There is no better way to chart the changes in the way baseball has been played than to look at the pitchers who played throughout the years. From the Dead Ball pitchers who would pitch every other day and keep scoring down to a minimum, to the advent of the ‘lively ball’ in 1921 when scoring sky rocketed. From the pitching boom of the 60’s to the so called ‘Steroid Era’ of the 1990’s.
As with most things, the cream would rise to the top and for every change and challenge there would be people who rise up to help push the game into a new evolution forcing more change and new challenges to emerge and new standards to be set. As the game has ebbed and flowed 2500 strikeouts has become 3000 and now 4000 is the new standard and how many more times will we see a 300 game winner? The game goes on.
Denton True Cy Young (1890-1911)
511-316, 2.63 ERA, 2803 strikeouts
I aimed to make the batter hit the ball, and I threw as few pitches as possible. That’s why I was able to work every other day – Cy Young
Its hard to talk about Major League pitching and not come back to Cy Young. The man whose name is on the award given to the top pitcher in the league each year and the man who holds the record for most wins (511) in Major League history.
Called ‘Cyclone’ due to the speed of his fastball, it is alleged that his catcher used to put a beef steak in his glove to protect his hand.
Young’s ability was apparent in his very first start when he threw a three hit shutout against Chicago. In his career he would go better than that pitching three no hitters including the first perfect game (a complete game without allowing a single base runner) in the ‘Modern Era’ and would win the first ever World Series game.
Christy Mathewson (1900-1916)
373-188, 2.13 ERA, 2502 strikeouts
Mathewson pitched against Cincinnati yesterday. Another way of putting it is that Cincinnati lost a game of baseball. The first statement means the same as the second – Damon Runyon
Third on the all time win list, Christy Mathewson was the thinking mans pitcher. Using his famous fade away pitch, now more commonly as a screwball, he was dominant from ‘04 to ‘14 winning at least 22 games in each year but perhaps his finest moment was in the 1905 World Series when he almost won the whole thing by himself. In six days he threw three complete games giving up a combined 14 hits and zero runs.
Walter Johnson (1907-1927)
417-279, 2.17 ERA, 3508 strikeouts
You can’t hit what you can’t see – Cliff Blackenship
The thing that marks Walter Johnson as one of the very best of all time is that he managed to post so many great numbers whilst playing for a team that was rarely great. Charley Dryden once said of the Washington Senators, “Washington : First in war, first in peace and last in the American League” but Johnson rose above that. With his easy side arm delivery he blew away opposing hitters with 3508 strikeouts (a record that lasted 56 years) helping him to shut out opponents 110 times, by far a record, and had a streak of 56 consecutive scoreless innings, a record which was broken in 1968.
Grover Cleveland Alexander (1911-1930)
373-208, 2.56 ERA, 2198 strikeouts
Grover Cleveland Alexander drunk was a better pitcher than Grover Cleveland Alexander sober – Bill Veeck
It was never easy for ‘Old Pete’, in his first professional season he was struck by a pitch and had to deal with bouts of epilepsy the rest of his life, not that it stopped him having a record setting rookie season in the Major Leagues in 1911 with 28 wins. He would go on to win pitching’s Triple Crown twice before heading to war in 1918 where he suffered shell shock, worsened seizures and as bad as his drinking was before, it became far worse afterwards.
In 1920 he would win his third Triple Crown but alcoholism would sour his relationship with several teams and his career declined but he still ended up with the joint third most wins and second most shutouts (90) of any Big League pitcher.
Warren Spahn (1942-1965)
363-245, 3.09 ERA, 2583 strikeouts
Spahn and Sain and pray for rain – Gerald Hern
With the sixth most wins of all time and the most by any lefty, Spahn was one of the most effective pitchers of the 50’s, leading the league in wins eight times and recording thirteen 20 win seasons to tie a record.
Spahn was able to maintain a high level by adapting his game as he got older from a hard thrower who led the league in strikeouts every year from ‘49 to ‘52, to the prototype crafty lefty who threw his two no hitters aged 39 and 40, the mark of a true winner.
Sandy Koufax (1955-1966)
165-87, 2.76 ERA, 2396 strikeouts
There are two times in my life the hair on my arms stood-up: The first time I saw the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and the first time I saw Sandy Koufax throw a fastball – Al Campanis
Blessed with the kind of fastball, that broke a catchers thumb during a tryout, and an ungodly curveball the only thing that held Sandy Koufax back in the early years was his control. In fact he almost retired in 1960, frustrated by injuries and a lack of opportunities but he gave it one last shot and went on to dominate the league like few others.
From ‘61 to ‘66 he would win three Cy Young Awards, an MVP, the pitching Triple Crown (league lead in wins, ERA and strikeouts) three times, led the league in ERA five times, wins three times, strikeouts four times (including setting a season record of 382 in ‘65) and would throw four no hitters including a perfect game. What was remarkable about that perfect game in ‘65 was that he was already suffering from traumatic arthritis and had to be heavily medicated in order to get through games.
His entire career was one of struggle, from getting that first chance through to the battle against his own body and it says so much about the man that in 1966 he was told to retire by his doctor and he went on to a 27 win season with an incredible 1.73 ERA and won his third Cy Young Award with his third Triple Crown to push the Dodgers into the playoffs
Bob Gibson (1959-1975)
251-174, 2.91, 3117 strikeouts
He’d knock down his own grandmother if she dared challenge him – Hank Aaron
One of the fiercest competitors to ever take the mound, Bob Gibson quit the Harlem Globetrotters to begin a career in baseball because he didn’t like the clowning about.
He was so competitive that in 1967, after he had his leg broken on a ball hit back at him by Roberto Clemente, the next time they faced each other, Gibson fizzed a fastball over the batters head with the first pitch to let him know he remembered. The future Hall of Famer never registered another hit in his career against Gibson.
The following year Gibson had arguably the greatest single season since the advent of the lively ball posting a 1.12 ERA, shutting out the opposition 13 times, striking out 268 batters, allowing a mere 198 hits over 304 2/3 innings on his way to a 22 win season, a Cy Young and an MVP. He would also strike out a World Series record 17 batters in what came to be known as The Year of the Pitcher. In fact so dominant was Gibson in ‘68 that in ‘69 the pitching mound was lowered 5 inches to help level the playing field for hitters. Gibson responded by going 20-13 with a 2.18 ERA and went on to become the first player since Walter Johnson to register 3000 career strikeouts.
Steve Carlton (1965-1988)
329-244, 3.22 ERA, 4136 strikeouts
The two best pitchers in the National League don’t speak English: Fernando Valenzuela and Steve Carlton – a reporter in 1981
During his career Lefty achieved some momentous feats. He was the first man to win four Cy Young Awards, the last National League pitcher to win 25 or more games, the last National Leaguer to pitch at least 300 innings and the all time strikeout lead jumped between him and Nolan Ryan 19 times before Ryan finally claimed it for good.
In 1972, playing for the last placed Phillies, he won his first Cy Young Award with one of baseballs great seasons. Carlton won 27 of the teams 59 victories (46%) for the season to lead the league whilst striking out 310 and posting a 1.97 ERA for the first of his three Triple Crowns.
Not only was he one of the great pitchers but he also was one of the games enigmatic personalities. Playing for a poor Phillies team in ‘73, Carlton lost 20 games and his far eastern training regime that had brought him success in the past, was ridiculed by the press and he never said a word to them ever again.
Nolan Ryan (1966-1993)
324-292, 3.19 ERA, 5714 strikeouts
If he ain’t struck you out, then you ain’t nobody – Rickey Henderson
For someone who achieved so much in baseball, it is sometimes odd to think that so many people have so many reservations about the career of Nolan Ryan.
In a career that spanned 27 years he struck out more hitters than anyone and his drive and ambition saw him throw the last of his record seven no hitters, aged 44. He broke Sandy Koufax’s single season strikeout record in 1973 by striking out 383 but Koufax himself highlighted the reservation many had about Ryan when he said, “He also surpassed my total for base on balls in a season by 91.” Nolan Ryan may have struck out more hitters than anyone else, but he also walked more hitters than anyone else. In his eight years with the Angles he led the league in strikeouts seven times and led the league in walks six.