The Five Great Pitching Trios
It hasn’t occurred very often that three pitchers rise to the challenge and cause a team to ascend to great heights because of their efforts. The stars aligned for this to occur about once an era.
The formula would be something like this—you take a staff ace, a great pitcher, bring up a good rookie, and trade for a promising pitcher someone else might not value so much. Every once in a while everything clicked.
The trios I found sustained their excellence and success over at least three years. Each pitcher in the trio needed to make a significant contribution in order to be selected.
I rank the trios featured here for the greatness of their contribution and the success it brought the team.
5) The Philadelphia Athletics of Connie Mack’s Lefty Grove, George Earnshaw, and Rube Walberg—1929-’32; 260W-101L; 31 shutouts
At this point, Mack was no stranger to developing a dominating pitching staff. His staff of ’02-’15 is one of the greatest in pitching history, featuring Eddie Plank and Rube Waddell among others.
He bought Lefty Grove in ’25 for $100,000, and when Lefty hit his peak, nothing much stopped the Athletics.
Grove established one of the greatest peaks in baseball history. He was winning the ERA and strikeout title every year. Earnshaw chipped in with three consecutive 20-win seasons and a H/9 title in ’29. Walberg won 20 games once and led the league in IP in ’32.
The trio lifted the team to two World Series titles, an American League pennant in ’31, and a second place finish in ’32.
4) The Atlanta Braves' Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, and Greg Maddux—’95-’98; 204W-86L; 24 shutouts
This is our most recent and famous trio. All three are either retired or about to. Most expect all three to have a place reserved at Cooperstown.
The lowest ERA+ any of these three posted during this stretch was John Smoltz’ +134 in ’95. The best was Greg Maddux's historic +262 the same year.
Each of these three won a Cy Young award during these four years: Maddux ’95, Smoltz ’96, and Glavine ’98. In the only interruption in ’97, Braves pitchers were second and third in the voting.
Atlanta won the World Series in ’95, the NL pennant in ’96, and the divisional playoffs in ’97 and ’98. The three pitchers were seldom at their best during the same year. This could be one reason they only won one World Series title.
The Braves' great pitching really stretched from ’91-2000 for an entire decade. Other pitchers contributed. Steve Avery had two or three good years early on. Maddux arrived in ’93. In ’97 and ’98 Denny Neagle won 20 and 16 games respectively. Kevin Millwood added 17 and 18 wins in ’98 and ’99.
3) The Baltimore Orioles' Jim Palmer, Dave McNally, and Mike Cuellar—’69-’71; 188W-72L; 33 shutouts
This was certainly one of the great pitching staffs in the history of the game. In ’71 Pat Dobson joined the trio to make a fourth 20-game winner. This had not been done since the Black Sox of ’19!
Dave McNally was the first to establish himself with 22 wins in ’68. Then the Orioles traded for Mike Cuellar and brought up youngster Jim Palmer for the ’69 season. The rest is history.
Although the Orioles only won one World Series in ’70 against the first Big Red Machine, they competed in the Fall Classic all three years.
Cuellar was born in Cuba and was arguably the third great Latin pitcher of the era after Juan Marichal and Luis Tiant. He continued to pitch well through ’75.
McNally’s four 20-win seasons ended after ’71. He continued to pitch respectably for three more years.
Palmer went on to post one of the great and most consistent peaks in baseball history.
2) The Cleveland Indians' Early Wynn, Bob Lemon, and Mike Garcia—’51-’54; 245W-136L; 39 shutouts
The Indians also featured an aging Bob Feller, who added nifty seasons of 22-8 in ’51 and 13-3 in ’54. If you looked carefully in ’51, you could also find a fading Hal Newhouser, who added seven wins that year.
During the run, Garcia led the league in shutouts in ‘52 and ’54. His ’54 campaign included a WHIP title as well. Early Wynn led the league in wins (23) in ’54 and innings pitched twice. Bob Lemon also led the league in innings pitched, complete games twice, and wins and H/9 once each.
The Indians were up against a Yankee dynasty at its height of greatness these years. They finished second each year from ’51-’53 with 93, 93, and 92 wins. Then in ’54 they ran away with the pennant with a record 111 wins.
Although defeated in the World Series in ’54, this was an amazing collection of pitching talent. The cast included three Hall of Fame pitchers and a very fine Mike Garcia at his peak.
1) The Chicago Cubs' Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown, “Big Ed” Reulbach, and Orval Overall—1906-’09; 254W-86L; 78 shutouts
This is perhaps the most dominant trio in baseball history, with 78 shutouts over four years—an incredible total. The shutouts are supported by remarkable H/9 ratios of 5.3 by Reulbach in ’06, 6.2 by Brown in ’08, and not one of them topping 7.0 in all four years!
This was true domination. The Cubs set an all-time record for wins in ’06 with 116.
Their ERAs ranged from 1.03 (+253) by Brown in ’06 to a lavish 2.03 by Reulbach in ’08, when he won 27 games.
This trio featured three pitchers all at their considerable peaks.
During these years Reulbach had winning streaks of 14 and 17 games and a scoreless inning streak of 44.
At his best, Brown was as good as anybody in baseball. He often faced off against Christy Mathewson. He ranks among the top 15 pitchers of all time.
Orval Overall (has to be one of the neatest names in baseball history) threw in two 20-win seasons and 23 shutouts.
This trio lifted the Cubs to the World Series four of five years, with two titles in ’07 and ’08. The one year they missed the World Series, in ’09, they went 104-49!
Recent developments like free agency have made it more difficult for teams to develop and keep their best pitchers over a four- to five-year stretch. But the phenomenon is bound to happen again, once a generation.