One of baseball’s most unique aspects is the outsize role of the starting pitcher in each game, reflected in the fact that only a pitcher (usually the starter) is assigned a “win” or “loss.” Even today’s advanced statistical formulas confirm the primacy of the starting pitcher: using the popular “Wins Above Replacement” metric, Babe Ruth in 1923 is the only non-pitcher since 1872 to play more than 8 games in a season and earn more than 1 WAR per 11 games played; 167 starting pitchers have topped that threshold just since 2010. Put another way, in any given baseball game, a typical #1 or 2 starting pitcher is at least as valuable to his team as Babe Ruth at his best.
That’s never more true than in October. In the era of three divisions and a wild card (expanded in 2012 to a play-in game, and sometimes requiring a play-into-the-play-in game), starting pitchers throw fewer regular-season innings and make more postseason starts than ever in the game’s history. 2013 saw the end of the career of Andy Pettitte, whose 44 career postseason starts and 276.2 career postseason innings are career records and represent more than 8% of his career workload and more than a full season’s work for a 21st century pitcher. This will also be the first year on the Hall of Fame ballot for Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and Mike Mussina, all stalwarts of the post-1994 October order (it’s also the second year of Curt Schilling on the ballot, and next year we get John Smoltz). The games they won there are a part of their stories.
The Story Of The Win
Traditionally, 300 wins has been the gold standard for a successful pitching career. There’s a simple logic to this: 30 wins a year for a decade, or 20 wins a year for 15 years, or 15 wins a year for 20 years, or 12 wins a year for 25 years…no matter how you slice it, you need an exceptional combination of success and durability to win that many games. And winning games is, after all, the point of playing them; a starting pitcher who walks off the field with a W can always feel satisfied with his day.
In the age of advanced statistical analysis, wins have come under a lot of criticism as a yardstick of pitching success. Much of that criticism is fair. Pitchers have always been at the mercy of their offensive and defensive support to win games; while some of these factors even out over the course of a career, not all do. Among the greats, for example, Jim Palmer had unusually good defensive support, while Warren Spahn and Christy Mathewson had unusually good offenses behind them.
Then again, applying current criticisms of the win retrospectively can overlook the extent to which the game has changed over time. The big change in the starter’s role is the role of the bullpen: with starters finishing ever fewer of their games and increasingly leaving games in the fifth or sixth inning, they are more and more at the mercy of their bullpens as well. This is not a new trend – complete games have been in steady decline since the dawn of organized baseball in the 1870s, part of a broader pattern of declining pitcher workloads – but the late 1970s was really the tipping point, after which it became accepted that even a staff ace would finish no more than half of his own games. Roger Clemens in 1987 was the last starter to finish half his starts; no pitcher did that more than twice after 1977. By contrast, Spahn completed at least half his starts in 17 different seasons, Fergie Jenkins in 9 seasons. The argument that awarding wins to the starter vs the reliever is arbitrary may be a fair one in the baseball of 2013, but it made a lot more sense in Spahn’s day. And in other ways, pitchers have more control over their situation than they used to – defense is actually less important in today’s game than ever before, due to historically low percentages of plate appearances resulting in a ball in play – down to around 70% where it was once above 90%. Instead, we’re more likely than ever to see a time at bat end with a walk, strikeout or home run, all of which are one-on-one contests between pitcher and batter.
So, if we’re doing a sophisticated look at ranking baseball’s best pitchers, we’d use multiple measurements more precise than their win totals. But if the win has fallen from its once-privileged place in the world of analysis, career won-loss records still tell a story of the great pitching careers, of successes and failures both earned and fortuitous – and any list of the game’s winningest pitchers over their careers will still overlap quite a lot with any list of the game’s best. As Joe Posnanski has written, sometimes you have to sit back and let the numbers tell those stories. To expand that story, let’s taking a look baseball’s winningest professional pitchers, including not only the postseason but also the minor leagues and in some cases other professional leagues in the United States and abroad. As we’ll see, in some cases there’s a good deal more to the story, our appreciation of which can only be deepened by taking in the whole picture.
Major, Minor; Season, Postseason
Now that baseball-reference.com
To understand why, a very brief history is in order. Professional, league baseball began with the National Association in 1871, followed five years later by the foundation of the National League. The “major” leagues were in a state of flux from 1871 until the American League opened up shop in 1901, and unsurprisingly, other “minor” leagues were even less stable in terms of things like keeping the same franchises in business from year to year, having a standard length to the schedule and keeping players on their rosters from jumping teams – to say nothing of their record-keeping. The numbers laid out below include largely complete minor league records from around 1900 onward, but are much spottier for the 19th century.
Beginning in 1903, the NL and AL each had 8 teams, which didn’t change cities until 1953; none of those teams was south or west of St. Louis, leaving many markets without a major league team. The leagues also stopped raiding each other’s rosters, with the brief exception of the 1914-15 Federal League experiment, baseball’s last effort at a third major league. This was an era of peace and stability in the game, but it left the players little bargaining power, so few made very much money. And until Branch Rickey began building the first farm system beginning in the early 1920s, most minor league teams were independent businesses. The result was that many experienced players spent significant time in the minor leagues – either they liked it on the West Coast (the Pacific Coast League being the most powerful minor league), or their teams wouldn’t sell them to the majors, or they were ex-big-leaguers employed as player-managers or just looking to make a living. Between the late teens and the early 1950s, there were also Negro League teams composed of black players who couldn’t cross MLB’s color line, although for a variety of economic reasons the Negro Leagues generally played less regular schedules than white baseball did (contributing to the difficulty of getting reliable Negro League statistics). Minor league competition was rarely the equal of the big leagues, but these were nonetheless competitive leagues.
With that background in mind, let’s take a look at baseball’s winningest pitchers, adding up major league wins, minor league wins and major league postseason wins. I haven’t included exhibitions like spring training or the All-Star Game (starters can only go three innings in the ASG anyway), and stats on the minor league postseason are too irregularly kept to be included. In a few cases down the list, I include statistics from Japan, and in just one (Satchel Paige) is there sufficient information to include Negro League stats.
The 400 Win Club
|1909||1930||Pete Alexander (1)||373||208||3||2||45||21||421||231||0.646||190|
|1940||1967||Warren Spahn (3)||363||245||4||3||41||23||408||271||0.601||137|
Key: 1st & Last is first and last pro season. Asterisks denote pitchers for whom minor league numbers may be incomplete. The number in parenthesis is years lost to military service. “G+.500” is games over .500 across all wins and losses.
The distinction of being a bone fide regular season Major League 400-game winner belongs to only two major league pitchers, Cy Young and Walter Johnson. But when we include the postseason and the minors, we find eight 400-game winners, the most recent being Greg Maddux. And two of the six men who get elevated into this club could very, very easily have won 400 in the majors.
Cy Young remains the one and only 500-game winner no matter how you look at the numbers; he won 15 games in his only minor league season. Young had three calling cards as a pitcher. The first was control: Young led the league in fewest walks per 9 innings 14 times. From age 29-39, his walks per 9 innings rate was less than half the league average 11 straight seasons, including a 3-year stretch when he walked a third as many batters as the average AL pitcher. Only twice in his career was his walks-per-inning rate even two-thirds that of a league-average pitcher. (Measured by walks per batter faced, Young walked less than half the league average 11 times in 13 years from age 29-41). Young’s second distinguishing feature was adaptability: he survived the mound being moved back from 50 feet to 60 feet 6 inches in 1893, at age 26 (the move wiped out many of the league’s veteran pitchers), jumped to the AL when it opened in 1901, and thrived in the low-scoring “deadball” game after 1903 (when foul balls were first counted as strikes in the AL), just as he had in the offensive bonanza of the 1890s. And the third was durability. Great pitchers come in many shapes and sizes, the most common including the long, lanky types like Walter Johnson and Randy Johnson, the powerful lower bodies of Clemens, Tom Seaver, and Nolan Ryan, and the broad shoulders of Mathewson and Rube Waddell. Young was a different type, a tall, barrel-chested bull of a man who pitched until he was 45, appeared in exhibition games in his mid-60s, and was still hale enough at age 86 to throw out the first pitch of the 1953 World Series (caught by Yogi Berra, who is older now than young was then; 6 of the first twelve 300-game winners were born after Young, but only one of them – Lefty Grove – was still living when Young died in 1955). He was historically unique in combining the workloads of a 19th century pitcher with the longevity of a 20th century pitcher: of all the pitchers to throw more than 400 innings in a season in the majors, only Young stayed in a major league rotation long enough to crack 200 innings more than 13 times; Young did it 22 times. He threw 300 innings in 16 different seasons, 400 in five different seasons, and averaged 372 innings a year from age 24-40.
Kid Nichols is probably baseball’s most underappreciated great pitcher, almost as good as his contemporary Young, and would have won over 400 games in the majors if he hadn’t spent two years in mid-career as player-manager in his home town of Kansas City. Few pitchers have ever had a professional league hogtied quite like “the Kid” at age 18-19 in the Western Association in 1888-89, going 55-10 with a 1.58 ERA, striking out 6.9 batters per 9 innings (an extraordinary rate for that era, especially considering that the league still played with the four-strikes-for-a-strikeout rule) while walking 1.7 in nearly 600 innings of work. On the whole, the wiry Nichols – he probably weighed about 135 at the time – threw 1,020 minor league innings and won 84 games as a teenager before reaching the majors.
Acquired by what is now the Braves, Nichols immediately became the chief rival of Young and Amos Rusie as the best pitcher in the National League; from age 20-28, his average season was 31-15 with a 2.97 ERA (an ERA+ of 147, meaning he was nearly 50% better than the league) in 406 innings. He became the only 7-time 30-game winner in the game’s history, albeit with help from a powerhouse offense. In the Braves’ 5 pennant-winning seasons with Nichols, he won 30 games all 5 times and was an average of 18 games over .500 for teams that won the pennant by an average margin of 5 games, in a decade when durable star pitchers were few and far between; Bill James once determined that only Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle had been the decisive factor on more pennant-winning teams than Nichols. Among pitchers who threw at least 3,000 career innings, Nichols’ career ERA+ (ERA compared to a park-adjusted league average) of 140 is fourth only to Lefty Grove, Walter Johnson and Roger Clemens, and Nichols threw over a thousand more major league innings than Grove and about 300 more minor league innings.
After a 19-win season at age 31 in 1901, Nichols left Boston for Kansas City to try his hand at managing; he would win the pennant his first year, but faced a draining attendance war with a crosstown rival, and the league folded due to financial hardships after the historic Kansas City flood of 1903. As a pitcher, Nichols went 47-19 in two seasons in KC, then picked up where he had left off, going 21-13 with a 2.02 ERA with the Cardinals in 1904 before pleurisy finally finished him as a pitcher in 1906. Nichols’ major league career was 39 wins short of 400; it’s as likely as not that he would have won those 39 games had he been pitching in the majors in 1902-03, when he was still clearly good enough to pitch in the majors at a high level. (In addition to his “official” minor league record of 131-49, I’ve included here his 3-1 record in the Wisconsin-Illinois League at age 38).
By the end of the 19th century, Nichols was generally regarded as the best pitcher in baseball’s quarter-century history, but in the absence of good record books (the Macmillan Baseball Encyclopedia wasn’t published until 1969), and with Nichols living in the Midwest and out of the game since 1906, his memory faded after his playing days. Nichols failed to draw as much as 4% of the vote in the first decade of Hall of Fame voting; it took a belated newspaper campaign to get him in the Hall in 1949, thirteen years after it opened, when Nichols was 79. He even enjoyed a brief resurgence to public view in those years, in 1947 penning an article for Baseball Digest entitled “Pitchers Are Sissies Now,” the contents of which are pretty much what you’d expect.
An intelligent, clean-living man with an entrepreneurial streak, Nichols became a successful competitive bowler and golfer after his playing days (winning a bowling tournament in his 60s), ran bowling alleys and a movie theater, and received a patent in 1913 for his invention of an electronic system (similar in concept to ESPN’s Gamecast and similar web-based systems of today) that tracked games in progress in other cities, complete with moving baserunners; it remained in use until the spread of radio. He was still working 14-hour days in a bowling alley into his mid-70s; at 79, he took a job as an elevator operator.
Joe “Iron Man” McGinnity managed to have a legitimate Hall of Fame career despite the fact that (1) nearly half his professional wins were in the minor leagues and (2) because he didn’t pitch professionally until he was 22 and then took 3 years off in his mid-20s to run a saloon in Illinois (he served as his own bouncer, not a task to be taken lightly in the 1890s), his professional record was just 31-34 through age 27.
Arriving in the majors at age 28 after learning a curveball that changed his fortunes, the burly McGinnity led the NL in wins his first two seasons and five times in 8 years, regularly carrying the league’s heaviest workloads as a starter and closing 5-10 games a year to boot; he’s best remembered for throwing complete games in both ends of a doubleheader three times in a month in August 1902. He threw 434 innings in 1903, and in 1904, he went 35-8 with a 1.61 ERA in 408 innings and led the league with 5 saves. But after going 11-7 with 5 saves at age 37 in the wild 1908 pennant race, McGinnity was let go by John McGraw in early 1909, and became player-manager and part-owner of the Newark Indians in the Eastern League. He would revive there, going 29-16 with a 1.66 ERA his first year at Newark, 30-19 with a 2.14 ERA his second, and racking up 171 wins (more than 21 a year) between age 38-45.
The 400-inning workload was out of style in the majors after 1908; Ed Walsh that year was the last man to clear 400 in the majors. But as his own manager, McGinnity kept on chucking, clearing 400 innings three times between age 38 and 42. At 41 in the International League in 1912, he pitched both ends of a doubleheader for the last time. At 42, he threw 436 innings, leading the Northwestern League by 99 innings over the number two pitcher. At 44 in the same league, he threw 355 innings, leading the league in innings, fewest walks per 9 innings, fewest baserunners per inning and posting a 1.75 ERA. He tied for the league lead in wins with 20 at age 45. As late as age 52, McGinnity threw 206 innings and won 15 games in the Mississippi Valley League. He notched his last 6 wins at age 54, only four years before his death. After leaving Newark following the 1912 season, these were progressively lower minor leagues, but McGinnity’s durability still astonishes.
Walter Johnson remains my own choice for the greatest pitcher in Major League history, when you balance out the quality of his pitching (only Lefty Grove and Pedro Martinez are really in his league) and his workload (Johnson’s third on the career innings list to Cy Young and Pud Galvin, and more than 500 innings ahead of the number four man, and led the league in innings five times). Johnson was utterly dominant in a brief career in the low minors, pitching in Idaho, and made the majors to stay at age 19. He didn’t pitch in the postseason until he was 36, and his last postseason start – Game 7 of the 1925 World Series – remains an icon of stoic defeat in impossible conditions, as the 37-year-old Johnson went the distance in a torrential downpour that left the field too dark for his outfielders to see the ball; Johnson was pounded for 8 doubles, two triples, and a Series-record 25 total bases, including the ultimate game-winning ground-rule double in the 8th that Goose Goslin never saw. Prior to that start, his World Series ERA had been 1.93.
A sidearmer with a blazing fastball and freakishly long arms, Johnson won over 400 games in the majors despite pitching most of his career with terrible offensive support: his next to last season was the only time in his career the Senators finished higher than 4th in an 8-team league in scoring, and Johnson’s teams finished 8th in runs once, 7th five times, 6th twice and 5th seven times (including 1924, when they won the World Series and Johnson went 23-7 and won the AL MVP). Johnson won 25 games three times for teams that finished 6th or 7th in the AL in scoring, and in 1913 he was 36-7 for a team that was below the league average in scoring. I could spend all day reeling off measures of the number of low-scoring games Johnson pitched in, even by the standards of his day. Then again, his pitching success was helped – and his offenses hurt – by cavernous Griffith Stadium; for the years 1916-27, when we have data, Johnson was 125-65 with a 2.22 ERA at home, 86-86 with a 3.18 ERA on the road (this includes 1918-19, when Johnson was 18-13 with a 1.32 ERA and 4 saves on the road; overall, Johnson threw 616.1 innings those two seasons and allowed just two home runs, both to Babe Ruth). From 1920-27, Johnson allowed 21 homers in Washington, 45 on the road.
Measured by defensive efficiency rating, Johnson’s teams were also last in the AL in defense three times, although the 1924-25 pennant winners did lead the league in team defense. Despite this, thanks largely to his high strikeout rates, Johnson regularly allowed below-average amounts of unearned runs – 0.73 unearned runs per 9 innings for his career compared to 0.96 for the typical AL pitcher of his era. Johnson ran for Congress after his retirement, but running as a Republican in Maryland in 1940, he got no more help from his team than he had as a pitcher, and lost a close race.
Grover Cleveland “Pete” Alexander, born a Nebraska farmboy the same year as Johnson in Kansas, would very likely have joined Young and Johnson as 400-game winners in the majors if he hadn’t served in World War I at the peak of his career. A sidearming sinkerballer, Alexander didn’t even enter professional baseball until age 22 (in 1909) and had his career set back when he was nearly killed after being struck in the head by a thrown ball while running the bases in July of 1909. He won 29 games in the minors the following year, and when he did arrive in the majors in 1911 later he immediately led the league in wins and set a rookie strikeout record that lasted 73 years.
Alexander, in contrast to his amazing control and unflappable temperament on the field, had a series of severe problems that eventually ruined his life – epilepsy, alcoholism, and what was described at the time as “shell shock” but would be treated today as PTSD – and biographers have been stymied in attempting to untangle which is the chicken in his troubled life and which is the egg. His long-suffering wife Aimee insisted that the epilepsy was the result of the 1909 head injury; he tried to cover it up during his lifetime, as alcoholism was more socially acceptable at the time than uncontrollable seizures. His father was a heavy drinker, but it’s hard to tell from contemporary accounts whether he had a drinking problem before the war, which left him a changed man; there are reasons to believe that Alexander drank to cover up or deal with the epilepsy. While many of baseball’s famous alcoholics were fun-loving drunks who left behind a trail of entertaining hijinks, Alexander as a drinker left behind no happy stories, only a long trail of self-pity and dependency.
Alexander was the best pitcher in baseball when he was drafted in April 1918; he was 31 and had averaged 31-12 with a 1.54 ERA in 384 innings the prior three years. He had led the league in wins by margins of 8, 8 and 6 in consecutive years, and in innings by margins of 35, 61, and 46. Five pitchers on the pennant-winning 1915 Phillies threw over 170 innings; the second-lowest ERA was 2.36, but Alexander alone lowered the team ERA to 2.17.
And he saw hard combat at the front in France; he served in the artillery, pulling the lanyard on a mortar repeatedly with his prized right arm, probably damaging it in the process. He returned deaf in one ear. In 1919, Alexander was 0-4 with a 4.24 ERA at the end of May before he returned to playing shape; he proceeded to post a 1.30 ERA the rest of the season, win the ERA title, and go 27-14 with his final league-leading 1.91 ERA in 1920 before his sinking fastball began to fade.
Like Johnson, Alexander’s postseason record is tilted towards his latter years. He was 3-1 with a 1.42 ERA, one very famous save in Game Seven in 1926 and complete games in all four of his starts through age 40, but got pulverized for 11 earned runs in five innings by the Ruth-Gehrig juggernaut at age 41 in 1928 (Alexander faced Ruth in all three World Series he pitched in, and had held the Babe hitless in the previous two). Ironically, the man Alexander is linked to in memory – Tony Lazzeri, the Yankees rookie second baseman he struck out on three pitches with the bases loaded in Game 7 of the 1926 World Series – was also epileptic, and died at age 42 from a fall down a flight of stairs after a seizure.
Named after one president, Alexander was portrayed by another, Ronald Reagan, who starred in The Winning Team, a 1952 biopic made after Alexander’s 1950 death, with Doris Day as his wife. It’s an energetic film with its moments, but Reagan’s intrinsic optimism was not really suited to portraying the depth of Alexander’s demons (Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Lemon appears in the film as Hall of Fame pitcher Jesse Haines; Gene Mauch was an extra).
Lefty Grove had one of baseball’s most storied minor league careers before reaching the majors, a factor that Bill James considered in once ranking Grove the best pitcher of all time; he had seasons of 25-10, 27-10 and 26-6 for the Baltimore Orioles of the International League in the early 1920s from age 20-24, and the International League was pretty competitive at the time. But incorporating Grove’s minor league record and ignoring everyone else’s is an incomplete picture. Grove was a fantastically effective pitcher, winning an unprecedented 9 ERA titles, four of them while pitching in Fenway. For his career, his rate of strikeouts per batter faced was 167% of the league average, third best among the game’s 300-game winners behind only Nolan Ryan and Randy Johnson and equal to the career rate of Pedro Martinez; over Grove’s prime from 1926-32, he struck out more than twice as many batters as a percentage of batters faced than the league average (208%), a higher rate than Ryan, Randy Johnson, or Sandy Koufax in their primes. And in his early years, he did that mostly just with velocity, location and control; Grove didn’t have much movement on his fastball and didn’t throw a lot of curves until later in his career. But Grove wasn’t the colossal workhorse that Alexander or Walter Johnson was, relative to the league; he started more than 33 games only once, his only 300-inning seasons were in the minor leagues, and he never led the league in innings pitched; his last four seasons, including his last two ERA titles, he was basically a “Sunday pitcher,” throwing once a week. (Then again, he was ruthlessly efficient when he started; in 1931 he started 30 games and won 27 of them). Grove also benefitted greatly from powerhouse offenses with the A’s and Red Sox; more than half his career wins (153 of 300) came in games where he started and his team scored at least 6 runs, 184 of 300 in games where they scored at least 5.
Between starts, Grove was used as a closer to devastating effect in his prime; in 42 relief appearances from 1928-31, he was 10-3 with 21 saves and struck out almost 10 men per 9 innings (90 strikeouts in 84.2 innings) in an era when the league average was a little more than 3 strikeouts per 9 and when even Grove himself was averaging about 5.5 K/9 in his starts. While that disparity in strikeout rates is extreme, it was hardly unique for ace pitchers of that era to have higher K rates in relief; Dizzy Dean, for example, averaged 5.2 K/9 as a starter and only once cracked 6 K/9 in a starting role, but averaged 7.5 K/9 in relief from 1932-37. The rise in strikeout rates in modern baseball is in good part driven by the ability of relievers to air it out. Anyway, Grove was so useful in this role that in the 1929 World Series, Connie Mack used him exclusively out of the bullpen (Mack was also worried about how Grove would handle the Cubs’ overwhelmingly right-handed lineup, but he ended up throwing 6.1 scoreless innings and striking out 10).
Grove won exactly 300 games; he was 7-4 with a 3.65 ERA after winning number 300 on July 25, 1941, but posted a 7.13 ERA in his next six starts and called it a career.
Warren Spahn, who won his first big-league game in July of his age-25 season, was the winningest pitcher in post-World War II Major League baseball, winning all but 8 of his 363 career wins after the breaking of the color line. His late start was attributable to his combat service in the war.
In contrast to Alexander, Spahn insisted that the years lost to war made him the great pitcher he’d become, giving him the maturity to take baseball in stride: “I never thought of anything I was told to do in baseball as hard work. You get over feeling like that when you spend days on end sleeping in frozen tank tracks in enemy threatened territory.” Spahn was modest to the point of litigation about his wartime service, filing a precedent-setting lawsuit against a biographer who exaggerated Spahn’s heroics and falsely claimed that Spahn had won a Bronze Star.
Spahn rarely had dominating seasons, only two years with an ERA+ of better than 130. But his virtue lay in his incredible combination of consistency and durability. From 1947-63, a 17-year period, Spahn won 17 games fifteen times and 20 games thirteen times (his low was 14), started between 32-39 games every year, threw at least 257 innings sixteen times (low of 245.2), and completed at least 16 games each year. And in individual games, Spahn could be dominant often enough. I did a study a few years ago of pitchers with the most “High Quality Starts” – 7 or more innings, 2 or fewer runs allowed – since 1920, and not only was Spahn fifth on the career list with 292 such starts, but he actually had the sixth-highest percentageof High Quality Starts: 43.9% of his career starts. When you have Hank Aaron and Eddie Mathews in the lineup, that gets you a pretty long way to a win.
Greg Maddux, you probably remember. Maddux, like Peyton Manning today, was a decidedly bland and unglamorous figure on the field – calm, controlled, looking like he had arrived to audit the opposing team, not pitch to them. He’s the first pitcher on this list who pitched in the era of the expanded postseason, throwing 198 career innings of postseason baseball. Given that he pitched in an era when we were being told the 300 game winner was an endangered species, never had overpowering strikeout rates and lost more than a thirds of a season to work stoppage between 1994 and 1995 at the absolute peak of his career, it’s amazing to consider that Greg Maddux won 402 games as a professional.
He did it with the simplest of combinations: control and keeping the ball in the park. Among all 300-game winners, only 1880s workhorse Pud Galvin matches Maddux’s career batters-faced-per-walks average of 166% of the league average, and only Tim Keefe (another 1880s pitcher), Dead Ball era hurler Eddie Plank and Roger Clemens match Maddux’s career batters-faced-per-home-run rate of 142% of the league average. In his prime, when Maddux had good strikeout rates, that made him unstoppable – only Maddux and Alexander led the league in both innings pitched and ERA+ in the same season more than twice, and Maddux did it four years in a row – and over the rest of his career, an effective workhorse.
The 350-399 Win Club
Let’s move a little more quickly through the rest of the list, stopping to highlight a few things along the way.
|1937||1963||Early Wynn (1)||300||244||1||2||66||55||367||301||0.549||66|
|1959||1987||Phil Niekro (1)||318||274||0||1||43||25||361||300||0.546||61|
In the 350-399 win range, we encounter the question of “cheating,” as the 350-win club includes two known steroid users and three known spitballers. Besides Roger Clemens, the other “steroid” user is Hall of Famer Pud Galvin, who experimented briefly with a testosterone elixir (probably an ineffectual patent medicine), drinking it openly on the field as it was not illegal at the time. Galvin was just a slightly above-average pitcher but a ridiculous workhorse even for his day, averaging 495 innings a year for a decade from age 22-31; he died at 45 from stomach inflammation. The spitball story is a similar one: Burleigh Grimes was one of the men “grandfathered” and thus allowed to throw a legal spitball in the 1920s, whereas Gaylord Perry and Don Sutton were both famous and illegal defacers of the ball. I mentioned the study of High Quality Starts: the only two pitchers to make 300 of them since 1920 are Sutton (310) and Clemens (308).
Sutton was sort of the poor man’s Spahn: his season ERAs and other stats were rarely eye-popping, but he started 27 games and pitcher 207 innings in 1968, 23 games in the strike-shortened 1981, but otherwise started at least 31 games in each of the other 20 seasons between 1966 and 1987. His second season, 1967, was his only really poor year, although a number of others were more modestly subpar. His only real injury was while bunting in September 1980. Ask any manager how valuable it is to have a guy you can just pencil in the rotation and leave him there for 22 years.
Perry was 32 years old when the Giants traded him for Sam McDowell, who was four years younger, in December 1971. Perry won 180 more games, McDowell won 19. It’s hard today to believe the workloads that Perry carried within living memory: he averaged 321 innings, 39 starts and 25 complete games a year from age 30-36, 1969-75, the last three of those against lineups that used the DH. Yet he stayed healthy enough to win the Cy Young at 39 and pitch until he was 44.
I had always just assumed that Phil Niekro‘s late start in the majors was wholly due to learning the knuckleball, but he missed his age-24 season in the military in 1963. In 1982, at age 43, Niekro threw a 2-hit shutout against the Giants (with whom the Braves entered the game tied for second place) on September 27, then came back and threw a 3-hit, no-walk shutout on 3 days’ rest against the Padres; they were his only two shutouts of the year, and gave Joe Torre’s Braves the division by one game over the Dodgers.
Christy Mathewson, who shares the NL career win record with Alexander, also shares having his life ruined by World War I; Mathewson inhaled poison gas during a training exercise, wrecking his lungs. He was already at the end of his playing career (he had hit the wall after age 33), but the illness ended his managing career and he would be dead of tuberculosis by age 45. Mathewson, who threw straight overhand with tremendous control and the very occasional deployment of his devastating “fadeaway” (a precursor to the screwball) was a preposterous 303-120 with a 1.91 ERA from 1903-1913, age 22-32, and at the peak of the Giants-Cubs rivalry in 1908-09, he went 62-17 with a 1.31 ERA while Three Finger Brown, the Cubs’ ace, went 56-18 with a 1.39 ERA. In the 1905 World Series, Matty would throw three shutouts in six days; in the 1919 World Series, recuperating in the press box, he was one of the few men willing to question whether the Series was on the level.
Tom Glavine should skate into the Hall on the strength of 305 wins, five 20-win seasons and leading the National League in starts six times. As a Mets fan I don’t recall him as fondly as many Braves fans do, especially given his role in the 2007 season-ending collapse (he gave up seven runs and retired just one batter in the first inning of Game 162; the Mets had entered the final day tied for first), but Glavine in his one postseason trip for the Mets in 2006 was 2-1 with a 1.59 ERA.
|1928||1953||Tony Freitas (3)||25||33||348||243||373||276||0.575||97|
I’m listing separately the pitchers who won less than half their games in the majors. Thomas, the winningest minor league pitcher ever, was a wandering control pitcher in the low minors in a hitters’ era; he was 244-258 with a career ERA around 3.53 through age 38 before he started rolling up good won-loss records against war-depleted Southern Association competition, so there’s no real reason to think he would have been a top major league pitcher. Freitas, by contrast, had some modest if fleeting success in the majors and rolled up most of his wins in the Pacific Coast League.
The 325-349 Win Club
|1909||1933||Red Faber (1)||254||213||3||1||79||64||336||278||0.547||58|
|1901||1920||Three Finger Brown||239||130||5||4||85||52||329||186||0.639||143|
Dazzy Vance was, as measured relative to the league, the highest-strikeout pitcher of all time, despite not winning a major league game until he was 31. Vance’s rate of strikeouts per batter faced was 222% of the league average, 228% in his power-pitching prime from age 31-42. Nobody else is over 200% career, although Bob Feller, Grove and Rube Waddell are all over 200% if you focus on their prime years. Vance may have had some unique help from Ebbetts Field (it was said that he bleached his pitching sleeve and often threw against the backdrop of white laundry hung by Brooklyn housewives from clotheslines behind the park); the numbers show that from 1922-32, the years he was with the Dodgers, he had a 2.67 ERA and averaged 7.3 K per 9 innings at home, a 3.67 ERA and 5.1 K/9 on the road. Grimes, his teammate, had a 2.70 ERA at Ebbets from 1918-26, 3.38 on the road, but wasn’t a big strikeout pitcher (1.7 K/9 at home, 1.4 on the road).
Mordecai Peter Centennial “Three Finger” Brown, one of baseball’s unique stories due to the boyhood farm accident that left him with a mangled pitching hand that naturally threw curveballs, didn’t even play in the minors until he was 24. Brown’s teams had among the best team defenses in baseball history, a great edge for a guy who, from 1906-09, walked just 1.6 batters per 9 innings and allowed 5 home runs in 1165.1 innings. Yet, by 1911, Brown was making nearly half his appearances in relief (between 1906-11, he is credited with 38 shutouts and 38 saves).
Stan Coveleski is one of those Hall of Famers whose resume of a high-quality but relatively short career (his ERA+ from age 27-35 is a sterling 136) looks more impressive when you throw in 127 minor league wins between age 19-25.
Eddie Plank is the first pitcher we encounter here who never pitched in the minors; lefthanded pitching was sufficiently rare in baseball’s early days that when Plank retired, he had won 129 more games than any other lefty.
|1913||1940||George Payne (1)||1||1||348||262||349||263||0.570||86|
|1910||1931||Oyster Joe Martina||6||8||0||0||330||268||336||276||0.549||60|
Ted Breitenstein holds some quasi-legitimate records for most hits and runs allowed in a season, their legitimacy based on drawing the recordbooks’ line across 1893, the year the mound was moved back to 60 feet six inches. Relocating to the more lenient Southern Association after the turn of the century, he posted a 2.02 ERA from age 32-42, including ERAs of 1.05, 1.33, 1.48, and 1.53.
Bill James, in the Historical Baseball Abstract, picked longtime Pacific Coast League hurler Frank Shellenback as the best minor league pitcher of all time; he was a spitballer cut by the White Sox in mid-1919 who had the misfortune of being in the minors and not “grandfathered” when the pitch was outlawed the following year.
The 300-324 Win Club
|1879||1891||Old Hoss Radbourn*||309||194||3||0||312||194||0.617||118|
Tony Mullane is best known for being Irish-born and ambidextrous, occasionally toying with throwing with each hand; he won 284 big-league games despite missing the 1885 season, at the age of 26, after being suspended for jumping a contract. Mullane averaged 34 wins a year the prior three seasons and 30 a year the next three, so he would have easily had 300. But perhaps it’s just as well, given how he treated his catcher, African-American pioneer Fleet Walker, in 1884:
“Moses Fleetwood Walker was the best catcher I ever worked with, but I disliked a Negro and whenever I had to pitch to him, I used to pitch anything I wanted without looking for the signals,” wrote Mullane of Walker, his former teammate with the Toledo Blue Stockings. “One day he signaled me for a curve ball and I shot a fast ball at him. He caught it and walked down to me. He said: ‘I’ll catch you without signals but I won’t catch you if you are going to cross me when I give you signals.’ And all the rest of the season he caught me and caught anything I threw. I pitched without him knowing what was coming.”
Mullane threw 63 wild pitches in 64 starts that year; Walker was charged with 72 passed balls in 41 games, albeit not that many more than teammate Deacon McGuire (66 in 41 games).
Andy Pettitte finishes up as a 275 game winner in the majors if you include the postseason.
Babe Adams, a control specialist, had a really remarkable baseball odyssey, going back to the minors four times over his career yet pitching all but one of his big-league games between ages 25 and 44 for the Pirates, for whom he was the hero of the 1909 World Series and would make his last World Series appearance as a 43 year old in 1925. From 1919-22, Adams walked 74 batters in 857.2 innings.
Bert Blyleven, the best pitcher born in Holland, had 167 wins and a career ERA+ of 127 in 3000.2 innings from age 19-30; Sandy Koufax had 165 wins and a career ERA+ of 131 in 2324.1 innings from age 19-30. Blyleven would win 131 more games, including three seasons when he was in the top 4 of the Cy Young balloting after age 30; Koufax was retired at 30. Oddly,Blyleven, the last man to throw 20 complete games, holds the single season record for no-decisions, with 20.
Chief Bender and Jesse Haines are both marginal Hall of Famers (in Haines’ case, far below marginal) who pitched multiple big World Series games and had long minor league records. Bender won 212 games between age 19-33, left baseball to spend a year working in the shipyards to support the war effort in 1918 (I don’t credit him for missed time because he wasn’t actually in the military, but that may be a quibble), then had a second act in the minors starting with a season of 29-2 with a 1.06 ERA in the lowly Virginia League in 1919. He made one more brief cameo in the majors at 41, and had a 1.33 ERA in the Middle Atlantic League in his professional coda at 43.
There are four great pitchers who really stand out from their own contemporaries for their workloads at their peak, relative to the years they pitched in: Robin Roberts in the early 50s, Bob Feller in the late 30s to the season of his return from the war, Phil Niekro in the late 70s, and John Clarkson in the mid-late 1880s. But Niekro was a knuckleballer, and Clarkson was just doing what everybody else had been doing 5 years earlier; only 12 pitchers between 1924 and 1962 threw 320 innings in a season, and three of those were Roberts in consecutive seasons (in that 3-year stretch he averaged 338 innings and 31 complete games), and three others were Feller, albeit separated by four years in which Feller didn’t pitch due to the war. Roberts tossed 300 innings six years in a row and less than 3 innings short of a seventh, at a time when the #2 workhorse in the game (Warren Spahn) was miles behind. Like Mariano Rivera, Roberts in his prime threw basically one pitch, a fastball with great movement and pinpoint control, and that put little strain on his arm.
|1898||1928||Long Tom Hughes||132||174||0||1||189||165||321||340||0.486||-19|
Harry Krause led the AL in ERA at age 20 with a 1.39 mark in 1909, albeit on a team where Plank, Bender and Cy Morgan were all below 1.80. But he flamed out of the majors by age 23 and missed most of the A’s dynasty that would follow.
The 275-299 Win Club
|1947||1967||Whitey Ford (2)||236||106||10||8||51||20||297||134||0.689||163|
|1923||1947||Red Ruffing* (2)||273||225||7||2||16||27||296||254||0.538||42|
|1909||1929||Jeff Pfeffer (1)||158||112||0||1||130||98||288||211||0.577||77|
Whitey Ford started 156 career games in which the Yankees scored 6 runs or more, and never lost one of them. And he did that despite facing unusually stiff competition. In his rookie season, Ford made just 2 of his 12 starts against .500 or better teams – but from his return from the Army in 1953 until Casey Stengel’s last season in 1960, Ford made more than half his starts against .500 or better teams. Partly that’s because more than half the rest of the league was over .500 in those years, but in 1954, 1959 and 1960 there were only two other winning teams in the AL. One of the great what-ifs is what the early 50s World Serieses look like if Ford is on the 1951 and 1952 Yankees and Don Newcombe is on the 1952 and 1953 Dodgers instead of in the military (the 1952 and 1953 Serieses went to the Yankees in 7 and 6 games, respectively). From Ford’s arrival in July 1950 through the end of the 1954 season, counting the postseason, the Yankees went 267-134 (a .666 winning percentage).
The best defensive support of any pitcher – most sophisticated fielding metrics place Brooks Robinson and Mark Belanger among the four or five most valuable defensive players of all time, and that’s before we get to Paul Blair – helped Jim Palmerthrow a High Quality Start in 47.6% of his career starts, the best of any post-1920 pitcher.
We don’t really have a full record of what Luis Tiant did before coming to the U.S., as he had been pitching since “age 16.”
As I’ve noted before, Jack Morris actually had two great “years” that just weren’t within a single season: from June 1, 1983 to May 31, 1984, Morris was 27-9 with a 2.36 ERA, with 24 complete games and 248 strikeouts in 317 innings; from July 5, 1986 through July 4, 1987, he went 26-5 with a 2.98 ERA. Had he done those in two single seasons, he might be in the Hall of Fame now even with the same relatively unimpressive career resume.
Jim Bagby, like Krause, tasted big-league greatness for a short time, winning 31 games in 1920 as the ace of the Indians’ first World Championship team.
Satchel Paige started pitching in 1927 and was, in his last publicity-stunt start in the minors in 1966, a teammate of Johnny Bench. He went 21-12 with a 2.15 ERA at age 49-50 pitching for Miami in the International League in 1956-57. He threw shutouts in his second and third major league starts, at what was probably the age of 41. As uneven as the statistical record of his career is, every piece of it points to a tremendous pitcher, one who racked up 1990s-style strikeout rates against all types of competition between the 1920s and early 1940s and who was still far above the league strikeout average in the majors in his mid-40s.
The 250-274 Win Club
|1936||1966||Bob Feller (4)||266||162||0||2||266||164||0.619||102|
|1912||1933||Eppa Rixey (1)||266||251||0||1||266||252||0.514||14|
|1923||1946||Ted Lyons (3)||260||230||260||230||0.531||30|
|1912||1934||Herb Pennock (1)||241||162||5||0||13||10||259||172||0.601||87|
|1942||1972||Hoyt Wilhelm (3)||143||122||0||0||109||67||252||189||0.571||63|
Two more notes on World War II here. One is Bob Feller, who missed more time to the war at his very peak than anybody and saw combat in the Navy aboard the USS Alabama, who went from a star at 17 to throwing out the first pitch in Cleveland at 90. As you can see from the chart of the great strikeout pitchers, Feller was a revolutionary strikeout pitcher. At age 17, he struck out 76 batters in 62 innings in the American League, over 11 men per 9 innings. While allowing just one home run. His ERA was 3.34, although he walked 6.8 men per 9. His numbers after joining the rotation August 23 were even more staggering: 8 starts, a 2.67 ERA, 41 hits allowed, 70 K (11.67 per 9). This, in a league where the average pitcher struck out 3.3 men per 9, walked 4, had a 5.04 ERA and the average hitter batted .289/.363/.421. Feller made the cover of Time Magazine in April of the next year, before an Opening Day start in which he fanned 11 men in 6 innings (Feller made just two more appearances, in relief, before joining the rotation on July 4; he had to finish high school first). In his second season, in 148.2 IP, Feller struck out 150 men at age 18, becoming as a teen the only man after 1889 outside the Federal League to clear a strikeout per inning for more than 100 innings. In those first two seasons, he was a strikeout-inducing force such as the game had not seen. And when he came home from the war, he joined Paige in a 1946 barnstorming tour that drew a quarter of a million fans and helped lay the groundwork for breaking the color line the following year – that in a year when Feller pitched 371.1 major league innings.
Then there’s Hoyt Wilhelm, the last World War II vet to play in the majors – in the 1970s. In addition to 1,070 major league appearances, most of them as a reliever, after his rookie season at age 28 (he saved 227 games in the majors), Wilhelm also won 10 games in the minors in 1942 and won 20 games twice after returning from the war.
Rube Waddell’s major league records tend to obscure the fact that his mound appearances came at highly irregular intervals, given his alcoholism and general child-like unreliability and frequent suspensions; when he was available, Connie Mack (really a pioneer of lefthanded pitching between Waddell, Plank and later Grove) would work him like a dray horse. In 1900, Waddell threw 208.2 innings for the Pirates and led the league in ERA, but actually was in the minors pitching for Mack for almost two months at the end of the year, going 10-3. In 1902, Waddell went 24-7 in 276.1 innings and led the AL in strikeouts, but what the final totals don’t reveal is that he won his first game of the season in July; he had already gone 11-8 and thrown 167.2 innings on the West Coast.