This past off season the Washington Nationals constructed what, at the time, looked to like it could be the most dominant pitching rotation in recent history.
The jury is still out on the Nationals from a historical standpoint, though, the pitching hasn’t quite lived up to expectations in its first season.
What is clear, however, is that if the core group of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Doug Fister and Gio Gonzalez is able to stay healthy and stay together, they could put themselves in the discussion of greatest pitching staff’s of all time.
That got me thinking, what are the best pitching staffs in Major League Baseball history?
Immediately in my research I noticed that a lot of starting pitching staffs aren’t jam packed with four or five All-Stars. So in order to do this, I changed my mindset from an entre pitching staff, to part of a staff.
Specifically, in order to qualify for this list of great pitching, the staff had to have at least two All-Stars who withheld a model of great consistency for at least three seasons.
Here are the greatest pitching duos of all time:
T5. Gaylord Perry and Juan Marichal
The San Francisco Giants always seem to have some of the biggest names in baseball, both in the batters box and on the pitchers mound.
From 1962-1971 San Francisco was home to two of the best pitchers in baseball.
Marichal, a nine-time All-Star, won 202 games during that time frame, pitching nearly 3,000 innings. Perry, who was twice selected to play in an All-Star game, tallied 134 wins in over 2,600 innings pitched.
Combined they were dominant.
A .614 combined win percentage, 339 complete games, over 3,500 strikeouts, and each threw a no-hitter – Marichal in ’63 against the Houston Colt .45s, and Perry five years later against the Cardinals. Both were 1-0 Giants victories.
The only blemish against this combo was the near non-existence in the post season. Both only pitched in two post-season games; neither had a winning record.
T5. Jim Palmer, Mike Cueller, Dave McNally
Jim Palmer is easily the most well known name on this list by baseball fans whose favorite team isn’t the Baltimore Orioles. However, you should probably get to know the two names.
During the six seasons the Orioles’ rotation consisted of these three pitchers, Palmer actually had the least amount of wins among the trio.
Palmer, who is still the only pitcher to pitch in a World Series game in three different decades, won 106 games between 1969 and 1974. Mike Cueller pitched his way to 125 victories, and Dave McNally won 111 contests.
Despite having less well-known players, this Orioles tandem deserves to be on this list for a few reasons.
Unlike the aforementioned Giants, these Orioles certainly had post-season experience. Palmer, Cuellar and McNally pitched in three straight World Series, winning in 1970 against the Reds after losing to the ‘Miracle Mets’ the year before.
Also, the Baltimore combo’s 342 wins is six more than the Giants’ total, and Palmer, Cuellar and McNally averaged 19 wins per season, where as Perry and Marichal averaged under 17 wins per season.
Palmer pitched a no-no against Oakland in 1969 and won the first of his three Cy Young Awards in 1973, going 22-9 with a 2.40 ERA.
- Curt Schilling, Randy Johnson
Putting this tandem fourth on the list was tough, but appropriate given the fact that they only spent three years together.
However, in those three short years, they did some pretty amazing things.
In 2001 Randy Johnson was 21-6 with 372 strikeouts, 20 of which came in one game against the Cincinnati Reds. That same year, Curt Schilling was 22-6 and threw six complete games, good enough for second place in the National League Cy Young Award voting. Schilling finished behind Johnson, who won the award for the league’s best pitcher for a third season in a row.
That same year, Johnson and Schilling, along with the rest of their Arizona Diamondbacks squad, won the World Series over the New York Yankees, ending New York’s run of three-straight MLB titles. They were Co-World Series MVPs.
The next year wasn’t much different.
Schilling pitched to a record of 23-7 with 316 K’s, only to be outdone by his hard-throwing teammate once again. The ‘Big Unit’ went 24-5 with a 2.35 ERA and 334 punch-outs in 2002 en route to his fourth-straight Cy Young Award.
Had Both Schilling and Johnson not missed time in 2003, their combined stats would be better. Their stats are still impressive, though, despite the short amount of time they spent together as teammates.
104 wins, a .718 win percentage, and a sub-three ERA to go along with 1,634 strikeouts and an incredible 1.053 WHIP.
- Mike Mussina, Roger Clemens, Andy Pettite, Mariano Rivera
A number of things immediately come to mind when considering this group of pitchers:
Mariano Rivera is the best closer of all time. Mike Mussina may be one of the most underrated starting pitchers in baseball history. Roger Clemens is in consideration for one of the best pitchers of the last 30 years (in spite of his rumored steroid use). And, despite that Andy Pettitte did admit to using human growth hormones in 2002, he is one of the better pitchers in Yankees history.
After saying all of that, you’re probably wondering why this group is only number three on my list. That’s because that’s the number of years they spent together.
From the late 90’s through the early 2000’s the Yankees ruled the American League, winning three consecutive World Series from 1998-2000, and reaching two more in ’01 and ’03.
The latter two are the two fall classics that this group of Yankees pitched in. In neither case, however, were they able to bring Commissioner’s Trophy back to New York.
Clemens, Mussina, Pettitte and Rivera were teammates from ’01-’03, combining to win 161 games (151 of those coming from the three starters), and Rivera closed the door on 118 games.
Clemens won the American League Cy Young Award in 2001, posting a 20-3 record.
- Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Johnny Podres
Deciding where tandems should rank on this list was hard, but no decision was harder than deciding which should be second and first.
The tandems were close statistically, and were without a doubt part of the best rotations of their era.
Even though he only pitched for 12 seasons, you could make the argument that statistically Koufax is one of the best pitchers ever. He threw no-hitters in four consecutive seasons from 1962-1965, struck out 300 or more batters in a season three times, including striking out 382 batters in 1965, and won the Cy Young Award in three of his last four seasons.
Drysdale was no slouch, either.
He won 209 games during his 14-year career with the Dodgers, 25 of which came in 1962, his best season, when his record was 25-9, led the league in strikeouts with 232 and won the Cy Young Award.
Podres had a respectable MLB career, but his best years were certainly with the Dodgers.
For nine seasons, 1957-1965, these three pitchers were the core of the Dodgers rotation.
Together Drysdale, Koufax and Podres won exactly 400 games, and struck out nearly 5,000 batters (4,953). They also took the Dodgers to three World Series, winning them all.
Koufax was a two-time World Series MVP, and in 1963 became the second pitcher to win NL MVP and the NL Cy Young Award in the same season.
- Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, Tom Glavine
The aforementioned Dodgers gave them a run for their money, but I couldn’t put the big three from what is highly regarded as the greatest pitching rotation of all time anywhere but first.
Three first-ballot Hall of Famers, three 200+ game winners, two 300+ game winners, three pitchers who retired with career ERA’s better than 3.60.
John Smoltz, the hardest thrower of the Braves triumvirate, complimented Greg Maddux, who thrived on great movement and control of his pitches, who complimented Tom Glavine, who was a combination of Smoltz and Maddux.
From 1993-2002, this dominant pitching trio defined the Braves.
Together they won 453 games, good enough for a .664 win percentage, and pitched to the tune of a 3.00 ERA. They struck out over 4,600 batters, led by Maddux’s 1,704 K’s.
Each pitcher won at least one Cy Young Award, again led by Maddux who won three such awards in his first three years with the team. Smoltz kept the award in Atlanta the following year with a 24-8 record, and in ’98, Glavine won his one and only award for being the best pitcher in the National League.
They led the Braves to two consecutive World Series appearances, bringing home the trophy in 1995 when Glavine was named WS MVP.
Glavine and Maddux were each selected to 6 All-Star teams in their 10 years together; Smoltz played in three Mid-Summer Classics. Maddux also won the Gold Glove Award for pitchers each year this group was together.