Who is the greatest left-handed pitcher of all-time?

Battle for the top spot

How important are awards and All-Star appearances? In the battle for the best left-handed starter, it makes a big difference. With awards and All-Stars included, Randy Johnson comes out on top with a score of 270.10, followed by Steve Carlton (#2, 267.64) and Warren Spahn (#3, 244.40). When awards and All-Stars are removed from the equation, Spahn narrowly beats Carlton for the top spot and the Big Unit drops to third place. I know Johnson was intimidating, but there is no way I would pick him over either Spahn or Carlton when building my historical fantasy team. Sandy Koufax (#8, 180.58) would be another consideration, but he has a lower score due to his short career; in twelve years he won 165 games and compiled a WAR of 50.3.


Only two other lefties topped the 200-point mark: Lefty Grove (#4, 203.46) and Eddie Plank (#5, 200.01). Tom Glavine (#6, 198.62) just barely missed. Overshadowed by Greg Maddux during his prime, Glavine is perhaps the best number two starter in history. His baseball cards are a dime a dozen; even his rookie cards can many times be had for less than a dollar.

The man the surgery was named after

Carl Hubbell is next on the list with a score of 185.94, and two non-Hall of Famers, Tommy John (#9, 176.01) and Jim Kaat (#10, 170.14), round out the top ten. Both were very close to the 300-win mark, but had very long careers in which they amassed all those wins and only averaged 13 victories per season.

About JT

Christian. Husband. Dad. 911 dispatcher. Baseball fan. Horror nut. Music nerd. Bookworm. Time Magazine's 2006 Person of the Year.

Posted on April 5, 2013, in baseball, baseball cards and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Randy Johnson was ineffective for long stretches of his early career due to wildness–he really didn’t learn how to pitch effectively until he was around 30 years old. Steve Carlton has the highest single season WAR in modern times of any LH pitcher, as well as the best long career stats of any LH pitcher, so he goes first, although Warren Spahn has to be a very close call with Lefty. But in 1972 Carlton was 12.1 WAR, which is the highest WAR by any lefty in the modern era,m and it’s not even close. Carlton also had a 10.2 WAR in 1980, the year the Phils won the Series. Spahn never had even one season over 10 WAR. Carlton, at his peak, was the more dominant pitcher. However, if you go to the JAWS system, the winner is LEFTY GROVE, who had two seasons over 10 WAR, and four more seasons over 9 WAR–Grove simply was unbelievably dominant over his best seven seasons, and is the 8th best pitcher, and best lefty pitcher, overall, in terms of JAWS. Randy Johnson does pretty well on JAWS too, edging out both Carlton and Spahn. Consequently, the best four lefties are pretty clearly Grove, Carlton, Spahn and Johnson. Even though people seem to love Sandy Koufax, this writer included, the fact is that much of what made Koufax great is the park effects of Dodger Stadium from 1962-66, and the overall effects of low-scoring 1960s baseball. Koufax is over 10 WAR in 1963 and 1966, and at 8.1 WAR in 1965 and 7.4 WAr in 1964, but the rest of his career is not really anywhere close to the peaks of these other four, and in fact Koufax is not on the list of JAWS leaders. It’s not just that Koufax had a short career–it’s that his peak performance was also very short–just two great years, and two very good years, really. Koufax only ranks 83rd in JAWS of all starting pitchers, and his JAWS rating is BELOW that of the average HOFer, so it’s difficult for me to say that he was on of the four best lefties of all time, when it is not even clear whether he even belongs in the Hall of Fame, based on modern statistical methods.

    The next guy up is Eddie Plank, whose JAWS number is 22nd overall, and fifth overall among career lefties. Next would be Tom Glavine, who is 30th by JAWs, and sixty overall among lefties. No one thinks Tom Glavine was “overshadowed by Greg Maddux”. Greg Maddux could not win a playoff game, ever. It was always Glavin and Smoltz who won those games for the Braves, not Maddux. Even Steve Avery in his short time of brilliance in the early 1990s was a better World Series pitcher than Maddux ever was. Maddux was simply a good pitcher against bad teams who could not get good hitters or good teams out in the post season.

    #7 is Hal Newhouser, who is #41 on the JAWs list and #7 on the lefty list, and how did you miss him? #8 is Carl Hubbell who is #44 on the JAWS list and #8 on the lefty list of JAWS guys. #9 on this list is Rube Waddell, who is #58 on the JAWS list, and whose period of seven years of dominance was unbelievable–Waddell rung up huge strikeout totals in an era when batters never struck out. Had he pitched in the modern era, he might have struck out many more batters than Randy Johnson.

    After this, it’s really a debate as to who goes #10 on the list. Frank Tanana is the 10th ranked JAWs lefty, at #78 overall, but Tommy John is right behind him at #79, and one would have to agree, Tommy John is probably the right pick here, because Tanana was never really the same after losing his fastball velocity that he had early on. Koufax we’ve covered, but there are two pitchers who rank around the same as Koufax–Johan Santana and CC Sabathia–as far as JAWS goes–and their careers are still not yet done–and it is very likely that CC Sabathia will climb much higher before everything is said and done. Consequently one would probably want to see Santana, Sabathia and Koufax at the tail end as ##’s 11, 12 and 13 on this list. Skipping over Nap Rucker, we should discuss Andy Pettitte, who is #89 on the JAWS list, but in the top 20 of LH pitchers, and #1 in postseason wins, and is still active and pitching. He had to be #14 on this LH staff. Finally, last but not least, Whitey Ford, #92 on the Jaws scale and in the top 20 of LH Jaws pitchers, #1 in World Series wins of all pitchers and of all LH pitchers, even now, has to be #15, and has to be one of the all time LH starters.

    This leaves out Jim “Kit” Kaat, but Jim Kaat, despite a wonderful career, just doesn’t have the peak value. Kaat is 99th in JAWS overall, behind all of the LHs we covered above, and his best two seasons with the Chisox in 74 and 75 were not even 8 WAR seasons. So while Kaat pitched well for a long time, he was never dominant to the extent that any of the other fifteen pitchers we’ve put on this list were, and what we really want are not just pitchers who were good for a long time, but also had long periods of peak dominance, WARs of 8, 9 or 10 and higher. MVP type seasons, Cy Young seasons.

    So that’s our list–it’s slightly different, but not much. Thanks for a great and thought provoking article!

    Art Kyriazis

  2. Hard to argue with any of these. But let me just say this about Koufax … it’s true his overall career was shorter than many other names on your list, and his peak was shorter as well.

    But anyone who saw him pitch — or had to hit against him — will tell you … he had the best stuff on the planet. He was the most overpowering pitcher I ever saw, and that includes Randy Johnson and Nolan Ryan.

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