While pretty much everyone loves watching home runs be smacked out of ballparks by big hitters, there’s something awe-inspiring about a pitcher who can dominate a game on his own. There’s perhaps no other position in professional sports that allows the kind of individual control over a game’s pacing, intensity and final score as that of the pitcher.
In its 150 years of existence, Major League Baseball has seen thousands of men stand on the mound and try to keep the world’s best hitters in check — some with more success than others. We’ve rounded up the players we think have been the best pitchers in MLB history, using stats like earned run average (ERA), walks plus hits per inning pitched (WHIP), wins above replacement (WAR) and winning percentage in games where they earned a decision. All our stats came from Baseball-Reference.com.
Obviously, it’s tough to compare pitchers across the many eras the game has seen, but greatness is easy to spot no matter how far back you go. We’ve got guys from the 1880s all the way through today on this best pitcher list. Did your favorite pitcher make the cut?
#25 — Warren Spahn (1942-1965)
Killer Stat: 363 Career Wins
Braves legend Warren Spahn is the lefty by which all other left-handed pitchers are measured. I mean that literally, because the Warren Spahn Award is given to the game’s best southpaw pitcher every season.
Spahn put together 13 different 20-win seasons in his lengthy career, finishing with more wins than any other pitcher to have debuted since 1920. He led the National League in complete games a record nine times, led it in ERA three times, won a Cy Young Award, a World Series and was a 17-time All-Star. Spahn also boasted a career WAR mark of 99.7, meaning he personally contributed nearly 100 wins to his team, versus what a replacement player would have, showing how truly invaluable he was.
#24 — John Clarkson (1882-1894)
Killer Stat: 53 Wins in 1885 Season
John Clarkson’s whole look just screams old-time baseball, which makes sense considering he played a full career and still retired before 1900.
The way pitchers were used was far different back then — Clarkson won more games in a single season than starters today would even play in during a season — but his numbers were undeniably dominant. Clarkson was a winning machine, racking up 328 wins in just 12 seasons, which ties him for the fastest pace to top 300 victories, and winning about 65 percent of the games where he got a decision. He held down a career ERA of 2.81 and his WAR figure is ranked 18th among all pitchers.
#23 — Carl Hubbell (1928-1943)
Killer Stat: .622 Win-Loss Percentage
Screwball pitcher Carl Hubbell became legendary at the 1934 MLB All-Star Game — when he struck out five consecutive future Hall of Famers, including Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx — but he was one of the game’s best even without that feat.
Hubbell spent his entire 15-year career with the then-New York Giants, helping the team win a World Series in 1933, which was also one of two seasons in which he was named National League MVP. He held down an ERA of 2.98 and a 1.166 WHIP for his career and finished with the 30th-best WAR mark among all pitchers in baseball history at 68.3.
#22 — Max Scherzer (2008-Present)
Killer Stat: 1.097 Career WHIP
One of the most feared pitchers in the game today, Max Scherzer’s uncanny ability to strike batters out has put him in elite company. He’s only the fourth pitcher in MLB history to record at least 200 strikeouts in seven consecutive seasons, and his three Cy Young awards show how his skills haven’t gone unnoticed.
While Scherzer’s career ERA of 3.21 doesn’t rank him near the top, his career WHIP of 1.097 is 22nd all time and his rate of strikeouts per nine innings pitched is fourth best in baseball history. Washington Nationals fans are probably most thrilled with the fact that Scherzer has won more than 65 percent of all the games in which he’s gotten a decision.
#21 — Bob Gibson (1959-1975)
Killer Stat: 89.1 Career WAR
St. Louis Cardinals icon Bob Gibson was a beast in his day, winning two Cy Young Awards and being named league MVP once for his heroics on the mound.
His career 2.91 ERA and 1.188 WHIP are stout enough, but when you look at his 89.1 career WAR figure, which is the 25th best mark among all pitchers, you see how irreplaceable he was. Gibson helped the Cardinals win two World Series titles in the 1960s and was named MVP of both series. On top of that, Gibson’s nine career Gold Glove awards show he was one of the best defensive pitchers ever.
#20 — Jim Palmer (1965-1984)
Killer Stat: Pitched a World Series shutout at 20 years old
In 19 years of MLB pitching service, all with the Baltimore Orioles, Jim Palmer never gave up a grand slam. That’s impressive, but it’s his staggering career numbers that make him an all-time great pitcher.
He was totally dominant in the 1970s, winning three Cy Young Awards in that decade to go along with the three World Series titles to which he helped lead the Orioles. When he called it a career at nearly 40 years old, Palmer had put together a career ERA of 2.86 and a WAR figure of 68.4.
#19 — Tim Keefe (1880-1893)
Killer Stat: 0.86 ERA in 1880
The oldest player on the list, Tim Keefe pitched for several ball clubs in the late 1880s, notably the New York Giants and Philadelphia Phillies, dominating at every stop. Keefe was only the second player ever to amass 300 career wins, finishing with 342, and leading the National League in ERA in three different seasons.
His most impressive year came in his rookie season of 1880, when he kept a 0.86 ERA, which is still the lowest for any season in baseball history and likely will remain so. Keefe also earned the pitching Triple Crown in 1888, leading the league in wins, strikeouts and ERA that season.
His mustache, meanwhile, rivals that of Rollie Fingers for all-time tops.
#18 — Eddie Plank (1901-1917)
Killer Stat: 66 Career Shutouts
One of the game’s first shut-down lefties, Eddie Plank helped the Philadelphia Athletics win three World Series in the 1910s.
The team played in five World Series during his career, and he put together an astonishing 1.32 ERA in his games in the Fall Classic, which is more than a full run less than his impressive career ERA of 2.35. Plank’s 66 career shutouts are the most for any left-handed pitcher in MLB history, and his win total of 326 ranks 13th among all pitchers.
#17 — Roger Clemens (1984-2007)
Killer Stat: Seven Cy Young Awards
If it wasn’t for the shadow of alleged steroid use hanging over the career of Roger Clemens, he’d have a legitimate shot at being considered the best pitcher in baseball history.
Clemens won a record seven Cy Young Awards and earned the pitching Triple Crown in back-to-back seasons in 1997 and 1998. He also ended his career with a 139.2 career WAR, which is insane and counts for by far the best such mark by any pitcher since 1927. The Rocket won nearly 66 percent of the games in which he earned a decision and was a beast in the playoffs, earning the fifth most career playoff wins ever and winning two World Series.
#16 — Randy Johnson (1988-2009)
Killer Stat: 10.6 Strikeouts Per Nine Innings Pitched
Towering at 6 feet 10 inches tall, The Big Unit struck fear into the hearts of all the batters who faced him during his 22-season career. That height undoubtedly helped him rack up more than 10.6 strikeouts per nine innings pitched, the second-best career mark ever in that category.
Johnson won five Cy Young Awards and a Triple Crown during his outstanding career. His career WAR of 101.1 is also good enough for ninth all-time among pitchers. Johnson’s power was on full display during the 2001 MLB Playoffs, when he won five games en route to the Arizona Diamondbacks winning a World Series, the most wins during any single postseason campaign for a starting pitcher in history.
#15 — Trevor Hoffman (1993-2010)
Killer Stat: 601 Career Saves
One of the few relief pitchers to make our list, Trevor Hoffman was a bullpen stud for 18 seasons, especially during his long stretch with the San Diego Padres. He was the first pitcher to ever reach 600 career saves and currently sits at second all-time in that stat category.
Hoffman’s career WHIP of 1.058 is good enough for ninth in baseball history, and he ranks seventh all-time for hits allowed per nine innings pitched. Unfortunately for Hoffman, he never got to make a mark on the game’s biggest stage, only getting to pitch 13 total innings in the postseason over his entire career.
#14 — Chris Sale (2010-Present)
Killer Stat: 10.8 Strikeouts Per Nine Innings Pitched
It’s a crime that Red Sox ace Chris Sale has yet to win a Cy Young Award, given the insane numbers he’s put up in his career so far. He was the fastest pitcher ever to reach 1,500 career strikeouts, and his career mark of 10.8 strikeouts per nine innings pitched is the best in MLB history. Sale’s career WHIP of 1.032 is also fifth best all time, which puts him on a path straight to Cooperstown whenever he retires from baseball.
#13 — Lefty Grove (1925-1941)
Killer Stat: Nine-Time American League ERA Leader
Like Sale, Robert “Lefty” Grove was a dominant left-handed pitcher who spent some years racking up wins with the Boston Red Sox. Grove led the AL in ERA a record nine times, which is more than half of the total seasons he played, and twice earned the Triple Crown. Grove finished his career with an ERA of 3.06 and a WAR of 107.0, which is the sixth best in history for pitchers. Grove’s win-loss percentage of .680 also puts him in the top 10.
#12 — Greg Maddux (1986-2008)
Killer Stat: 15+ Wins in 17 Straight Seasons
Arguably the greatest pitcher of the 1990s, Greg Maddux spent most of his career with the Atlanta Braves, with whom he won a World Series in 1995. He had a string of dominant seasons that was nearly unheard of, becoming the first pitcher in baseball history to win four consecutive Cy Young Awards.
Maddux was a master at keeping the ball low, leading the league in home runs allowed per nine innings pitched in four different seasons, which is a record. He also ranks eighth all-time in wins and WAR and his 18 career Gold Gloves is the most for anyone at any position.
#11 — Hoyt Wilhelm (1952-1972)
Killer Stat: 2.52 Career ERA
Runs were always at a premium for opposing teams when Hoyt Wilhelm was on the mound. When he retired after a career that included work as a starter and reliever, Wilhelm had the lowest career ERA of any pitcher to play since 1920. That 2.52 ERA now sits as the third best since 1920, but the fact that he did it over the course of 20 seasons is unmatched.
Wilhelm was also a key member of the 1954 World Series-winning New York Giants. He always kept batters locked up, sitting at ninth all-time in hits allowed per nine innings pitched.
#10 — Cy Young (1890-1911)
Killer Stat: 163.6 Career WAR
What Babe Ruth was to hitting, Cy Young was to pitching — and it makes sense when you look at his staggering career numbers. His 511 career wins are nearly 100 more than the guy in second place, and his record number of innings pitched is more than 1,300 more than the next pitcher.
Longevity is one thing, but his career 2.63 ERA shows he earned those extra hours on the mound. Young also won nearly 62 percent of his decisions, but the most astounding stat associated with him is his 163.6 career WAR, which is second among all pitchers, meaning he contributed more than an entire season of wins for his team by himself.
#9 — Mordecai Brown (1903-1916)
Killer Stat: 2.06 Career ERA
Nicknamed “Three Finger” after he lost parts of two fingers on his throwing hand as a kid, Mordecai Brown used that injury to his advantage by using his unique grip to throw wicked breaking balls. Brown won two World Series with the Chicago Cubs in the early 1900s and put together a dominant career on the mound.
His career ERA of 2.06 is the third best ever, and his WHIP of 1.066 is 11th best. It’s also difficult to argue with a pitcher who won nearly 65 percent of all games in which he earned a decision.
#8 — Sandy Koufax (1955-1966)
Killer Stat: 0.95 Career ERA in World Series
If his career hadn’t been cut terribly short by arthritis, Sandy Koufax would legitimately make a case as the greatest pitcher in baseball history. He easily lands in the top 10, however, because his output during the 12 seasons he played, all with the Dodgers, was unmatched. Koufax won three Cy Young Awards at a time when there was only one given out each year, earned the Triple Crown three times and won the World Series three times as well.
His career ERA of 2.76 is nothing to overlook but in the playoffs, he was downright unbeatable, posting the sixth best playoff ERA ever and the best World Series ERA of anyone with at least 50 innings pitched in the Fall Classic.
#7 — Grover Cleveland Alexander (1911-1930)
Killer Stat: 90 Career Shutouts
Total domination is a good way to describe the way Grover Cleveland Alexander pitched in his MLB career, which included a World Series win with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1926. Alexander, who went by Pete, posted 90 complete game shutouts, which is the most in National League history and second most in MLB history.
He was a complete workhorse, leading the league in innings pitched for seven different seasons, which is the most times anyone has ever done that. He was also a three-time Triple Crown winner and led the NL in strikeouts six times, showing how brutal his stuff was. You don’t get a 2.56 career ERA and 118.9 career WAR by being average.
#6 — Tom Seaver (1967-1986)
Killer Stat: 1.121 Career WHIP
When Tom Seaver was up for Hall-of-Fame consideration in 1992, he earned 98.8 percent of the vote, which was the highest percentage of votes ever recorded at that time, showing how special his career truly was.
He won three Cy Young Awards and posted a career WHIP that is actually better than the one posted by Cy Young himself. Seaver won a World Series with the New York Mets in 1969 and was extremely popular with fans, earning 12 All-Star Game appearances. Seaver also ranks in the top 20 for career wins and the top 10 for pitching WAR, and he has the seventh most shutouts in history. In fact, his 61 shutouts are tied with Nolan Ryan, but Seaver took seven fewer seasons to get there.
#5 — Pedro Martínez (1992-2009)
Killer Stat: .687 Career Win-Loss Percentage
About as guaranteed a winner as there’s been in modern baseball, Pedro Martínez won nearly 69 percent of his career decisions, which is the seventh-best figure ever. Martínez also won three Cy Young Awards, including pulling off the rare feat of winning that trophy in both leagues.
He also ranks in the top seven all-time for career WHIP (1.054) and strikeouts per nine innings pitched (10.0398). He’s also, so far, the only pitcher to record 3,000 strikeouts in fewer than 3,000 innings pitched. When Martínez officially became a legend was during the 1999 playoffs with the Boston Red Sox, when he put up a 0.0 ERA in 17 innings pitched.
#4 — Clayton Kershaw (2008-Present)
Killer Stat: 1.005 Career WHIP
Barring some kind of drastic issue that causes Clayton Kershaw to suddenly forget how to pitch, the Los Angeles Dodgers ace is already on his way to having arguably the best pitching career in MLB history. About the only thing he’s missing is a dominant postseason run that ends with a World Series victory, because his career stats are the stuff any pitcher would kill for.
He’s already won three Cy Young Awards and has led the National League in ERA five times. He ranks in the top five all time in career WHIP (1.005), win-loss percentage (.689) and hits per nine innings pitched (6.7403). Oh, and his 2.39 career ERA is the best among all starting pitchers in the last century.
#3 — Mariano Rivera (1995-2013)
Killer Stat: 2.21 Career ERA
Unquestionably the most dominant relief pitcher in baseball history, Mariano Rivera was also probably the best pitcher of the modern era. No pitcher in nearly a century has posted a better career ERA than Rivera’s 2.21, and his career WHIP of 1.000 is good enough for third best in baseball history. Rivera was a total monster in the playoffs, though, and was a huge reason why the New York Yankees won five World Series during his time there.
He’s got the best career playoff ERA in history, at 0.070 over 141 innings pitched, and his playoff WHIP is the best of anyone with at least 100 innings pitched in the postseason. Rivera’s 652 career saves are the most ever and, in 2019, he became the first player in baseball history to be elected to the Hall of Fame with 100 percent of the vote.
#2 — Walter Johnson (1907-1927)
Killer Stat: 164.3 Career WAR
For the 20 years he spent pitching for the Washington Senators, Walter Johnson was simply untouchable. He torched the pitching record books during his career and put up numbers that still hold up against today’s best arms.
Johnson put up 10 consecutive seasons of 20+ wins and racked up 110 career shutouts, which is by far the most in history. He also posted a 2.17 career ERA, which is the best of anyone who played at least 20 seasons in the big leagues, and a 1.061 career WHIP, which is mind-blowing for a starter. Johnson’s 164.3 career WAR is the best of any pitcher ever and is second only to Babe Ruth among all baseball players.
#1 — Christy Mathewson (1900-1916)
Killer Stat: 2.12 Career ERA
A charter member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, Christy Mathewson’s legacy of pitching dominance is something all others have been chasing since he retired, which was more than 100 years ago. The New York Giants legend put up numbers that top even Walter Johnson’s and include pure dominance in the postseason.
Over 16 seasons, Mathewson put up a 2.12 ERA, 1.058 WHIP and .665 win-loss percentage, while earning the third-most wins in history with 373. He ruled in the playoffs, finishing his career with a 0.97 ERA in 101.2 innings pitched during the postseason, including a 0.0 ERA during 27 innings in the 1905 playoffs.