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The Grueling Truth - Where Legends Speak / Top 10 Starting Pitchers of the 1980s: Who Was the Best?

Top 10 Starting Pitchers of the 1980s: Who Was the Best?

Publish Date: 12/23/2023
Fact checked by: Simon Briffa

The 1980s was one of the greatest decades in Major League Baseball History. It was more of an offensive decade than a pitcher’s decade, but there were still some great pitchers during the decade.

Criteria

Does the criteria start with how long a pitcher was dominant in a decade? A pitcher like Mario Soto was dominant for about half the decade, which will drop him down a few notches. A pitcher like Bert Blyleven was consistent for most of the decade, bringing him up a few notches. Postseason accolades will also play into these rankings.

10) Mario Soto

Mario Soto was the Reds ace and one of baseball’s top starting pitchers for much of the first half of the 1980s and finished as runner-up for the Cy Young Award in 1983. He complimented a low-90s fastball with a devastating change-up to help him strike out 915 batters between 1982 and ’85.

Unfortunately, Soto was on some bad Reds teams and would ofter lose 1-0 and 2-1 games as the Reds never seemed to score any runs when Soto pitched. On a different team, Soto may have ranked much higher than this. Soto is consider to be one of the Greatest Pitchers in Reds history!

Video: Soto Cincinnati Reds outduels Ryan Astros - July 30, 1985

Soto Cincinnati Reds outduels Ryan Astros – July 30, 1985

9) Fernando Valenzuela

In 1981, Valenzuela won each of his first eight starts—all complete games, five of those shutouts, which set off Fernandomania around Los Angeles. The invincibility inevitably wore off—he couldn’t maintain a 0.50 ERA forever—but he did finish the strike-shortened 1981 earning trophies for both Rookie of the Year and Cy Young Award; he was an additional 3-1 with a 2.21 ERA in the postseason to follow, leading the Dodgers to a world title.

Though he never quite recaptured the magic of that first season in the years to follow—outside of another blazing start in 1985 when he didn’t allow an earned run through his first 41.1 innings—Valenzuela remained a borderline elite presence by winning 20 games for the first (and only) time in his career in 1986 with a 21-11 record; his 20 complete games that season made him the last pitcher to date to reach that number.

Valenzuela threw 7.2 scoreless innings in five All-Star appearances, and in three additional postseason appearances outside of 1981, he was 2-0 with a 1.61 ERA.

Video: What made Fernando Valenzuela's screwball so unhittable | Fernandomania @ 40 Ep. 7

What made Fernando Valenzuela’s screwball so unhittable | Fernandomania @ 40 Ep. 7

8) Jack Morris

Morris made four all-star teams during the 80s and helped lead the Tigers to the 1984 World Series Championship.  Morris went 3–0 in that 1984 postseason with two complete-game victories in the 1984 World Series. Morris started the most games, pitched the most innings, and had the most wins of any pitcher in that decade.

Morris would go on in 1991 to lead the Minnesota Twins to a game 7 victory where he threw a one hitter in a 1-0 win that was one of the greatest clutch performances in World Series history!

Video: Jack Morris 1984 World Series highlights

Jack Morris 1984 World Series highlights

7) Dwight Gooden

What could have been? Gooden was the very definition of a phenom in the mid-80s, especially in 1984 and 1985 when he was dominant. In 1984 with the Mets, Gooden racked up a rookie record 276 Ks to go with a 17-9 record and 2.60 ERA. That was nothing, however, compared to his incomparable 1985 campaign.

Gooden became such a safe bet to win; some Vegas sportsbooks wouldn’t post odds on games he started, fearing they’d lose easy money. Then it all went south; booze and Drugs would eventually derail his career. Gooden was 100-39 in the 1980s, but Cocaine and Booze destroyed a hall-of-fame career.

Video: 'Doctor K' | Dwight Gooden Prime Highlights

‘Doctor K’ | Dwight Gooden Prime Highlights

6) Roger Clemens

Clemens’s first two years as a pitcher for the Red Sox were really nothing to write home about, but that all changed on April 29, 1986, a night in which Clemens became the first pitcher to strike out 20 batters in a nine-inning game. It was the prime highlight in an explosive start to the year when Clemens went 14-0 over his first 15 starts, earning his first of a record six Cy Young Awards and his lone MVP honor.

Although additionally, he was the winning pitcher in the All-Star Game (retiring all nine batters he faced), Clemens did have issues in the playoffs, especially in what could have been a close-out game. Nevertheless, Clemens carried on at a high level, recording a 55-32 record over the decade’s final three seasons with 40 complete games, 18 shutouts, and (in 1988) his first of five strikeout crowns with 291.

Clemens would be arguably better in the next two decades, but what he achieved in the last half of the 1980s can’t be ignored.

Video: Roger Clemens Career Highlights

Roger Clemens Career Highlights

5) Dave Stieb

In 1985, when the Blue Jays made their first-ever postseason appearance, Stieb won the ERA crown despite an uneventful 14-13 record. After four years averaging 275 innings, Stieb in 1986 began a two-year hiccup in which his effectiveness suffered, leading the Jays to shop him to another team actively.

Instead, they stuck with him, and their patience was rewarded with some of his best work, recording a 51-22 mark over the next three years. The 1988-89 seasons were memorable for his frustration in excellence; he threw five one-hitters, including taking two no-hitters in back-to-back starts into the ninth inning.

Stieb was so good in the 80s that he made our list for the best baseball players of the 1980s.

Video: Dave Stieb Toronto Blue Jays game highlights September 30, 1988 vs Baltimore Orioles No-Hitter

Dave Stieb Toronto Blue Jays game highlights September 30, 1988 vs Baltimore Orioles No-Hitter

4) Bert Blyleven

Blyleven is maybe the most underrated pitcher in the history of Baseball. In 1984 with one of his best seasons: a 19–7 record with a 2.87 ERA. In 1985 he again led the American League in shutouts with five. That year, he pitched 293.2 innings and completed 24 games, a feat that has not been repeated since.

He then joined the Twins, passing the 3,000-strikeout mark, and helped the Twins to a 1987 World Series victory. Blyleven went to the California Angels in 1989 and pitched a 2.73 ERA for a 17–5 record in his first season.

Video: Bert Blyleven fires 3,000th career strikeout

Bert Blyleven fires 3,000th career strikeout

 

3) Nolan Ryan

Ryan entered the 1980s at age 33, but arguably, his best season in the decade came at age 42 in 1989. That was his first season with the Rangers, and he struck out 301 hitters for a third straight league-leading mark (the other two came in the National League with the Astros).

Despite being over 40 years old in those three seasons, Ryan had more strikeouts than any other major pitcher (799). On Aug. 22, 1989, Ryan struck out fellow Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson to become the first player in baseball history to strike out 5,000 hitters.

Somehow Ryan threw the ball harder as the decade drew to a close. He threw a no-hitter for the Astros in 1981 and helped the Astros got to the NLCS in 1986.

Video: 1986 NLCS Gm5: Nolan Ryan strikes out 12

1986 NLCS Gm5: Nolan Ryan strikes out 12

 

2) Orel Hershiser

After a first entire season spent mostly in the bullpen, Hershiser shocked everyone in 1985 with a 19-3 record and 2.03 ERA—he was 11-0 with a brilliant 1.08 mark at Dodger Stadium—establishing himself as yet another in a long line of superior Dodgers aces.

You can’t talk about Hershiser and this decade without discussing his greatest season, and that would be the remarkable 1988 campaign in which he did it all: A major league-record 59 straight scoreless innings, the NL Cy Young Award, and MVPs for both the NLCS and World Series as he went a combined 3-0 with three complete games and a 1.48 ERA in the postseason—carrying the torch for the Dodgers.

In addition, Hershiser led an unassuming team to wins over the Dominant Mets and A’s, two teams they had no business beating. The win over the A’s is still considered one of the Greatest World Series upsets of all time.

Video: Hershiser sets consecutive scoreless record

Hershiser sets consecutive scoreless record

 

1) Brett Saberhagen

Saberhagen won two Cy Young awards in 1985 and 1989. In 1985, the 21-year-old Saberhagen established himself as the ace of the staff. He went 20–6 with a 2.87 ERA and won the American League Cy Young Award. In addition, he led the Royals to a World Series championship.

He was named MVP of the World Series, pitching two complete games, including a shutout in Game 7. In 1989, Saberhagen brought back his old brilliance by compiling a record of 23–6 with a 2.16 ERA, leading both leagues with 12 complete games, and finishing third in strikeouts.

Before his July 26, 1989, start against the Boston Red Sox, Saberhagen had a very average record of 9–5. Over the next two months, he compiled a record of 14–1 with four shutouts. He also led the league in innings pitched, complete games, and strikeout-to-walk ratio.

Video: 1985 WS Gm7: Saberhagen shuts out Cards in clincher

1985 WS Gm7: Saberhagen shuts out Cards in clincher

Honorable Mentions

Steve Carlton

Carlton makes this top ten of not for rotator cuff injuries, which cut down on his effectiveness in the last half of the decade. He helped lead the Phillies to the World Series in 1980 and 1983.

Jerry Reuss

Reuss was a dependable workhorse throughout his career; elbow issues in the middle of the decade cut down on his effectiveness towards the end of his career.

Mike Scott

Was the ball scuffed for effectiveness? Probably but Scott was dominant when he was on top of his game and that would have been 1986 as he there a no-hitter and then dominated the Mets in the playoffs.

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