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Best Pitchers of the 21st-Century: Part 3

This is the third and final installment of this series.  If you are just discovering this series, and you want to go back and take a look at prior posts, here’s the link to Part 1 (which also discusses the criteria I used compile this list) and Part 2, which lists players #11-#20.

Now, on to pitchers #21-#25:

English: Mike Mussina

English: Mike Mussina (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

21)  Mike Mussina – Yes, here’s another one whom we might not think of as, strictly-speaking, a 21st-century pitcher.  Yet about 43% of Mussina’s career WAR value occurred from 2001 until his retirement after the 2008 season.

Mussina’s career fits neatly into almost two halves.  He spent the first ten years of his career, through the year 2000, with the Baltimore Orioles.  They were generally his best years.

During that span, he finished in the top ten in Cy Young voting five times.  In his tenure with the Yankees (2001-2008), he managed to make the top five in voting just once (with a 6th-place showing in his final season as well.)

As an Oriole, Mussina was often a borderline-great pitcher who compiled an ERA+ of 130 in ten years.  As a member of the Yankees, Mussina was still a very good pitcher who compiled an ERA+ of 114, and a WHIP of 1.212, in his final eight years.

As a Yankee, in the 21st-century, Mussina compiled a WAR of 35.2, and a won-lost record of 123-72 (.631), with an ERA of 3.88.  He made 249 starts with the Yankees, tossed 1,553 innings, and struck out 1,278 batters.

His WAR ranks 10th-best all-time for a Yankees pitcher, and his 1,278 K’s rank sixth-best ever for a Yankee starter.

Mussina’s 4.01 strikeout to walk ratio is the best in the entire history of New York Yankees starting pitchers.

Although Mussina led the A.L. in wins with 19 in 1995 (and he also won 19 games in 1996), the first and only time in his entire career that he won 20 games was in the final season of his career, in 2008, when he posted a 20-9 record, in a league-leading 34 starts, for New York’s A.L. franchise.  Lest you think those 20-wins were primarily about run support, his ERA was 3.37, and his ERA+ was 131.

It’s good to go out on top, and that’s what Mussina did after the 2008 season.  He certainly enjoyed a Hall of Fame-worthy career, and he definitely belongs on the list of best pitchers of the 21st-century.

Dan Haren

Dan Haren (Photo credit: on2wheelz)

22)  Dan Haren – Haren has been about as solid as they come over the past decade.  He has won 129 of 316 starts, and boasts a fine WHIP of 1.186.

Over a seven-year period, 2005-11, he averaged 34 starts per season, leading the league in that category three times, and pitching over 200 innings in each of those seven seasons.

From 2007-09, inclusive, he posted a fantastic ERA+ of around 140.  He made three-consecutive All-Star teams, and finished 5th in Cy Young voting in 2009 while pitching for Arizona.

An excellent control pitcher, Haren has walked more than 50 batters in just three of his eleven seasons.  At the same time, he has been an above-average strikeout pitcher, fanning at least 192 batters five times, and over 200 three times.

Though Haren’s past couple of years have been somewhat below his historic standards of effectiveness, a move to the Dodgers and to the N.L. West could help Haren post a nice comeback season in 2014.

cain

cain (Photo credit: artolog)

23)  Matt Cain – Similar to Haren in that he has not received the press he should have for the many fine seasons he’s enjoyed pitching for the Giants.  Still just 29-years old, Cain has already been a veteran of parts of nine MLB seasons.  One of the unluckiest of pitchers, Cain has received little run support throughout his career, and usually ranks among the leaders in no-decisions for that reason.

Cain’s career record of 93-88 does not accurately reflect how well he has usually pitched since 2oo5.  From 2009-11, for example, Cain won just 39 of 99 starts, and was left with 30 no-decisions.  His record during that period was 39-30, but with proper run support, it could have been closer to 50-25.

Still, Cain has received moderate attention in Cy Young voting in three of his seasons, and he’s  been named to three All-Star teams in his career.

A veteran of eight post-season starts, he has demonstrated poise and effectiveness on that stage, going 4-2 with a 2.10 ERA in 51 innings.

Cain certainly has the potential to accomplish much more in has career, which may just now have reached roughly its midpoint.

Josh Beckett

Josh Beckett (Photo credit: Keith Allison)

24)  Josh Beckett – I saw Beckett pitch twice while he was a Portland Sea Dog (AA-Portland, ME) back in the summer of 2001, in the Eastern League.  He was absolutely dominant on both occasions.  He made 13 starts for Portland, posting an 8-1 record, a 1.82 ERA, and 102 strikeouts and only 19 walks in 74 innings.  At age 21, he pitched like a man among boys.

Beckett had been the Marlins 1st-round pick in the 1999 Amateur Draft (2nd pick overall), and rapidly progressed through the Marlin’s system.  After Portland, Beckett later that season made his debut for the Marlins, making four starts near the end of the year.  In those four starts, he struck out 24 batters in 24 innings, resulting in a 1.50 ERA.

For the next four years in Florida, Beckett’s strikeout rate hovered around one per inning.  But he never stayed quite healthy enough to put it all together.  There were always some sort of blisters to contend with, or one ailment or another that suppressed his starts and innings pitched each season.  It wasn’t until he got traded to Boston in the deal for Hanley Ramirez just before the ’06 season that Beckett finally reached the 200 inning pitched level.

But before we get to his Boston years, let’s back up a bit to the 2003 World Series.  Beckett’s performance in that series provided the Marlins with a competitive edge vs. the Yankees.  The 23-year old Beckett made two starts against the Yankees in that World Series.

In 16 innings, he struck out 19 Yankees, gave up just eight hits, only two earned runs, and posted a 1.10 ERA, along with an 0.796 WHIP.  He shut out the Yanks in Game 6, the final game of the Series, defeating Andy Pettitte 2-0.  For his performance, he was named the World Series MVP.

Josh Beckett then spent his next seven seasons, the prime of his career, pitching for the Boston Red Sox. It was a mixed bag.  At times, Beckett demonstrated the incredible promise he flashed in the minors, and from time-to-time with the Marlins.  At other times, he seemed uninterested, unmotivated, and uninspired.  In alternate seasons, Beckett was either among the better pitchers in the A.L., or one of the biggest disappointments.

In 2007, 2009, and 2011, Beckett posted WAR’s of 6.5, 5.1, and 5.8.  In ’07, he won 20 games and finished second in the Cy Young voting for the A.L.  In ’11, he again finished in the top ten in voting.  In each of those three seasons, he made the All-Star team.

In ’06, ’08, ’10, and ’12, however, he posted WAR’s of 2.7, 3.3, -1.0 and 0.2.  What’s more, in perhaps only one season in his career, 2007, out of 13 seasons, could he be said to have pitched and acted like the ace of his staff.  He generally seemed satisfied to get in his 30 starts per year, not push it to the max, and coast when he was able to.

Finally labeled (fairly or not) an out-of-shape clubhouse cancer, he was shipped off to the Dodgers near the end of the dismal (for the entire Red Sox team) 2012 season.  Apparently, management felt that Beckett (and another pitcher or two) eating fried chicken and drinking beer during games did not set a professional tone in the clubhouse.

Stories regarding Beckett simply not taking the game seriously enough even occurred back in his younger days in Florida.  Manager Jack McKeon used to literally lock the door leading from the dugout to the clubhouse because Beckett and one or two others would simply disappear off the bench during games, go into the clubhouse and start drinking beers during the game.

McKeon actually instituted a hall-pass system for the use of the bathroom during games.  Apparently, he expected Beckett to pay attention during the games even on his “off-days” so he could actually learn something by watching the other team’s hitters.

From his earliest days in Portland, Maine in the minors up until last season, Beckett has always been the Texas stud who has gotten by with his hard stuff, dominating on pure talent and adrenaline in short spurts.  But he’s never appeared to take his craft seriously enough to reach the high level of success predicted for him, or the talent God gave him.

Now, at age 34, whatever Beckett has left in the tank should carry him through another couple of seasons in the Majors.

Bartolo Colon

Bartolo Colon (Photo credit: Keith Allison)

25)  Bartolo Colon – As probably already know, the Mets acquired the portly 40-year old pitcher as a free agent this past off-season.  What you may not know is that Colon has a chance to surpass 200 career victories this coming year.  Currently, he has 189 wins in his 16-year career.

Actually, 138 of those wins occurred in our current century.  Colon threw his first pitch in the Majors at age 24 in 1997.  As recently as last season, he led the A.L. in shutouts with three, while winning 18 games and posting a 2.65 ERA in 30 starts.  The big question is, of course, (especially for Mets fans) how much does he have left in the tank?

To a certain extent, a great deal of Colon’s success will depend on the defense behind him.  He throws strikes (just 29 walks in 190 innings last season), so he won’t beat himself with the free pass.  Not at all a strikeout pitcher, he averaged just 5.5 / 9 innings last season, down from his career high of over 10 / 9 innings in the year 2000 as a member of the Cleveland Indians.

With the Mets outfield defense vastly improved over this time last season (assuming they start the terrific Juan Lagares in center-field on Opening Day), and considering that Citi-Field is basically yet another pitchers park (as is Oakland, where he pitched last season), and figuring in that this season he gets to pitch against the others teams’ pitchers for the first time since he spent a half-season with the Expos about a dozen years ago, there is room for optimism here.

The Mets may have caught lightning in a bottle here with this three-time All Star (who won a Cy Young award for the Angels in 2005), or they may discover to their horror that the carriage has turned back into a pumpkin.  But Colon surprised many with his improbable comeback which began in 2012.  Perhaps he can continue to do it on a larger stage in New York City.

Briefly, Those Who Did Not Make the List:

Barry Zito – Zito has made over 400 starts this century, and only three pitchers have tossed more than his 2,477 innings.  He also has a WAR of 30.5.  So why did he not make the list?  Well, his career ERA of 4.07 is one reason.  Another is his 1.339 WHIP, higher than any of the 25 pitchers who did make the list.  Also, despite the advantage of pitching his home games in favorable parks, his ERA+ is just 105, a little more than a replacement-level pitcher.

Finally, if you remove his fantastic 2002 season in which he won the A.L. Cy Young award, his career record stands at just 142-138, despite pitching for mostly good teams. This is not to say that Zito has not provided the Giants with any real value, just not nearly as much value as they paid for when they signed him to a contract for over one-hundred million dollars.

Tim Lincecum – Despite two Cy Young awards and four quality seasons, Lincecum did not make my list because his career WAR stands at 23.3 after seven seasons.  Consider that Clayton Kershaw has a WAR of 32.2 after just six seasons.  They’ve each won a pair of Cy Young awards, but the difference is that Kershaw has never had a bad year.  Lincecum has now suffered through two very poor years in a row.

Basically, if Lincecum had even just decent seasons in 2012 and ’13, garnering an additional 3.5 WAR per year, for example, he would have made the list and would have probably been slotted in right behind Kershaw.  But two terrible years, during which he produced a combined -2.3 WAR, cost Lincecum anywhere from 7.0 to 10.0 WAR, a significant drop in production.  In fact, few pitchers in baseball history have ever gone from being so very good to so very bad so quickly, unless they were injured.

As far as we know, Lincecum has not been suffering from any serious arm injuries.  He pitched nearly 200 innings last season, and his strikeout rate is still very solid, if not quite where it was a few years ago.  In short, I have no idea why Lincecum’s career has so suddenly all but imploded.  But whatever the reason, it certainly cost him a place on this list.  I do hope, however, that he finds a way to reverse his recent misfortunes, because The Freak at his best is not only good for the Giants, it’s good for baseball.

Randy Johnson – Johnson was a still a great pitcher in the early first couple of seasons of this century and, like Lincecum, actually won a pair of Cy Young awards while some of us still hadn’t quite grasped that the 1900’s were gone for good.  But eight of Johnson’s best eleven seasons occurred in the 20th-century, and Johnson’s last five seasons in the Majors did not add much to his legacy.

Don’t get me wrong, you can certainly make a case that R.J. belongs on this list, and I wouldn’t blame you if you did.  But in compiling this list, I chose to emphasize pitchers whose accomplishments this century would continue to be overlooked if I added nearly every pitcher who began his career back in the ’80’s, but who remained effective through ’01 or ’02.  Therefore, I decided to evaluate each pitcher on a case-by-case basis.  Since over 60% of R.J.’s effectiveness occurred in the last century, I chose to leave him off this list.  You may disagree with my reasoning, and that’s fine.

Roger Clemens –  See:  Johnson, Randy above.

Yovani Gallardo – Despite four consecutive seasons of over 200 strikeouts, and double-digit wins five times, Gallardo annually posts rather low WAR’s.  I was surprised when looking at his career stats that after seven years, his career WAR stands at an oddly unimpressive 13.3.  In fact, he’s never produced a single-season WAR that’s reached even 3.0 in his entire career.

Gallardo, as far as I can tell, lives for the high pitch count, which limits his overall innings pitched, and produces some big innings for the opposition.  For even though Gallardo has struck out nearly a thousand batters over the past five years, his career WHIP is 1.304, which indicates simply too many runners getting to first base, regardless of his live arm and numerous strikeouts.  His career home run rate of around one per nine innings also reduces his overall effectiveness.  And it isn’t simply the home runs that are the problem, it’s that there always seem to be runners on base when they occur.

Gallardo’s career ERA+ of 109 through age 27 either indicates a to-this-point under-achiever, or a he-is-what-he-is preview of his next seven years.  It’s not that Gallardo has been a bad pitcher.  It’s just that he’s sometimes mistaken for an ace, when, in fact, he’s been more of a #3 starter for his entire career. What comes next, entering his age 28 season, will go a long way towards clarifying his probable future.

Well, that’s all I’ve got for you on this topic.  Agree or disagree, I hope it was worth your while to read it.

 
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Best Pitchers of the 21st-Century: Part 1

Who are the best pitchers of the 21st-century?

This is the first installment of a three-part series that will examine the top pitchers the 21st-century has had to offer.

Let me be clear, I am not attempting to discuss which of the current young arms of this generation will ultimately prevail as the greatest pitcher of (at least the first quarter) of this century.  Therefore, you won’t find David Price, Steven Strasburg, or Matt Harvey on this list.  To make this list, a pitcher has to A) Have accumulated at least 30.0 career WAR, B) Not have accumulated the vast majority of his career WAR value in the 20th-century, C) Cannot have a career ERA over 4.00 and D) Cannot have been primarily a relief pitcher.

These criteria mean that, for example, Roger Clemens, who won two of his seven Cy Young awards in this century, and even though he accumulated 30.5 WAR since 2001, will not be on this list because the overwhelming majority of his career value (78%) occurred in the 20th-century.  Also, if you throw a broken bat at Mike Piazza, I’m just not very inclined to add you to my list in the first place.  Have a nice retirement, sport.

I narrowed my list down to 25 pitchers because, quite frankly, no one cares who the 26th, 27th, and 28th best pitchers of this century have been.

Although I used WAR as my starting point, this is not simply a list of the top 25 accumulated WAR’s since 2001.  I have also taken into account peak value, hardware won (Cy Young awards / MVP’s), and few others stats, both old and new(ish):  wins, complete games, earned run average, ERA+, and WHIP.

The pitchers who are most likely to rank high on this list are those that have A)  Been real, real good  B) Had the good fortune to begin their careers just as this century got started, and C)  Have enjoyed a  continuous run of success (as opposed to being really good every three years or so.)

Some of the pitchers who are on this list are still quite young (Felix Hernandez, for example), and will undoubtedly rank higher on a list like this in 5-10 years.  But this list reflects where a pitcher has been to this point, not where he may ultimately end up.  Other pitchers (Johan Santana, for example), are more likely to have dropped a bit in 5-10 years, simply because some of these young pitchers may overtake them.

Some of the win totals or strikeout totals I mention for a particular pitcher might not reflect that pitcher’s career totals, because we are only taking into account what a pitcher produced in this century, not what he has accomplished during his entire career.  Some pitchers on this list began their careers in the late-20th century, but I am not counting their 20th-century stats.

Finally, when I say that a particular pitcher was the best pitcher of this century, obviously I mean to this point, but it would be boring to continue to add, “to this point” to each declarative sentence, so I won’t do that.

No, seriously, who are the best pitchers of the 21st-century?

All right, here’s the list, with a bit of explanation of how they got here:

Roy Halladay

Roy Halladay (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

1)  Roy Halladay –  Halladay was the best pitcher of the 21st-century, and it’s not particularly close.  His career WAR of 65.4 is the highest on this list.  His 190 wins in this century ranks second only to C.C. Sabathia’s 205.

His 2.93 ERA also ranks second.  His 65 complete games are by far the most of anyone on this list.  No other pitcher reached even 40 complete games.

He won two Cy Young awards, finished second in the voting twice, third once, and fifth twice.  For seven consecutive seasons, he increased his strikeout totals each year, topping out at 220 in 2011.

During his final six seasons, he never walked as many as 40 batters in a year.  In 38 post-season innings, Halladay allowed just 28 base-runners, and posted an ERA of 2.37.

Halladay was probably one of the top 30-40 pitchers of all time, and should someday be enshrined in the Hall of Fame.

2)  Johan Santana – It’s possible that Santana may become one of the great, nearly forgotten pitchers of this century.  His career as an everyday starting pitcher was brief, and during some of that he toiled out of the media spotlight in Minnesota.

Yet, a case can be made that Santana should one day be enshrined in Cooperstown.  Like Halladay, Santana won two Cy Young awards.  He also finished third in the voting two other seasons, and he finished fifth in the voting one other time.

He led the A.L. in WHIP for four consecutive seasons, posting a WHIP below 1.00 in three of those years.  He also led the league in strikeouts three times, while striking out over 200 batters for five straight seasons. He won three ERA crowns, and led his league in WAR for pitchers three times, finishing second another time.  He has also thrown the only no-hitter in Mets history.

His 50.6 WAR ranks fourth-best this century, and is higher than several pitchers already in the Hall of Fame.  He has been the best left-handed pitcher in the 21st-century.

3)  C.C. Sabathia – It would have been easy to have ranked Sabathia ahead of Santana.  He has been one of this century’s workhorse pitchers since he debuted in 2001.

English: CC Sabathia

English: CC Sabathia (Photo credit: Wikipediabathia has been one of the ultimate workhorse pitchers since his rookie year of 2001.

Sabathia’s ERA of 3.60 ranks just 19th-best on this list, but let’s remember that he’s pitched in the tough A.L. East for the past five seasons.  Sabathia has a Cy Young award to his credit, and has also finished in the top five in voting for that award in four other seasons.

A durable pitcher, Sabathia has notched over 190 innings pitched eleven times over the past twelve seasons, and has never pitched fewer than 180 innings in any season during his entire career.

He is just one of three players to have made over 400 starts in this century.  His 205 wins are also the most in the 21st-century.  His 54.4 career WAR is second only to Halladay’s, and he is also the only pitcher over the past 13 years to accumulate over 2,000 strikeouts.

Entering his age 33 season in 2014, it’ll be interesting to see how much gas he has left in the tank.  He’s probably not in Hall of Fame range yet, but with another couple of useful seasons, he’ll certainly be in the conversation once he retires.

4)  Roy Oswalt – Oswalt enjoyed a seven-year run of excellence at the beginning of this century that was rivaled by only a handful of other pitchers.  From his rookie year in 2001, and through the next six years, Oswalt posted the following ERA+’s:  170, 144, 148, 124, 144, 150, 140.  After a couple of mediocre seasons, he posted an ERA+ of 145 in 2010 at age 32.  Seven seasons of at least a 140 ERA+ in ten years is a remarkable accomplishment.  Almost as remarkable is that few people seemed to notice it.

While Oswalt never won a Cy Young award, he did finish in the top five in voting in five seasons.  His career ERA of 3.36 is among the top ten since 2001, and if you remove his final, ill-advised 90 innings when he attempted to make a comeback pitching for Texas and Colorado (of all places), his career WAR would be over 50, about the same as Johan Santana.  Oswalt’s closest career comps are probably Bret Saberhagen, David Cone and Ron Guidry.  Nice company, don’t you think?

5)  Tim Hudson –  Hudson has toiled away exceedingly well without much fanfare for a decade and a half.  Eight times in this century, Hudson has reached an ERA+ of at least 120.  His 174 wins since 2001 (he has 205 wins dating back to 1999), are the fourth-highest total among the pitchers on this list.  His 2,475 innings pitched are among the top five.

His 47.4 WAR since 2001 is ranks sixth on my list.  If you remove his injury-shortened seasons, Hudson has averaged right around 15 wins per year  since the beginning of his career.  While seldom one of the very best pitchers in the league, Hudson has often been the most reliable starter on his team, and has finished among the top ten pitchers in WAR in six seasons.

Similar to pitchers like Jimmy Key, Bob Welch or Orel Hershiser, Hudson may not be in line for Cooperstown immortality, but he has produced a yeoman’s career of solidly above-average work that should not be easily dismissed.

Justin Verlander

Justin Verlander (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

6)  Justin Verlander – With eight full seasons under his belt, Verlander has certainly demonstrated that he has been one of the finest pitchers of this century.

Though his 40.7 WAR ranks just tenth overall, that’s primarily because some of those who rank higher have pitched in several more seasons than has Verlander.

I have little doubt that in a couple of years, he should probably rank among the top five in WAR in the 21st-century.

Over the past five seasons, Verlander has been about as dominant as they come, winning the Cy Young / MVP award in 2011, finishing second in Cy Young voting in 2012, as well as three other top ten finishes in the voting since 2006 (the season in which he was also voted A.L. Rookie of the Year.)

Verlander has topped 200 strikeouts in each of the past five seasons, pacing the league in that category three times.  He has also averaged 225 innings pitched over the past seven years, leading the league three times in that statistic.

Verlander’s career ERA+ of 127 is the same as Tom Seaver, Bob Gibson, and Curt Schilling.  Entering his age 31 season in 2014, it will be interesting to see if Verlander can continue this run of dominance he has established over the past several years.  If so, he may be regarded 80 years from now as one of the very best pitchers of the 21st-century.

Cliff Lee

Cliff Lee (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

7)  Cliff Lee –  Cliff Lee doesn’t walk batters.  Other pitchers in baseball history, such as Greg Maddux and Bret Saberhagen, were fantastic control pitchers, but Cliff Lee may have them all beat.

Over his last 121 starts, Lee has walked a total of just 120 batters, averaging slightly less than one walk per start.  He has not walked as many as 45 batters in a year in any of his past seven seasons.

In 2010, he walked just 18 batters in 212 innings pitched, also leading the league with seven complete games.

Not merely a control pitcher, Lee has struck out over 200 batters in each of the past three seasons, averaging right around a strikeout per inning.

Cliff Lee has had a bit of an odd career in that he showed promise early on, posting an 18-5 record in 2005, but then he crashed and burned, pitching poorly in ’06 and even worse in ’07.  At that point in his career, at age 28, Lee’s career hung in the balance.

Then Lee posted a fantastic comeback in ’08, with a record of 22-3 for Cleveland, leading the league in wins, ERA, ERA+, and winning the Cy Young award.  Since that season, Lee has continued to refine his craft, posting the second highest WAR of his career just last season (7.3.)

Lee’s overall WAR in this century, 42.4, has been topped by only about a half-dozen other pitchers on this list.  In addition to his Cy Young award, he has four other top ten finishes in the voting for that award.  The question is, can Lee continue this run of excellence in the coming years?  He will be entering his age 35 season in 2014, so it remains to be seen.

8)  Felix Hernandez – I was tempted to rank King Felix ahead of Cliff Lee, but here’s why I didn’t.  While Lee and Hernandez each have 86 career losses, Lee has 139 wins to Hernandez’s 110.  Now, I’m well aware of all the arguments regarding the value of wins as a statistic, and I’m also aware that Hernandez has made 42 fewer starts in his career than Lee has, but Lee’s .618 win-lost percentage is vastly superior to Hernandez’s .561 mark.

I don’t think a difference that large can simply be attributed to run support, or lack thereof, or a dramatic difference in each team’s respective bullpen.  I think Cliff Lee has simply been a slightly better pitcher than Felix Hernandez as been.

Lee also has a slight lead on Hernandez with a WAR of 42.4 to King Felix’s 38.7.  Lee’s WHIP, 1.19, has also been slightly better than Hernandez’s 1.20, and we have to keep in mind that Hernandez has had the advantage of pitching in the vastness of Safeco Field over the past nine seasons.

This is not to cast aspersions on Felix Hernandez.  He has a Cy Young award to his credit, along with a second, a fourth, and an 8th-place finish.  And, entering his age 28 season in a couple of months, he could now just be hitting his stride toward what could easily be a Hall of Fame-worthy career.

If he merely pitches as effectively over the next half-dozen seasons as he has up to this point, he will have earned a trip to Cooperstown.  It wouldn’t hurt his chances, however, to move on out of Seattle to a market where he might receive more attention, not to mention more run support.

Clayton Kershaw

Clayton Kershaw (Photo credit: SD Dirk)

9)  Clayton Kershaw – There may be some readers who object to Kershaw being on this list at all, as he’s only been in the Majors for six seasons.  There will be others who wonder why I didn’t rank him higher.

Kershaw has quite possibly produced the finest six-year stretch of any pitcher in baseball in this century.  Over the past five years, he has posted ERA’s, in order, of 2.79, 2.91, 2.28, 2.53, and last season, 1.83.  Not too shabby.

Although he won’t turn 26-years old until next month, he already has 1,206 career strikeouts, and has led the league in K’s in two of the past four seasons.  He has led his league in WHIP for three years running, and has accumulated as much WAR in six years (32.2) as Matt Cain (a fine pitcher in his own right) has accumulated in nine seasons.

Over the past three seasons, Kershaw has won two Cy Young awards, while finishing runner-up in the middle year.  Kershaw has averaged over a strikeout per inning in his career, and has also averaged about three strikeouts for every base on balls.  Clearly, all that stands between Kershaw and a prominent place in baseball immortality is continued good health.

10)  Brandon Webb – Brandon Webb is one of those pitchers who was well-respected at the time, but who will probably never quite get the recognition he deserves for his career accomplishments.  To begin with, let’s consider the fact that Webb toiled in the desert air out in Arizona, where balls carry nearly as well as they do in the high altitude of Colorado.  In other words, Webb pitched his home games in a hitter’s park in a hitter’s era.  Yet, he accomplished some remarkable things.

Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Brandon Webb

Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Brandon Webb (Photo credit: Al_HikesAZ)

Webb pitched just six seasons, but somehow, he accumulated a higher WAR (33.3) and more wins (87) than Kershaw.  Also, while Kershaw’s ERA+ is a lofty 146, Webb’s was a very similar 142, and Webb pitched 139 more innings in his career than Kershaw has done to this point.

Webb won the 2006 N.L. Cy Young award, and then finished runner-up in the voting in each of the next two seasons.  His ERA+’s in his six full seasons were:  165, 128, 125, 152, 158, and 140.  Over a five-year period, from 2004-08, inclusive, Webb averaged nearly 230 innings pitched per season, which obviously took a toll on his right arm.

After 198 career starts, over which he posted an ERA of 3.27, Webb was unable to come back from a shoulder injury, and he retired from baseball at age 30.

That’s a look at the first ten pitchers on my list of the best pitchers of the 21st-century.  In the second installment of this series, we’ll take a look at pitchers #11-#20.

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Five Best Pitchers Not in the Hall of Fame – The Pai Mei Edition

This post is basically a sequel to my prior post, “Best Position Players Not in the Hall of Fame.”  This time, we’ll be taking a look at five pitchers I’ve chosen as the best pitchers not in the Hall of Fame.

Let me say up front that this list was considerably more difficult to put together than the last one I wrote regarding position players.  Having to choose just one player for each position was actually a bit easier than narrowing down a list that could have included about 15-20 pitchers, and culling it to just five.  I freely admit up front that I fully expect my choices will cause some raised eyebrows,  awkwardly resulting in several of you uncomfortably resembling Pai Mei in the movie, “Kill Bill, Vol. 2.

As for the criteria I used to make this list, please go back and read the first paragraph of my previous post; they are unchanged for this post.  There is, however, one caveat.  I generally tend to prefer pitchers who have two or three great seasons and a few adequate ones over pitchers who are solid soldiers over long periods of time.

Here, then, is my five-man rotation.  They are not necessarily in the order I would choose them in terms of quality.  I simply chose to list them in alphabetical order.

1)  Kevin Brown:  The Kevin Brown fan-club just doesn’t seem to be one of the more effective lobbying groups in America these days.  Their candidate, Kevin Brown, is rated by Baseball-Reference.com (forward and henceforth, B-R), as the 45th best starting pitcher of all-time.  Virtually all the pitchers rated ahead of him are either already in The Hall, or soon will be.  Yet Kevin Brown, in his first, and last, year on the ballot last year received just 2.1% of the vote for the HOF from the BBWAA (the people who get to decide such things.)

Yet Kevin Brown was truly an outstanding pitcher.  His career record of 211-144, and an ERA of 3.28 are not unlike several other pitchers in The Hall, such as Catfish Hunter and Dazzy Vance.  Moreover, his career WAR of 64.5 is similar to the average WAR, 67.9, of the 58 starting pitchers already in The Hall.

At various times in his 19-year career, Brown led his league in WAR twice, wins once, ERA twice, WHIP twice, games started three times, innings pitched once, shutouts once, and ERA+ once.  He struck out at least 200 batters for four consecutive years, from 1997-2000.  His 2,397 career strikeouts are in the top 40 of all-time.

Over the course of his career, Brown never lost more than 12 games in a season, and he never lost more than nine games in any of his final six full years.

Perhaps most impressively, Brown’s ERA+ of 215, while pitching for the Marlins in 1996, is the 22nd best single season score in baseball history.  To provide some context, Justin Verlander’s score in 2011, his Triple Crown-winning Cy Young season, was 172, just the 142nd highest score ever recorded.

But Kevin Brown wasn’t well-liked by the press, he was too well-traveled (six different teams), and he never won a Cy Young award (though he deserved a couple of them.)  Therefore, Kevin Brown is one of my five choices for best pitchers not in The Hall, and probably will remain as such indefinitely.

2)  David Cone:  B-R ranks Cone 61st all-time, ahead of Hall of Fame pitchers Don Sutton, Early Wynn, and Dizzy Dean, among others.  As with Kevin Brown, Cone’s Hall chances were at least in part undermined by pitching for five different teams in 17 seasons.  The BBWAA is like your mother, suspicious of the girl who’s had several boyfriends before she met you.  There’s a word for girls like that, mister.  They are sometimes referred to derogatorily as “free agents.”  Well, that’s two words.

Cone, unlike Kevin Brown, actually did win a Cy Young award.  But as luck would have it, he won it during the decapitated 1994 season, and he won it out in K.C. where hardly anyone noticed anyway.  Cone also pitched well enough to have won the award in 1988, when he posted a 20-3 record with a 2.22 ERA for the Mets (he finished 3rd in the voting behind Orel Hershiser and — “gulp” — Danny Jackson.)

Cone did not often receive a lot of run support from his teammates, either.  For example, from 1989-92, he pitched well enough with the Mets to have won 17-19 games per year.  Yet, he never won more than 14 games for them in any one of those years.  Then, in 1993 with the Royals, despite posting an excellent ERA+ of 138 through 34 starts, his record for the year was just 11-14.

David Cone was a fantastic strikeout pitcher, recording at least 190 K’s in a season nine times, including over 200 six times.  He led the N.L. in strikeouts twice, and his 2,668 career K’s ranks an impressive 22nd on the all-time list.

In 1998, a full decade after he’d first won 20 games while pitching for the Mets, Cone posted a 20-7 record for the Yankees at age 35.  Lest you mistakenly believe that Cone was coasting on run support that year pitching for a great Yankee team, consider that he struck out 209 batters in 207 innings pitched, while posting an impressive 1.18 WHIP in the tough A.L. East.

On July 18th, 1999, Cone capped off his impressive career by tossing a perfect game against the Montreal Expos for the Yankees.  At the time, it was just the 16th perfect game in baseball history.

He finished his career with a record of 194-126, and an ERA of 3.46 (3.13 in the N.L.)

David Cone was an easy pick for this list.

English: 1933 Goudey baseball card of Wesley &...

English: 1933 Goudey baseball card of Wesley “Wes” Ferrell of the Cleveland Indians #218. PD-not-renewed. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

3)  Wes Ferrell:  Ranked 41st by B-R, Wes Ferrell is actually the highest rated pitcher on this list. Ferrell was perhaps the best hitting pitcher in baseball history.  More on that later.

Ferrell’s career ERA of 4.04 may strike you as surprisingly high for someone on a list like this, but Ferrell suffered the misfortune of pitching almost entirely in the A.L. during the 1920’s and ’30’s.  His career ERA+ (116), which attempts to adjust for time and place, was actually very decent. It is the same, by the way, as modern-day aces Chris Carpenter and Dan Haren.

Ferrell, like the two previously mentioned pitchers on this list, tended to move around a lot, pitching for six teams in 15 years.  He spent his best years pitching for first Cleveland, then the Red Sox.  Wes Ferrell won at least 20 games in a season six times, leading the league in wins with 25 (for the Red Sox) in 1935.  Yet because his career went downhill fast at around age 29, he finished his career with a record of 193-128 (extremely similar to David Cone, as you might have noticed.)

Ferrell led the A.L. in WAR in 1935, but finished second in the MVP voting to Hank Greenberg.  He finished second in WAR for pitchers four times in his career, and finished third in another season.

He led his league in games started twice, in complete games four times, and in innings pitched three times.

Now a word regarding his hitting.  Not many pitchers can boast that they were regularly used as a pinch-hitter throughout their career.  Ferrell can.  In 1,345 plate appearances, Ferrell batted .280 while sporting a .351 on-base percentage.  He slugged 38 homers and drove in 208 runs.  In 1935, he led the Red Sox with a .347 batting average, accumulating 52 hits in 150 at bats.  He also hit seven home runs that year; only three of his teammates hit more.

Taking both his fine pitching and his extraordinary hitting into consideration, Wes Ferrell deserves his place on this list.

4)  Bret Saberhagen:  I’m sure this choice will raise some eyebrows, a la Pai Mei.  The argument against Saberhagen usually revolves around the specious observation that, other than his two Cy Young award seasons, he didn’t have much else to show for his career.  I beg to differ.  Here’s why.

While it is true that his two Cy Young award seasons were fantastic, he had three other seasons that were very nearly as good.  But let’s start with his Cy Young years.

In 1985, Saberhagen was a 21-year old pitching in his second season.  Aside from compiling a record of 20-6, he posted a 2.87 ERA in 235 innings pitched.  He was second in the league in wins, and third in ERA.  His ERA+ was an excellent 143.

He led A.L. pitchers in WHIP (1.o58) and WAR (6.9).  Demonstrating the pinpoint control that would mark his career, he also walked just 38 batters, highly unusual for such a young pitcher.

In 1989, he was a 25-year old veteran of six MLB seasons.  It was his finest year.  He led the league in wins, accumulating a record of 23-6.  He led the league in ERA (2.16), in ERA+ (a remarkable 180), in WHIP (0.961), in WAR (9.2) in complete games (12), and in innings pitched (262.1).

He also struck out a career high 193 batters while walking just 43.  His 4.49 strikeout to walk ratio that season was one of three times that he led his league in that category during his career.

So what about his other, nearly equally fine seasons?

In 1987, though his record was “only” 18-10, his ERA+ of 136 was actually fourth best in the league. His WAR was 7.7, good for 3rd best in the league, and actually better than his first Cy Young award season.  His 1.16 WHIP was also 3rd best in the A.L.  Remarkably, despite being arguably the 3rd best pitcher in the A.L. that year, he received NO votes of any kind whatsoever for the Cy Young award.  Nine pitchers received votes, including Jeff Reardon, Doyle Alexander and Teddy Higuera.  But Sabes was, inexplicably, completely shut out.

Even in 1988, perhaps his worst full season while pitching for the Royals, Saberhagen allowed three runs or fewer in 22 of his 35 starts, meaning, of course, that he pitched well enough to win 22 ball games.  In six other starts, he allowed exactly four earned runs each.  That means that in only seven starts he pitched poorly, just about one start per month.  Clearly, he was not at this best that year, but he certainly pitched better than his final 14-16 record would indicate.

In 1991, his final year in K.C., despite missing about a half-dozen starts due to injury, Sabes posted a 3.07 ERA and an ERA+ of 135 (each in the top 10 in the A.L.) through 196 innings.  His 4.9 WAR was 7th best in the A.L.  Yet, due to his truncated 13-8 record, this is considered by many to have been another “off-year” for him.

Sidelined for the most part by injuries in 1992-93, his first two seasons with the Mets, really undercut Saberhagen’s chances for eventual enshrinement in Cooperstown.  But in 1994, he did all he could to try to turn his legacy around.  To me, in some ways, 1994 was his most remarkable year.

That year, Saberhagen opened the season as the Mets #5 starting pitcher.  His health was still in question from the previous two years.  In his second start that year, he walked two batters.  That would be his wildest start of the season.   In only one other start that year did he walk as many batters in a game.  In his final 19 starts of that season, he walked fewer than two batters per game.

In 22 of his 28 starts in ’94, he walked either one batter, or no batters at all.  The most jaw-dropping stat of the season?  Sabes faced 696 batters that year, and only six of them reached a count of 3-0 against Saberhagen!  And of those lucky six batters sitting pretty at 3-0 against Sabes, just one of them ended up with a base-hit.  Another one drew a very rare walk.  So, in the best hitter’s count there is, four of the six hitters made outs.

Finally, only three pitchers in history have ever enjoyed a season in which they averaged 10.0 strikeouts per walk:  Jim Whitney in 1884, Cliff Lee in 2010, and Bret Saberhagen in 1994.  And of the three, Bret Saberhagen claims the best single-season strikeout to walk ratio in history, 11.0.  In 177 inning pitched (until the season ended prematurely in August), he struck out 143 batters, and walked just 13.  In fact, the thirteen home runs he surrendered that year match his total of walks for the season.

Saberhagen was defeated just four times in 24 starts that year, while winning 14 games.  If the season had been allowed to continue, he might have had a chance to win 20 games.  He finished 3rd in the N.L. Cy Young voting that year, behind Greg Maddux (who deserved the award) and Ken Hill (whose WAR was about half as good as Sabes.)

Though Saberhagen never enjoyed another season quite that stunning ever again, he did post a cumulative record of 25-14 in 1998-99 while pitching for the Red Sox in the always tough A.L. East. Those were his age 34 and 35 seasons.

For his career, Saberhagen compiled a record of 167-117, not vastly different from Koufax’s record of 165-87, and Koufax generally pitched for better teams.  While we’re on the subject, Koufax’s career ERA+ was 131; Sabes was 126.

Through 2,324 innings pitched, Koufax accumulated a WAR of 50.3.  In 2,562 innings, (a difference of about one season’s worth of innings between the two), Sabes accumulated a WAR of 56.0.  Each experienced a career marred by injury.

Koufax won three Cy Young awards, and finished third once.  Saberhagen won two Cy Young awards and finished third once.  Koufax had five excellent seasons, one of which was shortened by injury.  Saberhagen had five excellent seasons, one of which was shortened by injury, another by a work-stoppage.

I’m not saying that Saberhagen was Koufax’s equal, but to be able to make a reasonable comparison between the two without embarrassing Saberhagen indicates that Saberhagen belongs on the list of five best pitchers not in the Hall of Fame.

5)  Dave Stieb:  Jack Morris was not the best pitcher of the 1980’s, but Dave Stieb might have been.  Unfortunately for Stieb, he pitched the first few years of his career for some very bad Blue Jays’ teams.  From when he began his career in 1979 through 1983, the Jays never finished higher than 4th place in their division, and usually finished much lower.  As the Jays gradually improved, Stieb remained their ace through 1990.

In the decade of the 1980’s, Stieb posted a record of 158-115, with ERA’s generally below 3.35 in all but three seasons.  Stieb led the A.L. in ERA with a 2.48 mark in 1985, and he led the league in ERA+ in both 1984-85.  His WAR for the years 1980-90, inclusive, was 51.7.  For those same years, Jack Morris accumulated just 28.1 WAR.  In fact, if you throw in Morris’ two best years outside of that decade, 1979 and 1991, his WAR still rises to just 37.8 over 13 seasons.

Though neither pitcher ever won a Cy Young award, Stieb posted the best pitching WAR in his league three times.  Jack Morris’ best showing in WAR for any season was just fifth best.  In other words, Stieb pitched well enough to have deserved three Cy Young awards.  Morris never pitched well enough to win even one.

B-R ranks Stieb as the 64th best starting pitcher ever.  Considering that MLB is now in its 15th decade of existence, that’s a pretty strong showing.  Stieb’s career Win Probability Added Score of +22.26 wins ranks 50th best all-time among pitchers.  That score indicates, given an average team, the probable number of wins a given player is “worth,”  or can be said to have influenced (either positively or negatively.)

Due to the nine seasons during which Stieb pitched well over 200 innings, he was essentially out of gas by his age 33 season.  A seven-time All Star, his career record of 176-137 certainly does not reflect his true excellence as a pitcher for a solid decade.  Still, there are more than enough impressive statistics on his resume to easily consider him to be one of the top five pitchers not in the Hall of Fame.

Honorable Mention –  Here are some other pitchers I seriously considered for this list:

Rick Reuschel, Luis Tiant, Orel Hershiser, Tommy John, Jim Kaat, and Ron Guidry, among others.  Who would you have added or subtracted?  Let me know what you think.

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