The Phillies’ 10 Greatest Pitchers
Robin Roberts (1948-61)
Few pitchers have tirelessly toiled through such a short stretch of baseball as Roberts did for the Phillies during the 1950s, but there was good reason he was used almost to the point of exhaustion.
By his third year in the bigs, Roberts had worked himself into the role of ace for the 1950 “Whiz Kid” Phillies, forcing to show off his workhorse ethic down the stretch by starting three games over the regular season’s final five days as the Phillies frantically attempted to avoid a last-week collapse; he saved the pennant on the season’s final day when he threw 10 innings at Brooklyn and defeated the Dodgers, 4-1, for his 20th win, becoming the first Phillie to reach the milestone in 33 years. Proving his own claim that he was never exhausted, Roberts went back out on three days’ rest for Game Two of the World Series against the New York Yankees and threw 10 more innings, losing 2-1 in what would be the only Fall Classic start of his career.
In the years to follow, Roberts ate up innings and collected wins with almost reckless abandon. Per season from 1950-55, he averaged 322 innings, 27 complete games and won at least 20 games while keeping his earned run average consistently at or below 3.00. In one stretch from 1952-53, he went the distance in 28 straight starts, including one outing in which he labored for 17 innings. Roberts’ 28 wins (against just seven losses) in 1952 are the most by any National League pitcher since Dizzy Dean won 30 in 1934; his chances of winning that year’s MVP award were ruined by a local Philadelphia writer who had it in for him and left him completely off the ballot.
By the late 1950s, the mileage on Roberts’ arm began to show obvious signs of wear and tear. After leading the NL in wins from 1952-55, he led it in losses over the next two years; his ERA shot up above 4.00, and his penchant for giving up the long ball crested when he served up a then-record 46 in 1956. (Roberts became the all-time career leader in home runs allowed with 505 and lived just long enough to see the Phillies’ Jamie Moyer surpass him in 2010.) When Roberts completely fell apart in 1961—winning just one of 11 decisions with a horrid 5.85—he was released, eventually winding up in Baltimore where he managed to resuscitate his career with a string of seasons that was long of efficiency—and short on innings.
At the tail end of his playing days, Roberts made a final, far more lasting contribution to the game: He furiously lobbied his fellow players to accept Marvin Miller as the new head of the Major League Baseball Players’ Association, overcoming perceptions from the players’ ranks that Miller was a union crony who would doom player-management relations and create financial wrath upon the players. (They would be half-right.)
Pete Alexander (1911-17)
Before war-related epilepsy, hearing loss and deepening reliance on alcohol challenged his baseball life in Chicago and St. Louis, the disheveled-looking, right-handed Alexander enjoyed the salad days of his Hall-of-Fame career in Philadelphia, where he was on a stratospheric par with the great Walter Johnson during his prime in the 1910s.
Born with the name of a sitting president and later portrayed in film by a future one (Ronald Reagan), Grover Cleveland “Pete” Alexander became the best $750 the penurious Phillies ever paid after other teams passed on him due to revelations that he embraced the bottle. If he showed up drunk for a starting assignment, it sure didn’t reflect negatively in his performance. In 1911, he set rookie records with 28 wins, 227 strikeouts and seven shutouts; only the latter two marks have since been surpassed.
Side-arming a solid fastball mixed in with a tremendous curve, Alexander was in a league of his own over the next six years; he led the NL four straight years in wins, won back-to-back ERA titles (including a career-best 1.22 mark in 1915) and became only the second pitcher in modern times (after Christy Mathewson) to win 30 games in three successive seasons, from 1915-17. Alexander logged an average of over 350 innings a year while with the Phillies and five times completed 30 or more games; but Alexander’s most impressive achievement in a Phillies uniform took place in 1916, when he threw a major league-record 16 shutouts, including at least one against every NL team. Adding exclamation to the effort was that nine of the blankings came at Baker Bowl, the Phillies’ home park normally considered as a haven for offense.
After the 1917 season, with America at war in Europe, Phillies owner William Baker worried that he might lose Alexander to the draft—so he sent him to the Cubs as part of a four-player trade that netted the Phillies $65,000. Baker’s instincts proved prescient; Alexander only appeared in three games in 1918 for Chicago before being sent off to battle, as the Great War quelled his talent in later years—although he continued to pitch among the best in baseball, ultimately winning 373 career games.
Steve Carlton (1972-86)
A 329-game winner who arguably possessed the greatest slider ever thrown, Carlton was given the name Lefty for more than the simple reason that he was a southpaw—harboring a quirky, quiet personality that made him an enigma even to those closest to him in the clubhouse.
The Phillies received Carlton from St. Louis in 1972 after the Cardinals refused to give him a $10,000 raise—and made his former employer look downright cheap by recording a remarkable 27-10 record and 1.97 ERA in a year in which an awful Phillies team was otherwise 32-87. It was the first of four Cy Young Award-winning campaigns for Carlton, who also earned the honor in 1977, 1980 and 1982.
Carlton returned to Earth following the 1972 season with three relatively ho-hum efforts; it took a reteaming with former St. Louis batterymate Tim McCarver to prop him back up to All-Star life, producing a 20-7 mark. A year later, in 1977, Carlton made life difficult for the few batters that reached base against him, picking off a career-high 18 baserunners—part of a record 144 he would nab throughout his career; and in 1980, he became the last pitcher to date to throw 300 innings in a season, with enough fuel left to toss 27 additional innings in October with a 3-0 record in four postseason starts during the Phillies’ successful quest for their first world title—even throwing 159 pitches in Game Two of the World Series against Kansas City.
By then, the Phillies had bowed to Carlton’s quirky disposition, giving him a “blue room” within Veterans Stadium that was literally covered in blue and featured sounds of crashing waves to help him meditate before starts. Such new age techniques kept him at peace while he enforced a policy of silence with the press that would last the bulk of his career. Atlanta play-by-play man Ernie Johnson once reflected in 1981: “The two best pitchers in baseball don’t speak English: Fernando Valenzuela and Steve Carlton.” When Carlton finally spoke up after being elected to the Hall of Fame, he espoused beyond-the-fringe politics and conspiracy theories, mostly against Jews. Bill “Spaceman” Lee might have done the same and you knew he’d be playing with your head, but Carlton was dead serious with his rare speech.
In 1983, Carlton spent the season ping-ponging with Nolan Ryan past Walter Johnson’s career strikeout record, and secured his 300th win with his last victory of the season. He finished his career in 1988 with six 20-win seasons and 4,136 career strikeouts (currently fourth on the all-time list); like Roberts and Alexander before him, Carlton somehow managed to never throw a no-hitter.
Jim Bunning (1964-67, 1970-71)
Despite 110 wins and five All-Star Game appearances over his previous seven years at Detroit, the Tigers sent the 32-year-old Bunning packing to Philadelphia after 1963 following two years of regressive output that perhaps signified to management that age was beginning to play a factor. The deal became a steal for the Phillies, as the right-hander stepped it up and put together the best stretch of his career.
Barely two months into his Phillies tenure, Bunning made believers out of his new team as well as the opposing New York Mets when, in June 1964, he fired the NL’s first perfect game of the century—and became the first pitcher to throw no-hitters in both leagues. It was the highlight of a year in which Bunning set a tone of excellence for the Phillies, winning 19 games in each of his first three seasons in Philadelphia—followed by 17 wins in a 1967 campaign in which he lost five 1-0 games. Throughout his first stay with the Phillies, Bunning averaged nearly 300 innings per year and authored a 2.46 ERA; he led the NL in shutouts in successive years, totaling 11 from 1966-67.
The Phillies made another one-sided swap after the 1967 season when it traded Bunning out of Philadelphia, sending him to Pittsburgh—where, besieged by numerous injuries, he struggled to a 4-14 record and never regained his top workhorse form. Nevertheless, the Phillies brought him back in 1970, but a collective 15-27 record in his second tour of duty covering two years proved, once more, that you could never go home again.
Bunning would go on to serve Congress from 1987-2010, first as a member of the House of Representatives and then as Senator from his home state of Kentucky; he was named to the Hall of Fame by the Veterans’ Committee in 1996.
Roy Halladay (2010-13)
After toiling for over 10 years with a Toronto Blue Jays team chained to .500 baseball, Halladay was happily exiled to a contender when the Phillies, using the time-is-now philosophy, grabbed him for several hot prospects and instantly became the ace of aces on a terrific rotation that would grow to include Cole Hamels, Roy Oswalt and Cliff Lee.
Halladay’s first year in Philadelphia was a staggering effort. He threw a perfect game at Miami in his 11th start as a Phillie, continued his knack for on-the-mound durability by leading the NL with nine complete games (including four shutouts) and won the NL Cy Young Award with a 21-10 record, becoming the first Phillie in 28 years to reach 20 wins and the first major leaguer in 87 years to throw over 250 innings while yielding 30 or fewer walks. Halladay wasn’t done for the year; finally given a meaningful October start, he showed his enthusiasm by throwing the majors’ second postseason no-hitter (after Don Larsen’s 1956 perfect game) in the first game of the NLDS against Cincinnati.
Tenacious, lean and mean as always, Halladay didn’t skipped a beat in his second Philadelphia campaign, lowering his ERA to 2.35 with a 19-6 mark and eight more complete games before injuries impeded his 2012 season.
In November 2017, barely a year before becoming eligible for the Hall of Fame—for which he would enter on the first ballot—Halladay was killed when a light two-seat airplane he was flying crashed off the west coast of Florida near St. Petersburg. He was 40 years of age.
Curt Simmons (1947-60)
Though he lacked the overwhelming numbers of ace teammate Roberts during the 1950s, the left-handed Simmons was a reliable sidekick who confounded opponents with a violent fastball set forward by a herky-jerk delivery.
After a rough first two full years in the majors (winning only 11 of 34 decisions), Simmons turned his career around for good in 1950, producing a 17-8 record and 3.40 ERA at age 21—but was called away to military service in mid-September with Philadelphia in first place by 6.5 games. In his absence, the Phillies nearly blew the pennant but inched into the World Series—where they curiously said no to Simmons’ involvement, even though he was on furlough and available to pitch.
Simmons missed all of the 1951 season while serving in the Korean War but returned a year later, winning 86 games over the next seven years with respectable ERA totals. When he finished out the 1950s with an apparent dead arm, the Phillies released and he signed on with the Cardinals—where he came back to life, winning 59 games for St. Louis from 1960-64, capping the period with an 18-9 mark for the 1964 champion Cardinals. Adding insult to injury, Simmons showed the Phillies what a mistake they had made in letting him go by winning 16 of 18 decisions against them.
Tully Sparks (1897, 1903-10)
The lightweight (160 pounds) right-hander had an interesting take on his pitching strategy: Mix up a fastball with a “slowball” that had no movement—effectively messing up hitters expecting some kind of curvature on his delivery. If Sparks instituted this philosophy from the start of his career, it didn’t work; he began with Philadelphia in 1897 but was shelled in one outing, all before bouncing around with four different teams (where he went a combined 26-42).
In 1903, he returned to the Phillies as a new and improved pitcher, and although his ERA figures were admirable, his win-loss totals suffered as the result of playing on bad teams. That changed throughout the rest of the decade, as Sparks finally enjoyed four straight winning campaigns with the Phillies and emerged as the staff workhorse, topping out at 316.2 innings in 1906 and 22 wins in 1909. With the exception of a career flameout in 1910, Sparks’ ERA with the Phillies never wandered above the 3.00 mark; his career 2.44 mark is the fourth best in franchise history.
Curt Schilling (1992-2000)
After several short stints as a reliever in Baltimore and Houston, the right-handed power pitcher showed up in Philadelphia and was successfully transitioned to a starter early in 1992, going 12-9 with a 2.27 ERA after his permanent addition to the rotation. Within a year he was the king of the staff, helping the Phillies to the World Series with two stellar outings in the NLCS against Atlanta—but his candid, sometimes fiery nature almost got the best of him when he publicly complained how his closer (Mitch “Wild Thing” Williams) blew both of his leads against the Braves, leaving him with a 0-0 record despite winning the series MVP.
Schilling’s path toward greatness was briefly derailed in the mid-1990s when he tore his labrum muscle; he returned in 1996 a more powerful and durable hurler, leading the NL with eight complete games despite just 26 starts and an underwhelming 9-10 record. A year later, he won 17 games, and became the first National Leaguer since Mike Scott 11 years earlier to strike out 300 batters; he hit the mark again in 1998, making him the fifth pitcher ever to do it in successive seasons.
The Phillies, scuffling toward a 100-loss campaign in 2000, sent Schilling to the contending Arizona Diamondbacks in July, beginning a triumphant trend that saw him earn three World Series rings—for the 2001 Diamondbacks and the 2004/2007 Boston Red Sox.
George McQuillan (1907-10, 1915-16)
Few pitchers have ever been blessed with as much talent—and cursed with as much self-destructive behavior—as McQuillan, who exploded on the major league scene at the height of the deadball era and eventually found himself to be his own worst enemy.
The Brooklyn-born right-hander had a short but remarkable debut in 1907, finishing 4-0 with a 0.66 ERA; he didn’t give up a single run over his first 25 innings, a major league record to start a career that would hold until reliever Brad Ziegler snapped it over 100 years later. His full-time follow-up in 1908 was no less impressive, tossing a whopping 359 innings and racking up a 23-17 record with a 1.53 ERA that trailed only Christy Mathewson and Three Finger Brown. McQuillan’s legend factor might have equaled those two aces in the long run, but he suffered an ill-fated experience pitching in Cuba the following winter in which his excessive drinking and womanizing got the best of him, returning home with a bout of syphilis. His effectiveness tailed off from there; though remaining sharp, his durability suffered from his bad off-field habits and the Phillies, exhausted, let him go after 1910.
McQuillan was reacquired by Philadelphia in 1915, pitching well but being left off that year’s World Series roster. He stayed one more year with the Phillies, earning a 12-13 record and 2.62 ERA considered pedestrian for the times.
Cliff Lee (2009, 2011-15)
In a city notorious for baseball fans developing hatred for their own players—and vice versa—Lee was one of the few exceptions, appropriately living up to Philadelphia’s “City of Brotherly Love” brand by engaging in something of an affair with spectators at Citizens Bank Park.
Lee pitched his first eight years in Cleveland, where he clicked into top gear in 2008 when discovering he could throw the cut fastball or curve with as much confidence as his fastball; the result was a sensational 22-3 record and a Cy Young Award. A year later, the Indians—going nowhere and worried of losing Lee to free agency—traded the Arkansas-born southpaw to the Phillies. Lee’s value to the postseason was highly embraced as he turned in a 4-0 record and 1.56 ERA; he won both his starts in a World Series lost by the Phillies in six against the Yankees.
The 2009 experience, at first, seemed to be the end of Lee’s tenure in Philadelphia; he was sent to Seattle in a complicated three-team trade that netted the Phillies Roy Halladay. After bouncing between the Mariners and Texas in 2010, Lee gained free agent status and jumped at the chance to return to Philadelphia, signing for fewer years and less money than the Yankees offered him; that Lee’s wife was harassed by Yankee Stadium fans during the 2009 World Series didn’t make his decision to spurn New York any more difficult.
Lee was at his most consistently efficient in his second, much longer go-around in Philadelphia. He kept his season ERAs mostly below the 3.00 mark, and became one of the game’s more difficult pitchers to draw a walk off of, allowing only one every 6.6 innings in his return to the Phillies.
As a FYI for emerging baseball history nuts, Lee has nothing in common with a namesake who hit .318 over a three-year period for the Phillies form 1921-23.
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