Who are the 5 best starting pitchers in Chicago Cubs history?

(Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images) /

The “five best” series continues today with a look at the five best starting pitchers in Chicago Cubs history. This series is based on last year’s all-time top 25 rankings. Unless otherwise noted, statistics are for each player’s tenure as a Cub, and references to WAR are to the Fangraphs version unless otherwise noted. With a nod to current events, five of the pitchers discussed in this post (Jenkins, Reuschel, Hutchinson, Brown, and Maddux) had careers that coincided with at least one incident of serious labor unrest.

Almost all of these guys also appeared in the all-time top 25, so clicking on their names will link to those pages, except for Alexander.

#5 Charlie Root 1926-41, 3.55 ERA, 3.65 FIP, 112 ERA+, 39.9 WAR

Root never had a dominant ERA/FIP season, but he was a good pitcher for a very long time. A model of consistency, his worst single-season FIP was only one run worse than his best, with the exception of his rocky 1934 season when he was making a juddering transition from rotation mainstay to swing man. Root threw 3,137 innings for the Cubs, topping the charts.

#4 Mordecai Brown 1904-13, 1916, 1.80 ERA, 2.21 FIP, 152 ERA+, 41.0 WAR

One of the most dominant pitchers of his age, Brown was Christy Mathewson’s principal rival for the ERA crown during much of his career. Brown pitched for 14 seasons; he was a top-10 ERA finisher in nine of them. Of the Cubs’ ten best individual pitching seasons in the modern era, only Brown has more than one (1908 and 1909).

Brown jumped to the Federal League in 1914 and returned to Chicago in a Whales uniform in 1915, going 17-8 with a 2.09 ERA. After the Federal League collapsed, he went on to pitch 48 innings for the Cubs in 1916 before turning in his badge and gun.

#3 Bill Hutchison 1889-95, 3.56 ERA, 3.74 FIP, 113 ERA+, 43.2 WAR

It was a different game back then. From 1890-92, Hutchison threw 1,786 innings. That’s more than all but 13 pitchers in the Modern Era have pitched for the Cubs in their entire careers. Substantial rules changes after the 1892 season (including fixing the pitching distance at 60 feet, 6 inches) made pitching more difficult, ushering out the days of 600 inning seasons.

In his last year with the Cubs at age 35, Hutchison tossed an anemic … 291 innings. He is the only pitcher other than Root to clear 3,000 innings with the Cubs. The Players League revolt occurred in 1890, but Hutchison did not jump, despite his decidedly jaundiced view of the reserve clause.

#2 Rick Reuschel 1972-84, 3.50 ERA, 3.15 FIP, 113 ERA+, 47.0 WAR

Reuschel weighed in at 215 pounds, the same as another Cubs pitching great, Hippo Vaughn. But between these two girth-tastic gentlemen, it was Hippo who stood out more. The average weight for players born in 1888 (including Vaughn) was about 173 pounds. For players born in 1949 (including Reuschel) it had risen to 186. The long period of post-war prosperity enabled the rest of baseball to make up most of the remaining ground; the current average is around 208.

The Cubs traded Reuschel to the Yankees at the outset of the 1981 strike. Rotator cuff surgery cost him the 1982 season, and he would return to the Cubs as a free agent in 1983.

#1 Ferguson Jenkins 1966-73, 1982-83, 3.20 ERA, 3.06 FIP, 119 ERA+, 53.6 WAR

What can we say that hasn’t been said a million times over? Jenkins is third all-time in Cubs innings, first in strikeouts, and fourth in shutouts. He had probably his least effective season in strike-shortened 1981, going 5-8 with a 4.50 ERA for a Rangers club that faded in the second half of that bizarre split schedule. He returned to the Cubs as a free agent in 1982 and had a remarkable season for a 39-year-old, throwing 217 innings of 3.15 ERA ball.

Chicago Cubs: Looking at some honorable mention candidates

Bob Rush (1948-57, 39.5 WAR) was a a bit like Root: seldom great but consistently solid. Like Root, Rush’s FIP stayed within a relatively narrow band (from 2.91 to 4.19) throughout his career. More than most, Rush’s reputation has benefitted from the fading importance of wins as a statistic, given the run of bad ballclubs he was on. Rush had a shorter career than Root, but Rush’s top years were a bit better. He led the league in FIP once, and in homers per nine twice.

Greg Maddux (1986-92, 2004-06, 36.1 WAR) was good for the Cubs, but insane for the Braves. If there was a worse decision by any team to not sign one of its own players reaching free agency, I can’t think of it. The Twins’ decision to let David Ortiz walk in 2002 is the only one I can think of that comes close.

I mentioned Hippo Vaughn (1913-21, 35.0 WAR) above. The Cubs’ undisputed ace between Brown’s departure and Pete Alexander’s arrival, Vaughn had three seasons with a sub-2.00 ERA, and only one with an ERA above 2.87.

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Pete Alexander (1918-26, 33.7 WAR) was the Braves’ version of Maddux in the first two seasons after World War I, putting up a staggering 166 ERA+ each season, and amassing 53 complete games. (All 30 teams tossed 50 complete games last season.) One of baseball’s most famous alcoholics, the bottle has been blamed for his decline in performance after 1920, but he was still very good, thanks in part to miniscule walk totals. His big performance drop came in 1921, his age 34 season, but most sober pitchers would beg for Alexander’s on-field success from 34 on.