The Greatest Living Pitcher

Last week, I set out to identify – for myself – the “Greatest Living Baseball Player”.  I came up with Willie Mays in that role and did not get any real opposition.  I did not consider pitchers in that exercise – – or Designated Hitters either – – and said that I might try to identify the greatest living pitcher one of these days.  That statement got several notes of encouragement from family members and readers so I thought I would give it a go – – so to speak.  I fully expect plenty of disagreement with this selection.

As before, I have my own personal “ground rules” for this search; I did not consider any relief pitchers/closers for the title.  That means several excellent members of the Hall of Fame will not be under consideration here including:

  • Dennis Eckersley
  • Rollie Fingers
  • Mariano Rivera
  • Lee Smith
  • Bruce Suter

I began this exercise the same way I began the previous one; I went to the Hall of Fame website and looked over their listing of the living Hall of Fame members.  That search gave me a list of 9 pitchers that I felt deserved a second look:

  1. Steve Carleton
  2. Tom Glavine
  3. Sandy Koufax
  4. Randy Johnson
  5. Greg Maddux
  6. Juan Marichal
  7. Jim Palmer
  8. Nolan Ryan
  9. John Smoltz

I recognized quickly that this list is too long for close consideration given that I would probably be adding a few names of active players or those not yet eligible for Hall of Fame induction.  Therefore, I did a triage on the list above and dropped Glavine, Marichal, Palmer and Smoltz leaving me with 5 living Hall of Fame members.

Considering the not-yet-inducted members of the Hall of Fame, I made a preliminary list of seven more names:

  1. Madison Bumgarner
  2. Gerrit Cole
  3. Jacob deGrom
  4. Clayton Kershaw
  5. Shohei Ohtani
  6. Max Scherzer
  7. Justin Verlander

Just because I like symmetry, I chose to remove Bumgarner and deGrom from this list to have 5 current Hall of Fame members and 5 someday-to-be Hall of Fame members on my consideration list.

Here began the much more difficult winnowing  of the list:

  • Carleton:  He must be on this list simply because of his 1972 season.  The Phillies were an awful team in 1972 finishing in last place in the NL with a record of 59-97; but Carleton won 27 games that year by himself – – 46% of the team wins for a season.  He completed 30 games that year and at one point was the winning pitcher in 15 consecutive starts.  He was in the major leagues for all or part of 24 seasons and had a career ERA of 3.22 over more than 5200 innings.
  • Cole:  He has been in the major leagues for 10 years now having spent half of his career working for some less-than-competent Pirate teams.  His career record so far is 126-67 with a career ERA of 3.21.
  • Johnson:  He was in the major leagues for 22 seasons.  He was selected to the All-Star team 10 times, and he won the Cy Young Award 5 times.  He ranks second to Nolan Ryan in all time strikeouts having registered 4,875 Ks.  He also has a perfect game to his credit.
  • Kershaw:  I don’t want to hear about how his playoff record does not match his regular season performance; Clayton Kershaw is a great pitcher.  He has been in the majors for 15 seasons; he led all of MLB in season long ERA 4 times and in another season his ERA was 1.69 but that was not even the best ERA in the National League.  He is a nine-time All Star, a three-time Cy Young winner and was MVP once in 2014.
  • Koufax:  He was in the major leagues for 12 seasons.  From 1963 through 1966, his record with the Dodgers was an eye-popping 97-27.  His ERA over those four seasons was 1.85.  He was an All-Star 6 times, the Cy Young winner 3 times and the MVP once.  He threw 4 no-hit games and one perfect game.
  • Maddux:  He spent 23 years in the major leagues.  He was an eight-time All-Star, a four-time Cy Young winner and he received a gold glove for fielding in 18 seasons.  He started 740 games and threw just over 5000 innings with a career ERA of 3.16.  His career strikeout to walk ratio was 3.37 and for the 3-year stretch from 1995 to 1997 his strikeout to walk ratio was 7.46.
  • Ohtani:  It is way too soon to have him on a list such as this one, but I have him here because he is a baseball unicorn.  He is achieving statistical feats that have not been seen since Babe Ruth and that statement alone allows him to be under consideration here.  He has been in the major leagues for 4 seasons and in that time, he has been rookie of the Year, a two-time All-Star and the league MVP once.
  • Ryan:  Let me do this one with a series of numbers.  27 seasons in MLB; 5386 innings pitched; 5714 strikeouts (more than one per inning over 27 years); gave up 6.6 hits per 9 innings – the lowest in MLB history’; started 807 games and completed 222 of them.  In his career, he threw 7 no-hit games.  ‘Nuff said…
  • Scherzer:  He has been in the major leagues for 15 seasons and is signed with the Mets for two more.  His record is 198-99 and his career ERA is 3.11.  He has thrown 2 no-hitters in his career.  He has 8 All-Star appearances and 3 Cy Young Awards.
  • Verlander:  He has been in the major leagues for 17 seasons, and he missed all of the 2021 season while recovering from elbow surgery.  His career record is 231-142 with an ERA of 3.26.
    Three times, he has led all of MLB in total wins for a season and is currently leading MLB in wins with a record in 2022 of 15-3.  He was Rookie of the Year in 2006; he has been on the All-Star team 9 times; he has 2 Cy Young Awards and an MVP award.

The only “easy” elimination from this list is Shohei Ohtani simply because he has not been in MLB long enough to have accumulated enough stats to match others on this list.  However, remember that he has been compared to Babe Ruth by various stat-folks and that simple comparison means he should be kept in mind when someone down the line compiles a list like this one.

After that “elimination” I took a walk with the list of 9 possibilities in hand and just did a free association with my recollections about these pitchers.  When I came back, I had the list narrowed down to three:

  • Sandy Koufax
  • Greg Maddux
  • Nolan Ryan

            Given another 15 minutes or so to ponder that troika here is my pronouncement:

  • The Greatest Living MLB Pitcher is – – – Sandy Koufax.

            As noted above, I do not expect anything resembling unanimity on this choice and there are sound arguments to be made in favor of others on my list and others that never made it onto my list.  Let the discussion begin…

Finally, today’s exercise has been about an evaluation of “greatness” made even more difficult by the time span of the achievements of these pitchers.  So, let me close with an observation by Michael Jordan on that subject:

“I believe greatness is an evolutionary process that changes and evolves era to era.”

But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………



17 thoughts on “The Greatest Living Pitcher”

  1. Mudge, the only unanimity that matters to me is when the participants are the two of us. Within this context, we are unanimous.

  2. An addendum to my comment… if Sandy Koufax was younger than Tommy John, his career would have likely been lengthened by at least several years and his astounding numbers would have been astoundinger… to coin a new word.

    1. Gil:

      Glad you concur. You are definitely a “baseball guy” so that concurrence is meaningful to me.

    1. Jim:

      My selection has exactly zero impact on the value of your Sandy Koufax autograph. Sorry about that…

  3. I believe Koufax a very good choice, but not the one I would have made. I think longevity matters as much as “peak value”. While Koufax is one of the top two for “peak value”, his early retirement. To combine the two, I would choose Randy Johnson.

    Thoughts about a few people you overlooked:
    1. Roger Clemens: You probably discarded him because of PEDs (similar to Bonds, et al from the Greatest Living Player list). If so, that’s defensible. If not, he goes to the top of the list. I absolutely would have him in the “final 9”, undoubtedly ahead of Palmer, Smoltz, and Marichal.

    2. Pedro Martinez: he is the other in the top two for peak value AND had a longer career than Koufax.

    1. Daryl:

      I should have mentioned that my “PED criterion” from the previous listing applied here and that is why roger Clemens is not on my list anywhere. My mistake.

      Here is an even bigger mistake … I am ashamed to admit that Pedro Martinez’ name never came to my mind even in the start of my thinking. Mea culpa!

  4. Related to this, if you haven’t read The Baseball 100 by Joe Posnanski, I would recommend it very highly.

  5. When I looked at the HOF list, I thought to myself, “It’s either Koufax or Ryan…” (Incidentally, I tried to think of it from your perspective, and I figured you’d pick either Koufax or Maddux, so I’m proud of that prediction as well…)

    Personally, I only gave the edge to Ryan because he pitched for so much longer at an incredible level. (That stat of more strikeouts than innings pitched over 5000+ innings is simply jaw-dropping). But as Gary noted above, if Koufax had been able to pitch for as long as Ryan, it’s likely this wouldn’t have even remotely been a debate….

    1. I can’t put Nolan Ryan at the top because of October 12,1980… game 5 in the best national league championship series ever…8th inning… and the Phillies score 5 against Ryan to lead to the ultimate victory by Dick Ruthven in 10.

      1. Gary:

        Your reasoning here is the mirror image of my thinking about Bill Mazeroski being in the Hall of Fame. I contend that if Maz had popped up to shortstop instead of hitting his ninth inning Grand Slam against the Yankees in the World Series, he would never have gotten a sniff of the HoF.

  6. I personally have Maddux over Koufax, due to continued excellence – it took Koufax half his career to figure it out. Once he did, he was brilliant, but what about the first 5 years?

  7. Sorry for the late reply, but I just saw this. I admit that I never saw Koufax play, but for me, I don’t believe that he played long enough to qualify. I would go with Greg Maddux. What he did during the steroid era no less, was unbelievable. His career win total of 355 tops all others considered. His 4 Cy Youngs stack up and his gold gloves won are unreal. As I recall, he wasn’t a bad hitter either.

    I would also like to give some more love to Steve Carlton (notice the proper spelling – sorry, it was really bothering me). I recall when he was in the strikeout race with Nolan Ryan, and I would take him over Nolan Ryan. Ryan never won a Cy Young and only won 20 games 2 times. Carlton on the other hand, helped resurrect the Phillies from their doldrums. Beyond his remarkable 1972 season, Carlton had an incredible run from the mid 70’s through the early 80s. I looked at his stats from 1976 through 1983, which included the strike shortened season of 1981, and came up with the following season average – 263.5 IP, 19 Wins, 201 Hits, 79 Walks, 85 ERs, 224 Ks, 2.90 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 3 Cy Young awards, and 2 World Series appearances. Living outside of Philadelphia, I had the pleasure of watching his career. People shouldn’t forget how great he was!

    1. PhillySportsGuy:

      I understand your “longevity argument” and it was a serious part of my mental gymnastics in coming up with my final answer. Normally, I do not like analyses of things like “Greatest Of All Time” because in order to make comparisons between obviously great players, one has to think lesser/negative thoughts about one or more of them. that seems unnecessary to me.

      Your summary of Steve Carlton and his career was excellent. He is not overlooked in any way; he was a first ballot entry into the Hall of Fame.

      Carlton wond up in Philly because he wanted more money than the Cards were willing to pay him. The trade was Carleton to the Phillies in exchange for Rick Wise. No other considerations in that trade. Wow!

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