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
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
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…
SV GS CG
SHO IP H
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
4-3 0.95 7
7-2 1.89 9
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
15-4 2.67 27
209 172 67
11-2 2.23 19
133 104 25
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.