MLB Top 5: Cleveland Guardians Pitchers

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

Like the Reds before, it will be next to impossible to limit the list of best right-handed starting pitchers in Cleveland Guardians history. The group features several Hall of Famers, All-Stars and players who hold top spots on all-time statistical lists.

Lefties are easier to sort out, but relievers will be a bit tough to rank since Cleveland has not really had a dominant closer to top their list, although check back in a year or two to see where the current closer ranks.

The Best Pitchers in Cleveland Guardians History

Right-Handed Starters

Honorable Mentions (early years) – Bob Rhoads had an 88-66 record with a 2.39 earned run average in seven years with the Naps (1903-09). He had 15 or more wins four times with a 22-10 mark in 1906, and he is tied for tenth in franchise history with 19 shutouts. Guy Morton spent his entire 11-year career in Cleveland, amassing a 98-86 record with a 3.13 ERA. He had double-digit wins five times and was a part of the 1920 Indians title team, although he did not pitch in the World Series.

Jim Bagby was a two-time All-Star who won 17 games in 1942 and ’43. Overall, he went 55-54 with a 3.45 ERA in five seasons with the Indians (1941-45). Earl Moore began his career with seven seasons in Cleveland (1901-07), winning 15 or more games four times and going 82-68 with a 2.58 ERA overall. His best season was 1903, when he went 20-8 with a league-best 1.74 ERA.

Willis Hudlin used his speed and control to post a double-digit win total in nine of his 15 seasons with Cleveland (1926-40), with his best being an 18-12 mark in 1927. “Ace” ranks fourth in team history in games pitched (475), games started (320) and innings (2,557 2/3) and seventh in wins (157-101) and complete games (154).

George Uhle led the league in wins, complete games and innings twice each during his 11 seasons with the Indians (1919-28 and 36). He posted two of the better seasons in club history, going 26-6 in 1923 and 27-11 three years later. He was also crazy enough to call for an intentional walk just so he could pitch to Babe Ruth (he struck him out in that instance, too). “The Bull” ranks sixth in franchise history in complete games (167), eighth in wins (147-119) and innings (2,200 ½) and tenth in games started (267, with a franchise-record 44 in 1923).

Can you imagine having a Hall of Famer not in your top five? Well, the franchise is so pitching-rich from the right side that there really isn’t a choice. Early Wynn was a three-time All-Star during his 10-year run in Cleveland (1949-57 and 63). He lost seven teeth and needed 16 stitches after getting hit in the face with a line drive in 1956, he won 217 games after turning 30 and won his 300th after returning to the Indians in 1963 after five seasons with the White Sox.

Wynn won 20 or more games four times, including 1954, when he led the league with a 23-11 mark, 36 starts and 270 2/3 innings to help Cleveland reach the World Series. He also topped the A. L. with a 3.20 ERA in 1950. “Gus” ranks fifth in franchise history in victories (164-102), tied for fifth in strikeouts (1,277) seventh in innings (2,286 2/3), games started (296) and shutouts (24), and eighth in complete games (144). He lost his only start against the Giants in the 1954 World Series. Wynn was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972.

Honorable Mentions (later 20th century) – Luis Tiant was known more for his time in Boston, but he went 75-64 with a 2.84 earned run average, 1,041 strikeouts in 1,200 innings and 21 shutouts (which rank ninth in franchise history). His best season was 1968, when he was an All-Star after going 21-9 with a league-best 1.60 ERA and a career-high 264 strikeouts.

Gary Bell was a three-time All-Star during his 10 seasons in Cleveland (1958-67). He recorded double-digit wins five times, led by a 16-11 mark in 1959. Overall, Bell went 96-92 with a 3.71 ERA. He ranks seventh in franchise history in games pitched (419) and tenth in strikeouts (1,104).

Mike Garcia was a three-time All-Star and a two-time ERA leader during his 12 seasons with the Indians (1948-69). He recorded double-digit victories in nine straight seasons, and his best year was 1954, when he went 19-8 with a league-best 2.64 ERA. Garcia has a 3.24 career ERA and ranks fifth in franchise history in shutouts (27), eight in games pitched (397) and ninth in wins (142-96), innings (2,138) and games started (281). He went 0-1 in the loss to the Giants in the 1954 World Series. After his playing career ended in 1961, Garcia opened a dry-cleaning business, which he ran until diabetes, plus kidney and heart issues forced him to sell in the early 1980s to pay for his dialysis treatments. He passed away in 1986.

Honorable Mentions (modern) – Shane Bieber is in his sixth season with the Guardians (2018-present), and he has posted a 59-32 record with a 3.26 ERA. He won the Cy Young Award in the 2020 COVID-shortened season, winning the pitching Triple Crown with an 8-1 record, a 1.63 ERA and 122 strikeouts. Bieber has 926 strikeouts in 820 innings, with a career-high of 259 in 2019. Bieber was also the MVP of the 2019 All-Star Game, which was held in his home ballpark.

Charles Nagy was a three-time All-Star during his 13-year runs in Cleveland (1990-2002). He had a double-digit win total, reaching 17 in each of his All-Star years. His best season was 1992, when he went 17-10 and set career-bests with a 2.96 earned run average and 169 strikeouts. Nagy ranks sixth in history in games started (297), eighth in strikeouts (1,235) and tenth in wins (129-103).

Carlos Carrasco is a current Met (for now) who went 88-73 in 11 seasons with Cleveland (2009-20), with a year missed due to Tommy John surgery). He ranks fourth in team history with 1,305 strikeouts in 1,242 1/3 innings. “Cookie’s” best season was 2017, when he led the league with an 18-6 record along with a 3.29 ERA and 226 strikeouts, one of three times in which he went over 200.

Corey Kluber spent nine seasons with the Indians (2011-19), earning three All-Star selections and winning two Cy Young Awards while finishing third in the voting two other times. The first came in 2014, when he led the league with an 18-9 record and had a 2.44 earned run average and a career-high 269 strikeouts, his first of five straight seasons with 200 or more.

Kluber won the award again in 2017 after leading the league with and 18-4 mark and a 2.25 ERA and striking out 265 batters. He went 20-7 with a 2.89 ERA and a league-best 215 innings the following year. Overall, Kluber had a 98-58 record with a 3.16 ERA. He sits in third on the all-time franchise list with 1,461 strikeouts in 1,341 2/3 innings.

5. Stan Coveleski – The star pitcher from the end of the Deadball Era worked on his craft as a child by throwing rocks at tin cans, which he said taught him the control that made him a star. He won 20 or more games in four straight years and won at least 13 in each of his nine seasons with the Indians (1916-24). Coveleski led the league with 133 strikeouts in 1920 and topped the A. L. with a 2.76 earned run average three years later.

He has a 2.80 ERA with the Indians and ranks third in franchise history in complete games (193, with six straight years with at least 20), tied for third in shutouts (31), fourth in wins (172-123) and fifth in innings (2,502 1/3) and games started (305). Coveleski was dominant in the 1920 World Series, completing and winning all three of his starts while giving up just two runs. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame by the Veteran’s Committee in 1969.

4. Bob Lemon – He started off as an outfielder and made a diving catch in center field to preserve Bob Feller’s 1941 no-hitter. After spending three years serving in the Navy during World War II (some of which was spent as a pitcher) Lemon returned and was on the verge of being released before he was converted to the mound full-time.

Lemon became one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball over his 15-year career (1941-42 and 46-58), all spent with Cleveland. He was a seven-time All-Star who won 20 or more games seven times and led the league in victories three times. He also topped the A. L. in complete games five times, innings four times, games started three years in a row and shutouts with 10 in 1948 (which is also tied for the most in team history).

Although there was no Cy Young Award while Lemon was in his prime, he was in the top 10 in MVP voting six times during his career. He ranks third in franchise history in wins (207-128), innings (2,850) and games started (350), tied for third in shutouts (31), fourth in complete games (188), fifth in games pitched (460) and tied for fifth in strikeouts (1,277). Lemon threw a no-hitter in 1948, then won two games in the World Series victory over the Braves but lost two against the Giants in 1954. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1976.

3. Mel Harder – He began his career as the youngest player in baseball at age 18, then spent his entire 20-year career with Cleveland (1928-47), reaching double-digit victories 13 times and throwing at least 200 innings in eight seasons. “Chief” got to the 20-win plateau twice, led the league with a 2.95 earned run average in 1933 and topped the A. L. with six shutouts the following year.

Despite Carl Hubbell earning notoriety for his performance in the 1934 All-Star Game, it was Harder who got the win. He also was a member of the Cleveland “Crybabies,” a group of Indians players who got tired of manager Ossie Vitt’s treatment and went to owner Alva Bradley to complain.

Harder is the all-time franchise leader in games pitched (582) and he ranks second in wins (223-186), innings (3,426) and games started (433), fifth in complete games (181), sixth in shutouts (25) and ninth in strikeouts (1,161). The four-time All-Star retired just before the team made the World Series for the first time in nearly three decades and became one of the first coaches to focus solely on pitching. Harder got some Hall of Fame consideration afterward, but his high mark was a little more than 25 percent of the vote in 1964.

2. Adrian Joss – One of the most dominant pitchers of the early 1900s saw his career and life end prematurely. Joss had a run of eight straight seasons with double-digit victories, including winning 20 in four consecutive years. He had an earned run average of under 2.00 five times and led the league twice, with a ridiculous 1.16 in 1908 (which is also a franchise record). Joss had a league-best 27-11 mark the year before, and he also threw 338 2/3 innings and completed 34 of 38 starts.

Joss was involved in one of the greatest pitching duels in baseball history. The Naps were part of a three-team pennant race in 1908 and Joss was facing White Sox ace Ed Walsh on October 2. Walsh gave up just four hits and an unearned run, but Joss was dominant, throwing the fourth perfect game in Major League history. Despite the win, Cleveland finished a half-game behind Detroit in the standings.

Addie faced several ailments during his career including a bout with malaria in 1903. Despite throwing his second no-hitter earlier in the year, Joss missed the second half of the 1910 season with a sore arm. As he was trying to return the following spring, Joss had lost quite a bit of weight and looked ill. He was diagnosed with pleurisy and sent home after fainting during an exhibition game. As it turned out, Joss had tubercular meningitis, which took his life at age 31 just two days after the 1911 season started. While the first official All-Star Game didn’t take place until 1933, star players from other teams came together to face the Naps in a game in late July, with the proceeds going to benefit Joss’ family.

Joss is the all-time franchise leader in ERA (1.89) and shutouts (45), and he ranks second in complete games (234) and sixth in both wins (160-97) and innings (2,327). If you are a fan of more modern statistics, he is baseball’s all-time leader in WHIP (baserunners allowed per inning) with 0.968. Had Joss continued to follow his early trajectory and not gotten sick, he would have been a lock for Cooperstown. The Veteran’s Committee recognized this and even waived their 10-year playing career rule to elect him to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1978.

1. Bob Feller – He began his career as a 17-year-old and spent his entire 18-year career with Cleveland 1936-41 and 45-56), using his overpower fastball to win 20 or more games in six seasons, leading the league each time. As a rookie, he struck out 17 batters in September to set an American League record.

Feller started the 1940 season off right, beating the White Sox 1-0 on April 16 and throwing the only Opening Day no-hitter in Major League history. He went on to win the Player of the Year Award and pitching’s Triple Crown after going 27-11 and also leading the league with a 2.61 earned run average and 261 strikeouts.

After missing nearly four years to serve in the miliary during World War II, Feller returned with one of the most dominant single-season performances in baseball history in 1946. He had a 2.18 ERA, and led the league in wins (26-14), starts (42), complete games (36), shutouts (10), innings (371 1/3) and strikeouts (348), with those last four marks setting or tying team records and the starts ranking second. Feller was in the top 10 of MVP voting six times. He led the league in strikeouts seven times, games started and innings five times each, shutouts four times and complete games three times.

“Rapid Robert” is the all-time franchise leader in wins (266-162), innings (3,287), games started (484), complete games (279) and strikeouts (2,581), and he ranks second in games pitched (570) and shutouts (44). He lost both of his starts in the 1948 World Series (in which the Indians defeated the Braves) and did not pitch in 1954 against the Giants.

The eight-time All-Star and two-time fielding champion was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 1962. Feller warmed up every day, even into his 80s. He died due to complications from leukemia in 2010 at the age of 92.

Left-Handed Starters

5. Sylveanus “Vean” Gregg – He began his career with three straight 20-win seasons, going 23-8 with a league-leading 1.80 earned run average as a rookie in 1911. Over his four year-run with the Naps (1911-14), Gregg went 72-36 with a 2.31 ERA. He was traded to the Red Sox in 1914 and won two titles, although he did not pitch in either World Series.

4. Cliff Lee – He went 83-48 in eight seasons with the Indians (2002-09), reaching double-digits in victories four times. Lee went 18-5 in 2005 and 14-11 the following year, then had a mediocre season which included a strained right abdominal muscle in spring training and a stint in the minor leagues due to inconsistent play.

He came back better than before in 2008, winning the Cy Young Award and being named an All-Star after leading the league with a 22-3 record, a 2.54 ERA and two shutouts. Lee was sent to the Phillies at the 2009 trade deadline, and he pitched in back-to-back World Series with Philadelphia and Texas.

3. CC Sabathia – He was a three-time All-Star during his eight-year stint in Cleveland (2001-08). Sabathia won at least 10 games in each of his first seven seasons and finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting after going 17-5 with 171 strikeouts in 2001. He teamed with Lee to create a formidable left-handed duo for the Indians in the early 21st century. While Lee was dealing with control issues in 2007, Sabathia picked up the slack, posting a 19-7 record with a 3.21 ERA and 209 strikeouts in a league-high 241 innings to win the Cy Young Award.

Just like Lee, Sabathia was traded the year after winning pitching’s highest honor, with Sabathia going to Milwaukee. He later signed with the Yankees, and he was selected to the All-Star team three more times and led the league in wins twice. Sabathia went 106-71 with a 3.83 ERA in 237 starts. He ranks seventh in franchise history with 1,265 strikeouts.

2. Herb Score – Here is another player who saw a promising career get cut short. Even in an Indians rotation in the 1950s that included Feller, Lemon and Wynn, Score stood out. The hard-thrower was an All-Star and earned Rookie of the Year honors in 1955 after going 16-10 with a 2.85 earned run average and league-best 245 strikeouts, which was a record for a first-year player that stood for nearly 30 years until the Mets’ Dwight Gooden broke it in 1984.

Score was even better the next year, going 20-9 with a 2.53 ERA and once again led the league in strikeouts with 264, earned him another All-Star selection. On May 7, 1957, Score was hit in the face by a line drive off the bat of Gil McDougald, breaking several orbital bones and injuring his eye, causing him to miss the rest of the season. After he returned in 1958, he could not regain his previous form and missed most of this year with a torn tendon in his throwing arm.

Score came back with a changed pitching motion, but inconsistent pitching and more injuries led to him being traded to the White Sox in 1960. He started just 27 games in three seasons before retiring in 1962. Score finished his five-year Indians career (1955-59) with a 49-34 record, a 3.17 ERA and 742 strikeouts in 714 1/3 innings.

After his playing days, he embarked on a 34-year career as a television and radio broadcaster with the Indians, retiring after the team lost in the 1997 World Series. Score was in a serious accident when he turned into the path of a tractor-trailer in Ohio in 1998. He recovered from his injuries but suffered a stroke in 2002 and passed away in 2008.

1. Sam McDowell – He reached the Major Leagues at 18 and developed into one of the better starts in the American League. However, he ended up having too much pressure on him at a young age and became an alcoholic, which took him years to overcome. McDowell was a six-time All-Star who registered double-digit victories seven times in his 11 seasons with Cleveland (1961-71).

He had more than 300 strikeouts twice, led the league five times and, after Feller’s 348 in 1946, he owns the next four spots on the team’s all-time list. In 1965, McDowell went 17-11 and posted league-high totals with a 2.18 earned run average and 325 strikeouts. He was nearly as good in 1970, finishing third in the Cy Young voting after amassing a 20-12 record with a 2.92 ERA and leading the league with 304 strikeouts and 305 innings.

McDowell went 122-109 with a 2.99 earned run average. He ranks second on the all-time franchise list in strikeouts (2,159), eighth in games started (295) and shutouts (22) and tenth in innings (2,109 2/3). After a few years of disputes with management, McDowell was traded to the Giants for future Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry.

Relief Pitchers

Honorable Mentions – Joe Borowski spent the final two seasons of his 12-year career with Cleveland (2007-08), going 5-8 with 51 saves. He had 45 saves in 2007, which is tied for second-best single season total in team history, and he added two more in the postseason as the Indians reached the ALCS.

Michael Jackson (no, not the singer) went 6-10 with 94 saves in three seasons with the Indians (1997-99). He went from setup to closer in his first season, then had a 1.55 ERA and 40 saves in 1998. Jackson saved 39 games the following year, but his ERA ballooned to 4.06 and he was let go as a free agent. He appeared in the 1997 World Series and went 1-0 with four saves in 19 postseason games.

Chris Perez – He was traded to the Indians by the Cardinals in 2009 and became a solid closer during his five seasons in Cleveland (2009-13). Perez had a 1.71 ERA and 23 saves in 2010 and was selected as an All-Star in each of the next two seasons. He went 11-17 with a 3.33 ERA and 124 saves (fourth best in franchise history). Perez had one mediocre season as a setup man with the Dodgers and was suspended 50 games for violating Major League Baseball’s drug policy while he was in the Brewers’ minor league system in 2015.

5. Emmanuel Clase – The team’s current closer is in his third season (2021-present) and has a 9-16 record with a 1.81 earned run average, 102 saves (sixth in franchise history) and 208 saves in 203 1/3 innings. He posted an ERA under 2.00 in each of his first two season and led the league with 42 saves and 77 games in 2022. This year, Clase has slipped a little in ERA (2.95), but he is once again leading the league with 36 saves entering September.

4. Bob Wickman – He enjoyed a 15-year career with six coming in Cleveland (2000-02 and 04-06). Wickman went 5-0 with 32 saves and a 2.39 earned run average in 2001 and then required Tommy John surgery midway through the following seasons that caused him to miss all of 2003. He earned an All-Star selection in 2005 after leading the league with 45 saves (tied for second-most in team history) and posting a 2.47 ERA. Wickman went 8-16 with a 3.23 ERA and 139 saves (second on the all-time franchise list). He pitched in one game during the loss to the Mariners in the 2001 Division Series.

3. Doug Jones – Despite not being a regular player in the Major Leagues until he was 29, Jones saved more than 300 games in his 16-year career. He was a three-time All-Star during his seven seasons with the Indians (1986-91 and 98).

Jones started as a middle reliever before moving to the back of the bullpen and posting 30 or more saves in three straight seasons. His numbers declined sharply, and he played for five teams in six years before returning to Cleveland during the 1998 season. Jones had one save in 23 appearances before spending his final two years with Oakland and retiring in 2000. He went 27-34 with a 3.06 ERA and 129 saves (which ranks third in franchise history).

2. Jose Mesa – He began his career as a starter and converted first to middle relief before taking over the closer role in Cleveland. Mesa took to his new assignment quite well, earning an All-Star selection, finishing second in the Cy Young Award voting and winning the Rolaids Relief Award in 1995 after going 3-0 with a 1.13 earned run average and a league-leading 46 saves. He followed that with another All-Star nod and 39 more saves, although his ERA dropped to 3.73.

Mesa’s 1997 was easily his worst year, both as a player and as a person. He was charged with gross sexual imposition and concealing a loaded handgun (he was acquitted of both charges but faced public wrath for the rest of his career). Then he blew the save in Game 7 of the World Series as the Marlins won the title.

After giving way to Jackson as closer, Mesa was sent to the Giants during the 1998 season. In seven years with the Indians (1992-98), he went 33-36 with a 3.88 ERA and 104 saves, which is fifth best in team history. Mesa also spent time as a closer with the Mariners, Phillies and Pirates, finishing his 19-year career with 321 saves.

1. Cody Allen – He spent seven seasons with the Indians (2012-18), posting 20 or more saves in five straight years. Allen became the full-time closer in his third year, saving 24 games and posting a career-best 2.07 earned run average. Overall, he went 24-29 with a franchise-record 149 saves and 564 strikeouts in 440 2/3 innings.

Allen had seven saves in 17 career postseason games, including six in 2016 as the Indians reached the World Series. He retired after a rough season with the Angels in 2019.’

The next series will feature the Colorado Rockies.

Upcoming Stories

Cleveland Guardians Catchers and Managers
Cleveland Guardians First and Third Basemen and Designated Hitters
Cleveland Guardians Second Basemen and Shortstops
Cleveland Guardians Outfielders

Previous Series

A look back at the Cincinnati Reds

A look back at the Chicago White Sox

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

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

Atlanta Braves Catchers and Managers
Atlanta Braves First and Third Basemen
Atlanta Braves Second Basemen and Shortstops
Atlanta Braves Outfielders
Atlanta Braves Pitchers

A look back at the Arizona Diamondbacks

Arizona Diamondbacks Catchers and Managers
Arizona Diamondbacks First and Third Basemen
Arizona Diamondbacks Second Basemen and Shortstops
Arizona Diamondbacks Outfielders
Arizona Diamondbacks Pitchers

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