The Greatest Pitching Peaks of Our Lives

BOSTON - APRIL 04: Former the Boston Red Sox pitcher Pedro Martinez points his finger in the air. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

I've always enjoyed the idea of comparing pitchers' peaks, rather than simply their careers as a whole. It seems to me that if you want to get into the proverbial debate of "If you had to pick one pitcher for one game to save the world, who would it be?" then it would make most sense to choose that pitcher with the highest level of performance over a period of time that was just long enough to rule out fluke, but short enough to escape the effects of common wear-and-tear of the arm, aging, or nagging injury.

This isn't really so much of a concern with position players-- as their season-to-season performances seem significantly less volatile. With pitchers, however, there seem to be many more cases of elite talent flame-out. I'm thinking of pitchers like Doc Gooden and even Sandy Koufax-- whose performances were absolutely other-worldly for an extended period of time, but then sadly cut short by all the inherent dangers of throwing a baseball.

I've put together a few tables then, illustrating the greatest 3-year, 4-year and 5-year peaks for starting pitchers based on park-adjusted, league-adjusted ERA+. Let's start small with the greatest 3-year peaks for pitchers with at least 100 IP in each of those 3 seasons:

GREATEST 3-YEAR PEAKS BY ERA+

# NAME Years AGE 3Y_IP 3Y_ERA+
1 Pedro Martinez 99--01 28 547 243
2 Pedro Martinez 00--02 29 533 227
3 Greg Maddux 93--95 28 678.7 220
4 Pedro Martinez 98--00 27 664 219
5 Walter Johnson 11--13 24 1037.3 218
6 Walter Johnson 12--14 25 1086.7 214
7 Greg Maddux 94--96 29 656.7 213
8 Pedro Martinez 01--03 30 502.7 202
9 Pedro Martinez 97--99 26 688.3 202
10 Walter Johnson 10--12 23 1061.3 198

I see a bit of controversy right away. While it is quite impressive that Pedro Martinez has 5 of these 10 best 3-year runs, his inning totals may leave a bit to be desired. This is primarily because right smack-dab in the middle of Pedro's torrid 7-year run from 1997-2003 was his injury-riddled 2001 season, in which he was limited to just 116 IP. If we ignore that inconvenient truth, as the above table does, then both Pedro's 99-01 and 00-02 periods beat out Gregg Maddux's 93-95 stretch by a healthy margin. But if we are going to demand at least 150 innings out of our starters to consider their three seasons "qualified", then Maddux stands at a virtual tie with Pedro's 98-2000 for best 3-year peak peak by ERA+.

Obviously, with all these overlapping time periods we shouldn't see too many changes once we extend the scope of our search to a 4-year Peak:

GREATEST 4-YEAR PEAKS BY ERA+

# NAME Years AGE 4Y_IP 4Y_ERA+
1 Pedro Martinez 99--02 28 746.3 231
2 Pedro Martinez 00--03 29 719.7 223
3 Pedro Martinez 97--00 26 905.3 219
4 Pedro Martinez 98--01 27 780.7 213
5 Walter Johnson 10--13 23 1407.3 210
6 Walter Johnson 12--15 25 1423.3 208
7 Greg Maddux 94--97 29 889.3 207
8 Greg Maddux 92--95 27 946.7 204
9 Walter Johnson 11--14 24 1409 203
10 Greg Maddux 93--96 28 923.7 200

In fact, it's exactly the same three names. There are a few changes: Pedro manages to steal the top 4 slots, and Walter Johnson makes some headway on Maddog. Maddux, whose 93-95 stretch once stood proudly at #3, is now forced to engulf his painfully inferior 1992 season and all the damage that it's league-leading 166 ERA+ brings with it. If you're bringing a 166 ERA+ to this party, you better be prepared to place 7th.

As it turns out, these three pitchers continue to hog the top ten for the 5-Year, 6-Year and 7-year Peaks of all-time as well. (Don't believe me? Click here if you got the guts. I would've kept going to 8-year samples but I was b.o.r.e.d. of seeing just Pedro/Maddux/Walter by that point.)

So, in order to make room for some of the other one billion pitchers in baseball history, allow me to disqualify a pitcher after his first and best showing from this point on:

GREATEST 3-YEAR PEAKS BY ERA+

# NAME Years AGE 3Y_IP 3Y_ERA+
1 Pedro Martinez 99--01 28 547 243
2 Greg Maddux 93--95 28 678.7 220
3 Walter Johnson 11--13 24 1037.3 218
4 Mordecai Brown 06--08 30 822.7 191
5 Randy Johnson 00--02 37 758.3 189
6 Lefty Grove 30--32 31 871.3 185
7 Roger Clemens 04--06 42 539 181
8 Hal Newhouser 44--46 24 918.3 180
9 Dick Radatz 62--64 26 414 180
10 Pete Alexander 15--17 29 1153.3 178

We finally get rolling, then, with dead-ball era Hall of Famer Three Finger Brown, who makes #4 primarily on the strength of his 1906 season in which he threw 277 innings with a 253 ERA+. Randy Johnson and his mid-career renaissance ranks as the 5th best player-peak at almost the same exact time Pedro was honoring us with the best peak ever. Lefty Grove also came late to the party and but then went on a historic stretch beginning in his age-30 season. Roger Clemens topped his 1990-1992 run once he turned 41 years of age, but beyond his peculiar timing The Rocket's presence here isn't at all a surprise.

But it's Hal Newhuser that jumps off the screen, isn't it? Obviously Hal was taking advantage of the depletion of the player-pool during WWII, but with some modest ERA's in '47 and '48 he still manages to hang around at #11 and #10 in our 4-year and 5-year queries:

GREATEST 4-YEAR PEAKS BY ERA+

# NAME Years AGE 4Y_IP 4Y_ERA+
1 Pedro Martinez 99--02 28 746.3 231
2 Walter Johnson 10--13 23 1407.3 210
3 Greg Maddux 94--97 29 889.3 207
4 Mordecai Brown 06--09 30 1165.3 191
5 Randy Johnson 99--02 36 1030 188
6 Lefty Grove 29--32 30 1146.7 176
7 Christy Mathewson 08--11 28 1291.3 174
8 Sandy Koufax 63--66 28 1192.7 172
9 Dan Quisenberry 82--85 30 534 172
10 Ed Walsh 07--10 28 1486.3 166

Dick Radatz also gets bumped out of the top ten in the 4-year sample as the follow-up to his stellar 3 year run was a disappointing 96 ERA+ in 1965. His absence then makes room for a pair of Hall of Famers in Sandy Koufax and The Christian Gentleman, and then-- wait a minute. Who's this? Dan Quisenberry! I had intended for this post to be held strictly to starting pitchers, but he regularly crossed the 100 inning threshold from 1982-1985 with some spectacular displays of run-prevention in the late-innings, so I'll let him slide.

GREATEST 5-YEAR PEAKS BY ERA+

# NAME Years AGE 5Y_IP 5Y_ERA+
1 Pedro Martinez 99--03 29 933 227
2 Greg Maddux 94--98 30 1140.3 202
3 Walter Johnson 11--15 25 1745.7 200
4 Mordecai Brown 06--10 31 1460.7 182
5 Randy Johnson 98--02 36 1274.3 177
6 Lefty Grove 35--39 37 1143 173
7 Christy Mathewson 08--12 29 1601.3 171
8 Sandy Koufax 62--66 28 1377 168
9 Kevin Brown 96--00 33 1209.7 165
10 Hal Newhouser 42--46 23 1297.7 164

Kevin Brown joining the group at #9 I find particularly interesting. His 5-year stretch of a 165 ERA+ is far more impressive than those of some very celebrated Hall of Fame hurlers. Take Nolan Ryan, for instance, who never topped more than 122 ERA+ in any given 5-year period.

Doc Gooden's best showing, incidentally, was his first 3-year sample which took place from1984-1986 when he posted a 155 ERA+.

Johann Santana's 5-year run from 2002-2006 shows up as 13th among the 5-year samples. His season, along with Clemens's 04-06 represent the two most recent historical peaks.

Once again, though, when we look at Pedro at the top of our final 5-year sample, we see that he has far and away the fewest inning totals of any of these players and that is something we can't completely ignore in good conscience. To account for this, then, next week we'll take a look at the greatest pitching peaks as determined by rWAR.

ERA+ figures may differ slightly (at most a point or two) from those of B-Ref's due to their implementation of "customized" park factors.

Tell @JDGentile all about your hopes and fears on Twitter.

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