The Best Pitchers of All Time
Pitching is an integral part of baseball. An effective pitcher requires precision, concentration, strong arms, velocity, and mental grit – all combined qualities.
At various times in history, many great pitchers have graced the mound. It can be challenging to compare their performances side-by-side; nonetheless, specific individuals have stood out as unparalleled baseball stars.
1. Walter Johnson (417 WSAB/417 WS)
Walter Johnson stands out among all players as an impressive pitcher in baseball history. Hailing from rural Idaho, Johnson started his professional career in 1906 by pitching for a semiprofessional team in the Southern Idaho League before one of his former teammates helped arrange a job with a Washington team that quickly earned Johnson recognition among peers as one of their hardest-throwing pitchers.
Johnson led the American League in games, starts, complete games, ERA, and strikeouts multiple times – including throwing 110 shutouts – the most ever seen by any pitcher in history. A Bridgeport, Connecticut, munitions lab measured his fastball at an astounding 98.6 mph – the fastest recorded by modern measurement technology! Additionally, Johnson amassed 3,509 strikeouts, the second-highest total among major-league pitchers; besides, he pitched four innings of the Washington Senators’ World Series win in 1924!
2. Grover Cleveland Alexander (325 WSAB/476 WS)
Alexander was widely revered as one of baseball’s greatest right-handed pitchers, winning 373 games while losing only 208 over his 20-year career with an ERA of 2.56 and 90 shutouts to his credit. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1938.
After an incredible rookie season with the Philadelphia Phillies (28 wins, second highest all time), he spent seven seasons pitching for Chicago, winning twenty or more games each year and eventually claiming the National League Pitching Triple Crown award (wins, strikeouts, and ERA).
Tragically, his turbulent personal life began to affect his game; he became heavily drunk, and the Cubs traded him mid-season to the Cardinals. Yet his career went out with a bang, precisely when he struck out Tony Lazzeri of the Yankees with bases loaded to win World Series 7.
3. Tom Seaver (247 WSAB/388 WS)
Tom Seaver often gets overlooked on lists such as this due to pitching during the “Second Deadball Era,” but that shouldn’t obscure his greatness. He won three ERA titles and five strikeout titles and was an All-Star in 10 of 11 seasons starting 1967; additionally, he was honored with Rookie-of-the-Year honors as well as winning two World Series Championships – genuinely making him one of baseball’s all-time great pitchers!
Christy Mathewson was one of the greats. His consistency over 21 years led to him leading the league in ERA for three decades – not to mention some of the most incredible postseason numbers of any pitcher ever! Look at this graph showing his career ERA relative to the league average. Christy was truly unbelievable!
4. Roger Clemens (249 WSAB/365 WS)
Clemens was an icon in Major League Baseball (MLB) from 1984 to 2003, winning seven Cy Young Awards and becoming the all-time leader for wins, shutouts, and strikeouts – and becoming the only pitcher ever to have won a World Series with two separate teams.
His career began at Boston Red Sox, whom he led to three consecutive American League pennants from 1987 through 1989. In 1986, he won his first of seven Cy Young Awards and was named AL Most Valuable Player that year. Additionally, he set records by striking out 20 batters in one game in 1986 and 1996, then exceeding the 4,000-strikeout mark by 2003.
After leaving Boston, Clemens continued his career with Toronto Blue Jays and New York Yankees – winning two additional World Series Championships each time. Fans honored his final regular-season game at Fenway Park as a public farewell for this iconic pitcher.
5. Christy Mathewson (235 WSAB/360 WS)
Christy Mathewson was an outstanding pitcher during the regular season. From 1903-05, he won at least 30 games each season while leading the National League in strikeouts five times, including three shutouts that year. Furthermore, Christy was equally effective during postseason play for the New York Giants when he pitched three consecutive complete game shutouts to win Games 1, 3, and 5 of the 1905 World Series for them.
Ervin was undisputedly the greatest pitcher of all time during his prime years and boasts the lowest career WHIP among pitchers who played 200 innings or more. His dominance was undeniable, and his skills make him worthy of consideration as one of history’s great pitchers.
6. Cy Young (197 WSAB/303 WS)
He was one of the greatest pitchers of his era and won seven Cy Young awards during that period. His key characteristic was control; he rarely allowed homers or walks per nine innings.
He ranks among the greatest strikeout pitchers and has led the league nine times. Lefties hit just 196 against him!
Modern-era pitchers who share this list may outshone him, but he remains excellent. In 1998 and 1999, he had the lowest earned run average (ERA) of his career – a complete shutdown pitcher at his best! He was also remarkable for being extremely durable; most years, he pitched over 200 innings a year!
7. Jim Palmer (196 WSAB/312 WS)
Christy Mathewson may not be well known, but he remains one of the greatest pitchers ever. Over his 17-year career with the Reds, Mathewson pitched over 4k innings and completed 435 games – numbers unrivaled even today and with his impressive low ERA.
He was an expert at using subtlety and often pitched in the most intimate areas of the strike zone he “owned.” This enabled him to prevent righties from hitting him better than lefties, and he had an especially low BABIP against them than many pitchers with similar histories. And just like his contemporaries on this list, The Big Unit was consistently dominant during each season he pitched – becoming one of the most intimidating pitchers ever during his peak performance years.
8. Red Ruffing (194 WSAB/322 WS)
Red Ruffing of Gettysburg, PA, pitched for the Yankees for 14 full seasons and three partial ones. While not an outstanding strikeout pitcher, Ruffing proved himself over time (including being among its youngest two times and oldest ten once). Furthermore, his pitch repertoire could adapt as his career went along, allowing for further success and adjustments of pitches that kept his opponents guessing.
He excelled at using his legal spitter (one of the last legal ones) to induce fieldable balls, leading the league in terms of earned run average (ERA) with runners on base and innings pitched with two outs.
He serves as a great example of how to balance longevity with dominance, as well as how a pitcher’s stats can increase after age 40.
9. Tom Glavine (180 WSAB/303 WS)
Glavine earned his nickname “Big Game” pitcher thanks to his dominating pitching in Atlanta Braves games throughout the 1990s. As part of an elite rotation alongside Greg Maddux and future Hall-of-Famer John Smoltz (all members of which earned Hall-of-Famer status), Glavine led the NL in starts six times over this era.
He achieved his most significant win total in 1998, garnering 21 victories and earning his second Cy Young Award. Additionally, he pitched a no-hitter and led the league in innings raised five times.
At a time when knuckleballing wasn’t widely practiced, he made history as one of its pioneers. After 14 full and three partial seasons in the majors – ranking among many best pitcher lists as one of their top 20 pitchers – he has made an outstanding case for entry into the Hall of Fame.
10. Pedro Martinez (164 WSAB/256 WS)
Martinez emerged from Santo Domingo’s impoverished suburbs with an early passion and an overwhelming drive to succeed. Over time, he honed his pitching abilities. Eventually, he found himself pitching in the Dominican Summer League and Winter League – finally landing a spot on the Los Angeles Dodgers roster.
Minor pitcher Joe Nathan had a devastating combination of fastball and changeup that baffled hitters throughout his career. He became one of the dominant forces during the late ’90s and early 2000s, winning two American League Cy Young awards.
After helping lead Boston to their first World Series win since 1918 in 2004, Martinez signed a lucrative four-year contract with the New York Mets, most notably for his 2003 postseason performance wherein he famously shoved Yankees bench coach Don Zimmer down during a baseball brawl. This incident ignited an ongoing feud between these teams.