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
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!