Having already done shortstops and second basemen, I decided to continue my attempt to discover the greatest baseball players of all time at each position by crowdsourcing it to the internet!

The Big Train is still the standard by which all other pitchers are measured.

Up this time is starting pitchers. Once again, I used Google to find the first 10 top-10 lists of the all-time greatest starting pitchers, on the presumption that if these were the first 10 lists to appear on Google, then they must be the best 10 lists out there, as decided collectively by the clicks and links of millions of users.

As in the past, I used a 1000 point scale, subtracting each rank on the 10 lists from 101, such that a 1st-place vote was worth 100 points and a 10th-place was worth 91 points. Here is what ye internets came up with (first place votes in parentheses)…

1. Walter Johnson – 989 (5)
2. Greg Maddux – 860 (1)
3. Tom Seaver – 853
4. Cy Young – 683 (1)
5. Roger Clemens – 681
7. Christy Matthewson – 665
7. Warren Spahn – 665
8. Grover Cleveland Alexander – 580
9. Lefty Grove – 572 (2)
10. Sandy Koufax – 564

Overall this is quite a good list. Compared to other positions, there have been more star pitchers and at least in the popular imagination, the “inner circle” of all-time greats is much wider for starting pitchers than for other positions, so it is hard to narrow it down to a top 10, but I think you’ll agree that the internets did a pretty good job.

I personally value awesomeness over longevity a bit more than some people, so I might have tried to find a way to sneak Pedro Martinez into the top 10 on account of his unsurpassed peak if I were making my own top 10 list, but it would be a really tough choice to try to pick someone out of the internet’s top 10 to bump down to number 11.

Speaking of number 11, you may wonder where the 10th first place vote is, and it turns out that it was given to our number 11 finisher. The next 10 places are all full of really famous pitchers, more than one of whom have an outside claim on being the greatest of all time, so you can see that comparatively speaking, there really have been a lot of really great starting pitchers…

11. Nolan Ryan – 384 (1)
12. Randy Johnson – 375
12. Pedro Martinez – 375
14. Bob Gibson – 373
15. Bob Feller – 283
16. Satchel Paige – 187
17. Eddie Plank – 186
18. Tim Keefe – 93
20. Steve Carlton – 91
20. Phil Niekro – 91

Here are the ten top-10 lists I used to derive these rankings:

“The Ten Best Pitchers Of All Time” (Forbes.com)
“The Best Pitchers of All Time” (The Hardball Times)
Greatest Pitchers of All Time” (TheTopTens)
The Greatest Pitchers of All Time” (ShareRanks.com)
The 100 Greatest MLB Pitchers of All Time” (Bleacher Report)
Top 10 Major League Pitchers” (Listverse)
Top Pitchers of All Time” (Sports2Debate.com)
Top 10 Starting MLB Pitchers Ever” (Sportshac’s Thoughts)
Top 50 Starting Pitchers of All Time” (The Baseball Page.com)
Best Pitchers of All Time” (Baseball Evaluation)

14 Responses to “Crowdsourcing the Greats: The Top 10 Starting Pitchers of All Time”

  1. Paul Moro says:

    Nolan Ryan may be the most overrated pitcher ever. Someone actually voted the guy the best?

    • I was just thinking that same thing actually – I can understand him being in the top 20, but I don’t think I would ever vote him as the best pitcher of all time.

  2. Nick Kapur says:

    You should make a list, Paul! I’d be really interested to see it…

  3. No way Nolan Ryan is best of all time. Which site had him number one – texashasbigger(base)ballsthanyou.com?

    However, I think Ryan makes the top 20 because of his ability to dominate. Seven no-hitters, the last at age 44, and 12 1-hitters throughout his career speak to how he was capable of completely shutting an opponent down. Ryan’s career won-loss record is not stellar, but neither is Niekro’s.

  4. Paul Moro says:

    Danny, no-hitters and perfect games are awesome, no doubt. But even Ryan would have to admit that you need a ton of luck to pull it once, let alone seven times. And in the grand scheme of things, you’re looking at seven games in a 27 year career.

    What is more skill-based is his ability to strike players out, throw strikes, and limit HRs. He was perhaps the best at one of those things (Ks obviously), was very good at another (HRs) and downright awful for the third (throwing strikes). I just have a hard time including a guy in my top 20 who was among the worst of his era in such an important aspect of pitching. His career ERA is not that much better than the league average over that span of time. Remember, back then, a 3.30 ERA wasn’t too hard to come by.

  5. Yeah, there’s some luck involved in pitching a no-hitter. But you have to put yourself in a position to pitch a no-no in order for luck to be a factor. And Nolan Ryan did that a great many times, as evidenced by the fact that he pitched 12 1-hitters, and 18 2-hitters. This is the evidence supporting my point on Ryan’s dominance.

    Doing a back of the napkin calculation I found that the average ERA from 1966 to 1993 was 3.73. Ryan’s career number of 3.19 is a full half run lower, which is pretty damn good over such a long career. Sure, he walked a lot of guys, but that didn’t keep him from being an outstanding pitcher, b/c a lot of those base on balls didn’t wind up scoring.

  6. Paul Moro says:

    When you strike out as many guys as Ryan did, hits are going to be few. That’s what makes the strikeout such an important aspect of pitching – if you don’t let the guy hit the ball, they’re not getting a hit – so we’re not disagreeing on that point.

    But when you talk about his ERA, you’re not taking into account the fact that Ryan pitched the vast majority of his career in pitcher’s parks. Shea Stadium, Anaheim Stadium and Astrodome all favored pitchers. That’s 22 years of his career. Which is why his ERA-Plus (which adjusts for park factors) is 112, which isn’t that much better than the average pitcher.

    Again, I’m not arguing that Ryan doesn’t belong in the Hall as it’s currently constructed. But he doesn’t belong in the conversation of best pitcher ever.

  7. Nick Kapur says:

    Paul, you really should make a list. Because if you don’t have Ryan in the top 20, I’d really like to know why and how. As I said, I would never have him number 1, and not in the top 10 either, but he’s gotta be top 20, unless you don’t factor in longevity at all, which would be really weird.

    Just to take one well respected stat, his 84.8 career WAR according to Sean Smith’s respected historical WAR database ranks 9th all time among pitchers. That is a tremendous amount of value he provided over the length of his career, which I just don’t see how you would keep out of the top 20.


  8. Paul Moro says:

    OK, when I’m wrong, I have to admit it (begrudgingly). Just compared numbers among pitchers, made a rough list, and wouldn’t you know it, Nolan Ryan is there whether I like it or not.

    1. Walter Johnson
    2. Roger Clemens
    3. Tom Seaver
    4. Warren Spahn
    5. Greg Maddux
    6. Lefty Grove
    7. Cy Young
    8. Christy Mathewson
    9. Grover Alexander
    10. Nolan Ryan

    Now I am bitter. Goddamn it. Nolan, I apologize.

    But you know who did better than I thought as well? Gaylord Perry. Had him 11th.

    • Nick Kapur says:

      This is a really great list Paul. I’m curious which, if any, stat you used when compiling this.

      Gaylord Perry was really great, and almost certainly deserves to be in the top 20. It all depends on how you value longevity vs. peak.

      • Paul Moro says:

        With Perry, it’s obviously a longevity thing. He only had one really eye-popping year 1972 when he had a 1.92 ERA over 342 innings. But he was probably the second best pitcher of his era (when you’re second to Tom Seaver, that ain’t bad)and he remained a decent pitcher well into his forties.

        With that said, again, I was surprised that he ended up being #11. Off the top of my head, before this exercise, I would have figured that Bob Gibson and even Jim Palmer would’ve ended up higher than Perry. They didn’t.

        But the thing that I initially didn’t take in account was how many more innings Perry pitched (and did it well) in his prime. In the ten seasons between 1966 and 1975, Perry pitched 3088 innings (that’s 200 innings more than anyone else) with an adjusted ERA of 130. That’s pretty damned incredible.

  9. I would have Grove second behind Johnson. He won 9 ERA championships, won 31 games in a hitter’s era, and won 300 games despite getting a late start because he was stuck in Baltimore (then a minor league team) for 5 years. He also won 20 or more games 7 or 8 timees in a hitter’s era. He is said to rival Johnson, Nolan Ryan and Feller as being the fastest ever.

    I’d rate Mathewson and Alexander slightly ahead of Young, although I’m not sure why. I’m not sure how the three modern greats (Seaver, Maddux and Clemens) rate against the old timers. Clemens’ suspected steroid use ulls him down.

    Pedro Martinez, at his peak, may have been the greaest of all; I’d rate him 3rd at his peak ahead of Johnson and Grove a the peak.

  10. Smithd553 says:

    Very nice! kdfbdddkdb

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