The Best Pitcher of the Last 50 Years
Sometimes, I feel the need to ask big questions with no clear answers. Today the question is, who is the best pitcher of the last 50 years? For starters, let’s set a quick ground rule. In order to qualify, a pitcher needs to have pitched the best part of his career in the last 50 years. So pitchers like Warren Spahn, who pitched until 1965, are eliminated from consideration. Second, my primary concern is career value. Dwight Gooden had a stunning peak from 1984-87, but his career does not measure up. The same will eliminate Sandy Koufax. In his prime he may have been as good as anyone to throw the ball, but the prime is too short to measure up. For purposes of this blog post, I’ll talk about primes only as they illustrate larger career value and dominance.
I think most fans would give one of three answers: Tom Seaver, Roger Clemens, and Greg Maddux. All are good picks, and you can’t go wrong with any of these answers. For my purposes, I want to set Clemens aside, because I don’t want the entire post to devolve into a discussion of steroids. I think if you can look past the steroids, he is the right answer. For purposes of this post, I am not looking past steroids. That leaves Seaver and Maddux. Who’s better?
This is a quick overview of each player’s career. By Wins Above Replacement, ERA, K/9, and WHIP, take Seaver. By Wins, ERA+, BB/9, HR/9, and Cy Youngs, take Maddux. Seaver also won a Rookie of the Year to even out the award debate. The closeness of these numbers reflect the closeness of the debate. Depending on which stat you weight the most heavily, either pitcher can be favored. Next, let’s consider dominance by era.
The number reflects the number of times each led the league in that category. Again you see a close race. Seaver leads in K, K/9, and ties in Wins. Maddux leads in ERA, ERA+, BB/9, HR/9, and WHIP, though the WHIP and ERA leads are minuscule. This chart, I think, highlights the difficulties in comparing each player. Seaver was an incredibly effective power pitcher, as the K totals reflect. His three WHIP titles, I think, highlight his broader effectiveness by noting how few baserunners he allowed even without a single BB/9 title. Maddux, in contrast, is arguably the best control pitcher in major league history. He led the league in fewest BB/9 an unheard of 9 times. He rarely gave up the longball, and he allowed minimal baserunners. Though not the strikeout pitcher of Tom Seaver’s class, he still had good K numbers. So who’s better?
A final complicating factor is team quality. Each pitcher won a single World Series. Seaver’s teams made it twice, and Maddux made it 3 times. Maddux made the playoffs 13 times, in an era of expanded playoffs and smaller divisions, while Seaver made the playoffs only 3 times. Maddux clearly had better teams behind him, but the Braves were defined by their pitching, not their hitting. In this context, I am not sure how much Maddux’s stats rely on team quality. Andruw Jones is the only elite fielder who spent the bulk of his career backing up either pitcher, though each had a number of good fielders come through.
I lean toward Greg Maddux. My leanings likely are affected by how many more times I saw Maddux than Seaver, but I still lean that direction. The number of single season titles, I think, point to a slightly more dominant pitcher, and the career numbers are so close as to be indistinguishable. There is my case for Maddux. What do you think? Who is the best pitcher of the last 50 years? Please make your case in the comments, because I would love to hear it.