The Red Sox’ Ten Greatest Pitchers
Roger Clemens (1984-96)
After a few years pitching in relative (and injury-riddled) obscurity, Clemens ignited his legend and became instant front-page news on a late April night in 1986 when he became the first pitcher to strike out 20 batters in a nine-inning game. It was the watershed moment in a monumental year for Clemens, wrapping the season with a 24-4 record, his first of seven earned run average titles (at 2.48) and not just the AL Cy Young Award but the AL MVP honor as well.
During his 13 years with the Red Sox, Clemens thrice won 20 games and secured four ERA titles, including three in a row from 1990-92; besides his breakout 1986 campaign, he also won Cy Young Awards in 1987 and 1991. Clemens’ impressive regular season successes eluded him in the postseason, where he only won one of eight postseason starts during his Fenway tenure.
Clemens’ fiery fastball was matched only by his demeanor, as he once claimed to be the nicest of guys—except on the day he pitched. A throwback of sorts, Clemens welcomed the opportunity to knock down hitters; the bigger the stars, the more likely they were to hit the deck or worse, as players such as Barry Bonds, Mike Piazza and Manny Ramirez discovered. Even the revered Hank Aaron wasn’t spared the direct wrath of Clemens’ rage; when Aaron criticized Clemens’ winning of the 1986 AL MVP because he was a pitcher, Clemens barked back that he wished Aaron was still playing so he could “crack his head open to show him how valuable I was.” Clemens’ mean side would work against him in the fourth (and final) game of the 1990 ALCS at Oakland when he was ejected for aiming a long-distance tirade of profanity from the mound towards home plate umpire Terry Cooney.
Reaching his mid-30s in the mid-1990s, injuries and substandard results by his own measure suggested that Clemens was on a downhill slide—but in what would be his final win for Boston late in 1996, he matched not only his own record for strikeouts in a game (fanning 20 Detroit Tigers) but also matched the franchise record for wins (192) and shutouts (38), both held by Cy Young. Still, this final act of bravado wasn’t enough to convince the Red Sox to keep him; his contract expired, Boston made the decision to let him go—with general manager Dan Duquette publicly suggesting that Clemens was reaching the “twilight” of his career. But as with Cincinnati owner Bill DeWitt 30 years earlier when he sent Frank Robinson to Baltimore because he felt he was an “old 30,” Duquette would find himself eating his words; Clemens signed with Toronto (prior to moving onto the New York Yankees and then Houston) and experienced a second wind of greatness, winning 162 more games, four more Cy Young Awards and two world championships—all possibly fueled by steroid use, according to accusations by his former trainer.
Cy Young (1901-08)
Arguably baseball’s most legendary pitcher helped give the American League instant credibility when he joined Boston for its inaugural campaign in 1901, dominating the Junior Circuit through much of its first decade and becoming a rare case of a pitcher who thrived in both the 1890s and 1900s, two decidedly different eras.
Young joined the Americans (as the Red Sox were known during his Boston years) after being given a long-term offer while the incumbent St. Louis Cardinals refused to match, given that he would soon turn 34—an ancient age by baseball standards at the time. But Young developed a curve to offset his slowing fastball and he became even better than before—winning 33 games in his first year at Boston, 32 in the next, and an average of 24 per year through his eight seasons with the Americans. (Only Walter Johnson would twice win 30 or more games in the AL.)
Young threw the AL’s first-ever perfect game—and the first in all of baseball since the pitcher’s mound was backed up to the current 60’6” from home plate—in 1904; it came during a stretch of 45 straight scoreless innings thrown by Young, which set a record that since has been broken. Age and a worsening physique (which was never that great to begin with) didn’t seem to slow Young; in his final year in Boston at age 41, he threw his third career no-hitter. All along, Young was remarkably stingy on opponents, allowing just 1.46 walks per nine innings while with the Americans.
In 1909, Young returned to his major league roots in Cleveland (where his career began in 1890) after a trade from Boston and earned his 500th win—a milestone that will likely never be approached, let alone passed.
Pedro Martinez (1998-2004)
While baseball was experiencing a glut of steroid-induced offense in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Martinez threw as if he was pitching in an entirely different era for the Red Sox. Following on his electrifying breakout year in Montreal, Martinez joined Boston via trade and began a remarkable stretch of baseball that even Clemens and Young would have found impressive by their standards; in seven years, Martinez compiled a 117-37 record and a 2.52 ERA for the Red Sox—winning four ERA titles and two Cy Young Awards along the way.
Martinez’s brilliance reached an unparalleled peak in 1999, when he won the AL ERA title by the widest margin (1.37) in major league history; he smashed that mark just a year later, with a 1.74 figure that was nearly two full runs ahead of second-place Clemens (now playing for the Yankees); it was also the lowest ERA recorded by an AL starter since 1968.
Never a workhorse because of his stubborn fragility, Martinez secured a reputation for being a hotdog in Boston, often reacting with glee whenever he notched a strikeout; his emotional side took an unfortunate turn out of bounds when, during a scuffle in the 2003 ALCS against Clemens and the Yankees, he grabbed 72-year-old Yankee coach Don Zimmer by the head and slammed him to the Fenway turf. Not surprisingly, Martinez felt relaxed with fellow Dominican/rebel Manny Ramirez during their time together in Boston.
Lefty Grove (1934-41)
Although past his superhuman prime when he arrived from the Philadelphia A’s, Grove still was effective enough with the Red Sox to still be considered one of the AL’s top pitchers of the time. It didn’t start that way, however; a sore-armed Grove flopped in his first year at Boston with a horrid 6.50 ERA—leading many Red Sox fans to believe their team had been duped into a trade for a damaged legend. But Grove allayed Red Sox Nation the following season when he notched 20 wins for the eighth and last time.
Once described for having only a fastball and a mean disposition—both of which were in top form while with the A’s—Grove moderated in Boston, mellowing with age while adding a curve and forkball to offset a loss in velocity. The adjustments worked; he won four ERA titles for the Red Sox, including a 2.54 mark in 1939 (at age 39) that was the lowest of his career since 1931. Grove’s last major league win, a messy 10-6 decision over Cleveland in July 1941, was the 300th of his career; he lost just 141 games.
Smoky Joe Wood (1908-15)
Wood was a fleeting force with an underwhelming body frame and an overpowering fastball that led even the great Walter Johnson to once remark, “No man alive can throw harder than Smoky Joe Wood.”
After four years of sustained emergence capped by a 23-17 record in 1911, Wood exploded in 1912—dominating opponents with a remarkable 34 wins (against just five losses) to set a franchise record; 16 of those victories came consecutively to tie an AL mark set earlier that same year by Johnson. Wood won three more games in the World Series against the New York Giants, his last coming in a three-inning relief role that secured the wild, ten-inning 3-2 finale to earn the Red Sox a championship. But visions of becoming a year-in, year-out workhorse never materialized as numerous injuries curtailed his activity on the mound even as he remained effective, as demonstrated when Wood authored an AL-leading and personal-best 1.49 ERA in 1915—his last full year of pitching.
Following somewhat in the footsteps of pal and former teammate Tris Speaker, Wood sat out the 1916 season over a contract dispute and was finally sold a year later to Cleveland, joining Speaker and leaving behind an excellent 1.99 career ERA with Boston. His pitching shoulder finally failing him, Wood converted himself to an outfielder—and was exceptional in a part-time role, hitting .298 over his five final major league seasons.
Mel Parnell (1947-56)
As Hughson faded away from the spotlight in Boston, he was replaced by Parnell, who carried on the winning tradition from the mound by piling up 109 victories (while losing just 56) in a six-year period between 1948-53; as such, he is the all-time Boston victory leader among southpaws.
Parnell bolted into the spotlight in 1949, earning the starting spot on the AL All-Star team while leading the league with 25 wins (against seven losses) and 295.1 innings. He stayed strong for the next four years, producing another banner year in 1953 when he finished at 21-8 with a 3.06 ERA. Parnell’s career took a permanent turn for the worse a year later when he broke his elbow, ironically while batting. After a forgettable (2-3, 7.83 ERA) 1955 season, Parnell appeared to be on the mend in 1956 with a mild comeback that included the Red Sox’ first no-hitter in 33 years, but a muscle tear in his throwing arm ended his career for good.
Parnell’s status as a Red Sox favorite was secured thanks to a particularly tough record against the archrival Yankees; he compiled a lifetime 24-6 record against New York, including five shutouts—four of those alone in 1953.
In retirement, Parnell remained in Red Sox organization, first as manager for several of its minor league clubs and then as the team’s play-by-play voice during the late 1960s.
Tex Hughson (1941-44, 1946-49)
The tall, right-handed Texan had a breakout campaign for the Red Sox in 1942, leading the AL with 22 wins, 22 complete games, 281 innings and 113 strikeouts; he lost only six games. As major league competition weakened from the war effort, Hughson hung around through 1944 and continued to marvel; he was 18-5 in 1944 before being called to service in August, hurting the Red Sox’ chances of collecting an AL pennant that would ultimately be wrapped up by the St. Louis Browns. After war’s end, Hughson returned in 1946 and showed no sign of weakness, finishing at 20-11 with a 2.75 ERA to help lead the Red Sox to their first AL pennant in 28 years. Late in 1947, a pained Hughson left a game and, despite offseason elbow surgery, would never be the same; he appeared in 44 more games over the next two seasons, all but two of them in relief, and produced a 5.29 ERA that convinced him that it was time to hang up his glove.
Babe Ruth (1914-19)
Yes, folks—Babe Ruth. His six years as a pitcher for the Red Sox often serves as the final ace in the hole for those arguing for Ruth’s place as the greatest baseball player ever; not only did he transform the game with his bat in the 1920s, his success as a pitcher was such that, had he continued his career on the mound, he likely would have made the Hall of Fame all the same.
Ruth was a 19-year-old star pitcher in 1914 for the minor-league Baltimore Orioles, who were experiencing tough times because of local competition from the upstart third major league, the Federal League. Looking for extra cash, the Orioles first offered Ruth to the Philadelphia A’s, who declined because their staff was already loaded with talent; next in line, the Red Sox were happy to take on Ruth.
After expected slow growth with the Red Sox to start his big league career, Ruth anchored into the rotation in 1915 and finished 18-8 with a 2.44 ERA; he also showed off his power at the plate by hitting a ball completely out of St. Louis’ Sportsman’s Park—and through the front window of an auto dealership across the street. In 1916, Ruth won the AL ERA title with a sterling 1.75 effort to go along with a 23-12 record, and showed his amazing penchant for performing at his best when the spotlight shone brightest by outdueling Walter Johnson four times (two of them by 1-0 scores, including a 13-inning classic in August). Further proving his clutch value in that year’s World Series, he began a run of 29.1 consecutive scoreless innings at the Fall Classic that wouldn’t be matched for over four decades.
Ruth was no less brilliant in 1917, racking up a 24-13 mark and 2.01 ERA over a career-high 326.1 innings. Despite all of this, it was Ruth’s hitting that began to really turn people’s heads. When World War I interceded in 1918 and the Red Sox began losing many crucial position players to military service, teammate Duffy Lewis lobbied manager Ed Barrow to let Ruth hit everyday. Ruth would go on to post another fine effort from the mound—with a 13-7 record and 2.22 ERA in 20 appearances—but playing another 72 games elsewhere in the field, he hit .300 and earned his first home run title by smacking 11 over the fence. Ruth continued to pitch in 1919, starting 15 games and finishing 9-5 with a 2.97 ERA, but his 29 homers (setting a record, for the moment), 114 RBIs and .322 average clearly showed the emergence of a monster presence unlike anything seen in baseball; his historic trade to the Yankees after the season would continue that evolution to the stratospheric heights of American folklore. By then, his pitching contributions would become, strictly, a rarely used luxury.
Carl Mays (1915-19)
The ultra-surly yet talented Mays is best remembered for killing Cleveland’s Ray Chapman with a pitch in 1920 while playing for the Yankees, but his habit for controversy goes well back to his days in Boston. Mays joined the Red Sox in 1915 as a reliever, but he evolved over the next two years into a top-line starter, winning 22 games with a 1.74 ERA in 1917, followed a year later with 21 wins and eight shutouts, tying Walter Johnson for the league lead. In the 1918 World Series—the last one the Red Sox would win for 86 years—Mays started and finished both of his pitching assignments against the Chicago Cubs, allowing a single run in each.
Mays’ irksome temperament made it difficult for him to make friends among his teammates, and he was no less popular with opponents thanks to his reputation for headhunting—one he could never overcome after the Chapman beaning.
Angered over a lack of support that created a 5-11 start in 1919, Mays stormed off the field in one game, demanded a trade—and got it from the Red Sox, who sent him packing to the Yankees; but AL commissioner Ban Johnson nixed the deal, creating a firestorm of protest that nearly sent half of the league’s teams defecting to the NL. The Red Sox sued Johnson, won, and Mays officially became a Yankee while Johnson never regained the dictatorial powers he held over the AL during its first 20 years.
Wes Ferrell (1934-37)
The combative right-hander from North Carolina won 20 games six times throughout his major league career (the most by any pitcher currently not in the Hall of Fame), with two of those campaigns taking place in a relatively short stint with Boston after debuting in Cleveland. As with the Indians, Ferrell was given ample run support with the Red Sox to overcome modestly high ERA numbers—often cited as the reason he’s not in Cooperstown—yet ironically, such offensive backbone still wasn’t enough to pacify his fist-pounding antics that saw him storm off the dugout in disgust on more than a few occasions.
Still, you don’t win 20 games by doing nothing, and Ferrell delivered; he paced the AL in 1935 with 25 victories and eventually racked up a 62-40 mark with the Red Sox in three-plus seasons.
Much of the generous run support Ferrell received came courtesy of his own bat. One of best hitting pitchers ever to play in the majors, Ferrell may never have been better at the plate than in 1935, hitting a dynamic .347 with seven home runs and 32 RBIs in 150 at-bats; in 396 overall at-bats with the Red Sox, he hit .308 with 17 homers and 82 RBIs.
Boston Red Sox Team History: Year-by year records, statistics and an oral history of the Red Sox, decade by decade.
The Red Sox' Ten Greatest Hitters: A list of the ten greatest pitchers based on their productivity and efficiency.
The Red Sox' Ten Greatest Games: A list of ten memorable games and other notable personal achievements that have defined the Red Sox' history.
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