The Big Three can refer to Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, and Greg Maddux - three stars who pitched together for the Atlanta Braves. It was also the name given to the Oakland Athletics' trio of aces: Tim Hudson, Barry Zito, and Mark Mulder.
Atlanta: Glavine, Smoltz, Maddux
Both Glavine and Smoltz originally pitched for the Braves in the dog days of the 1980s when they were a terrible team.
Tom Glavine was the first member of Atlanta's "Big Three" to appear for the Braves. The lefty was drafted by Atlanta in the second round of the 1984 amateur draft. He was called up in 1987 and went 2-4 with a 5.54 ERA.
The second piece, John Smoltz, was acquired in 1987 from the Detroit Tigers in exchange for Doyle Alexander. Alexander pitched brilliantly for the Tigers and guided them to the playoffs, but the trade was ultimately a failure as Smoltz would go on to have a stellar career. The Braves called up Smoltz in 1988, his record was 2-7 and his ERA was 5.48.
Greg Maddux pitched for the Chicago Cubs from 1986 to 1992. During his tenure on the North side of Chicago, IL, Maddux made two All-Star teams and won a Cy Young Award. The ace was offered meager contracts by the Cubs and headed south to Atlanta, where he won 20 games and a second Cy Young Award in his first season, 1993.
Smoltz was the first to emerge as a star in Atlanta. The hard throwing right-hander made his first all-star team in 1989. Glavine put up solid numbers in his first few professional seasons, but did not become an ace until 1991. That season, he appeared in the all-star game and won the Cy Young Award. Glavine and Smoltz helped to lead a young Braves team to the 1991 World Series where they lost in seven games to the Minnesota Twins. They guided the Braves back to the Fall Classic in 1992, this time falling in six games to the Toronto Blue Jays.
Those were just the first two seasons in a streak of 14 consecutive division titles. Greg Maddux received the most accolades of the group. In a Braves uniform, Maddux won three Cy Young Awards, ten Gold Gloves, and made six all-star teams.
In 1995, the group led the Braves the the franchise's first World Series title. Maddux led the way with a 19-2 record, 1.63 ERA, and a 0.81 WHIP, a season that ranks among the best of all time. Atlanta returned to the World Series in 1996 and 1999, but lost both to the New York Yankees. 2002 was the last year to feature all three pitchers in a Braves uniform. The team won 101 games, but lost to the San Francisco Giants in the NLDS.
Glavine was the first to leave the Braves, signing with the New York Mets prior to the 2003 season. Maddux was the next to go, returning to the Cubs in 2004. Maddux won his 300th game on August 7, 2004, defeating the San Francisco Giants in San Francisco. Glavine won his 300th game on August 5, 2007 as a member of the Mets.
Smoltz was the last remaining member of the "Big Three" in Atlanta. He spent four seasons as the Braves' closer, logging 154 saves. He returned to a starting role in 2005. In his first two seasons after switching back to the rotation, Smoltz won 30 games and made an All-Star team. He tacked on 14 more wins and made another All-Star team in 2007. After that, he had a lousy stint with the Boston Red Sox in 2009 but then found limited success with the St. Louis Cardinals later that season, including a two-inning relief appearance in the NLDS. Smoltz struck out five in his two innings pitched. He retired after that season.
Glavine, Smoltz, and Maddux helped to build a tradition where there previously was none. The Braves had scuffled for years in Atlanta, posting poor records and a low attendance. The strong rotation changed all of that. Not only did the success of the the "Big Three" win over fans in Georgia, but television viewers across the country who were able to watch the team on TBS. Viewers tuned in to see the aces pitch, and some became fans of the team. Braves fans can now be found across the country.
A number of pitchers served as a complement to Glavine, Smoltz, and Maddux. Steve Avery blossomed as a young left-hander, winning 18 games in 1991 and again in 1993. Denny Neagle won 20 games as the Braves' fourth starter in 1997, and Kevin Millwood had three seasons in which he won 17 or more games with the Braves.
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Oakland: Hudson, Zito, Mulder
Unlike Atlanta's "Big Three", Oakland's group was entirely home-grown. Tim Hudson was drafted in the sixth round of the 1997 amateur draft. He made a big impact in his first major league season, winning 11 games with a 3.23 ERA in 1999.
Barry Zito was the ninth overall pick in the 1999 amateur draft. He too found immediate success in the majors, winning 7 games with a 2.72 ERA for the A's in 2000. He also won a playoff game during his rookie season, giving up just one run in 5 2/3 innings against the New York Yankees
Oakland's "Big Three" guided the team to four consecutive postseason appearances. With the pitching staff's ability to dominate opponents, Billy Beane was able to experiment with creative ways to maximize offensive output with minimal spending. The Athletics won 74 games in 1998, the season before Hudson broke onto the scene. The team won 87 games in 1999, then behind the success of Hudson, Zito, and Mulder, the franchise won 392 games from 2000-2003.
Hudson was the first to make an All-Star team, appearing in the 2000 All-Star Game. Zito made all-star teams in 2002, 2003 and 2006. He also won the group's only Cy Young Award in 2002. Despite winning 21 games in 2001, and 19 in 2002, Mulder's only All-Star appearances with the A's were in 2003 and 2004.
Remarkably, the "Big Three" was never able to lead the A's out of the divisional series. For four straight seasons, the group lost their division series in five games. In two series, the A's even jumped out to a 2-0 series advantage, only to lose the next three games.
Oakland returned to the playoffs in 2006, with Zito as the only remaining member of the old guard. The team swept the Minnesota Twins in the ALDS to advance to the ALCS - something that Hudson, Mulder, and Zito could not do as a group.
Financial constraints forced Oakland to part ways with the "Big Three".2004 Braves| Hudson was the first to go. Oddly, he was traded to the Atlanta Braves in 2004. Mulder was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals in 2005. Barry Zito pitched out his contract with Oakland and left as a free agent following the 2006 season. He signed with the San Francisco Giants for 126 million dollars. He did return to finish his career in Oakland in 2015, although be then he was just a shadow of his former self.
Hudson, Zito and Mulder helped make Oakland competitive, something the franchise had not been since the early 1990s. Their tenure was short, doomed by the realities of baseball economics. On the other hand, the group launched Billy Beane and the statistical revolution to the forefront of the baseball world - but, famously, their key contribution to the team's success is basically overlooked in the best-selling book Moneyball written about the A's of that period. Contrary to the Braves' Big Three, none of the three A's aces has made the Hall of Fame, nor are they particularly compelling candidates, as their careers were generally shorter and less brilliant than their counterparts with the Braves.
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