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The All-Time MLB Team, right-handed starting pitchers: nominations open

Onto the mound we go...

Cy Young Photo by PhotoQuest/Getty Images

This and the next category - left-handed starters, surprise, surprise! - are likely to be a bit contentious. I’d say no position in baseball has changed more over history than pitching, in terms of what was demanded from it. In the “old days”, a complete game from a pitcher was almost expected. Before 1905, more than 80% of starts in the National League went the distance every season. Last year, just 1.2% did. But the effort involved has gone the other way, with pitchers nowadays having much greater velocity and striking out batters at a far higher rate. Let illustrate that point with a fun fact. Although it’s perhaps not-so-fun for Arizona fans. A trigger warning is in effect.

The all-time strikeout rate leader in baseball history, among pitchers with more than 1,000 IP is... Robbie Ray. He has already fanned more batters in 1,035.2 IP than Hall of Famer Ted Lyons did in his 4,161 career innings. Lyons is almost certainly going to be the only pitcher to make it into Cooperstown after walking more batters than he struck out. In 1926, he threw 283.2 innings and only struck out 51 hitters, while issuing more than twice as many walks (106). What he did well, was keep the ball in the park, allowing just five home-runs. Mind you, Lyons probably deserves to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame, purely for tossing a 21-inning complete game loss in 1929.

But that illustrates the way pitching has changed. We won’t see any more 20 bWAR seasons, such as Pud Galvin produced in 1884, because we won’t see a pitcher toss 71 complete games in a year. [That wasn’t even a personal best for Galvin, since he had 72 CG the previous season] In comparison, there were only 50 across all thirty teams in the majors last year, with no one pitcher having more than three. The top 28 single seasons by bWAR all took place in the dead-ball era, before the Great War. Most of them involved pitching at least 550 innings. This makes comparing pitchers across eras difficult, because it’s as if a position player got to hit at two or even three spots in the order.

That’s something you should take into account when looking at the chart below. I’ve expanded it to the top 20 best careers by bWAR, not least because I’m looking at picking two names for each of these starting pitching slots on the team. We may end up having an extended ballot. Or maybe not, since it’ll mean me having to write up more names. Not that I mind (I love discovering players like Lyons!), but that Netflix queue isn’t going to watch itself, is it? As usual, the players’ names go to their Baseball Reference page, and here’s the full list, if you want to explore past the top 20.

Best RHSP ever

Player WAR From To W L IP H R ER BB SO ERA FIP K% BB% ERA+
Player WAR From To W L IP H R ER BB SO ERA FIP K% BB% ERA+
Cy Young 165.6 1890 1911 511 315 7356.0 7092 3167 2147 1217 2803 2.63 2.84 9.50% 4.10% 138
Walter Johnson 152.1 1907 1927 417 279 5914.1 4913 1902 1424 1363 3509 2.17 2.38 15.00% 5.80% 147
Roger Clemens 138.7 1984 2007 354 184 4916.2 4185 1885 1707 1580 4672 3.12 3.09 23.10% 7.80% 143
Kid Nichols 116.7 1890 1906 362 208 5067.1 4929 2480 1664 1272 1881 2.96 3.48 8.90% 6.00% 139
Pete Alexander 116.0 1911 1930 373 208 5190.0 4868 1852 1476 951 2198 2.56 2.82 10.50% 4.60% 135
Tom Seaver 106.1 1967 1986 311 205 4783.0 3971 1674 1521 1390 3640 2.86 3.04 18.80% 7.20% 127
Greg Maddux 104.8 1986 2008 355 227 5008.1 4726 1981 1756 999 3371 3.16 3.26 16.50% 4.90% 132
Christy Mathewson 100.4 1900 1916 373 188 4788.2 4219 1620 1135 848 2507 2.13 2.26 13.20% 4.50% 136
Phil Niekro 97.0 1964 1987 318 274 5404.0 5044 2337 2012 1809 3342 3.35 3.62 14.70% 8.00% 115
Bert Blyleven 96.1 1970 1992 287 250 4970.0 4632 2029 1830 1322 3701 3.31 3.19 18.10% 6.50% 118
Gaylord Perry 93.0 1962 1983 314 265 5350.0 4938 2128 1846 1379 3534 3.11 3.06 16.10% 6.30% 117
Tim Keefe 89.1 1880 1893 342 225 5049.2 4438 2470 1474 1233 2564 2.63 2.92 12.20% 5.90% 126
Pedro Martinez 86.1 1992 2009 219 100 2827.1 2221 1006 919 760 3154 2.93 2.91 27.70% 6.70% 154
John Clarkson 85.0 1882 1894 328 178 4536.1 4295 2384 1417 1191 1978 2.81 3.35 10.30% 6.20% 133
Nolan Ryan 83.6 1966 1993 324 292 5386.0 3923 2178 1911 2795 5714 3.19 2.97 25.30% 12.40% 112
Pud Galvin 83.3 1875 1892 365 310 6003.1 6405 3352 1903 745 1807 2.85 2.96 7.10% 2.90% 107
Robin Roberts 83.0 1948 1966 286 245 4688.2 4582 1962 1774 902 2357 3.41 3.51 12.30% 4.70% 113
Mike Mussina 82.8 1991 2008 270 153 3562.2 3460 1559 1458 785 2813 3.68 3.57 19.30% 5.40% 123
Fergie Jenkins 82.2 1965 1983 284 226 4500.2 4142 1853 1669 997 3192 3.34 3.28 17.40% 5.40% 115
Bob Gibson 81.7 1959 1975 251 174 3884.1 3279 1420 1258 1336 3117 2.91 2.89 19.40% 8.30% 127

The top five are heavily skewed towards the pre-war era, with Roger Clemens the only one to have pitched after 1930. And, of course, he has his own set of issues. It’s hard to determine the impact of PEDs on his numbers. Certainly not many pitchers have been as productive from the age of 40 on as Clemens. But his 22.2 bWAR is not unprecedented, even in the modern era: Nolan Ryan was worth 22.6 and Randy Johnson 20.7 bWAR when they were in their forties. I’d say it’s likely the Rocket was a Hall of Fame caliber player anyway. He also never failed a drug test. But the evidence seem overwhelming, down to a syringe containing both a steroid and Clemens’s DNA.

Of the ones a little lower down the list, Pedro Martinez might be a dark-horse candidate. While only ranked twelfth by bWAR, his ERA+ of 154 is the best in the bunch. He won a trio of Cy Young awards and was runner-up twice more. If we’re talking peak performance, I would say Pedro has to be in the conversation, but his 2,827.1 innings are also almost two thousand fewer than any of the pitchers ahead of him by bWAR. The question is, how do you balance quality and quantity of performance? That’s an issue everyone is going to have to decide for themselves, as well as the Clemens question.


Usual rules, but I would say you should not feel limited to a single nomination, since we may have an expanded ballot. As normal this will be done largely on the basis of recs in the comments, though the decision of the judging committee i.e. me, will be final in this regard. Just identify the player in the subject line, and make your case in the body of the comment. If you agree with a choice already made, give it a rec. If you don’t see your choice, post a new comment. I will delete subsequent top-level comments about the same player. Poll to follow on Friday!