We Ranked The Best Starting Pitcher From Every Decade

Jake Cain

Jake Cain

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Last Updated: April 10th, 2024 by Jake Cain

Major League Baseball has seen an array of dominant starting pitchers over the decades, each leaving their mark on the sport in their own era.

Though admittedly, it’s tough to compare the numbers of a dead ball era pitcher like Cy Young to those of a modern player like Randy Johnson as the standards and expectations of pitchers have changed so much.

So we thought it would be fun to select the best pitcher of every decade, starting from 1900 up through the 2010’s.

I’m sure we’ll all agree on this list 100%

Cy Young: 1900’s

Cy Young dominated the mound in the early 20th century, as the workhorse of his era. His name became synonymous with pitching excellence, evidenced by 511 career wins, a record that remains unbroken—a testament to his durability and skill during the 1900s. Young’s impressive 2.63 career ERA and three Triple Crown wins (’01, ’05, ’08) solidify his status as the premier starting pitcher of the 1900s.

Walter Johnson 1910’s

Throughout the 1910s, Walter Johnson established himself as a dominant force on the mound. With his fast fastball and unparalleled endurance, he amassed a jaw-dropping record of 265 wins, more than any other pitcher in the decade. In fact, his 110 shutouts remain a testament to his mastery and control.

He led the AL in strikeouts a whopping 8 times during the ’10s, racking up over 2,000 K’s which speaks volumes about his dominance. Johnson’s ability to consistently outperform hitters during this era, including 11 seasons with an ERA below 2.00, is why baseball aficionados widely regard him as the era’s premier pitcher.

His consistency and durability were remarkable, emphasized by the immense number of complete games, which totaled 531 over his career. That level of stamina makes Johnson’s pitching achievements in the 1910s a marvel in baseball’s storied history, securing his legacy as the decade’s top starter.

Dazzy Vance 1920’s

In the 1920s, Dazzy Vance emerged as baseball’s premier strikeout king. With a fastball that astonished opposing hitters, he led the National League in strikeouts for seven consecutive years, from 1922 to 1928, as detailed on Baseball-Reference.com. His dominance peaked in 1924 when he claimed the NL’s MVP and secured the pitching Triple Crown, topping the league in wins, ERA, and strikeouts, an achievement highlighted on Baseball Almanac.

Vance’s 28 wins and a 2.16 ERA in 1924 testify to his exceptional ability to command the game. He also threw a no-hitter against the Phillies, confirming his reputation as a phenomenal pitcher in the MLB. These performances during the decade cemented his position as the best starting pitcher of the 1920s, a status acknowledged by his Hall of Fame induction which can be read about on SABR’s biography.

Lefty Grove 1930’s

In the 1930s, Lefty Grove stood out as the era’s pitching titan, winning an impressive nine ERA titles and boasting the highest winning percentage among 300 game winners with .680. His dominance on the mound was highlighted by his 1931 MVP season, where he led the American League in wins, ERA, and strikeouts.

Lefty’s impact was enduring; he set a benchmark for pitching excellence that resonated throughout the decade, earning him two Triple Crowns and solidifying his status as the best starting pitcher of the 1930s.

Bob Feller 1940’s

Bob Feller, nicknamed “Rapid Robert,” was a dominant force for the Cleveland Indians throughout the 1940s. Despite his career being interrupted by World War II service, where he enlisted immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Feller amassed accomplishments that projected him as the era’s preeminent starting pitcher. His blazing fastball and sharp-breaking curve led him to lead the American League in strikeouts seven times, and in 1946, just returning from service, he pitched a remarkable 348 strikeouts, a record that stood for almost two decades.

Feller’s prowess on the mound is highlighted by his Opening Day no-hitter in 1940 against the Chicago White Sox – the only one in MLB history to occur on Opening Day.

In addition to his three no-hitters, he churned out 12 one-hitters across his career, underscoring his ability to dominate games almost single-handedly. It’s his durability and ability to throw complete games, ending the decade with an impressive 44 shutouts, that really set him apart.

Adding to his strikeouts and no-hitters, Feller led the league in wins three times during the 1940s. His key role in clinching the 1948 World Series title for the Indians further cements his status as the premier pitcher of his time. Bob Feller was not just a pitcher; he was a legend whose performances during the 1940s are etched into baseball history.

Warren Spahn 1950s

Warren Spahn dominated the mound in the 1950s, etching his name as baseball’s premier left-handed pitcher. He led the National League in wins eight times during the decade, a testament to his consistency and endurance. Spahn was the very image of a workhorse, pitching an impressive 382 complete games, which included a no-hitter in 1951 and another in 1960, underscoring his dominance that bridged decades.

His 1953 season was a personal best, seeing him earn the Cy Young award while amassing 23 victories for the Milwaukee Braves. That year, he also showcased his batting skills, hitting a .333 batting average which was extraordinary for a pitcher. Spahn’s stylistic versatility and competitive edge were on full display throughout the ’50s, as he also led the league with a 2.10 ERA in 1953.

Spahn was not merely a player but an icon who shaped the game’s strategic aspects. He was lauded for his longevity in the sport, playing well into his 40s, a reflection of his fitness and dedication. His significant impact on the Braves’ successes, particularly their 1957 World Series victory, cements him as the best starting pitcher of the 1950s.

Bob Gibson 1960’s

During the 1960s, Bob Gibson emerged as a dominant force on the mound for the St. Louis Cardinals. His fiercely competitive nature was evident in his performance, where he racked up 2,130 strikeouts in the decade. In 1968, Gibson achieved an astonishing 1.12 ERA, a single-season record that still stands among starting pitchers, and he took home both the Cy Young and NL MVP awards that year.

He was not only known for his power pitching, but also for his mental tenacity, intensity, and a work ethic that led him to complete 255 games in the ’60s. Gibson’s postseason play further cemented his legacy; he was named World Series MVP twice, adding to his recognition as one of baseball’s all-time great pitchers. His unmatched performance and key role in two World Championship wins for the Cardinals in 1964 and 1967 demonstrate why Bob Gibson was the best starting pitcher of the 1960s.

Tom Seaver 1970’s

During the 1970s, Tom Seaver emerged as the defining ace of Major League Baseball. In this decade, Seaver clinched three Cy Young Awards and led the New York Mets to a World Series victory in 1969, a momentum that he maintained into the new decade. His performance peaked in 1971 with an astounding 1.76 ERA, and throughout the ’70s, he consistently posted sub-3.00 ERAs, earning him the nickname “Tom Terrific.”

Seaver’s greatness on the mound was further underscored by his 1973 season, when he notched up 251 strikeouts and held a brilliant 2.08 ERA. He was a 10-time All-Star, underlining his status as the premier pitcher of his age. Seaver’s contributions to the game extended beyond his pitches, as he was instrumental in the Mets’ “Ya Gotta Believe” season while also mentoring younger pitchers on the Mets roster.

The decade of the ’70s saw Seaver leading the league in strikeouts five times, showcasing not only his overpowering fastball but also his intelligence in changing speeds and locations. His durability was manifested in 20 or more wins in four seasons of the decade, reinforcing his position as the most dominant and reliable starting pitcher. His mastery at the art of pitching made Tom Seaver a celebrated figure in baseball and an easy pick for the best starting pitcher of the 1970s.

Dave Stieb 1980’s

During the 1980s, Dave Stieb emerged as a dominant ace for the Toronto Blue Jays, exemplifying durability and excellence on the mound. He racked up an impressive 140 wins, the second-highest in the decade, and maintained a solid 3.32 ERA, reflecting his consistent performance in a period known for explosive offense.

With 27 shutouts, 92 complete games, and a formidable 48.0 WAR that outpaced his peers, Stieb defined elite pitching throughout the ’80s, solidifying his status as the decade’s premier starting pitcher.

Greg Maddux 1990’s

In the realm of 90s baseball, Greg Maddux stands tall as a dominating force on the mound. The right-hander’s precision and control were unmatched, earning him four consecutive Cy Young Awards from 1992 to 1995.

Throughout the decade, Maddux boasted a record that resonated with dominance, accumulating 176 wins which were the most by any pitcher in the 90s. His ERA was a sparkling 2.54 during this span, embodying pitching excellence with finesse rather than overpowering velocity.

Maddux’s mastery is further highlighted by his 1995 World Series victory with the Atlanta Braves and three additional seasons leading the National League in ERA, culminating in a personal best of 1.56 in 1994. His consistent performance helped reshape the decade’s pitching standards and solidified his spot as the era’s preeminent starter.

Randy Johnson 2000’s

During the 2000s, Randy Johnson solidified his status as a dominant force on the mound. Nicknamed “the Big Unit,” his towering presence and fierce pitching style led to him receiving four consecutive Cy Young Awards from 1999 to 2002, a feat few have matched. With an impressive record that includes a perfect game in 2004 and co-leading the Arizona Diamondbacks to a World Series victory in 2001, Johnson’s performance throughout the decade was nothing short of exemplary.

His fastball, paired with a devastating slider, left hitters struggling at the plate; he recorded over 2,000 strikeouts during the decade, a clear testament to his prowess. This combination of awards, milestones, and outright intimidation on the field makes it clear why Randy Johnson stands out as the premier starting pitcher of the 2000s.

Clayton Kershaw 2010’s

Clayton Kershaw dominated the mound in the 2010s with the Los Angeles Dodgers, showcasing a masterful blend of command and power. He collected three Cy Young Awards in 2011, 2013, and 2014, with a historic MVP win as a pitcher in 2014, a rare accomplishment in modern baseball. His career was punctuated by an ERA title in 2011 and a no-hitter in 2014, underlining his status as the decade’s premier starting pitcher.