There are greatest pitchers of all time and then the pitchers who did it in the most important series of the year. Here we look at the greatest pitchers of the Fall Classic.
We’re not talking about the best individual game performance. This eliminates people like Don Larsen (perfect game in 1956) and Jack Morris (10 shutout innings in game 7 in 1991). Those were great one game performances but not sustained World Series excellence.
It also eliminates pitchers who had only one dominating Series. Performances like Babe Adams in 1909 (3 Complete Game wins in Pirates 7 game victory over the Detroit Tigers), Grover Cleveland Alexander in 1926 (2 complete game victories over Babe Ruth’s New York Yankees, and the a memorable three inning save in Game 7), Mickey Lolich in 1968 (3 complete games victories, including a 4-1 besting of Bob Gibson in game 7 of the Detroit Tigers World Series triumph), or Orel Hershiser’s shut down of the Oakland A’s in 1988. If these pitchers were equally effective in other World Series we would include them, but Lolich only had the one opportunity, and Alexander, Hershiser, and Morris were not dominant in the other World Series they participated in.
We’re dealing with only four hurlers here, one from the very early years of the World Series, two who were born within two months of each other in 1935, and the other a modern pitcher whose exploits will be very familiar to modern baseball fans.
Christy Mathewson started 11 games in 4 different World Series. He pitched 10 Complete Games with a 5-5 record and a 1.15 ERA. Let’s review those nine starts.
1905 World Series: Giants defeated the Athletics 4 games to 1
Mathewson started Games 1, 3, and 5
Game 1: A classic match-up of two first tier Hall of Famers saw Mathewson best Eddie Plank 3-0. Matty struck out 6 without walking a single hitter. The Game Score for Mathewson was 85.
Game 3: The Giants broke open a tight game with 5 runs in the 5th inning. Mathewson again went the distance on a 4-hitter in the Giants’ 9-0 route. His Game Score was an 86.
Game 5: In the greatest individual performance in the history of the Fall Classic, Mathewson blanked the Athletics for the 3rd time in 6 days. He beat the A’s other Hall of Famer, Chief Bender, surrendering 5 hits, while walking none and striking out 4. Mathewson had a Game Score of 81.
1911 World Series: Giants lost to the Athletics 4 games to 2
Mathewson started Games 1, 3, and 4
Game 1: The Athletics finally pushed over a run on Mathewson on a RBI single by Harry Davis in the 2nd inning. The Giants tied the game in the 5th and then took the lead on Josh Devore’s single in the 7th. The great Matty made it hold up in the Giants 2-1 victory. He had a Game Score of 75. The Athletics Chief Bender was magnificent in defeat, striking out a World Series record 11 Giants in his 8 innings.
Game 3: Mathewson was in complete control again, but the Giants could only muster one run against Philadelphia’s Jack Coombs. With one out in the top of the 9th inning the Athletics’ Frank Baker earned his nickname that he would forever be known as, Home Run Baker, by taking Matty deep to right and the score was tied at 1-1. The Giant defense abandoned Mathewson in the 10th inning, as two New York errors led to two unearned runs in the Giants 3-2 loss. Matty’s Game Score was a 74.
Game 4: Due to bad weather Game 4 was delayed for 7 days, allowing Mathewson to start consecutive games. The Giants staked Matty to a 2-0 lead in the first inning, but he couldn’t hold it, surrendering 4 runs in his 7 innings in the Giants 4-2 loss with a Game Score of 45
1912 World Series: Giants lost to Red Sox 4 games to 3 (with one tie)
Mathewson started Game 2, 5, and 8
Game 2: Mathewson was undone by 5 Giant errors, including three by shortstop Art Fletcher, which led to 4 unearned runs. Matty stayed in for the entire 11 innings when the game was called due to darkness with the score tied 6-6. His Game Score was 69.
Game 5: Mathewson was very good, holding Boston to 5 hits and no walks, but back to back triples by Harry Hooper and Steve Yerkes in the 3rd inning led to 2 runs and the Red Sox starter Hugh Bedient made them stand up in Boston’s 2-1 win. Mathewson had a Game Score of 66.
Game 8: Due to the tie in Game 2 there was a game eight and John McGraw gave the ball to his ace, Christy Mathewson. He came out to pitch his 10th inning in the bottom of the 10th leading 2-1, but again his defense let him down. Fred Snodgrass dropped a routine flyball to center field for a 2-base error. One out later Tris Speaker hit a foul pop up to Fred Merkle at first base. Merkle muffed it. With a second chance Speaker singled to right tying the game. Two batters later Mathewson lost the game and the World Series on a sacrifice fly by Larry Gardner. His Game Score was 64
1913 World Series: Giants lost to the Athletics 4 games to 1
Mathewson started Games 2 and 5
Game 2: The two old rivals, Christy Mathewson and Eddie Plank met for the second time in the Fall Classic in Game 2. The two old pros kept it scoreless through 9 innings when Mathewson himself drove in the first run with a single to center and then scored the second run later in the Giants 3-run outburst. Mathewson set the Athletics down in order in the bottom of the 10th, retiring Eddie Collins and Home Run Baker to finish the job, 3-0 with a Game Score of 80
Game 5: The A’s Plank and Baker got even in Game 5 with Baker contributing two hits and the first two RBIs and Plank tossing a 2-hitter in the Athletics 3-1 Series clinching win. Mathewson’s Game Score was 66.
Christy Mathewson was the starting pitcher in 11 games and 4 World Series. He went all the way in all of them, including some 10 and 11 inning appearances. He was 5-5 but his team won the World Series only once. Most of his losses came at the hands of spotty defense behind him. He had an average Game score of 71.9 and started the most World Series games of the pitchers discussed.
Bob Gibson started nine games in three different Series (1964, 1967, 1968). He pitched a complete game in 8 of the nine starts, posting a record of 7-2 with an ERA of 1.89 in 81 innings. Let’s review those nine starts.
1964 World Series: Cardinals Defeated Yankees 4 games to 3.
Bob Gibson started Games 2, 5, and 7.
Game 2: In Gibson’s first World Series start he was touched for 4 runs in 8 innings and left the game trailing 4-2 in the Cardinals 8-3 loss. He would win his next 7 World Series starts. A Game Score low of 56.
Game 5: In Game 5, Gibson took a 2-0 lead into the bottom of the 9th when Tom Tresh slammed a 2-out, 2-run home run to tie the game. The Cardinals regained the lead on a 3-run home run in the top of the 10th by Tim McCarver and Gibson set the Yanks down in their half for a 5-2 triumph. Gibson’s Game Score was 87.
Game 7: Gibson came back on two days’ rest, and his teammates staked him to a 6-0 lead. He barely hung on in the 7-5 Series clinching win. Gibson was voted World Series MVP. HE had a Game Score of 55
1967 World Series: Cardinals defeated Red Sox 4 games to 3.
Gibson Started Games 1, 4, and 7
Game 1: Gibson was dominant, allowing only six hits and striking out 10, in the Cardinals 2-1 win. His Game Score was 80.
Game 4: Gibson was even better in Game 4. Surrendering 1 walk and 5 hits while fanning 6 in the Cardinals 6-0 whitewashing of the Red Sox and a 3 games to 1 lead in the Series with a Game Score of 82.
Game 7: Boston won Games 5 and 6 so St. Louis Manager Red Schoendienst called on Gibson in Game 7. This time he hurled a 3-hitter and also hit a homerun in the Cardinals Series clinching triumph. Three starts, three dominant complete game victories. Only Christy Mathewson in 1905 was better. The obvious World Series MVP. His Game Score was 80.
1968 World Series: Cardinals lost to the Tigers 4 Games to 3
Gibson started games 1, 4, and 7
Game 1: In Bob Gibson’s signature performance of his career, he faced the Detroit Tigers and their 31-game winner, Denny McLain. McLain only lasted 5 innings. Gibson struck out a record 17 batters (besting Koufax’ record set five years earlier), while surrendering 1 walk and 5 hits in one of the most dominant performances in World Series history. He had an amazing Game Score of 93.
Game 4: While not as overpowering as Game 1, Gibson in Game 4 allowed 5 hits and 1 walk while striking out 10. Cardinals knocked McLain out early in their 10-1 thrashing of the Tigers and another 3-1 lead in the World Series. Gibson’s Game Score was 81.
Game 7: As in 1967, St. Louis again lost Games 5 and 6, setting up another Game 7. Schoendienst again chose Gibson, who had just completed his 7th straight World Series win four days earlier. This match-up was against Mickey Lolich who had won his second World Series Game three days earlier in Game 5. The contest was scoreless through 6, but the Tigers finally got to Gibson. With 2 outs in the 7th the Sox had four straight hits and three runs. Gibson went all the way, but Lolich out-pitched him in the Tigers’ 4-1 clinching victory. Gibson’s Game Score was 62.
Gibson had the highest individual performance with his Game Score 93 in Game 1 of the 1968 World Series. Gibson had a better record than Matthewson and his team earned one more World Series, though they appeared in one less. Gibson, like Matthewson threw entire games (though he came out in the 8th inning in his first appearance). He didn’t have nearly the number of 10 and 11 inning games Matthewson did.
Sandy Koufax started 7 games with one relief in six different World Series (1955, 1956, 1959, 1963, 1965, 1967). He was on the roster but didn’t play in 1955 and 1956 with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Koufax had 4 complete games in his 7 starts and had a 4-3 record with a 0.95 ERA in 57 innings.
1959 World Series: Dodgers defeated the White Sox 4 games to 2
Koufax relieved in Game 1 and started Game 5
Game 1: Koufax threw a scoreless 5th and 6th inning in a game the Dodgers were already behind 11-0 when he entered. 11-0 would be the final score.
Game 5: The Dodgers came back and won the next three games so Dodger manager Walter Alston turned to Koufax in Game 5. Sandy was very good, holding the ChiSox to five hits in his seven innings. The only run he allowed was on a double play ball in the 4th inning. That was enough for Chicago, as they stayed alive with a 1-0 victory. Koufax’s Game Score was 68. This was the most attended World Series ever.
1963 World Series: Dodgers defeated the Yankees 4 games to 0
Koufax started Games 1 and 4
Game 1: Sandy struck out a record 15 Yankees in his 5-2 win with a Game Score of 79.
Game 4: Dodgers completed their 4-game sweep with Koufax again besting Whitey Ford, 2-1. Los Angeles only managed two hits against Whitey, but he was undermined by a 3-base error by Joe Pepitone in the 7th inning which led to the winning run. Mickey Mantle provided all the offense for the mighty Yankees with a mammoth home run against Koufax in the Yankees’ half of the 7th. Sandy struck out Mickey in the 9th in his 2-1 win. Koufax’s Game Score was 79. [Just a note on the Series. The Dodger pitchers completely dominated. The Yankees plated only 4 runs in the four games, so Sandy surrendered 3 of the 4. Despite that, Koufax was the World Series MVP.]
1965 World Series: Dodgers defeated the Twins 4 games to 3
Koufax started Games 2, 5, and 7
Game 2: Declining to pitch Game 1 due to Yom Kipper, Sandy gave up two runs in the 6th inning to fall behind 2-0. Alston pinch hit for him in the 7th and the Dodgers fell two games down after their 5-1 loss. His Game Score was 62 in that loss.
Game 5: The Dodgers won Game 3 and Game 4 to tie the Series. The Dodgers put this one away early as Koufax completely shut down the Twins with a 4-hit 10 strikeout performance. He had an impressive Game Score of 88.
Game 7: Dodger Manager Walter Alston had a tough decision to make prior to Game 7. Does he start Don Drysdale on regular rest or Sandy Koufax on 2-day rest. He chose Koufax. As John Roseboro later wrote “I think Don would have won. I was sure Koufax would.” And he did. In the signature performance of his career, he again blanked the Twins, this time on three hits. The Twins had been shut out only three times in the regular season, and Sandy Koufax blanked them twice in three days! Koufax’s Game Score was 88. [A final note about the deciding game of the 1965 World Series. The Minnesota Twins have participated in three Fall Classics (1965, 1987, 1991). Each went seven games. Their record in road games in their three appearances is 0-9, at home 11-1. The only loss was to the Dodgers and Sandy Koufax in Game 7 in 1965.]
1966 World Series: Dodgers lost to the Orioles 4 games to 0
Koufax started Game 2
Game 2: Facing the Baltimore Orioles and Jim Palmer, the game was scoreless through four innings. That’s when Koufax was undermined by his center fielder. With one out and a man on first, Willie Davis dropped a short fly to center, leaving runners on second and third. The next hitter hit another short fly to center field, and Davis dropped it again, and compounded that by making a wild throw home afterwards. Down 4-0, Alston hit for Koufax in the 6th inning in what would be his final game of his career. He retired in the off season with a final Game Score of 50.
Koufax is forever known in baseball for his clutch playing in the postseason. He averaged a 73.4 Game Score in his World Series appearances. Again, he was a man who threw complete games. However, even his classic, dominating performances didn’t reach the peek of either Gibson nor Matthewson. He won 3 World Series with the Dodgers, one more than Gibson.
Madison Bumgarner started 5 games in three World Series (2010, 2012, 2014). He has one complete game with a record of 4-0 and an ERA of 0.25 in 36 innings.
2010 World Series: Giants defeated Rangers 4 games to 1
Bumgarner started Game 4
Game 4: Bumgarner only pitched one game in this Series. He pitched 8 innings at that appearance, giving up 3 hits while walking 2 and striking out 6 in the Giants 4-0 win. His Game Score was 80.
2012 World Series: Giants defeated the Tigers 4 games to 0
Bumgarner started Game 2
Game 2: Bumgarner, who had struggled in the earlier playoff outings, shut down the Tigers in Game 2. In 7 innings of work he allowed 2 hits and 2 walks while fanning 8 in another shut-out win for the Giants, 2-0 and a Game Score of 79.
2014 World Series: Giants defeated the Royals 4 games to 3
Bumgarner started Games 1 and 5, and relieved in Game 7.
Game 1: Giants scored 3 runs in the first inning and led 7-0 entering the Royals’ half of the 7th inning. Madison gave up a Home Run to Salvador Perez in the 7th and was lifted in the 8th. He struck out 5, while walking 1, and allowed 3 hits in his 7 innings. His Game Score was 71.
Game 5: Bumgarner was superb, hurling a complete game shut-out while holding the Royal to 4 hits in the Giants’ 5-0 win. His Game Score was 87, the second highest behind Gibson’s 93 in 1968.
Game 7: On two days rest Bumgarner entered the game in the 5th inning with the Giants leading, 3-2. He allowed two baserunners (2 singles) in his 5 innings to earn the Save in the decisive Game 7. He was named World Series MVP for his efforts.
Bumgarner’s teams won their series without much stress in the first two wins, only allowing Bumgarner to start once each series. He was great anyway. When they did face pressure in 2014, he had 2 starts and a save with an MVP. He even went a full game, something modern pitchers just don’t do anymore.
So what do we make of the four? 3 of the four were World Series MVP, with both Koufax and Gibson winning two. Mathewson pitched before the award existed, and he undoubtedly would have won it in 1905 (3 complete game shut-outs). He probably would not have won it in 1911, 1912, or 1913. Two of the four made our top ten pitchers of all time (Gibson is 9th, Mathewson 10th), with a third in the top 15 (Koufax would be 14th). Bumgarner did not make that discussion.
Let’s deal with the two easiest to compare first. The two born in 1935 (Gibson in November and Koufax in December). They competed in the same league at roughly the same time. Of Koufax’s 7 starts, 3 were at Dodger Stadium, one of the most pitcher friendly parks of all time, One start was at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, a notoriously bad park for left handed pitchers. One was in Yankee Stadium, a decidedly friendly park for left handers, and two at Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington, Minnesota, a very good hitters park. 5 of Gibson’s 9 starts were in Busch Stadium, a pitcher’s park, but not as extreme as Dodger Stadium. 3 were in hitters’ parks (Fenway and Tiger Stadium) and one in Yankee Stadium, a pitchers park, but much better for lefties than righties. This is a small structural advantage for Koufax.
To make this choice clearer, we’re going to throw out Gibson’s two losses. His first start (4 earned runs in an 8-3 loss) and last start (4 earned runs in a 4-1 loss) in World Series play.
This leaves 7 starts for each, and all of Gibson’s wins.
Koufax 55 IP 4 CG 36 Hits 11 BB 60 Ks 0.98 ERA 2 ShO 4 Wins 3 losses
Gibson 64 IP 7 CG 39 Hits 13 BB 75 Ks 1.27 ERA 1 ShO 7 Wins 0 Losses
Gibson was obviously excellent, but except for the Won/Loss Record, Koufax’ numbers are better.
You add in Gibson’s 2 losses and it looks even worse for Bob. A 1.89 ERA and 7-2 record.
Now let’s look at run support. In Sandy’s 7 starts the Dodgers scored 0, 5, 2, 1, 7, 2, and 0 runs. A total of 17 runs, or 2.4 per game. In Gibson’s 9 starts the Cardinals scored 3, 5, 7, 2, 6, 7, 4, 10, and 1. A total of 45, or 5 runs per game. In Koufax’ three losses he gave up 3 earned runs and the Dodgers did not score a run while he was pitching. They did score one after he was lifted in Game 2 in 1965. This explains Koufax’ pedestrian Won/Loss Record. Koufax’ World Series performances were better, he didn’t have the offense behind him as often as Gibson did.
Bumgarner against Koufax is a different dynamic. Madison pitched in a time when pitchers were not expected to complete their starts. In his 4 starts he only completed one of them. Let’s compare them as with Koufax and Gibson.
Koufax 55 IP 4 CG 36 Hits 11 BB 60 Ks 0.98 ERA 2 ShO 4 Wins 3 Losses
Gibson 64 IP 7 CG 39 Hits 13 BB 75 Ks 1.27 ERA 1 ShO 7 Wins 0 Losses
Bumgarner 34 IP 1 CG 14 Hits 5 BB 31 Ks 0.25 ERA 1 ShO 4 wins 0 Losses
Bumgarner’s ERA is very impressive, the best in history, and his Won/Loss Record is perfect. His problem is he didn’t pitch nearly as much as his Hall of Fame competition. Still, his comparison to Koufax is very close.
Now let’s look at Mathewson:
Mathewson 101.2 IP 10 CG 76 Hits 10 BB 48 Ks 1.15 ERA 4 ShO 5 Wins 5 Losses.
If we dismiss his Won/Loss Record he is clearly the top choice, but should we? In his 11 starts the Giants scored 3, 9, 2, 2, 2, 2, 6, 1, 2, 3, and 1 runs. That’s 33 runs or 3 runs per game, more than Koufax got with the Dodgers, but 2 runs less than Gibson got with the Cardinals (Bumgarner’s Giants scored 4, 2, 7, and 5 or 4.5 runs per game). In his five losses the Giants scored only 8 runs, or 1.6 runs a game. It’s very hard to win at that level, but Mathewson’s ERA in those games and his one No Decision was 1.38.(Koufax’ was 1.42). In Matty’s 5 wins his ERA was 0.25! That’s ridiculous. Unless we issue Mathewson a huge penalty for the era he occupied he’s the choice. Should we?
Average Game Score in World Series play.
- Mathewson 71.9
- Bumgarner 79.3
- Koufax 73.4
- Gibson 75.1
Notes on what “Game Score” is:
Game Score formula (created by Bill James)
• Start with 50 points
• Add 1 point for each out recorded (or 3 points per inning)
• Add 2 points for each inning completed after the fourth
• Add 1 additional point for every strikeout
• Remove 2 points for each hit allowed
• Remove 4 points for each earned run allowed
• Remove 2 points for each unearned run allowed
• Remove 1 point for each walk allowed