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The Tuesday Discussion – The Greatest Left-Handed Starting Pitcher Ever

The Tuesday Discussion – The Greatest Left-Handed Starting Pitcher Ever

March 8, 2022

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This week we asked our writers to identify the greatest left-handed starting pitcher ever.

Here are their replies:

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Lincoln Mitchell – There are six candidates for greatest left-handed pitcher of all-time. In rough chronological order, they are Lefty Grove, Warren Spahn, Sandy Koufax, Steve Carlton, Randy Johnson and Clayton Kershaw. Sandy Koufax is kind of a sentimental choice for many, but he is clearly not the greatest left-handed pitcher of all time. Koufax was a high peak, short career pitcher and in general I probably overvalue high peak players. The problem for Koufax is that his six year peak does not compare to the six year peak of some of the other players who had longer careers. From 2012-2017, Kershaw had an ERA+ of 182 and 40.3 WAR. From 1997-2002 Randy Johnson had an ERA+ of 177 and 39.5 WAR. From 1926-1931 Lefty Grove had an ERA+ of 166. During Koufax’s famous six year peak from 1961-1966 he had an ERA+ of 156 and an extraordinary 46.4 WAR. Nonetheless, the peak was not quite good enough to make him the greatest ever, particularly given his career totals of 53.1 WAR and 2,321.1 innings pitched.

Five years from now, Clayton Kershaw might have a very strong case for being the greatest lefty pitcher ever, but a lot depends on how he pitches during the rest of his career, so I am going to eliminate him from the running as well, at least for now. Steve Carlton and Warren Spahn were both excellent pitchers, who pitched for a long time, but by most measures, Spahn was slightly better, so Carlton gets eliminated too.

This leaves Grove, Spahn and Johnson. A good case can be made for all of them. Grove had a shorter career, but was dominant for most of it, leading the AL in WAR twice and WAR for pitchers eight times. Spahn only had one season in each of those categories. Johnson led his league in WAR twice and WAR for pitchers six times. However, he did it in a league with more players so it was, just based on the numbers, more competitive.Spahn was not quite as dominant as the other two as shown by his 119 ERA+ compared to 148 for Grove and 135 for Johnson, but he pitched forever and won 363 games. He also missed three seasons serving in World War II. However, those seasons came very early in his career when he might have otherwise been just trying to establish himself in the big leagues, so it is very tough to project how that effected his career. Grove pitched almost a thousand fewer innings than Spahn, but he was much more dominant and his 106.8 WAR is the most of the three.. Johnson kind of split the difference. The three pitchers are separated by fewer than seven WAR which, in the context of three long careers, is almost within the margin of error.

On balance, I am going with Grove, but it is a tough call.

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Ed Botti – There have been some greats for sure. Players like Randy Johnson, Steve Carlton and Warren Spahn. You can throw Tom Glavine and his 305 wins into that mix as well. Ron Guidry and Whitey Ford weren’t too bad either.

If Babe Ruth stayed on the mound, we may be throwing him into the conversation as well.

But when we discuss the greatest ever, it brings it to a different level.

Although, I didn’t see him pitch, I know many people that saw him play in his prime. People whose opinions I respect very strongly.

Sandy Koufax is my selection for greatest left handed starting pitcher.

Koufax’s carrier was limited to just 12 seasons. However, he had arguably the greatest pinnacle of any pitcher in MLB history.

Even with retiring after his age 30 season, Koufax won five National League ERA titles, three pitching triple crowns, three NL Cy Young Awards, two World Series MVPs and the 1963 NL MVP.

No pitcher has ever put together a worthier five-year resume than Koufax. A 111-34 record with a microscopic 1.95 ERA from 1962-66.

In April of 1966 Koufax was informed by his doctor that he couldn’t go another season because of the severe arthritis in his left arm. He did anyway, winning a career high 27 games with a career-best 1.73 ERA.

To me, he ranks at the top of the list.

His career reads 165-87 with a 2.76 ERA, 131 ERA+, 2.69 FIP, 1.106 WHIP, 2,396 strikeouts, 137 complete games and 54.5 fWAR.

His most dominant Season was 1963 when he went 25-5 with a 1.88 ERA, 0.875 WHIP, 306 strikeouts, 20 complete games and a 9.2 fWAR.

It just doesn’t get any better than that!

As the great Willie Stargell once stated “Trying to hit Koufax was like drinking coffee with a fork.”.

He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1972.

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Paul Semendinger – For these studies, I always first go to bWAR. The winner there is Lefty Grove (106.8, better than #2, Randy Johnson 101.1)

bWAR7 also gives the edge to Grove over Johnson (65.6 to 61.5)

JAWS has Grove (86.2) over Johnson (81.3).

Grove won 300 games (on the nose), Johnson won 303 (better, but not by much).

Grove’s winning percentage was .680. Johnson’s was .646.

Grove led the league in ERA eight times, Johnson, four.

Lefty Grove began his career by leading the National League in strikeouts for seven consecutive years!

It seems clear to me that the greatest left-handed starting pitcher of all-time was Lefty Grove.

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Cary Greene – I’m 100% going with “the Left Arm of God” here. Koufax was God’s template for a pitcher: a prizefighter’s back muscles for strength, long arms for leverage and long fingers for extra spin on his fastball and curveball. The baseball was as low as the top of his left ankle when he reached back to throw in that last calm moment of his delivery — like a freight train cresting a hill — just before he flung the weight and force of his body toward the plate. Nobody in baseball history was as flat out intimidating as Sandy Koufax.

(I will also have a more detailed response coming later this week.)

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Mike Whiteman – I choose Lefty Grove as the greatest left-handed pitcher of all time. By a little bit.

Grove had an eight year peak from 1926-1933 that was quite impressive. He averaged 23-8, 2.71 (160 ERA+ in a high offensive environment). He also averaged fourteen relief appearances and six saves per season. Overall, he won 20+ games eight times and led the American League in ERA and ERA+ nine seasons. He led the AL in strikeouts seven consecutive years.

In 1930 and 1931 Lefty achieved the pitching “Triple Crown” leading the league in wins, ERA and strikeouts, and was also among league leaders in saves. Grove’s 1931 season was one of the greatest of all time – 31-4, 2.06 ERA, leading the league in strikeouts and ERA+ of 217 along with pacing the league in complete games and shutouts.

He was at the top of his game in the World Series – going 4-2, 1.75 in the 1929-1931 dynasty seasons for the Philadelphia A’s.

While Grove’s resume is quite impressive, I was torn between him and Warren Spahn. The longtime Braves hurler won twenty games thirteen times in his career. Grove’s peak and versatility give him the nod, but not by much.

#LeftyGrove #SandyKoufax

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