The thing about baseball is that you can have the best lineup in the history of the game, but if it runs up against a hot pitcher at the wrong time, it's essentially useless. Nothing happens until the pitcher throws the ball; we're all reacting to him. And when you have a truly great one, it doesn't matter how fantastic a hitter you are: He can get you out regardless. A true ace can be unhittable.
Imagine, then, a tournament of the future, one that transcends space, time and death, in which every franchise had to win one game, with its best pitcher ever, for its own survival. That'd be fun, right? Who would you want throwing in that game? This conversation happens a lot this time of year, when we look ahead to the Wild Card Games, where one dominant pitching performance can change everything. (Remember Madison Bumgarner in 2014 and '16?)
With all of this in mind, we take a look at each franchise's One Game To Live pitcher, the one pitcher, during his one peak season, who you'd put on the mound with it all on the line. You just get to pick one pitcher, and one season, when he was at the height of his game. Who's your pick? Here are mine.
AMERICAN LEAGUE EAST
Blue Jays: 1997 Roger Clemens
21-7, 2.05 ERA, 292 K
As tempting as it might be to pick a Dave Stieb or Roy Halladay season, Clemens was unbelievable in 1997; according to bWAR, this was, in fact, the best season of his career. This was the season in which he won the fourth of his seven Cy Young Awards; he won one each of his two seasons in Toronto. (Clemens was really good.)
Orioles: 1975 Jim Palmer
23-11, 2.09 ERA, 10 shutouts, 323 IP
Palmer was never a huge strikeout pitcher, all told, but as many innings as he pitched, he didn't need to be. This was the second of his three Cy Young Award-winning seasons. Palmer somehow threw 25 complete games.
Rays: 2018 Blake Snell
21-5, 1.90 ERA
Yeah, we'll opt for this year. David Price's 2012 was close, but Snell has struck out more batters a game and may end up even winning more games. And he's pretty much the only starting pitcher on his team!
Red Sox: 2000 Pedro Martinez
18-6, 1.74 ERA, 284 Ks, 2.17 FIP
This was peak Pedro, at the absolute apex of his powers. There may have never been a more viscerally enjoyable pitcher to watch than Martinez at the turn of the century.
Yankees: 1978 Ron Guidry
25-3, 1.74 ERA
Guidry got a relatively late start to his career and battled injuries in his mid-30s, so he never quite had the longevity to be a Hall of Famer. But 1978, at the age of 27, Guidry was as good as any Yankee has ever been.
Indians: 1946 Bob Feller
26-15, 2.18 ERA, 348 K
We'll never know how hard Feller truly threw … but to batters, judging from the numbers, it must have looked about 150 mph.
Royals: 2009 Zack Greinke
16-8, 2.16 ERA, 242 K
It's close between Greinke and a couple of late-1980s Bret Saberhagen seasons, but Greinke's lone Cy Young Award-winning season is probably the call. His ERA actually jumped two runs the next season.
Tigers: 1968 Denny McLain
31-6, 1.96 ERA
Advanced stats would argue this wasn't even McLain's best year, and there are some great Justin Verlander seasons not here, as well as the great 1976 Mark Fidrych year … but 31 wins are 31 wins.
Twins: 2004 Johan Santana
20-6, 2.61 ERA, 265 K
We're not counting the Washington Senators era here, obviously, or it would be any one of about nine Walter Johnson seasons.
White Sox: 1917 Eddie Cicotte
28-12, 1.53 ERA, 346 2/3 IP
Cicotte should have had 30 wins in 1919, but White Sox owner Charles Comiskey ordered him benched so he wouldn't get a 30-win bonus he would be owed. That led, of course, to Cicotte taking money to fix the 1919 World Series, the scandal that would get Cicotte banned from baseball.
Angels: 1977 Nolan Ryan
19-16, 2.77 ERA, 341 K
An argument could be made that teammate Frank Tanana had an even better year in 1977 than Ryan … but with one game to decide the fate of your franchise, you really would rather face Ryan than Tanana?
Astros: 1986 Mike Scott
18-10, 2.22 ERA, 306 K
Apologies to some wonderful Roy Oswalt years, not to mention a couple of great Clemens ones, but Scott was otherworldly in 1986.
Athletics: 1931 Lefty Grove
31-4, 2.06 ERA
Grove threw 27 complete games in 1931 … and notched five saves to boot.
Mariners: 1995 Randy Johnson
18-2, 2.48 ERA, 294 K
One gets shivers just thinking about having Johnson staring down at you during this era. So much hair!
Rangers: 1974 Ferguson Jenkins
25-12, 2.82 ERA, 225 K
Jenkins has always been underappreciated. This was his first, better stint with the team.
NATIONAL LEAGUE EAST
Braves: 1995 Greg Maddux
19-2, 1.63 ERA
Maddux was an absolute magician. It was unfair what he could do while making it look so simple.
Marlins: 1996 Kevin Brown
17-11, 1.89 ERA
Brown's general orneriness had a tendency to mask how dominating a pitcher he could be.
Mets: 1985 Dwight Gooden
24-4, 1.53 ERA, 268 K
Jacob deGrom is Jacob deGrom, and Tom Seaver was Tom Seaver … but no one was ever better than 1985 Dwight Gooden. At the age of 20!
Nationals: 2017 Max Scherzer
16-6, 2.51 ERA, 268 K
We're -- controversially! -- ignoring the Expos and sticking with the Nats here. It's possible this year has, in fact, been better.
Phillies: 1972 Steve Carlton
27-10, 1.97 ERA, 310 K
This was the year after the Cardinals traded him, by the way. And on a Phils team that had 59 wins. Carlton won 46 percent of their games!
Brewers: 1986 Teddy Higuera
20-11, 2.79 ERA
It is very tempting to go with 2008 Carsten Sabathia, who, after all, only made 17 starts.
Cardinals: 1968 Bob Gibson
22-9, 1.12 ERA, 268 K
How in the world did Gibson lose nine games?
Cubs: 1992 Greg Maddux
20-11, 2.18 ERA
Sorry John Clarkson, Pete Alexander and Three Finger Brown, but we had to stick with modern era. So it's Maddux again!
Pirates: 1945 Preacher Roe
14-13, 2.87 ERA
For such a storied franchise, the Pirates don't actually have a ton of incredible individual starting pitching seasons.
Reds: 1993 Jose Rijo
14-9, 2.48 ERA, 227 K
Kids, ask your loud uncle: Rijo is the greatest pitcher no one remembers was a great pitcher.
Video: [email protected]: Big Unit completes Opening Day shutout
D-backs: 2002 Randy Johnson
24-5, 2.32 ERA, 334 K
Somehow, Johnson was 38 when he did this.
Dodgers: 1966 Sandy Koufax
27-9, 1.73 ERA, 317 K
It's probably too late for Clayton Kershaw to ever match this.
Giants: 1908 Christy Mathewson
37-11, 1.43 ERA, 259 K, 42 BB
We make an exception for our "modern era" rule because … jeez, look at the K/BB ratio.
Padres: 1998 Kevin Brown
18-7, 2.38 ERA, 257 K, 49 BB
Bet you didn't imagine seeing Brown on this list twice, did you?
Rockies: 2018 Kyle Freeland
16-7, 2.84 ERA
The only season that's even close is Ubaldo Jimenez's 2010 season … and Freeland may end up having considerably more staying power.