It is quite possible that, from a purely aesthetic perspective, the Saturday night showdown between Roy Halladay and Tim Lincecum in the opening game of the NLCS will be the apex of the 2010 season. Certainly, the postseason drama, as always, will continue to escalate as the series moves forward. And, regardless of the outcome of Game 1, both teams will still be very much alive. However, you are unlikely to see a high-stakes matchup of better pitchers, in this, or any, postseason. It's hard to imagine a better showcase for the craft of pitching.
For starters, it is not unreasonable to call Halladay and Lincecum the two best pitchers in baseball at this particular moment. Perhaps, I take this too much for granted, as a longtime initiate to the "Cult of Halladay," but Doc was ubiquitously called "the best pitcher in baseball" throughout last offseason and since then all he's done is pitch a perfect game, a playoff no-hitter, lead the NL in wins and innings (among other things), and (probably) win his second Cy Young.
The argument for Lincecum is less clear, as Cliff Lee, Felix Hernandez, and C. C. Sabathia all have reasonably good cases for being called #2, but Lincecum's argument is as strong as anybody's and perhaps he gains a small advantage because a.) he's younger than all but Hernandez and b.) he's yet to show any real sign of weakness, having won Cy Youngs in each of his first two full seasons and likely finishing very high in the voting again this year.
Over the last three seasons, this is how Halladay and Lincecum rank in a number of key pitching categories (among starting pitchers with at least 300 innings during that span).
Wins: Halladay #1, Lincecum #5
ERA: Halladay #1, Lincecum #5
WHIP: Halladay #1, Lincecum #10
Strikeouts: Lincecum #1, Halladay #5
Innings: Halladay #1, Lincecum #7
ERA+: Halladay #1, Lincecum #3
QS%: Lincecum #2, Halladay #4
Shutouts: Halladay #1, Lincecum #3
Complete Games: Halladay #1, Lincecum #14
K/9: Lincecum #1, Halladay #34
BB/9: Halladay #1, Lincecum #67
HR/9: Lincecum #3, Halladay #26
K/BB: Halladay #1, Lincecum #14
OPS Against: Lincecum #1, Halladay #7
OPS+ Against: Lincecum #1, Halladay #4
Wins Above Replacement: Halladay #1, Lincecum #3
Average Game Score: Halladay & Lincecum tied for #1
Whether you favor the Freak over Lee, King Felix, and the Big Sleep is really inconsequential. Pitchers of this caliber just don't get together very often. In the entirety of the 2010 season, there was only one occasion when two of the five pitchers mentioned above took the mound against one another. Sabathia and Halladay squared off in an interleague game in June (Sabathia got the victory, in case you were wondering).
One might expect it to happen more frequently in the playoffs, as teams are more likely to have time to set their rotations and there is a greater preponderance of Aces. However, that isn't necessarily the case. For one thing, the preeminent pitchers in the league aren't always around to participate. We're all aware of Halladay's long suffering. This is Lincecum's first trip to the playoffs as well. Cliff Lee didn't make it until last season and Hernandez still hasn't been. Cy Young and Walter Johnson each got only two shots at championships. Tom Seaver, Bob Gibson, and Warren Spahn just three. Roger Clemens didn't start making annual appearances in October until his mid-thirties, by which point, though still great, he wasn't really at the height of his powers. In recent memory there are only a few duels which rival the one we're anticipating on Saturday.
In the 1998 NLCS, Kevin Brown got the call against Tom Glavine in Game 2. Glavine and Brown would finish 1st and 3rd, respectively, in the NL Cy Young voting that year (with reliever Trevor Hoffman separating them) and both were dead in the center of their primes (it's easy to forget how good Kevin Brown was from '96 to '00). The title "best pitcher in baseball," however, was still a toss up between Greg Maddux and Pedro Martinez, so it isn't quite the same. It was a great game though. Brown tossed a shutout and struck out 11 Braves. Glavine gave up only one run in six innings, but took the loss.
Sadly, Maddux and Martinez never faced each other in the postseason. Maddux did, however, get a shot at Randy Johnson in Game 1 of the 2001 NLCS. Johnson had just earned the third of his four straight NL Cy Youngs and was getting the ball rolling on what would be a notoriously great run of postseason starts. Though Maddux was probably not the same pitcher he was when he won four consecutive Cys, his powers were not dramatically diminished and it would be another four years before he won less than 15 games in a season. This was another game that lived up to its billing. Johnson delivered a three-hit shutout with 11 strikeouts, while Maddux went seven strong and lost 2-0.
Probably the most famous showdown of this variety came in 1963, when on two occasions Sandy Koufax and Whitey Ford, both of whom had led their respective leagues in victories that season, shared the mound for games one and four of the World Series. In the opener, Koufax's infamous 15-K outing, the Dodgers roughed up Ford early and he only lasted five innings. But the finale (it was a Dodgers sweep) saw both pitchers allow just a single earned run. Ford allowed only two hits in seven innings, but a crucial error by Joe Pepitone (who let a throw get away from him on a routine groundout) set up a sacrifice fly, which was all Koufax needed to polish off the '63 Yankees for good.
(Yes, I am implicitly comparing Roy Halladay to Sandy Koufax. No, I don't think it's an exaggeration.)
As was the case for Maddux v. Johnson and, to a lesser extent, for Koufax v. Ford, what makes Lincecum v. Halladay even more exciting is the fact that these two pitchers, though both at the pinnacle of their profession, have dramatically different personalities and pitching styles. Halladay is, of course, famously unflappable. Ever calm and workmanlike, Doc's dedication to routine sometimes makes him seem robotic. In interviews following the no-hitter he threw last week, in his first postseason start, he still spoke in an unwavering monotone. After the final out was recorded, his feet never left the ground, there wasn't so much as a fist pump (the kind of thing which we see from many pitchers at the end of a routine inning). He stood and smiled while Carlos Ruiz and his teammates celebrated his accomplishment giddily, looking all the while a little claustrophobic and uncertain whether it really warranted all the fuss.
Lincecum, on the other hand, is unabashedly emotive. He can't restrain himself from cursing on live television. In the last week he's looked like a kid in the midst of a prolonged sugar rush and the adrenaline even effected his ability to locate his pitches in the first inning of his NLDS start (he got over it quickly, obviously).
As a closer reading of the stats listed above reveals, though both are extremely effective, they go about their business in very different ways. Lincecum is the epitome of the power pitcher. Although he can occasionally finish a game, as he did during the NLDS, he relies heavily on the strikeout and is thus prone to higher pitchcounts and occasional wildness. Halladay is certainly no slouch when it comes to getting a necessary strikeout, but he relies much more heavily on the defense behind him, almost never allows free passes, and takes great pride in finishing games. As a result, of course, he gives up more hits and more homers. Hitters come to the plate knowing he is going to have to throw strikes, so they are prepared to hack. For Halladay, who has extraordinary movement on all his pitches, this often works to his advantage.
Adding even a little more excitement is the fact that Halladay and Lincecum are both streaking right now. Obviously, the are both coming off outings which were among the best in playoff history. You've probably heard all about it. But, it goes back even further than that. Halladay threw a two-hit shutout in his previous outing, to clinch the Phillies division title. He has won each of his last six starts, and from July on is 13-3 with a 2.34 ERA. Lincecum suffered probably the worst month of his young career in August, but rebounded in a major way in September. In his last seven starts he is 6-1 with a 1.60 ERA and 66 K in 51 innings. Clearly, neither is in the mood to lose.
There is, of course, always the possibility that one or both of these dominant Aces won't respond well to the prolonged rest, the hype, or, for whatever reason, won't have their best stuff. We could end up seeing a 10-8 slugfest on Saturday...but I doubt it. This is an extraordinarily rare opportunity to see two superlative players, at the height of their abilities, pitching against each other on the biggest stage.
Or you could watch college football. Jackasses.