Baseball Player Won-Loss Records
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1980s Pitchers

The Best Pitcher(s) of the 1980s

Jack Morris stayed on the BBWAA Hall-of-Fame ballot for fifteen years and, at his peak, two-thirds of Hall-of-Fame voters thought that Jack Morris belonged there. Setting aside Game 7 of the 1991 World Series (not to suggest that shouldn't count toward his case), the chief argument in support of Jack Morris's ultimately successful Hall-of-Fame candidacy was that he had the most pitcher wins in the 1980s.

Pitcher wins have their flaws, but this sets up two questions that I think are worth exploring:
1. Does being the best pitcher of a decade merit induction into the Hall of Fame?

2. Who was the best pitcher of the 1980s?
In my opinion, the answer to question 1. is yes, being the best pitcher in baseball over a ten-year period is enough to merit induction into the Hall of Fame. This article attempts to answer question 2 using Player won-lost records.

Best Pitchers based on pWins
Let's start with the closest parallel to traditional pitcher wins. The next table shows the top 20 pitchers in pWins during the 1980s.

Most pWins during the 1980s: Pitchers
Player pWins pLosses pWOPA pWORL
Jack Morris146.6132.116.633.9
Dave Stieb137.9117.722.138.0
Fernando Valenzuela137.7129.018.433.5
Nolan Ryan135.8128.416.031.1
Bob Welch131.2117.521.735.9
Charlie Hough121.9119.04.619.7
Bert Blyleven120.7111.012.026.4
Jim Clancy120.6119.63.318.0
Mike Scott114.5110.312.125.0
Rick Sutcliffe113.7106.413.126.2


Jack Morris led all major-league pitchers in pWins during the 1980s. He also led all major-league pitchers in pLosses in the decade.

The next table, then, moves away from a zero baseline and looks at pWins over replacement level.

Most pWins over Replacement Level during the 1980s: Pitchers
Player pWins pLosses pWOPA pWORL
Dave Stieb137.9117.722.138.0
Dwight Gooden89.065.928.537.2
Bob Welch131.2117.521.735.9
Dan Quisenberry68.641.225.335.9
Roger Clemens81.056.525.534.1
Jack Morris146.6132.116.633.9
Fernando Valenzuela137.7129.018.433.5
Dave Righetti80.859.920.031.7
Nolan Ryan135.8128.416.031.1
Orel Hershiser91.777.220.330.0


Jack Morris falls to sixth, with Dave Stieb showing up at the top of the table.

Shifting to pWORL also gives us our first relief pitcher, Dan Quisenberry. I wrote an article about him last recently. Comparing against replacement level is a good way to measure total value, recognizing that being below-average, but not too bad, has positive value. But does being a little below average add to a player's candidacy for determining the "best pitcher of the 1980s"? Maybe not.

So, the next table looks at the best pitchers of the 1980s as measured by pWins over positional average.

Most pWins over Positional Average during the 1980s: Pitchers
Player pWins pLosses pWOPA pWORL
Dwight Gooden89.065.928.537.2
Roger Clemens81.056.525.534.1
Dan Quisenberry68.641.225.335.9
Dave Stieb137.9117.722.138.0
Bob Welch131.2117.521.735.9
Bret Saberhagen79.759.920.829.6
Teddy Higuera70.050.320.528.1
Orel Hershiser91.777.220.330.0
Dave Righetti80.859.920.031.7
Rich Gossage63.142.518.828.9


Switching to average, the top two starting pitchers of the 1980s did not make their major-league debuts until the fifth year of the decade, 1984: Dwight Gooden and Roger Clemens. Both Gooden and Clemens were actually still in high school when the 1980s began. But when they got to the major leagues in 1984, they both hit the ground running and made up for lost time: Gooden with an absolutely legendary 1985 season and Clemens with three straight seasons as the best pitcher in the American League from 1986 through 1988 (see below). I have previously written about Dwight Gooden, suggesting that I think he actually has a reasonable case for the Hall of Fame. I have also written about Roger Clemens as part of my annual write-up of Hall-of-Fame candidates.

Best Pitchers based on eWins
The previous tables all evaluated pitchers based on pWins, which are tied to team wins and are therefore highly context-dependent. Pitchers have some control over how well they perform in high-context situations, but much of the context underlying pWins are outside of a player's personal control.

Some people might, therefore, prefer to evaluate the "best pitcher of the 1980s" in a context-neutral framework. The next three tables, then, parallel the previous three, but are based on eWins instead of pWins.

Most eWins during the 1980s: Pitchers
Player eWins eLosses eWOPA eWORL
Jack Morris141.6137.16.523.7
Dave Stieb138.2117.422.738.6
Fernando Valenzuela136.7129.917.432.5
Nolan Ryan133.6130.613.328.5
Bob Welch127.1121.513.928.1
Bert Blyleven120.9110.812.226.5
Charlie Hough120.6120.32.017.2
Jim Clancy120.1120.21.916.7
Mike Scott114.1110.712.725.6
Rick Rhoden113.6109.711.023.6


The names here are mostly familiar from earlier tables.

Most eWins over Replacement Level during the 1980s: Pitchers
Player eWins eLosses eWOPA eWORL
Dave Stieb138.2117.422.738.6
Roger Clemens81.056.525.434.0
Fernando Valenzuela136.7129.917.432.5
Orel Hershiser91.577.320.930.7
Bret Saberhagen79.859.821.029.9
Dwight Gooden84.270.720.228.9
Nolan Ryan133.6130.613.328.5
Bob Welch127.1121.513.928.1
Bert Blyleven120.9110.812.226.5
Mike Scott114.1110.712.725.6


Most eWins over Positional Average during the 1980s: Pitchers
Player eWins eLosses eWOPA eWORL
Roger Clemens81.056.525.434.0
Dave Stieb138.2117.422.738.6
Bret Saberhagen79.859.821.029.9
Orel Hershiser91.577.320.930.7
Dwight Gooden84.270.720.228.9
Fernando Valenzuela136.7129.917.432.5
Teddy Higuera67.552.715.623.1
Bob Welch127.1121.513.928.1
Mark Gubicza77.264.413.922.8
Dan Quisenberry62.747.013.824.4


Controlling for context knocks Dwight Gooden down a bit, while making Bret Saberhagen and Orel Hershiser look quite a bit better.

Best Pitchers based purely on Pitching
The preceding tables have looked at total player won-lost records. One could, perhaps, argue instead that the best "pitcher" of the 1980s should be determined based purely on pitching. So, the next two tables look only at pitching player wins.

Most Pitching Wins during the 1980s: Pitchers
Player eWins eLosses Net Wins
Jack Morris137.7133.93.8
Dave Stieb132.3116.815.5
Nolan Ryan125.5114.011.5
Fernando Valenzuela120.5111.49.1
Charlie Hough118.0118.2-0.2
Jim Clancy117.2116.30.9
Bert Blyleven116.9108.28.7
Bob Welch116.1107.48.7
Frank Tanana110.1109.90.2
Frank Viola109.9103.86.1


Once again, if you're looking at a pure counting measure, Jack Morris looks pretty damn good.

Most Net Pitching Wins during the 1980s: Pitchers
Player eWins eLosses Net Wins
Roger Clemens76.958.018.9
Bret Saberhagen75.960.115.8
Dave Stieb132.3116.815.5
Orel Hershiser80.966.014.9
Dan Quisenberry59.645.314.3
Dwight Gooden74.760.714.0
Rich Gossage57.646.011.6
Dave Righetti74.763.111.6
Nolan Ryan125.5114.011.5
Teddy Higuera64.553.111.5


Finally, the best pitchers of the 1980s, measured only by net (context-neutral, teammate-adjusted) pitching wins are Roger Clemens, Bret Saberhagen, Dave Stieb, Orel Hershiser, Dan Quisenberry, and Dwight Gooden.

That's probably a pretty solid list of players about whom one can have a conversation about whether they were the best pitcher of the 1980s. What's striking about this list is that four of the six pitchers did not throw a single major-league pitch over the first one-third of the decade.

Best Pitchers by Season
So far, we've only looked at totals for the entire decade. What about season by season? The next table shows the top pitchers of the 1980s by league-season, measured by total player pWins over replacement level.

Top Pitchers by League-Season in the 1980s, pWORL
Player pWins pLosses pWOPA pWORL Player pWins pLosses pWOPA pWORL
1980ALMike Norris17.511.06.7
8.4
NLSteve Carlton19.813.27.8
>9.6
1981ALSteve McCatty12.28.24.1
5.4
NLFernando Valenzuela15.210.65.4
>6.9
1982ALJim Palmer14.99.95.3
6.8
NLSteve Carlton21.515.57.5
>9.5
1983ALLa Marr Hoyt16.911.45.8
7.5
NLJohn Denny15.710.76.3
>7.7
1984ALWillie Hernandez9.83.16.4
7.7
NLDwight Gooden16.211.65.6
>7.1
1985ALBret Saberhagen15.88.57.5
9.1
NLDwight Gooden21.111.011.2
>13.0
1986ALRoger Clemens17.29.87.5
9.2
NLMike Scott18.912.77.2
>9.0
1987ALRoger Clemens18.211.86.7
8.6
NLTim Burke7.52.34.9
>5.9
1988ALRoger Clemens17.911.86.2
8.1
NLOrel Hershiser20.213.47.8
>9.7
1989ALBret Saberhagen16.69.37.6
9.3
NLMark W. Davis10.75.15.1
>6.5


Roger Clemens won the most "pWin Cy Young awards" - 3. Other repeat winners would have been Steve Carlton, Dwight Gooden, and Bret Saberhagen.

Conclusion
So, who was the best pitcher of the 1980s? I'm going to cheat. The best pitcher for the first 40% of the 1980s (1980 - 1983) was Philadelphia Phillies Hall-of-Famer Steve Carlton. The best pitcher for the middle 20% of the 1980s (1984 - 1985) was New York Mets wunderkind Dwight Gooden. The best pitcher for the last 40% of the 1980s (1986 - 1989) was Boston Red Sox ace Roger Clemens. Call the combination Steve "Doc" Clemens. And, just for fun, here is what Steve "Doc" Clemens career record looked like in the 1980s.

Games pWins pLosses pWin Pct. pWOPA pWORL eWins eLosses eWin Pct. eWOPA eWORL
1980
38
19.813.20.5997.8
9.6
18.514.50.5615.47.2
1981
24
11.48.30.5773.7
4.9
10.98.80.5553.04.2
1982
38
21.515.50.5827.5
9.5
19.917.10.5384.36.3
1983
37
17.516.90.5092.0
3.9
18.016.40.5223.04.9
1984
31
16.211.60.5825.6
7.1
15.712.20.5624.86.4
1985
35
21.111.00.65711.2
13.0
19.712.50.6118.410.2
1986
33
17.29.80.6377.5
9.2
16.410.70.6055.77.4
1987
36
18.211.80.6076.7
8.6
17.912.00.5996.28.1
1988
35
17.911.80.6026.2
8.1
18.311.40.6167.08.8
1989
35
14.712.70.5362.3
4.1
15.312.20.5573.45.2
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1990
342
175.4122.70.58860.5
77.8
170.4127.70.57251.468.6


That guy would have been at the top of all of the preceding tables.

Article last updated: March 16, 2020

Wins over positional average and replacement level are calculated using single-season data. Positional averages for starting pitching and relief pitching are calculated using single-year data for all starting pitchers and all relief pitchers.

All articles are written so that they pull data directly from the most recent version of the Player won-lost database. Hence, any numbers cited within these articles should automatically incorporate the most recent update to Player won-lost records. In some cases, however, the accompanying text may have been written based on previous versions of Player won-lost records. I apologize if this results in non-sensical text in any cases.

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