The Top 50 Pitchers Since 1950

Who are the best starting pitchers of the past 60+ years? One way to answer that question is using RE24, the measure of how much a pitcher reduces his opponent’s’ run expectancy with each batter faced.

Starting from each of the 24 base-out states (ranging from nobody on, nobody out to to bases loaded, two out), there is an expected number of runs a team will score in the remainder of that inning, based on average hitters facing average pitchers. With the result of each plate appearance, a pitcher is credited with the resulting change in run expectancy (which can be positive or negative) less any runs allowed.

RE24, then, tells you how many runs a pitcher saved or cost his team relative to the average pitcher in the same base-out situations. Over the course of a career, the batters each pitcher faces will collectively approximate an average batter, allowing some reasonable basis for comparing different pitchers (with the possibly large caveat that RE24 does not adjust for park factors, team defense or other factors).

After the jump, the top 50 since 1950.

I’m using the metric RE24/9 to show the number of runs per 9 innings that a pitcher was better than the average pitcher in the base-out states that the pitcher faced. To qualify, a pitcher must have compiled 2000 IP since 1950. Only seasons since 1950 are counted (the data back to 1950 are mostly complete, with some data back to 1945, and scant data prior to that). Of the 220 qualifying pitchers, these are the top 50 in RE24/9.

[table id=162 /]

The column labeled boLI stands for base-out leverage index, which is a measure of how much leverage was associated with each plate appearance. What is meant by leverage? Essentially, this is a measure of how much variability there is in the run expectancies that could result from a given PA. Without getting too technical, from a base-out state with m baserunners and n outs, a PA can obviously only result in base-out states with a maximum of m+1 baserunners and a minimum of n outs. A weighted average of the differences (absolute values) in run expectancies between the current base-out state and each of the possible subsequent states (with the weights corresponding to the empirical probability for each transition) yields the boLI for that plate appearance.

Intuitively, boLIs are higher with more runners on base and lower if fewer. Thus, the pitchers with lower boLI numbers are those better at keeping men off base, while pitchers with higher numbers are less adept at this. By dividing boLI into RE24, RE24 is normalized (or “de-leveraged”) by showing how well pitchers did relative only to the range of outcomes possible from their base-out states. If I’ve confused the heck out of you, this explanation may be easier to grasp.

Ranking by RE24boLI/9 (boLI divided into RE24/9), those same fifty pitchers look like this.

[table id=167 /]

.

And, combining the two measures, here are our 50 pitchers, ordered by the sum of their rankings in the previous two lists.

[table id=168 /]

Finally, here are some other notable pitchers and their rankings (out of 220) in both RE24 and RE24boLI.

Player RE24/9 RE24 Rk RE24 boLI/9 RE24 boLI Rk IP
Don Sutton 0.512 55 0.696 38 5282.1
Gaylord Perry 0.518 53 0.633 43 5350.0
Nolan Ryan 0.471 58 0.636 42 5386.0
Fergie Jenkins 0.517 54 0.590 46 4500.2
Jon Matlack 0.498 56 0.601 45 2363.0
Jim Bunning 0.527 52 0.520 58 3760.1
David Wells 0.464 61 0.561 52 3439.0
Steve Carlton 0.475 57 0.523 57 5217.2
Orel Hershiser 0.434 68 0.565 50 3130.1
Dean Chance 0.469 59 0.515 59 2147.1
Freddy Garcia 0.530 51 0.452 70 2264.0
Mark Gubicza 0.436 67 0.541 56 2223.1
Frank Viola 0.463 62 0.458 67 2836.1
Vida Blue 0.440 63 0.434 74 3343.1
Rick Reuschel 0.405 73 0.462 64 3548.1
Jerry Koosman 0.406 72 0.425 76 3839.1
Milt Pappas 0.412 71 0.412 77 3186.0
Frank Lary 0.433 69 0.404 81 2162.1
Mel Stottlemyre 0.437 65 0.368 86 2661.1
John Lackey 0.350 79 0.410 78 2065.1
Catfish Hunter 0.387 74 0.373 85 3449.1
Tommy John 0.344 81 0.354 89 4710.1
Jack Morris 0.284 94 0.352 90 3824.0
Phil Niekro 0.310 90 0.290 107 5404.0
Kenny Rogers 0.234 108 0.321 97 3302.2
Johnny Podres 0.321 89 0.223 118 2265.0
Mike Flanagan 0.226 111 0.222 119 2770.0
A.J. Burnett 0.243 103 0.198 127 2353.2
Frank Tanana 0.254 100 0.173 135 4188.1
Harvey Haddix 0.214 116 0.189 133 2235.0
Lew Burdette 0.169 133 0.224 117 3067.1
Mickey Lolich 0.201 121 0.179 134 3638.1
Fernando Valenzuela 0.187 127 0.169 139 2930.0
Scott McGregor 0.174 132 0.172 136 2140.2
Wilbur Wood 0.186 128 0.165 140 2684.0
Charlie Hough 0.163 134 0.133 148 3801.1
Dave Stewart 0.123 146 0.075 159 2629.2
Jim Kaat 0.055 161 0.097 153 4530.1
Jerry Reuss -0.027 176 0.084 154 3669.2
Rick Sutcliffe 0.008 173 0.073 160 2697.2
Tim Wakefield 0.053 164 0.030 171 3226.1
Jim Clancy -0.092 189 0.020 172 2517.1
Ryan Dempster -0.044 181 -0.128 190 2387.0
Livan Hernandez -0.117 197 -0.214 207 3189.0

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35 Comments on "The Top 50 Pitchers Since 1950"

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no statistician but
Guest
Bill James talks about pitching “families” in the NBJHBA, groups of hurlers with similar defining characteristics (e.g, the Robin Roberts ‘family,’ which includes Fergie Jenkins and Catfish Hunter—RH guys with “good fastballs and a strong commitment to strike zone,” lots of innings, high SO/BB ratio, lots of HRs). James is only concerned with his top 100 pitchers in the commentary, and he has to admit that some few defy this categorization and are one of a kind. Among the latter non-group is Whitey Ford, and it seems to me that your breakdown here supports that evaluation. His lines here look… Read more »
birtelcom
Editor

I ran a PI search for best OPS+ Against totals, 1948-2013, for all pitchers with at least 250 starts over that period (295 pitchers meet those citeria). The best numbers:
61 Pedro Martinez
68 Roger Clemens
70 Sandy Koufax
71 Randy Johnson
72 Bob Rush
74 Justin Verlander and Johan Santana
75 Greg Maddux
76 Roy Halladay and John Smoltz
77 Nolan Ryan, Curt Schilling, Bob Gibson, Ned Garver

Interesting to see Bob Rush in there.

Hartvig
Guest

Sorry but any measure that puts Tom Seaver as the 17th best pitcher just since 1950- not to mention Gibson at 25, Spahn at 28, Marichal at 25, Roberts at 50 and Carlton & Niekro out of the top 50 altogether- seems to be of pretty limited if not entirely questionable value. I sort of understand about Spahn since it leaves out a few of his best seasons but otherwise this just seems to punish guys for pitching thru the heart of the lineup a 4th or even 5th time.

no statistician but
Guest

Hartvig:

What I think this approach does is to look at player evaluation from a particular and meaningful perspective that highlights an important element of play deep within the game. It isn’t a complete measure by any means, but it brings to light a useful supplemental way of reckoning performance. I agree that it’s crazy to rank Seaver, for instance, that low or Ford and Wilhelm that high, but it is a helpful corrective to moderate the flat, take-no-prisoners complacency of WAR-only-ness.

PSopko
Guest

Interesting list… but rating by a qualitative metric? Innings matter!

Lawrence Azrin
Guest

What if you did:

(RE24/9) X (IP) = ????

would that number mean anything??

Estimating this for Pedro, Rocket, Unit, and Mad Dog:

-Clemens vaults well ahead of Martinez
-Maddux is a bit ahead of Martinez
-Randy Johnson is a little behind Martinez

TedM
Guest

In addition to the problem of ignoring IP, another major problem is that when working with a raw runs-saved value like this, there’s a bias toward high offense eras. It’s easier to be farther below the average when the average is higher. Thus, the pitchers from the high offense ’90s and ’00s dominate the list far more than they should.

It’s an interesting idea, but it seems like it needs a lot more work before it gets to a state where it produces a list of “The top 50 pitchers” that would pass the smell test.

PSopko
Guest

I did a study covering the same period (my lifetime). I titled it SMS, simple- minded s***. I took each individual start & subtracted runs allowed (no negatives #s). I then did a roto type scoring 30pts for 1st, 29 for 2nd…Both for quantitative and qualitative (pts/gs). For instance in ’50, Spahn led in both categories and therfore got 60pts for the year, second were R.Roberts and Preacher Roe wit 53 each….Just for laughs, my top 10…Clemens, Maddux, Seaver, Spahn, Blylevin, G.Perry, R.Johnson, Ryan, Carlton, Glavine.

PSopko
Guest

I subtracted runs allowed from innings pitched***

MikeD
Guest

Raise your virtual hand if you’d take Johan Santana over Tom Seaver.

Minor snark aside, interesting approach, although the fact that it is weighted very heavily with pitchers from the recent offensive explosion period is telling. It is probably not helpful in comparing pitchers from different eras.

birtelcom
Guest

Doug, your post is linked to on both Tom Tango’s site and Baseball Think Factory. That provocative post title did indeed provoke some serious notice in the baseball blogosphere.

Doug
Guest

The commenters on BaseballThinkFactory take things too literally.

Tango had it right with his comment that “That list was simply a list, and it should be treated as a list.”

birtelcom
Editor

I agree, Doug. Most of the criticism at BTF seems to go not to the substance of your post but to the inference the critics think they can make between the lists in your post and your title. If your title replaced “Pitchers” with “RE24/9s”, much of the criticism disappears, I think.

brp
Guest

This is making me vacillate a bit on my Niekro vote.

John Autin
Editor
Very interesting approach, Doug. I do wonder if RE24 “opportunities” are affected by the scoring context. The run expectancy for any given base/out situation was much lower in 1968 (MLB avg. 3.42 R/G) than it was in 2000 (5.14 R/G), so the same out recorded in 2000 is worth more RE24 than it was in 1968. Granted, that same out was also harder to obtain in 2000, but my gut still says it is easier for the same good pitcher to compile high RE24 in a high-scoring era than in a low-scoring era. To test my theory, I tallied all… Read more »
MikeD
Guest

What he said. : -)

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