When Babe Ruth stood on the mound for the Boston Red Sox from 1915-17, he went 65-33, a mark topped only by a couple of dozen pitchers in the 100 years since. All three pitchers inducted to the Hall of Fame Sunday – along with my favorite player Craig Biggio – enjoyed even better marks.
If you had one team from the past 100 years to win one playoff game, who would you pick? Some great pitchers are saddled with weak offenses – so you would want to pick a pitcher and teammates that gave you the best chance to win that game.
Here are the best teams with their ace on the mound over the past 100 years based the pitcher being near the top of the league leaders in wins and the overall winning percentage over a three-year stretch with the same team.
The near misses on this list were the Indians’ Bob Feller, who rolled up a 76-33 (.697) from 1939-41 before leaving for the war, and the A’s Barry Zito (54-25, .684) from the Moneyball teams of 2001-03.
25, Walter Johnson, Washington Senators 1923-25, Record: 60-26, .698
The Big Train pitched for notoriously terrible teams most of his career until a World Series late in life, so while you would want him on the mound for a one-game shot – you would not want it all riding on him and his line-up.
24, Denny McLain, Detroit Tigers 1967-69, Record: 72-31, .699
23, Mike Cuellar, Baltimore Orioles 1969-71, Record: 67-28, .705
22, Jim Palmer, Baltimore Orioles 1969-71, Record: 56-23, .709
21, John Smoltz, Atlanta Braves 1996-98, Record: 56-23, .709
The Braves never boasted great line-ups, so circumstances forced Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz to dominance. Maddux had an even better mark, but Smoltz had the second best mark during the World Series year and following two years (Glavine’s better mark came a few years earlier).
20, Tom Glavine, Atlanta Braves, 1991-93, Record: 62-25, Record: .713
19, Roger Clemens, Boston Red Sox 1986-88, Record: 62-25, .713
18, Steve Carlton, Philadelphia Phillies 1980-82, Record: 60-24, .714
17, Juan Marichal, San Francisco Giants 1964-66, Record: 68-27, .716
16, Dizzy Dean, St. Louis Cardinals 1934-36, Record: 82-32, .719
15, Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers 2010-12, Record: 59-22, .728
14, Pete Alexander, Philadelphia Phillies 1915-17, Record: 94-35, .729
13, Carl Hubbell, New York Giants 1935-37, Record: 71-26, .732
12, Catfish Hunter, Oakland A’s 1972-74, Record: 67-24, .736
11, Hal Newhouser, Detroit Tigers 1944-46, Record: 80-27, .748
10, Lefty Gomez, New York Yankees 1932-34, Record: 66-22, .750
9, Dwight Gooden, New York Mets 1984-86, Record: 58-19, .753
8, Greg Maddux, Atlanta Braves, 1995-97, Record: 53-17, .757
7, Ron Guidry, New York Yankees 1977-79, Record: 59-18, .766
6, Whitey Ford, New York Yankees 1961-63, Record: 66-19, .776
5, Pedro Martinez, Boston Red Sox 1998-2000, Record: 60-17, .779
Another Hall of Fame inductee today truly was the man who brought back the Red Sox and finally undid the curse of the Bambino (see Babe Ruth above). The Red Sox with Pedro on the hill – the fifth toughest team to beat in history.
4, Randy Johnson, Arizona Diamondbacks 2000-02, Record: 64-18, 0.780
3, Sandy Koufax, Los Angeles Dodgers 1963-65, Record: 70-18, .795
The Dodgers offense was so weak that Don Drysdale only won 57% of his games during that same stretch, and did not have any three-year stretch with a good enough winning percentage to make this list despite his 2.95 career ERA. Koufax is so good that you could put him out there with even a weak team and have a great shot.
2, Lefty Grove, Philadelphia A’s 1929-31, Record: 79-15, .840
Bill James once wrote that there was no question Lefty Grove was the greatest pitcher ever. I haven’t gone through a side-by-side, but him on the mound with the dominant A’s line-ups that took over after the 1927 Yankees run.
1, Randy Johnson, Seattle Mariners 1995-97, Record: 43-6, 0.878
Some may question if Johnson’s stretch was better than Lefty Grove’s due to missing most of 1996 when he went 5-0. But when you consider that he won 78% of his games over a three-year stretch with the Diamondbacks, 88% of his games during this three-year stretch with the Diamondbacks (see No 4 above), and won over 90% of his games with the Astros (10-1) you have to think the Big Unit with any of these three teams might have been the toughest team in a one-game series.
Which brings us back to Craig Biggio. Baseball is an unpredictable game, and the San Diego Padres upset the Houston Astros in the playoffs the one year Biggio and Johnson played together. Those are the perils of a five-game series.
That was his only time with Biggio as a teammate, and all Biggio did in the toughest park for hitters in years was to hit 51 doubles, 50 stolen bases, 20 home runs, and bat .325. Johnson with Ken Griffey and the Mariners, the Diamondbacks World Series champions, or this Astros line-up – Johnson with any of those three teams could be argued as the toughest opponent anyone could face for a one-game series over the past century.
P Randy Johnson, 10-1, 1.28 ERA, 0.98 WHIP (base per inning), 116 strikeouts, 26 walks, 4 shutouts in 11 starts.
It is no wonder Peter Gammons said in the post induction interviews that he thought the 1998 Houston Astros were the surest World Series team that ever did not make it – but one hot pitcher on the other side (the Padres Kevin Brown) can always pull the upset in baseball. Two 2-1 losses for the Astros sent the Padres on to the NLCS and then World Series.