I have often stated that I believe pitching is the most important part of baseball. Nothing can happen in a game until the pitcher throws the ball. That’s a great deal of power. The game is in his hand.
Pitchers really don’t get enough credit. I remember when I was a kid and I played baseball all day every day my arm would get sore. Pitchers throw constantly. They’ve been throwing constantly since they were kids. By the time a young man signs a professional baseball contract he has thrown thousands of pitches and has placed unimaginable stress on his fingers, wrist, forearm, elbow and shoulder. For me, there is no mystery behind the arm related pitching injuries. Too many pitches over too long a time. And the slider might just be the biggest culprit of all. The slider puts lots of pressure on all parts of the arm action.
Today’s professional pitchers usually throw every fifth day. In the “golden era” of the 50’s and 60’s pitchers started every fourth day. Relievers work several times a week. Some pitch for multiple innings every time. And most starters throw between starts. It really is a grueling pace if we consider everything that goes into pitching.
Like I did last week, I want to feature my favorite pitchers in this edition of BERNIE’S BASEBALL WORLD. These are guys I loved to watch pitch. They may not have been the best, but they were, and are my favorites. You have your own, I’m sure. These guys could make me sit up in my seat.
And by the way, here’s an oddity. I have been watching baseball with serious interest for the better part of 60 years. I have never witnessed a no-hitter in person. I’ve come close, but the heartbreak took place in the 9th inning over and over. I still have time. I’m not giving up.
So here are the guys that I really loved or still love to watch pitch:
Few had the pure genius on the mound as Koufax. He started slowly in his career and came on like gang busters. He was amazing. He was a six-time All-Star. He won two Cy Young Awards. He was part of two World Series Championships. Arthritis in his elbow ended his career. He pitched for 12 seasons and may be the best pitcher in modern history.
Feller was only 17 when he started his major-league career. A product of a farm in Iowa, Feller used to practice pitching by throwing baseballs against the barn. He had an amazing 100 miles per hour fastball and a devastating curve. He earned the nickname “Rapid” Robert. Feller lost almost four seasons to World War II and often said his decision to enlist was the best decision of his life. I was fortunate to watch him pitch and then talk with him countless times during his role as a good will ambassador for the Indians.
I used to be upset whenever the Yankees visited Cleveland for a crucial four-game series. It meant Whitey Ford would be pitching and that would translate to an automatic loss for my Indians. Ford was a very, very crafty lefty. He earned his greatest fame by being a very tough competitor in his 11 World Series starts. That really is incredible. His composite ERA in those games was an amazing 2.71. Ford pitched for the Yankees for 16 seasons from 1950-1967. He threw an amazing 3170 1/3 innings and finished his career with a record of 236-106. I loved to watch him pitch. While pitching for manager Casey Stengel, Ford started every fifth day, unlike the four-man rotation used during his time.
Johnson was not always the Randy Johnson we remember throwing darts beginning in the middle of his career. When he started, he had command and control problems. In 1989 with Seattle Johnson had a 7.9 walk rate per nine innings. Overall, in his 22-year career, Johnson walked an average of 3.3 per nine and struck out an average of 10.6 per nine. He appeared in 10 All-Star Games. He won five Cy Young Awards. His first no-hitter came against Detroit when he was pitching for Seattle in 1990. In 2004 he pitched a perfect game against Atlanta for the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Gibson threw bullets for the St. Louis Cardinals for 17 seasons. A Hall of Famer, Gibson finished his career with a record of 251-174 and a 2.91 ERA. He had 255 complete games. Allow me to repeat that in the context of today’s game. Gibson threw 255 complete games. Amazing. Gibson was a bulldog on the mound. I saw him brush back countless hitters who tried to dig in the box against him. He threw 3884 1/3 innings and yielded only 257 home runs.
This is hard to believe, but Ryan pitched for 27 seasons at the major-league level. He pitched for the Mets, the Angels, the Astros and the Rangers. And he was fantastic. In 5,386 innings Ryan struck out 5,714 hitters. More than one per inning. He threw 222 complete games. Like Gibson, don’t dig in against Ryan. Including some rough years at the very beginning and the end of his career, Ryan finished with a composite 3.19 ERA and won 324 games against 292 losses.
Like Gibson and Ryan, Early Wynn was not to be messed around with on the mound. He loved to pitch inside and he owned the plate, not the hitter. Get too much of the plate and you’ll be watching the game from the ground. He pitched for 23 years for the Washington Senators, the Cleveland Indians and the Chicago White Sox. Wynn won an even 300 games and lost 244. He retired with a 3.54 ERA and 290 complete games. Not a typo here, that’s 289 complete games. He, Bob Feller, Bob Lemon and Mike Garcia formed the Indians Big 4 in the mid-1950’s. They were one of the finest starting pitching staffs in baseball history.
Glavine had a 22-year career, most of them with the fantastic Atlanta Braves clubs from 1987-2002. He finished his career back with the Braves following a brief five-year stint with the Mets. This is the amazing statistic-Glavine won 305 games or 102 more than he lost. He finished with a 3.54 ERA in 4,413 1/3 innings pitched. He had 56 complete games, which illustrates the beginning of an era when the complete game became more and more difficult to achieve.
Lemon came to the Indians organization as an infielder. He played third base and shortstop before converting to the mound. Few remember that Lemon was the Indians center fielder on Opening Day 1946 when Bob Feller threw a no-hitter. At the end of that season, he converted to pitching. In his 13 years on the mound, Lemon pitched only for Cleveland. He had a 207-128 record, winning 20 games or more seven times. He had a 3.23 ERA and threw 188 complete games.
It really is hard to describe how difficult it was for a hitter to face Greg Maddux. He was a master craftsman, using every inch of the plate to his advantage. He could paint the corners like a modern day Picasso. Maddux threw for 23-years while pitching for the Cubs, the Braves, the Cubs again, the Dodgers, the Padres and then the Dodgers again. He finished with a record of 355-227 and a 3.16 ERA. He threw 109 complete games and was part of the Glavine, Smoltz and Maddux trio that kept hitters baffled for years with the Braves.
Smoltz not only started 481 games, he saved 154 games in his 21-year career. That really is amazing. He won 213 and lost 155, pitching to a 3.33 ERA in 3,473 innings. Smoltz was masterful on the mound, and like Glavine and Maddux, he used the entire plate and took great advantage of whatever the umpire would give him. If the umpire called a ball a half an inch outside the strike zone a strike, Smotlz and friends would go an extra half inch further and usually get the call. Smoltz spent 20 of his 21 years with the Braves. He finished splitting the year with the Red Sox and Cardinals in 2009.
Wilhelm was among the best knuckleball pitchers ever. He closed out games, gaining 227 saves among his 1070 game appearances. His ERA of 2.52 takes his relief roles into account. I saw many of his saves when he pitched for the Orioles and White Sox in the prime of his career during the 1958-1968 seasons. Tough to hit, Wilhelm yielded only 1757 hits in his 2254 1/3 innings pitched.
Starting his career with the Mets in 1967, Seaver threw for 20 seasons, winning 311 and losing only 205 games. He finished his career with a 2.86 ERA in 4782 2/3 innings. Seaver threw 231 complete games, most of them with the Mets before he was traded to the Reds for the 1977 season. Seaver won 20 games or more four times and may have even been a little underrated in my opinion. Tough as nails, Seaver used a complete repertoire and attacked hitters.
Still going strong but out now with another visit to the disabled list due to a bad back, Kershaw reminds many of Sandy Koufax. Perhaps that’s because Koufax has mentored Kershaw in the Dodgers organization. Virtually everything Kershaw throws moves. His repertoire is complete, but his breaking pitches buckles knees and alters the balance of hitters. Without gaining victories as yet in big postseason games, Kershaw still has more to prove. He has a career 2.34 ERA in 1901 1/3 innings pitched. Kershaw has 25 complete games to date, which is a great deal in this modern era. He has thrown 15 shutouts.
I don’t want to say Martinez is the best right-handed pitcher I’ve seen, but he’s right up there on my list. Different than Feller or Gibson who would dominate with a fastball, Martinez kept hitters on their back foot with amazing movement on most of his pitches. He had a wipe out slider and changeup to complement his four-seam fastball. Every time I watched him pitch it was like being live at a pitching clinic. Martinez had an 18-year career with the Dodgers, Expos, Red Sox, Mets, and Phillies. His best years were probably with Boston. He had 46 complete games and 17 shutouts. Pitching for Montreal in 1997 he threw 13 complete games with a 1.90 ERA while winning 17 games.
Rivera threw 1283 2/3 innings for the New York Yankees and only the New York Yankees. He started only 10 games of 1115 in which he pitched. He had 652 saves and threw to a 2.21 ERA. He was masterful at his craft and the best relief pitcher…ever. Here’s the amazing part. In his career, over 85% of the pitches he threw were cutters. His other pitch was a two-seam sinking fastball. In his 19 years on the mound, his opponents never figured out how to hit his cutter. He had a career WHIP of 1.00. Some call his cutter a slider, and call it what you will. I don’t think we’ll ever see the dominance of the sort Mariano Rivera provided to the Yankees.
Sale began in the bullpen with the White Sox in 2010. He was only 21 at the time, and he learned on the job. Now one of the most dynamic starting pitchers in the game, Sale has a sparkling 2.96 ERA so far in his career. He has never won more than 20 games, illustrating one of the differences between today’s game and the past. Pitchers don’t usually last beyond 110 to 120 pitches at the most. Sale is special. He throws hard and mixes in a downhill motion from his lanky 6-6 frame. There is much more in his tank and the Red Sox have seen him pitch very well in Fenway Park, one of the toughest spots for a left-hander to pitch. The pounding he took from the bats of the Cleveland Indians this week was a total fluke and very un-Sale like.
MARK “THE BIRD” FIDRYCH-RPH
Few pitchers electrified baseball like Mark “The Bird” Fidrych. He was a unique character when he pitched for the Detroit Tigers. At 6-foot-3, 175 he wasn’t big, but he was very deceptive. And man, was he unique and colorful. He talked to the baseball among other eccentric actions on the mound. I loved to watch him because he had so much fun pitching. I remember watching him bend down and groom the mound. I remember him slapping high fives with infield teammate after a great play. He loved his job. I loved watching him do his job. His best season was his first, 1976 when he won 19 games and lost only 9 with a 2.34 ERA. He was the AL Rookie of the Year. He is on this list because I loved to watch him-not because he had a sustained career of greatness. Fans my age will smile when they see his name on this list and remember “The Bird”. He was killed while working on his truck at his farm in Worcester County, Massachusetts at the age of 54.
I’m still really upset at Bumgarner for his dirt bike accident that cost him and his team a half season of quality pitching. At the same time, I have to put that aside and remember what I saw with my own eyes when he dominated the Kansas City Royals in the 2014 World Series. But that was just the icing on the cake. Bumgarner had been dominating against team after team in almost every game he pitched even before that October miracle. He can really be great, but his pitch count is now beginning to show up in his outings. Bumgarner has pitched nine seasons, but it seems like 19. He throws lots of pitches and my inclusion of him on this list is due to his overall body of work that includes a career 2.99 ERA. He has never won 20 games but he does have 15 complete games, which is tough to do in this era. Here’s hoping he returns to greatness with his shoulder woes in the past.
Verlander is in the midst of his 13th major-league season. He is among the only pitchers I watch who consistently can throw his fastball at increasing velocities late in games. That’s amazing. Now at the age of 34, time and lots of pitches on his arm are catching up to him. His ERA is creeping up due to a tough 2017 campaign. He now sits at 3.51 for his career with his ERA being over 4 this season. I admire his approach, his intestinal fortitude and his ability. He was once a great pitcher and I loved watching him pitch.
Not a big man at all at 6-foot-0 and 180 pounds, Tiant was unique. He twisted his entire body around with his back facing home plate before he pitched. I would guess smoking his long cigar, a trademark of Tiant’s, celebrated all his 229 career victories. He finished his 19-year career with a sparkling 3.30 ERA while pitching for Cleveland, Minnesota, Boston, the Yankees, Pirates and the California Angels. He had four seasons winning 20-games or more. In 1968 Tiant threw nine shutouts on his way to a 21-9, 1.60 ERA for the Indians.
Marichal spent 14 years pitching for the San Francisco Giants. He finished his career pitching for the Red Sox and the rival Dodgers. He had 30 complete games in 1968 when he was a 26-game winner. He lost nine that year and had a 2.43 ERA. The following year he lowered his ERA to 2.10. He also threw an amazing 325 2/3 innings that year. Marichal would intimidate pitchers and in that regard, he was almost in a class with Gibson and Wynn. He reminded the hitter that home plate belonged to him. Using a high, high leg kick that was unique at the time, Marichal was very, very tough to hit.
Jim Abbot was born without a right hand. He was a good major league pitcher for a remarkable ten seasons. He pitched for the Angels, Yankees, Blue Jays, White Sox and Brewers. It was amazing to watch Abbott balance his glove on his right arm and transfer it to his hand in the blink of an eye after throwing the pitch. To this day I can’t imagine how Abbott was able to accomplish everything he did, including throwing a no-hitter with one hand. Abbott was an inspiration and his attitude was so uplifting that I couldn’t wait to watch him pitch.
My favorite knuckleball pitcher other than the aforementioned Hoyt Wilhelm was lefty Wilbur Wood. Wilhelm is credited with teaching Wood his craft. He was tough as nails pitching for the Chicago White Sox. In one afternoon, Wood finished the last five innings of a suspended 21-inning game and came back and started the scheduled game for the day, his second lengthy appearance the same day. In that second game, he threw a four-hit complete game shutout. He was credited with both wins the same night. Later that season Wood started both ends of a doubleheader and lost both games.
“Louisiana Lightning” Rod Guidry is only 5-foot-11 and he pitched at 160 pounds. He lasted 14 years, all of them with the New York Yankees. He finished his career with a 3.29 career ERA and a record of 170-91. Guidry threw 21 complete games in 1983 on his way to a record of 21-6. Guidry had a wicked fastball/slider combination that overwhelmed hitters. A terrific defender, Guidry won five Gold Gloves.
Jim Kaat won 283 major-league games over 25 fabulous seasons. He threw to an ERA of 3.45. He threw 4,530 1/3 innings. He had three seasons of 20 wins or more, winning 25-games in 1966, completing what he started 19 times that year. Kaat pitched in four decades. He won 16 Gold Gloves and was an All-Star three times. Kaat started 42 games in 1965 and 41 in 1966 and 1975. He was crafty, smart, economical and a team leader. And he isn’t in the Hall of Fame. His best shot may have come in 2014 when the National Baseball Hall of Fame Golden Era Committee had the chance to vote him into the Hall. Needing 12 votes, he got only ten.
Steve Carlton, Ed Lopat, Jim Palmer, Don Drysdale, C C Sabathia, Roy Halladay, Warren Spahn, Max Scherzer.
NEXT: HOW DO I REALLY FEEL ABOUT THE HALL OF FAME?
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