Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Greatest Pitchers

Facebook has this application that lets users pick their top five things in any one of a number of categories, from favorite movies to albums to sports venues to cartoon characters. I, of course, am a sucker for things like this.

So last night, I came across one for "greatest pitchers of all-time." A fellow broadcaster, Tim Calderwood (who was born in 1981, just for informational purposes), picked Nolan Ryan, Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and Randy Johnson. In the comments that followed, some panned his selection of Ryan, others lauded it. To some, throwing seven no-hitters and striking out over 5,000 batters makes him the greatest ever.

Uh huh.

I'm not here to knock Tim. I think he picked the five best that he feels he has seen. That, to me is fair. Now let us look at the Exit 55 Top 5:

1) Christy Mathewson
2) Walter Johnson
3) Sandy Koufax
4) Roger Clemens
5) Grover Cleveland Alexander

Then I clarified to add the top five in my lifetime: Clemens, Pedro Martinez, Steve Carlton, Greg Maddux, and Tom Seaver. From there I could add Glavine, Bob Gibson (remember, I was born in '68 and we're talking about my lifetime), John Smoltz, Randy Johnson, Jim Palmer, Mariano Rivera (nobody said anything about this being only starting pitchers, right?), Dennis Eckersley, Phil Niekro, Juan Marichal and I'll even throw in Ron Guidry (for as brief as his prime was, and this is a personal choice). I'm still not to Ryan yet.

As for all-time, I'll throw in Lefty Grove, Satchel Paige, Bob Feller, Warren Spahn, Carl Hubbel, Edward Charles "Whitey" Ford, Dizzy Dean, Three-Finger Brown, and the guy the sport named their pitching award after: Cy Young.

I use stats for an extension of any conversation; not to define a player - in any sport. Stats are nice, but if you've ever listened to a broadcast of mine (specifically in baseball), I only use them when I introduce a player. From there, it's OK to tack it on in a dead spot (how a hitter is doing with runners in scoring position, etc). What I'm driving at is that too many people use stats as the hard and fast facts. To me, these debates have as much to do with feeling than anything else.

I liked Nolan Ryan a lot - I watched his no-hitters and was amazed at how long he pitched. I'm also aware for you stats folks that his career won-loss record is 324-292 (that's a .526 winning percentage, folks...not overwhelmingly great). Let's be clear though - he didn't make the Hall of Fame by virtue of staying around for a long time. He was dominant, for sure. Yet, to me, he just doesn't make my top five, and maybe not even my top 10. He's somewhere up there, and it's not a crime!

Yet here's what I saw statistically: two twenty-win seasons and two nineteen-win seasons. No Cy Young Awards (in the top five of voting six times). Seven no-hitters. Two ERA titles (1.69 in 1981 and 2.76 in 1987, when he went 8-16). A career ERA of 3.19. All-time records in number of base on balls (2795) and strikeouts (5714) and wild pitches (277)! Oh, and for those who like these things, his career WHIP is 1.247.

In total: a Hall of Famer. No argument from me.

My top pitchers are players that either put fear in me or thrilled me to watch (that's why I included Ron Guidry). I can imagine the mastery of watching the older guys, had I been lucky enough to see them. Ryan was great. Just not great enough to crack my top list. That's not a knock on the Ryan Express - more so, it's a tribute to the pitchers who have amazed me throughout the history of the game.

Oh, and before we wrap this up, spare me the Clemens/steroids rap. Prior to 1997, when he left Boston, Clemens was still something special to see. It's clear now that he had lost it by that point and began with steroids in 1997, in Toronto. He was incredible to watch, and it was a thrill to see him each time he was in New York.

I'm beginning to think that, eventually, we'll have to suck it up and deal with the steroids era for being what it was. We're going to find out that so many players dabbled in the stuff in one form or another. I think we're already beginning to see that, and we're going to have to adjust our opinions accordingly.

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