When Philadelphia Phillies manager Charlie Manuel sent Chad Durbin to the mound to start the bottom of the fifth inning of game six of the 2009 World Series, replacing future Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez, it was the end of a baseball era. Martinez’s last game in the big leagues had not gone well as the New York Yankees, led by Hideki Matsui, rocked him for four runs in four innings. Martinez was the last of a quartet of pitching superstars also including Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens and Greg Maddux, who, at a time when offensive production was higher than ever, dominated the game as no other group of pitching peers ever have.
Between 1993 and 2007, the years when they were all pitching in the big leagues, Martinez, Johnson, Clemens and Maddux were consistently among the very best pitchers in baseball and all put careers together that make them among the very best ever to play the game. At no other time in the history of the game did four pitchers of this quality pitch together at the same time for nearly as long. The closest competitors are not some combination of early 20th century pitchers like Walter Johnson, Mordechai Brown and Christy Mathewson. These players, along with other early stars such as Grover Cleveland Alexander and Cy Young did not overlap in the big legues for nearly as many years. Similarly, Sandy Koufax’s career was too short to be part of a foursome with Bob Gibson, Juan Marichal and somebody else. However, from 1969-1984 Steve Carlton, Phil Niekro, Jim Palmer and Tom Seaver were all active and great pitchers. These are the closest rivals to the recently retired big four.
The Martinez, Johnson, Clemens, Maddux group pitched only a few years later but at a time when the game had already changed quite a bit. Nonetheless, they were probably better. From 1993-2007 Clemens posted an ERA+ of 138 in 2885.2 innings. For Maddux these numbers were 143 in 3372.1 innings, Johnson 152 in 3037.1 innings and Martinez 161 in 2665.2 innings. The four pitchers appeared in a total of 10 World Series and 29 All Star Games during these fifteen years. They also won fifteen Cy Young Awards and had 30 top ten Cy Young finishes in this period.
Carlton, Niekro, Palmer and Seaver were in the big leagues together for 18 years, but their best fifteen year period was 1969-1983. During these fifteen years they combined for an impressive 10 Cy Young awards and 29 top ten finishes. These numbers are very comparable to the other group, particularly because for many years there was something of an unspoken agreement that players would not win a major award more than thrice. Carlton’s 1983 Cy Young was the first exception to this rule. It is also worth noting that Niekro who was a truly great pitcher was undervalued by award voters throughout his career. These four also appeared in 28 All Star Games, due largely to Seaver’s ten All Star Game selections during these years. This was only one fewer than the other group.
Some of the other numbers speak to the different eras in which these players pitched. This is particularly stark given that Niekro and Clemens, for example, had careers that overlapped by a few years. Nonetheless, Maddux’s 3372.1 innings paced the later group, but this number was exceeded by all of the four pitchers in the earlier group. Carlton and Niekro pitched just over 4,000 innings each during the fifteen year period while Seaver and Palmer logged just over 3,500 innings.
However, while the earlier group of pitchers was much more durable, due largely to pitching in an era where complete games were more common and starting pitchers generally lasted longer in each game if they were throwing well, the latter group had consistently better ERAs and ERA+. Clemens 138 ERA+ is the lowest of the later group but it is higher than all the members of the earlier group. Palmer led that group with an ERA+ of 131 between 1969 and 1983 with Seaver just behind at 130. This demonstrates how dominant, at least with regards to ERA, the later group was historically significant. Another way to see this is that since 1900 only 13 players have pitched at least 2,800 innings in their career while having an ERA+ of 130 or better; and four of them were Clemens, Martinez, Maddux and Johnson.
Clemens, Martinez, Maddux and Johnson were among the four greatest pitchers ever. In an era defined by historically high offenses, they also defined the era with their pitching. Obviously, Clemens’ use of steroids tarnishes this somewhat, but he also pitched to more than his share of batters who were taking steroids. Interestingly, one cut down from these four was another group of pitchers including Mike Mussina, Kevin Brown, Andy Pettitte and Curt Schilling who while not as good are certainly comparable to many players already enshrined in the Hall of Fame. The steroid era was an interesting period defined by fantastic top line pitching and very poor secondary pitching. This also may have contributed to the extremely high ERA+ numbers of the Clemens, Martinez, Maddux, Johnson group. Not only were they great pitchers, but they were great pitchers at a time when pitching in general was not very strong.