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The Best Pitchers Of All Time

In the summer of 2000, the Cleveland Indians had a lineup to be reckoned with. By season’s end, they’d pounded out 950 runs, second-most in the American League during one of the AL’s highest-scoring post-war seasons. And that came on the heels of Cleveland’s 1999 campaign, when it became only the seventh team since 1901 to score 1,000 runs in a single season. Between Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, Roberto Alomar, Kenny Lofton and David Justice, few teams in history have boasted as much offensive firepower as those Indians did.

But on June 8, 2000, Cleveland’s powerful batters looked like a bunch of grade-schoolers facing the hard-throwing kid who was held back a year, reduced to scrounging for baserunners and hoping to string together a few lucky hits. Pedro Martinez was on the mound, and that meant opposing hitters didn’t stand a chance.

Against Cleveland, Martinez pitched eight innings of one-hit, shutout ball, striking out 10 batters and walking only one. It wasn’t even his best outing of the season to that point — on May 12, he’d struck out 15 Orioles, and walked none, in a complete-game shutout — but it was a classic example of how unhittable Martinez was in his prime. When Hall of Famer Roberto Alomar reached base in the first (on a throwing error by the catcher after Alomar tapped a weak dribbler in front of home plate), he was Cleveland’s sole baserunner until late in the 5th inning. In six separate innings, Martinez set down the Indians in order, 1-2-3. As if to add emphasis, he capped off four of those perfect frames with a strikeout to retire the side.

Nobody quite knew it at the time, but the game had long-lasting historical significance as well. According to the pitching component of our new Elo ratings, Martinez’s performance against Cleveland stands as the absolute peak moment for any starting pitcher since 1911.1 Here’s a table of the highest historical pitcher peaks (one per pitcher)2 from the introduction to our MLB Elo ratings:

NAME FRANCHISE DATE PITCHER SCORE ELO RATING ADJ.
Pedro Martinez BOS 6/8/2000 78.0 +108.6
Randy Johnson ARI 5/16/2000 71.8 83.3
Greg Maddux ATL 7/19/1995 71.8 67.3
Roger Clemens TOR 7/28/1997 70.6 75.3
Dazzy Vance LAD 5/5/1929 69.7 76.3
Curt Schilling ARI 4/7/2002 69.1 64.3
Bob Gibson STL 5/25/1969 68.6 76.6
Dwight Gooden NYM 5/6/1986 68.5 74.4
Frank Tanana LAA 6/24/1977 68.4 72.2
Bob Feller CLE 8/4/1940 68.4 64.7
Jake Arrieta CHC 10/7/2015 68.3 63.4
Sandy Koufax LAD 10/14/1965 68.1 64.4
J.R. Richard HOU 4/30/1980 67.7 67.1
Pete Alexander PHI 7/13/1915 67.7 64.7
Johan Santana MIN 10/5/2004 67.6 66.9
Kevin Brown SD 10/8/1998 67.4 65.4
Tom Seaver NYM 4/26/1972 67.3 72.8
Lefty Grove OAK 6/13/1932 66.9 64.1
Mike Scott HOU 5/18/1987 66.9 61.4
Ron Guidry NYY 9/15/1978 66.9 62.4
All-time pitcher peaks, based on Pitcher Score

The pitcher score is a running average of a pitcher’s individual game scores

Source: Retrosheet

Our Elo algorithm works by assigning each starting pitcher a Pitcher Score rating representing the expected effect he’ll have on opponents’ hitting in his next start. Rookie pitchers start with a relatively low Pitcher Score, but they can build it up by posting strong starts according to the game score formula, which rewards pitchers for quality performances (with a slight bonus for greatness in the fielding-independent categories of strikeouts, walks and home runs).3

When Martinez made his debut in 1992, Boston’s Roger Clemens had the highest Pitcher Score of any active player in baseball. A few years earlier, Clemens had even briefly come within striking distance of the all-time leader — the underappreciated Dazzy Vance, who peaked four starts into his 1929 season and had never been surpassed in the more than six decades since — and he was still pitching at one of the highest levels any starter had ever attained. But by the mid-’90s it became clear that Martinez would need to climb over more than just Clemens and Vance to reach the all-time pitching summit.

In 1994, Atlanta’s Greg Maddux staged an all-out assault on big-league batters. At the time of the season-ending players’ strike, Maddux had a microscopic 1.56 ERA, the lowest WHIP in the majors by a mile — and he was within decimal points of becoming the new all-time leader in Pitcher Score. Finally, after Maddux allowed only one run to the Houston Astros in eight innings on June 3, 1995, baseball had a new Greatest Starting Pitcher Ever™ (according to our stat). But Maddux’s reign at the top of the pitcher rankings was short-lived — Seattle’s Randy Johnson, who had the best strikeout-to-walk differential of the expansion era that year, also passed Vance, and then Maddux, before season’s end.

Over the next few seasons, Maddux and Johnson would jockey for position atop the Pitcher Score rankings. Meanwhile, Martinez slowly built his résumé in the background, cracking the top 25 in 1995 and the top 16 by 1996. Then, in 1997, Pedro made a major breakthrough, posting a 1.90 ERA and finishing the season as the third-best pitcher in the game, according to Pitcher Score. At the same time, Clemens bounced back from a handful of comparatively down seasons to make his own run at Maddux and Johnson. Baseball suddenly had a quartet of all-time great starters operating at or near the peak level of any pitchers who’d ever played the game.

paine-boice-pitchers

Against that backdrop, Martinez kept edging closer to the top of the Pitcher Score leaderboard, spending most of the 1998 season cruising in second place behind Clemens. But in 1999, his performance took yet another huge leap — and he embarked on the most dominant stretch of pitching the sport has ever known. On Sept. 21, 1999, after shutting out the Toronto Blue Jays, with his ERA sitting at 2.11 in a league where average was 4.86, Martinez had done it: He’d broken Maddux’s record, establishing a new historical high-water mark for Pitcher Score greatness.

Somehow, Pedro was just getting started. In 1999, he’d shown the best pure stuff in baseball history — the lowest fielding-independent pitching numbers ever, before we even knew that fielding-independent pitching was important (or even, you know, a thing). In 2000, he would couple another great FIP with a high rate of outs on balls in play to generate the lowest ERA (relative to the league) of anybody, ever. The two seasons are so ridiculously good that there are actual Internet arguments over which campaign was better, with the answer pretty much determining whether you grab your wins above replacement from Baseball-Reference or from FanGraphs.

We’re certainly not going to weigh in on that battle here. But for what it’s worth, Pedro had a higher per-start average game score in 2000, and he also set the all-time peak Pitcher Score that year, during his aforementioned masterpiece against the Indians. Then again, Martinez also came close to surpassing his own record early in the 2001 season, when he put up the second-highest Pitcher Score in history after a game against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. In fact, the list of greatest peak Pitcher Score “moments” is so thoroughly dominated by Pedro that he left little room for anybody else:

PITCHER GAMES
Pedro Martinez 55
Randy Johnson 25
Greg Maddux 18
Roger Clemens 2
No. of Top 100 peak games by Pitcher Score rating

Source: Retrosheet

Martinez finally started to fall from his perch in 2003, but he left a collection of the greatest performances of all-time in his wake. Taking a cue from stories where we ranked all-time Elo seasons in other sports, we rated the greatest pitching seasons4 according to Pitcher Score by blending three metrics for each season: a pitcher’s peak rating, his average rating throughout the entire season, and his final, end-of-season rating. Here are the leaders:

GAME SCORE RATING
PITCHER YEAR STARTS AVERAGE PEAK FINAL BLEND
1 Pedro Martinez 2000 29 76.1 78.0 77.2 77.1
2 Pedro Martinez 2001 18 75.3 77.7 70.7 74.5
3 Pedro Martinez 1999 31 68.2 73.4 73.4 71.7
4 Greg Maddux 1995 33 70.2 71.8 69.5 70.5
5 Randy Johnson 1995 33 67.5 70.8 70.4 69.6
6 Pedro Martinez 2002 30 68.2 71.0 68.5 69.2
7 Randy Johnson 1996 8 69.6 71.1 66.8 69.2
8 Roger Clemens 1997 34 67.0 70.6 69.2 69.0
9 Roger Clemens 1998 33 66.2 69.8 69.1 68.4
10 Greg Maddux 1994 25 66.0 69.5 69.5 68.3
11 Randy Johnson 2001 39 66.1 69.5 69.3 68.3
12 Randy Johnson 1997 31 67.5 69.8 66.7 68.0
13 Randy Johnson 1999 36 67.0 69.1 67.5 67.9
14 Randy Johnson 2000 35 68.7 71.8 63.0 67.8
15 Randy Johnson 2002 36 66.3 70.6 64.7 67.2
16 Sandy Koufax 1965 44 64.6 68.1 68.1 66.9
17 Pedro Martinez 2003 33 66.2 69.0 64.8 66.6
18 Bob Gibson 1968 37 64.2 68.3 67.5 66.6
19 Bob Gibson 1969 35 66.1 68.6 64.8 66.5
20 Curt Schilling 2002 36 66.8 69.1 63.6 66.5
21 Bob Feller 1940 37 65.2 68.4 65.6 66.4
22 Dazzy Vance 1928 32 63.0 68.1 68.1 66.4
23 Greg Maddux 1996 40 65.8 69.5 63.8 66.3
24 Pedro Martinez 1998 34 65.4 69.6 63.8 66.3
25 Johan Santana 2005 33 64.9 67.6 65.8 66.1
26 Dazzy Vance 1925 31 64.2 67.6 66.1 66.0
27 Pete Alexander 1915 44 64.4 67.7 65.5 65.9
28 Pedro Martinez 1997 31 63.1 67.9 66.1 65.7
29 J. R. Richard 1980 17 65.8 67.7 63.6 65.7
30 Hal Newhouser 1946 34 64.4 66.6 66.1 65.7
The greatest Pitcher Score seasons by starters

Source: Baseball-Reference

PITCHER TEAM RATING
1 Jake Arrieta CHC 66.8
2 Clayton Kershaw LAD 66.8
3 Chris Sale CHW 61.2
4 Stephen Strasburg WSN 59.0
5 Jose Quintana CHW 59.0
6 Madison Bumgarner SFG 59.0
7 Corey Kluber CLE 58.8
8 Jon Lester CHC 58.6
9 Carlos Carrasco CLE 58.0
10 Zack Greinke ARI 58.0
Elo top 10 as of May 11, 2016

Source: ESPN, Baseball-Reference

This year’s crop of starting pitchers is pretty amazing, between the ongoing dominance of such hurlers as Clayton Kershaw and Jake Arrieta, and performances like the one Max Scherzer put together Wednesday night. But even at their best, no current pitcher is within 10 Pitcher Score points of Martinez’s peak mark. The top-ranked Arrieta, for instance, would need a breakthrough like the one Martinez made between 1998 and 1999, in order to start making real progress toward Pedro’s all-time record. It’s yet another piece of context that puts Martinez’s best years in perspective — and helps us appreciate the staggering heights to which he pushed the bar for starting-pitcher greatness.

Check out our latest MLB predictions.

Footnotes

  1. 1911 is the earliest season for which we have the data to compute Game Scores for starting pitching performances in every game.

  2. Not including 2016 thus far.

  3. Our exact game score formula (47.4 + 1.5*outs + strikeouts – 2*walks – 2*hits – 3*runs – 4*homeruns) differs slightly from Bill James’ original version, but both metrics are constructed in the same spirit.

  4. Again, since 1911.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

Jay Boice is a computational journalist for FiveThirtyEight.

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