The 2000’s were an odd decade for the MLB. The first half of the decade was marked by absurd offensive outputs and record-breaking seasons by hitters across the league–it was the apex of baseball’s notorious “Steroid Era.” To put things in perspective, in 2001, Phil Nevin hit 41 home-runs, which tied him with Manny Ramirez and Troy Glaus for the 10th most in baseball-and would have led the majors in 2014. Phil Freaking Nevin. In other words, the early part of the new millennium was not a fun time to be a pitcher.
Nonetheless, there are a few household names that were able to weather the offensive onslaught and come through with bona fide Hall of Fame resumes. Some did it with nasty staff (Pedro, Johan, Randy Johnson), some did it with insane durability and consistency (Halladay, Maddux, Mussina, Mariano, pre-death CC), others did it with performance enhancing drugs (Clemens, Pettitte). Not to mention all the pitchers that became superstars despite having only one or two noteworthy seasons or those who never quite reached their full potential because of injury and the cruelty of the baseball gods (Chris Carpenter, Dontrelle Willis, Mark Prior, Kerry Wood, Brandon Webb, Ben Sheets, Jake Peavy).
Then there’s the select few guys who went about their business for the bulk of the decade, without most people noticing or appreciating their greatness. Here’s my list of the top 5 most under-appreciated pitchers of the 2000’s:
5. Javier Vazquez
While playing for 5 different ball clubs, Vazquez quietly put together a stellar decade. From 2000-2010, he was second in all of baseball in starts and innings pitched, showcasing the type of durability that the New York Mets can dream about. He also finished the decade second in strikeouts. The only person with more K’s? Randy Johnson. That’s pretty good company.
4. Joe Nathan
Mariano Rivera is the greatest closer to ever play the game and he was, by far, the most popular relief pitcher of the 2000’s. And rightfully so: his cutter is the stuff of nightmare’s and arguably the nastiest pitch in the history of the game. And he’s got the championships and all-star appearances to vouch for his greatness. But let’s do a quick comparison, between the years 2004-2010:
Pitcher A: average year- 41 saves, 1.86 ERA || Pitcher B: average year- 40.5 saves, 1.91 ERA
Pitcher A is Nathan, Pitcher B is Mo! For over half of the decade, Joe Nathan was better than Mo! And all while playing for Twins teams that were mostly good, but never regularly as competitive as the mid-2000’s Yankees.
Not bad, Joe, not bad.
3. Dan Haren
From 2004 until 2010, Dan Haren never pitched less than 216 innings, made less than 33 starts, or won less than 12 games. And his ERA during that span was a superb 3.50, with K totals consistently around 200/year. Another one of Billy Beane’s boys (see: Barry Zito, Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson, Rich Harden, Huston Street, etc), Haren was never great but he was almost always really good.
While Dan dropped off about after 2010 and bounced around teams until his retirement after the 2015 season, he was a rock solid starter for most of the 2000’s.
2. Scot Shields
The modern game is all about the bullpen. Aces aside, it’s not uncommon for managers to only expect 5 or 6 innings out of their starters. That leaves 2-3 innings of crucial baseball before most teams can hand the ball over to their closer to finish the job. In the last 20 years, “set-up men,” who can reliably give teams a cushion between starter and closer have become a precious commodity. And Scot Shields was arguably the best set-up man of the 2000’s. From 2003 -2009, Shields appeared in an average of 65 games a season, with an ERA under 3.00. He was the undisputed anchor of the Angels’ bullpen and helped guide them through a decade of very successful baseball, including a World Series Championship in 2002.
Scot Shields was Tyler Clippard before Tyler Clippard was Tyler Clippard.
1. Roy Oswalt
It boggles my mind that so few people seem to mention Roy Oswalt in the “best pitcher of the 2000’s” debate. This dude could absolutely sling it. He had the 5th most wins of any pitcher in the decade, behind only Andy Pettitte, Randy Johnson, Jamie Moyer, and Roy Halladay. Of the four people ahead of him on the wins list, two are first-ballot Hall-of-Famers, one would be if he wasn’t linked to PED’s, and one is an ageless unicorn that grew up with Julio Franco in the 1870’s.
Oswalt was also third in ERA, behind only Pedro and John. Again, that is some hallowed air. And while wins are an admittedly imperfect stat, Oswalt mustered back-to-back 20 win campaigns in 2004 and 2005. The only other two players to manage two such consecutive seasons? Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling.
My favorite Roy Oswalt story? In 1999, toiling away in Class A ball, plagued by chronic arm pain, Oswalt decided to blow off some steam by working on his truck. In his own words:
I was outside working my truck, checking the sparkplug wires. I grabbed this one sparkplug wire, and the truck started, and the current just started shooting bolts through me. That made the muscles in my hand tighten up, so I can’t let go of this thing. I was holding on to it for what felt like two days, but it was probably just a minute. I couldn’t let go. Finally my foot slipped off the bumper and I got thrown off.
When I got up, my arm felt better. I went home and told my wife, ‘You’re never gonna believe what just happened.’ About a week later I couldn’t feel any pain in there at all. And I haven’t since.
That shock resulted in an astoundingly consistent, 6 foot dynamo that electrified the league for the entirety of the 2000’s.
The Hall better be knocking soon.
Honorable Mentions: Mark Buehrle, Mark Mulder, Jamie Moyer, Mike Mussina, Chad Cordero, Francisco Cordero, Troy Percival, Jason Isringhausen, Jeff Suppan, Livan Hernandez