Tom Seaver‘s legacy as a Met is well known in Queens and will be set in stone on Opening Day when the team unveils a statue in his honor outside Citi Field. While “The Franchise” is widely recognized as the best player in team history, he is often not given his due in discussions of all-time greats.
Seaver spent 20 years in Major League Baseball, 11 of those on the Mets from his debut in 1967 to the infamous trade to the Reds in 1977. In those seasons, he won the 1967 Rookie of the Year Award, was named to ten all-star teams, and received three Cy Young Awards. Above all, he was a crucial part of the 1969 World Series championship team. For his entire career, he pitched to a stellar 2.86 ERA across 4783 innings.
Tom Seaver’s career pitching wins above replacement, according to BaseballReference, clocks in at a monumental 106.1. That is good enough for seventh-best across the near-150 year history of MLB. However, many of those ranked above Seaver simply were not playing the game at the same difficulty level.
Dead Ball Era
Cy Young, Walter Johnson, Kid Nichols, and Pete Alexander all pitched their careers during the Dead Ball Era. In the early 1900s, pitching predominated, not to mention that pitchers routinely started more than 40 or 50 games per year. Starters of this era did not have to exert themselves as much and were able to accumulate much larger stat totals across their careers. Lefty Grove, while pitching in the more offensively-favored 1930s, still faced a much weaker talent level than Seaver. These pitchers were all limited to facing pre-integration competition, and those they did oppose typically spent off-seasons mining coal or pumping gas.
The only modern-day pitcher that can match Seaver’s career WAR is Roger Clemens. While Clemens has never admitted to it, it is generally accepted that he used performance-enhancing drugs during his career. The details are unclear, but it is believed he may have begun using around the 1998 season. Clemens already had a great career previous to this, but he would go on to accumulate three more Cy Young Awards and 40+ WAR between ages 36 and 45. Seaver, bound by the constraints of biology, faced a natural decline in performance in his late 30s.
Just below Seaver in terms of all-time pitcher WAR are guys like Greg Maddux and Randy Johnson, two of the best pitchers in recent memory and commonly mentioned on lists of MLB’s best starters. Maddux, and to a lesser extent Johnson, spent the prime of their careers on contending teams; Maddux with the 11-consecutive NL East champion Braves and Johnson with the 2001 World Series-winning Diamondbacks. Seaver, on the other hand, spent his best years with the bumbling Mets organization, who generally underperformed outside of the Miracle Mets of 1969.
At the very least, Seaver was the finest pitcher of his era, with his lack of playoff appearances muddying his stellar career. At best though, The Franchise may be the best pitcher of all time, totaling over 100 wins above replacement against elite competition and without the use of performance enhancers. Seaver is undoubtedly worthy of greater recognition and will take a step in that direction when he is honored on Opening Day.
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