There is an argument to be made that Roger Clemens is the best pitcher in baseball history. His raw numbers don't compare with the likes of Cy Young and Walter Johnson, but it's my belief (along with many others) that this reflects a change in the circumstances of pitching rather than the quality of pitching. Looking at the raw numbers, one would assume that all the best pitchers played in the 1870s and 1880s. If you look at the top 100 pitchers in career ERA, you will find exactly one pitcher who is active in the majors (Pedro Martinez). Do you really believe that modern pitchers are just awful, and that all old-timers were better? Was Pedro Martinez really no better than Ned Garvin?
Of course not. The circumstances of pitching have changed. Strikeouts and walks are at historically high levels in modern baseball. What does this mean? It means that modern pitchers throw more pitchers per inning than at any other time. So we can't exactly blame pitchers for not throwing 300 innings a year anymore.
In the 1885 NL, the Giants pitching staff led the league with 519 K. They also allowed a league-high 266 walks. In the 2005 NL, the Cubs led the league with 1256 K. And Pittsburgh allowed a league-high 612 walks. So that's a 142% increase in strikeouts and a 130% increase in walks. Pitching is astronomically different than it used to be. We cannot let the raw numbers become more important than the context that created them.
Cy Young won 511 games. He was an excellent pitcher. Let's use his 1901 season as an example. Young started 41 games and completed 38 of them. In the 1901 AL, pitchers completed 85% of their starts. In the 2004 AL, that number dropped to 3%. Is this because pitchers nowadays are lily-livered weaklings who aren't man enough to finish what they start? Well, I suppose that's possible, and it's the explanation you hear from every old-timer. But my explanation is that the game changed, and the pitchers (and managers) adapted to the change. The pitchers didn't change the game; the game changed the pitchers. While there's no evidence to disprove the fact that personal weakness is why complete games are down, I think it's simply due to the changing game. You can't blame pitchers nowadays for not winning 300 games. How many games nowadays are decided by the bullpen, compared to just 20 years ago? What percentage of overall wins and losses go to starting pitchers now, compared to the era of Bob Gibson? The growing reliance on relief pitchers is a change in the way the game has played; it has come as much from managers as from pitchers. To sum up, we just can't compare a pitcher to another pitcher from a different era based on raw stats. We have to look at what the pitcher accomplished compared to his peers.
So what did Roger Clemens do, compared to his peers? Roger won 7 Cy Young Awards, although I think he was the best pitcher in his league 9 times, counting this year. Clemens has won more games, by far, than any of his contemporaries. He is second only to Warren Spahn as the winningest pitcher since World War II, an amazing stat when you consider all that has changed, even since Spahn retired in 1965. His .665 winning percentage is tied for 18th all time, with Pedro Martinez the only active pitcher above him (among those with a significant career). He is 2nd all-time in strikeouts with 4,502 (although Randy Johns0n may pass him before all is said and done), and sports a 3.12 career ERA. Even more important, his Adjusted ERA is 143, which ties him with Jim Devlin (?) for 8th all-time. Other than Pedro Martinez, the only pitchers since World War II with a better career Adjusted ERA are Hoyt Wilhelm and Dan Quisenberry, both relief pitchers who threw significantly fewer innings. And Pedro has yet to enter the decline phase of his career, which will lower his ERA perhaps even past Roger. And Roger has a huge edge in career innings pitched (2,513 for Pedro, 4,704.1 for Roger). So Roger is definitely the best pitcher of his time. And, as I demonstrated earlier, we could argue that he is the best pitcher of all time.
Maddux has not quite been Roger's equal, all told. Don't get me wrong, Maddux is definitely one of the 15 best pitchers ever, and probably in the top 10. He just hasn't had Roger's ungodly staying power. Maddux has been a great pitcher, but has started to look mortal at age 39. Which is what happens to pitchers not named Clemens.
But I could argue that Maddux's 2 best years were better than anything a pitcher has done since 1972. Here's what Maddux did in 1994 and 1995:
1994: 16-6, 1.56 ERA, 273 ERA+, 202 IP, 31:156 BB:K ratio, 4 HR allowed
1995: 19-2, 1.63 ERA, 259 ERA+, 209.2 IP, 23:181 BB:K ratio, 8 HR allowed
These are both historically good seasons. Let's compare them to Clemens' two best seasons, which oddly enough came in his two seasons in Toronto:
1997: 21-7, 2.05 ERA, 226 ERA+, 264 IP, 68:292 BB:K ratio, 9 HR allowed
1998: 20-6, 2.65 ERA, 176 ERA+, 234.2 IP, 88:271 BB:K ratio, 11 HR allowed
All four seasons naturally earned Cy Young Awards for both men. They're 4 of the best seasons by any pitcher in the past 30 years. Maddux has a pretty big edge in adjusted ERA, but Clemens' edge in Innings Pitched and strikeouts would seem to negate that. But is Clemens' edge in Innings Pitched really what it seems? Does anybody remember anything about 1994 and 1995? Perhaps you'll recall that a baseball strike shortened both seasons. So Maddux accomplished all that he did while making 25 and 28 starts, respectively, in 1994 and 1995. He averaged about 35 starts in the surrounding seasons, so what would Maddux's work look like adjusted for 35 starts? It draws him pretty even with Clemens. Maddux's Win Shares in the two seasons were 26 in '94 and 30 in '95, both historic numbers for a pitcher. Clemens got 32 in '97 and 25 in '98. It makes them look pretty even, but when you adjust for the strike, Maddux gets the clear edge. Assuming 35 starts for Maddux in both years, he would have earned 36 WS in '94 and 38 in '95. Those 38 Win Shares would be the best single-season for any pitcher since 1972.
So can we give Maddux extra credit for the bad luck of pitching his two greatest seasons in years shortened by a strike? Yes, but not much. It doesn't change my opinion that Clemens was the better pitcher, but it gives us insight into just how good Maddux was at his peak. And, in my opinion, Greg Maddux was, at his peak, an even better pitcher than Clemens was at his peak. Where Clemens has Maddux beat is in overall quality. Maddux was one of the 10 best pitchers in the NL each season from 1988-2002. That's a record of consistency that no one in modern history can match. While Clemens doesn't have that, Clemens did have more periods of dominance than Maddux did. It gives Clemens the edge, but not by a whole lot. So if Clemens is the best pitcher of his time (and he is), Maddux is a close second.
I've already spoken about a pitcher's best two seasons. Is it possible that Pedro can match Clemens and Maddux? Yes, and it's possible that he has them both beaten. Here's an excerpt from the analysis of Pedro's career I put together recently:
In 1999, Pedro posted a historically good season. I can only list the stats to do it justice: He posted a miniscule 2.07 ERA (the league ERA in 1999 was 4.86). His adjusted ERA was 245, the 9th-best all-time. He notched 313 strikeouts against an amazing 37 BB and 9 HR allowed. He pitched 213.1 innings. Pedro’s 13.21 K/9 IP was the best ever until it was broken by Randy Johnson in 2001. It was now time to start speaking of Pedro as not just a great pitcher, but a historically great pitcher. Pedro became only the 15th unanimous winner of the Cy Young Award, and even finished a very close 2nd in the MVP race to Ivan Rodriguez.
Pedro’s 1999 performance looked like some pitcher’s ultimate career year. So Pedro went out and had an even better year in 2000. An ERA of 1.74 (the league ERA was 4.91; the 3.17 gap between them is the best ever by a starting pitcher). His adjusted ERA of 285 ranks as the best ever by a pitcher since 1900. Only Tim Keefe’s 294 in 1880 was better. Pedro struck out “only” 284 against 32 BB and 17 HR in 217 IP. He threw 7 complete games and 4 shutouts. He was, once again, the unanimous Cy Young, and this time finished 5th in the MVP voting.
Among active pitchers, Pedro ranks 9th with 197 career wins (despite being much younger than anyone above or close behind him), 1st in career winning percentage (.701), 1st in hits allowed/game (6.82), 4th in strikeouts (2861), 3rd in strikeouts/9 IP, 1st in ERA (2.72, with Greg Maddux’s 3.01 being the next-closest), 1st in Adjusted career ERA (166), and 6th in career Win Shares (243).
But hey, forget active pitchers. Where does Pedro rank all-time? He is third all-time in winning percentage (.701, although this should decrease as he gets older), 14th all-time in strikeouts (2861), 3rd all-time in K/9 IP, tied for 78th all-time in ERA (he’s the only active player in the top 100), and to top it all of, Pedro Martinez ranks 1st all-time in career Adjusted ERA at 166. Lefty Grove is second at 148, and Walter Johnson is third at 146. Now granted, adjusted ERA doesn’t account for the fact that Grove and Johnson pitched a whole lot more innings than Pedro, nor does it account for the fact that Pedro’s number will fall as he declines with age. Still, it’s an amazing achievement. The next-highest pitcher on the career ERA+ list is 8th-place Roger Clemens at 143.
Pedro Martinez is one of the greatest pitchers ever. He, along with Maddux, Clemens, and Johnson, deserve to enter not just into the Hall of Fame, but into the realm of the all-time great baseball players.
These guys are the Big 4 among active pitchers in baseball. If Carlton and Seaver were the dynamic duo of the 70's and 80's, then these 4 are the dominant quartet of their time; 4 pitchers who aren't just Hall-of-Famers, but among the top 20 pitchers ever.
Johnson got off to a relatively late start compared to the other three. He was, as a Seattle Mariner, a sharp young pitcher with a great fastball and slider. But he was amazingly wild, and his strikeouts were matched by a huge number of walks (90+ for 5 straights seasons). It was in 1993 (at the relatively advanced age of 30) that Johnson started to look like more than just another good, wild pitcher. His ERA dropped to a career-best 3.24, and he joined the short list of pitchers with a 300-K season, notching 308 in 255.1 IP. After a good '94, Johnson won the 1995 Cy Young with a 2.48 ERA and 294 K in just 214.1 IP.
But it wasn't until he came to the National League that Johnson became a historically good pitcher. It's not very common for a pitcher to reach this level at the age of 34 (Johnson's age when he came to the NL in 1998), but Johnson accomplished it. After an amazing half-season in Houston (10-1, 1.28 ERA, 116 K in 84.1 IP), Johnson signed a contract with Arizona and became the best pitcher in baseball. He spent 6 seasons in Arizona and won 4 Cy Young Awards (and deserved another one in 2004).
From 1999-2004, Johnson went 103-49, posted a 2.65 ERA, and struck out an ungodly 1,832 batters in 1389.2 IP against just 359 BB. It was a record for the ages that entered Johnson into the realm of the immortals and punched his ticket to Cooperstown.
It was a surprise for me to see Schilling rank higher on my list than guys like Tom Glavine and Kevin Brown. But while Schilling didn't get famous until he went to Arizona, he had a fine early career in Philadelphia. He didn't post amazing ERAs, but he had 2 300+ K seasons in Philadelphia, in 1997 and 1998. He did emerge to a new level when he joined Arizona in mid-2000, although he didn't reach the heights that Randy Johnson did. Schilling is, without a doubt in my mind, the best active pitcher never to win the Cy Young. While he probably needs another good season to really get noticed by Hall voters, I think he's already earned his spot. If the Phillies had been worth a damn in the early 90's (1993 notwithstanding), Schilling would have a better rep.
Glavine is a tough case, because he has really benefited from playing for the best team of the 90's. But he's been one heck of a pitcher for quite a long time, and his 275 wins are golden nowadays. He's already made it in the minds of the voters, and I would have to agree.
I wasn't really sure about Smoltz until he reemerged with a fine 2005. Smoltz may have been better than Glavine at his peak, but he didn't have Tom's uncanny consistency and good health. Smoltz is often compared to Eckersley, although the comparison is a bit backward. Eckersley was a much better closer, and Smoltz was a much better starter. I think Smoltz will get into the Hall with Eckersley setting the precedent, and I think he's contributed enough both as a starter and as a reliever to deserve it.
Brown has had a fine career as a major league starter, but there's just nothing to really convince me that he's a Hall-of-Famer. Brown had two very good seasons in 1996 and 1998 (with Florida and San Diego, respectively), and has had some other good seasons, but he hasn't had that quality with a good degree of consistency. He's also bounced around to a lot of teams and suffered many injuries, both of which will hurt his standing with the voters. He spent 8 years with Texas, 1 with Baltimore, 2 with Florida, 1 with San Diego, 5 with L.A. and 2 now with the Yankees. He'll be 41 years old next year, and he's coming off lots of injury trouble. He's basically finished.
I'd argue that "Moose" is one of the more underrated pitchers of his era. He never really got the credit he deserved in Baltimore and always seemed to be in someone else's shadow in New York. He's had one heck of a career, better than some Hall-of-Famers, but I just don't think he belongs. He'll be 37 next season and is also troubled with injuries. He doesn't have a whole lot left.
It's difficult to measure relievers against starting pitchers, and even against relievers of other eras. The "save" stat is pretty useless when compared to other eras. Our data for save opportunities goes back less than 10 years, so we have no clue how many chances for saves Goose Gossage had, let alone someone like Hoyt Wilhelm. And we can't give Trevor Hoffman a ton of credit for getting 400 saves if he had 100 more save chances than Gossage, which is more than likely. Managers nowadays tend to use their closers more and more exclusively in save opportunities, often to the detriment of the team. It's an odd case of a statistic changing the game. Managers see "save opportunities" as the most important time of the game, so they'll use their closer in a save opportunity whenever they can. But this can be counter-productive. There's no need to waste your best relief pitcher to protect a 3-run lead with 1 inning to play. A closer would be more effective pitching in a tied game, or a even game where his team is behind. The dominance of the save has grown far out of proportion. It also means that relievers like Gossage, who did come in to pitch in more tied-game or losing contests (and also pitched more than an inning much more often) actually lose out, because they don't have more saves (which you can't get without save opportunities). It's a classic case of people taking a statistic directly to heart without taking into account what it's really measuring.
That may not have much to do withy Mariano Rivera, but I thought it was important. Rivera is an interesting case, because he didn't reach the majors until he was 25, and didn't become a closer until age 27. But Rivera has been baseball's premiere closer (more or less) since 1997. I don't think his postseason work alone should get him into Cooperstown, but it's certainly quite the icing on the cake. I would vote for Rivera, but reserve it for closers like Trevor Hoffman.
Other active (or ineligible) pitchers with significant careers are: David Cone, Chuck Finley, David Wells, Orel Hershiser, Kenny Rogers and Al Leiter. None of them are Hall-of-Famers, although Cone probably comes the closest.