Last Tuesday I was fortunate enough to watch the film Facing Ryan. It is a documentary about the career of the great right-handed pitcher, Nolan Ryan. He is undoubtedly a legend of the game. He is the all-time strikeout record holder among his achievements, and he pitched a record seven no-hitters. One of the most notable aspects of his career was his longevity; he made his major league debut in 1966 when he was 19 and managed to pitch until his retirement in 1993 at age 46. He managed to pitch through multiple baseball generations. On September 22, 1993, Nolan Ryan threw his final major league game, and hitting fourth in the lineup for the opposing Seattle Mariners was Ken Griffey Jr. who was born on November 21, 1969. In other words, Ryan had been in major leagues since before Ken Griffey Jr. was born. Now, this isn’t about the marvel that is Nolan Ryan, but rather it had me thinking about the matchups across generations I would have loved to have seen. Some might be guys who were before my time, and some are guys who were from different times where a matchup would have just been a dream.
The first one is quite specific. I would love to see 1919 Babe Ruth face off against 2021 Shohei Ohtani. The reason I am specific to the years is this is the final season where Babe Ruth is still really a pitcher. He started 15 games on the mound that year. Shohei Otani made 23 starts last season. Babe Ruth led the American League with 29 homers in 1919, whereas Shohei Ohtani hit 46 homers, two behind co-leaders Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Salvador Perez. The thing I would love to see is how they fared facing each other as both hitters and pitchers. Shohei is bigger and stronger between the two, but Babe has the aura. Let’s see who would win out.
A matchup from before my time would have been to see Satchel Paige pitching to Josh Gibson. These are widely regarded as the greatest pitcher facing off against the greatest power hitter in the history of the Negro Leagues. No one knows for sure how many home runs Josh Gibson hit, but he is credited with a career slugging percentage of .720. Satchel Paige didn’t make his major league debut until 1948 when he was 41 years old. He still pitched to a 2.48 ERA in his “rookie” year. 1936 Josh Gibson slugged .974 (!), so let that version square off against 1934 Satchel Paige, the owner of a 1.54 ERA. It was the clash of the titans when these two legends squared off against one another.
A matchup between Barry Bonds and Sandy Koufax would be a cause to stop what I was doing and tune in. Koufax is viewed as the best left-handed pitcher of all time, possibly the greatest pitcher ever. Bonds is the all-time record holder for the most home runs so that alone makes this intriguing. 1965 Koufax is the version I would use since that is the season he set the then-record of 382 strikeouts. He made 41 starts and has 27 complete games (wonder why his career was so short?). 2001 Bonds is the choice here since he set the single-season home run record of 73. He slugged .863 and walked 177 times; teams really didn’t want to deal with him and paid the price when they did. Peak Sandy and peak Barry. What is not to like?
I saw Greg Maddux pitch plenty of times. He is one of the most cerebral pitchers I have ever seen. He knew what you were looking for, and you didn’t get it. He didn’t throw hard but had pinpoint control and some of the best movement I have seen. Conversely, Ted Williams was done playing before I was born. He wrote a book called “The Science of Hitting” that contains hitting theories that were almost anachronistic. In 1941 Williams, the season Williams hit .406. I would love to see this version matched up with 1995 Greg Maddux. Maddux had a WH/IP of .811; he walked only 23 of the 785 batters he faced. These two might have been the ultimate chess match if they would have ever matched up.
One final matchup which would intrigue me would be between Pedro Martinez and Ty Cobb. Cobb has the highest lifetime batting average of all time at .366. Martinez retired with an ERA+ of 154, meaning he was 54% better than the league average for his career. I would love to see the 1911 Cobb; he hit .419 for the season squared off against 1999 Martinez. That version of Pedro might have had the best fastball, curveball, and changeup all at the same time. Would Cobb’s version of small ball and making contact have been successful against Martinez. The subtext would have added another layer to it. Cobb was known to play hard, bordering on dirty. Martinez had no compunction when it came to knocking batters down, and if they were hit it didn’t bother him either.
I can have dream matchups all day. I have been fortunate enough to witness my fair share. But to see the elite at their peak is when it is really special.