The Blue Jays’ Five Greatest Pitchers
Dave Stieb (1979-92, 1998)
The durable right-hander is best remembered for the frustrations he endured; he received poor support early on from a Blue Jays team still wrestling its way out of expansionism, and later famously acquired a nasty habit of losing out on glory with an out to go—unable to seal no-hitters in back-to-back starts in 1988, and a perfect game a year later. But such hard luck couldn’t mask the fact that Stieb was a seven-time All-Star workhorse who ranks number one in Toronto history in wins, complete games, shutouts and strikeouts.
Combining a world-class slider with an aggressive inside fastball that made him a chronic league leader in hit batsmen, Stieb barely saw his win totals outpacing those of his losses in the early 1980s, and even when the team won its first AL East title in 1985, Stieb still managed nothing more than a 14-13 record despite leading the American League with a 2.48 earned run average. It was only late in the decade that Stieb’s loss totals remained in single digits, and in 1990 he finally overcame the no-hitter hex when he finally got that last out and secured his first and only no-no of his career—the highlight of a stellar season in which he established a career-high win mark with an 18-6 record; a year later, a herniated disc cut his season down to two months, and he was never the same.
The second winningest pitcher of the 1980s who never won a Cy Young Award, Stieb saw it all in Toronto—from its early expansion days through the team’s competitive efforts of the 1980s to its first world title in 1992. He even was a brief participant in the Blue Jays’ post-glory era of mediocrity when, after a five-year absence from the game, he attempted a comeback and made the team roster at age 40 in 1998—pitching mostly in relief and finishing with a 1-2 record and 4.83 ERA.
Roy Halladay (1998-2009)
Few if any pitchers experienced a glorious beginning only to fall deep into the abyss of the minors—then recover back to Hall-of-Fame form as did the tenacious right-hander from Denver.
On the last day of the 1998 regular season, Halladay made his second career start and channeled Stieb, needing just one out to complete a no-hitter before being denied by a home run from Detroit’s Bobby Higginson. Visions of greatness were shattered two years later as Halladay got tagged with an embarrassing 10.64 ERA—the worst ever by a pitcher throwing 50 or more innings in a season. This historically awful effort dropped Halladay all the way down to Class A ball in an attempt to fix his ails; there, he became cognizant of the fact that his fastball alone wouldn’t bring him back to the majors, so he developed a sinker and worked on pinpoint control over brute velocity.
The back-to-school lessons paid off. Halladay rejoined the Blue Jays in July 2001 and grew stronger by the start, finishing the season with a two-hit shutout. In 2002, he furnished a 19-7 record to show he was in the bigs to stay; a year later, he won his first of two Cy Young Awards to date with a career-best 22-7 mark, began to show off his workhorse ethic by leading the AL with nine complete games and, most alarmingly for opposing hitters, cut his walks in half (to 32) despite throwing more innings (a career-high 266).
Halladay remained the Blue Jays’ undoubted ace through his Toronto tenure despite numerous ailments—sore shoulders, a broken leg, a pulled groin and appendicitis—that attempted to derail his durability. When he left via trade to Philadelphia after 2009, he finished his time in Canada with a 149-76 record and was the AL’s winningest pitcher of the 2000s—also leading the majors over the decade with 47 complete games and 14 shutouts.
Roger Clemens (1997-98)
Most people forget that the controversial 354-game winner played two seasons for the Blue Jays, but fans in Toronto certainly haven’t—with good reason.
Let go by Boston after 1996 because the Red Sox felt he was fast-forwarding into the “twilight” of his career, Clemens set out on a mission to prove them wrong. It didn’t take long for folks back in Boston to get the message; he won his first 11 games of 1997 for Toronto—surpassing his entire win total for his previous season—to initiate a short but fantastic two-year tenure for the Blue Jays in which Clemens twice won the triple crown of pitching with league leads in wins, ERA and strikeouts and twice won the AL Cy Young Award. His 292 strikeouts in 1997 would be the most he would ever rack up in a year, and he would only better his 2.05 ERA from that season twice.
In 1998, Clemens started off at 5-6 but reeled off a 15-0 run to finish the year; it was also the first season he began employing as his personal trainer Brian McNamee—who would later rat out Clemens for using HGH, starting in Toronto.
Despite Clemens’ brilliance north of the border, the Blue Jays were a .500 team with him—and probably would remain one without him. Still under contract for one more year, Clemens was allowed after 1998 to seek a trade to a more likely contender; a taker was found in the New York Yankees.
Jimmy Key (1984-92)
A crafty curveball pitcher who lacked a sizzling fastball, Key never achieved ace stardom in Toronto but was a highly reliable go-to in the Blue Jays’ rotation. His presence was all the more vital in that he was the one of the precious few southpaws on the staff; in 1985, he became the first left-handed starter to win a game in five years for Toronto.
Used solely as a reliever during his rookie 1984 season, Key was converted to a starter in 1985 and over the next eight years never won fewer than 12 games, often losing less. His sharpest campaign came in 1987 when he finished 17-8 with an AL-best 2.76 ERA. Key suffered only one losing season as a Blue Jays starter (and barely, at 13-14 in 1989) and contributed greatly to the Jays’ first World Series triumph in 1992 by gaining credit for the team’s final two wins over Atlanta—one as a starter in Game Four, the other in relief during the Game Six clincher.
A free agent after 1992, Key signed on with the Yankees and continued his winning ways, producing a 35-10 record over his first two years in the Bronx. He would finish his career in 1998 with a superlative 186-117 mark.
Pat Hentgen (1991-99, 2004)
The fastballing righty began his career at the peak of the Jays’ championship era, then took his game into high gear later in the 1990s as the team descended into its more current, middle-of-the-road status.
Hentgen was an infrequently used reliever in his first full season of 1992 and was not included on the Jays’ postseason roster; that changed a year later when he furnished a 19-9 record (he lost his last start, missing a shot at 20 wins) and aided in Toronto’s second straight championship by pitching six strong innings in Game Three of the 1993 Fall Classic against Philadelphia. He had another chance at 20 wins in 1994, but was stuck at 13 when the players’ strike ended the season late in July. He finally reached the milestone in 1996—becoming the first Toronto pitcher to win a Cy Young Award in the process—with a 20-10 record and a league-high 10 complete games, three shutouts and 265.2 innings.
After another solid workhorse effort in 1997, Hentgen struggled over the next two seasons to keep his ERA below 5.00 and was dealt away to St. Louis and then Baltimore, where he eventually underwent Tommy John surgery; he attempted a comeback with the Jays in 2004 with lackluster (2-9, 6.95 ERA) results and called it quits.
Toronto Blue Jays Team History A decade-by-decade history of the Blue Jays, the ballparks they’ve played in, and the four people who are on the franchise’s Mount Rushmore.
The Blue Jays’ Five Greatest Hitters A list of the five greatest hitters based on their productivity and efficiency.
The Blue Jays’ Five Most Memorable Games A list of five memorable games and other notable personal achievements that have defined the Blue Jays’ history.