As we enter the top 50 of this list you will see lots of familiar names, some of whom will be in unfamiliar places. Please read part 1 of this series for information about methodology and how this list was compiled.
50: Steve Carlton– Carlton led the NL in wins four times, innings pitched five times, strikeouts five times, and FIP three times. He won four Cy Young awards. He finished his career with 329 wins, 4,136 strikeouts, and an ERA+ of 115. In 1972 Carlton won 27 games, the Phillies (his team) won 59 all season.
49: Nap Lajoie– Lajoie led the NL in batting average five times, this includes his 1901 season when he hit .426. He finished his career with 3,243 hits, 657 doubles, 380 stolen bases, and an OPS+ of 150. Lajoie was part of the infamous Chalmers batting title race in 1910.
48: Wade Boggs– Boggs led the AL in batting average five times and on-base percentage six times. He finished his career with 3,010 hits and a slash line of .328/.415/.443. He didn’t make his MLB debut until his age 24 season.
47: Christy Mathewson– Mathewson led the NL in wins four times, ERA five times, and strikeouts five times. He finished his career with 373 wins, 2,507 strikeouts, and an ERA of 2.13. That’s an ERA+ of 135. He pitched in 101.2 postseason innings posting an ERA of 0.97 and a WHIP of 0.836. In the 1905 World Series he pitched three complete game shutouts and helped the New York Giants win the title.
46: George Brett– Brett won the AL MVP in 1980. That year he hit .390/.454/.664/ that’s an OPS of 1.118 and an OPS+ of 203. He led all of MLB in each of those categories. He won two additional batting titles and a World Series championship in 1985. He finished his career with 3,154 hits. He’s one of four players in MLB history to reach at least 3,000 hits, 500 doubles, 300 home runs, and 200 stolen bases.
45: Pete Alexander– Alexander suffered from epilepsy. The disease would occasionally cause him to collapse in between innings or stager around on the mound. At the time many people attributed this behavior to drunkenness (sometimes it was), but he was also suffering from the effects of a horrible disease. Over his twenty year career he won 373 games, recorded 2,198 strikeouts, and posted an ERA of 2.56. He won a World Series championship with the Cardinals in 1926.
44: Warren Spahn– Spahn pitched briefly in 1942 before enlisting in the Army to serve in World War II. He missed three full seasons of his playing career and part of a fourth. When he returned he led the NL in wins eight times, complete games nine times, strikeouts four times, and ERA three times. He finished his career with 363 wins, that’s still the most ever by a lefthander. In this fun piece Bill Barnwell ranked Spahn as the best pitcher alive in seven different seasons across two different “title” reigns.
43: Satchel Paige– Paige was a star pitcher in the Negro, Cuban, Dominican and Mexican leagues long before he officially made his MLB debut in 1948. That year he became the oldest “rookie” in MLB history and the first African-American to pitch in the World Series. Joe DiMaggio called him, “the best and fastest pitcher I’ve ever faced.” Further reading on Paige can be found here, here, and here.
42: Ken Griffey Jr– Griffey was the first baseball player in my lifetime, or at least my memory that became a phenomenon both on the field and off. He had his own video game, shoe, and his rookie card was supposed to allow anyone that possessed it to retire comfortably. On the field he could seemingly do everything. He hit lots of home runs at the plate and jumped over walls in the field to take them away. He was our Willie Mays. At the age of 30 he was seemingly well on his way to breaking the home run record and possibly becoming the best player ever to play. Then, he got hurt and was never the same. Griffey never played in more than 145 games after he turned 30. From 2001-2010 (age 31-40) he averaged just 99 games a season. He still finished his career with 630 home runs.
40: Bob Gibson– Gibson finished his career with 251 wins, 3,117 strikeouts, and an ERA of 2.91. He won two Cy Young awards, an MVP, and in 1968 he posted the lowest single season ERA (1.12) since 1915. He was also one of the best postseason pitchers in the history of the game. He won two World Series championships, winning the MVP of the series both years.
39: Carl Yastrzemski– In 1967 Yaz won the Triple Crown. He also led the AL in OBP, SLG, OPS, OPS+, TB, H, and runs. It was one of the best seasons any player has ever had. The following year became known as the year of the pitcher, Yastrzemski was the only player in the AL to hit over .300 (.301) and the only player in MLB with an OBP of .400 (.426). He finished his career with 3,419 hits, and 452 home runs. Only Pete Rose played more MLB games than Yastrzemski.
38: Lefty Grove– Grove won the pitching Triple Crown twice. He led the AL in wins four times, ERA nine times, and strikeouts seven times. He won back-to-back World Series championships in 1929 & 1930. He was named AL MVP in 1931. Grove didn’t make his MLB debut until he was 25, he finished his career with 300 wins and an ERA+ of 148.
37: Jimmie Foxx– A longtime teammate of Grove’s Foxx also won back-to-back World Series Championships with the Philadelphia Athletics in 1929 & 1930. He made his MLB debut at the age of 17 and eventually won three MVP awards. Foxx had at least 30 home runs and 100 RBI in twelve consecutive seasons. He won the Triple Crown in 1933. He is one of three players in MLB history with a slash line of at least .300/.400/.600 and 500 home runs.
36: Eddie Collins– Collins won four World Series championships, and was the AL MVP in 1914. He finished his career with a .333 batting average and 3,315 hits. He could also run, he stole 741 bases over his 25 year career.
35: Jackie Robinson– Baseball for much of its existence was segregated and run by racists. So was the United States for that matter. This is the world that Jackie Robinson walked into when he broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier in 1947. Some of his teammates tried to boycott his arrival, opponents threatened not to play if he was in the lineup, and fans shouted racist comments at him on a daily basis in every city he played in. He carried the hopes of African-Americans across the county when he made his debut. It would have been understandable if he let the pressure get to him, or didn’t play to his full capabilities, but he did. He won the Rookie of the Year award in 1947 and the MVP in 1949. He was an exceptional fielder, he could run, hit for average, and take a walk. He won a World Series championship with the Dodgers in 1955. He finished his ten year MLB career with a slash line of .311/.409/.474. Robinson served in the military for nearly three years during World War II. He didn’t make his MLB debut until he was 28 years old. His success shattered MLB’s longstanding color barrier and eventually allowed for the acceptance of African-Americans in all team sports across the country. Further reading on Robinson can be found here, here, here, here and here.
34: Joe DiMaggio– DiMaggio won nine World Series championships with the Yankees. He won three AL MVP awards, was an All-Star in all thirteen years of his career, and in 1941 he got at least one hit in 56 consecutive games. That’s still a record. He missed three full seasons of his career (age 28-30) due to his military service in World War II. Had he been playing those years, it’s possible he would be a 100 win player.
33: Mel Ott– Ott made his MLB debut at the age of 17. He is one of just seven players in history to hit at least 500 home runs and have a slash line of .300/.400/.500 or better. He won a World Series championship with the Giants in 1933.
32: Cy Young– When Young first started playing he didn’t use a glove, pitchers threw underhanded, foul balls did not count as strikes, and the pitching mound was fifty feet away from home plate. In fairness most of these rules evolved into their current form within five years of Young’s MLB debut but it does help illustrate the quality of baseball he was playing. On the field he was dominant. He is still MLB’s all time leader in Wins (511), innings pitched (7,356), games started (815), complete games (749), and batters faced (29,565). No one will ever get close to any of those records. He also has the best WAR of any pitcher ever on Baseball-Reference (168.4), he’s 2nd on FanGraphs (135.0). Statistically he’s the best or second best pitcher ever to play. I’ve ranked him 7th which I think is fair considering the era he pitched in and the inferior level of competition he regularly faced.
31: Walter Johnson– Statistically if Young isn’t the best pitcher ever than surely Johnson is. Johnson pitched from 1907-1927. He led the AL in wins six times, ERA five times, and strikeouts twelve times. He was the first pitcher ever to reach 3,000 career strikeouts. He retired with 417 wins, 3,509 strikeouts, and an ERA of 2.17. Johnson pitched against a higher level of competition than Young, he was also more dominant at this best. However, he still pitched his entire career in a segregated league full of almost exclusively American born players. He deserves to remembered as an all-time great but considering he retired almost 90 years ago, I think it’s appropriate to mark down his accomplishments especially when comparing him to pitchers who excelled when the game was fully formed.
30: Roberto Clemente– Clemente was a brilliant defender who could also hit. He won twelve Gold Gloves, advanced defensive metrics suggest he deserved almost all of them. He led the NL in batting four times, won the MVP in 1966, and won two World Series championships. He finished his career with 3,000 hits. Clemente died at the age of 38 in a plane crash while en route to deliver relief supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. MLB later established an annual award named after him given to a player who best demonstrates a commitment to community and helping others in need.
29: Eddie Mathews– Mathews was the best third baseman ever to play until Mike Schmidt came along. He finished his career with a slash line of .271/.376/.509 which works out to an OPS+ of 143. He hit 512 home runs, and won two World Series Championships. A nice piece of trivia, he was the cover athlete on the inaugural issue of Sports Illustrated.
28: Tom Seaver- Seaver led the NL in ERA three times, strikeouts five times, and FIP four times. He won three Cy Young awards, a World Series championship, and was selected as an All-Star on twelve occasions. He finished his career with 311 wins and 3,640 strikeouts. He’s one of just 31 players in MLB history to have a bWAR of at least 100.
27: Pedro Martinez– In 1999 Pedro produced arguably the best season any pitcher ever has. He threw 213.1 innings and struck out 313 batters. He posted an ERA of 2.07, which translates to an ERA+ of 243. His WHIP was 0.923, and his SO/9 was then a MLB record of 13.2. His OPS against was .536, which converts to an insane OPS+ against of 35. His FIP was 1.39. His bWAR was 9.7, and his fWAR was 11.9. The following year he pitched in 217 innings while striking out 284 batters. His ERA was 1.74 which is good for an ERA+ of 291, a modern record. His WHIP was 0.737, another record. His OPS against was .473 which translates to a record low OPS+ against of 18. His bWAR was 11.7 and his fWAR was 9.9.
From 1997-2003 during the height of the “steroid era” Pedro pitched in 1,408 innings. He struck out 1,761 batters (11.3 S0/9), had a WHIP of 0.94, and his ERA during that time was 2.20. That’s good for an ERA+ of 213. League average is 100. During that stretch he led his league in ERA, ERA+, WHIP, H/9, and S0/9 five times each, and strikeouts three times. He won three Cy Young awards and was robbed of an MVP. His peak was simply Ruthian. Among starters who began their career after MLB integrated in 1947 Pedro ranks 1st in career ERA+ (154), OPS+ against (61) and WHIP (1.054). He also ranks 2rd in S0/9. In different posts on this site I’ve made the case for Pedro as the best pitcher ever, I’ve obviously backed off that but there is still a part of me that believes that’s true.
26: Pop Lloyd– Lloyd was a star for nearly thirty years in the Negro Leagues, Cuba, and Mexico. He could hit, he had power for his day, he could run, and he was believed to be an exceptional defender. He was often referred to as “the black Honus Wagner.” Wanger had this to say about the comparison, “I am honored to have John Lloyd called the black Wagner. It is a privilege to have been compared to him.” Further reading on Lloyd can be found here and here.
Data courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com
Follow me on Twitter @RossCarey and join the conversation at #Top250