MLB Top 5: Chicago Cubs Pitchers

This is the fifth and final article in a series that looks at the five best players at each position for the Chicago Cubs. In this installment are right- and left-handed starting pitchers as well as relievers.

The list of the best right-handed starting pitchers in Chicago Cubs history includes no less than five Hall of Famers. There are so many good options that the list will spill over the five-person limit. The lefties may not have the same depth, but they are solid at the top, and the team also boasts two Hall of Fame closers.

The Best Pitchers in Chicago Cubs History

Right-Handed Starters

Honorable Mentions (Early history) – John Clarkson went 328-178 in a 12-year Major League career that included a 137-57 record and two pennants in just four seasons with Chicago. After an 1884 season in which he won 10 of his 13 starts, Clarkson went 53-16 the following year, with his win total being a franchise record and the second-highest single-season mark in history. He also had a 1.85 ERA and led the league with 308 strikeouts, 632 innings, 70 starts, 68 complete games, and 10 shutouts (with the final four being team records).
In 1888, he topped the National League with 38 victories, 523 innings, 237 strikeouts, and 56 complete games. Clarkson won the pitching Triple Crown with the Boston Beaneaters in 1889 and eventually followed many other pitchers from this era and succumbed to the dreaded “dead arm” from overuse. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1963.
Clark Griffith went 152-96 in eight seasons with the Colts and Orphans (1893-1900), and his win total is tied for sixth in team history. He had six seasons with at least 20 wins, with his best coming in 1898, when he went 24-10 with a league-best 1.88 ERA. The screwball master and alleged inventor was known to use his cleat spikes to scuff baseballs. Griffith ranks third in team history with 240 complete games, including a league-high 38 in 1897. After leaving the Orphans, he pitched for four other teams before finally retiring after the 1914 season. He managed in Cincinnati and Washington before buying the Senators (later moving and becoming the Twins) in 1920. Griffith was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1946 and his family owned the Twins until 1984.
Larry Corcoran was one of the best pitchers in baseball in the early 1880s, going 177-89 and leading his team to three straight pennants from 1880-82. He won career-best 43 games (a record by a first-year player), posted a 1.95 earned run average, and led the league with 268 strikeouts as a rookie in 1880. He topped the National League with 31 wins in 1881 and a 1.95 ERA the following year, en route to winning 30 or more games in four of his five full seasons with the White Stockings.
Corcoran ranks second in team history in complete games (252), fourth in wins (175) and innings (2,338 1/3), seventh in ERA (2.26), tied for eighth in shutouts (200) and tenth in both strikeouts (1,086), and games started (262). He was traded in 1885 and went 2-5 in his final three seasons. Corcoran, who threw three no-hitters in his career, died at age 32 in 1891 from Bright’s disease (now called nephritis), a condition that causes inflammation of the kidneys.
Honorable Mentions (Early 1900s) – Guy Bush went 152-101 in 12 seasons with the Cubs (1923-34), and his win total tied with Griffith for sixth in team history. Bush had 15 or more wins for seven straight seasons and went over 200 innings six times despite coming out of the bullpen for about 40 percent of his games (he had 27 saves and led the league twice). Bush was a curveball specialist who pitched on two pennant-winning teams. He ranks fifth in franchise history in games pitched (428) and ninth in innings (2,201 2/3).
Bill Lee arrived after Bush and anchored the Cubs rotation for 11 years (1934-44). “Big Bill” ranked ninth in team history with a 139-123 record, and he won at least 18 games four times. His best season was 1938, when the won led the league with a 22-9 record and a 2.66 ERA while making his first of back-to-back All-Star teams. He also went 20-6 in 1935, using his two 20-win seasons to lead the Cubs to World Series appearances. Lee ranks sixth in team history in games started (297) and shutouts (25), seventh in innings (2,271 1/3) and ninth in wins.
Claude Passeau was a five-time All-Star who went 124-94 with a 2.96 ERA and 22 shutouts (tied for eighth in franchise history) in nine seasons with the Cubs (1939-47). He won 15 or more games five times, including a career-best 20-13 mark with a 2.50 ERA and 124 strikeouts in 1940 (but he was not an All-Star). Passeau went 1-0 in three games in the 1945 World Series, but the Cubs fell to the Tigers.
Ed Reulbach won at least 15 games in each of his first five seasons and hit the mark six times overall in his nine years with the Cubs (1905-13). Chicago won three straight pennants from 1906-08 and Reulbach went 60-15 and led the league in winning percentage in each of those three seasons. He used his high leg kick delivery to go 136-65 with a 2.24 earned run average in the regular season and 2-0 in seven postseason appearances, as he helped the Cubs win four pennants and two World Series championships.
Honorable Mention (Modern era) – Rick Reuschel went 135-127 in 12 seasons with the Cubs (1972-81 and 83-84), reaching double-digit wins nine times. While 1975 was not his best season (he led the league with 17 losses), it gave him his best moment. In a game against the Dodgers on August 21, he gave up five hits in 6 1/3 innings before coming out of the game. His older brother, Paul, came in and gave up just one hit to preserve the shutout, the only time brothers combined to throw one in Major League history. Reuschel earned his lone All-Star selection with the Cubs in 1977 when he went 20-10 with a 2.79 earned run average and a career-high 166 strikeouts. He ranks second in franchise history in games started (343), fifth in strikeouts (1,367) and sixth in innings (2,290).
Rick Sutcliffe was traded to the Cubs from the Indians in June 1984, and he proceeded to go 16-1 with a 2.69 ERA and 155 strikeouts in 150 1/3 innings to win the National League Cy Young Award despite only being in the league for half a season. Sutcliffe was selected to a pair of All-Star teams with Chicago, in 1987, when he led the league in wins with an 18-10 record and 174 strikeouts and 1989, when he went 16-11. He made three starts in the Cubs’ two postseason appearances in the 1980s. In eight seasons with Chicago (1984-91), Sutcliffe went 82-65 with 909 strikeouts in 1,267 1/3 innings.
While he is best known for his time with the Braves, Greg Maddux went 133-112 over 10 seasons in two stints with the Cubs (1986-92 and 2004-06). The two-time All-Star won at least 15 games six times and led the league in games started three times and innings pitched twice. His best season was 1992, when the led the league with a 20-11 record, had a 2.18 ERA and struck out 199 batters in a league-high 268 innings to win his first of four straight Cy Young awards. Maddux was a three-time gold glove winner and a two-time All-Star with Chicago. He finished his Cubs career ranked fifth in team history with 298 games started and sixth with 1,305 strikeouts. “Mad Dog” signed with the Braves the following season and became one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball while helping to create Atlanta’s dynasty over the next 15 years. Maddux retired in 2008 and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2014.
Carlos Zambrano earned his nickname “El Toro” (The Bull) due to his temper and antics. He was an emotional player who occasionally threw at batters and got into demonstrative arguments with umpires. Zambrano spent 11 of his 12 seasons with the Cubs, earning three All-Star selections and three silver slugger awards. He led the league with 16 wins in 2006 (a total he hit three times) and added a career-high 210 strikeouts and 115 walks in 214 innings. Overall, he went 125-81, with 1,542 strikeouts (second-most in team history) in 282 starts (eighth).
Kerry Wood had tremendous potential but was done in by injuries. Wood was the 1998 Rookie of the Year after going 13-6 with 233 strikeouts. On May 8 of that year, he tied the record by striking out 20 batters in a 2-0 win over the Astros. Wood struck out 200 batters in a season three more times, including a league-best 266 in 2003, but soon injuries took over. He missed all of 1999 with ligament issues in his elbow, then triceps (2004), shoulder (2005), rotator cuff (2006) and knee (2007). Wood returned to health in 2008 but was converted to a closer. He earned his second All-Star selection after saving 34 games. He pitched with the Indians and Yankees over the next two years before coming back to the Cubs for two lackluster seasons. Wood went 80-68 in 12 seasons with Chicago posting 1,470 strikeouts (third in team history) in 1,279 innings. He also had a 2-2 record in eight postseason appearances.
Like Wood, Mark Prior had all the potential in the world before injury ruined his promising career. Prior was solid his first four years but had a spectacular 2003 season. He was an All-Star after going 18-6 with a 2.43 ERA and 245 strikeouts, Prior had 188 more in 2005, but he was hit in the elbow by a line drive which eventually led to his downfall. Prior had a terrible start to the 2006 season (1-7, 7.21 ERA) and he found out he would need reconstructive surgery on his right shoulder for a torn labrum, rotator cuff and anterior capsule. He spent several years trying to rehab and get back to the majors before finally retiring in 2013. Prior is now the pitching coach for the Dodgers.
5. Grover Cleveland Alexander was named after the only person to serve two separate terms as U. S. President, but he did not go into politics like his father had hoped. Instead, “Pete” turned to baseball, amassing 373 victories in 20 Major League seasons. Alexander had led the league in wins five times with the Phillies, a trend that the Cubs hoped would continue after they acquired him in 1918. He missed most of that season while fighting in France during World War I but returned to win 15 or more games six times in nine seasons with the Cubs (1918-26). In 1920, he won the pitching Triple Crown with a 27-14 record, a 1.91 earned run average and 173 strikeouts. Overall, Alexander went with the Cubs, and he ranked seventh in team history with 24 shutouts and tenth with 158 complete games. His career fell off at the end of the 1920s due to alcoholism which ramped up after he returned from the War. Alexander also suffered from seizures and a fall during one led to his death in 1950. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1938.
4. Bill Hutchison – He was the son of a minister who had one of the most dominant three-year stretches by any pitcher. After coming back from a four-year hiatus to run lumber and railroad businesses, Hutchison went 16-17 in 1889. The next three years, he combined to go 111-80 with 864 strikeouts in 1,786 innings, leading the league all three years in wins, games started, complete games and innings (with all three seasons over 550). His 314 strikeouts in 1892 led the league and is the team record. In seven seasons (1889-95), Hutchison is the all-time franchise leader in complete games (317) and ranks second in innings (3,022 1/3), third in wins (180-158), tied for third in games started (339), seventh in strikeouts (1,225), ninth in games pitched (368) and tied for tenth in shutouts (21).
3. Charlie Root – He spent two full seasons in the minor leagues before making his Cubs debut. Root spent the next 16 years with the Cubs (1926-41), winning 15 or more games eight times. His two best seasons were 1927, when he went 26-15 and led the league in wins and innings (309) and 1929, when he went 19-6 with a 3.47 ERA in 272 innings. Root is the Cubs’ all-time leader in wins (201-156), games pitched (605) and innings (3,137 1/2) and ranks tied for third in games started (339), fourth in strikeouts (1,432), tied for seventh in complete games (177) and tied for tenth in shutouts (21). He also pitched in all four World Series the Cubs played in during his career but went 0-3 with a 6.75 ERA. Despite all of his accomplishments, Root is best known for being the pitcher when Babe Ruth “called” his home run in the 1932 World Series.
2. Ferguson Jenkins – He began his career as a reliever with the Phillies before the Cubs converted him to a starter in 1967. Despite winning 20 or more games six straight years with the Cubs (1967-72), “Fergie” was only an All-Star in three of those seasons. The only time he ever led the National League in wins was 1971, when he went 24-13 with a 2.77 ERA, 263 strikeouts and league-best totals of 325 innings and 30 complete games and won the Cy Young Award. Jenkins went over 300 innings and 200 strikeouts four times each and led the league in complete games three times.
He was one of the unluckiest pitchers in baseball history as well. He never pitched in the postseason despite playing 19 seasons and he lost 13 games by a 1-0 score even though he pitched a complete game in all of them. Jenkins is the all-time franchise leader in games started (347) and strikeouts (2,038), and he ranks third in innings (2,673 2/3), fourth in shutouts (29) and fifth in wins (167-132). Jenkins was traded to the Rangers in late 1973 and came back to the Cubs to end his career in 1982-83. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1991.
1. Mordecai Brown – He overcame a rough childhood on the farm and in the coal mines to become one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history. Mordecai Peter Centennial Brown (given the extra middle name because he was born in 1876, the 100-year anniversary of the United States becoming a nation) was given the nickname of “Three-Finger.” He lost most of his right index finger when it got caught in a corn grinder and broke two others when he fell while chasing either a hog or a rabbit (depending upon your source), resulting in a paralyzed little finger and a bent middle one that gave him a fantastic sinker.
After one lackluster season with the Cardinals, Brown rattled off eight straight seasons with 15 straight wins, and he reached 20 six straight years. When the Cubs won four pennants in a five-year stretch, Brown was keeping the other hitters off-balance. In 1906, the Cubs set the single-season wins record with 116 and he went 26-6 with a nearly unhittable 1.04 earned run average. The one time Chicago didn’t win the pennant was 1909, and Brown had a 1.31 ERA and led the league with a 27-9 record, 342 2/3 innings and 32 complete games. When he wasn’t starting, he came out of the bullpen, totaling 39 saves in 10 seasons with the Cubs (1904-12 and 16) and leading the league four times. Brown went 188-86 with Chicago, including a modern era record 29 wins in 1908. He is the all-time franchise leader in shutouts (48), and he ranks second in wins and ERA (1.80 to Al Spalding‘s 1.78), fourth in complete games (206) and fifth in innings (2,329). Brown passed away in 1948 and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame the following year.

Left-Handed Starters

5. Dick Ellsworth – He played for the Cubs before Holtzman and Jenkins, going 84-110 in eight seasons (1958 and 60-66). Ellsworth was an All-Star in 1964, but his best season was the one before, when he set career-bests with a 22-11 record, a 2.11 ERA, 19 complete games, 185 strikeouts in 290 2/3 innings. Ellsworth had 905 strikeouts and 71 complete games with the Cubs, but he led the league with 22 losses in 1966 and was traded to the Phillies after the season.

4. Larry French – He amassed a 95-84 record while pitching on two pennant-winning teams in his seven seasons with the Cubs (1935-41). French won 15 or more games four times and led the league in shutouts twice, but his only All-Star season came in 1940, when he went 14-14 with a 3.29 ERA and a career-high 107 strikeouts. He went 0-2 in five postseason appearances with the Cubs and sits in a tie for tenth in franchise history with 21 shutouts.

3. Ken Holtzman – He played second fiddle to Jenkins during his nine seasons with Chicago (1965-71 and 78-79), posting double-digit wins four times including back-to-back 17-win seasons. His best year with the Cubs was 1970, when he went 17-13 with 15 complete games and a career-high 202 strikeouts in 287 2/3 innings. Overall, Holtzman went 80-81 with 988 strikeouts in 1,447 innings.

2. Jon Lester – He was part of two championship teams with the Red Sox and starred for the Cubs during their own run to the World Series in 2016. Lester went 19-5 with a 2.44 earned run average and 197 strikeouts in the regular season, then went 3-1 in the postseason, helping the Cubs break their championship drought and winning NLCS co-MVP along the way. Two years later, he earned his second All-Star selection after leading the league with an 18-6 record to go along with a 3.32 ERA. In six seasons with the Cubs (2015-2020), Lester went 77-44 with 940 strikeouts in 1,002 2/3 innings.

1. Hippo Vaughn – After two subpar seasons, he came to Chicago in 1913 and won 17 or more games in seven straight years and won at least 20 five times. In 1918, he won the pitching Triple Crown after leading the league in wins (22-10), ERA (1.74) and strikeouts (148). Vaughn was involved in what may have been the greatest pitching duel of all-time, going out for out with Cincinnati’s Fred Toney on May 2, 1917. Each had a no-hitter going through nine innings, but Vaughn gave up a run on two hits in the tenth, while Toney retired the Cubs in order to preserve the no-no and the 1-0 win. Vaughn ranks second in team history in shutouts (32), tied for seventh in complete games (177), eighth in wins (151-105), innings (2,216 1/3) and strikeouts (1,138) and ninth in ERA (2.33) and games started (270). Despite only allowing three runs in 27 innings, Vaughn went 1-2 in the 1918 World Series loss to the Red Sox. His weight ballooned to near 300 pounds at the end of his career (which gave Jim Vaughn his nickname), and he went 3-11 with a 6.01 ERA in 1921 before being released and never pitching in the Major Leagues again.

Relief Pitchers

Honorable Mentions – Ryan Dempster was a started with the Marlins at the beginning of his career, went to the bullpen when he came to the Cubs and then converted back to the rotation halfway through his nine-year Chicago tenure (2004-12). He ranks fifth in team history with 87 saves (with a high of 33 in 2005) and eight with 374 games pitched. Dempster’s only All-Star selection came in 2008, his first after re-converting to being a starter. He posted career-bests with a 17-6 record and a 2.96 ERA. Overall, he went 67-66 with a 3.74 ERA and 1,070 strikeouts in 1,118 2/3 innings.

Hector Rondon was the closer during the team’s resurgence in the middle part of the last decade. In five seasons (2013-17), he went18-13 with 77 saves. His best season was 2015, when he went 6-4 with a 1.67 ERA and 30 saves in the regular season, then posted two more saves in five postseason appearances. The next year, Rondon had 29 saves but was pushed back to the setup role in the playoffs when the Cubs acquired Aroldis Chapman to help them win the title.

5. Carlos Marmol – He spent eight of his nine big league seasons with the Cubs (2006-13), amassing a 23-32 record with 117 saves (third in team history) in 483 games pitched (second). In addition, he struck out 703 batters in 542 1/3 innings for a rate of 11.7 per nine innings. Marmol was an All-Star as a setup man in 2008 and two years later, he had a 2.55 ERA and a career-high 38 saves. He had 34 the following year, but his ERA steadily rose until he was traded to the Dodgers in 2013.

4. Don Elston – He pitched in an era before specialized reliever and was an innings eater out of the bullpen. “Every Day” led the league in games pitched twice and threw more than 90 innings in five straight seasons. He was a two-time All-Star whose best season was 1959, when he went 10-8 with a career-high 14 saves in a league-leading 65 games. In nine seasons with the Cubs (1953 and 57-64), Elston had a 49-54 record with 64 saves in 449 games (fourth-best in team history).

3. Randy Myers – He spent just three years with the Cubs but was named an All-Star twice and the year he wasn’t, he set the team’s single-season record for saves with 53 in 1993. He added 21 the following year and 38 more in 1995, his second time leading the league while in a Cubs uniform. Overall, he went 4-11 and his 112 saves rank fourth in team history.

2. Bruce Sutter – He was an All-Star and had at least 25 saves in four of five seasons with the Cubs (1976-80). Although he was the unquestioned closer, Sutter routinely pitched multiple innings to get his saves. He went over 80 innings in all five seasons with Chicago and reach 100 three times. In 1979, he became the third reliever to win the Cy Young Award after going 6-6 with a 2.22 ERA, a league-leading 37 saves and 110 strikeouts in 101 1/3 innings. Sutter finished his Cubs tenure with a 32-30 record, a 2.39 ERA, 494 strikeouts in 493 innings and 133 saves, which rank second in team history. He spent four years with the Cardinals and three with the Braves before retiring in 1988. Sutter was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006.

1. Lee Smith – One of the most feared pitchers of the last half-century was called up to the Cubs in 1980 after five years in the minor leagues. Once Sutter went to the Cardinals, Smith took over as the closer and his eight-year Cubs career (1980-87) included five straight seasons with at least 25 saves. Like Sutter, he pitched a lot of innings and racked up even more saves. Smith earned his first All-Star selection in 1983, when he went 4-10 with a 1.65 ERA, a league-leading 29 saves and 91 strikeouts in 103 1/3 innings. He had 33 saves in each of the next two seasons and had a save in the 1984 NLCS, which was Chicago’s first playoff appearance since 1945. Smith used his 6-foot-6 frame and intimidating scowl on the mound to earn two All-Star selections and amass a 40-51 record, a 2.92 ERA, 644 strikeouts in 681 1/3 innings and a club record 180 saves. After leaving the Cubs in 1988, Smith pitched for seven teams over the next 10 seasons and retired after spending the 1997 season with the Expos. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2019.

The next series will feature Chicago’s other team the White Sox.

Previous Series

A look back at the Chicago Cubs

Chicago Cubs Catchers and Managers
Chicago Cubs First and Third Basemen
Chicago Cubs Second Basemen and Shortstops
Chicago Cubs Outfielders

A look back at the Boston Red Sox

Boston Red Sox Catchers and Managers
Boston Red Sox First and Third Basemen
Boston Red Sox Second Basemen and Shortstops
Boston Red Sox Outfielders and Designated Hitters
Boston Red Sox Pitchers

A look back at the Baltimore Orioles

Baltimore Orioles Catchers and Managers
Baltimore Orioles First and Third Basemen
Baltimore Orioles Second Basemen and Shortstops
Baltimore Orioles Outfielders and Designated Hitters
Baltimore Orioles Pitchers

A look back at the Atlanta Braves

Catchers and Managers
First and Third Basemen
Second Basemen and Shortstops

A look back at the Arizona Diamondbacks

Catchers and Managers
First and Third Basemen
Second Basemen and Shortstops

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