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?

Seaver 105.3 311 6.8 2.6 2.86 128 0.7 3 1.12
Maddux 96.8 355 6.1 1.8 3.16 132 0.6 4 1.14

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.

Wins ERA K K/9 BB/9 HR/9 WHIP ERA+
Seaver 3 3 5 6 0 0 3 3
Maddux 3 4 0 0 9 4 4 5

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.

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4 Comments on “The Best Pitcher of the Last 50 Years”

  1. verdun2 Says:

    You might also consider Randy Johnson, Steve Carlton, or Bob Gibson. My pick of your three would be Seaver.

  2. verdun2 beat me to it, but I believe Randy Johnson has to be considered in this debate. Here’s why:
    Cy Young awards: 5 (Plus three 2nd place finishes)
    ERA+ titles: 6 (more than either Seaver or Maddux)
    Career ERA+: 136 (better than Seaver or Maddux)
    Strikeout Titles: 9
    K’s / 9 Innings, Career: 10.6 (Best in history)
    Career K’s: 4,875: (second most ever)
    200+ K Seasons: 14 (Nolan Ryan had 15)
    ERA Titles: 4
    Career Record: 303-166 .646 win / loss percentage

    I’m not saying that R.J. was better than either Seaver or Maddux, but he certainly deserves to be considered in this debate.

    Nice topic, Bill (

  3. sportsphd Says:

    To tackle these candidates in reverse order, Gibson is lacking in both longevity and dominance. His 17 year career is noticeably shorter than the rest of the candidates mentioned, and during that career, he leads the league in wins once, strikeouts once, and ERA once. A great pitcher certainly, but not quite this class. Carlton, in contrast, is dragged down a bit by the length of his career. His career ERA+ is only 115, dragged down by every year from 1982 on. His rate stats simply aren’t as impressive as Seaver or Maddux, indicating that a pitcher with 4 Cy Young awards still wasn’t quite as dominant as the aforementioned duo.

    Randy Johnson deserved more consideration. My claim probably would have stronger if I had said best right-handed pitcher of the last 50 years. Johnson has outstanding counting and rate stats. His black ink test, i.e. most times leading the league in various categories is sixth all time, and only one behind Clemens for best of the last 50 years. His gray ink test, a measure of how consistently he was at the top of the league, trails Maddux, Clemens, Seaver, and Carlton, in that order. At the very least, I’ll concede both Bill and Verdun’s points; Johnson deserved more extended consideration.

  4. kevin brewer Says:

    seaver 231 cgs.

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