As baseball fans, we all love a good home run. However, nothing gets fans in front of the TV like the prospect of a perfect game of baseball. Around the fifth or sixth inning of a perfect game, fans begin living and dying with every pitch. Did you know that there are only 23 perfect games in the storied history of baseball? Just think, despite some of the best players in the history of Major League Baseball (MLB) being pitchers with amazing talent, there have only been 23 perfect games. That makes you wonder — who are the best MLB pitchers of all time?
Before we dive into the best MLB pitchers of all time, it’s fun to think about the journey one takes to become an MLB pitcher. Clearly, natural talent and exposure to the game of baseball from a young age plays a role, but there’s more to becoming an effective pitcher than a good arm and a general understanding of the game. The best pitchers are seemingly obsessed with perfection, but as a recent study suggests, this could be more detrimental than beneficial. Researchers at the University of Essex and York St John University report athletes who constantly strive for on-field perfection and obsess over failure are at an increased risk of burnout. The study assessed over 250 athletes across a variety of sports including football, hockey, and golf, just to name a few. Athletes who are considered ‘hyper self-critical performers,’ meaning they are the first to criticize their own on-field performance, are more likely to suffer psychological difficulties and ultimately burnout. Even professional athletes need to remind themselves that it’s just a game.
There are always going to be those athletes who simply outwork their competition. However, another study found that even the most dedicated athletes must have the natural ability in order to compete at the highest level in sports. Researchers in Cambridge, England found that most of the difference in athletic ability between two athletes comes down to genetics. The study concludes that genetic differences are responsible for 72% of the variation of outcomes across the same training regimen. Genetics, natural talent, and a somewhat nuanced approach to competing in sports at a high level are all factors in becoming one of the best MLB pitchers of all time.
So, who are the best MLB pitchers of all time? StudyFinds did the research, consulting 10 sports and baseball-oriented websites in an effort to bring you the best MLB pitchers in the history of baseball. Our list is comprised of the five most frequently listed MLB pitchers from across these sites. As always, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below!
The List: Top 5 MLB Pitchers of All Time, According to Sports Experts
1. Walter Johnson
Topping the list of the best MLB pitchers of all time is former Washington Senators great Walter Johnson. Walter Johnson, also known as ‘The Big Train,’ was a dominant force on the mound for more than a decade. Johnson sat atop 50 percent of the lists we referenced and his name was included on all 10 of the lists we sourced. “The Big Train ranks #1 due to his longevity and dominance. Consider Johnson’s career rank among pitchers who threw 2,000+ innings in their career (397 players),” writes Pitcher List.
Johnson put together a stellar career but also had some of the most impressive single-season efforts in MLB history. As one expert explains, Johnson was nearly unhittable during the 1913 MLB season. “1913, in particular, was preposterous. He went 36-7 with a 1.14 ERA and 11 shutouts. Johnson struck out 1,291 batters from 1910 to 1914, which is 467 more than any other pitcher could boast during that time,” explains Bleacher Report.
That’s clearly one of the most dominant seasons ever recorded for a starting MLB pitcher. The sport rewarded Johnson’s career efforts by making him one of the first inductees into the MLB Hall of Fame. “Throughout his 21-year career with the Washington Senators, he set numerous records, including the most shutouts, second-most wins, fourth-most games played, and won the World Series in 1924,” adds Wolfgang Sport.
— Vintage Sports Memorabilia (@HistoricalColl) March 16, 2023
2. Christy Mathewson
Coming in at the second spot on the list of the best MLB pitchers of all time is Giants and Reds legend, Christy Mathewson. Christy Mathewson played 14 full seasons and three partial seasons in MLB. Mathewson appeared in the top spot on 20 percent of the lists we referenced and was the only pitcher to truly threaten Walter Johnson for the top spot on this list. “Christy Mathewson finished his career with 4,788.2 innings pitched and 435 complete games, the latter of which would be unthinkable by today’s standards,” writes Audacy.
Mathewson was a pioneer on the mound. Beginning in 1900, Mathewson’s career took him to New York and eventually Cincinnati. “The American right-handed pitcher started his major league journey in 1900, which went for 16 long years till 1916. After that, he played for New York Giants and Cincinnati Reds. He later served as a manager for the Reds as well. Mathewson was ranked in the all-time top 10 in many key pitching categories, including wins, ERA, and shutouts,” adds Players Bio.
One of the most important factors to consider when thinking about the best MLB pitchers of all time is the degree of post-season success. Mathewson sets himself apart from his contemporaries as he had the ability to take his game to the next level during the playoffs and World Series. “Mathewson’s numbers were strong across the board, but the postseason factor made him the No. 1 pitcher no matter how many ways the formulas were tweaked. It’s all but impossible for anyone to ever be more dominant than he was in 1905, pitching complete-game shutouts in Games 1, 3 and 5 of the World Series to pace the New York Giants to a championship,” furthers Bleacher Report.
Christy Mathewson, 1901 pic.twitter.com/ING8GBMZE5
— Baseball In Pics (@baseballinpix) December 28, 2022
3. Randy Johnson
Coming in at the third spot on the list of the best MLB pitchers of all time is none other than ‘The Big Unit,’ Randy Johnson. Standing at 6’ 10” tall, Randy Johnson is the tallest starting pitcher in league history. Johnson used his height to gain extra leverage on his pitches and flat-out intimidate hitters. Randy Johnson appeared on 90 percent of the lists we referenced and was never ranked lower than fourth. “Over the course of his career, the Big Unit went 303-166 with a 3.29 ERA. But consider his run from 1999 to 2002. He paced baseball in strikeouts every season with a minimum total of 334 and won four consecutive Cy Young Awards (bringing his career total to five),” writes Audacy.
Randy Johnson holds all sorts of impressive records for MLB pitchers. Furthermore, we must remember that Johnson did most of this during the ‘steroid’ era when MLB’s hitters were admittedly using performance enhancers. “The unreal numbers were the strikeouts, though. Johnson fanned at least 329 batters in five straight seasons. In the last four decades, a pitcher has struck out at least 320 batters in a season five times, and Johnson accomplished all of them. Consecutively. His K/9 during this half decade was 12.33,” explains Bleacher Report.
This translates to a whopping average of 12 strikeouts for every nine innings pitched. That ratio is almost as impressive as Johnson’s perfect game at age 40, the second of his career. “[Randy Johnson] is one of only 20 pitchers in history to have a win against all 30 MLB franchises, and holds the record for being the oldest player to throw a perfect game, earning the achievement for the second time at the age of 40. Johnson’s prime was between 1998 and 2002 whilst at Arizona, during which he won four consecutive Cy Young Awards,” adds Wolfgang Sport.
4. Cy Young
Coming in at the fourth spot on the list of the best MLB pitchers of all time is Cy Young. If you recognize the name Cy Young, it’s because MLB named the award for the league’s best pitcher after him. Cy Young appeared on 90 percent of the lists we referenced and for good reason. Although he played in the very earliest days of baseball, Cy Young was a dominant pitcher. “Cy Young left a legacy that can never be replicated in the baseball pitching universe. Therefore, the Cy Young Award is given to the most excellent pitchers in every league of the MLB,” explains Players Bio.
The Cy Young award is given to one pitcher from the National League (NL) and the American League (AL). So, how would Cy Young match up with modern-day pitchers? As one expert explains, there’s no way you can safely compare the different eras. “Trying to compare Cy Young’s numbers to today’s baseball is an exercise in futility. Just during this five-year stretch, he pitched 184 complete games with a 1.93 ERA. Clemens had 118 complete games in his 24-year career, and he has thrown more complete games than anyone dating back to 1984,” adds Bleacher Report.
Cy Young was clearly an endurance athlete. Still, his ability to throw accurate pitches and get hitters out with runners in scoring position helped Cy Young lead his teams to victory, winning over 500 games. “While not a huge strikeout pitcher, he did lead the league in the category twice. He rarely walked anyone, as evidenced by his leading the league in BB/9 an astounding fourteen times. In addition, Young won the ERA title twice and had the lowest WHIP seven times. They wouldn’t name the award after just anyone, after all. Young made it into the Hall of Fame in 1937 with the second group of electees,” furthers Pitcher List.
5. Greg Maddux
Rounding out the list of the best MLB pitchers of all time is the ‘Mad Dog’ Greg Maddux. Maddux played for four teams but the bulk of his career was spent with the Chicago Cubs and Atlanta Braves. Maddux appeared on every list we referenced and for great reason. “During an era when baseballs were practically dripping with steroids, Greg Maddux repeatedly made opposing batters look helpless. If we expand this five-year peak to the full seven-season surge from 1992 to 1998, Maddux had a pristine ERA of 2.15 and a WHIP of 0.97. He was never king of the strikeouts, but his rates of both walks and home runs allowed were absurd,” writes Bleacher Report.
An earned run average (ERA) of 2.15 is special, but to think that Maddux did this over a seven-year period when the best hitters in baseball included the likes of McGuire, Sosa, and Bonds is ridiculous. Still, Maddux also has one of the highest win totals in MLB history to go along with his bevy of awards. “For what it’s worth, Maddux also walked away with 18 Gold Gloves, winning the award every year except once between 1990 and 2008. In the last century, only Warren Spahn can top his 355 career wins. He is also the only pitcher in MLB history with over 300 wins, over 3,000 strikeouts, and less than 1,000 walks (999), making him something special,” explains Franchise Sports.
When you consider the wins, the stats, and the persona, Maddux is clearly one of the best MLB pitchers of all time. And some experts have come to realize Maddux’s influence on the game of baseball in retrospect. In today’s MLB, pitchers who throw a complete game shutout with less than 100 pitches are recognized for “tossing a Maddux.” “The 1990s were defined by grunge music, Seinfeld, and Maddux on the mound. Over the ten-year span – seven of which he spent leading the Braves to three World Series appearances including one win – Maddux posted a 176-88 record with a 2.54 ERA, 2.77 FIP, and 1.06 WHIP while winning four consecutive Cy Young Awards. Since his retirement, he’s become synonymous with the complete-game shutout in which the pitcher throws fewer than 100 pitches,” furthers The Score.
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- Bleacher Report
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