Max Scherzer doesn’t need more accolades to beef up his already air-tight Hall of Fame resume, but he’s threatening to add “best trade deadline acquisition of all time” to his resume anyway. I’m not sure they’ll be able to find room on the Cooperstown plaque for that one, though.
He’s set to make his 10th start for the Dodgers on Thursday. His first nine have been ridiculously brilliant, even by lofty Scherzer standards. He has a 0.78 ERA in those nine outings, with a 1.35 FIP, 0.655 WHIP and 79 strikeouts in 58 innings, against just seven walks and 31 hits allowed. He recorded his 3,000th strikeout in a Dodgers uniform, in the same game he pitched an immaculate inning — nine pitches, nine strikes, three strikeouts — and carried a perfect game into the eight inning.
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Hell, after typing out those numbers, maybe he’s already earned the “best acquisition” title. He could wrap it up with a few more similar starts and a bit of postseason success. Today, we’re going to look at his competition. First, a few parameters.
We’re just going to look at starting pitchers. That means no Andrew Miller, who had a 1.49 ERA with 76 strikeouts in 48 1/3 innings for Cleveland as he helped lead the club to the 2016 World Series (totals are for regular season and playoffs). And we’re only looking at deals that happened relatively near the trade deadline. That means no Rick Sutcliffe, who was 16-1 with a 2.49 ERA in 20 starts for the 1984 Cubs; that trade happened in mid-June.
And though playoff success is part of this mythical title — part of the reason Scherzer’s title is on hold — regular-season production matters, too. For example, the Royals traded for Johnny Cueto at the 2015 trade deadline and went on to win the World Series, with Cueto’s two-hit gem in Game 2 a huge part of that. But Cueto had just a 4.76 ERA in 13 regular-season starts. To be the best, you pretty much have to dominate everything.
Because, as you’ll see, the competition is intense. Here are the six best.
6. Roy Oswalt to Philadelphia
The trade: July 29, 2010. Traded from Houston to Philadelphia for J.A. Happ, Anthony Gose and Jonathan Villar
The stats: 13 G (12 GS), 1.74 ERA, 3.13 FIP, 0.895 WHIP, 5.8 H/9, Team W/L 10-2 (in GS)
Why he’s here: The Phillies, after winning the 2008 World Series, made a deal for veteran starter Cliff Lee at the 2009 trade deadline and he was very good — 3.39 ERA in 12 starts — but they fell short of winning the World Series that year. So they tried again in 2010, trading for Oswalt, another veteran starter. Fun fact about that trade, 11 years later: Oswalt had a 3.42 ERA in 20 starts for Houston before the deal, and his first one with the Phillies didn’t go so well — he gave up five runs (four earned) in six innings of a game the Phillies lost 8-1 to the Nationals.
That loss left them 3 1/2 behind the Braves in the NL East and 2 1/2 behind the Giants in the wild-card race. Oswalt would only give up more than one earned run in three of his next 11 starts, though, and the Phillies closed the season with a 41-18 record after that loss to the Nats. They won the division for the fourth year in a row, by six games ahead of Atlanta.
October: The Phillies swept the Reds in the NLDS — Oswalt pitched OK, allowing three runs in five innings — and faced the NL West champion Giants in the NLCS. Oswalt started Game 2 and was brilliant, striking out nine and allowing just three hits and a run in eight innings of Philadelphia’s 6-1 victory. He came out of the bullpen for the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 4, with the score tied 5-5. After one out, he gave up back-to-back singles, and a sacrifice fly by Juan Uribe gave the Giants the win. Oswalt started Game 6 and left with the score 2-2 after six innings — one of SF’s runs was unearned — but the Giants scored one in the eighth to win and clinch the trip to the World Series.
5. David Price to Toronto
The trade: July 30, 2015. Traded from Detroit to Toronto for Matthew Boyd, Jairo Labourt and Daniel Norris
The stats: 11 GS, 2.30 ERA, 2.22 FIP, 6.9 H/9, 10.5 K/9, Team W/L 9-2
Why he’s here: This, folks, was a bold trade. The Jays were just a game over .500, at 52-51, when they pulled off this deal (and traded for Troy Tulowitzki in a separate deal). They were six games back in the AL East and two games out of the second AL wild-card spot, in a mix with the Orioles (51-50), Rays (51-52), White Sox (49-51), Tigers (50-52) and Rangers (49-52). But the franchise hadn’t made the postseason since winning the 1993 World Series, so they pushed their chips into the middle of the table.
Price could not have been much better. He allowed zero or one runs in five starts and pitched at least seven full innings in eight starts. Sparked by the trades for Price and Tulowitzki, the Blue Jays went 21-6 in August and 19-11 in September/October to wind up winning the division going away, by six full games.
October: The Jays beat the Rangers in a pretty memorable ALDS — bat flip, anyone? — but lost to the Royals in six games in the ALCS. Price made three starts and pitched into the seventh inning all three times. He also came out of the bullpen to throw three innings of relief in Game 4 of the ALDS.
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4. Doyle Alexander to Detroit
The trade: Aug. 12, 1987. Traded from Atlanta to Detroit for John Smoltz
The stats: 11 GS, 1.53 ERA, 3.20 FIP, 1.008 WHIP, 88 1/3 IP, 63 H, Team W/L 11-0
Why he’s here: Boy, has the narrative changed on this one. Now, it’s seen as the trade that sent future Hall of Famer John Smoltz to Atlanta. And, yeah, that’s a tough pill to swallow. But at the time, the veteran 36-year-old Alexander was exactly what the Tigers needed. Can’t do any better than winning every single game a new pitcher starts, right? And as sparkly as that 1.53 ERA is, that includes four-run games in two of his first three starts with Detroit. In his final eight games of the regular season, Alexander’s ERA was 0.94.
Detroit was in second place in the AL East at the time of the trade, 1 1/2 games behind Toronto. The Tigers were a game back of the Blue Jays when Alexander made his final start, against the Jays, in Game 160. Detroit won that one, 4-3, and the next two, too, to claim the division title. The Tigers were 11-0 when Alexander started, 23-18 when he didn’t.
October: The magic ended in the postseason. Alexander got the ball in Game 1 of the ALCS and pitched into the eighth, but gave up six earned runs and the Tigers lost 8-5. He started Game 5, too, but didn’t make it out of the second inning. Detroit lost to the Twins 9-5 to end the series.
3. Justin Verlander to Houston
The trade: Aug. 31, 2017. Traded from Detroit to Houston with Juan Ramirez for Daz Cameron, Jake Rogers and Franklin Perez
The stats: 5 GS, 1.06 ERA, 2.69 FIP, 0.647 WHIP, 8.6 K/BB, Team W/L 5-0
Why he’s here: This was the “other” trade deadline — the Aug. 31 waiver deadline — but we’re going to allow it. The Astros, after their long rebuilding process, arrived as legitimate World Series contenders in the 2017 season, but the rotation felt like it was missing one piece. Verlander, acquired moments before the deadline, turned out to be that perfect piece.
This one’s harder to rank. On one hand, the Astros won the World Series (though that’s been forever tainted by the sign-stealing scandal that was revealed a few years later). On the other hand, Verlander made less than half as many starts as the others on this list.
October: After dominating in the regular season, he pitched six innings in Game 1 of the ALDS, an 8-2 win against Boston. Then he relieved in Game 4, throwing 2 2/3 innings in what proved to be the series clincher, a 5-4 win for Houston.
Verlander allowed one run in two starts against the Yankees in the ALCS, striking out 21 in 16 innings. He started twice in the World Series against the Dodgers, allowing five runs in 12 innings, while striking out 14. Houston won the series in seven games. His overall postseason ERA that year was 2.21.
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2. Randy Johnson to Houston
The trade: July 31, 1998. Traded from Seattle to Houston for Freddy Garcia, Carlos Guillen and John Halama
The stats: 11 GS, 1.28 ERA, 2.04 FIP, 84 1/3 IP, 116 K, 57 H, Team W/L 11-1
Why he’s here: After a long postseason drought, the Astros had snuck into the 1997 playoffs with 84 wins in a weak NL Central, but the ’98 team was really, really good. Like, visions of winning a World Series good. The Astros were 3 1/2 games up in the division when they traded for the Big Unit, and they paid a huge price. Garcia and Guillen had fantastic careers, and even Halama threw more than 900 big league innings in his career. Johnson was have an OK season with Seattle, owning a 4.33 ERA in 23 starts.
Houston took off when Johnson arrived, building the division lead to double-digits before the end of August. Johnson’s numbers were eye-popping, even by his standards. He had four complete-game shutouts in his 11 starts. He had seven games with double-digit strikeouts, including a his season high of 16 against the Pirates.
October: Johnson started Game 1 of the NLDS and was excellent, striking out nine and allowing two runs in eight innings. But Kevin Brown was brilliant, striking out 16 in eight scoreless innings, and the Padres won 2-1. Johnson started Game 4, with the Astros down 2-1 in the best-of-five series. He was solid again, allowing three hits and two runs (only one earned), with eight strikeouts in six innings. But again, the Houston offense did next to nothing, and the Astros were eliminated with a 6-1 defeat. In their three losses in the NLDS — two started by Johnson — the Astros scored a total of three runs.
1. CC Sabathia to Milwaukee
The trade: July 8, 2008. Traded from Cleveland to Milwaukee for Michael Brantley, Matt LaPorta, Zach Jackson and Rob Bryson
The stats: 17 GS, 1.65 ERA, 2.44 WHIP, 3 SHO, 5.12 K/BB, Team W/L 14-3
Why he’s here: OK, sure, we’re pushing the boundaries of the “near the trade deadline” definition with Sabathia, but it’s impossible to talk about midseason trade impacts without not just talking about Sabathia, but praising Sabathia. His impact on Milwaukee was immediate and overwhelming. Sabathia pushed himself to his physical limits for his new squad, hoisting his teammates up on his shoulders and carrying them into October. He made his final three starts of the season — Sept. 20, 24 and 28 — on three-days rest, and he had an 0.83 ERA in those three starts. In Game 162 of the season, he threw a complete game, beating the Cubs 3-1 on 122 pitches. That win gave the Brewers — a franchise that hadn’t made the playoffs since 1982, when they were an AL team — the NL wild-card spot by one game over the Mets.
October: Sabathia was spent after the regular-season push. He started Game 2 of the NLDS against the Phillies, but was chased in the fourth inning. Milwaukee lost the series in four games. Philadelphia went on to win the World Series.
I don’t even care that the Brewers were one-and-done in the postseason. The reason they traded for the big lefty was to get into the postseason for first time in 26 seasons, and he did exactly that. Sabathia’s impact is what every single GM dreams of when trade-deadline deals are made. He’s No. 1.