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How have some of the top starting pitchers of all-time fared in the postseason?

Obviously, pretty well.

Randy Johnson #51

Every postseason we hear how pitchers like Clayton Kershaw and David Price struggle in October. Also, we see the dominance of Madison Bumgarner (that is every other year for the Giants). This led me to thinking - How have the top pitchers in baseball history fared in the postseason? The list of top 10 pitchers since 1960 is filled with Hall of Famers except Roger Clemens, but that is another article for another day. Starting from 1969, when the first League Championship Series began, let’s take a look at how the respective players fared:

Player Career fWAR Postseason IP Postseason ERA Postseason K-BB Team Record in Games started
Roger Clemens 133.7 199 3.75 173-70 17-17
Greg Maddux 116.7 198 3.27 125-51 13-17
Randy Johnson 110.6 121 3.50 132-32 6-10
Nolan Ryan 107.2 58.2 3.07 63-14 2-5
Bert Blyleven 103.3 47.1 2.47 36-8 5-1
Gaylord Perry 100.5 14.2 6.14 11-3 1-1
Steve Carlton 96.9 99.1 3.26 84-51 8-6
Tom Seaver 92.7 61.2 2.77 51-16 3-5
Don Sutton 85.9 100.1 3.68 61-16 7-7
Pedro Martinez 84.5 96.1 3.46 96-30 6-8

One factor that will certainly help the above pitchers is the success of their teams. They are fortunate to have all pitched in the postseason at some point in their careers, some more than others. For example, Gaylord Perry, a Hall of Famer, pitched in only 14.2 innings, all coming in the 1971 NLCS for the San Francisco Giants against the Pittsburgh Pirates. On the other end of the spectrum are Roger Clemens and Greg Maddux. Clemens pitched in the postseason for the Red Sox, Yankees, and Astros. Maddux was helped by the dominance of the Braves in the 90’s, as he pitched in the postseason every year from 1995-2003. He pitched for the Cubs and Dodgers in the playoffs as well.

Bert Blyleven may have the top ERA, but it is a relatively small sample size of 47.1 innings, above only Gaylord Perry. His innings total may be low, but in the games he started the Twins and Pirates went a combined 5-1, the best of these ten pitchers. If we are looking for more innings instead of ERA, that would lead us to Nolan Ryan or Steve Carlton. Nolan Ryan threw 58.2 innings, slightly more than Blyleven, and had a 3.07 ERA, but the Mets, Angels, and Astros went only 2-5 in games he started. Carlton threw 99.1 innings, fifth of the above players, and had a 3.26 ERA. The Cardinals and Phillies went 8-6 in games started by the great lefty.

One of the more surprising aspects of this data is that only Bert Blyleven and Steve Carlton’s respective teams have winning records in the games the starters pitched. Randy Johnson should not be overlooked here - he is third in innings and second in strikeouts. His teams may have gone 6-10 in games started by Johnson, but they won two of three games when he came out of the bullpen. The two instances those teams won were with the Mariners in Game 5 of the 1995 ALDS, when Johnson threw three innings out of the bullpen, and Game 7 of the 2001 World Series for the Diamondbacks against the Yankees when his work helped lead to Luis Gonzalez’s walkoff single in the bottom of the 9th.

Now for the all important question - was there a significant difference in the performance of any of the above pitchers comparing the regular season and postseason? In terms of ERA, Nolan Ryan (3.19 to 3.07), Bert Blyleven (3.31 to 2.47), and Tom Seaver (2.86 to 2.77) saw a decrease in their respective ERAs from their careers to the postseason, though the decreases were insignificant for Ryan and Seaver. Steve Carlton was practically the same pitcher in the postseason as his career ERA is 3.22 and postseason ERA 3.26. Gaylord Perry saw the largest jump from 3.11 to 6.14, but as I mentioned above there is a very small sample size with him. With a larger sample size, the player with the biggest jump is Roger Clemens, from 3.12 to 3.75.

When it comes to their respective teams’ record when they start, the pitchers that saw an improvement in their team’s winning percentage is Bert Blyleven (.531 to .833) and Steve Carlton (.567 to .571, insignificant). Randy Johnson (.615 to .375) and Nolan Ryan (.524 to .286) saw the biggest drop in team winning percentage.

If forced to choose from the above ten pitchers to win one game in the playoffs, I would lean toward starting Bert Blyleven. As has worked many times for his teams, have Randy Johnson come out of the bullpen. There really is not a wrong choice considering nine of the ten are Hall of Famers. What do you think? Who gets the ball for your team if you needed to win one game?

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Carl Triano is a contributor at Beyond the Box Score and Minor League Ball.