Most Intimidating Pitchers in Baseball History
For some, it's sheer size. For others, it's what they could do with a baseball. They were the pitchers that batters most feared to face.
Old-timers with great names dot the single-season strikeout record books — guys like Matt Kilroy, Dupee Shaw, Old Hoss Radbourn and Pud Galvin.
Gus Weyhing hit 277 batters in his career. Carl Mays unleashed the fastball that killed Ray Chapman in 1920. Steve Carlton struck out more than 4,000 hitters. And if a stroke hadn't prematurely ended J.R. Richard's career, he might be the most fearsome of all time.
In today's game, Noah Syndergaard throws a hundred-mile-an-hour fastball and a 94-mph slider. Aroldis Chapman's fastball tops out at 105. They are all worthy of a mention here.
But those that follow are the most intimidating pitchers in baseball history.
Lee Smith: Big Lee the Finisher
Teams: Chicago Cubs, Boston Red Sox, St. Louis Cardinals, New York Yankees, Baltimore Orioles, California Angels, Cincinnati Reds, Montreal Expos
Innings pitched: 1,289
Lee Smith is third on the all-time saves list, although he held the record at the time he retired. His career spanned the evolution of the relief pitcher who could go three innings to the "closer” who came in to collect a save in the ninth.
The seven-time All-Star stood 6-foot-6 and a hulking 265 pounds. He wielded a 95-mph fastball, a mean slider and a signature scowl.
As a young man, Smith, who grew up crossing picket lines to go to school in newly desegregated Louisiana, built his physique hauling pulpwood in the offseason. "Those first few years, I made more money in pulpwood than in baseball," he said.
During games, Smith lifted weights in the bullpen and was one of the hardest throwers of his time. He finished more than 800 games in his career and was selected to the Hall of Fame in 2018.
Walter Johnson: Running You Off the Rails
Teams: Washington Nationals (Senators)
Innings pitched: 5,914
"The Big Train" is one of only two pitchers with more than 400 wins.
Signed by Washington at 19, Johnson’s unconventional straight sidearm-whip delivery and low-90s fastball was particularly tough on the right-handed hitters of his time. Ty Cobb said his fastball "hissed with danger," and Cleveland shortstop Ray Chapman once reportedly walked off after just the second strike.
While Johnson's Senators only won one World Series title (1924), he led the American League in strikeouts 12 times, including eight years in a row from 1912 to 1919, and he held the strikeout record for more than 50 years. He also hit 205 batters, good for fourth place on the career list.
Juan Marichal: I'll Hit You With a Bat, Too
Teams: San Francisco Giants, Boston Red Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers
Innings pitched: 3,507
Hall of Famer Juan Marichal used a high leg kick and pinpoint accuracy to intimidate opposing batters with brushback pitches sent straight at a batter’s helmet through his 16-year career. But "Manito," a 10-time All-Star, may be best remembered for a different kind of head-hunting.
While pitching for the Giants in 1965, he started swapping inside pitches with Sandy Koufax, and both sides were warned that the next beanball would lead to an ejection. When Marichal came to the plate in the third inning, Dodgers catcher John Roseboro zipped a toss back to Koufax right past Marichal’s head. (Marichal later claimed the ball nicked his ear.) Some choice words were exchanged, and Marichal belted Roseboro over the head with his bat.
There were fines, a suspension and even a civil lawsuit, but the two eventually became friends, and more than 30 years later, Marichal was an honorary pallbearer at Roseboro’s funeral.
Sam McDowell: Everybody Knows His Name
Teams: Cleveland Indians, San Francisco Giants, New York Yankees, Pittsburgh Pirates
Innings pitched: 2,492
At 6-foot-5, "Sudden Sam" McDowell was a big lefty with a mean overhand fastball and, despite leading the American League in strikeouts five times, a seemingly random lack of control. McDowell, however, was battling demons larger than the strike zone.
The six-time All-Star later admitted, "I was the biggest, most hopeless and most violent drunk in baseball."
One of McDowell’s lasting legacies? The "Cheers" character Sam Malone, portrayed by Ted Danson, reportedly was based on McDowell’s career.
Another? McDowell would go on to get sober and dedicate his life to work as a drug and alcoholism counselor.
Mariano Rivera: Sleep With One Eye Open
Teams: New York Yankees
Innings pitched: 1,283
It was the most intimidating entrance in baseball. The distinctive, almost psychedelic riff would start to rise from the speakers. The baseline would kick in. The crowd would come alive as the thrash metal electric guitar came over the top. The stadium PA system was turned up to 11 because the Boss wanted the music loud. And the Yankee Stadium bullpen door would open. Say your prayers. Enter Sandman.
Enter Mariano Rivera, the king of the cutter, the greatest closer of all time.
He saved more than 40 games nine times, and in 2008, he converted 39 of 40 opportunities. He won five World Series rings. And a record 652 times, he sent his opponents off to Never Never Land.
CC Sabathia: A Half-Million Dollar Message
Teams: Cleveland Indians, Milwaukee Brewers, New York Yankees
Innings pitched: 3,470
At 6-foot-7 and pushing 300 pounds, Carsten Charles Sabathia cuts an imposing figure. The big lefty mixes a nasty slider with a mid-90s fastball and should be the next to hit the 3,000-strikeout plateau. He’s also hit 120 batters in his career, the most infamous of which was his most recent.
Sabathia started his last game of the 2018 regular season in late September against the Tampa Bay Rays needing to go seven innings to reach 155 innings for the year — a marker that would trigger a $500,000 contract bonus. But after Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Andrew Kittredge threw behind Austin Romine’s head in the top of the sixth, Sabathia stalked out to the mound in the bottom half of the frame and promptly plunked Rays catcher Jesus Sucre in the left leg.
Sabathia was ejected two innings short of the bonus. "I don’t really make decisions based on money, I guess," he said later. "Just felt like it was the right thing to do."
Sandy Koufax: The Art of Instilling Fear
Teams: Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers
Innings pitched: 2,324
Sandy Koufax’s career got off to a middling start, and it was an unlikely medical procedure that may have helped turn him into the best pitcher of his era. Just before spring training in 1961, Koufax needed a tonsillectomy. The 6-foot-2 lefty lost some 20 pounds and was forced to work out to gain muscle mass, putting him in what he called the "best shape of my life."
That same year, pitching coach Joe Becker taught him a slurve that would help propel Koufax to five straight seasons leading the National League in ERA before arm injuries led to his surprise retirement after the 1966 season at the age of 30.
The three-time Cy Young Award winner was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1972 and left an indelible imprint on the game with his work on the mound. "Pitching," said Koufax, "is the art of instilling fear."
Pedro Martinez: They Call Him Señor Plunk
Teams: Los Angeles Dodgers, Montreal Expos, Boston Red Sox, New York Mets, Philadelphia Phillies
Innings pitched: 2,827
In his autobiography, three-time Cy Young Award winner Pedro Martinez tells how, while pitching with the Boston Red Sox, he once hit New York Yankees players Alfonso Soriano and Derek Jeter back-to-back. "I told some of my teammates, 'At least I gave them a discount on the ambulance — they both got to go in the same one.' "
But "Señor Plunk," who was ejected 12 times in 1994 alone and hit more than 140 batters in his career, is likely most infamous for a 2003 playoff brawl. After Martinez drilled Yankees outfielder Karim Garcia in the back in the top of the fourth inning of an American League Championship Series against the Yankees, Roger Clemens threw high and tight to Red Sox star Manny Ramirez in the bottom half of the frame. The dugouts emptied, and Yankees bench coach Don Zimmer charged Martinez, who grabbed the 72-year-old Zimmer by the head and tossed him to the ground. Zimmer already had a plate in his head after being beaned as a minor leaguer.
Martinez was pretty good at pitching also and was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2015 with over 91 percent of the votes.
Early Wynn: Don't Dig in, Grandma
Teams: Washington Senators, Cleveland Indians, Chicago White Sox
Innings pitched: 4,564
Early "Gus" Wynn claimed that pitchers have to see hitters as their "mortal enemy." The big righty started his career with some weaker Washington teams, but came into his own after a trade to Cleveland, where he became one of the most dominant pitchers of the 1950s.
"I’ve got a right to knock down anybody holding a bat," he said.
In fact, the nine-time All-Star was once quoted as saying he would even brush back his grandmother. "I’d have to. My grandma could really hit the curveball."
Bob Feller: Always Ready to Fight
Teams: Cleveland Indians
Innings pitched: 3,827
"Rapid Robert" Feller had rapid success in the big leagues, signing with Cleveland as a 17-year-old high school student in 1936. After a brief season that saw him set the American League rookie record for strikeouts in a game with 17, "The Heater From Van Meter" went back to Iowa to finish his senior year.
Feller’s intimidating high leg kick and 100-mph fastball likely would have led to even more astounding career numbers if not for World War II. He was coming off a third straight season with at least 24 wins when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. The next day, Feller became the first MLB player to enlist, serving as a gunner on the USS Alabama and missing three full seasons before returning to the Indians in 1945.
The eight-time All-Star was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1962.
Roger Clemens: Rocket-Fueled Rage
Teams: Boston Red Sox, Toronto Blue Jays, New York Yankees, Houston Astros
Innings pitched: 4,916
Roger Clemens sits third on the all-time strikeout list. He won seven Cy Young Awards. And with his high-90s fastball, when Clemens threw at a batter, they felt it. He plunked 159 batters in his 24-year career, but "The Rocket" is often remembered for throwing at Mets catcher Mike Piazza. Throwing a bat, that is.
In July 2000, Clemens, pitching for the Yankees in a regular-season interleague game, beaned Piazza, and Piazza made it known that he felt Clemens had intentionally thrown at his head. So the stage was set with tension when the two teams met again in the World Series that year.
Clemens started Game 2 of the "Subway Series," and in the first inning, he shattered Piazza’s bat — and promptly whipped a chunk of it up the first base line at the Mets slugger. After the benches cleared, Clemens went on to strikeout nine batters in eight innings, giving up just 2 hits in a 6-5 Yankees win.
And while Clemens was hit with a $50,000 fine, the Yankees took their third straight World Series title.
Sal Maglie: The Barber Will See You Now
Teams: New York Giants, Cleveland Indians, Brooklyn Dodgers, New York Yankees, St. Louis Cardinals
Innings pitched: 1,723
After a slow start to his career, Sal Maglie lost three seasons of big league eligibility when he was banned for jumping to the short-lived Mexican League in the mid-1940s. But it was during his two seasons with the Puebla Parrots and manager Dolf Luque that he really learned to pitch.
Upon his return to the major leagues, Maglie mixed a wicked looping curveball with high inside heat. Opposing hitters had so many close shaves in the batter’s box that Maglie earned the nickname "Sal the Barber."
Don Drysdale: Big D's Two-for-One Special
Teams: Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers
Innings pitched: 3,432
Don Drysdale hit 154 batters during his career, often with intent. It was an art he credited Sal Maglie with teaching him, and he led the National League in hit batsmen for four straight seasons.
Big D’s public pledge was "Knock down one of mine, I knock down two of yours." Drysdale threw sidearm, often on the inside in an attempt to move hitters off the plate, firmly believing that "when you’re pitching, part of the plate has to be yours."
Said the great Frank Robinson: "When he did it, he just stood there on the mound and glared at you to let you know he meant it."
Bob Gibson: Messing With a Batter's Head
Teams: St. Louis Cardinals
Innings pitched: 3,884
Bob Gibson claimed that he didn't hit many batters intentionally — but he owned the inside half of the plate and considered it "important to mess with a batter’s head without letting him inside mine."
His tough-guy persona was cemented in July 1967, when Roberto Clemente lined a ball back up the middle, cracking Gibson’s right shin. Gibson pitched to three more batters before the leg snapped above the ankle. But he returned to the team in September and won all three of his World Series starts as the Cardinals broke the Red Sox hearts in seven games.
In 1968, Gibson posted a staggering 1.12 ERA. In the ’68 World Series, he struck out 17 Tigers in Game 1 and had a complete-game victory in Game 4, but Detroit beat him in the decisive Game 7. The mound was lowered five inches the following season, from 15 to 10 inches, because of the powerful right-hander.
The 6-foot-2 Gibson — a phenomenal athlete who spent a season with the Harlem Globetrotters before his pro baseball career — once wrote that he had an arsenal of nine pitches: "two different fastballs, two sliders, a curve, a change-up, knockdown, brushback, and hit-batsman."
Nolan Ryan: It Helps If You're Crazy
Teams: New York Mets, California Angels, Houston Astros, Texas Rangers
Innings pitched: 5,386
Strikeout king Nolan Ryan’s fastball was still peaking at around 100 mph near the end of his 27-year career. The flame-throwing "Ryan Express" averaged more than a strikeout per inning and tossed seven no-hitters.
He holds the modern-day single-season strikeout record with 383 in 1973, but he also was notably wild. He walked an MLB-record 2,795 batters, threw 277 wild pitches and hit 158 batters.
"It helps if the hitter thinks you’re a little crazy," he said.
Despite his stellar individual career, Ryan’s teams rarely made the playoffs, and he only appeared in a single World Series game, getting the save in Game 3 with the 1969 Miracle Mets.
Randy Johnson: Focus on the Big Pitcher
Teams: Montreal Expos, Seattle Mariners, Houston Astros, Arizona Diamondbacks, New York Yankees, San Francisco Giants
Innings pitched: 4,135
The "Big Unit" stood 6-foot-10 and struck out more batters than any other left-hander in baseball. One of the tallest players to ever make the big leagues, the five-time Cy Young Award winner tossed a perfect game against the Atlanta Braves in 2004 at age 40. How perfect was he? Only one batter reached a three-ball count.
Johnson struck out more than 300 hitters five seasons in a row. Often sporting a straggly mullet, the lanky lefty with the three-quarters delivery ruffled more than few feathers with his 102-mph fastball. He even killed a bird.
In a 2001 Diamondbacks preseason game, he uncorked a fastball that (unintentionally) hit a dove that flew between the mound and home plate, exploding it into a cloud of feathers. As Johnson struck out 372 hitters that season and the Diamondbacks went on to win the World Series (Johnson tied a record with three wins in the Series), PETA actually considered filing suit on behalf of the bird.
Johnson, a first-ballot Hall of Famer, now spends much of his time on his photography company. The company logo? A dead bird.