In a comment on my previous post, Bill asked for my list of the 10 best southpaws. I’m going to do something like that, but not actually list them 1 through 10. I want to use this post to make a couple of comments about the six left-handers who won 300 or more games. Later I’ll look at a few that didn’t.
Warren Spahn–maybe the most consistent pitcher ever, right or left. Between 1949 and 1963 he won less than 20 games three times (1952, ’55, and ’62). He’s 42 when he wins 23 in 1963. It tied his career high. Overall he won 363 games, never more than 23 in a season. If you’re a manager, don’t you love that number? For 15 years you can pencil in 21 wins from your ace without worrying about it. His highest ERA over the period was 3.26 ( in ’55, one of the years he doesn’t get to 20 wins), his lowest was 2.10 in 1953. the 3.26 is actually closer to his normal than the 2.10, but that’s still pretty good in the high scoring era that is the 1950s. Every year he had more innings pitched than hits, and led the National League in strikeouts four times. His ERA+ hovered around 120 for most of the period, peaking at 188 in 1953.
Steve Carlton–seems to have gotten lost over the years. For years he and Nolan Ryan were in a race to record more strikeouts than anyone else. Carlton got there first, but Ryan eventually blew by him (and everyone else). Carlton won 329 games, but unlike Spahn, won them in bunches then had periods where he didn’t do so well. His 1972 is one of those years that people still mention, and frequently is the only time he is mentioned. He won 27 games, his team won 59. He led the Nl in wins four times, in strikeouts five, and in ERA and shutouts both once. While still at St. Louis he set a record for most strikeouts in a game. Late in his career he becomes a nomad and isn’t very good.
Eddie Plank–easily the most obscure of the 300 win lefties. His career began in 1901 and ended in 1917. To give you some perspective, he was pitching 100 years ago. For years, until Spahn came along, Plank was the winningest left-hander ever. He spent time in the Federal League (1915) and that makes his win total in dispute. Some sites don’t recognize the Feds or Plank’s numbers, others do. He ended up with 326 wins (305 if you leave out the Feds), a .627 winning percentage, 69 shutouts (leading the American League twice), and played on three World Series winners. He never led the AL (or the Feds) in wins, ERA, or strikeouts. The knock on him seems to be that Connie Mack never considered Plank his ace. That appears to be true of the secondset of World Series years (1911-14), but Plank’s best years are the period 1902-06. The A’s win a pennant in 1902 (no World Series) and lose the Series in 1905. Plank doesn’t get to play for the great A’s teams until he’s beyond his prime. He’s 2-5 in Series play and does not pitch at all in the 1910 World Series victory.
Tom Glavine–the two pitcher on the great Braves staffs of the 1990s (behind Maddux). I think that hurts him a lot in much the same way that Drysdale gets hurt by being in Koufax’s shadow (not trying to compare Glavine and Drysdale directly). Glavine has a Cy Young (actually two), Maddux four. Glavine does have a World Series MVP trophy and pitched a magnificent game six in the 1995 World Series. It seems to be forgotten that he’s the ace of that 1991 Braves team that goes from last place to the World Series (and a Jack Morris masterpiece short of the championship). Overall he’s 305-203 for a .600 winning percentage. He led the NL in wins five times and in shutouts once. He was a good pitcher, but I think gets lost in the shuffle behind Maddux, as stated above, and behind the guy listed just below him in the wins column.
Randy Johnson–it’s kind of tough to say who is really the greatest left-hander ever, but a pretty good case could be made for Johnson. His record is 303-166 for a winning percentage of .646. My guess is a lot of people don’t realize his winning percentage is that high. He’s second in strikeouts (behind Ryan), his strikeouts to innings pitched ratio is Koufaxian (is that a word?), he won the strikeout title nine times, four years in a row going over 300 k’s (with two more 300+ k seasons earlier). He has a World Series ring, winning three games in the process (but is only 7-9 overall in postseason play). He wins 20 games three times, leads in ERA in winning percentage four times each, in shutouts twice, and early on walked a ton of batters. He got that last under control early and his walk to strikeout ratio is great after the first few years. He also had that easy sidearm delivery that seems to have been relatively easy on the arm and scared left-handed hitters to death. There was another Johnson whose delivery reminds me much of Randy’s. His name was Walter and he was pretty good too.
Lefty Grove–there is a school of thought that Grove is the greatest pitcher ever. I’m not in that school, but he was really good. He played in the 1920s and 1930s, huge hitting eras, and was easily the best left-hander in the American League in perhaps in all baseball (Carl Hubbell being his only competition). For his career he ended up 300-141 for a winning percentage of .680 which is darned close to the best ever by a left-hander (Whitey Ford’s is better) and is astonishing in the era he pitched. His ERA is 3.06, again a terrific number for the age and his 2.54 ERA in the inflated year of 1930 is one of the great feats ever by a pitcher (and almost totally overlooked today). He led the AL in ERA nine times, in strikeouts seven (all in a row), in shutouts three times, and his ERA+ in 1931 was 220. In ’31 he won 31 games (don’t you just love 31 in 31?) and lost four. He appeared in three straight World Series’ going 4-2 with his team winning the first two (1929 and 1930. The loss was 1931). He ended up at Boston where he hung on long enough for 300 wins and except for his last two years (1940-41) was pretty good even then.
So there are the left-handers who won 300 games. If I were doing a top 10, all would be on the list, although not in the order listed above.