Greatest Post-Season Pitchers of All Time

Baseball history is full of great pitching performances in the post-season, but which pitchers are the best of the best when it matters the most?

Cliff Lee has accomplished many remarkable things since the start of the 2008 season. He has… gone 22-3 and won the American League Cy Young Award in the course of an absolutely dominating season; pitched the Phillies into the 2009 World Series, becoming a folk hero in the city of Philadelphia in the process; managed to subsequently get Phillies GM Ruben Amaro, Jr. (aka RAJ), in hot water (despite, or maybe because, he led the Phillies to the World Series) with the perception that he would be difficult for the Phillies to re-sign; been traded to Seattle in a deal that was equally as bad as the trade that brought him from Cleveland to Philadelphia; pitched the Rangers into the World Series, a place where that benighted franchise has never been; and set an all-time major league seasonal record for strikeout/walk ratio, an absurd 10.28.

He has also stirred up one of those great baseball debates that typically characterize this great game, namely, who is the Greatest Postseason Pitcher of All Time? Indeed, Lee's dominating pitching in the 2010 ALDS and ALCS, following on the heels of his dominating pitching in the 2009 NLCS, NLDS and World Series, has not only engendered this discussion, it has inserted Arkansas' favorite son (since Sam Walton, like General Franco, is still dead) into the discussion. To wit… is Cliff Lee the Greatest Postseason Pitcher of All Time?

The answer to this question is an easy one; no, he's not. And that was before his surprisingly disastrous outing in game one of the World Series. The answer to the question originally posed, who is the Greatest Postseason Pitcher of All Time, is not an easy one. It is, like most baseball questions that include the phrase "the greatest," in fact unanswerable. Now, one day Cliff Lee might be one of the answers to that question, but, he isn't now, not in the middle of his career. No matter where he signs after the 2010 season – Texas, New York, Boston, Chicago (the Cubs), L.A. (the Angels), or even Philadelphia (an unlikely scenario, but one that would cement RAJ's becoming a folk hero in Philly as well), chances are he's going to pitch in several more postseason series before his career is done. Thus, it cannot be said at this time that he's the Greatest… he has yet to finish painting the canvas of his postseason resume (to mix a metaphor.)

Still, Lee's performances have opened the discussion, so let's run with it. Who might the candidates be for the Greatest Postseason Pitcher of All Time? First, let's set a couple of ground rules. As just noted with Lee, you can't consider someone who might still have the opportunity to pitch again in the postseason. Baseball being what it is, you never know when even the best pitcher might get roughed up when facing another pretty good team in a pressure situation. (As was the case the other day.) The man is, after all, only human. With John Smoltz and Curt Schilling both apparently retired, the only other candidate for this honor this qualification knocks out is Andy Pettitte, who holds the record for the most postseason wins (19), although his 3.83 ERA and zero, count ‘em, zero, complete games (in 42 starts), are nothing to write home about.

Also, although pitching in the postseason will, by definition, produce relatively small sample sizes for individual pitchers, it seems reasonable to establish a cut-off of 50 postseason innings pitched… the equivalent of about five-and-half complete games. And let's not hear any whining about good pitchers not getting support, in other words, no losing records. If you're good enough to get to the postseason, you'll be facing (with rare exceptions, like the 1973 Mets) nothing but good teams, teams you have to beat. Having set those standards, there are eight more pitchers, in addition to the aforementioned Smoltz and Schilling, up for consideration. They are…

Christy Mathewson

Lefty Grove

Lefty Gomez

Carl Hubbell

Allie Reynolds

Ed Lopat

Sandy Koufax

Bob Gibson

Matty almost doesn't qualify, since his record in the World Series was just 5-5. But what a record it was. He still holds the mark for postseason shutouts with four, and, as a result, he rang up a postseason ERA of 0.97 and a WHIP of 0.836. And, he completed 10 of his 11 starts with a strikeout/walk ratio of 4.8. Yes, this was the Deadball Era, but that's something, even if you're playing wiffle ball.

Pitching in the biggest hitting era of the 20th Century, Grove was a terror in the 1929, 1930 and 1931 Series for the A's. Connie Mack actually used Grove, one of the hardest throwers of his era, in relief in the '29 Series, so he only started five games and pitched 51 innings, going 4-1 with a save, a 1.75 ERA, a 6:1 strikeout/walk ratio and a 1.013 WHIP.

The other Lefty, Gomez, is a marginal candidate for this honor, despite the fact that he holds the record for the best record in the World Series, 6-0. Gomez once attributed his pitching success in general to, "clean living and fast-moving outfield," but what he really should have said was, "pitching for the Yankees in the 1930s." In 50 World Series innings he gave up 51 hits and 15 walks (against only 31 Ks), for a 1.311 WHIP. His ERA was a good 2.86, but it's his 6-0 record that always gets mentioned.

Hubbell was a pitching contemporary of Gomez, pitching for a distinctly inferior (to the Yankees) team of Giants. Still, he managed to go 4-2 in three World Series, with a fine 1.79 ERA and a 1.033 WHIP.

If Grove was a versatile postseason pitcher, Reynolds was even more so. Casey Stengel had no compunctions whatsoever about using Reynolds, a fireballer with limited stamina, in relief when the chips were down. As a result, the SuperChief put together this unusual and outstanding World Series record…

W-L     ERA     SV       GS       CG       SHO    IP         H         W        K         WHIP

7-2       2.79     4          9          5          2          77        61        32        62        1.203

Reynolds' compatriot on the Yankees' starting staffs of the late 40s and early 50s was Lopat. (The third member, Vic Raschi, was pretty good, too… 5-3 with a 2.24 ERA. Chief Bender, Red Ruffing and Whitey Ford also fit in the "near-miss" category.) A junkballer, Lopat was strictly a starter in the Series, going 4-1 with a 2.60 ERA in 52 innings.

All of these guys were pretty tough in the Series, but it was two more recent pitchers who usually come to mind when great World Series pitchers are mentioned… Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson, who jointly blew away the American League in the1960s.

                        W-L     ERA     GS       CG       SHO    IP         H         W        K         WHIP

Koufax             4-3       0.95     7          4          2          57        36        11        61        0.825

Gibson             7-2       1.89     9          8          2          81        55        17        92        0.889

Gibson pitched a little more in the Series, and Koufax did, in reality, get stuck with more undeserved losses (thanks, Willie Davis), but, Sandy actually pitched a little better and his teams won three out of four series, as opposed to Gibson's two out of three. Of course, they both set World Series strikeout records (Koufax 15, Gibson 17). I wouldn't want to choose between them.

Finally, there are the two aforementioned recently-retired stars of the end of the 20th Century and the beginning of the 21st Century. On the surface, the main differences between Smoltz and Schilling are that the former pitched a fair amount as a closer, and pitched in 25 postseason series, as opposed to Schilling's 12 postseason series.

                        W-L     ERA     GS       CG       SHO    IP         H         W        K         WHIP

Smoltz              15-4     2.67     27        2          1          209      172      67        199      1.144

Schilling            11-2     2.23     19        4          2          133      104      25        120      0.968

But, let's look a little closer. First, Smoltz' teams LOST 13 of those 25 series. Maybe that wasn't his fault, but that doesn't help his case, either. A great pitcher has to lead his team to victory. (Although recall that both Tom Glavine at 14-16 and Greg Maddux, at 11-14, both had losing records in the postseason.) Schilling, on the other hand, was on the winning side in 10 out of 12 series he appeared in (he did not pitch in the 2005 ALDS because he'd pitched the Red Sox into the postseason on the last day of the regular season). The one World Series loss (in addition to the D'Backs losing the 2002 NLDS) was the 1993 affair, when, with the Phillies' backs to the wall, he shut out the Blue Jays 2-0 in game five. In another reality, you can postulate that, if Jim Fregosi had realized that Mitch Williams had thrown his arm out, and put in another reliever to face the Jays in game six, Schilling could well have come into game seven as the closer (and he'd been primarily a reliever up until the middle of the 1992 season) and this debate would be a whole lot more certain.

Note also a slight edge for Schilling in won-loss record, ERA (a statistic where Smoltz' relief work gives him an edge to start), complete game percentage, strikeout/walk ratio, strikeouts per nine innings (which relief pitching also helps), and WHIP. Hmmmm…

Finally, there's Mariano Rivera, who must be considered in an entirely different fashion. He's never started a game in the postseason, but he's been in 94 games and pitched 140 innings with a 0.71 ERA. Remarkable stats, but, of what value would he have been if his team hadn't been able to put him in a position to save those 42 games? That he's been successful is undeniable. And so is the fact that his success is in a large measure a function of his team's success in getting so many games to him. Without getting into the starter vs. reliever debate, let's just say he's the greatest relief pitcher in postseason history, and let it go at that.

As for the other guys, everybody has an opinion. Here it says a dead heat between Koufax and Gibson for the pre-1969 era, and, for the post-expansion (of the postseason, that is), it's still Curt Schilling.



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