Best Pitching Acquisition

24 years ago, the Chicago Cubs acquired Rick Sutcliffe from the Indians during the summer to bolster their rotation – he made 20 starts, went 16-1, and won the N.L. Cy Young award. It’s generally considered the best midseason pitching acquisition in baseball history, but with CC Sabathia throwing another complete game last night for Milwaukee, it’s an issue worth revisiting.

Let’s take a look a deeper look at the three contenders for the crown:

1984 Sutcliffe: 150 1/3 IP, 3.97 K/BB, 0.54 HR/9, 2.28 FIP, 1.52 WPA/LI
1988 Randy Johnson: 84 1/3 IP, 4.46 K/BB, 0.43 HR/9, 2.04 FIP, 2.62 WPA/LI
2008 Sabathia: 73 IP, 4.60 K/9, 0.49 HR/9, 2.59 FIP, 2.06 WPA/LI

Sutcliffe gets the award for quantity, piling up the innings in his 20 starts as a Cub, but he can’t touch Randy Johnson’s remarkable dominance on a pitch-by-pitch basis. After the Astros picked him up, The Big Unit was absolutely unhittable, throwing four complete game shutouts in his eleven starts. His WPA/LI mark is absurd considering that it covers just 11 starts – Tim Lincecum has piled up a 2.62 WPA/LI in his 25 starts this season, and he’s one of the top contenders for the Cy Young award.

Based on the linear weights method that WPA/LI represents, it appears clear that Johnson outpitched Sutcliffe even with the innings discrepancy. Sabathia probably won’t equal Johnson’s brilliance, but if he continues to pitch at the level he has since arriving in Milwaukee, he’ll get close, and he’s certainly put himself in the discussion. This trade couldn’t have gone any better for the Brewers.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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In 1998 Randy Johnson was ridiculous with the Astros. I was able to go to only one of his starts, but the Dome was going crazy. He just dominated everyone. He helped propel us to our first, and only, 100+ win season. That was great to watch. Based on those numbers, it seems hard for anyone to top the Big Unit, and don’t forget he was striking people out like crazy; 12.4 K/9 in those 11 starts.