Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The HoG25: The 25 Best (Starting) Pitchers of the Last 25 Years (Part Two)

Welcome back ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls. Yesterday we brought you installment number one of The HoG25's pitcher selection. We know by now that all two of our readers are familiar with what we're talking about when we refer to both the series and the individual features, so no explanations are necessary.

For the record -- and if you give it some thought you might understand -- determining those that will be included, as well as those who will not has not been an easy process. We've basically made selections, made fun of one another for making such selections, and then griped about in what order we'll list the selections we were just bitching about. It's good times all around, and we do it all for you. So hop past the skip and see who made the cut. Happy reading.

10. Kevin Brown

Old No. 7:
The most overlooked pitcher of the past 25 years is Kevin Brown, bar none.

Brown wasn’t overlooked by baseball men, who put him on six All-Star teams and signed him to the first $100 million contract in baseball history in 1998. But he never won a Cy Young Award, despite 211 career wins and 2397 strikeouts. Brown was the ace of the 1997 Marlins that won the World Series (although he pitched like shit in that Series) and the Padres that made it to the Fall Classic the following year.

Brown threw a killer sinker, a gravity-sucking fastball that batters beat into the earth time and time and time again. In the parlance of the times, Kevin Brown’s sinker was heavy. It broke your bat and hurt your hands. For a span of about eight years, Brown’s sinker was right up there with Mariano Rivera’s cutter, Randy Johnson’s slider and Pedro Martinez’s changeup as the best single pitches in the game.

Best of all, Kevin Brown was one of the biggest assholes baseball has ever seen. His blind rage toward everyone —- opponents, teammates, umpires, fans, reporters, Joe Torre’s office wall -— rivals the pure unfiltered hate of one Barry Bonds. Barry was a dick, but even Barry never pulled a gun on his neighbor over a pile of lawn clippings. That particular delivery was trademarked by Kevin Brown.

9. Mike Mussina

A few years back, Peter “20 Dolla Bill, Y’all” alluded to a major league pitcher -— a college-educated major league pitcher, no less -— with a big-time club who was a virulent racist in his private life. As far as I know, the actual name never came to light, but folks widely assumed that it was Mike Mussina.
He was basically the only choice anyone could come up with, because he was a Yankee and had a degree in Economics from Stanford. Is it true? Maybe. I honestly have no idea. Maybe Gammons was just letting his Sox-lovin’ Freak Flag fly. Or maybe Moose displayed a collection of genuine Nazi daggers in his locker. What is true, indisputably true, is that Mike Mussina is on the short list of the best pitchers I’ve ever seen in my life.

Let’s start with the fact that he owns the American League career record for most consecutive seasons with 11 or more victories, an impressive 17. He is the oldest first-time 20-game winner in Major League history, having hit the mark in 2008, his final season. His overall stats -— 250+ wins, overall career ERA under 3.70 -— put him in Hall of Fame company. Part of the story with Mussina, though, is how close he came to some spectacular career marks: He nearly pitched a perfect game on a number of occasions and finished in the top 5 of Cy Young balloting six times, but never closed the deal on either. Nor did he ever win a World Series, even though he appeared in two with the Yankees.

But he did spend his entire career in the Majors’ toughest division, the AL East, so maybe we need to look at his career through that particular prism. If he’d pitched in the National League he might have 300 wins. Even if he is a racist. A racist that likes crossword puzzles.

8. Roy Halladay

Old No. 7:
It’s a shame that Halladay has wasted his career playing for unappreciative simpletons in Canada. Had he worked in an American market, even a backwater like Pittsburgh or Kans— I mean Milwaukee, he’d have multiple Cy Youngs and the adoration of millions of actual baseball fans. Instead he saddles up in front of 12,000 bored hockey freaks every fifth night and rockets BBs toward home plate.

The complete game is a lost art, we all know this and hear it all the time. No one finishes what they start, and today’ pitchers are perfectly content to put in their five or six and hand it over to the bullpen. Let’s all ignore the fact that this is the most effective way to win a game -— by using your freshest arms and maximizing platoon matchups late in a tight contest. It does seem less manly to pitch less than nine innings, compared to the old days.

Cy Young won 511 games, we all know that number. But ol’ Cy completed 749 games. Chew on that for a minute. Only three pitchers in history (Young, Nolan Ryan and Don Sutton) have ever notched more than 749 starts. But that was back in the dead-ball era, a time of one-man rotations, polio and unsliced bread.

In 1972 Steve Carlton posted one of the best seasons a pitcher has ever had. He went 27-10 with a 1.97 ERA, 310 strikeouts in 346 innings, and 30 complete games for a Phillies team that only won 59 games. Two years later Catfish Hunter finished 30 starts for the Yankees, the last time a pitcher achieved 30 CG. Once the five-man rotation took hold, league leaders in CGs dipped into the teens. Bert Blyleven’s 24 in ’85, Ron Guidry’s 21 in ’83 and Fernando Valenzuela’s 20 in ’86 are the last three times someone has exceeded 20 CG.

Randy Johnson’s 12 complete games in 1999 mark the last time a starter even hit double figures. Halladay has come close, completing nine games in 2003 and again last year, but even a bulldog like Doc fails to finish even a third of his starts despite leading the AL in CGs five times.

Does this make Halladay less of a man than Cy Young, or Steve Carlton, or even Randy Johnson? I don’t think so. Lots of things in baseball are different these days. Players in the 1800s didn’t wear mitts or batting helmets, pitchers in the 1960s had the advantage of a higher mound and bigger zone, and up until last year you could gobble as many amphetamines as you wished in the clubhouse. The game evolves, and even though the endless parade of relievers that Tony LaRussa imposed upon us is occasionally annoying, it’s always better when you see the best players facing one another. And without a doubt, today’s relief specialists and closers give batters stiffer competition in the ninth than a gassed starter.

Unless that starter is Roy Halladay, Arvada West High School Class of 1995. Halla!

7. Tom Glavine

It’s hard to get worked up about Tom Glavine. He just isn’t that kind of pitcher. He also seems like kind of a boring dude, someone whose idea of a really rockin’ Saturday night involves a church barbecue. Nothing against churches, or barbecue, but you know he’s wearing pleated Dockers right now and drinking a glass of room-temperature skim milk.

Maybe that’s why he’s kinda flown under the radar when the sports talk turns to great pitchers of recent vintage -— he just did what he did, which was pile up double-digit wins almost every single year of his career for a team (the Atlanta Braves, in case you’re forgetful) that made the playoffs on a nearly seasonal basis. He never overpowered anyone like John Smoltz nor was he possessed of the mystic pitching skills of Greg Maddux; his superpower was consistency. He won 20 games five times, a pair of Cy Young Awards and led the league in games started on six occasions, including the final four years of his tenure in Atlanta.
He reminds me, in a way, of Don Sutton. A guy who had some excellent individual seasons but reached the 300 win plateau largely because he was good at being good, at sticking around without losing his game. Well, there was some controversy about whether Sutton deserved election to the Hall of Fame. There won’t be any with Tom Glavine.

6. Curt Schilling

Old No. 7:
Throw out the bloody sock (please, it’s gross). Throw out the political dalliances, especially the current prospective run for Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat. Throw out the blogging, the babbling, the bullshit and the faux humility. Get rid of all that distracting garbage, and what’s left is a borderline Hall of Fame career for Curtis Montague Schilling.

Hall of Fame? Are you serious? He only won 216 games, while the following gentlemen are excluded from Cooperstown with more career victories: Joe Niekro (221), Jerry Koosman (222), Luis Tiant (229), Frank Tanana (240), Dennis Martinez (245), Jack Morris (254), Jim Kaat (283), Bert Blyleven (287) and Tommy John (288)? That’s true, and as an aside I think Tiant, Blyleven and John deserve entry while Martinez, Morris and Kaat all have legitimate cases. But let’s look beyond the overvalued win count, and get into what made Schilling so effective.

Only 16 men have struck out more than 3000 batters, and every one of them is in the Hall with a couple exceptions. Blyleven is left out, despite the fifth-most K’s ever —- a fucking travesty. And Unit, Rocket, Maddux, Pedro, Schilling and Smoltz are not yet eligible.

Beyond simply compiling gaudy strikeout numbers, however, Schilling, has the 15th-best strikeout per 9 innings pitched figure for men who have thrown more than 1000 innings at 8.6. Throughout his career Schilling was able to get his whiffs -— when he was young and erratic in Baltimore and Houston, when he was maturing in Philly, when he was peaking in Arizona, and when he was fading in Boston.

Many masters of the strikeout, however, are inefficient pitchers. Nolan Ryan is famous for striking out more batters than anyone in history. But Nolan also walked more batters, threw more wild pitches, allowed more stolen bases, and yielded more hits per 9 IP than any man who ever pitched.

Schilling’s ratio of 4.4 strikeouts per walk is the second-best in baseball history. He hit only 52 batters in his career, in over 3200 innings -- Carlos Zambrano, Kerry Wood and Schilling’s old teammate Bronson Arroyo have all topped 20 HBP in a single season. Schilling simply never gave you a free pass. In this era of emphasizing on-base percentage, with more and more teams taking pitches, working counts and trying to boot starters early, Schilling pounded the zone relentlessly and forced you to hit your way on. If he would ever shut up about it, he might pick up a few more fans outside New England.

5. John Smoltz

This 1996 Cy Young winner had the luxury of pitching for arguably the best rotation and the best team of the 1990s. Those “best”s aren’t measured by championships but rather season-by-season performances. Those Atlanta Braves teams of the ‘90s were a force seldom before seen, and much of their success was based on the notion of building successful baseball franchises through superior pitching. Naturally, the Braves had other good things going for them, like Mike Cox’s uncle Bobby, and John Schuerholz in the upper decks, not to mention some impressive sticks. But it was their pitching that set them apart, and the Smoltzenator certainly delivered.

In that decade, Smoltz averaged over 14 wins per campaign. He kept an earned-run average below three for four of the five seasons, and below four in all but one. He also struck out 1,893 batters while walking all of 669. And, in addition to nabbing that Cy, he earned three All-Star appearances, an N.L.C.S. MVP, and twice had a league-leading won-loss ratio. If then, we were charged with assigning one word to Mr. Smoltz, it would be efficiency. And that’s a concept that, for Smoltz, bled into the 2000s, when he, for a time, transitioned to the bullpen. In 2002, he led the N.L. with 55 saves. The following two years, he put up 45 and 44 more. But he wasn’t done there: Returning to the rotation in 2005, Smoltz quietly put together season-win totals of 14, 16, and 14.

One could argue, and I do, that fewer pitchers over the last 25 years have taken the mound, and delivered, with a greater efficiency, greater productivity, and greater versatility than John Smoltz.

4. Randy Johnson

I’m probably the least qualified member of the Iron Triangle to write about Randy Johnson, given that he has spent a lot of time in the National League, and therefore, been mostly distant from my baseball networks. I can, nevertheless, tell you a few things about the Unit. He’s 1) a very large, very ugly man, 2) a southpaw, 3) probably had the best heater in our lifetime, and 4) been an amazing feat of pitching for over 20 years. And now that we’ve crept into the top five, it’s more difficulter to point out exactly what these guys have done, simply because they’re better known.

But in the end, the numbers don’t lie; you can start with them on either end. He’s got a career .646 win-loss percentage, a World Series championship ring, a 3.29 E.R.A., nearly 5000 strikeouts, 37 shutouts, 100 complete games, 10 All-Star appearances, five –- that’s five -– Cy Youngs (not to mention one from each league), a World Series MVP, and a Triple Crown for starters. In that 2002 Triple Crown season, by the way, he K’d 334 batters and finished the year with a 2.32 E.R.A. Unheard of. In fact, in the stretch from 1999-2002, he won four consecutive Cys, and during that time, struck out 1,417 hitters, which, quite frankly, is insane. It’s more than some guys on this list did in their entire careers.

What more can you say about a pitcher? What else is there to accomplish? He’s already over the 300-win mark, he’s thrown a perfect game -– May 2004, and became the oldest to do so -– a no-hitter, won a championship, defeated every club in the Bigs at least once, which, by the way, includes a smooth 20-9 record against the Royals, in case you were wondering. There’s no mistaking that Johnson is one of the best pitchers baseball has ever seen, a lock for this list, and a guarantee for baseball’s Hall of Fame.

3. Pedro Martinez

Old No. 7:
I don’t know how much time you spend thinking about the essential point of baseball—is it to pitch or to hit? Is it scoring runs or preventing them? It’s often said that baseball is the only sport in which the defense starts the play with the ball. In this way pitchers dictate the action, but the current chapter of baseball gives most of the advantage to the hitters.

We may have banned steroids, but batters are still allowed to cover themselves with body armor and hang over the inside portion of the plate. Umpires rarely call a strike above the belt buckle. Most new ballparks are built to encourage extra-base hits and eliminate pop-up foulouts. Good hitters have found happiness and comfort in their workplace, the batter’s box.

Pedro Martinez’s finest skill, among the many he has displayed in his career, is the ability to destroy that comfort level.

Through pitch selection, change in velocity and movement, Pedro kept batters off balance from the first pitch. In his heyday he could bring serious gas, with his fastball exceeding 95 mph. His curve was tight and its break was measured in feet, not inches. But it was his changeup that generated preposterous strikeout numbers and made batters look foolish and miserable.

Pedro manufactured the rotational force in spite of his mortal physical attributes—he stands a mere five foot ten and might weigh 170 pounds soaking wet. His only notable anatomical traits are his fingers, which are insanely long. If you saw Pedro walking down the street, you’d be taken aback by those fingers (if you weren’t first shocked by his Jheri-curl mullet or the human dwarf he carries in his bat bag). Those phalanges gave Pedro’s cutter severe east-west shift, opened a trap-door on his curve, and mashed the brakes on that change. Being able to almost entirely wrap your digits around a baseball is quite an asset.

ESPN Classic and MLB Network occasionally show a Pedro start from his Boston days, and if you ever get the opportunity to watch one do so. You’ll see a magician on the mound, a composer of a nine-inning symphony. If you’re one of those evil sabermetric analysts that are sucking the soul out of the game (I kid), gander at his game-by-game diary of the 1999 season. Among the many incredible seasons registered by the pitchers on this list, that one stands alone.

2. Greg Maddux

Greg Maddux should never have been.

Think about it. The dude is what, 6 foot, maybe? And he probably came into the league at around 150 pounds. He looked more like the clubhouse attendant than a future Hall of Fame pitcher —- no small curse in a sport where “looking the part” still matters to a significant number of decision-makers. But Maddux, the son of a Vegas blackjack dealer, had an advantage over his peers at the position that may have been unmatched in baseball history: his brain.

The stories are legion. Wade Boggs mentioned that Maddux must have had “a crystal ball in his glove,” because he seemed like he knew what the hitter was going to do before the hitter did. His preternatural accuracy and discipline allowed him to place pitches within centimeters of where they needed to be. One of his former teammates told of a time when Maddux, sitting in the dugout, said “looks like we might need to call an ambulance for the first base coach.” A swing later, the first base coach had taken a line drive to the chest. He played cat-and-mouse with some of the best hitters of all time, frustrating the likes of Barry Bonds into snarly incompetence. He played the mental game at simply a different level.

You want stats? The man’s lifetime ERA was 3.16. Over 23 seasons. He came as close as anyone has to Bob Gibson’s single season record, carding a nearly unfathomable 1.56 in ’94. He followed that up with a 1.63 in ’95. He won 355 games. He owns the career mark for most Gold Gloves by a pitcher. He led the league in BB per 9 innings 9 flippin’ times. He’s got four CY Young awards. And he did it all with only one season (’98) over 200 strikeouts.

Fireballers make the headlines, grab our attention, stir our poetic impulses. But there hasn’t been a better pitcher over the last 25 seasons than Greg Maddux.

1. Roger Clemens

There are two things about Roger Clemens that are annoying. Well, at least two. The first is that 18 other teams passed him up in the 1983 draft before the Boston Red Sox nabbed him. The other is that he lives up to the old my-hero-is-an-asshole persona. I of course have never met the man, but, given the number of incidents he’s been involved with in recent years, asshole is the best word I can come up with. That’s not to say that he’s less assholey than any other hurler on here, but it’s a bit unfortunate that the hands-down, unanimous lock for the best pitcher in the last 25 years is also the sure-fire, you betcha’ most widely acknowledged asshole of the bunch.

I suppose you could have a conversation about the man’s incredible career without bringing that up, but I think you sort of have to. Roger Clemens has been two things: a phenomenal pitcher, and a massive prick.

Unlike the career of Randy Johnson, I’ve been in the semi-know regarding Clemens’ seasons and accomplishments for most of the time he’s been around. The first thing that comes to mind is how astonishing it is that his career went on for so long after his 12 years in Boston. For whatever reason, it just didn’t occur to me that dudes would still be able to pitch for 20 years anymore, let alone 24, which is stupid considering the shift in middle-relief roles that was, in some sense, congruent with the time in which he was drafted.

But he had consecutive 20+ win seasons in Boston. He took home Cy Youngs in both of them. He had impressive E.R.A.s. He struck out lots of dudes, and he won an MVP, not to mention Rookie of the Year in ’84. And before he moved on to Canadia, he nabbed one more Young. He hung around as a Blue Jay for two years, won 20+ games in consecutive years, a pair of Cy Youngs, struck out a bunch of dudes, and had even better E.R.A.s And then, asshole that he is, he became a Yankee. His third year in the pinstripes, he went 20-3, an .870 win-loss percentage, which earned him another Young. He would then go to Houston, which was supposed to be the grand coming home, win a championship, hang it up, call ‘er done, etc. Over three seasons as an Astro, he went 38-18, had impressive earned-run averages all the while, and even won himself, you guessed it, Cy Young number seven, the most ever.

And those Houston teams were good. They lost to the Cards in the 2004 NLCS, but earned redemption by beating them in it the following year, only to lose to the White Sox. It was a fantastic run, but it was over. At least until Clemens decided to re-join the Yankees, like an asshole, in mid-June 2007. He added a few more wins to his totals, a few dozen more strikeouts, and called it a day. We think. Make no mistake, though: Roger Clemens is, bar none, the finest pitcher we’ve seen in the last 25 years.

And there you have it, folks. The truth has been spoken. We assume that you either a) thoroughly enjoyed that, b) fell asleep before the jump, c) have major disagreements with at least one thing in the piece, or d) some combination of the above. Please: Let us know.


Action Jackson said...

So, I know this is supposed to be the last 25 years, but if we're counting full seasons outside '09, that should take us back through 1984. If so, how can you exclude this guy?

In his (final) 9.5 seasons, a 3.36 ERA, 2037 K, a 2.64 K/BB rate, 29 CG and 9 SHO. He led the league in K/9 five times, H/9 four times and WHIP twice. All after the age of 36!

Not to mention, two of his seven no-no's.

Nolan Ryan cannot be off this list. Sorry.