There have been countless great pitchers in the 100-plus years of Major League Baseball history. The following list counts down the absolute best MLB Pitchers in the modern era only, defined in this case from 1960 and onward. During this period, the game welcomed the four pitchers that sit atop the all-time strikeout list. While some others may force their way on to this list in the future, such as modern-day aces like Clayton Kershaw or Noah Syndergaard, the pitchers on our list have all completed their pitching careers. Along side the 11 starting pitchers with numerous win and strikeout records, the list begins with the most dominant closer in baseball history…
12. Mariano Rivera
Stats: 1,283.2 IP, 82-60, 652 Sv, 2.21 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 8.3 K/9
The greatest closer in the history of the game, Rivera converted 89.07% of his regular season save opportunities (652/732). Among the bevy of records Rivera holds, the 652 saves are the most notorious, all coming with the New York Yankees. Considering the turnover rate amongst closers, the record will likely remain for the foreseeable future. Moreover, Rivera’s 13-consecutive seasons with 30-plus saves will be a difficult task to break. Former Yankees’ manager Joe Torre once said in a Sports Illustrated story, “Let’s face it- the regular season for Mo is great, but that’s the cupcakes and the ice cream. What separates him from everybody else is what he’s done in the postseason.” Rivera, a 13-time All-Star, owns five World Series rings, an 8-1 post-season record with a 0.70 ERA, while converting 42-of-47 save opportunities.
11. Jim Palmer
Stats: 268-152, 2.86 ERA, 1.180 WHIP, 2,212 Ks, 3,948 IP
Much like Rivera, Jim Palmer spent his entire career with one organization, the Baltimore Orioles. Spanning over 19 seasons beginning in 1965, Palmer won 20 or more games in a season eight times, all coming between the 1970 and 1978 seasons. It was in this span where Palmer was rewarded with three Cy Young awards as the league’s best pitcher, and four Gold Glove awards for his outstanding defensive play. Palmer was a force in the post-season, helping Baltimore reach the World Series six times, winning three. His career post-season record finished at 8-3, with a 2.61 ERA and 90 strikeouts over 17 appearances. In 1966, Palmer became the youngest to pitch a shutout in a World Series at 20 years and 11 months old, a record that remains to this day.
10. Curt Schilling
Stats: 216-146, 3.46 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 3,116 Ks, 3,261 IP
Since his retirement, Schilling is mostly only in the news when he says or does something controversial, like posting anti-Muslim memes to his Facebook page. But forget about the fact that he’s might be kind of a jerk in real life, because for 20 years on the mound he was lights out. In a career that spanned five different teams, in both the American and National Leagues, Schilling was a five-time All-Star, finished second Cy Young voting on three different occassions, and oh yeah, won the World Series three times, including being named the MVP of the Fall Classic in 2001 when he won it with Arizona. He led the league in strikeouts in 2001 and 2004 and currently sits 15th on the all-time list of punchouts. Plus who can forget that Bloody Sock from Game 6 of the 2004 ALCS, where the Boston Red Sox erased a 0-3 series deficit against their hated New York rivals to earn a trip to the World Series, where they would finally break an 86-year championship drought.
9. Pedro Martinez
Stats: 219-100, 2.93 ERA, 1.054 WHIP, 3,154 Ks, 2,827.1 IP
In the late 1990’s and in to the early 2000’s, Martinez averaged a 2.20 ERA and over 250 strikeouts per season. Martinez collected three Cy Young awards in his career, one National League award with the Montreal Expos and twice the American League Cy Young with the Boston Red Sox. Pedro is also a member of the rare ‘Pitching Triple Crown’ club, when in 1999 he went 23-4 (most wins), 2.07 ERA (lowest ERA) and 313 Ks (most strikeouts). While he wasn’t technically credited with a perfect game, he did pitch nine perfect innings in a 0-0 ballgame against the San Diego Padres in 1995 before giving up a hit in extra innings. Martinez compiled a 6-4 record in playoffs, sporting a 1.08 WHIP – a stat which he was accustomed to dominating as he led the league in ERA five separate seasons. He helped the lead the Red Sox to their first title in 86 years in 2004, as they finally broke the “Curse of the Bambino.”
8. Nolan Ryan
Stats: 324-292, 3.19 ERA, 1.247 WHIP, 5,714 Ks, 5,386 IP
The longevity of Nolan Ryan’s career has yet to be matched, spanning over 27 seasons in the majors and four different decades. Ryan was renowned for his exceptional arm, regularly clocking in over 100 mph on the radar gun, and retaining a high velocity into the later stages of his career. The most important record he set was for all-time strikeouts, leading the league 11 times for most in a season. Ryan’s career 5,714 Ks leads the next pitcher on the list, Randy Johnson, by over 800; moreover, the closest active pitcher on the list is Andy Pettitte at only 2,448. Ryan threw seven no hitters, more than any other pitcher; however, he also holds another, less illustrious record with 2,795 career walks. Despite his dominance, Ryan never won a Cy Young award.
7. Steve Carlton
Stats: 329-244, 3.22 ERA, 1.247 WHIP, 4,136 Ks, 5,217.2 IP
Carlton had a lengthy MLB career, spanning from 1965-1984 with six different franchises. However, he is most renowned for his time with the Philadelphia Phillies after being acquired from the St. Louis Cardinals, considered one of the best trades in baseball history. During this time, Carlton put up incredible stats and was rewarded with four Cy-Youngs. “Lefty” sits fourth on the all-time strikeout list with 4,136 and is the last National League pitcher to throw more than 300 innings in a season and win more than 25 games, respectively. His 1972 season was arguable the most dominant in history, as he went 27-10, 1.97 ERA, 310 Ks and won the pitching Triple Crown and Cy Young award for his accomplishments.
6. Roger Clemens
Stats: 354-184, 3.12 ERA, 4,672 Ks, 4,916.2 IP
In his 24-year playing career with four different teams, Clemens was one of the most dominating forces to take the mound. “The Rocket” sits third on the all-time strikeout list with 4,732, and has a career win total nearly double his losses. Clemens was credited with seven Cy Young awards to go along with seven titles for the best ERA in a season. In the 1986 season, he earned the AL MVP award, AL Cy Young award, All-star game MVP and set a record for single-game strikeouts with 20. This, however, may not have been his most dominant stretch. For the two years he was a member of the Toronto Blue Jays, Clemens won the Pitching Triple Crown and the AL Cy Young in each. However, both of his World Series victories came with the New York Yankees at the turn of the century. Although never convicted, Clemens’ legacy has been slightly tarnished with accusations of using steroids later in his career.
5. Sandy Koufax
Stats: 165-87, 2.76 ERA, 1.106 WHIP, 2,396 Ks, 2,324.1 IP
Koufax is largely considered as the benchmark for pitching excellence. It’s rare to find a pitcher with a more dominant stretch than Koufax had in the mid 1960s. Between 1963 and 1966, Koufax compiled a record of 97-27 to go along with a 1.86 ERA and 1,228 Ks. During this period, he earned three Cy Young awards and was recognized once as the NL MVP. It’s difficult to predict how much longevity of success he would have been able to achieve if his career had not been cut short at the age of 30, when arthritis plagued his left (pitching) arm. Fellow lefty, and current number one pitcher in the game, Clayton Kershaw, has drawn numerous comparisons to Koufax for his dominance in a Los Angeles Dodgers uniform. If Kershaw can continue his reign, and perhaps stay healthy longer than Koufax did, he will likely be considered among the greats to grace the game in the same fashion that Koufax is.
4. Bob Gibson
Stats: 251-174, 2.91 ERA, 1.188 WHIP, 3,117 Ks, 3,884.1 IP
Some of Gibson’s accomplishments include two World Series titles, two Cy Young awards, an NL MVP award, nine times All-Star appearances, and being selected for the Major League Baseball All-Century Team. Considered to have some of the best “pure stuff” of all pitchers in baseball history, Gibson was inducted into Cooperstown (Hall of Fame) on his first ballot in 1981. Gibson’s outstanding 1968 season, where he amassed a 22-9 record, including 13 shutouts, and a 1.12 ERA/0.853 WHIP/268 K stat line, goes down as one of the greatest in history. Much like other pitchers on this list, Gibson’s post-season accomplishments are well documented. In his World Series starts, he went 7-2 with a 1.89 ERA with eight complete games and two shutouts. Bob Gibson is also a member of the illustrious no-hitter’s club.
3. Tom Seaver
Stats: 311-205, 2.86 ERA, 128 ERA+, 1.121 WHIP, 3,640 Ks, 4,783 IP
In 1967, Seaver won the Rookie of the Year award with the New York Mets, with whom he holds the franchise record for most wins. Over a career that span 20 seasons, he won three NL Cy Young awards. Seaver was inducted to Cooperstown in 1992, where he set a record for the highest voting percentage for induction ever at 98.84%. Seaver claimed led the league in wins three times, has three ERA titles, and five strikeout titles throughout his career. He helped the Mets to a World Series Championship in 1969. He is currently the only player to appear in a Mets’ uniform in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
2. Greg Maddux
Stats: 355-227, 3.16 ERA, 1.143 WHIP, 3,371 Ks, 5,008.1 IP
Never a massive strikeout hurler, Greg Maddux relied on his exceptional accuracy to locate pitches on the corners of the strike zone to baffle hitters. For his career, he earned four Cy Young awards consecutively from 1992-95, leading a Atlanta Braves’ staff that had fellow Hall of Famers Tom Glavine and John Smoltz. This was a rotation that helped net the Braves their first World Series title in 1995. This was also a season where Maddux put together one of the greatest by a pitcher to date, recording a 19-2 record, with a 1.62 ERA and 181 K’s. During the 1990s, no other pitcher compiled more wins than Maddux, who sits 8th on the all-time wins list with 355.
1. Randy Johnson
Stats: 303-166, 3.29 ERA, 1.171 WHIP, 4,875 Ks, 4,135.1 IP
Know for his tall and lanky stature and uncanny sidearm pitching delivery, Randy Johnson is often considered the most intimidating chucker to ever hit the mound. Nicknamed “The Big Unit” for his 6’10” frame, Johnson regularly hit 100 mph and beyond with his devastating fastball. The five-time Cy Young award winner led the league in strikeouts nine times, and currently sits second all-time in this category with 4,875, sitting only behind the aforementioned Nolan Ryan. He also pitched two no-hitters and one perfect game en route to joining the 300-win club, finishing with 303. Also of note, the 10-time All-Star won the Triple Crown for pitching in 2002. In addition to his incredible regular season numbers, Johnson was named the post-season MVP in 2001, where he collected his first and only World Series championship.