The best starting pitcher duos in AL/NL history

March 12th, 2024

Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler have been a force atop the Phillies rotation since teaming up prior to the 2020 season. With each right-hander under contract through at least 2027, they have a shot at becoming the best pitching pairing in Phillies history.

That realization leads to a rather obvious question: Who are the best starting pitcher duos in AL/NL history?

We've come up with a list of 13 twosomes who baffled hitters together for at least five consecutive seasons, and we've ranked them based on individual accomplishments, team performance and long-lasting impact. These duos include Hall of Famers, Cy Young Award winners and World Series champions who could bring any lineup to its knees on back-to-back days.

1. Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, 1956-66 Dodgers
This famed partnership spanned all but 41 2/3 innings of Koufax's legendary career. The first half featured plenty of highlights, including five All-Star appearances and a World Series title in 1958. But it was their run from 1962-66 that really made Koufax and Drysdale an iconic pairing. That five-season span included nine All-Star appearances, four Cy Young Awards -- three of which went to Koufax -- and a combined 2.64 ERA across 2,910 regular-season innings. Koufax pitched a perfect game and won National League MVP honors in '63. He also collected five consecutive ERA titles and three Triple Crowns. The two Hall of Famers guided the Dodgers to World Series titles in '63 and '65, with Koufax earning the MVP Award in each. Koufax and Drysdale went the distance in five of their seven starts during those two Fall Classics and tossed three shutouts.

2. Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, 1993-2002 Braves
Coming off of back-to-back pennants, the Braves' rotation already boasted a duo of future Hall of Famers in Glavine and John Smoltz entering the 1992-93 offseason. Then they added Maddux, the reigning NL Cy Young Award winner, via free agency to form one of the greatest trios the game has seen. Glavine was fantastic during this decade, recording a 132 ERA+ and gaining a Cy Young Award in '98. But Maddux was otherworldly (171 ERA+, three Cy Youngs, four ERA titles). Painting the corners and carving up hitters, these two 300-game winners made at least 33 starts in each full season during their 10-year run, which brought the Braves nine division championships, three league championships and a World Series title in '95. Maddux opened that Fall Classic with a complete-game victory, and Glavine clinched it by allowing only one hit over eight scoreless frames in Game 6.

3. Lefty Gomez and Red Ruffing, 1930-42 Yankees
The Yankees celebrated six World Series championships and six 100-win seasons during this 13-year period. It helps when you have the likes of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio stepping into the batter's box. But the Yanks also dominated on the mound with these Hall of Famers, at least one of whom appeared in each of the first 10 All-Star Games. Gomez was the more dominant hurler as he picked up three strikeout titles and two Triple Crowns ('34 and '37). But as the left-hander dealt with injuries in the late 1930s and early '40s, the righty Ruffing picked up the slack with some of the best work of his career. From 1937-42, he averaged a 130 ERA+ and finished among the top 10 in AL MVP voting three times.

4. Juan Marichal and Gaylord Perry, 1962-71, Giants
The Giants won the pennant in 1962, the year Perry made his MLB debut and the year Marichal began coming into his own as a bona fide ace. They soon became two of baseball's premier workhorses. The Dominican Dandy totaled the most wins (202), complete games (214) and innings (2,805) of any pitcher during this 10-year stretch. Perry finished among the top 10 in each of those categories during the same period even though he didn't become a full-time starter until '66. The future Cooperstown inductees topped 290 innings nine times, combined for 11 All-Star selections -- nine by Marichal -- and threw the first two no-hitters in San Francisco Giants history. Marichal's no-no came in 1963, and Perry's followed five years later.

5. Warren Spahn and Johnny Sain, 1942, 1946-51 Braves
In 1942, Spahn and Sain had just gotten their first taste of MLB action when they decided to enlist in the U.S. Armed Forces during World War II. They spent three seasons away from the game as they served in the Army and Navy, respectively. Upon their return, Spahn and Sain blossomed into multi-time All-Stars and MVP candidates. However, they would probably be ranked lower on this list if not for a poem from a Boston sports columnist in 1948 that would famously link the two together in perpetuity. The Braves made the World Series that year before falling to Cleveland in six games. In 1951, Sain was traded to the Yankees for rookie Lew Burdette. He was largely stellar for 13 years beside Spahn, who owns the fifth-most wins by a pitcher in AL/NL history (363).

6. Early Wynn and Bob Lemon, 1949-57 Cleveland
Lemon made his MLB debut in 1941 as a third baseman. Following three years in the U.S. Navy, he made the transition to pitcher in 1946 and had climbed to the top of Cleveland's World Series-winning rotation by '48, ahead of Bob Feller. Wynn was acquired from Washington that offseason and over the next nine years, he and Lemon piled up 335 wins and matching 118 ERA+ marks. They were named to nine All-Star games, topped the AL in innings five times, and each captured one strikeout crown. In 1954, both finished among the top 10 in AL MVP voting as Cleveland won a franchise-record 111 games and the pennant.

7. Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman, 1967-77 Mets
The 1969 campaign cemented Seaver and Koosman as Mets legends even though each was in only his third big league season. That year saw the 24-year-old Seaver take home his first Cy Young Award. The 26-year-old Koosman recorded a career-best 160 ERA+ over 241 innings and put forth a triumphant, complete-game effort in Game 5 of the '69 Fall Classic, one of the biggest games in franchise history. Koosman was reliably decent over the next eight seasons (110 ERA+, 223 innings per year) while hardly anyone could compete with Seaver's brilliance. Tom Terrific garnered two more Cy Youngs, three ERA titles and led the league in K's five times before he was traded to Cincinnati in the middle of the '77 season.

8. Jim Palmer and Mike Cuellar, 1969-76 Orioles
Game 1 of that aforementioned '69 World Series was highlighted by a matchup between the year's two Cy recipients: Seaver vs. Cuellar. Baltimore's left-hander bested the Mets star, allowing one run in a complete-game win. That was also a bounce-back season for Palmer, who turned in a 2.34 ERA over 181 frames following two injury-marred years. Baltimore won it all in 1970, led again by its top two arms who combined for 602 2/3 innings and 48 complete games in the regular season. They each went the distance once during the five-game Fall Classic vs. the Reds. While Cuellar had a couple of All-Star seasons ahead of him, Palmer would become arguably the top pitcher of the decade. From 1970-76, Palmer claimed three Cy Young Awards and had a 138 ERA+ with six 20-win seasons and two ERA titles.

9. Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain, 2007-2015 Giants
Giants first-round Draft picks in 2005 and 2002, respectively, Lincecum and Cain helped lay the foundation for the club's dynasty during the 2010s. Lincecum -- affectionately known as The Freak -- won the Cy Young in his first full season of 2008, did it again in '09 and paced the NL in strikeouts each year from 2008-10. The duo dominated throughout the 2010 postseason -- Cain didn't give up an earned run through 21 1/3 innings -- en route to the Giants' first World Series title in San Francisco. Lincecum's overall numbers began tailing off in 2012, but Cain remained a horse as he was picked for his third All-Star selection, finished sixth for the Cy Young and pitched a perfect game. More World Series rings were made for them in '12 and '14. Lincecum still showed flashes of greatness during this time, headlined by his two no-hitters.

10. Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, 2015-21 Nationals
From the files of "You can't have too much of a good thing," Scherzer joined the Nats on a seven-year contract in 2015, one year after the team recorded the best starter's ERA in the Majors. And thus, two of the best power pitchers of their time joined forces. Scherzer authored two no-hitters in his first season with Washington, and then the 2013 AL Cy Young Award winner received that honor in the NL in 2016 and '17. Injuries limited Strasburg throughout their time together, but the former No. 1 overall pick put it all together in 2019, recording a career-high 251 K's through 209 innings. Strasburg took his game to another level in the postseason, notching 47 strikeouts to only four walks in 36 1/3 frames. The Nationals knocked off the Astros in seven games for their first World Series championship, and Strasburg was named Fall Classic MVP.

11. Fernando Valenzuela and Bob Welch, 1980-87 Dodgers
Welch had a solid season at age 23 in 1980, going 14-9 with a 3.29 ERA over 213 2/3 innings and earning an All-Star selection. But that paled in comparison with what was to come. Fernandomania swept across the baseball world in '81 as the 20-year-old native of Mexico became the first -- and to date, the only -- pitcher to win the Rookie of the Year Award and the Cy Young in the same season. Valenzuela kept rolling in the postseason and ultimately led the Dodgers to a World Series title. He was an All-Star in each of the next five seasons and finished among the top three in NL Cy Young voting three times. Welch, who sent the Dodgers to that World Series by recording the final out after Valenzuela had thrown 8 2/3 innings against the Expos in winner-take-all NLCS Game 5, averaged a 114 ERA+ and 202 innings pitched from 1981-87.

12. Nolan Ryan and Frank Tanana, 1973-79 Angels
Tanana pitched 20 of his 21 seasons in the American League and led the Junior Circuit in K's only once. It came when he sat down 269 batters for the Angels in 1975. You'll never guess who was atop that AL leaderboard every other year from 1972-79. Ryan arrived in Anaheim the season before Tanana made his big league debut in '73. That campaign featured the first of Ryan's seven no-hitters and his 383 K's, a Modern Era record. Within a few years, both pitchers were Angels All-Stars. Tanana made three trips to the Midsummer Classic while Ryan made four with California before signing with Houston in free agency. Their last season together, 1979, concluded with the Angels' first division title.

13. Tim Hudson and Barry Zito, 2000-04 A’s
The A's made the postseason each year from 2000-03 thanks in large part to their trio of young, homegrown starters: Hudson, Zito and Mark Mulder. The Big Three all had big seasons, but Hudson and Zito get top billing here as they were a little more productive over this five-season span. Hudson, a 20-game winner in 2000, exceeded 200 innings four times and compiled a 135 ERA+. Zito, who produced a 130 ERA+, became the fifth Oakland A's player to win the Cy Young, when he registered a 2.75 ERA through 229 1/3 innings in 2002.