Debate: Who's the best lefty ever?

Updated: June 5, 2009, 1:07 PM ET
ESPN.com

Now that Randy Johnson has become an official member of the 300-win club, where does he rank among the greatest left-handed pitchers of all time? Is the Big Unit the greatest lefty ever? Or is it Lefty Grove, Warren Spahn, Sandy Koufax or someone else?

We left the argument to three of ESPN.com's top baseball historians -- Jim Caple, Rob Neyer and Jayson Stark -- who debated the topic in the following e-mail exchange:

Is there anyone out there who will seriously claim that Randy Johnson is not the greatest lefty of all time?

Seriously? Sure!

Lefty Grove
AP PhotoLEFTY GROVE (1925-41)
Record: 300-141; ERA: 3.06

I will seriously claim that there are three contenders for the title: Johnson, Lefty Grove and Warren Spahn.

Some might also claim that Sandy Koufax is a contender, but I have a hard time taking that claim seriously.

And I suppose someone who came of age in the 1970s might consider Steve Carlton. But I believe if we're going to seriously grapple with this question, it's those first three candidates we must discuss. Seriously.

OK, count me in as the voice of the masses …

Steve Carlton definitely needs to be part of this conversation. I'm required by my birthplace to make that announcement.

We should also at least pay homage to Whitey Ford and Carl Hubbell.

And while anyone who has read my overrated/underrated book knows, I'm clearly not the guy who should be arguing for Sandy Koufax. But there's a case to be made for him, if you frame the argument verrrrrrry carefully.

Eddie Plank
Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics/Getty ImagesEDDIE PLANK (1901-17)
Record: 326-194; ERA: 2.35

Hey, and while we're at it, what about Eddie Plank? He won almost exactly as many games as Carlton and his career ERA-plus was significantly better. I'm not saying Plank was as good as Randy Johnson … but if there's room in this discussion for Ford and Carlton, there should be room for Plank, too, because he was more effective than Carlton and won more games than Ford.

You want to take turns knocking those guys down? I'll start with Plank. As good as he was, he was never really the best pitcher in his league -- not until he skipped to the weak Federal League, anyway -- but rather was merely very good for a long time. You might think of him as the Andy Pettitte of the dead-ball era. Next?

Can we establish something right now? I don't consider baseball before the live-ball era to be even the same sport as what we're watching now. So comparing pitchers now to pitchers then is one of those exercises that always feels like a massive stretch. With that sentiment in mind, I vote we only talk about the live-ball era. All in favor?

Well, umm … Plank is the only pitcher from the Dead Ball Era that "we" have mentioned. I'm not sure how you define the "Live Ball Era," but I'm guessing it begins in the 1920s? Which means everyone else we've mentioned would qualify. So yes, now that we've dispensed with Plank, by all means let's restrict ourselves to pitchers who toiled after World War I. And moving along in chronological order, who wants to shoot down Carl Hubbell's candidacy?

Here's the debate Rob and I constantly get into. I saw Steve Carlton pitch a lot of games with my own eyeballs. And that was greatness. I never saw Hubbell pitch. But I knew how guys on both teams felt when Carlton went out to pitch a game that mattered. And if he didn't win, it was a shock to both teams. So as much as I think the numbers matter here, I have a hard time getting past that feeling I got watching Carlton pitch.

Carl Hubbell
FPG/Getty ImagesCARL HUBBELL (1928-43)
Record: 253-154; ERA: 2.98

Well, (as I'm sure you know) that's the problem with this sort of argument. If we could dig up someone who saw Hubbell pitch quite a bit, he could make exactly the same argument. In fact, it was quite a shock when Hubbell didn't win, too. The difference is essentially that Hubbell's brilliance came in a number of consecutive seasons, while Carlton tended to space his out. But while Hubbell finished first or second in the National League in ERA six times, Carlton did that only three times (and if we adjust for home ballparks, the story's basically the same). I would classify Carlton as the greater pitcher because he did it for longer, but his greatness hardly exceeds Hubbell's, and it comes nowhere near Johnson's.

I believe we've adequately dispensed with Plank, Hubbell and Carlton. Does anyone care to make a case for Ford and/or Koufax? My take on Ford is that he was great -- especially since Casey Stengel liked to save him for the better competition -- but not for long enough and in the lesser league, and that Koufax's six great seasons simply aren't enough to boost him into the group with our top three contenders.

OK, I'm going to defend Carlton one more time. He's the second-winningest left-handed pitcher in the history of baseball (behind only Spahn). There was a time when he was the deserving owner of the all-time career strikeout record (yes, even more whiffs than his contemporary, Nolan Ryan). He was either first or second in the league in strikeouts eight times. He finished in the top three in ERA-plus five times.

And Rob, I'm not sure what you mean by "spacing out" his greatness. He easily could have won four Cy Youngs in six years (1977-82). And outside of three down years in the mid-70s, he was great by almost any definition every season from 1971 to '82. So he shouldn't be so easily dismissed in this discussion.

Sandy Koufax
Getty ImagesSANDY KOUFAX (1955-66)
Record: 165-87; ERA: 2.76

Now let me move along to Sandy Koufax. As I said in my "Stark Truth" book, it's very possible there has never been a more dominating pitcher ever than the dominator Koufax was over the last four years of his career (97-27, 1.86, while leading the league in ERA every one of those seasons). And if the Koufax fans want to argue for the last six years of his career, I'll allow that, since he did win a strikeout title in one of the other two years and an ERA title in the other.

But the reason we can't rank him as the best left-hander ever is the first six years of his career. If you're calculating along at home, you may notice that would be half of his career, by the way. I'm not sure many people are even aware that he went 36-40, allowing nearly 13 baserunners per nine innings, in that half of his career. And of all the pitchers in baseball who pitched as many innings as he did in that period, he had the second-worst ERA (beating out only the immortal Chuck Stobbs).

So if we get to pick out selective chunks of these guys' careers, give me the last four years for Koufax over any stretch you want to nominate. But is that enough to make him the greatest left-hander of all time? Sorry. I just can't go there.

As I said, I certainly won't dispute the notion that Carlton was a great pitcher. But I'm not sure which "three down years in the mid-70s" you mean. From 1971 through 1982, there were eight seasons in which Carlton didn't finish in the top five in the National League in ERA, and six in which he didn't finish in the top 10. Does "almost any definition" include finishing among the league leaders in ERA? I think it probably should. Again, not saying he wasn't great. From 1971 through '82, Carlton was the best left-hander in the majors. He just wasn't great in every season. Sometimes he was great, and otherwise he was merely quite good. In this observer's opinion.

Whitey Ford
Focus on Sport/Getty ImagesWHITEY FORD (1950-67)
Record: 236-106; ERA: 2.75

Anyway, unless Jim wants to make a case for Whitey Ford, let's move along. I've probably written too much over the years about Lefty Grove and not enough about Warren Spahn, so let me say a few things here about Spahn:

He won 363 games, or roughly three seasons' worth more than Randy Johnson. He made 32 or more starts in 17 seasons; Johnson has done that 11 times. Sure, we must allow for the differences in pitcher usage between Spahn's era and Johnson's. Still, Johnson has led his league in innings pitched just twice, while Spahn led his league in innings four times, and in complete games nine times (against four times for Johnson).

Obviously, Spahn can't match Johnson's dominance in ERA or strikeouts. But I believe we must wrestle with Spahn's apparent edge in durability and consistency.

I guess I have to keep defending Carlton here. But he deserves that. The years I was referring to were 1973-74-75. Outside of that, let's rip through them.

Steve Carlton
Focus on Sport/Getty ImagesSTEVE CARLTON (1965-88)
Record: 329-244; ERA: 3.22

1971: went 20-9, made the All-Star team, top-10 in a bunch of categories
1972: won 27 for a team that won 32 games all season when anyone else started
1976: finished fourth in the Cy Young, got MVP votes
1977: won a Cy Young
1978: I'll acknowledge a pretty average year by his standards, but top 10 in ERA
1979: won 18, second in the league in H/9IP
1980: won another Cy
1981: easily could have won a Cy
1982: Cy No. 4
So have I made my case at least semi-rationally? I don't see why we just want to touch on this guy and dismiss him. He was a four-time Cy Young monster.

We're getting a bit far afield here, and (frankly) I think you're sort of cherry-picking your stats.

Second in H/IP in '79? Sure, but his ERA was five percent better than league average. That's just not great.

One standard of "greatness" -- and I'm going to suggest this before checking to see what he actually did -- is an ERA-plus of 125 or better. From 1971-82, Carlton reached that number five times. I'd cut him some slack in one or two other seasons because he threw a million innings (particularly in '74 and '82). Randy Johnson topped 125 in 11 seasons, and usually he topped 125 by a lot.

I did acknowledge that Carlton was great, but unless you want to argue that he was as great as Johnson, I think we should probably leave it at that.

I agree we need to move on. But while I think ERA-plus is a great barometer, I don't believe in any magic numbers or magic stats. Greatness is one of those qualities that takes in more than mere numbers. But Randy proved that many times himself. He had amazing numbers, but that wasn't all that made him great, if you know what I mean.

Sorry for my tardiness, but I was wondering … when can we get around to talking about the best lefty of all time, Randy Johnson?

Have at it! But no fair just going over the Unit's impressive feats of strength. You also have to make the case for him instead of Spahn or Grove, so Jayson and I can nitpick like we've been doing to each other in your absence.

Talking to Johnson recently, he told me that when he won the Warren Spahn Award for best left-handed pitcher (is there no end to the awards they give?), he said Spahn asked him what kind of season he had. He said, "Oh, I threw 270 innings and had 12 complete games." Spahn just said, "That's a nice year, Randy, but I did that every year."

Warren Spahn
Photo File/Getty ImagesWARREN SPAHN (1942-65)
Record: 363-245; ERA: 3.09

That's a bit of an exaggeration -- Spahn averaged 251 innings -- but it points out how good Spahn was. Thirteen 20-win seasons, including 12 in a 15-season span. Nine top-five finishes in ERA. 363 wins, etc. You just don't realize how great Spahn was until you look closely at his numbers.

But it was just a vastly different game then. And if you look at one of your favorite stats, ERA-plus, Johnson beat him 136 to 118 for his career. He led the league six times in that from 1995 to 2004, during the heart of the power/steroids era, when you could make an argument that he was the most dominant pitcher in baseball for the longest such stretch any pitcher has ever had.

Well, not to diminish that accomplishment … but steroids/power or no steroids/power, someone had to lead the league in ERA-plus in those years. What's particularly impressive isn't when he did it, but what he did. Johnson's 136 career ERA-plus is impressive enough, but in those 10 seasons you mentioned it was 172. And even that doesn't get to the whole thing, because his numbers in 1993 and '94 were pretty awesome, too; he finished second and third in the Cy Young balloting in those seasons. So let's include those, and consider his 12-season run: During 1993-2004, Johnson went 197-80 with a 2.78 ERA and a 166 ERA-plus.

Spahn's best 12-year run? It ran from 1947 through '58, and he went 238-152 with a 2.94 ERA and a 127 ERA-plus.

166 vs. 127. Hardly seems like a fair fight.

But Jim, you mentioned the "vastly different game" and you're right. I'm just not so sure -- and yes, I realize I'm on shaky ground here -- that the vast difference means what you think it means. Have you ever noticed just how dominant the pitchers of this era have been, compared to the pitchers of Spahn's era?

In those same 12 seasons of Johnson's dominance, Pedro Martinez was even more dominant, with a 168 ERA-plus, and Greg Maddux wasn't far behind, at 157. Meanwhile, in the same basic era you've got Roger Clemens with a 154 ERA-plus in his best 12-season run. If we use ERA-plus as our guide, then essentially we wind up with four contemporary pitchers ranking among the dozen or so best pitchers ever. Which makes me think that maybe there was something about these past 20 years that made great pitchers look even greater than they were.

Excellent points. That era saw extremes at both ends of the spectrums, an indication that there was something very interesting going on and that players such as the aforementioned pitchers and batters such as Bonds, McGwire, Griffey, etc., were feasting on it. I'm not saying PEDs, but that there was something that allowed the best to really take advantage of the conditions.

The late great paleontologist/baseball fan Stephen Jay Gould once wrote about this in an essay on the extinction of the .400 hitter, and how in the early years within any system, you see extremes at each end until evolution continues and an averaging-out occurs (SJG put it much better than I just did).

Still, I think the latter era had more talent than in Spahn's days, with the game opened up much more beyond white players. That wasn't the case for a good chunk of Spahn's career, even if the color line was officially gone.

Don't you think the biggest difference between Randy's era and Spahn's era was the explosion of strikeouts? Even the biggest sluggers from Spahn's time didn't swing from their butts with two strikes the way leadoff men do now. So it seems to me the dominant strikeout pitchers of the past 15 years were able to exploit that the way pitchers from the '50s and '60s never could. And that contributed mightily to their dominance.

But it also makes it tough for people like us to give Spahn his due. Spahn's career strikeout rate was only 4.43 whiffs per nine innings. But the league-average whiff rate back then was only 4.68 K/9 IP. Strikeouts are up more than 30 percent since Spahn's era. So as amazing as Randy's strikeout rate (10.65/9 IP) may be, we have to factor in how much easier it's been in his day to get the Mark Reynolds of the earth to fish at 0-2 sliders that bounce eight feet in front of the plate.

That is a big difference, but not the biggest difference by any means. More importantly, Spahn struck out fewer than the league average, while Randy struck out far, far more than the league average. So he still wins the dominance category.

I'm not arguing that Spahn was more dominant than Randy. But I think we tend to undersell him because his strikeout rate was so low. Heck, we think of Cy Young and Grover Cleveland Alexander as dominators, and they had even lower strikeout rates than Spahn.

It is very easy to undervalue Spahn, mostly because he pitched most of his career in Milwaukee, the center of that vast Midwest media bias conspiracy. I mean, just look at his career stats! That said, the strikeouts plus the significantly better ERA-plus numbers give Randy a big edge in dominance. Also, did Spahn ever kill a bird with a pitch? Huh?

No, but he did kill the Cardinals in his time. Does that count? OK, I'll concede the point. Anybody who could kill a bird was definitely the most dominating left-hander of all time, as voted by the American Aviary Association.

Heh. Good one. If I may, though. … We're not looking for the most dominant left-hander of all time; we're looking for the best left-hander. But you know, I'm not completely sure that Randy Johnson's the most dominating lefty, anyway. In context, anyway. Beginning as a rookie, Lefty Grove led the American League in strikeouts in seven straight seasons.

Randy Johnson
Greg Fiume/Getty ImagesRANDY JOHNSON (1988-present)
RECORD: 300-164; ERA: 3.29

And for what it's worth, he also led the American League in ERA in nine seasons. Do you know how hard it must be to lead your league in ERA nine times? Roger Clemens is No. 2 on the all-time list, having done it seven times. Pedro Martinez, Greg Maddux, and (yes) Randy Johnson each have done it four times. Tom Seaver did it three times, and Nolan Ryan and Jim Palmer each did it twice. Think about that: Grove led his league in ERA as many times as Seaver, Ryan and Palmer put together. That, my friends, is dominance.

Oh, and we were talking about ERA-plus and 12-season runs? Grove clocks in at 160 … and 158 over 14 seasons! And just to extend the comparison, Grove finished with 300 wins on the nose -- which is, I dare to say, quite close to where Mr. Johnson will finish.

I know it's easy to poke big holes in Grove's candidacy because he pitched all those years ago, before television and microwave ovens and nuclear bombs (not to mention nuclear sliders). But I'm a bit wary of discounting the feats of the old-timers. Because otherwise you wind up with Randy Johnson and Roger Clemens and Greg Maddux and maybe Pedro Martinez as the four greatest pitchers anyone's ever seen. And I'm just not sure that we're really so special.

Yeah, but how many birds did Lefty Grove wipe out, huh?

OK, seriously folks, it's about time we got around to Lefty. And Rob, you didn't even mention that he also had the greatest winning percentage of any 300-game winner ever (.680). And his three mind-boggling seasons from 1929 to '31 might have been the three greatest back-to-back-to-back seasons of all time (79-15, with a 2.46 ERA and ERA-pluses of 151, 185 and 219). So Caple, I'm telling you right now: You're going to have to dig deep, man. It's going to take some seriously dazzling arguing to convince me Randy was better than Lefty Grove.

You're right. The issue is who was better, not more dominant. Clemens could be considered a more dominant right-handed pitcher than Maddux, but does that mean he was a better pitcher? Not necessarily.

But … I don't knock the accomplishments of Grove just because he wasn't on TV or didn't throw a slider (which he could have learned). But I do discount his stats for the same reason I discount all pre-1947 stats. The color barrier. As great as his career was, and as great as his stats are, he simply was pitching against inferior competition. So he was dominating a league that wasn't as good as it is today. And for what it's worth, isn't it also easier to lead a league in a category when there are only seven other teams as opposed to 13 or 15 others? Grove had to be better than about 70 other pitchers … no mean feat, certainly, but easier than being better than about 150 others.

Are those valid points? Sure. But you can only pitch against the teams that show up to face you. And while there were fewer pitchers to beat out for those honors, wasn't every lineup loaded? And weren't pitching staffs better and deeper? So the odds of matching up with some Quadruple-A stumblebum were much lower.

In other words, I'm willing to concede that we should take into account the exclusion of blacks and Latinos from the sport. But I'm not prepared to accept that, just because we've righted that wrong, the game is vastly superior today. Which means I'm still not convinced. Keep arguing, pal!

I'm not arguing for anyone, but I will point out that, no, every lineup in the late '20s and early '30s was not loaded. Further, when Grove was pitching for the Athletics -- as he did in his prime -- he didn't have to face one of the two best lineups in the American League because one of them was the Athletics' lineup. And in some seasons, at least, Connie Mack rarely employed Grove against the Yankees, who of course boasted the league's other best lineup.

I'm sorry, Jayson, but why would every lineup have been loaded? Why would staffs have been deeper and better? They were selecting players from a much smaller talent pool -- the U.S. population was about one-third what it is now, which isn't including minorities who were banned or players from foreign countries -- so it was just the opposite. Plus, as the U.S. found when it started the draft in 1940, a quarter of U.S. males were malnourished. We're talking a significantly smaller and lesser talent pool.

I acknowledge you can only pitch against the guys who show up. And the color barrier wasn't Grove's fault. But when we're comparing players across eras and have only numbers to guide us, we cannot ignore that the circumstances in which those numbers were accumulated. So if a guy is performing at a certain level against better opponents, that has to be considered in his favor.

It doesn't need to be a vastly superior league to give Johnson a big edge here -- just superior. And I don't see how you can reasonably argue that stats compiled in a league that excluded players along the lines of A-Rod, Santana, Pujols, Jeter, CC, Torii Hunter, Vlad, Sizemore, Manny, Ortiz and on and on, could possibly have the same validity as a league that includes them.

OK, I acknowledge your point. I thought I somewhat acknowledged it in the first place. But it's time to extol Randy, not his generation or the social conditions that surrounded it. Let me ask the question we've all been dancing around through this entire conversation:

What, in your view, makes Randy greater than Grove?

Short and sweet? What he did against the opposition he faced. He had a length of dominance that ranks among the best we've ever seen, against better competition.

And if you want numbers, here are numbers:

Johnson has more strikeouts than any other lefty, and 700 more than Carlton. He won five Cy Youngs and finished second three times. Despite competing against more pitchers, he led his league in ERA four times and finished second three times. He had a much better adjusted ERA than Spahn and faced superior competition to Grove. He threw two no-hitters, one a perfect game, and struck out 20 in one game. And he did almost all that while pitching in an era of high offense. My overall reason for giving him the nod: He did it against better competition.

A few comments about your latest, then a few comments of my own …

Johnson's strikeouts don't carry a great deal of weight with me, because strikeouts have been relatively common in his era. I'm not saying they don't count for anything -- God knows I've harped on strikeouts more than enough over the years -- but I don't want to go overboard on the strikeouts and the no-hitters, as it's that kind of thinking that leads to arguing that Nolan Ryan was better than Jim Palmer and (gasp) Tom Seaver. As for the "high offense," I'll just repeat my earlier point: In this era of high offense, Johnson has not been the only pitcher to post incredible numbers. It seems to me that high offense might make great pitchers look even greater.

You make a good case for the Big Unit, though. And I'm struggling more than I usually do in discussions like this one. So let me take one more stab at separating our three candidates:

• Grove was one of the game's best pitchers for 14 seasons, during which he went 276-116 with a 158 (!) ERA-plus, while -- it should be said again -- generally facing less than the best competition.

• Spahn was one of the game's best pitchers for 17 seasons, during which he went 342-211 with a 124 ERA-plus, while facing many of the best athletes in the Western Hemisphere (though he didn't face his own good team, and for years was rarely allowed to pitch in Brooklyn).

• Johnson was one of the game's best pitchers for 12 seasons, during which he went 197-80 with a 166 (!!) ERA-plus, while facing the best baseball players the world has ever seen (until next year, of course, but let's not get ahead of ourselves).

We can make a good case for each of these titans; we can make a good case against each of them. In the end, it comes down to what each of us values. You might slightly prefer dominance, I might slightly prefer longevity, and it's our preferences that will carry the day.

No, Warren Spahn didn't dominate like Randy Johnson did … but then, nobody in the '50s dominated like Johnson -- or Pedro, or Maddux, or Clemens -- dominated in more recent years. In Spahn's years, he was about as dominant as anyone, and for nearly 20 years he took the mound every four or five days and gave his team a great chance to win.

I entered this discussion with no preconceptions, and if you ask me again tomorrow I might have a different answer. Today, though, I'm so impressed with Spahn's longevity and consistency that he's my choice as the greatest lefty ever.

Those are some great views.

I was thinking about this in between replies, and considered it in this context. Say you had to pick a pitcher for one game, series or season. You can have any lefty in history with the crucial caveat that the version you get could be from any one of his games or seasons: a good one, a great one, a mediocre one. Which one would you take? You'll want a guy who was the greatest for the longest stretch of time against the best competition. For me, the choice then comes down to Spahn or Randy. Like you, I'm not sure if I would pick the same guy tomorrow as I do today, but I pick Randy. Partly that's because I saw him pitch and saw how good he was, and while that isn't fair to Spahn, I can't get it out of my head. But it's also because I just think the stats indicate he was the better pitcher at his peak, which -- while not as long as Spahn's -- was pretty damn long.

(I agree strikeouts aren't a be-all or an end-all, but I do think the fact that Randy struck out far more than the league average, while Spahn struck out slightly less, means a little something for me.)

Although I'm sure Spahn, were he alive, would tell me I'm full of it.