Hall of Fame Week concluded with a look at John Smoltz, who enters the Hall of Fame with one of the most impressive postseason resumes in history. He is second all time in wins, fourth among starters in winning percentage, third all time in innings pitched, and first in strikeouts. Is Smoltz the greatest postseason pitcher of all time?
By most any measure, Smoltz is certainly one of the most successful post season pitchers of all time. He spent most of his career with the Atlanta Braves (having been traded by my Tigers in 1987), who made 14 straight postseason appearances as division championsThey didn’t win 14 straight division titles though – in the canceled 1994 season, they finished 2nd to the Montreal Expos (repose en paix); if all the other records from that year count, so should that one.. Because of that, Smoltz pitched more innings in the post season than any other pitcher in history other than his teammate Tom Glavine and Andy Pettitte (who, like Smoltz and Glavine, pitched with a perennial playoff team in New York).
Smoltz’s postseason stats read like an almost completed regular season: 41 Games, 27 starts, 15-4 W-L record, 4 saves, 209 innings pitched, 199 strikeouts, a 2.67 ERA, and a 3.18 FIPFielding Independent Pitching. A measure of the events “under the pitcher’s control” (HR, BB, Ks, HBP) that attempts to remove the influence of team defense – whether good or bad – on the pitcher’s stats. It is scaled like ERA, so a “good” ERA number is also a good FIP score.. Heading into September, that’s a pitcher contending for the Cy Young award. By virtue of his many appearances, Smoltz certainly dominates the counting stats and his rate stats are significantly better than his peers in the 200+ inning club (Glavine was 14-16 with a 4.27 FIP and Pettite was 19-11 with a 4.09 FIP).
Greatness isn’t just a matter of the counting stats, though – very few would say Pete Rose was better than Ty Cobb, despite the all time hits record, and similarly few would put Cy Young atop the list of the greatest pitchers of all time. How then does Smoltz’s success compare to the resumes of baseball’s other great post season pitchers?
Defining Greatness in a Postseason Pitcher
Because baseball’s postseason structure has changed so much over MLB’s history, counting stats tell us far less about post season performance than they do for the regular season. Until 1969 there were no divisional playoffs so at most, players played seven games per post season (except for four seasons in baseball’s early years when the World Series was nine games). Starting in 1969, the division of each league into East and West added five more possible games (increasing to seven in 1985). From 1995 onward, MLB split into three divisions, adding a wild card team to the mix, and thus added five more possible games in the division series. So, while pre-1969 players might play as few as four games in a complete postseason, post-1995 players might play as many as nineteen.
This change over time is why we have to go beyond counting stats. In searching for the greatest post season pitcher of all time, we are going to consider each player’s entire postseason career, but focus on a few stats in particular. On a very basic level, there needs to be a cutoff in terms of innings pitched – a player who has thrown 15 shutout innings will have amazing stats, but no one can seriously consider them the greatest of all time with such a short resume. We decided to use 57 innings pitched as our cutoff. We decided this for one reason only: that’s how many innings Sandy Koufax pitched and we didn’t feel this conversation was legitimate if we didn’t include him.
Once we established that simple baseline, we then narrowed the field further. The next two stats we considered when eliminating players from the conversation were ERA-Adjusted Earned Run Average Minus – the ratio of the players ERA to league average ERA, adjusted for park effects. 100 is league average and every 1 point deviation from 100 is a percentage point better or worse than league average. E.g., an ERA- of 90 means the pitcher’s ERA was 10% better than league average, and an ERA+ of 110 means it was 10% worse. and FIP-Adjusted Fielding Independent Pitching. A measure of the events “under the pitcher’s control” (HR, BB, Ks, HBP) that attempts to remove the influence of team defense – whether good or bad – on the pitcher’s stats. It is then adjusted for park effects and related to league average FIP. 100 is league average and every 1 point deviation from 100 is a percentage point better or worse than league average. E.g., an FIP- of 90 means the pitcher’s FIP was 10% better than league average, and an FIP- of 110 means it was 10% worse.. These two stats measure a pitcher’s most basic job: preventing runs. Also, each stat is calculated relative to league average, allowing for easy comparison across different eras.
We decided that if a pitcher didn’t have a combined ERA- and FIP- of less than 155, then they couldn’t be considered. A pitcher 20% better than league average in each would have a total of 160, and it seemed reasonable to say any pitcher who was the greatest in postseason history would be at least 20% better than the average pitcher. These stats also formed one of the basic elements of our comparison (since, as we said, they measure a pitcher’s ability to prevent runs).
Finally, because we’re looking at a relatively small number of games in each player’s postseason career, we’re also going to examine the “Game Scores” of each pitcher’s starts (all but one of the pitchers on our list was a starter). Game Score is a metric developed by Bill James to measure the quality of a pitcher’s start. Here’s how it’s calculated:
- Start with 50 points.
- Add one point for each out recorded, so three points for every complete inning pitched.
- Add two points for each inning completed after the fourth.
- Add one point for each strikeout.
- Subtract four points for each earned run allowed.
- Subtract two points for each hit allowed.
- Subtract two points for each unearned run allowed.
- Subtract one point for each walk.
A start with a game score of 60 is considered a quality start. A game score of 70 is great, 80 is excellent, 90 is incredible, and 100 is legendary. For reference, only 12 nine-inning games in MLB history have had a game score of 100 or more (three of those were perfect games and four others were no hitters). Only fifteen pitchers in history have at least 10 games with game scores of 90 or more.
We’ll be looking at a player’s average game score and at the percentage of a pitcher’s starts where he received a 65+ game score, the percentage in which he received 80+, and the percentage where he received a 45 or lower (since part of greatness is avoiding awfulness). Our narrowed field left us with 13 pitchers total, 12 starters and one reliever (three guesses who that is and the first two don’t count). Let’s meet them.
Of the 13 pitchers that met the “qualifying criteria”, there was a clear division between the upper and lower halves (with an interesting case at the midway point). Four of the pitchers averaged below a 60 for their average game score and five of them had game scores of 45 or lower in at least 23% of their starts. Every pitcher on this list is among the best ever in the postseason (that’s how they made it in the first place), but if you’re not even averaging a “quality start” and/or a quarter of your starts are flat-out bad, you’re definitely not the greatest of all time.
Included in these stats are their postseason W-L record and their winning percentage, their career innings pitched, the total number of batters faced, their total strikeouts, their WHIPWalks and Hits per Inning Pitched. A mesaure of how many baserunners a pitcher allows per inning., their ERA-, and their FIP-. Also included is their “Average Leverage Index” (aLI)Average Leverage Index measures the pressure in the situations the pitcher faced based on the game situation (1 is average, higher is more pressure, lower is less), and their “Win Probability Added” (WPA)Win Probability Added measures the change in Win Expectancy for each play for which the player was on the field (e.g., if the pitcher’s team had a 60% chance of winning at the beginning of an at bat, the batter grounded out, and at the end of the play the pitcher’s team had a 65% chance of winning, the pitcher would get credit for 0.05 WPA). WPA favors pitchers who pitch deep into games, since there tend to be greater shifts in Win Expectancy later in games.. Each players stat line ends with their average game score for all starts, the percentage of their starts with a game score of 45 or less, 65 or more, and 80 or more.
There seem to be two categories of pitchers on this part of the list: The “good but not great” and the “great but uneven”.
In the former category are the three Yankee pitchers: Waite Hoyt, Red Ruffing, and Whitey Ford. Hoyt pitched the better of his career with the Yankees during Ruth’s glory years, making his first of six World Series appearances with the Yankees in 1921 (Ruth’s second season with the team). He added a seventh World Series with the Athletics in 1931. He pitched well by the measures of ERA- and FIP-, but his only truly great postseason was his first in 1921 (three of his four highest game scores were from his three starts that postseason – he only topped 60 once in the remaining eight starts in his career).
Red Ruffing was with the Yankees from 1930 to 1946, from the final glory years with Ruth, through Gehrig’s prime (and sad decline into illness), and the best years of DiMaggio. He might fit the “good but not great” moniker more than any, with half of his starts receiving game scores of 65 or higher but not a single one reaching 80 or more.
Whitey Ford spent his entire career (1950-1967) with the Yankees, winning six World Series and playing in five more. Ford pitched a remarkable number of innings for the pre-divisional era, making 22 starts (6th all time – all five pitchers ahead of him played the better part of their careers in the Wild Card Era). However, in only 2 of his 22 starts did he deliver a game score of 80 or more and he was down right bad at times (6 starts with a game score of 45 or lower).
In the latter category of “great but uneven” are Orel Hershisher, Randy Johnson, and Josh Beckett. For each one of them a quarter of their starts received game scores of 45 or lower (23% for Beckett) and Johnson shockingly has a losing record in the postseason (we’re obviously not big on win-loss record, especially in small sample sizes, but that’s still surprising).
The path of the Big Unit’s post season career tracks like a mountain peak, beginning with uneven performances with the Mariners in his early years, a remarkable apex with the Diamondbacks (including a 2001 post season where he threw two 11 K shutouts – both received game scores of 91), and then a sad end with the Yankees in which he gave up 15 earned runs over 19 innings pitched. One stat I love about Johnson’s post season career: of his 32 career walks, 14 of them came in his first two postseasons. He allowed 14 walks in his first 38.1 career innings, then only 18 more over the next 82.2.
Hershisher started brilliantly then, like Johnson, faded in his later career. In his first three postseasons (including his stellar 1988 with the Dodgers), Hershiser was 8-1 with a 1.64 ERA; in his final three he was 0-2 with a 4.89. If the high point was his three straight complete game wins in 1988 (including shutouts in both game 7 of the NLCS and game 2 of the WS), the low point has to be his two World Series starts with the Indians in 1997. In 10 innings of work he allowed 13 earned runs and put up game scores of 21 and 28 (while his team lost a heartbreaker in seven). The greatest of all time just can’t do that.
Josh Beckett remains one of the great “what if?” players in recent history. At his best, Beckett was stellar, anchoring both the 2003 Marlins and 2007 Red Sox championship teams. In those post seasons, Beckett went 6-2 with an ERA of 1.73 and posted three starts with game scores in the 70s, two in the 80s, and one score of 93 (in his 11 K shutout of the Cubs in game 5 of the NLCS). Unfortunately, as with his career in general, Beckett was inconsistent, posting game scores of 35, 17, and 53 with Boston in 2008 and allowing 18 runs in the 21 innings outside of the 2003 & 2007 postseasons.
The final name on the “also ran” list is an interesting one: Madison Bumgarner. Bumgarner is still in the prime of his career, having just turned 26 this season. He’s also coming off of one of the best postseason performances in history in 2014. However, both of those facts are why he cannot be considered the greatest of all time – he’s simply not done. As Johnson, Hershiser, and Beckett all illustrate, it ain’t over till it’s over and we don’t know where he’ll go from here. As amazing as his 2014 was (and it was truly incredible – 4-1 with a save, 1.03 ERA, 2.62 FIP, .407 OPS against, 0.65 WHIP, and a 7.5:1 K:BB ratio), that’s essentially his entire postseason resume. 2014 represents more than half his innings, and he was decidedly average before that (he was of course 20 & 22 in his first two post seasons, so even “average” is pretty damn impressive).
Now that we’ve looked at the runners up, here are the six who’ve got a legit claim to the title “Greatest Postseason Pitcher of All Time.”
That right there is a who’s who of postseason giants: four Hall of Fame players and two more on their way (unless something odd happens). Each pitcher on that list has at least one significant stat where they’re the leader of the pack, and thus each has at least an argument for greatest postseason pitcher of all time.
“The Christian Gentleman”
The oldest player on our list is also our most handsome (seriously, look at those eyes, so dreamy!). In addition to a smile that will melt your heart, Mathewson is also one of the all-time greats of the game and one of the “First Five” inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Mathewson’s postseason performance is as impressive as his overall career – maybe even more so. Despite a 5-5 W-L record, he pitched over 100 innings (remarkable in the pre-divisional era), and posted an ERA 70% better than league average. His FIP- is not so far above his peers, but it’s still exceptional at 67 (meaning he was 33% better than league average).
His average game score is third highest of our group, and a whopping 82% of his games had a score of 65 or more (the highest of the five starters). He also has the second highest percentage of games with a game score of 80 or more, and faced the highest average pressure (aLI) of any of the starters by a wide margin (not only did he pitch better than most in history, he did it when the game was on the line).
The Bloody Sock
On the other end of the 20th Century is Curt Schilling, the owner of the highest postseason winning percentage of any pitcher with at least 10 decisions. Schilling’s postseason career spanned 14 seasons and 3 teams, and he partnered with Randy Johnson on the 2001 Diamondbacks to pitch what was easily the most incredible pair of postseason pitching performances in history.
As great a Johnson was in 2001, Schilling was just a touch better in basically every stat. Schilling’s line for the 2001 postseason is unbelievable: 48.1 IP, 56 K, 6 BB, 1.12 ERA, 1.97 FIP, 0.64 WHIP, 25 ERA-, 44 FIP-. It’s likely the greatest postseason ever by a pitcher.
Schilling does have the highest “sub-45” percentage of our finalists, so that is certainly a mark against him, as is his relatively low average game score. However, he faced a higher degree of pressure than most and pitched deep into games (as reflected in his aLI and his Win Probability Added). Because of this, Schilling has the highest WPA of the starters on the list. He also has the third highest 65+ game score percentage, essentially tied with Bob Gibson, delivering a very good performance in 2/3 of his many postseason starts.
The Man of the Hour
When we look at John Smoltz’s stats, we can likely answer our initial question: no, Smoltz isn’t the greatest postseason pitcher of all time, though he’s darn close. As we mentioned, Smoltz dominates the counting stats with more strikeouts than anyone in history, and the second most wins in history with the second-best win percentage of pitchers with at least ten decisions (behind Schilling). He also has the second highest WPA of the starters on our list (though behind Schilling, who had 75 fewer innings pitched).
However, while there certainly is an argument to be made that sustained performance is essential to greatness, Smoltz just falls too far behind the top pitchers for the longevity and scope of his career to close the gap. He has the lowest average game score of the five starters and has the lowest 65+ and 80+ game score percentages as well. It’s hard to make the claim someone is the greatest of all time when they’re delivering the goods less than half the time (40.7% 65+ game scores). Smoltz also has highest ERA-, FIP-, and WHIP (by a wide margin) on the list.
Smoltz may be the most successful postseason pitcher of all time, but he just isn’t the greatest. Who then is?
The only reliever on our list, Mariano Rivera has a very specific and unique claim to postseason greatness. In general, even the best reliever is far less valuable to a team than an above average starter, however, in the high pressure setting of the playoffs, the calculations are a bit different. Also, because of the consistent (and annoying) success of the New York Yankees, Rivera has pitched more postseason innings than all but six other pitchers in history (not surprisingly, there’s no reliever anywhere near his total).
Rivera’s value comes from the situations he faced. While a closer’s value is diminished in the regular season due to the way they’re used (an inning at a time, often entering with no runners on, a 2 or 3 run lead, etc.) the playoffs are different. There aren’t a hundred more games on the schedule, and each win and loss matters to a much greater degree.
Rivera’s aLI plainly shows this fact – he faced high stakes situations on a regular basis in the playoffs, and the average pressure of the situations he faced is miles above any other pitcher on our list.
His WPA also reflects this fact to a dramatic degree. Because Rivera often entered games where his opponents were down to their last three outs, each one he secured for his team (with his seemingly endless stream of broken bat groundouts) shifted the odds significantly in the Yankees’ favor. Because of this, the plays in which he was involved added more probability to his team’s chance of winning than any other pitcher on our list.
Rivera was also dominant in the extreme. Owner of the single best pitch in MLB history, Rivera’s ERA was microscopic, resulting in an ERA- of 15. His FIP- is also incredible, 51% better than league average and second on our list by a tiny margin.
The only argument against Rivera is the very thing that contributes to his “high pressure” reputation – he’s still a closer, and it’s hard to argue any closer (even the best in history) is better than either of the two remaining starters on our list.
Of the pitchers on our list, Sandy Koufax pitched the fewest innings by a wide margin, but oh what he did with those innings. One of two pitchers on this list to never pitch a sub-45 game, Koufax’s worst game was his lone start in the 1966 World Series, a loss in which he allowed one earned run in six innings to the Baltimore Orioles (who won on their way to a sweep).
In his seven postseason starts, Koufax gave up two earned runs once, one earned run four times, and pitched two shutouts. His ERA- and WHIP are the lowest of the starters on the list and his FIP- is the lowest, period. He has the second highest average game score and the second highest percentage of game scores above 65.
In fact, his stats would look even better if we tweaked our categories just a bit: Koufax twice pitched games with game scores of 79, just below our cutoff of 80 (if we’d made it 79 that would have doubled his percentage to 58%). He also had two games with game scores of 88 – both 10 K shutouts in the 1965 World Series (the second one in game seven on only two days rest).
Like his regular season career, the argument for Koufax is one of quality over quantity. Baseball lost him too soon and he remains the candle that burned twice as bright but half as long.
Only one name left, and he’s our choice for the greatest postseason pitcher of all time (despite the fact that’s something that would make Tim McCarver happy, and thus make us sad). Bob Gibson was one of the baddest men in Baseball history and his postseason dominance was flat out remarkable.
Gibson has the highest average game score on our list (an incredible 75.11) and in nine post season starts Gibson turned in six games with game scores of 80 or more, including a 93 in game one of the 1968 World Series (which his Cardinals lost to the Detroit Tigers). That is by far the highest 80+ game score percentage of any pitcher on our list (though Koufax would have come close had we made it 79+) and his lowest game score ever was a 55 in a complete game win.
Remember how we said Schilling’s 2001 post season was probably the best in baseball history? Well, if it wasn’t, then Gibson’s 1968 probably was. In a losing effort he put up a 0.72 FIP (good for a FIP- of 30!), a 0.81 WHIP, an ERA- of 56, and he struck out 11.67 per nine innings with a K:BB ratio of 8.75:1. The only reason we’d give Schilling’s 2001 the nod is because he kept it up for twice as many innings as Gibson.
Gibson’s career FIP- is the second lowest of the starters on the list (behind Koufax), his WHIP is third (behind Koufax and Mathewson), and his win percentage is third (behind Schilling and Smoltz). In his nine postseason starts, Gibson went the distance in eight of them – only Mathewson can claim the same (he pitched 10 complete games in 11 starts).
When all is said and done, Gibson leads or is near the top in essentially every non-counting stat and, unlike most on our list – even the “finalists”, there really isn’t a single argument against him. Gibson is the Johann Sebastian Bach of postseason pitchers – you can make an argument that someone else is the greatest of all time, but you really can’t make an argument Gibson isn’t, and because of that, he’s our choice.