Best Pitchers By Decade: 1990s-Present

I've been thinking a lot about starting pitchers recently. This is the first article in a series breaking down the best major league pitchers by decade. Today, we're looking at the last 20 years or so: 1990-1999, 1995-2004, 2000-2009, and 2005-2014. We'll go backwards chronologically.

All best-of lists for rate stats (like ERA) are limited to the top 20 in innings pitched. Unless otherwise noted, my WAR calculation uses the following statistic: [RA9-WAR + fWAR + (2 * rWAR)] / 4. That's the average of FanGraphs RA-based Wins Above Replacement plus standard FanGraphs (Fielding Independent Pitching) Wins Above Replacement plus twice Baseball Reference Wins Above Replacement. Essentially, it treats FanGraphs' WAR and RA9-WAR as equally valid, and it treats FanGraphs and Baseball Reference as equally valid.


Most Wins — CC Sabathia, 154-84

Most Strikeouts — Felix Hernandez, 1951

Most Complete Games — Roy Halladay, by far — 52

CC Sabathia is next, 32.

Most Shutouts — Roy Halladay, 14

Most Innings Pitched — Dan Haren, 2113 ⅔

Best ERA — Felix Hernandez, 3.07

Best FIP — Felix Hernandez, 3.15

Best WHIP — Roy Halladay, 1.11

Best K/BB ratio — Roy Halladay, 4.55

Cliff Lee's K/BB was 4.54.

Fewest HR/9 — Felix Hernandez, 0.70

Top 10 in WAR

1. Felix Hernandez, 47.0
2. Roy Halladay, 45.9
3. CC Sabathia, 43.7
4. Cliff Lee, 43.3
5. Justin Verlander, 42.9
6. Clayton Kershaw, 40.0
7. Cole Hamels, 39.8
8. Mark Buehrle, 37.4
9. Jered Weaver, 36.3
10. Zack Greinke, 36.1

Best Pitcher — Roy Halladay

This might be a controversial selection. Halladay was basically done after 2011. He was unimpressive in 2012, downright bad in 2013, and retired in 2014. Can you be the best pitcher of the decade with only 70% of the decade?

If the competition isn't historic and you're as dominant as Roy Halladay, yes, you can. Halladay's best season in this decade is better than Hernandez's. His second-best season is better, his third-best season is better, his fourth-best season is better, his fifth-best season is better, his sixth-best season is better, and his seventh-best season is probably better. Halladay won the 2010 AL Cy Young Award, but — just in these 10 years — he also finished 2nd twice and finished 3rd, with a total of six top-5 Cy Young seasons. King Felix had more good seasons, but Halladay had more great ones.

It is amazing how much changes in one year. I originally used 2006-15 instead of 2005-14, and Clayton Kershaw led basically everything. He's obviously the best pitcher of 2006-15, 2007-16, and 2008-17.

Best Season — Zack Greinke, 2009

Greinke in '09 went 16-8 (.667) for a team that was 49-89 (.355) in its other games. His 2.16 ERA was less than half the American League average, and his 2.33 FIP was essentially just as good. Greinke faced 915 batters and only allowed 11 home runs.

Best Pitcher not to win a Cy Young Award — Cole Hamels

Not only did Hamels never win a Cy Young, he never placed higher than fifth in the National League. I don't think he was ever the best pitcher in the league, but he was very good throughout the decade.

Worst Cy Young Selection — Kershaw over Halladay, 2011 NL

Kershaw went 21-5 with a 2.28 ERA. Halladay went 19-6 with a 2.35 ERA. That's why Kershaw won. But Halladay pitched in a tougher park, and probably got less help from his defense. Halladay led the league in BB%, K/BB ratio, and fewest HR/9. Compared to Kershaw, he led in ERA+, ERA-, FIP, FIP-, xFIP, xFIP-, RA9-WAR, fWAR, rWAR, RE24, and WPA. Halladay clearly split some votes with Phillies teammate Cliff Lee, who also had a sensational season, including six shutouts.

The 2012 AL Cy Young, voted to David Price over Justin Verlander, also doesn't look so good in hindsight, but that was an extremely close vote (153-149).

Underrated — Matt Cain

Best Pitcher By Decade, Off Years

2004-2013 — Roy Halladay, 41.6
2003-2012 — Roy Halladay, 47.3
2002-2011 — Roy Halladay, 51.0
2001-2010 — Roy Halladay, 47.1

I derived this section statistically, not subjectively. Using the WAR formula described at the beginning of this article, I awarded 100% value to the pitcher's best season, 95% to his second-best season, 90% to third-best, and so on down to 55% for his 10th-highest WAR during the years in question. It's a quick-and-dirty calculation, but I think it gets things right most of the time.

I don't think there's really any question that Halladay was the best pitcher over these time periods. If his 2002-2011 seasons fell into round numbers (like 2000-2009), his dominance would be a lot better-appreciated. In that decade, Halladay went 170-75 with 63 complete games and a 2.97 ERA.


Most Wins — Andy Pettitte, 148-89

Randy Johnson went 143-78.

Most Strikeouts — Randy Johnson, 2182

Most Complete Games — Roy Halladay, 47

Most Shutouts — Roy Halladay, 14

Most Innings Pitched — Livan Hernandez, 2201 ⅓

Best ERA — Roy Oswalt, 3.23

Johan Santana is ineligible for the "Best ____" categories because he ranked 21st in IP, and I only included the top 20. He had a 3.12 ERA, best of the decade, in 1709 ⅔ innings. He also tied for best WHIP.

Best FIP — Randy Johnson, 3.13

Best WHIP — Randy Johnson, 1.11

Best K/BB ratio — Randy Johnson, 4.51

Fewest HR/9 — Roy Halladay, 0.72

Top 10 in WAR

1. Roy Halladay, 52.0
2. Johan Santana, 47.6
3. Roy Oswalt, 46.8
4. Randy Johnson, 46.3
5. CC Sabathia, 42.9
6. Curt Schilling, 42.1
7. Mark Buehrle, 41.6
8. Tim Hudson, 40.6
9. Pedro Martinez, 40.4
10. Javier Vazquez, 38.4

Best Pitcher — Roy Halladay

A few years ago, the excellent journalist Joe Posnanski wrote, "[Johan] Santana was absolutely the best pitcher of the 2000s. He won two Cy Young Awards and and probably deserved at least one more, maybe two more. He won 20 one year, lead the league in wins another, and posted a 156 ERA+ over his six dominant seasons. By comparison, that's precisely the same ERA+ Sandy Koufax posted over his six dominant seasons."

Posnanski knows baseball better than I do, but I think Roy Halladay was the best pitcher of the 2000s. He won a Cy Young Award (plus another in 2010), plus he finished 2nd, finished 3rd, and finished 5th twice. He won 22 one year and led the league, won 20 another, and while he didn't group his dominant seasons consecutively like Santana, I'd put Halladay's 2002-03, 2005-06, and 2008-09 up against anything Santana did.

Most of Santana's rate stats are better, because he spent several years pitching out of the bullpen. Halladay pitched 10% more innings and got 26 more decisions. He pitched 47 complete games to Santana's 9. Forty-seven to nine. Santana threw more strikeouts, but Halladay gave up fewer walks and fewer home runs.

Best Season — Pedro Martinez, 2000

Best Pitcher not to win a Cy Young Award — Roy Oswalt

Worst Cy Young Selection — Roger Clemens, 2001 AL

Clemens went 20-3. He ranked 4th in the AL in rWAR, 3rd in fWAR, 8th in RA9-WAR, 7th (among starters) in RE24, and 9th in WPA. Other than winning percentage, he didn't lead the league in anything. So unless that's your only criteria, there are several pitchers who had better seasons than Clemens.

Let's take one example, Yankees teammate Mike Mussina, who went 17-11. Mussina pitched more complete games (4) than Clemens (0), with more shutouts (3). He pitched more innings. He had more strikeouts and fewer walks. Mussina had a better WHIP (1.07 to 1.26), ERA (3.15 to 3.51), FIP (2.92 to 3.29), and he had much higher WAR in all systems.

Clemens had a good season, but his run support was 5.7 per game, and that's why he won the Cy Young.

Underrated — Javier Vazquez

From 2000-09, Javier Vazquez threw 2,001 strikeouts, second only to Randy Johnson. From 2001-2010 and 2002-2011, Vazquez led the majors in strikeouts.

Best Pitcher By Decade, Off Years

1999-2008 — Randy Johnson, 51.4
1998-2007 — Randy Johnson, 53.8
1997-2006 — Pedro Martinez (58.5) or Randy Johnson (58.2)
1996-2005 — Pedro Martinez, 60.2


Most Wins — Greg Maddux, 174-83

Most Strikeouts — Randy Johnson, 2831

Most Complete Games — Curt Schilling, 64

Most Shutouts — Randy Johnson, 25

Most Innings Pitched — Greg Maddux, 2270 ⅓

Best ERA — Pedro Martinez, 2.67

It's unbelievable that, in the heart of the Steroid Era, four of the top 15 in IP had sub-3.00 ERAs: Pedro, Randy Johnson (2.70), Kevin Brown (2.79), and Greg Maddux (2.89).

Best FIP — Randy Johnson, 2.61

Best WHIP — Pedro Martinez, 1.01

Best K/BB ratio — Curt Schilling, 5.30

Fewest HR/9 — Kevin Brown, 0.56

Top 10 in WAR

1. Randy Johnson, 73.2
2. Pedro Martinez, 71.3
3. Curt Schilling, 60.9
4. Greg Maddux, 59.8
5. Roger Clemens, 55.3
6. Kevin Brown, 53.2
7. Mike Mussina, 51.6
8. Tom Glavine, 44.2
9. Brad Radke, 39.3
10. Al Leiter, 38.6

Six of these pitchers rank higher than anyone from the '00s or 2005-14.

Best Pitcher — Randy Johnson

I have no real interest in arguing against Pedro Martinez, but Johnson had more great seasons, and if you trust Defense Independent Pitching, Unit has better peripheral stats than Pedro.

Best Pitcher not to win a Cy Young Award — Curt Schilling

Kevin Brown and Mike Mussina never won a Cy Young, either. Of the 20 Awards in this decade, 12 went to Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens, or Pedro Martinez.

Worst Cy Young Selection — Roger Clemens, 2001 AL

Tom Glavine in the 1998 NL wasn't a great choice, either. He went 20-6, and teammate Greg Maddux went 18-9. If you judge pitchers by won-lost records, you would assume that Glavine had the better year. But Maddux had a lower ERA by a quarter of a run, 2.22 to 2.47. His advantage in FIP (3.15 to 3.50) was even larger. Maddux had a better RE24 and better WPA. The Braves averaged 5.3 runs per game when Glavine started and 4.6 when Maddux started. Glavine won the Cy Young because the Braves hit better during his starts.

Best SeasonPedro Martinez, 1999 or 2000

Underrated — Kevin Brown

Best Pitcher By Decade, Off Years

1994-2003 — Randy Johnson, 58.4
1993-2002 — Randy Johnson, 61.6
1992-2001 — Greg Maddux, 59.4
1991-2000 — Greg Maddux, 58.6


Most Wins — Greg Maddux, 176-88

Most Strikeouts — Randy Johnson, 2538

Most Complete Games — Greg Maddux, 75

Most Shutouts — Randy Johnson, 25

Most Innings Pitched — Greg Maddux, 2394 ⅔

Best ERA — Greg Maddux, 2.54

No one else is under 3.00.

Best FIP — Greg Maddux, 2.77

Best WHIP — Greg Maddux, 1.06

Best K/BB ratio — Greg Maddux, 3.98

Fewest HR/9 — Greg Maddux, 0.42

Top 10 in WAR

1. Greg Maddux, 69.6
2. Roger Clemens, 67.1
3. Randy Johnson, 54.6
4. David Cone, 50.4
5. Kevin Brown, 50.0
6. Kevin Appier, 46.5
7. Tom Glavine, 46.4
8. John Smoltz, 44.1
9. Mike Mussina, 42.6
10. Chuck Finley, 42.6

Best Pitcher — Greg Maddux

I have never bought the argument that Clemens was a better pitcher, in the '90s, than Maddux. Maddux pitched 217 more innings with a better ERA- and better FIP-. He had more wins and fewer losses. He didn't fade in the mid-'90s like Clemens, and Maddux's advantage would be even larger if not for the mid-decade strike that shortened his two best seasons.

Best Pitcher not to win a Cy Young Award — Kevin Brown or Mike Mussina

Worst Cy Young Selection — Bob Welch over Clemens, 1990 AL

Welch got this award with his W/L record, 27-6. Clemens went 21-6, which is also impressive. Clemens threw many more strikeouts, 209-127. He also issued many fewer walks, 54-77. Clemens gave up 7 home runs all season; Welch allowed 26. Rocket had a 1.93 ERA; Welch was more than a full run higher, 2.95, and his FIP was below league average, 110 FIP-. There are easily a dozen American League pitchers who had better seasons than Welch, but Clemens in particular had a brilliant season.

Dennis Eckersley's Cy in 1992 was equally questionable.

Best Season — Pedro Martinez, 1999

There are some really close calls here. You can't really argue against Pedro, but Maddux in '94 and '95 was awesome; without the strike, those might be legendary seasons. Clemens in his first year with the Blue Jays was unbelievable, and Randy Johnson in '99 had nearly 300 more strikeouts (364) than walks (70). Any of those might be a reasonable choice.

Underrated — Kevin Brown

Best Pitcher By Decade, Off Years

1989-1998 — Roger Clemens, 57.9
1988-1997 — Roger Clemens, 57.5
1987-1996 — Roger Clemens, 54.9
1986-1995 — Roger Clemens, 56.0

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