the top 20. He’s eAsily too 10 though. The negatives are mostly career cumulative rather than glaring flaws at any given point in time. 7 no hitters that span his whole career? Yeah. Ryan belongs.
This list is like listing the greatest foods and listing 4 types of sandwiches, then 6 types of pizza and calling it objective. No one should ever compare those 4 pitchers who could win games because they could throw a strike consistently for 3 straight hours, vs. guys over the past 50 years who had to master the art of pitching using top velocity, change in velocity, spin rates, spin types, and location.
I agree, list are list of options. The best Era of a career is a fact that can be comparable. However the length of the career is something too consider as well.
You’re about the fifth person to mention Nolan Ryan! I may have to revisit this based on the fan vote…
You’re right to leave off Nolan Ryan. #14 is high. He’s extremely overrated by many because of his strikeouts and no-hitters. They don’t mention his all-time/modern day records for walks (that’s not longevity either…he’d have it if he pitched a dozen fewer years), wild pitches, low fielding %, allowing stolen bases…Add in the fact that he usually wasn’t the best pitcher on his own teams and he doesn’t belong anywhere close to this list.
Where the hell is Warren Spahn ? Mind lapse ? Your list is idiotic ! Spahn was truest outstanding !!!! Your list is terrible !
Agreed, Spahn was a tremendous pitcher. He ranks in the Top 1% of pitchers all-time but was just outside our Top 10. His WAR on Fangraphs ranked 26th, on Baseball-Reference 11th, and his WAR7 ranked 35th. These weren’t the only criteria but should give you a rough idea. This is no slight on him, it’s hard to make the Top Ten.
I totally agree. Spahn was the best of his generation. Winniest lefty of all time. Top 5 easily. Maddux right there with him.
Do not ever forget Sandy Koufax..4 no hitters in his last 4 seasons, the last one being a perfect game against the Cubs. Oh…. by the way, the Dodgers managed only 1 hit in that game….. There run had nothing to do with the hit. There were only 2 baserunners in the entire game, both Dodgers… The run scored on a hit, stolen base and a sac fly if I remember correctly.
Not forgotten! I’m a Dodgers fan and really wanted to include Sandy. I even referenced him in the article. His issue was longevity. The final five years of his career are up there with the best five-year runs in the sport’s history, but before that, he wasn’t special. Down the road perhaps I’ll do a greatest seasons. He has three that might make it in 1963, 1965, and 1966!
Years Ago When I Started To Collect
Sports Cards, And I Was Doing My
Research On Many Different Players
In Baseball, I Was Shocked To Learn
That He Had Never Won A CY YOUNG
Award. Thank You For Sharing This
Information With Me. 10/18/2022
Warren Spahn had more seasons with 20+ wins than Martínez had 10+ Martínez’s highest inning pitched in a season was 240- Spahn surpassed that in 17 seasons – his total innings were almost double Martínez- image Martínez ERA pitching that many innings. If your statistics don’t weigh such obvious factors then change your formulae
Where is Nolan Ryan there never was and will never be another picture like him🤬
wow people its top 10 careers not 1 ,2 or even 5 years he did a good job.. ryan no way top 10 not 1 cy young,,,,gibson yes great year but 14 out of 17 years his era was above 2.77 ..onlt thing and i am bias here lol i am a big dodgers fan i wish kershaw was higher and like he said might be if back doesnt get him…career era the best in live ball era by far 2.49 2nd best is 2.75 his whip 1 exactly well as of date 2 hits walks more then innings so a mirco dot above 1 …1.000000001 ;lol u did ok no probs with this list only thing is like 1 guy said old timers like cy young pitched 100876 innings ,,,they didnt pitch no where like the stuff today..if ty cobb saw what came at him for the 1st time with todays pitchers he would jump out of the box ,,,good job bro..
oh and like all lists u can argue few pitchers could be there in top 10 and not make diff like all lists ,,,some say kobe top 10 player all time i say not even top 50 ok maybe 50 but he was great at being a killer but go over all stats u could say kobe not top 50 player lists u can aegue and no wrong answer,,only sure thing is and being lakers fan and rams fan ..i hate saying this ..there no argument when u say jordan the best ever but even there u can say wilt most dominate but the 1 guy who is the greatest and i fn hate to say this. god cant believe im typing this brady is the best qb of all time and there is def or argument there man i hate the guy beat rams twice wait u can say well he and the pats cheated bad taped rams superbowl walk through among many others taping others lifting off men in fgs deflate gate there so tom is the best phewww see u can afgue any list lol
To some of the earlier comments, I’ll add that I’m not sure there are two more difficult pitchers to rank on this type of list than Bob Gibson and Sandy Koufax. Gibson’s absurd numbers came at the absolute peak of the second dead ball era (nothing he could control, but it makes evaluating him more difficult) while Koufax, who perhaps had the greatest peak of any pitcher, had his career cut far too short by injury. They could be ranked 1 or 2, or left off such rankings, and I understand.
Kershaw however, is criminally underrated, no doubt due to his largely inflated post season reputation of failure. Just look at the advanced stats above. He leads everyone. He leads all stats against his peak peers like Verlander and Scherzer (the only real way to evaluate historically) by a mile. He’s by most statistical measures (traditional and advanced) about the best there has ever been. (There are some great YouTube videos that back this up and dig deeply, so I won’t do that here, but if you’re interested, look some up.)
It’s really a shame he’s become so under appreciated because of his postseason reputation, if for no other reason than he’s also a phenomenal person by every account and baseball will miss him greatly.
Bob Gibson has to be on the list
Where the hell is Tom Seaver and lefty Carlton??
Flawed list… nolan ryan was feared well into his mid 40s.
This list is way off on the 10 best pitchers. How can you have a list of 10 best without Bob Gibson, Whitey Ford and Tom Glavine who was a 300 game winner so obviously stats didn’t apply. Then to put Clayton Kershaw on that list is ridiculous. He wouldn’t even be in my Top 25.
I should have also included Santa Koufax.
Damn spell checker Sandy Koufax and Nolan Ryan should definitely be on this list.
No Whitey Ford???
Leaving Nolan Ryan off this list is irresponsible. 7 no hitters, all time strike out leader and the most feared pitcher of all time. The simple fact that there will never again be any pitcher who throws 7 no hitters is arguable enough. Very disappointing. Would you leave off Tom Brady and Michael Jordan?
I mean really, I won’t be able to sleep for days until you explain to me how Nolan Ryan is not on this list
Crap list. Steve Carlton not on this list, and above all, the crap teams the Ryan Express played on and they couldn’t get a run for him. Bob Gibson not on the list. You really need to study the game and stand at the plate when a 108.4 mile an hour, yes Nolan Ryan proven with todays technology threw sometimes for 9 innings. Interview the hitters and I bet this list changes. By the way I am a Giants fan so no bias here.
Lmao you left out the greatest of all time🤦♂️Nolan Ryan 👍
Warren Spahn had 13 (count em 13) 20 win seasons. Most of any lefthander. Should be on list. He’s on mine!!!
Your list is absolute crap. I don’t know why or how your website showed up on my google news. But once blocked it no longer will. This wasn’t even an interesting read. It was an insult to some of the better pitchers of the game.
You’ve gotta be kidding me that you don’t put Ryan in here. It clearly shows that you know nothing about baseball and using WAR and analytics is f***ing moronic. Grow up.