A Spin on the Rotations: The Best Ever

Stephen Strasburg is part of one of the best World Series rotations in recent memory. (via slgckgc)

News flash: Gerrit Cole, Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke of the American League champion Houston Astros are among the best starting pitchers in baseball. So are Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin, the top three starters for the National League pennant-winning Washington Nationals.

Tell me something I don’t know, you say. Okay, here’s something. Based on the current year’s record, these six go into the World Series as, cumulatively, the best one-through-three rotation combinations in major league history. Ever.

MadduxSmoltzGlavine, in their best years, never matched up against an equally accomplished threesome in a World Series. Nor did PalmerMcNallyCuellar, or KoufaxDrysdaleSutton, or MussinaPettitteClemens.

Now, where are am I getting these claims? I confess to sometimes being lost in many of the complex calculations of current baseball math. But, as my first-grade teacher, Mrs. Morrison, could have attested (she’d be about 110 now), I know my numbers.

Which numbers? The number of the pitchers’ wins doesn’t prove anything for myriad reasons, not the least of which is that Cy Young, who won 28 games in the first year of the World Series, pitched 342 innings; 20-game winner Cole threw 212 innings this year. Earned run averages don’t do it for us, being so dependent on the context of the time, defense and luck; Bob Gibson’s 1.12 in 1968 was scads better than his contemporaries’, but that was in a year in which major league batters collectively hit .237. This year they hit a sphere that has the properties of a Titleist Pro V1. FIP is better, so we could use it, or FIP-, which shows how much a pitcher’s performance in this category exceeded or trailed his peers’ that year.

But most useful is WAR, which starts with FIP and moves on; FanGraphs’ definition sums it up as “all-inclusive and provides a useful reference point for comparing players.” So that’s what I’m using here (the FanGraphs version), looking at Series pitchers’ same-year WAR compared to their fellow pitchers that season. Backing my methodology, FanGraphs alumnus Ero Sarris, now a numbers guru at The Athletic, writes that we’re seeing “six of the top 13 pitchers in baseball.” So there.

Cole had the highest pitcher WAR in the majors in 2019 at 7.4. It’s not unprecedented that a World Series team has the most accomplished pitcher of the season. But this is close to unprecedented: Cole and his fellow No. 1 and No. 2 aces – Scherzer, Verlander, and Strasburg – all were among the top seven. That’s happened just once before in all the World Series going back to the first one in 1903.

What’s more, the third starters, Greinke and Corbin, ranked ninth and 13th, respectively. That sixsome is unmatched through the years.

Looking back, it’s apparent that few Series match-ups came close in terms of dominating starting pitchers. This kind of overall mound excellence has been particularly rare in recent years. Only two in this century are near comparable.

One was 2005, when the Astros’ Roy Oswalt (fifth in WAR), Roger Clemens (sixth), and Andy Pettitte (eighth) were about equivalent by this measure to the 2019 version. The White Sox had Mark Buehrle (seventh), Freddy Garcia (21st), and no one else close. Defying the numbers, the White Sox swept.

But 2001 featured the only six pitchers who could approximate what the Astros’ and Nats’ trios can offer this year. The result might – or might not – be instructive. Let’s look. The Yanks had a top three of Mussina (third in WAR), Pettitte (seventh) and Clemens (ninth), impressive enough. The Diamondbacks’ aces, Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, were one-two, but their third-best starter was Miguel Batista, at No. 90 no match for all these Hall of Fame candidates.

No problem, said Arizona. The D-backs started either Johnson or Schilling five times in the seven-game series. Johnson won three games, including the clincher in relief, Schilling the other one. Both lived up to their regular-season WAR ranking.

The World War II years produced almost annual Series match-ups of leading pitchers as the call of military service took many top performers. In 1943, for example, the NL champion Cardinals’ Mort Cooper and Max Lanier were two-three in WAR, behind only Spud Chandler of the Yankees, who won the AL pennant with him, Butch Wensloff (No. 10; yeah, I’d never heard of him, either) and Hank Borowy (19) in the rotation. The Cards had nobody dominant behind their one-two and lost in five games.

The 1937 and ‘38 Yankees had the superb Lefty Gomez and Red Ruffing (each top-seven in WAR both years). In the first of those years, they faced the Giants’ Cliff Melton (fourth) and Carl Hubbell (eighth). Neither team had another starter of note. In ‘38, New York’s opponents were the Cubs, with Bill Lee (seventh) and Clay Bryant (ninth), again with a dropoff in rotation quality for both teams. The Yanks won both Series easily, with Gomez and Ruffing getting six of the eight wins.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

The last time Washington had a team in the World Series was 1933, when the Senators’ best by WAR were Alvin Crowder (seventh in the majors) and Earl Whitehill (11th). The Giants had Hubbell, second-best in the majors that year and no one else in the top 30. But Hubbell started twice, won twice, and gave up zero earned runs in 20 innings. Giants in five.

Lefty Grove and George Earnshaw were a fine one-two punch for the Philadelphia Athletics’ pennant winners of 1929 through 1931, in the top dozen of WAR leaders each of those seasons. They had their closest match, WAR-wise, when the Cubs brought Pat Malone and Charley Root, similarly ranked, to the ‘29 Series. The A’s won that year and the next, but in 1931 were ambushed by a Cardinals rotation starring Burleigh Grimes, their fourth-best pitcher that season.

Enough old history. Let’s return to recent generations’ best-known combinations. The best pennant-winning season for the Braves’ elite threesome of Smoltz, Maddux, and Glavine was 1996, when they were first, second and 12th, respectively, in the majors by WAR. Those Braves lost the World Series to a Yankees team that had only Pettitte in the top 59. The previous year, Atlanta’s big three had been almost as good but had as opponents an undistinguished Cleveland starting staff headed by Dennis Martinez. That bunch of Braves appeared again in the 1999 World Series, better on paper than that year’s Yankees rotation, but ultimately getting swept.

The 1966 Dodgers featured four top-17 starters: Koufax, Claude Osteen, Sutton, and Drysdale. That year’s World Series produced a historic display of pitching excellence – by the Baltimore Orioles, who allowed the Dodgers a total of two runs in a four-game sweep. You couldn’t have seen that coming by looking at a regular season in which Baltimore’s WAR leader was McNally, ranked 27th in the majors.

McNally, in turn, would be one of the headliners for several years of Orioles pitching success. He, Palmer and Cuellar would peak in 1970, all among the best 14 starters in the majors that year. In the Series, though, the Cincinnati Reds were no match; No. 37 Gary Nolan was the best they had, and the Orioles won in five games.

Back to the top. This World Series features historically good starting pitching. The numbers say that will be the theme that prevails. But I draw your attention to one more week in history. The 1954 Cleveland Indians had three of the majors’ top 10 pitchers that year in Bob Lemon, Early Wynn, and Mike Garcia. Those guys started all four games of the World Series against the New York Giants – and among them gave up 18 runs in 25 innings. The Giants swept.

As they say in the mutual fund brochures, past performance is no guarantee.

Joe Distelheim is a retired newspaper editor whose career included stints as sports editor of The Charlotte Observer and Detroit Free Press. He co-authored Cubs: From Tinker to Banks to Sandberg to Today.
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4 years ago

Oswalt, Petite, and Clemens pitched for the Astros in 2005, not the Yankees.

4 years ago

I’m guessing you meant Bill Lee (not Spaceman), not Cliff Lee the outfielder who retired in 1926

4 years ago

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