When you mention some of the best pitching duos in Major League Baseball history, you don’t think of the Miami Marlins’ Sandy Alcantara and Pablo Lopez.
But, hey, they are trying to work their way into the conversation.
Some of the best duos in the 21st century include Houston’s Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole in 2019, Los Angeles’ Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke in 2015, and Arizona’s Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling in 2001.
Long-time fans will argue that no duo was better than the Dodgers’ Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale in 1965, or Baltimore’s Mike Cuellar and Jim Palmer in 1970.
All were superb, an adjective used for Alcantara and Lopez in the first three months of this season.
Lopez, a 26-year-old Venezuelan, was the best pitcher on the planet in April, going 3-0 with a ridiculous 0.39 ERA.
Alcantara, 26, was one of the top pitchers in Major League Baseball heading into July and the National League’s Cy Young Award frontrunner. He had an 8-3 record and a league-best 1.95 ERA. He was among the NL leaders in numerous categories.
An injury caused Lopez to slip a bit – he had a 2.98 ERA heading into July – but he and Alcantara have what it takes to make them one of the National League’s most feared one-two pitching punches.
“When he’s rolling, he’s fun to watch,” Marlins manager Don Mattingly said about Alcantara, a hard-throwing righthander from the Dominican Republic. “… And he’s been rolling.”
Alcantara was one of four prospects acquired by the Marlins in the deal that sent Marcell Ozuna to St. Louis in December of 2017. The trade also netted the Fish pitcher Zac Gallen, who was later dealt to Arizona for second baseman/shortstop Jazz Chisholm, now the Marlins’ best position player.
Yes, it turned out to be a great trade for Miami. Alcantara, who had a 3.19 ERA in a league-high 33 starts last year, is deeply respected around the National League.
“I think he’s the best pitcher in the league,” Nationals manager Dave Martinez recently told reporters. “I really do.”
Since becoming a regular in the Marlins’ rotation in 2019, Alcantara has been among the league leaders in innings pitched. Over the last three seasons, his ERA has hovered around 2.80, and he has become the team’s unquestioned ace.
“I’m a guy who doesn’t want to get comfortable,” Alcantara told the Miami Herald. “I just want to keep getting better, step by step.”
Alcantara, who gets an enormous number of groundball outs, has a blazing fastball and an above-average slider, a nasty sinker, and a formidable changeup. He has thrown the changeup more frequently as he has matured.
“He makes you anticipate one pitch, but think about another pitch, too,” said Phillies broadcaster John Kruk after Alcantara’s strong performance against Philadelphia earlier this season.
Lopez was the National League’s pitcher of the month in April. The 6-4, 225-pound righthander struggled after suffering a right wrist contusion when hit by a liner against Houston on June 10.
When he’s clicking, Lopez’s money pitch has been his changeup. It was so effective that Lopez threw it 37 percent of the time in his first 10 starts this season, and opponents hit just .149 against it.
That explains why it has become his put-away pitch when he has two strikes on a hitter. It also explains why Colorado manager Bud Black said Lopez has “arguably the best changeup in the game.”
“Confidence gives you good results,” Lopez said, “and good results give you confidence.”
Lopez, acquired from Seattle in a 2017 package for reliever David Phelps, and Alcantara had lots of good results in the season’s first three months. And maybe, just maybe, they will one day be mentioned with the following duos who put together seasons for the ages in the last 50-plus years:
Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale (1965)
Two words for opponents who faced Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale in 1965.
One word for Koufax: Magnificent. The lefthander led the National League in wins (26), ERA (2.04), complete games (27), strikeouts (382) and WHIP (0.855), along with seven other categories.
Drysdale wasn’t too shabby himself. The big righthander had a 23-12 record and 2.77 ERA. He was first in the NL in games started (42).
Both pitchers finished in the top five in the MVP balloting.
Jim Palmer and Mike Cuellar (1970)
The Orioles are trying to gain respectability in 2022, but they were a powerhouse in the 1970s.
Their rotation was phenomenal, and it was led by lefty Mike Cuellar and righthander Jim Palmer.
In 1970, Cuellar went 24-8 and led the American League in wins, complete games (21) – 21! – and winning percentage (.750).
Palmer was just as good. He notched the first of his eight 20-win seasons that year, finishing first in the AL in shutouts (five), innings pitched (305) and batters faced (1,257).
Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine (1998)
Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine weren’t hard throwers. Instead, they baffled hitters with their pinpoint control and their dazzling off-speed stuff.
Their 1998 season was off the charts.
Glavine, a crafty lefthander, had a 20-6 record with a 2.47 ERA while winning his second NL Cy Young Award.
Maddux was also a deserving candidate. The righthander topped the NL in three categories: ERA (2.22), shutouts (five) and WHIP (0.980).
Here’s a lofty goal for Alcantara and Lopez: Maddux and Glavine finished in the top five in the Cy Young voting 11 times during their 10 seasons together in Atlanta.
Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling (2001)
While Maddux and Glavine were masters with their off-speed stuff, Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling shut down hitters in a more conventional matter: Exploding fastballs.
In 2001, the imposing 6-foot-10 Johnson struck out 372 batters. Repeat: 372 strikeouts. That’s the third-highest total in MLB history.
The lefthander went 21-6 with a 2.49 ERA.
Schilling wasn’t as dominating as he fanned “only” 293, but he also had a sensational season. He had a career-best 22 wins, tops in the NL. He also led the league in games started (35), complete games (six), and innings pitched (256 2/3).
Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke (2015)
Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw put together a season that rivaled the aforementioned year by their dominating Dodgers’ predecessors, Koufax and Drysdale.
Greinke finished with a 19-3 record and led the NL in ERA (1.66), winning percentage (.864), and WHIP (0.84).
Kershaw (16-7), who had the league’s third-best ERA (2.13), topped the NL in strikeouts (301), innings pitched (232 2/3), starts (33, tied for No. 1), complete games (four, tied for No. 1).
Greinke and Kershaw finished second and third, respectively, in the Cy Young race, behind Chicago’s Jake Arrieta (22-6, 1.77 ERA).
Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole (2019)
If you are looking for the best one-season duo in MLB history, you could make a case for Houston Astros aces Justin Verlander (21-6, 2.58) and Gerrit Cole (20-5, 2.50) in 2019. They became just the second teammates to record 300-plus strikeouts in the same season.
They finished the regular season ranked first or second in the American League in wins, ERA, strikeouts and WHIP.
Alcantara and Lopez have lots of work before they can come close to being on a list with the above lights-out duos over the last 50-plus years.
That said, they both already have impressive resumes and, at 26, are climbing the ladder toward stardom.