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The Greatest Pitcher Ever

In Bill James’ Historical Baseball Abstract, he wrote: “there is a good argument that Tom Seaver is the greatest pitcher of all time.” I always thought this was possibly the case given how long Seaver’s career was and how consistently dominant he was throughout it. Nevertheless, 5+ years ago, Roger Clemens completed a career which was even longer than Seaver’s and during which, perhaps, he was even more dominating.

Really, the only guys who measure up to Tom Terrific and the Rocket pitched in the forgotten and segregated past. Walter Johnson, Lefty Grove anybody? With apologies to Greg Maddux, the answer has to be either the Mets all-time all-star or the guy with more Cy Young trophies than anybody else.

Seaver is always classy and Clemens sleazy. But with a record 7 Cy Young awards, 2 World Series rings, and many post-season appearances for Clemens versus 3 Cy Youngs and one ring for Seaver, I felt Clemens deserved the nod. Now, we know Clemens cheated so Seaver noses back ahead since as far as we know he was always clean.

But, looking solely at what they did on the field, who was better? Perhaps the two most important statistics give two different answers. The Wins Above Replacement stat, which ultimately relies upon data analysis and numbers crunching to come up with an over-arching number, lists Clemens as number 3 starting pitcher of all-time behind Cy Young and Walter Johnson. Seaver at 7 is the next modern-era player on the list following Grover Cleveland Alexander, Kid Nichols and Lefty Grove. So Clemens is better right?

Not so fast, since 1950, Tom Seaver holds the career record for Quality Start percentage. He’s the only pitcher over the past 60 years above 70%. 70.2% of the time Seaver took the mound he gave his team an excellent chance to win. Neither Clemens nor Maddux is in the top 10. Quality Start percentage is a telling stat but like all of them, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

Seaver pitched the majority of his career for the Mets, who played in a great pitcher’s park. By contrast, Clemens who came up with the Red Sox and later pitched for the Yankees had to retire batters in relatively small yards with short porches. Moreover, Seaver’s career began at the tail-end of a pitcher’s era and he never had to contend with the juiced-up sluggers that the juiced-up Clemens faced. The other guys at the top of the Quality Start percentage chart, include at number 2! Mel Stottlemyre!! (really) and at 4 the undeniably great Bob Gibson. Each one’s career overlapped with Seaver’s.

Ultimately, the cheatin’ Texan had 480 Quality Starts – 26 more than the Connecticut Met. He doesn’t make the top ten in percentage only because he started so many more games than Seaver. Clemens won 349 games versus 311 for Seaver. Warren Spahn with 363 wins had more victories in the post-segregation era but he never was a blow-em away ace like Clemens or Seaver.

My heart isn’t in it but going solely by what he did with his arm and ignoring what he stuck in it, Clemens was the greatest starting pitcher of all time.

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4 Responses to The Greatest Pitcher Ever

  1. Ken Newman says:

    A) Maddux no way
    B) How did Clemens pitch in the playoffs and WS? Not so good
    C) What about the smell test; i.e., what do your own eyes tell you?

    I can’t speak for the Big Train’s, Warren Spahn’s and Lefty Grove’s of their respective days, but for my money, based on what I saw with my own two eyes, I’d have to go: Gibson, Seaver, Steve Carlton and then Kenny Rogers ;)

    Clemens sucked in the playoffs and cheated his arse off; he might’ve been the fiercest competitor, but no way was he the best pitcher of anything but the time he played. I’d add Cy Youngs and MVP’s are subjective; they can be a popularity contest and are all or nothing awards; did Alex Rodriguez really deserve the two he got while on The Yankees and is Jeter not the 2nd best SS of all time even though he never won a single one and only finished 2nd in the voting once? Just say’n…

  2. hal says:

    Career post-season Clemens was 12-8 with a 3.75 ERA. He started 6 World Series games and won 3 of them with 3 no-decisions. His World Series ERA was 2.37. Clemens was not as good a post-season pitcher as Gibson obviously or Koufax but he didn’t suck. Bottom-line, it’s hard to argue with 7 Cy Youngs and even if you want to, picking Hoot first with 98 fewer career wins seems like a reach.

    I think it’s fair to argue that Jeter is the 2nd greatest shortstop since desegregation. He earns an asterisk for poor defensive play. Still, when looking at his record, the only modern-era shortstop who seems clearly better is Cal Ripken.

    Jeter is a first-ballot Cooperstown-worthy great. He was never considered by sportswriters to be the best player in the American League even though he probably was in 1998, 1999 and maybe 2007. 7 times those self-same greatness arbiters said Clemens was the best hurler in his league.

  3. GULC Dave says:

    Hal — Clemens has forfeited his right to be part of the greatest discussion because he cheated. Plain and simple. Bonds and Big Mac are not part of the discussion either because they juiced and we don’t know exactly how long and when it started.

    The most dominant pitcher was koufax for those 5 brilliant years from 61 to 65, and if there’s one guy I’d give the ball for one game, based on post season alone, it would be Gibson. Tom Terrific was my hero growing up and a great pitcher but not at the same level of either of those two.

  4. Ken Newman says:

    Simce the NBA is now really the NTP (National Thought Police), shouldn’t they go ahead and hand out lifetime bans to Charles Barkley for having once spit on a fan and explaining it away by calling himself a “90’s nigger” and another ban to Jadon Kid for having once severely beat his wife?

    I’m not saying Sterling isn’t a horrible, horrible racist and deserving of a severe punishment, but if the precedent has now been set that recorded/documented past transgressions (even ‘private’ conversations) can get you ejected for life, I think there are probably a lot of people in the league currently in ‘good standing’ who better hope their past deeds and comnentsc don’t get reported on TMZ.

    I would’ve given him a year and max fine and then let the free market and public sentiment take care of the rest, b/c if this is the punishment for heinous statements I don’t see any other remedy than to also make it the punishment for heinous crimes and deeds.

    Larry Johnson has already called for an all black league and Spike Lee said white people shouldn’t live in Harlem. How is that acceptable?

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