The greatest generation

The pitchers of the Selig Era were the best in baseball history

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Let’s talk about the greatest era for starting pitchers in baseball history. Well, before we do that, let’s begin with a few things you probably know about the Bud Selig Era, which, for our purposes, we will say was between 1994-2004:

1. More runs were scored in that period than at any time in baseball history. This had a lot to do with expansion – more teams means more runs – but it also was because of a wave of offense not seen in baseball since the 1930s, when there were many fewer teams and a shorter schedule.

2. More home runs were hit during that stretch than at any time in baseball history. Before 1994, there had only been one season – that crazy, juiced-ball season in 1987 – when teams averaged a homer per game. Between 1994-2004, teams averaged at least one homer per game every single season.

3. Before 1994, a total of 18 players had 50-plus homers in a season – that’s in the long history of baseball – and nobody had hit more than 61 in a season. From 1994-2004, another 18 players hit 50-plus homers, and players hit 63, 64, 65, 66, 70 and 73 home runs in single years.

4. For thirty seasons – 1964-93 – the major-league ERA was 3.74. From 1994-2004, the major league ERA was 4.49.

None of this is surprising. You already know that the Selig Era – that turbulent time with labor strife and small strike zones and hitters wearing body armor, that turbulent time without drug testing or humidors or excessive defensive shifts – was famous for offense, for home runs, for unbearably long 11-9 games, usually played in Baltimore. You already know that the most distinctive features of the Selig Era were Barry Bonds home runs that landed in the Bay, and Sammy Sosa kisses to heaven, and Mark McGwire’s titanic batting practice home runs played to enormous crowds. You know the era. Right?

John Gardner, the former Secretary of Health, once said this: “History never looks like history when you are living through it.”

And it turns out the Selig Era was about pitching all along.

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Here’s a funny thing about baseball pitchers: Most people will tell you the truly great ones pitched 100 years ago. This concept would be ridiculous for any other kind of player in any other sport. The greatest NFL quarterback obviously didn’t play 100 years ago – there was no NFL. The greatest NBA point guard obviously didn’t play 100 years ago – there was no NBA.

The 100-meter world record was 10.6; that is now not fast enough to qualify a runner for the U.S. Olympic trials.

The Olympic 100-meter freestyle was 1:00.4. That is now significantly slower than the national record for 11-12 year old girls.

The best college basketball player in America was probably George Levis, a forward who stood less than 6 feet tall and averaged 9 points per game for Wisconsin.

The best college football player was probably Harvard’s Eddie Mahan. He weighed 165 pounds, played halfback, defensive back and kicker (he also played some offensive and defensive line) and as an amateur pitcher, he also once threw a shutout against the Boston Red Sox in an exhibition game.

Point being – it was a different time in sports. The world keeps spinning. Athletes keep getting stronger, faster, taller, bigger.

And yet, if you ask a representative group of baseball fans to name the best pitcher ever, you’re probably going get somebody from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Let’s put it this way: here were the Top 5 pitcher on Baseball Reference’s Elo Rather just two weeks ago (the Elo Rater is a system that allows fans to rank players; it often changes):

1. Walter Johnson

2. Christy Mathewson

3. Lefty Grove

4. Grover Cleveland (Pete) Alexander

5. Cy Young

Of these, only Grove was too young to pitch 100 years ago. He didn’t start his career until 1925.

For his 2001 Baseball Abstract, Bill James ranked the 100 greatest players in baseball history. Here were the Top 5 pitchers:

1. Walter Johnson

2. Satchel Paige

3. Lefty Grove

4. Pete Alexander

5. Cy Young

Satchel Paige began his pitching career around the same time as Lefty Grove.

Why is it like this? In what other category of American life does anyone believe that the very best happened a century or so ago? Music, maybe? Politics? Why have baseball fans so stubbornly clung to this preposterous illusion that pitchers from an era when they made 40 or 50 starts a year, when baseballs were dead, when black players were banned, when hitters swung fat tree branches were the best ever?

There are a couple of obvious answers. One answer is the numbers. Deadball Era pitchers used heavy, muddy, dirty baseballs (balls were not constantly replaced like they are now), and they spit on those balls a lot, and hitters were at a crazy disadvantage. Because of this, pitchers of the time put up numbers that are simply unimaginable now:

— Cy Young won 511 games. That’s lunacy. Nobody’s touching that record.

— Walter Johnson had a sub-2.00 ERA every year from 1910-16 – seven years in a row. And the Big Train AVERAGED 355 innings per year; last year’s league leader, David Price, threw 248 innings.

— Pete Alexander won 30 games in three consecutive seasons; in one of those seasons he had 16 shutouts. Pedro Martinez had seventeen shutouts in his entire career.

And so on. The numbers from that time were so overwhelming that players in the last 100 years cannot compete with them.

But there’s another thing …  nostalgia. Baseball drips with nostalgia; we baseball fans so desperately want the game to be timeless, a game frozen on the space-time continuum so that we can close our eyes and imagine Clayton Kershaw facing the Bambino or Mike Trout hitting against the Big Train. We baseball fans irksomely wax about the enduring magic of 90 feet, the perfect distance between bases, a ground ball to short was an out in 1915, and it’s an out today.

And that’s all well and good, but pitchers were playing a vastly different game 100 years ago in countless ways – conditions, training, instruction, travel, openness to the world – and the wistfulness for those pitchers and their unmatchable numbers can make us miss the obvious: Nobody in 1915 would have hit Bob Gibson. Are you kidding me? Could you even imagine Bob Gibson going out there on the mound against those guys choking up on 45-ounce bats? Nobody would stand a chance. Tom Seaver? Sandy Koufax? Juan Marichal? How do you think players in 1915 would have dealt with Juan Marchial’s leg kick and ever-shifting fastball? What do you think Steve Carlton’s exploding slider would have done to those hitters’ early 20th century minds? It would be like showing them an iPhone.

Do you remember the “Saturday Night Live” skit where Michael Jordan went back in time to play basketball with those guys in the 1950s?

Yeah, it probably would be something like that.

No, the greatest starting pitchers in baseball history didn’t pitch 100 years ago, and it’s time for us to stop saying that. Those pitchers were marvelous for their time, but the greatest pitchers in baseball history, well, we were all lucky enough to see them.

They were the starting pitchers of the Selig Era.

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How did it happen? In the last two years, FIVE pitchers – Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine last year; Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz on Tuesday – were first-ballot selections to the Baseball Hall of Fame. That’s the most of any era; only 15 pitchers in baseball history have been voted in their first year. And that list of five doesn’t even include Roger Clemens, who might have been the best of the bunch, or Mariano Rivera, who will enter the Hall moments after he is put on the ballot.

How did it happen? It was an era so tilted to offense that Congress held hearings; and yet it will be remembered as the Renaissance for baseball starting pitchers.

Maybe it comes down to the cliche: Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. Pitchers faced a ridiculous challenge in the Selig Era. They had to deal with strike zones the size of keychains, ballparks with fences moving in like the garbage compactor in Star Wars, batters wearing enough body armor to be knights, anti-gravity baseballs. They had to deal with so much, and one of the wonderful things about being human is that the best of us respond to impossible conditions.

Greg Maddux responded with unparalleled control, pitches that juked and jived, and a savant-like mind for pitching. Teammates tell story after story about Maddux’s almost supernatural ability to predict what would happen next. “He will foul off two pitches to the right side then hit a grounder through the hole between short and third,” Maddux would mutter when watching one of his teammates was hitting, and it would happen.

Randy Johnson was a force of nature. The first time I saw him pitch was in 1987, when he was pitching for Class AA Jacksonville. The pregame notes made a big deal about him being the tallest professional pitcher in baseball history at 6-foot-10 … and there was something circus-like about him. World’s Tallest Pitcher. He towered over the mound, and he threw ridiculously hard, but he couldn’t throw strikes, and the whole geometry of things seemed off. He walked 128 batters in just 140 innings that year, hit nine more, threw 12 wild pitches; the next year in Indianapolis he had TWENTY balks. There had never been a pitcher quite like him, and so there was no telling how it would work out.

He was called up to Montreal in 1988 and lost his first four decisions, and the Expos shipped him off to Seattle for three-time strikeout leader Mark Langston. Had the Expos held on to him for a few more years, they might have had a 1994 pitching staff with Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez. Of course, even then, the season still would have ended in a strike and the team would have ended in Florida.

Randy Johnson unwound slowly; he did not have his breakout year until he was 29 when he went 19-8 with a 3.24 ERA and finished second in the Cy Young balloting. He was about to begin the greatest decade of left-handed pitching since Lefty Grove. And it was just as the Selig Era was beginning.

Johnson dealt with all that offensive power with power of his own – high fastballs and hard sliders that plummeted out of sight at the last instant. Johnson used to say the harder he threw his slider, the harder it dived to the ground … so he threw his sliders HARD, especially with two strikes. Because of that, he was probably the greatest strikeout pitcher in baseball history. He struck out 4,875 batters, and while that was 850 fewer than Nolan Ryan, Johnson did it in many fewer innings. Johnson’s 10.6 strikeouts per nine innings is a strikeout higher than Ryan’s rate and the highest among baseball starters.

He overpowered. Right-handers were overmatched but lefties were simply helpless. They hit .199 against the Big Unit over his career.

Pedro Martinez overpowered in a different way. His father, Paulino, had been a sinkerball pitcher back in the days when it was hard for a Dominican pitcher to get noticed by the Major Leagues. His sons Ramon and Pedro became pitchers themselves. They used to pitch oranges and doll heads for practice; this is how much baseball means on the island.

Ramon was the older brother and the first phenom in the family; he was a 6-foot-4 beanpole and at 22 he won 20 games, led the league in complete games and finished second in the Cy Young voting.

Pedro was pitching in Great Falls, Montana, then. He was a much shorter version of his older brother – he threw hard, and he overpowered hitters right away, but he was listed at 5-foot-10, 135 pounds (he has somehow grown in inch since then). Tommy Lasorda rather famously thought Pedro was too short to be a great starting pitcher, and Pedro only made three starts for the Dodgers before he was shipped off to Montreal for Delino DeShields.

Pedro Martinez (Getty Images)

Pedro’s greatness was some combination of Johnson and Maddux. He had a mid-90s fastball, a nasty breaking pitch and one of the great changeups in baseball history … so he had the terrific arsenal of pitches. He had an instinctive knack for pitching, like Maddux.

And then, on top of that, there was his own special Pedro flavor. He was passionate. He was funny. He was angry. He was boiling water. It’s fair to say that a lot of people didn’t like Pedro Martinez, thought he was a headhunter and a punk and other things. Reggie Sanders, one of the nicer men in the game, once charged Martinez for hitting him five outs away from throwing a perfect game. Martinez had already come close to hitting him twice before. “It was just a normal day,” Martinez chirped after the game; his greatest superpower might have been his power to irritate people.

All of those things – the great stuff, the beautiful mind, the talent for inciting – made Pedro Martinez all but invincible at his height. His 1999 season, inning for inning, might be the best ever for a pitcher. Then, by some measurements, his 2000 season was even better that 1999. And that means his THIRD best season was when he went 17-8 with a 1.90 ERA and a .932 WHIP in 1997 for Montreal. Or it was when he went 20-4 with a 2.26 ERA, a .923 WHIP and a six-to-one strikeout to walk ratio. Or it could have been 2003 when the American League hit 2,500 home runs, but only seven of them off Pedro.

He was bigger than life. One teammate when he was in Boston said of him: “Sometimes I watch him, and I feel sorry for hitters.” Kansas City’s Mike Sweeney once told me, “I had a dream that I was facing Pedro Martinez. He struck me out in my own dream.” Pedro Martinez used his legend the way gunslingers in the Wild West did.

The fourth pitcher on the Selig Era Mount Rushmore is probably not Smoltz or Glavine, even though they were both first-ballot Hall of Famers. It’s probably not Curt Schilling or Mike Mussina, though the two have Hall of Fame cases as good as Smoltz and Glove.

No, the fourth Beatle is Roger Clemens, who might have been the best pitcher of the incredible group. Clemens dominated the Selig Era with sheer competitive rage. So much of his legacy has been clouded with steroid accusations but baseball has never seen a pitcher like him. He was part Nolan Ryan, part Bob Gibson, part Roberto Duran, part Cool Hand Luke. He threw fastballs that seemed to jump up to your eyes, and he threw split-fingered fastballs that fell into trap doors. And you were never quite sure which was which. All the while, he glared.

It’s hard to break Clemens down with numbers because many people discount everything he did based on the steroid accusations he fought with the same dark-eyed hunger that he had displayed on the mound. But Clemens won SEVEN Cy Young Awards – his first at age 23, his last at 41.  In truth, he could have won three or four more.

He led the league in:

— Wins four times.

— Win-loss percentage three times.

— ERA seven times.

— Strikeouts five times.

— Wins above replacements seven times.

— Shutouts six times.

— Fielding Independent Pitching (an effort to separate pitching from defense) nine times.

He withered hitters with his power, his control and, more than anything, his will. Clemens always looked angry. He hit Mike Piazza in the batting helmet with a pitch and later threw a jagged broken bat in his direction. He threw inside all his life. He played as if on fire – this was probably truer than you would think as, please forgive the image, it was reported in Joe Torre’s “The Yankee Years” that he had a hot liniment rubbed on his testicles before games until he was “snorting like a bull.”

And that was how the four greats did it, how they beat the Selig Era: Maddux with brains; Johnson with brawn; Martinez with style and Clemens with bull-like rage.

No group of starting pitchers dominated their time like those four did.

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It’s only right to list off my ten best pitchers in baseball history since I was dubious that the greatest pitchers of Deadball were really the best of all time. This list will probably be even more mocked, but if I had to choose my Top 10 pitchers when looking over their entire careers (hurting short career guys like Pedro Martinez and Sandy Koufax) it would look something like this:

1. Roger Clemens

2. Walter Johnson

3. Satchel Paige

4. Greg Maddux

5. Randy Johnson

6. Lefty Grove

7. Cy Young

8. Tom Seaver

9. Bob Gibson

10. Pedro Martinez

Which leads to the question: If Roger Clemens won seven Cy Youngs, how many Roger Clemens would Cy Young win?