There have been significantly more respected right handed pitchers in baseball history than lefties. A large part of this is because there are always far more right handed hitters in the game, and a lefty pitcher/righty hitter match-up statistically favors the hitter. Yet an effective lefty is something of great value. If a lefty pitcher really is harder on a lefty hitter, think about what value a strong lefty starting pitcher would have against some of the greatest hitters of all time, such as lefties Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig, Tris Speaker or Stan Musial. Of course, you can also switch that around and say how good does a left handed pitcher have to be to consistently succeed in a league that has always had far more right handed hitters (who have a natural advantage on lefties)? The answer? Really damn good.
Before I get into the details of the great left handed pitchers, I want to establish my guidelines for choosing. First of all, for the most part baseball before 1900 was vastly different. My cutoff for this list is 1900. Also, a pitcher has to have started at least 200 games. Any less and it isn’t really a fair comparison to other players who put in the time. Second, I want to make clear that “Wins” as a category will not be considered here. While not entirely arbitrary, Wins are not a good indicator of pitching value. Too many non-pitching factors, the most important being the pitcher’s run support, come into play to determine a “Win” or “Loss”. Poor defense and poor relief pitching can also negate a good pitching performance.
Instead, I would like to primarily use these statistics (click for definitions):
WHIP CONTEXT: Cy Young’s career rate was 1.01 (3rd since 1900), Pedro Martinez is 4th at 1.05 and Tom Seaver is 16th with a 1.12.
K/9 CONTEXT:Nolan Ryan’s career rate was 9.55 (3rd since 1900). Curt Schilling’s was 8.63 (9th).
BB/9 CONTEXT: Cy Young’s 1.11/9 is the lowest ever. Roy Halladay’s 1.78 is the 6th lowest of the last 50 years.
K/9-BB/9 CONTEXT: A high strikeout guy like Pedro Martinez has an extremely high 7.7 rate, while a low walks pitcher like Roy Halladay has an excellent 5.16.
Bonus value will be given to excellent post-season performances, but this will be limited to tie-breakers as it is also dependent on a pitcher’s teammates. Complete Games and Shutouts will bring bonus points to a pitcher. I will sometimes use ERA for reference to specific seasons.
THE DEADBALL ERA
The period known as the “Deadball Era” (1900-1919) needs to be separated from the “Liveball Era” (1920-present). Though closer to the game we know than 19th century ball, the rules and equipment were still so different that direct comparison between players in different eras doesn’t really work. Yet what we can do is take a look at who the best pitchers of each era were in relation to others of their own era.
BEFORE 1920, there were two left handed starters that towered above all the rest. Rube Waddell and Eddie Plank were utterly dominant. Amazingly, from 1902-1907 they both played for the same team, the Philadelphia Athletics. Plank remained on the Athletics for many years, starting 6 World Series games (for a career post-season ERA of 1.32) on three championship teams.
Plank lasted in the big leagues much longer than Waddell, starting nearly 200 more games than Waddell. But Wadell’s most dominant stretch of 8 seasons (1902-1909) was one of the greatest of all time. Let’s take a look at their numbers.
#1 – Rube Waddell, career totals:
ERA- : 75
Best Three Years of ERA- : 1902 and 1905 (56) and 1904 (61)
FIP- : 72
Best Three Years of FIP- : 1903 (62), 1904 (63), 1902 (66)
K/9 : 7.04
BB/9 : 2.44
K/9-BB/9 : 4.6
Complete Games/Shutouts: 261/50
Waddell has better rates than Plank across the board, with the exception of BB/9, which is more than balanced out by his far superior K/9 rate. Eddie Plank deserves credit for sustaining his amazing numbers over a longer span (and more CG’s and shutouts), but Waddell seems to have been the better of the two.
#2 Eddie Plank, career totals:
ERA- : 82
Best Three Years of ERA- : 1912 (65), 1915 (66) and 1912 (69)
Best Three Years of FIP- : 1915 (66), 1914 (77), 1908 and 1913 (78)
K/9-BB/9 : 2.35
Complete Games/Shutouts: 410/69
#3 – The Reds had a pitcher at the beginning of the 20th century named Noodles Hahn who had six spectacular years and who qualifies for this list by starting 231 games. His career ERA- and FIP- are 73 and 75, respectively, with a WHIP of 1.13. His K/9 rate was nothing special at 4.07, but he had an excellent 1.69 BB/9 rate and a 2.38 K-BB rate. While some of Hahn’s numbers match up or beat Plank’s, I still give the edge to Plank as the better pitcher, as he performed at his level for well over twice as many starts as Hahn.
#4 – Rube Marquard – Given the nickname “Rube” because he resembled Rube Waddell, Marquard didn’t quite dominate like his namesake, but he did have quite a few superior years for the New York Giants and Brooklyn Robins. His career ERA- and FIP- were 98 and 91, far beneath the superstars above, but that is due largely to a particularly unimpressive first three seasons and a disappointing stint with the Braves at the end of his career. During the middle nine years of his career he held a more respectable 91/86 rate, and the four seasons from 1909-1912 his K/9 rate was 3rd in the majors at 6.32, just behind Smokey Joe Wood and Walter Johnson.
#5 Hippo Vaughn was a tall lefty who was off and on from 1908-1913 until suddenly becoming a dominant pitcher for the Cubs in 1914. With an ERA- and FIP- the same as Plank’s, Vaughn had a little bit of a control issue from time to time and his BB/9 is the highest on our Deadball Era list at 2.69. His K/BB rate was 1.73. He had an ERA of under 2.00 three different times, the same as Waddell and more than Plank or Hahn.
#6 – Babe Ruth, the greatest hitter of all time, was also one of the top pitchers from 1915-19. He lead the American League in ERA and shutouts in 1916 and finished with a career 81 ERA- and 99 FIP-. In 1167.1 innings during his peak 5 years, Ruth had an ERA of 2.16, 9th best in all of baseball.