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25 Best Starting Pitchers of All Time

Clayton Kershaw: Best Starting Pitchers of All Time

Clayton Kershaw: Best Starting Pitchers of All Time

As with every position on the diamond, determining the top 25 starting pitchers in MLB history is a difficult task. Much of that difficulty comes with comparing pitchers between eras. For decades, pitcher wins was a heavily relied upon stat. Today it is openly mocked in some circles as useless and irrelevant.

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Of course, baseball itself has evolved throughout its history, and the role of pitcher is much different than it was a century ago. In its earliest days, a win was almost always directly tied to a pitcher’s performance. Starters pitched roughly half of their team’s games. However, over time, the need to give pitchers more rest between starts became obvious. Relievers also made a greater impact, and eventually pitching staffs grew to the current models, including a five-man starting rotation, long relievers, left-handed specialists, setup men and closers.

In addition to the changes in pitching, coming up with the top 25 of all-time was difficult simply due to the overwhelming number of pitchers. In the end, the goal became to identify the 25 best starting pitchers based on both their overall career performance, as well as the dominance displayed during their primes.

Despite their impressive standing on the all-time WAR leaderboard, some old-timers that narrowly missed the cut include Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown, Ed Walsh, John Clarkson, Tim Keefe, and Pud Galvin. Others that couldn’t crack the top 25 include fellow Hall of Famers Dizzy Dean, Robin Roberts, Fergie Jenkins and Tom Glavine, as well as two guys currently on the ballot for induction, Mike Mussina and Curt Schilling, who each make strong cases using modern metrics. Additionally, some current stars that could potentially crack this list are Felix Hernandez, Justin Verlander and Madison Bumgarner – but they’re not there yet.

— Rankings by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Allen's work can also be found on SaturdayDownSouth.com, SaturdayBlitz.com and FanSided.com. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.

(Photo courtesy of National Baseball Hall of Fame Web site, baseballhall.org)

25. Dazzy Vance

Pittsburgh Pirates, 1915; New York Yankees, 1915, ’18; Brooklyn Dodgers, 1922-32, ’35; St. Louis Cardinals, 1933-34; Cincinnati Reds, 1934
1934 World Series Champion (Cardinals)
1924 NL MVP
Key stats: 197-140, 3.24 ERA, 217 CG, 2,045 K, 62.5 WAR
Baseball Hall of Fame, Class of 1955

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Most of the pitchers on our list had established the foundation of a future Hall of Fame career by the time they hit the age of 30. Vance was an exception. He debuted with the Pittsburgh Pirates as a 24-year-old in 1915, but aside from a total of 11 major league appearances through 1918, wandered through the minor leagues until he finally caught the attention of the Brooklyn Dodgers. In 1922, at the age of 31, Vance pitched his first full big league season. He led the National League with 134 strikeouts, which was the first of seven straight strikeout titles. Vance won the pitching Triple Crown in 1924 with 28 wins, a 2.16 ERA and 262 Ks, which helped him earn the NL MVP Award. The right-hander would go on to win a total of three ERA titles, he led the NL in FIP seven times, and he still ranks among the top 50 all-time in WAR for pitchers (62.5).

(Photo courtesy of National Baseball Hall of Fame Web site, baseballhall.org)

24. Bob Feller

Cleveland Indians, 1936-41, ’45-56
8-time All-Star
1948 World Series Champion (Indians)
Key stats: 266-162, 3.25 ERA, 279 CG, 2,581 K, 63.6 WAR
Baseball Hall of Fame, Class of 1962

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Feller debuted with the Cleveland Indians in 1936 at the age of 17. By 1938 he was an All-Star, and began a string of four consecutive strikeout titles, which also included the ‘40 ERA crown and three seasons of 24 wins or more. Feller also finished in the top three of the AL MVP voting three times. Then, World War II hit, and Feller lost three full seasons to military service. After the war, Feller returned as one of baseball’s top strikeout pitchers and tossed two of his three career no-hitters, but we can only guess at the numbers he would have produced if his career hadn’t been interrupted.

23. Clayton Kershaw

Los Angeles Dodgers, 2008-Present
6-time All-Star
2011 Gold Glove recipient
2011, ’13, ’14 NL Cy Young Award
2014 NL MVP
*Key stats (through 2016 season): 126-60, 2.37 ERA, 1,918 K, 1.007 WHIP, 54.4 WAR

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Kershaw is only entering his age 29 season, and his 54.4 career WAR doesn’t yet stack up with some of the legends on this list, but there’s little debate that he is one of the greatest pitchers of his generation. Furthermore, he appears destined to make a run for the title of best left-hander in history.

Through nine big league seasons, Kershaw has won an MVP Award, three Cy Young trophies, four ERA titles, three strikeout crowns and a Gold Glove. Kershaw also won the 2011 pitching Triple Crown in the National League, and is the active leader with a 2.37 ERA, 15 career shutouts, a 1.007 WHIP and 6.622 hits allowed per nine innings. He currently ranks second on the all-time list with a 159 career adjusted ERA+.

22. Carl Hubbell

New York Giants, 1928-43
9-time All-Star
1933, ’36 NL MVP
1933 World Series Champion (Giants)
Key stats: 253-154, 2.98 ERA, 260 CG, 1,677 K, 67.5 WAR
Baseball Hall of Fame, Class of 1947

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Famous for his screwball, Hubbell was one of the best left-handed pitchers of all-time. Though he didn’t become an All-Star until he was 30, Hubbard blossomed into a dominant force in 1933, when he posted a 23-12 record while leading the majors with a 1.66 ERA and 10 shutouts, earning him the National League MVP Award. Hubbell also led all of baseball in ERA+ (193), FIP (2.53) and WHIP (0.982) to help the Giants win the World Series. In the Fall Classic, he was 2-0 in two starts and struck out 15 hitters in 20 innings. Hubbell also won MVP honors in 1936 after leading the majors with a 2.31 ERA – his third ERA title.

21. Jim Palmer

Baltimore Orioles, 1965-84
6-time All-Star
1973, ’75, ’76 Cy Young Award
1966, ’70, ’83 World Series Champion (Orioles)
Key stats: 268-152, 2.86 ERA, 211 CG, 53 SHO, 2,212 K, 69.4 WAR
Baseball Hall of Fame, Class of 1990

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In terms of raw stats like WAR and strikeouts, Palmer doesn’t stack up with the greatest pitchers of all-time. However, Palmer was a consistent – often dominant – pitcher that won three Cy Young Awards and helped lead the Baltimore Orioles to three World Series titles. In fact, Palmer and Sandy Koufax are the only two players in history to win three Cy Youngs and three world championships. A two-time ERA champion, Palmer won 20 or more games eight times. He also pitched 211 complete games, including 53 shutouts.

20. Kid Nichols

Boston Beaneaters, 1890-1901; St. Louis Cardinals, 1904-05; Philadelphia Phillies, 1905-06
Key stats: 361-208, 2.96 ERA, 532 CG, 48 SHO, 1,881 K, 116.4 WAR
Baseball Hall of Fame, Class of 1949

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A perfect example of the daunting workload expected of pitchers in the 19th and early 20th Centuries, Nichols started 562 career games across 15 big league seasons, and surpassed 300 innings in 12 of them (and 400 in five). Nichols never led the National League in ERA, but posted an NL-best 2.98 FIP as a rookie, and repeated the feat with a 2.71 FIP the following season. He also won 30 or more games seven times, and led the league in wins on three occasions. Nichols earned his 300th win at the age of 30, making him the youngest in baseball history to earn search an honor, and also giving him a record that is unlikely to ever be broken.

19. Eddie Plank

Philadelphia Athletics, 1901-14; St. Louis Terriers (Federal League), 1915; St. Louis Browns, 1916-17
1911, ’13 World Series Champion (A’s)
Key stats: 326-194, 2.35 ERA, 410 CG, 69 SHO, 2,246 K, 89.9 WAR
Baseball Hall of Fame, Class of 1946

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Plank was one of the early pitching stars of the American League. The ace of the Philadelphia Athletics for more than a decade, Plank helped guide the A’s to five AL pennants and two world championships during his career. The first left-hander to win both 200 and 300 games, Plank also posted an ERA of 3.31 or better in each of his 17 major league seasons, including 14 with a mark of 2.38 or lower. Remarkably, Plank never won an ERA title and never led the league in strikeouts. But, he still ranks fifth on the all-time leaderboard (and first among lefties) with 69 career shutouts.

(Photo courtesy of National Baseball Hall of Fame Web site, baseballhall.org)

18. Phil Niekro

Milwaukee Braves, 1964-65; Atlanta Braves, 1966-83, ’87; New York Yankees, 1984-85; Cleveland Indians, 1986-87; Toronto Blue Jays, 1987
5-time All-Star
5-time Gold Glove recipient
Key stats: 318-274, 3.35 ERA, 245 CG, 45 SHO, 3,342 K, 96.6 WAR
Baseball Hall of Fame, Class of 1997

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Inarguably the greatest knuckleballer of all-time, Niekro put together a Hall of Fame career over the course of 24 big league seasons. A model of consistency, Niekro started 30 or more games every season between 1968-80, and led the National League in innings pitched four times over that span. He also accumulated 207 of his 245 career complete games during those seasons. Far from just an innings eater, Niekro won the 1967 NL ERA title with a 1.87 mark and led the NL with 262 strikeouts in 1977.

17. Bert Blyleven

Minnesota Twins, 1970-76, ’85-88; Texas Rangers, 1976-77; Pittsburgh Pirates, 1978-80; Cleveland Indians, 1981-85; California Angels, 1989-92
2-time All-Star
1979 (Pirates), ’87 (Twins) World Series Champion
Key stats: 287-250, 3.31 ERA, 242 CG, 60 SHO, 3,701 K, 95.3 WAR
Baseball Hall of Fame, Class of 2011

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Bert Blyleven could make a case as one of the most underappreciated pitchers of all-time. A two-time All-Star in 22 seasons, Blyleven never led his league in ERA and only once earned the strikeout crown. However, he ranks 38th all-time with a 95.3 career WAR, and sits 11th on the career leaderboard with a 96.5 career WAR for pitchers. Thanks in large part to a devastating curveball, Blyleven also ranks among the top 10 pitchers all-time with 60 career shutouts and is fifth all-time with 3,701 strikeouts.

(Photo courtesy of National Baseball Hall of Fame Web site, baseballhall.org)

16. Gaylord Perry

San Francisco Giants, 1962-71; Cleveland Indians, 1972-75; Texas Rangers, 1975-77, ‘80; San Diego Padres, 1978-79; New York Yankees, 1980; Atlanta Braves, 1981; Seattle Mariners, 1982-83; Kansas City Royals, 1983
5-time All-Star
1972, ‘78 Cy Young Award
Key stats: 314-265, 3.11 ERA, 303 CG, 53 SHO, 3,534 K, 91.0 WAR
Baseball Hall of Fame, Class of 1991

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Though he is perhaps more notoriously famous for throwing an illegal spitball, Perry was the first pitcher to win the Cy Young Award in both the National and American League. Perry’s first trophy came with the Cleveland Indians in 1972, following a 24-16 campaign in which he posted a 1.92 ERA across 342.2 innings.

In 1978, when he was 39 years old, Perry won the NL Cy Young with the San Diego Padres. Perry led the league with 21 wins – his third time leading his league in victories and the fifth 20-win season of his career – and posted a 2.73 ERA. Though he never led his league in strikeouts, Perry ranks eighth on the all-time leaderboard with 3,534 Ks.

15. Bob Gibson

St. Louis Cardinals, 1959-75
9-time All-Star
1964, ‘67 World Series Champion
1968, ‘70 Cy Young Award
1968 NL MVP
1964, ’67 World Series MVP
Key stats: 251-174, 2.91 ERA, 255 CG, 56 SHO, 3,117 K, 89.9 WAR
Baseball Hall of Fame, Class of 1981

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It’s unusual for a pitcher to be so dominant that he impacts the rules of the game, but it’s clear Gibson played a role when MLB lowered the pitching mound prior to the 1969 season. In 1968 – often designated as the “Year of the Pitcher” – Gibson put together a historic season. On the strength of 13 shutouts in 34 starts and a NL-best 268 strikeouts, Gibson set a modern record with a 1.12 ERA. He posted a 22-9 record and also led the NL in ERA+ (258), FIP (1.77), WHIP (0.853) and hits allowed per nine innings (5.8).

The performance earned Gibson NL MVP honors and the first of his two Cy Young Awards. Of course, those numbers don’t take Gibson’s World Series statistics into account, which included 17 strikeouts in Game 1 – though Gibson wasn’t able to earn his third world championship ring, or his third World Series MVP Award, as the Cardinals fell to the Tigers in seven games.

14. Warren Spahn

Boston Braves, 1942, ‘46-52; Milwaukee Braves, 1953-64; New York Mets, 1965; San Francisco Giants, 1965
17-time All-Star
1957 World Series Champion (Braves)
1957 Cy Young Award
Key stats: 363-245, 3.09 ERA, 382 CG, 63 SHO, 2,583 K, 92.6 WAR
Baseball Hall of Fame, Class of 1973

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Spahn made his Major League debut as a 21-year-old in 1942, but as a result of his military service from ‘43-45, didn’t play a full big league season until the age of 25. However, it didn’t take long before Spahn established himself as one of the top pitchers in the National League. After a modest 1946 campaign, Spahn led the majors with a 2.33 ERA in ‘47 and earned votes in the NL MVP race for the first of eight consecutive seasons. In 1956, the first year of the Cy Young Award (which was given out to the best pitcher in all of baseball before being divided in league-specific awards in 1967), Spahn finished third in the voting. Spahn won the award in 1957 and finished as the runner-up in ‘58, ’60 and ’61.

One piece of trivia helps to explain Spahn’s place on this list: he won the NL ERA title three times over the course of his 21-year career. Remarkably, each time came in a different decade. It’s hard to find a better example of the high-level consistency Spahn produced.

Spahn also threw 63 career shutouts, which ranks sixth all-time. His 363 career wins is more than anyone in the live-ball era.

13. Lefty Grove

Philadelphia Athletics, 1925-33; Boston Red Sox, 1934-41
6-time All-Star
1929, ‘30 World Series Champion (A’s)
1931 AL MVP Award
Key stats: 300-141, 3.06 ERA, 298 CG, 35 SHO, 2,266 K, 103.6 WAR
Baseball Hall of Fame, Class of 1947

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Few left-handed pitchers in baseball history were as dominant as Grove. As a young star with the Philadelphia Athletics, Grove led the American League in strikeouts in each of his first seven big league seasons, and won five ERA titles in his first eight years with the club. He would win four more ERA crowns with the Boston Red Sox, and still ranks among the top five pitchers ever in ERA+ (148).

In 1931, arguably Grove’s greatest individual season, the Hall of Famer went 31-4 with a career-best 2.06 ERA to earn AL MVP honors. He won the pitching Triple Crown for the second time, and also led the A’s to the World Series for the third consecutive season. However, the team fell short of a third straight world championship despite Grove’s 2-1 record and 2.42 ERA in 26 innings against the Cardinals.

12. Steve Carlton

St. Louis Cardinals, 1965-71; Philadelphia Phillies, 1972-86; San Francisco Giants, 1986; Chicago White Sox, 1986; Cleveland Indians, 1987; Minnesota Twins, 1987-88
10-time All-Star
1967 (Cardinals), ’80 (Phillies) World Series Champion
1972, ’77, ’80, ‘82 NL Cy Young Award
Key stats: 329-244, 3.22 ERA, 254 CG, 55 SHO, 4,136 K, 90.4 WAR
Baseball Hall of Fame, Class of 1994

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Carlton became the first pitcher ever to win four Cy Young Awards. A lefty with an un-hittable slider, Carlton ranks fourth all-time with 4,136 strikeouts.

Following three All-Star selections in seven seasons with the Cardinals, Carlton was traded to Philadelphia, where he blossomed. In his first season with the Phillies, Carlton posted a 12.0 WAR, which ranks 29th on the single-season leaderboard and second among pitchers since 1920 (only Dwight Gooden’s 12.2 performance in 1985 was better). “Lefty” was 27-10 that season with a league-leading 1.97 ERA. He also led the league in strikeouts (310), ERA+ (182), FIP (2.01), starts (41), complete games (30) and innings pitched (346.1). Remarkably, despite Carlton’s historic performance, the Phillies finished 59-97.

Though the ’72 campaign was Carlton’s most impressive individually, he eventually helped guide Philadelphia to six playoff appearances, including two World Series. Carlton was 2-0 with a 2.40 ERA in two starts in the 1980 Fall Classic, which the Phillies won to secure the first world championship in the franchise’s 98-year history.

11. Tom Seaver

New York Mets, 1967-77, ’83; Cincinnati Reds, 1977-82; Chicago White Sox, 1984-86; Boston Red Sox, 1986
13-time All-Star
1969 World Series Champion (Mets)
1969, ’73, ‘75 NL Cy Young Award
1967 NL Rookie of the Year
Key stats: 311-205, 2.86 ERA, 231 CG, 61 SHO, 3,640 K, 106.3 WAR
Baseball Hall of Fame, Class of 1992

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Arguably the most beloved player in New York Mets history, Seaver was the face of the franchise for more than a decade. Seaver was an All-Star in each of his first seven seasons with the club, and won NL Rookie of the Year honors as a 22-year-old in 1967 (and even received MVP votes). In 1969, Seaver finished second in MVP voting and won the first of three Cy Young Awards after leading the “Miracle Mets” to a world championship in just their eighth season.

In 12 seasons in New York, Seaver posted a 198-124 record with a 2.57 ERA in 401 appearances (395 starts). He threw 171 complete games, including 44 shutouts, and struck out 2,541 batters. Seaver led the NL in strikeouts five times, led the league in FIP in four seasons, and paced the senior circuit in ERA, ERA+ and WHIP three times apiece.

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Seaver was traded to Cincinnati in 1977, and though he didn’t have the same magic he used in New York, the right-hander finished in the top three of the Cy Young voting three more times. Overall, Seaver ranks sixth all-time with 3,701 strikeouts and is seventh on the all-time leaderboard with 61 career shutouts. In 1992, he was elected to the Hall of Fame with 98.84 percent of the vote, which stood as a record until 2016 (Ken Griffey Jr., 99.32 percent).

(Photo courtesy of National Baseball Hall of Fame Web site, baseballhall.org)

10. Nolan Ryan

New York Mets, 1966, ’68-71; California Angels, 1972-79; Houston Astros, 1980-88; Texas Rangers, 1989-93
8-time All-Star
1969 World Series Champion (Mets)
Key stats: 324-292, 3.19 ERA, 222 CG, 61 SHO, 5,714 K, 81.8 WAR
Baseball Hall of Fame, Class of 1999

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Nolan Ryan wasn’t the most dominant pitcher in baseball history. After all, he ranks third all-time with 292 career losses and holds the MLB career walks record (2,795) by a huge margin of 952 over second-place Steve Carlton. He ranks 20th in WAR for pitchers (83.9) and posted a modest 3.19 career ERA. He never won a Cy Young Award and was selected as an All-Star only eight times in 27 seasons in the majors. However, Ryan was an incredibly intimidating force thanks to his fearlessness, as well as his blazing fastball – which often proved un-hittable.

Ryan’s seven career no-hitters are the most in MLB history and he is the all-time leader with 5,714 strikeouts – 839 ahead of No. 2 Randy Johnson. He also holds the record with 6.555 hits allowed per nine innings. Ryan averaged 9.54 strikeouts per nine innings, which ranks No. 7 all-time. He also ranks seventh with 61 career shutouts.

Originally a New York Met, Ryan found stardom with the California Angels in 1972 when he posted the first of six 300-strikeout campaigns and won his first of 11 strikeout crowns. Ryan also won National League ERA titles with the Houston Astros in 1981 (1.69) and ‘87 (2.76). The Angels, Astros and Texas Rangers all retired his uniform number.

9. Christy Mathewson

New York Giants, 1900-16; Cincinnati Reds, 1916
1905 World Series Champion (Giants)
Key stats: 373-188, 2.13 ERA, 435 CG, 79 SHO, 2,507 K, 101.7 WAR
Baseball Hall of Fame, Class of 1936

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Though he is certainly a beneficiary of the era in which he played, Mathewson still ranks third all-time in wins (373) and shutouts (79), and remains in the top 10 in FIP (2.26, fifth), WHIP (1.058, No. 7) and ERA (2.13, No. 9). A star during the dead-ball era, Mathewson led the National League in ERA five times, and also posted an ERA under 2.00 five times (each while pitching at least 275 innings). He also led the league in strikeouts five times and won the NL pitching Triple Crown twice.

A brief glance at the 1908 season shows Mathewson’s dominance: As a 27-year-old, the right-hander posted a 37-11 record with a 1.43 ERA in 56 appearances (44 starts), including 34 complete games, 11 shutouts and five saves – all of which led the National League. He struck out an NL-best 259 hitters in a league-high 390.2 innings and also paced the senior circuit in ERA+ (168), FIP (1.29), WHIP (0.827), walks per nine innings (1.0) and strikeouts per walk (6.17).

In a unique piece of baseball trivia, Mathewson pitched all but one of his 636 career games for the New York Giants: at the age of 35, Mathewson was traded to Cincinnati, with whom he made one start – a complete game victory in which he allowed eight earned runs.

Mathewson was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1936 – the very first year of its existence. He and Walter Johnson were the only two pitchers elected that year.

(Photo courtesy of National Baseball Hall of Fame Web site, baseballhall.org)

8. Sandy Koufax

Brooklyn Dodgers, 1955-57; Los Angeles Dodgers, 1958-66
7-time All Star
1959, ’63, ‘65 World Series Champion (Dodgers)
1963, ’65, ’66 NL Cy Young Award
1963 NL MVP
1963, ’65 World Series MVP
Key stats: 165-87, 2.76 ERA, 137 CG, 40 SHO, 2,396 K, 53.2 WAR
Baseball Hall of Fame, Class of 1972

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Believe it or not, Koufax is a controversial figure when it comes to ranking the greatest pitchers of all-time. Like Nolan Ryan, Koufax was often un-hittable. He tossed four career no-nos (the most until Ryan, and still second all-time), and pitched a perfect game in 1965.

Overall, Koufax put together a Hall of Fame career that also included an MVP Award (as well as two runner-up finishes), three Cy Young Awards, three pitching Triple Crowns, three World Series rings, and five ERA titles.

Koufax retired with an average of 9.27 strikeouts per nine innings, which currently ranks 11th all-time. He was the first Hall of Fame pitcher to retire with more strikeouts than innings pitched, and is still one of only four players to do so. Unfortunately, an elbow injury cut his thriving career short at the age of 30.

It’s also worth noting that Koufax was largely mediocre during the first half of his career. He debuted in 1955 as a 19-year-old, and over his first six seasons posted a 36-40 record with a 4.10 ERA in 174 games (103 starts). He struck out 683 hitters in 691.2 innings, but walked 405 over that same span.

But, Koufax hit his stride as a 25-year-old in 1961, when he was named an All-Star for the first time. From that point on, Koufax was dominant: in his final six seasons, the left-hander was 129-47 with a 2.19 ERA in 223 games (211 starts), including 115 complete games and 35 shutouts. He struck out 1,713 hitters in 1,632.2 innings (good for a 26.5 percent strikeout rate), and posted a 0.970 WHIP. He also notched a 46.6 WAR during that span, including a 10.7 mark in 1963 and a 10.3 season in ‘66.

7. Cy Young

Cleveland Spiders, 1890-98; St. Louis Perfectos/Cardinals, 1899-1900; Boston Americans/Red Sox, 1901-08, Cleveland Naps, 1909-11; Boston Rustlers, 1911
1903 World Series Champion (Boston)
Key stats: 511-316, 2.63 ERA, 749 CG, 76 SHO, 2,803 K, 168.5 WAR
Baseball Hall of Fame, Class of 1937

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The name says it all. The most frequently mentioned pitcher on our list of the top 25 starting pitchers of all-time is Cy Young because of the award that bears his name.

Young holds some of baseball’s most unbreakable records with 511 career wins, 316 losses, 815 games started, 749 complete games and 7,356 innings pitched. It’s highly likely that his 170.3 WAR for pitchers also is out of reach. And, Young still holds the big league record with 25.1 consecutive hitless innings, which included the perfect game he threw on May 5, 1904. The perfect game was the first of baseball’s modern era, and just the third in recorded history. It also was one of Young’s three career no-hitters.

Over the course of 22 big league seasons, Young led his league in FIP and WHIP seven times apiece, posted a league-leading ERA twice, led the league in strikeouts twice, and won the American League pitching Triple Crown in 1901 – the first season of the league’s existence. Young also was a member of the first team ever to win a World Series: the 1903 Boston Americans. He was 2-1 with a 1.85 ERA in four games (three starts) in the 5-3 series victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Young was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1937 (the second year of its existence), and was just the third pitcher enshrined in Cooperstown.

6. Pete Alexander

Philadelphia Phillies, 1911-17, 1930; Chicago Cubs, 1918-26; St. Louis Cardinals, 1926-29
1926 World Series Champion (Cardinals)
Key stats: 373-208, 2.56 ERA, 436 CG, 90 SHO, 2,198 K, 120.0 WAR
Baseball Hall of Fame, Class of 1938

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Grover Cleveland Alexander had one of the best rookie seasons in baseball history. As a 24-year-old in 1911, Alexander led the big leagues with 28 wins and seven shutouts, and led the National League with 7.0 hits allowed per nine innings, 31 complete games and 367 innings. He posted a 2.57 ERA, struck out 227 hitters and finished third in the NL MVP vote.

That strong start paved the way for what would be one of the best careers in baseball history. Alexander was the NL’s most dependable starter for more than a decade, leading the league in innings pitched in seven of his first 10 seasons. Over that period, Alexander was 235-114 with a 2.06 ERA in 408 games (347 starts), including 275 complete games and 77 shutouts – all of which helped him accumulate an 81.1 WAR across the first decade of his career. He won the NL pitching Triple Crown in 1915, ‘16, ‘17 and ‘20.

Overall, Alexander ranks second all-time with 90 shutouts. He led the NL in wins six times (each with 27 or more, including three 30-win seasons), won five ERA titles – each of which included a mark of 1.91 or better – and led the league in strikeouts on six occasions. Had the Cy Young Award been around at the time, Alexander would have had a strong case in eight separate seasons.

(Photo courtesy of National Baseball Hall of Fame Web site, baseballhall.org)

5. Roger Clemens

Boston Red Sox, 1984-96; Toronto Blue Jays, 1997-98; New York Yankees, 1999-2003, ’07; Houston Astros, 2004-06
11-time All-Star
1999, 2000 World Series Champion (Yankees)
1986, ’87, ’91, ’97, ’98, 2001 AL Cy Young Award; 2004 NL Cy Young Award
1986 AL MVP
Key stats: 354-184, 3.12 ERA, 118 CG, 46 SHO, 4,672 K, 140.3 WAR

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Love him or hate him, Clemens was one of the best pitchers to ever climb atop a major league mound. Clemens’ associated history with steroids makes him a controversial figure in the debate surrounding his place on all-time lists, as well as Cooperstown. Nevertheless, the numbers aren’t debatable.

Clemens was a dominant force over the course of a 24-year career that spanned parts of three decades. He was the 1986 AL MVP and Cy Young Award winner with the Boston Red Sox, and helped guide the franchise within inches of a world championship. That year, Clemens was 24-4 with an AL-best 2.48 ERA, 169 ERA+, 2.81 FIP, 0.969 WHIP and 6.3 hits allowed per nine innings. He also struck out a record 20 hitters in one game.

“The Rocket” repeated as AL Cy Young Award winner in 1987 and picked up his third trophy in ‘91. Clemens’ 13-year stint in Boston came to a close following the 1996 campaign, the last four of which were less than dominant by Clemens’ standards. However, Clemens quickly re-established himself as the top pitcher in the American League with back-to-back Triple Crown and Cy Young Award-winning seasons with the Toronto Blue Jays – making him the first pitcher ever to win the award five times. He added one with the New York Yankees in 2001 and another with the Houston Astros in ‘04 to push that record to its current total of seven.

Clemens’ playing career came to a close in 2007 at the age of 44. By that time, he amassed 4,672 strikeouts and a 139.4 WAR for pitchers, both of which rank third all-time. Clemens ranks ninth with 354 wins, and also sits among the top 30 pitchers all-time with 46 shutouts and 8.55 strikeouts per nine innings.

4. Randy Johnson

Montreal Expos, 1988-89; Seattle Mariners, 1989-98; Houston Astros, 1998; Arizona Diamondbacks, 1999-2004, 2007-08; New York Yankees, 2005-06; San Francisco Giants, 2009
10-time All-Star
2001 World Series Champion (Diamondbacks)
1995 AL Cy Young Award; 1999, 2000, ’01, ’02 NL Cy Young Award
2001 World Series MVP
Key stats: 303-166, 3.29 ERA, 100 CG, 37 SHO, 4,875 K, 102.1 WAR
Baseball Hall of Fame, Class of 2015

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Johnson didn’t make his big league debut until the age of 24, and didn’t establish himself as a consistent major league starter until the Montreal Expos traded him to Seattle in 1989, when he was 25. Though Johnson led the American League in walks in each year from 1990-92, the M’s saw the promise in the 6-foot-10 fireballer. That confidence paid off as Johnson established himself as the best left-handed pitcher in baseball. He dominated hitters with a 100MPH fastball and devastating slider, emerged as a Cy Young candidate in 1993, and picked up the first of his eventual five awards in ‘95.

Johnson’s four other Cy Young trophies came as a member of the Arizona Diamondbacks in a historic four-year stretch from 1999-2002. Over that time, “The Big Unit” posted an 81-27 record with a 2.48 ERA, 1,417 strikeouts in 1,030 innings and an amazing 34.5 percent strikeout rate. Johnson led the NL in Ks each of those four seasons with 364, 347, 372 and 334, respectively. He won three ERA titles, led the NL in ERA+ in each season, and won the 2002 pitching Triple Crown. Oh, and the big lefty was 3-0 with a 1.04 ERA in the 2001 Fall Classic, earning World Series MVP honors for the world champion D-Backs. In 2004, Johnson tossed a perfect game, which was his second career no-hitter.

Overall, Johnson racked up 4,875 career strikeouts, which ranks second all-time and first among lefties. He also holds record with 10.6 strikeouts per nine innings. Furthermore, Johnson tossed 100 career complete games, 37 of which were shutouts, which showed tremendous endurance for the era in which he pitched.

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3. Greg Maddux

Chicago Cubs, 1986-92, 2004-06; Atlanta Braves, 1993-2003; Los Angeles Dodgers, 2006, ’08; San Diego Padres, 2007-08
8-time All-Star
18-time Gold Glove recipient
1995 World Series Champion (Braves)
1992, ’93, ’94, ’95 NL Cy Young Award
Key stats: 355-227, 3.16 ERA, 109 CG, 35 SHO, 3,371 K, 106.9 WAR
Baseball Hall of Fame, Class of 2014

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It’s hard to believe given the steroid-induced home run craziness of the time, but the 1990s and early 2000s were one of baseball’s golden eras in terms of dominant starting pitching. Roger Clemens, Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson blew hitters away with electric fastballs and nasty sliders, while Maddux relied on pinpoint control and relatively slower stuff that was every bit as nasty.

Though he never fit the traditional mold of a flamethrower, and never led his league in strikeouts, Maddux climbed all the way to 10th on the all-time list with 3,371 Ks. Incredibly consistent, Maddux made 33 or more starts 19 times in 23 years and set a record with 15 or more wins in 17 straight seasons. He won four ERA titles, led the NL in ERA+ five times, and paced the senior circuit in FIP and WHIP four times apiece. Maddux ranks eighth all-time with 355 wins – more than anyone that pitched after 1965 – and also sits No. 8 on the all-time WAR list for pitchers (104.6).

Furthermore, Maddux became the first pitcher in MLB history to win four consecutive Cy Young Awards, which he accomplished from 1992-95. Over that stretch, Maddux posted a 75-29 record with a 1.98 ERA, 2.54 FIP and 202 ERA+ in 946.2 innings across 124 starts.

In addition to his elite pitching performance, Maddux also was one of the greatest at defending his position on the mound. He won 18 Gold Gloves, which is not only the most among pitchers, but also is the most for any player.

2. Pedro Martinez

Los Angeles Dodgers, 1992-93; Montreal Expos, 1994-97; Boston Red Sox, 1998-2004; New York Mets, 2005-08; Philadelphia Phillies, 2009
8-time All-Star
2004 World Series Champion (Red Sox)
1997 NL Cy Young Award; 1999, 2000 AL Cy Young Award
Key stats: 219-100, 2.93 ERA, 3,154 K, 1.054 WHIP, 84.0 WAR
Baseball Hall of Fame, Class of 2015

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Martinez doesn’t have the raw numbers of some of the greatest pitchers of all-time. His 86.0 WAR for pitchers ranks just 17th, and his 219 wins are the fewest on our list, excluding the still active Clayton Kershaw. Martinez also ranks just 13th all-time with 3,154 strikeouts – which is surely impressive, but well behind those atop the leaderboard. He does rank fourth all-time in strikeouts per nine innings (10.03) and is sixth in WHIP (1.054) – both neither of those categories truly explain how great Martinez truly was.

Martinez comes in No. 2 on our list as a result his standing in several non-traditional metrics. For example, he sits third all-time in ERA+ (154), Base-Out Runs Saved (539.89) and Situational Wins Saved (52.9). Martinez ranks fifth in Base-Out Wins Saved (56.5), seventh in Win Probability Added (53.7) and ninth in both Adjusted Pitching Runs (485) and Adjusted Pitching Wins.

He also put together arguably the most dominant seven-year stretch in baseball history. Martinez won the National League Cy Young Award with the Montreal Expos in 1997, then signed with the Boston Red Sox as a free agent prior to the ‘98 season. Despite pitching in the American League in the height of the steroid era, Martinez dominated hitters to the tune of a 101-28 record, with a 2.26 ERA, 2.24 FIP, 0.942 WHIP and 1,456 strikeouts in 1,166.2 innings, as well as a 31.7 percent strikeout rate across his first six years in Boston.

According to research done by Neil Paine and Jay Boice of FiveThirtyEight, Pedro posted the top three Pitcher Score seasons of all-time from 1998-2000 and every season he pitched from 1997-2003 ranks among the top 28 in history.

Simply put, there is a case to be made that no pitcher in MLB history had a better, more dominant prime than Pedro Martinez.

(Photo courtesy of Getty Images)

1. Walter Johnson

Washington Senators, 1907-27
1924 World Series Champion
1913, ’24 AL MVP
Key stats: 417-279, 2.17 ERA, 531 CG, 110 SHO, 3,509 K, 152.3 WAR
Baseball Hall of Fame, Class of 1936

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As we’ve seen already, there are many great pitchers that have a strong case to be named the greatest in baseball history. Any player ranked No. 1 on our list would be far from unanimous, but given his elite performance for more than two decades, including career and single-season statistics, awards, and what he meant to the franchise for which he played, our pick is Walter Johnson.

Johnson debuted with the Washington Senators in 1907 at the age of 19. He quickly established himself as an ace, and by his early 20s had become the best pitcher in the American League. In 1910, Johnson led the league with a 1.39 FIP and posted a sterling 1.36 ERA despite leading the AL in games (45), starts (42), complete games (38), and innings (370). Johnson also earned the AL strikeout crown – the first of 12 throughout his career – with a career-high 313 Ks.

In 1913, Johnson earned his first MVP Award. The hard-throwing right-hander set career bests with 36 wins, a 1.14 ERA and 0.780 WHIP, and picked up the first of three AL Triple Crowns by also leading the league with 243 strikeouts.

While the 1913 campaign was arguably his greatest in terms of individual results, Johnson’s most extraordinary feat came in 1924. At the age of 36, Johnson went 23-7 with a 2.72 ERA and 158 strikeouts to earn the Triple Crown and AL MVP Award, but most importantly, he led the Washington Senators to the American League pennant. After losing his first two starts of the series, Johnson pitched four scoreless innings of relief against the New York Giants in the deciding Game 7 – and picked up the win as Washington won its only World Series title.

Overall, Johnson tossed a record 110 shutouts - 20 more than No. 2 Pete Alexander. “The Big Train” also ranks second in WAR for pitchers (152.3) and wins (417), and he sits No. 6 on the career leaderboard in ERA+ (147). Johnson led the AL in ERA five times, paced the league in FIP nine times and topped the leaderboard in WHIP on six occasions. He retired in 1927 following 21 seasons with the Senators with a record 3,509 strikeouts, which still ranks ninth all-time.