There are few things in sports that replicate the pressure of the MLB playoffs, especially for the pitcher on the mound. One mistake can change the course of an entire game or series. Of course, it can go the other way too with some of the top playoff moments in MLB history being top-notch pitching performances.
It’s hard not to remember some of the greatest postseason pitching performances of all time. As difficult as it is to pitch well during the regular season, dominating in the postseason is something entirely different, which is why the greatest postseason pitchers are always held in high esteem.
Best MLB Playoff pitchers
So then who qualifies as being among the best MLB playoff pitchers? Is one amazing game enough or does a pitcher have to put together a long resume to be considered among the greatest postseason pitchers?
Surely, there is room for both, so let’s take a look at some of the greatest postseason pitching performances and the best MLB playoff pitchers of all time.
10. Andrew Miller
Even in a losing effort, Andrew Miller deserves endless credit for what he did for Cleveland during the 2016 postseason. He pitched 19.1 innings across 10 appearances and posted a 1.40 ERA. He looked close to unhittable during that stretch and was probably Cleveland’s biggest weapon during the playoffs.
However, Miller went to the playoffs six other times between 2014 and 2020, racking up 38.2 postseason innings while allowing just four runs for an ERA of 0.93. Even if he hasn’t pitched as many innings as a starter, he’s been dominant in October.
9. Andy Pettitte
If nothing else, Andy Pettitte deserves credit for pitching in the postseason more than any other pitcher. After playing for the Yankees for so long, the southpaw owns the record for most postseason innings pitched with 276.2, as well as 19 playoff wins, which is more than anyone else in MLB history.
Obviously, he wasn’t always at his best and had plenty of poor postseason starts. One could even argue that Pettitte was rarely dominant during the playoffs. But across 44 starts, he owns a 3.81 ERA, which any pitcher would take under any circumstances, especially when facing lineups that made it to the playoffs.
8. Stephen Strasburg
It might have been just one postseason, but Stephen Strasburg was magnificent in it. The Nationals took a lot of heat for not pitching him during the 2012 postseason, but it paid off for them in 2019.
In six appearances, he was 5-0 with a 1.98 ERA. That includes 8.1 innings in Game 6 while holding the Astros to two runs with Washington facing elimination. People forget he was equally good over his previous playoff starts in 2014 and 2017, making him 6-2 with a 1.46 ERA in his postseason career.
7. Jack Morris
Outside of Don Larsen’s perfect game, it may not get much better than what Jack Morris did in Game 6 of the 1991 World Series. He tossed 10 scoreless innings against the Braves with his team facing elimination, leading the Twins to a 1-0 win.
Such a feat would be almost unimaginable today.
That was the fourth game Morris won during that postseason. He was also 3-0 with a 1.80 ERA with two complete games when the Tigers won the 1984 World Series. Overall, his 3.80 ERA over 13 playoff starts isn’t as good as some others, but in the World Series, he’s 4-2 with a 2.96 ERA in seven starts.
6. Jon Lester
Jon Lester has had an incredible career and has been a regular in the postseason. To be fair, he’s had some rough moments in the playoffs, but he was excellent in October early in his career and also good late in his career.
When the Cubs won the World Series in 2016, he was 3-1 with a 2.02 ERA over six appearances. Lester was just as good when the Red Sox won it all in 2013, going 4-1 with a 1.56 ERA over five starts. Across 26 postseason appearances, Lester is 9-7 with a 2.51 ERA with his wins more than outweighing some of his rough postseason moments.
5. Madison Bumgarner
Madison Bumgarner was nothing short of heroic during the 2014 postseason, especially the World Series.
Over his seven appearances in that postseason, he pitched two complete-game shutouts while going 4-1 with a 1.03 ERA. He dominated Kansas City in Game 1 and Game 5 and then came back on short rest to pitch five innings in Game 7 to get the save. One could argue that he almost singlehandedly won the World Series for the Giants.
Just for good measure, he pitched a complete-game shutout in the Wild Card Game two years later in a winner-take-all situation, dropping his postseason ERA to 2.11.
4. John Smoltz
The fact that John Smoltz worked as both a great starting pitcher and a dominant closer during his career puts him in rarefied air. His postseason resume reads the same way, especially since the Braves were constantly making the playoffs.
Ironically, the one year the Braves won the World Series in 1995, Smoltz had arguably his worst postseason performance. However, he also won multiple games in the playoffs in three different years, finishing his postseason career 15-4 with four saves and a 2.67 ERA across 209 innings with 199 strikeouts.
3. Bob Gibson
Oddly enough, Bob Gibson began and ended his World Series career with a pair of losses. But in the seven games he pitched in between, he tossed seven complete games, including two shutouts, and went 7-0. He was a force to be reckoned with during the 1967 World Series, winning three games against the Red Sox, including the decisive Game 7.
A year later, he was nearly as dominant, beating Denny McLain twice while allowing just five hits in each outing. However, he couldn’t quite close out Game 7 with the Cardinals losing. Nevertheless, he was 7-2 with a 1.89 ERA over his nine World Series starts, striking out 92 in 81 innings of work.
2. Mariano Rivera
He was the greatest closer in baseball history and that includes the playoffs. Of course, everybody remembers his blown save in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series, but that’s mostly because he was otherwise automatic, even in the playoffs.
Mariano Rivera was part of five teams that won the World Series, winning ALCS MVP in 2003 in a year that the Yankees didn’t win the World Series and earning World Series MVP honors in 1999.
When all was said and done, Rivera matched his famous jersey number with 42 career postseason saves, as well as the lowest ERA in postseason history at 0.70, and that’s over 96 appearances and 141 innings. It’s safe to say we’ll never see a closer who dominates the regular season or the postseason quite like Rivera did.
1. Sandy Koufax
Sandy Koufax’s postseason numbers are hard for any pitcher to top, although it was his incredible performance during the 1965 World Series that cements his legacy as one of the greatest postseason pitchers.
He pitched a complete-game shutout in Game 5 and did the same in Game 7 on just two days of rest despite limiting the use of his curveball because of elbow pain.
Of course, that was just the fourth time he helped the Dodgers win a World Series and the second time he took home World Series MVP honors. Over the course of those four World Series, Koufax went 4-3 with a 0.95 ERA, throwing four complete games and two shutouts on the game’s biggest stage.
There’s no doubt that Koufax deserves to sit top of the best MLB playoff pitchers ever.
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