by: Tom Hanrahan
When someone postulates “this guy was the greatest pitcher of all time (the GOAT)”, there is a multitude of numbers and narratives that are used. Some of the more obvious simple ones are
Cy Young: won 511 games (most WAR also, per baseball-reference.com)
Walter Johnson: 411 wins for poor teams, and a 2.17 ERA
Lefty Grove: 9 ERA titles, highest winning pct among 300-game winners
Christy Mathewson: 373 wins, only 188 losses
Warren Spahn: 363 wins, even with 3 missed years for WWII
Roger Clemens, 7 Cy Young awards
Nolan Ryan: 5714 Kos & 7 no-hitters
Bob Gibson: ultimate clutch big-game pitcher, and 1968 ERA of 1.12
Satchel Paige: greatest Negro League pitcher, pitched for over 30 years
Mariano Rivera: best reliever, and first unanimous HoFer
Sandy Koufax: 5 consecutive ERA titles, 111 wins, 34 losses
The problem with all of these, is there is always a “but…”. Cy Young threw a dead rag ball every 3rd day; the conditions were Very different. Nolan Ryan walked the most batters ever. Bob Gibson led the league in Wins and ERA only once each. Koufax retired very young. On and on. Perhaps the biggest BUT in these GOAT arguments is that when one pitcher is put forth as the GOAT, almost always there is a contemporary of said pitcher with similar numbers.. and if it is not obvious that A is better than contemporary B, how can we confidently choose A as the GOAT? Walter Johnson was indeed dominant… but he pitched parts of his career nearly alongside Pete Alexander (who was his equal for a long while), as well as Matty, and Grove, even a few years of Young’s career. While there is a consensus that the Big Train was numero uno over the course of his 21-year career, once you extend back to 1900, or forward to 1935, the picture gets murky. Ditto for the modern studs: Maddux and Pedro were amazing, but so was Randy Johnson, and then there is Rocket Man; who has the best modern numbers of all, but many dismiss his later accomplishments because of steroid use.
So, I propose this approach to the GOAT pitcher argument: find the pitcher who was clearly the BEST, for the LONGEST time. In other words, about whom can you say “it is pretty clear that he was the greatest pitcher between the years XX and YY”, where the time period between XX and YY is longer than any other man who toed the rubber.
What do I mean by this? Let’s start with some examples. Okay, Pedro Martinez, 1999-2000; over 2 those two seasons, his “adjusted ERA” (using baseball-reference) was merely 38% of the average; if the typical pitcher gave up 8 runs over 2 games, Pedro gave up only 3! Fine, he was definitely the best for 2 years… but 2 years is not that long; if you move forward to include 2001, maybe Randy Johnson was as good.
Can we do better than that? Sure; I nominate Sandy Koufax, 1962-66; it is Very obvious, is it not, that Sandy was the dominant guy for those 5 years? In fact, you can include 1967, even though Sandy was retired, add no one touches him. Move back to also include 1961, and I would say for that 7 year window, Sandy was clearly #1.
Moving on; Walter Johnson says, I can top that. In the 1910s, Johnson had the most of everything; Wins, Win Shares, WAR, ERA titles, you name it. And it doesn’t stop at 1910-1929; you can use the Big Train’s whole career, 21 years, and if I showed all of the numbers, it would be clear no one touches him. Begin going outside of his career, maybe back to 1900, forward to 1934… it is pretty easy to build a case that a clear consensus exists that Johnson was the best pitcher in the first third of the 20th century. THAT is a long time. Could anyone top it?
Using this approach, I will show that the answer of who the best for the longest time is … Tom Seaver.
I begin by finding the period (XX to YY) over which Seaver was the best pitcher, without anyone else having too strong of an argument otherwise.
Okay, so how does one confidently measure “best”; what metrics to use? I offer that a pitcher must have a combination of career accomplishments, plus must-have performed at a high level over their peak or prime. You can’t be the best if you flamed out after a brief period, nor if you merely accumulated wins without ever being an ace… you need both.
For career or bulk weight, I will use two common metrics; Bill James’ Win Shares, and baseball-reference WAR; as well as the basic career stats of Wins, Losses, and ERA. For excellence, I will use baseball-reference Wins Above Average (WAA), and I will also calculate Wins Above Team (WAT), explained below; both of these measure how many Wins (WAA measurers runs and formulas them into Wins) above an average pitcher (in MLB, or on his team) he was worth.
WAT – Instead of using earned Runs allowed as the primary measure, WAT uses a pitchers’ actual W-L record, and compares it to his team’s W-L record in all games where this pitcher did not get a decision. Example:
In 1972, Steve Carlton famously went 27-10 for a Phillies team which finished the season 59-97. So the Phillies’ record other-than-Carlton was 32-87, for a winning pct of .269. Seaver’s wpct was .730, an improvement over the team of .461. Over Carlton’s 37 decisions, he won 17.1 more games than the pace his teammates set. Lefty’s 17.1 WAT in ’72 is an astounding figure that may not ever be reached again in one year.
So, we have basic W–L and ERA; WS and WAR; and WAA and WAT. We will start with Seaver’s career, which ran from 1967 to 1986. I found the pitchers who had the most WS in those years. They are listed in table 1, (sorted by career WS) along with the other statistics mentioned above. In some cases, the pitchers also pitched outside of this 20-year period; I will address that a bit further on.
Table 1 :Stats for top pitchers, 1967-1986
By almost every measure, Tom Seaver as the best pitcher over this 20-year span. The only measures he does NOT lead in among these arms is that Jim Palmer had a lower raw ERA, and a higher raw winning percentage. And, it is fairly obvious from the data and from those who watched the Orioles in this time period, that Mr. Palmer benefited greatly from possibly the best defense ever assembled, and from teammates who scored plenty of runs in support of him.
Having established a solid 20-year period of greatness, how do we find the length over which the “best in the business” record extends? I will go backwards in time before 1967, and then forwards after 1986, to see where another pitcher comes close enough to Seaver’s marks to change the verdict for clearly best to “unclear”.
Moving backwards thru the early 60s to late 50s, we see Bob Gibson and Sandy Koufax as bright lights, but Koufax’s comet was short-lived, and Gibson for all of his reputation can really only show one incredible season (1968!) and excellent World Series pitching as marks in his favor; and Seaver’s post-season records are not shabby (8 starts against the Aaron Braves, the Robinson Orioles, the Reggie A’s, the Big Red Machine, and the Stargell Pirates; for an ERA of 2.77). Once we go back to 1950, Robin Roberts has much merit, but his W-L record of 286-245 falls short. It is not until we get most of Warren Spahn’s career that another worthy candidate emerges. Spahn has 412 Win Shares, more than Tom Terrific, so we need to examine the two of them. By taking in Spahn’s whole career (minus a few innings prior to WWII), it is no longer obvious that Seaver is the better pitcher:
Table 2: Stats for Seaver and Spahn, covering 1946-1986
So, how far into Spahn’s career do we have to “eat” before it is clear that Seaver is better? If we take away Spahn’s first good season in 1947 with 21 wins and an ERA title, it seems obvious. Thus, I will re-run the table, now including Spahn and Gibson while dropping Jenkins and Perry, going forward from 1948:
Table 3: Stats for top pitchers, 1948-1986
Spahn leads in Wins, which is a reflection of his great career length, plus the good Braves teams for which he pitched. Again, by virtually every measure, Seaver is #1 for this period, which is now up to 39 seasons.
Now, let’s move forward. As the 80s turned to the 90s, a new generation of super pitchers emerged, highlighted by Greg Maddux and Roger Clemens. Certainly as their careers wound down, many could see them both as equal to or better than Seaver. But where in their careers was it still obvious that neither of them HAD “caught” Seaver? By 1996, Maddux had 4 consecutive Cy Young awards, 4 ERA titles, 165 career wins; and Clemens had 3 CY’s, 4 ERA titles, 192 wins, and a WAA over 55, approaching Seaver’s career totals. That makes for an ambiguous judgment call. But if we go back to 1994, we delete 20 of Clemens’ wins, and one of Maddux’s amazing years (19-2, 1.63 ERA). Let’s view their totals thru 1994, compared with Seaver:
Table 4: Stats for selected pitchers, 1948-1994
Rocket Man has a better winning percentage, but trails by large amounts in every other category. Yes, by 1994, these and other pitchers were on their way to great careers, but much of that was still to come.
At this point, it would seem that Seaver has a claim to the 47 years 1948-1994 as one where he could be called clearly the best pitcher of that lengthy period. One more table, including the pitchers considered so far, along with others who are often thought of as great post-integration hurlers. Here I’ve added a column, Wins minus Losses, on the right. The leader in each category is in red, with 2nd place in blue.
Table 5: Stats for top pitchers, 1948-1994
|Pitcher||W||L||ERA||WS||WAR||WAA||WAT||W – L|
Tom Seaver has the most WAR, WAA, and WAT; and by good margins in most cases. He is second only to Palmer in raw W – L, and obviously this is due to the quality of the Oriole teammates compared to Seaver’s Met teammates. I believe this table summarizes why I believe, and I would hope most would agree, that Seaver had no equal over this 47 year period. Again, this is not saying that some pitchers in this period were better than Seaver for brief periods; it is that when the entire period is used, Seaver is clearly #1.
Having established this, the next step would be to find other pitchers for whom you could make a good case of their being the best pitcher for similar long periods of time. This, it turns out, is the easier piece of the analysis; it quickly becomes clear that NO ONE had anywhere near such a length of dominance.
In the modern era, Roger Clemens has been the most dominant and successful pitcher by most any measure… but. Many would point to his seeming reliance on illegal performance enhancing supplements as a valid reason to discount his accomplishments, just as those of Barry Bonds have been., Any pitcher who is not in the Hall of Fame surely cannot be clearly assessed as the best pitcher of any time frame.
Going back in time before Seaver, we have great hurlers like Lefty Grove (300-141, 9 ERA titles), Walter Johnson (411 wins for most-poor Senators teams) and of course Cy Young (511 wins!). Grove dominated the mid 20s through 30s; Johnson the teens; Young the 90s and early 00s. Each was awesome in his time… but once you begin extending the time period, they compete with each other. Johnson COULD be the greatest pitcher of all time, but it cannot be said it is obvious that was the best over any 45 year period, which would need to include either Young’s career, or Grove’s. Lefty Grove had no equal in the years after he retired, so I could make a good claim as MLB’s best pitcher for 45 years, from 1915 to 1959. This, however, does not include the overlapping career of the man who is acclaimed as the greatest Negro League pitcher ever, and possibly the greatest pitcher of any league… one Leroy “Satchel” Paige, whose career runs from about 1925 to 1953. Is it obvious that Grove is Satchel’s superior? I don’t see how it can be obvious. Paige would also be a part-contemporary of Warren Spahn, throwing doubt on an argument for the great Brave hurler.
Cy Young is the most accomplished pitcher in terms of career achievements from the dawn of the NL to at least through the late 1910s… but it is difficult to assess if others like Kid Nichols or Old Hoss Radbourne or Tim Keefe may have been better in the murky and rapidly-changing 1880s and 1890s. And the NL did not begin until 1876. In order to get Young to 47 years, you would have to go back to the National Association of the early 1870s, and who is to say that Albert Spalding, who won 252 games and lost 65 in the NA’s 6 years, leading the league in virtually everything, wasn’t Cy’s superior? No, claiming 47 years for even Mr. Young is a bridge too far.
So what are we left with? Many can claim brief periods of dominance, such as Koufax for 6 to 10 years. Some can claim longer periods, like Cy Young for 20 to 40 years, or Lefty Grove if you don’t include the Negro Leagues. But nobody can touch the length of Tom Seaver’s era of almost unquestioned superiority. Does that make Tom Seaver the greatest pitcher ever? No. Just as it does not diminish Hank Aaron and Willie Mays’ greatness that they both were NL outfielders with concurrent careers, it must be admitted that the lack of a comparable pitcher could be just a happenstance, as is the confluence of the careers of Walter Johnson with others. If I were to choose a pitching staff for my all-time team, Seaver would not be #1. But he WOULD make my rotation. Because no one else can be said to have been the best pitcher for a period of almost 50 years.