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Tom Seaver Was the Best Pitcher of His Generation—and Maybe Every Other Generation, Too

The Mets great died on Monday at the age of 75, but his historical record stands up against that of just about any pitcher who came before or after him

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Tom Seaver—Hall of Famer, three-time Cy Young winner, 1967 NL Rookie of the Year, and leader of the 1969 Miracle Mets—died on Monday from complications of dementia, Lyme disease, and COVID-19. He was 75 years old.

Seaver is one of 10 pitchers in MLB history with both 300 wins and 3,000 strikeouts, and is seventh on the all-time list in career strikeouts and wins above replacement among pitchers. He is by some distance the best player in Mets history, and when he entered the Hall of Fame in 1992, he did so with the support of 98.8 percent of the BBWAA electorate—a record rate that has been surpassed by only Ken Griffey Jr., Mariano Rivera, and Derek Jeter.

Seaver was an undersized high school athlete who briefly joined the Marine Corps reserve before a late growth spurt brought him to the attention of Rod Dedeaux, legendary baseball coach at the University of Southern California, and eventually pro scouts. Seaver was selected by the Braves in the now-defunct secondary draft in 1966, but irregularities with his contract led commissioner William Eckert to void the deal and put Seaver in a lottery with the three teams (Cleveland, Philadelphia, and the Mets) willing to match Atlanta’s signing bonus offer. The Mets won the lottery, and ended up with the best pitcher of his generation.

A leader in the early days of the MLBPA, Seaver served as the Mets’ union representative and helped to negotiate both the new free-agency system in 1976 and a settlement to the 1981 midseason strike. When free agency caused salaries to explode, Seaver began to butt heads with Mets ownership, who refused to pay him as much as his contemporaries earned with other teams. This battle eventually led to an ugly press campaign and the “Midnight Massacre” trade of June 1977, which sent the three-time Cy Young winner to Cincinnati. Seaver returned to the Mets in December 1982, then played his final years in Chicago and Boston. Seaver ended his major league career on the Red Sox bench, where, at the age of 41, he watched as the Mets won their second World Series title.

Baseball has a uniquely detailed literary and statistical record, and the sport’s fans love nothing more than to pick it over and argue. Stats, aesthetics, ethics—it doesn’t matter the topic, just give two or more baseball lovers a place to sit and nothing to do and the discussion will turn contentious soon enough.

But Seaver’s Hall of Fame vote rate attests to a rare consensus: He was one of the best who ever played. I’m sure you could find faults in Seaver’s historical record, but you’d have to try really hard. Strangely enough, that near-universal acceptance has left Seaver weirdly underrated. He doesn’t get mentioned much in discussions about the greatest pitchers of all time, though maybe he should.

In his 2001 New Historical Baseball Abstract, Bill James rated Seaver the sixth-best pitcher of all time, behind Warren Spahn and four pitchers whose careers were over by World War II. “There’s actually a good argument that Tom Seaver should be regarded as the greatest pitcher of all time,” wrote James. “Where Seaver rates … depends to a large extent on how steep one believes the incline of history to be. Since no one can say with any confidence how much tougher the game has become, it is certainly reasonable to argue that the accomplishments of early pitchers should have been marked off by more than I have discounted them, and thus that Seaver’s record, in context, is more impressive than [Walter Johnson’s].”

James wrote that before Roger Clemens and Pedro Martínez—two of the half-dozen or so pitchers with a legitimate statistical claim to the title of best pitcher ever—were out of their primes, so suffice it to say the math has shifted a little in the past 20 years. But a more thorough examination of Seaver’s statistical record compared to other pitchers of his era reveals his greatness.

Seaver was one of 10 Hall of Fame pitchers to debut between 1962 and 1969. In addition to a couple of edge cases, that list includes Jim Palmer, a three-time Cy Young winner like Seaver, Nolan Ryan, Steve Carlton, Phil Niekro, and Don Sutton—four of the other nine pitchers to win 300 games and strike out 3,000 batters.

There’s a tendency in baseball to view contemporary Hall of Fame–caliber players as equals, even if the numbers show one to be clearly better than the other. Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio, Barry Bonds and Griffey, A-Rod and Jeter, Mike Trout and Mookie Betts. A Hall of Famer is a Hall of Famer, but there’s a difference between the best player of his era and the second-best. Sometimes a big difference.

That’s a tough thing to imagine, let alone to prove, especially when the other guys at the same position in the same era are legendary figures like Carlton and Ryan. When those two retired, they were 1-2 all time in strikeouts. Ryan had thrown more no-hitters (seven) and appeared in more MLB seasons (27) than any other pitcher in history. Carlton had won more Cy Young awards (four) than any other pitcher ever. His 1972 campaign, in which he won 27 games for a woebegone Phillies team that won just 59 games total, had become the stuff of legend. Ryan had unparalleled velocity and durability, while Carlton had the legendary wipeout slider and was the best-conditioned pitcher in baseball.

But both were inconsistent, and Ryan in particular was prone to fits of wildness. Seaver was great enough, consistently enough, to be taken for granted.

Seaver made his major league debut in 1967 at the age of 22. That year, he made 34 starts, threw 251 innings, posted an ERA of 2.76, and was named NL Rookie of the Year. In each of the 13 seasons that followed, Seaver made at least 32 starts, threw at least 215 innings, and posted an ERA of 3.20 or less. His worst ERA+ in that 14-season span, 112, is equal to Ryan’s career average. His second-worst single-season ERA+, 115, is equal to Carlton’s career average.

Seaver won his first Cy Young in 1969, when the Mets won their first title, by going 25-7 with a 2.21 ERA and allowing fewer hits per inning than any other pitcher in the National League. He lost a razor-thin MVP race to Willie McCovey that year—both men received 11 first-place votes but McCovey had better downballot support. Seaver won another Cy Young the next time the Mets won the pennant, in 1973, and a third in 1975. His 61 career complete-game shutouts are most of any pitcher who debuted after World War II, and more than all MLB pitchers have put together in total in the past three years. If you want to ding Seaver for not being as big a strikeout pitcher as his two contemporaries, fine, but Seaver led the NL in strikeouts five times and in K/9 ratio six times. At the time of his retirement Seaver was third all time (behind Carlton and Ryan) in total strikeouts and fifth in K%.

It’s a truly astonishing statistical record, one that has been underexamined because it’s never needed to be defended. Even his contributions to baseball’s labor movement have been subsumed by more famous names: Feller, Flood, Messersmith, and so on.

In 2013, Seaver returned to New York to throw out the first pitch at the All-Star Game at Citi Field. Then 68 years old, Seaver hammed it up for the crowd, then delivered one last fastball to a waiting David Wright. A few months before, Seaver had revealed that he’d been suffering from memory loss, part of the aftereffects of a bout with Lyme disease some 20 years earlier. His public appearances became fewer and fewer, then stopped altogether in the winter of 2018.

That evening at Citi Field, Seaver was introduced to the crowd as “the Franchise.” It was an appropriate sobriquet for the Mets’ first star, the man who put the club on the map, led them out of the shadows of the departed Dodgers and Giants, and brought home the first title in the history of the team. Seaver embodied the Mets the way few players have ever embodied a team, and while his greatest successes came early in his career, he pitched well enough, for long enough, to become a sort of intergenerational heirloom. His reception at the 2013 All-Star Game, 30 years after his last game in a Mets uniform, is testament to the esteem in which Mets fans hold him.

Everyone agrees: Tom Seaver was terrific.