Cubs’ Top 5 righty starters: Bastian’s take

May 26th, 2020

No one loves a good debate quite like baseball fans, and with that in mind, we asked each of our beat reporters to rank the top five players by position in the history of their franchise, based on their career while playing for that club. These rankings are for fun and debate purposes only … if you don’t agree with the order, participate in the Twitter poll to vote for your favorite at this position.

Here is Jordan Bastian's ranking of the top five right-handed starters in Cubs history. Next week: Left-handed starters.

Cubs' All-Time Team: C | 1B | 2B | 3B | SS | LF | CF | RF | UTL

1. Fergie Jenkins, 1966-73, '82-83
Key fact: Most pitching bWAR (53.0) in Cubs history.

When Fergie Jenkins was summoned to the office of Phillies manager Gene Mauch early in the 1966 season, the young pitcher thought maybe he was going to get an opportunity to start. When he walked in the room, though, teammates Adolfo Phillips and John Herrnstein were present, too.

That is when Jenkins learned -- after just one appearance that April -- that he was being dealt to the Cubs in a five-player trade that would bring veteran pitchers Bob Buhl and Larry Jackson to Philadelphia. That April 21 deal served as the spark that lit an exceptional Hall of Fame career for Jenkins, who became a legendary workhorse for Chicago.

"I enjoyed what I did," Jenkins said recently. "I just think that I knew if I stayed in shape, I could carry my team deep into the innings. If I didn't give up runs early, I was still going to be around when the dust clears."

By 1969, both Buhl and Jackson were done as Major Leaguers. Jenkins, meanwhile, was just starting to hit his career stride.

Jenkins topped 20 wins in 1967 for the first in a run of six consecutive seasons with at least 20 victories. The right-hander made three All-Star teams for the Cubs, finished in the top three in National League Cy Young Award voting four times (winning the award in '71) and started Opening Day a record seven times for the Cubs.

In '71, when Jenkins picked up 17 first-place votes to easily beat Tom Seaver for the Cy Young, the righty went 24-13 with a 2.77 ERA and 263 strikeouts against 37 walks in 39 starts. He piled up 325 innings, spun 30 complete games and posted a 7.1 strikeout-to-walk ratio (the second-best single-season mark in Cubs history) that summer.

Jenkins also posted 10.1 WAR (Baseball Reference) in that '71 campaign -- the sixth-highest single-season total in franchise history and a level that has yet to be reached since. That historic season began with an incredible, 10-inning performance opposite Cardinals great Bob Gibson on Opening Day.

After tours with Texas and Boston, Jenkins returned to the Cubs to finish his 19-year career, which earned him a spot in the Hall of Fame in 1991. He recorded his 3,000th career strikeout in a Chicago uniform on May 25, 1982. In franchise history, Jenkins ranks first in WAR, strikeouts (2,038) and starts (347), third in innings (2,673 2/3), fourth in shutouts (29) and fifth in wins (167) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.4).

2. Mordecai Brown, 1904-12, '16
Key fact: Most shutouts (48) in team history.

Brown is famous for his nickname: "Three Finger." That moniker stemmed from a childhood farming accident that resulted in the loss of part of Brown's right index finger. He also had a bent middle finger -- the result of a separate incident in his youth that broke multiple digits.

While these setbacks might have made a career as a pitcher seem unlikely, Brown's damaged hand actually created unique movement on his pitches. On the Hall of Fame's website, legendary hitter Ty Cobb is quoted raving about Brown's repertoire:

"It was a great ball, that downward curve of his," Cobb said. "I can't talk about all of baseball, but I can say this: It was the most deceiving, the most devastating pitch I ever faced."

The Cardinals traded Brown to Chicago prior to the 1904 season, and he became a dominant fixture in a rotation that led the franchise to four World Series across the 1906-10 seasons. Brown posted a 2.97 ERA in 57 2/3 World Series innings, including going 3-0 with a 0.00 ERA in 20 innings between the Cubs' '07-08 championships.

Over 10 years with Chicago, Brown went 188-86 with a 1.80 ERA in 346 games, including 241 starts, 206 complete games and 98 games finished. Over the '07-08 tours, the righty went a combined 49-15 with a 1.44 ERA, while averaging 273 innings. The Hall of Famer ranks first in Cubs history in WHIP (0.998), second in ERA and wins, and third in WAR (48.0).

3. , 1986-92, '04-06
Key fact: First of four NL Cy Young Awards came with Cubs.

Mention Maddux's name and Cubs fans will drift into thoughts of what could have been. The Hall of Fame righty was on the cusp of superstardom when the Cubs and the pitcher had a bitter departure, ending with Maddux in a Braves uniform via free agency.

"Looking back on it," Maddux said in Carrie Muskat's book, 'Banks to Sandberg to Grace: Five Decades of Love and Frustration with the Chicago Cubs,' "as much as I enjoyed playing in Chicago and as much as I enjoyed living there and being a Cub, the grass was greener on the other side. I never thought playing for another organization would be better than it was playing for Chicago."

Maddux spent 11 years in Atlanta's historic rotation, but the roots of his incredible career were with the Cubs.

Chicago picked Maddux in the second round of the 1984 MLB Draft and he was an All-Star by '88 and a NL Cy Young contender by '89. In 1992, Maddux picked up the first of four straight Cy Young Awards by going 20-11 with a 2.18 ERA in 35 starts for the Cubs. That year, he also won his third Gold Glove with Chicago (out of 18 total in his career).

With the Cubs, Maddux made two All-Star teams, picked up 133 of his 355 wins and recorded 1,305 of his 3,371 career strikeouts. He is fifth in starts (298) and sixth in strikeouts in Cubs history, finishing with 33.7 bWAR in a Chicago uniform. That includes a return to the Cubs from 2004-06. In '05, he reached his 3,000th strikeout with the team that drafted him.

"I would much rather have gotten no strikeouts and won. Trust me," Maddux told the Chicago Tribune after his 3,000th strikeout game in 2005. "But it's pretty cool to get there. Not that many guys have done it."

4. Charlie Root, 1926-41
Key fact: Pitched in four World Series with Cubs.

No one in franchise history has compiled more innings (3,137 1/3), games (605) or wins (201) than Root did over the course of his 16 years with Chicago. He posted 37.8 bWAR during his career with the North Siders and is one of only 11 pitchers in MLB history to have at least 300 starts and 150 games finished in a career.

While with Chicago, Root turned in a 3.55 ERA, ending with 177 complete games, 171 games finished, 42 saves and 21 shutouts. He also pitched in the 1929, '32, '35 and '38 World Series for the Cubs. Root was famously the pitcher on the mound in Game 3 of the '32 World Series, when the myth was born that Babe Ruth called his shot before belting a homer.

"Ruth most certainly did not call his home run in that game," Root said in a 1948 interview with the Sporting News. "I ought to know. I was there."

5. , 2001-11
Key fact: Top five in NL Cy Young voting three times.

There are many pitchers who could have been ranked fifth here, but we'll go with arguably the greatest international signing in Cubs history.

Over 11 years with Chicago, "Big Z" made three All-Star teams, won three Silver Slugger Awards and spun a no-hitter (Sept. 14, 2008). Zambrano pitched in three postseasons for the Cubs and finished his career eighth in starts (282) and ninth in bWAR (37.7) in Chicago history. Only Jenkins (2,038) has more strikeouts than Zambrano (1,542) in team history, too.

Zambrano also set a club record with 23 home runs. In fact, his 5.6 WAR as a hitter (5.5 with the Cubs) remains the most among all Major League pitchers dating back to 2000. Zack Greinke is next on that list at 5.1.

Honorable mention

This was perhaps the most daunting list to create, given the considerable number of deserving candidates for the top five. Chicago's history is filled with great right-handed starting pitchers, dating back to the late 1800s. That makes doing this list based largely on WAR a real challenge. So, the rankings I ultimately went with here was an attempt to represent multiple eras in team history.

With that in mind, let's first recognize Bill Hutchinson (1889-95), who averaged 40 wins, 65 starts and 595 innings with a 2.76 ERA across the 1890-92 seasons. Then, there's Hall of Famer Clark Griffith (1893-1900), who is credited with 45.3 bWAR for Chicago. He topped 300 innings five times, had 20-plus wins six times and turned in a pristine 1.88 ERA with 24 victories in 1898.

Let's also give a nod here to NL Cy Young Award winners Rick Sutcliffe (1984-91) and Jake Arrieta (2013-17) -- the latter of which turned in one of the more dominant seasons (2015) in Cubs history. This section would be incomplete without also mentioning 1998 NL Rookie of the Year Kerry Wood, whose 20-strikeout game that season was a performance for the ages.

Others worth noting include Kyle Hendricks (20.4 bWAR, 2014-present), Rick Reuschel (48.3 bWAR from 1972-81, '83-84), Bob Rush (33.5 bWAR from 1948-57), Claude Passeau (33.2 bWAR from 1939-47) and Pete Alexander (41.0 bWAR from 1918-26), among plenty of other worthy arms.