Major League Baseball is oozing with electric starting pitching and sometimes in pairs. But there are also pitching duos from earlier this century that were formidable and, frankly, better. Here are MLB pitching tandems that were taken for granted.
Sabathia and Lee were the most short-lived elite pitching duo in baseball, but boy were they nasty in their heyday.
From the outset of his career, Sabathia was one of the most intimidating pitchers in baseball. At 6-foot-6, the big left-hander was in a league of his own. He pitched with intensity, went deep into games, and worked out of trouble often. He had a menacing fastball by means of a violent delivery and was the face of the Cleveland Indians pitching staff for several seasons. From 2006-08, Sabathia recorded ERAs of 3.22, 3.21, and before being traded to the Milwaukee Brewers before the 2008 MLB trade deadline, 3.83.
Lee was one of the most dominant pitchers in a short period of time in MLB history. He had a nasty curveball, walked very few batters, executed a multitude of complete games, and had the arsenal to throw a no-hitter whenever he took the hill. Lee established himself as an elite starter in 2008 when he recorded a 2.54 ERA and won the American League Cy Young Award — a year after Sabathia won the award. Remember, having an ERA that low 10-plus years ago was rare. Lee was a silent assassin, and had he and Sabathia simultaneously pitched at their peaks for longer than four months — and the organization kept them together — the Indians may have won a World Series.
At this point, we’re used to the Los Angeles Dodgers having potent starting pitching, but once upon a time, they had arguably the two best pitchers in the sport: Kershaw and Greinke.
Going into 2015, Kershaw was the undisputed best pitcher in baseball. He recorded ERAs below two from 2013-14 while also recording a 2.13 ERA to go along with 301 strikeouts in 2015. His deceiving delivery, high-velocity fastball, and rapid breaking pitches made him the Grim Reaper of starting pitching. It was a sighting to see him surrender more than two runs in a given outing, and he was one of the few, if any pitchers who was the face of his franchise; he still is today.
Greinke has always been highly regarded, but in 2015 he had one of the most captivating seasons in MLB history. Recording a 1.66 ERA and 0.84 WHIP while averaging roughly seven innings a start, he made the Dodgers pitching staff invincible. Greinke has a funky delivery, holds himself to a high standard, and has an array of pitches he pulls out of his back pocket. For reasons only known to persisting critics, Greinke’s occasional struggles are highlighted more than his success — which is unfortunate for someone who, from a production standpoint, has a case to be in Cooperstown.
Madison Bumgarner is regarded as the player who led the San Francisco Giants pitching staff to multiple World Series championships, and rightfully so. But before he became a stone-cold killer, Lincecum and Cain were the dynamic duo that kept the Giants running.
The Freak, Lincecum, had one the most violent deliveries the sport has ever seen; he was also a strikeout machine. From 2008-11, he totaled 220-plus strikeouts a season and won the National League Cy Young Award in 2008 and 2009. Lincecum had an overpowering fastball, electric curveball, and was always in the conversion for being the game’s best starting pitcher. With that said, there were times when he wasn’t at the top of his game, such as the Giants’ 2012 World Series run, but he found a way to pull through when it mattered most — sometimes even out of the bullpen.
Cain embodies everything about the Giants’ World Series runs this decade: steady, quiet, and forgotten. Cain had some nice offerings, but was, for the most part, a pitcher who relied on contact. At the same time, the right-hander was adept at working out of trouble when batters reached base and was remarkably durable in his prime (Cain made 30-plus starts a season from 2006-13). He also recorded a 2.10 ERA in eight postseason starts and surrendered just three runs in the two World Series starts he made. Outside of the Bay Area, Cain is rarely discussed; it’s another example of undermining stellar starting pitching.
Seven years ago, no one would’ve guessed that Scherzer was going to become arguably the best pitcher in baseball, but before signing with the Washington Nationals in 2015, he and Verlander were downright scary together.
Before his 2017 resurgence with the Houston Astros, Verlander was the ace of the successful Detroit Tigers teams from earlier this century. He was a strikeout machine, one of the hardest pitchers to make contact off, and a big-game pitcher (he still is today). Verlander is Tigers royalty. Want an example of his brilliance? In 2013, the right-hander threw 15 scoreless innings and surrendered just eight baserunners against an up-and-coming Oakland Athletics club in the AL Division Series.
Now, while he was a reliable starter beforehand, Scherzer wasn’t an alpha-dog-esque pitcher until 2013 — when he won his first Cy Young Award. He recorded a 2.90 ERA, totaled 240-plus strikeouts in back-to-back seasons, was one of the most unhittable pitchers in the sport, and was just beginning to taste his potential. He continued his dominance the ensuing year and was the Tigers best pitcher in the wake of Verlander being a wee bit inconsistent. With that said, if these two aces — and Cy Young Award winners — were able to stay together for the long haul, or were teammates today, there’s no doubt they would’ve, at some point, co-faced a World Series run.
Oh, David Price and Rick Porcello — who are now teammates on the Boston Red Sox — were on this staff too, they just either weren’t with the Tigers long enough, or haven’t strung together a Hall of Fame-caliber stretch to be included on this list.
Don’t Take Elite Starting Pitching for Granted
Let’s do some team swapping. If we put Scherzer on the Houston Astros, reuniting him with Verlander, we’d be saying the Houston Astros are running away with the AL pennant this year. If we put Kershaw on the Arizona Diamondbacks, reuniting him with Greinke, we’d be saying they could make a run at the playoffs.
A lot of times we acknowledge great players and teams when they’re in the midst of a dynasty, or successful period of time. However, we don’t always realize how captivating their success was until their playing days are over. The aforementioned pitching duos were some of the most fearsome units baseball will ever see. Don’t take the modern-day ones for granted, especially in what is becoming a bullpen-centric game.
Whether it be Verlander and Gerrit Cole, Kershaw and Hyun-Jin Ryu, Corey Kluber and Trevor Bauer, Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, or Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard, baseball has several iconic pitching duos at its disposal. Two years from now, they could all be terminated. And by then, we may be able to update this article.