Recent baseball wisdom has held that having two great pitchers is the path to postseason success. This must have been what the Yankees were thinking as they acquired C.C. Sabathia and A.J. Burnett a year ago.
I’m sure it also crossed the minds of the Seattle Mariners’ management and fans as they just got Cliff Lee to go with Felix Hernandez in their planned rotation for next year.
Free agency has made it difficult for teams to hold onto their top pitchers for long. In recent history there have not been many examples of dominant pitchers staying together on the same team for three years or more.
Perhaps the most obvious example we have in recent history was the pairing of Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling in Arizona. They won a combined 90 games in two years and brought real impact, winning the ’01 World Series.
Results have not always followed the attempts to pair great pitchers together. Injuries, off years, problems with management, and pitchers being in different phases of their careers have prevented some combinations from really delivering the results most hoped for.
For most pitchers, it is essential that they be at or near the very peak of their careers in order to beat the top competition. When it all clicks, having a great tandem of pitchers is one of the highlights of baseball history.
This sought after phenomenon is not new. John McGraw and Connie Mack found the formula at the advent of the Modern Era. Their great pitching stars, Christy Mathewson and Eddie Plank, paired up with others to bring team success all the way through 1915.
As a precursor to this article, I wrote about the great pitching trios in baseball. The pitchers covered there will not be included here. This includes the ’06-’10 Cubs, the ’29-’32 Athletics, the ’51-’54 Indians, the ’69-’72 Orioles, and the ’95-’98 Braves.
If you would like to reference that article to see who’s missing from here, you can follow this link:
To make this list, pitchers had to be together for three years of impact. I preferred to have all three years together, but allowed pairs to have one off year displaced between the others.
I’ll start with a ‘could have been’ pairing. This pairing would have any baseball historian eager to hear about the exploits for which these two teamed up.
Bob Gibson and Steve Carlton teamed up on the Cardinals from ’65-’71. While the Cardinals had a great team, it wasn’t just this tandem that took them to the ’67 and ’68 Series.
While Gibson hit his peak in ’63 and maintained his excellence all the way through to near the end of his career, Carlton was on a long and somewhat inconsistent upswing.
When it seemed he had finally arrived in ’69 with a 17-11 record, he followed it with a league leading loss season of 10-19. He was so surly to the Cardinal management, the owner determined to let him go at first opportunity.
Just when things were really coming together in ’71, when Carlton finished 20-9, he was traded to the Phillies. The pairing never completely panned out.
By mid-’76, the Texas Rangers had traded for Gaylord Perry and Bert Blyleven. They kept them for a whole year and a half with both pitchers pitching well.
In ’77, Blyleven had led the league in WHIP, posted a 6.9 H/9 ratio, and pitched a no-hitter. But the Rangers couldn’t be patient, and unloaded both of them to bring in Ferguson Jenkins.
I mentioned Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling. They were truly dominant at that time. Here’s another pairing whose length of opportunity was shortened because one of them self-destructed too quickly: Denny McLain and Mickey Lolich.
In the late 60s, McLain was at his peak, winning 31 games in ’68, and 24 more in ’69. Lolich was on a strong upswing in his career.
Although McLain had won the most games, it was Lolich who won three games in the ’68 Series, and faced down Bob Gibson in the seventh game.
They were poised for big things in ’70, but McLain found himself suspended three times by the commissioner for his gambling connections and poor behavior.
He went 3-5. He was then traded to Washington. Lolich won 25 games by ’71. It was a pairing that could have been so much more.
Now we have reached two honorable mention tandems:
HM No. 1 - If you are not from Pittsburgh, or didn’t read a recent article titled, “The Best Pitchers NOT in the Hall of Fame”, then you may have never heard of Babe Adams or Wilbur Cooper . They are a too-well-kept secret.
Adams was a bit older, and Cooper was slender and had a deceptively smooth delivery. Adams was the extreme control artist, who in 1920 walked a total of 18 batters in over 260 innings!
Cooper was hitting his peak in 1919, and the pair put up an awfully good record for the next three years. I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to face them back-to-back.
HM #2 - Growing up a baseball fan, I heard the expression that went something like, ‘Spahn and Sain and pray for rain.”
I thought it meant opposing teams would pray for rain when Spahn and Sain were to pitch, but I’ve recently seen it probably was the Braves fan, who said, ‘We have Spahn and Sain; they’re good, then we need to pray for rain!’
So I decided to check this famous duo. They had some good years together: 122 wins and 21 shutouts. Their years that count are ’47-’48 and ’50, but they come in 11th, just missing the top ten.
The top ten dynamic duos
10) Warren Spahn and Lew Burdette
Milwaukee Braves, 1958-1960, 124 wins, 748Ks, 21 shutouts. At this point, 13-15 years into his career, Spahn was leading the NL in wins, IP, CG, and WHIP. Incredible.
Burdette was chipping in 20 wins a year as well. They took Milwaukee to the Series in ’58, and two-second place finishes as well.
9) Catfish Hunter and Vida Blue
Oakland Athletics, 71, ’73-’74, 128 wins, 1081Ks, 26 shutouts. This dynamic duo had plenty of flavor along with their moustached teammates.
Hunter had excellent control and plenty of game savvy. Blue added his blazing fastball that helped account for 301 Ks in ’71. By ’73 Blue had learned how to pitch, and joined Hunter to lead the team to two more WS titles.
8) Christy Mathewson and Rube Marquard
New York Giants, 1911-1913, 147 wins, 931 Ks, 19 shutouts. By this point Christy Mathewson was a great pitcher, but not at his absolute peak.
Rube Marquard was the upcoming hotshot with the great fastball. Together, they led the Giants to prominence again.
They made the WS three years in a row, but the magic from ’05 was missing.
Among others, Eddie Plank and the Athletics, vanquished oh those years ago, came back to beat McGraw’s Giants in ’13, Mathewson himself losing head-to-head against Plank for the first time in his life! (They had pitched against one another in college days and in the WS.)
7) Juan Marichal and Gaylord Perry
San Francisco Giants, 1966, ’68-’69, 128 wins, 1250Ks, 26 shutouts. This is kind of a ‘could have been’ pairing as well, as Perry was on a long and steady upswing in the 60s. Marichal won more games than any other pitcher that decade.
By ’70 Marichal was suffering from arthritis caused by an allergy to penicillin, and Perry’s career began to take off.
Each year of this tandem’s candidacy, they finished second: to the Dodgers, Cardinals, and Braves. They were the bridesmaid team. Marichal was known for his great assortment of pitches, and Perry for one: the spitball!
6) Schoolboy Rowe and Tommy Bridges
Detroit Tigers, 1934-’36, 128 wins, 893 Ks, 25 shutouts. This was the era of the great offensive juggernauts, Detroit itself being one. These guys had Mickey Cochrane, Charles Gehringer, Hank Greenberg, and Goose Goslin supporting their efforts.
In ’34, they went to the World Series, but lost to the Gashouse Gang Cardinals. Bridges did face and beat Dizzy Dean, though.
Bridges was at some point during this run leading the league in games started, wins, and strikeouts. His drop off the table curveball kept opposition batters guessing.
In ’35 they were back in the Series, and this time topped the Cubs. In ’36 the Yankees were back, and they finished second. This tandem gets a bit of extra credit doing this in the live ball era, when shutouts and consistency were hard to come by.
5) Ed Walsh and Doc White
Together, they posted 102 shutouts for their career, and 44 during this three-year period. Ed Walsh won 40 games in ’08. Doc White won 27 in ’07.
They were the surprise winners of the World Series in ’06, beating the Cubs who had won 116 games. But the no-hit ways of the team caught up to them in ’07 and ’08, finishing third both years.
4) Christy Mathewson and Joe McGinnity
New York Giants, 1903-’05, 181 wins, 1125Ks, 29 shutouts. This is a duo of great fame. They dominated their league during these years, and Mathewson’s performance in the ’05 Series is a legend.
Facing the daunting Philadelphia Athletics, Mathewson pitched three complete game shutouts, beating Eddie Plank in Game 1. It is still the greatest single pitching performance in World Series history.
Joe McGinnity was a workhorse of a pitcher, grinding out game after game during the season. He also pitched a shutout in the ’05 Series.
3) Rube Waddell and Eddie Plank
Philadelphia Athletics, 1903-’05, 146 wins, 1525Ks, 33 shutouts. Waddell was the pitching star of this era. Young fans would flock to see him pitch. He had one of the great fastballs to that point in baseball history.
In an era when it was a sin to strike out, he broke the 300K barrier twice. His record of 349 Ks in one season wasn’t topped until Sandy Koufax ’65 season.
Plank was no slouch, either! He was destined to pitch the same team to a World Series title in 1913, win 20 games 8 times, and 18 or more 11 seasons. He chipped in 73 wins these three years.
The Athletics won the pennant in ’05 and finished second in ’03.
2) Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale
Los Angeles Dodgers, 1963-’65, 130 wins, 1609Ks, 41 shutouts. This duo is the one that most comes to mind for people post-WWII.
Koufax was the lefty, Drysdale the righty. Koufax hardly ever brushed back batters, Drysdale lived off it. They both hit their peak together at this time, leading the team to two World Series titles in three years.
They were both hard throwers, and their strikeout total leads all of the tandems. They were also unified in holding out for more money between seasons.
1 – Tim Keefe and Mickey Welch
New York Giants, 1885-’86, ’88, 212 wins, 1556Ks, 30 shutouts. Keefe and Welch had started out together on the Troy team a few years before. Putting them back together was pure genius by the Giant’s management.
Welch had the pre-eminent curve of the era, and Keefe was the best pitcher.
In ’85 when they joined up, the team won 85 games against only 27 losses, winning 76 between them.
Only the White Sox with Clarkson and McCormick won more in an exciting pennant race. In ’88 they led the team to 84 wins and the NL pennant.
This tandem places No. 1 because of their dynamic winning combination, and because they almost equaled Koufax and Drysdale’s K marks in fewer games. (112-140 games per season).
The top four duos really set themselves apart as the best. Determining a ranking among these was difficult. Many would discount the pre-modern era tandem; I don’t.
These were two top flight HOF pitchers at their peaks and helping their team to incredible W-L records.
Put these top four in any order you like. They are the four best.
Each time a great duo developed on one team, it was an exciting phenomenon to follow. I look forward to more great tandems to develop, and following their exploits in the near future!