Over dinner during the Easter holidays, a discussion began about how long a pitcher’s window is at the very top level, the elite level, the Cy Young level. Anyway, the question was posed: “Who are the top 10 pitchers of the last decade and where are they now?”. As names were thrown across the table, it was evident that many of these pitchers often break down after a small window of excellence, perhaps due to injury, a sudden lack of production or both.
I have been following baseball for around the same period of time and it had me thinking, where would I rank the pitchers of the last decade? It’s a subjective task and you may agree or disagree but, rest assured, at least a little science and logic was applied to this.
As you can see from the list, almost all of the veteran pitchers experienced trouble at one time or another. For the rest, it’s surely a matter of time.
10. CC SABATHIA, LHP
(Career stats: .634 W%, 208-120, 3.63 ERA, 7.8 SO9, 1.236 WHIP. Awards 2004-2014: 5 All-Star, Cy Young)
CC broke out in 2006, before a Cy Young-winning performance with the Cleveland Indians in 2007. He was even better the following season — despite only finishing fifth in Cy voting — when he threw 253 innings and struck out 251 batters, finishing the season with a 2.70 ERA and a 17-10 record. Those figures include a remarkable 11-2, 1.65 ERA finish to the season after being traded to the Milwaukee Brewers for a package including Michael Brantley as the “player to be named later”. The 6ft 7in hurler’s dominance and durability landed him a contract with the Yankees and he helped bring a World Series title to the Bronx in his first season, winning the ALCS MVP along the way. He delivered over the first four years of the contract but it turned sour in 2013 and now the lefty faces struggles with injury and performance. He has the stuff, but falls into 10th due to his inability to reach the truly dominant figures he produced earlier in his career.
9. ROY OSWALT, RHP
(Career stats: .615 W%, 163-102, 3.36 ERA, 7.4 SO9, 1.211 WHIP. Awards 2004-2014: 3 All-Star)
Good things were expected when the Philadelphia Phillies teamed Cliff Lee with Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Oswalt in 2011. Unfortunately, it was the beginning of the end for the 23rd round pick, who produced his best stuff for the Houston Astros. From 2004 (he already had three solid season before that) until the end of 2008, he was simply magnificent, winning 86 games and pitching to a 3.22 ERA. ’09 was a down year by his standards but he bounced back in the first half of 2010, prompting the Phillies to send Anthony Gose, JA Happ and Jonathan Villar to Houston for his services. He was sensational down the stretch (7-1, 1.74 ERA) and helped the club reach the NLCS that year, losing to the San Francisco Giants. He could only produce one more year of productivity before he, like many others on the Phillies staff, started to decline.
8. ZACK GREINKE, RHP
(Career stats: .577 W%, 123-90, 3.54 ERA, 8.1 SO9, 1.222 WHIP. Awards 2004-2014: 2 All-Star, Cy Young, Gold Glove, Silver Slugger)
Greinke missed the majority of 2006 due to psychological issues, but returned to put up two solid seasons before winning a Cy Young award in 2009. That season, he finished with a 2.16 ERA over 229.1 innings, striking out a remarkable 242 batters. The following three seasons — after being traded to Milwaukee for a package including Alcides Escobar and Lorenzo Cain, and subsequently to the Los Angeles Angels for Juan Segura among others — he remained consistent without being the dominant force of his Cy Young-winning year. Still, it was enough to convince the Dodgers to splash out on him to create a nice lefty-righty tandem at the top of their rotation, and he has delivered with a 32-12 record, 2.67 ERA, Silver Slugger award and a Gold Glove across 380 innings.
7. ADAM WAINWRIGHT, RHP
(Career stats: .645 W%, 120-66, 2.99 ERA, 7.6 SO9, 1.160 WHIP. Awards 2004-2014: 3 All-Star, 2 Gold Glove)
Wainwright established himself as a true ace in 2009 and 2010 — winning 39 games and compiling at least 200 strikeouts and 230 innings in each of those season — before injury stuck, forcing him to miss the entire 2011 season as the St Louis Cardinals claimed the World Series. Fortunately for the Redbirds, he managed to return to the dominant pitcher he was before Tommy John Surgery. The 6ft 7in righty was effective in 2012, before recapturing his old form and earning All-Star calls in 2013 and 2014. Over the last two seasons, he has won 39 games and lodged 398 strikeouts in 468.2 innings, while maintaining a meagre 2.66 ERA. He’d have win a Cy Young had it not been for a certain Clayton Kershaw. Despite his regular season success, he has lost four of his last six postseasons starts.
6. CLIFF LEE, LHP
(Career stats: .611 W%, 143-91, 3.52 ERA, 8.8 SO9, 1.196 WHIP. Awards 2004-2014: 4 All-Star, Cy Young)
Lee broke out with the Cleveland Indians in 2008 with 22 wins and a 2.54 ERA in 31 starts, winning the Cy Young title in the process. The Arizona native — who was famously traded by the Montreal Expos to the Indians along with Brandon Phillips and Grady Sizemore in 2002 for Bortolo Colon — was then on the move. He pitched in both the 2009 and 2010 World Series for the Philadelphia Phillies and Texas Rangers respectively, losing both times despite his postseason dominance at that time (7-2, 2.25 ERA and 70 strikeouts in 10 starts). He rejoined the Phillies as a free agent in 2011 to form a strong — but ultimately disappointing — rotation with Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt. Lee was strong for the first three years of the deal before injuries set in and his career now hangs by a thread.
5. JAKE PEAVY, RHP
(Career stats: .556 W%, 139-111, 3.53 ERA, 8.5 SO9, 1.186 WHIP. Awards 2004-2014: 3 All-Star, Cy Young, Gold Glove)
Despite claiming back-to-back World Series rings, Peavy’s postseason record makes for horrible reading — 1-5, 7.98 ERA in 9 starts. His regular season stats, however, are a different story. He’s been up and down recently, posting strong numbers, an All-Star appearance and a Gold Glove award in 2012, while compiling an ERA over 4.00 in three of the last five years. But, during a spell in San Diego from 2004 to 2008, he was lights out. In four of those five years with the Padres, he posted sub-3.00 ERAs and during his Cy Young-winning 2007 year, he also managed 19 wins and 240 strikeouts across 223.1 innings.
4. FELIX HERNANDEZ, RHP
(Career stats: .578 W%, 126-92, 3.07 ERA, 8.5 SO9, 1.167 WHIP. Awards 2004-2014: 5 All-Star, Cy Young)
King Felix has pitched to a sub-3.00 ERA three times but has only claimed one Cy Young award. That came in 2010, which was, strangely, his only season over the past six when he failed to make an All-Star appearance. During that span, his highest ERA was 3.47, while he has started at least 30 games, pitched at least 200 innings and logged at least 200 strikeouts. The only blotch on his record is his meagre win totals and lack of postseason activity, both of which can be attributed to a weak Seattle Mariners side. That could change this season.
3. ROY HALLADAY, RHP
(Career stats: .659 W%, 203-105, 3.38 ERA, 6.9 SO9, 1,178 WHIP. Awards 2004-2014: 6 All-Star, Cy Young)
The best righty of the last 10 years, ’Doc’ made All-Star appearances in ’04 and ’05, and was in Cy Young contention in ’07, but he broke out in a big way between 2008 and 2011, posting sub-3.00 ERA’s and All-Star calls in each of those seasons. He won 37 games for the Blue Jays in ’08 and ’09, before the Phillies sent a haul to Toronto for his services and 40 wins over the next two years. Philadelphia had reached the World Series in each of the two seasons prior to Halladay’s arrival but they could not replicate that success despite him winning a Cy Young in his first season in the City of Brotherly Love. They lost in ’10 and ’11 to the San Francisco Giants and St Louis Cardinals respectively, both of whom would go on to claim the World Series title.
2. JOHAN SANTANA, LHP
(Career stats: .641 W%, 139-78, 3.20 ERA, 8.5 SO9, 1.333 WHIP. Awards 2004-2014: 4 All-Star, 2 Cy Young, Gold Glove)
The Venezuelan has struggled mightily with injuries but from 2004 to 2010, he was completely dominant. During that time, he finished the season with a sub-3.00 ERA five times. Santana won the 2004 and 2006 Cy Young awards, but he should have earned the 2005 prize too, which went to Bartolo Colon. He was also in contention for the 2007 Cy, prompting the Mets to put together a package to bring him to Shea Stadium. His first three seasons in New York were as advertised — with his ERA topping out at 3.13 and the club’s first no-hitter thrown in for good measure — before injury struck.
1. CLAYTON KERSHAW, LHP
(Career stats: .667 W%, 98-49, 2.49 ERA, 9.5 SO9, 1.060 WHIP. Awards 2004-2014: 4 All-Star, 3 Cy Young, 1 MVP, Gold Glove)
On his way to becoming the greatest pitcher of all time. The Texas native struggled during his 2008 rookie season but has never looked back. Over the last six years, the lefty’s highest ERA has been 2.91, while remaining durable and posting high strikeout numbers throughout that time. A four-time All-Star, Kershaw has claimed three Cy Young awards. The first of which came during his 2011 Triple Crown and Gold Glove year, while his most recent — but, at 27 years old, likely not his last — was lifted last year along with the National League MPV title. He also managed a no-hitter. Is there anything he can’t do? Well, he’s 1-5, with a 5.12 ERA in 11 postseason games (8 starts). Like Lionel Messi in soccer, he needs to lift the biggest prize of all to be considered the best ever.