Where the Hudson-Zito-Mulder Big 3 Ranks Among Generation's Best

Karl Buscheck@@KarlBuscheckContributor IIIFebruary 11, 2015

Where the Hudson-Zito-Mulder Big 3 Ranks Among Generation's Best

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    You could be forgiven for missing the headline. Barry Zito, who hasn't stepped on a big league mound since 2013, is making a comeback, according to Jerry Crasnick of ESPN.

    Once upon a time, the left-hander was one-third of the Oakland Athletics' vaunted Big Three. The group also included Tim Hudson, who won his first World Series ring a season ago, and Mark Mulder, who hasn't thrown a major league pitch since 2008. After a ruptured left Achilles tendon wrecked his attempted return last spring, the 37-year-old has officially retired, per Crasnick

    With two-thirds of the old Big Three potentially pitching this season, it's worth taking a look back at just where they rank among the generation's best rotation trios. For the purpose of these rankings, only groups of pitchers from 1990 to the present were considered, and they were judged on the following criteria:

    • Regular-season stats
    • The number of combined All-Star appearances
    • The number of combined Cy Young Awards
    • The combined playoff win-loss records
    • The number of World Series titles

    As impressive as the run of Hudson, Zito and Mulder was in Oakland, those three starters simply couldn't live up to the gold standard that was the original Big Three. Here's how the top five shakes out.

Honorable Mention

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    Before we get started with the top five, let's take a look at a couple of the troikas who just missed the cut:

    San Francisco Giants (2010 to Present): Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum and Madison Bumgarner

    • Even though this trio is technically still intact, its run was effectively over by the start of the 2012 season when Tim Lincecum's production fell off a cliff. 

    Washington Nationals (2014): Jordan Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg and Doug Fister

    • This group only had one season to work together, as the arrival of Max Scherzer in the nation's capital has bumped Doug Fister out of the team's top three. 

5. Philadelphia Phillies: Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    The Time Frame: 2010 to 2011

    Combined All-Star Appearances: 2

    Combined Cy Young Awards: 1

    Combined Playoff Win-Loss Record: 6-4

    World Series Titles: 0

    This trio was only together for a brief period of time. Two days before the trade deadline in 2010, the Philadelphia Phillies acquired Roy Oswalt in a swap with the Houston Astros. At the time of the trade, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. explained the team's logic, via ESPN.com, saying, "We're trying to do what we can to get back to the World Series and win it."

    Even though the Phillies ended up crashing out in the National League Championship Series, Oswalt was electric for the club in the second half of the season. In 13 outings, the veteran right-hander went 7-1 with a 1.74 ERA. 

    Meanwhile, Roy Halladay went 21-10 with a 2.44 ERA and 219 strikeouts, claiming the NL Cy Young Award. Cole Hamels rounded out the trio by posting a 12-11 record and a 3.06 ERA. 

    During the 2011 season, Halladay, Oswalt and Hamels were all once again on the roster, but Cliff Lee supplanted Oswalt in the top three. That year, Lee ended up in the No. 3 spot in the NL Cy Young Award voting thanks to his 17-8 record and 2.40 ERA. Halladay was the runner-up for the honor.

4. Detroit Tigers: Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    The Time Frame: 2012 to 2014

    Combined All-Star Appearances: 4

    Combined Cy Young Awards: 1

    Combined Playoff Win/Loss Record: 9-8

    World Series Titles: 0

    For this group of starters, the best regular-season showing came back in 2013. During that campaign, both Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer snagged American League All-Star selections. Scherzer also topped MLB with 21 wins, earning the AL Cy Young Award.

    While Anibal Sanchez was left out of the All-Star Game, that didn't stop the right-hander from dealing. The Venezuelan checked in with a 2.57 ERA, which was the lowest mark in the AL. 

    Verlander, Scherzer and Sanchez made the playoffs in all three seasons that they pitched together in Motown. The closest that they came to winning a ring was in 2012. The Detroit Tigers were swept aside by the San Francisco Giants in four games in the Fall Classic.

3. Los Angeles Dodgers: Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu

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    Rob Carr/Getty Images

    The Time Frame: 2013 to Present

    Combined All-Star Appearances: 3

    Combined Cy Young Awards: 2

    Combined Playoff Win/Loss Record: 3-5

    World Series Titles: 0

    This Big Three all starts with Clayton Kershaw.

    The lefty ace has been absolutely dismantling opposing hitters, scooping up the NL Cy Young Award in each of the past two seasons. In 2014, Kershaw won 21 of his 27 starts for the Los Angeles Dodgers, which made him the first pitcher to accomplish that feat since 1880, according to ESPN Stats & Info

    Thanks to the historic dominance of Kershaw, it's easy to overlook the brilliance of Zack Greinke and Hyun-jin Ryu.

    In both of his seasons with the Dodgers, Greinke has landed in the top 10 on the NL Cy Young Award ballot and has also earned an All-Star selection and a Gold Glove. Ryu has made a seamless transition to the big leagues since arriving at Dodger Stadium at the beginning of 2013. During that run, the left-hander has posted a 28-15 record and a 3.17 ERA in 56 starts.

    Even with all of that regular-season success, these pitchers have yet to figure out October. That's especially true for Kershaw, who has been shelled by the St. Louis Cardinals in each of the club's past two trips to the playoffs.

2. Oakland Athletics: Tim Hudson, Barry Zito, Mark Mulder

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    MARK J. TERRILL/Associated Press

    The Time Frame: 2000 to 2004

    Combined All-Star Appearances: 6

    Combined Cy Young Awards: 1

    Combined Playoff Win/Loss Record: 6-6

    World Series Titles: 0

    The Oakland Athletics made the playoffs in four of the five seasons that Tim Hudson, Barry Zito and Mark Mulder pitched together. 

    During that run, each starter earned two All-Star selections, and Zito won the AL Cy Young Award in 2002. Mulder was the runner-up for that honor in 2001, and Hudson ended up No. 2 in the voting the year before that. 

    As Mulder explained via Chuck Johnson of USA Today back in August of 2004, it was the "friendly competitiveness" that made all three aces so dominant.

    "I've always said that I would not be as nearly as good standing here today if I wouldn't have pitched with these guys," Mulder said. "They've pushed me, and I've pushed them. It's a friendly competitiveness."

    In the same interview, Mulder addressed the possibility of the Big Three eventually being split up.

    Who knows what's going to happen once free agency comes? ... But I'd love to be able to do something like Atlanta did and have all of us pitch together. That would be great. I'd pitch with these guys for the rest of my career. But the reality is, chances are that might not happen. So you have fun and try to win while you've got it.

    Just a few months later, the era came to an end when Mulder was shipped off to the St. Louis Cardinals and Hudson was traded to the Atlanta Braves. Zito would remain with the team for two more seasons.

1. Atlanta Braves: Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz

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    Doug Mills/Associated Press

    The Time Frame: 1993 to 2003

    Combined All-Star Appearances: 16

    Combined Cy Young Awards: 5

    Combined Playoff Win/Loss Record: 29-26

    World Series Titles: 1

    Tom Glavine first pitched for the Atlanta Braves in 1987, and John Smoltz was called up a year later, but it wasn't until 1993 when Greg Maddux arrived that this Big Three officially formed.

    While pitching together for 11 seasons, the trio accounted for five of the NL Cy Young Awards. Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz also made it to the playoffs in 10 of those seasons but only managed to win one World Series trophy. 

    Maddux and Glavine were inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2014. As Mark Bowman of MLB.com notes, that was the first time since 1946 that two starters who pitched in the same rotation for at least one season entered the Hall in the same class. This July, Smoltz will be joining them in Cooperstown. 

    Note: All stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and MLB.com.

    If you want to talk baseball, find me on Twitter @KarlBuscheck.