What’s the Blueprint? - pt. 3

added 6/14/2005 by Scott Barzilla

Columnist note: I noticed when my last column went to press that it said that Reggie Sanders was with the Reds. Of course, he hasn’t been with the Reds for many years. I think I meant to say Redbirds, but the error was embarrassing. At any rate, in this edition we will be looking at great rotations in history. The list will probably surprise you.

This is really my favorite type of column to write. When your team is in last place and there seems to be no end to the bickering and fighting among fans as to why they’re in last place, it feels good to look back at history. In this edition, we will be looking at the top eight rotations in baseball history. Our rules are the same as last time. Each of these rotations are a part of clubs that won at least three pennants in a five year period. I’m sure if you scour baseball-reference.com you can find some rotations better than this. However, those rotations may not have been together as long as the principles in each of these rotations.

Before we get going I think it is important to point out what we are looking for. Last time, we looked at balance within the lineup. This time we’re looking at balance within the pitching staff and any other commonalities we can find in the data. Dozens of rotations have had one really good or great pitcher. An Astros fan emailed me and asked me before the season why we should care who the fifth starter will be. It doesn’t matter right? Well, if you take the combined record of Brandon Duckworth, Ezekiel Astacio, and Wandy Rodriguez you can see why it matters.

Every rotation in 20th century has had at least five starters start for them even if they went with a “four man rotation”. We will go five starters deep with each of these rotations and look at the following: neutral record of the staff, percentage of starts made, ERA+, and RSAA. Of course, each of these deserves explanation.

Neutral record is something Lee Sinins developed to approximate what a pitcher’s record would have been if had average run support. With these great teams it’s easy to compile gaudy records. Without neutral records we would have included the 1998 Yankees and could have even broken the rules to include the 2001 Mariners. Neutral records (and percentages) isolates which part of a pitcher’s record was pitcher quality and which part was excellent run support.

With percentage of starts made we are simply looking at the percentage of starts the top five pitchers made. As we pointed out with the Astros fifth starters, success decreases with each additional starter you have to throw on the mound. Even the Yankees can’t afford to go seven or eight starters deep. The higher the percentage the more those core starters controlled what happened on the mound.

ERA+ is a statistic that can be found at baseball-reference.com. It uses the league average and park factors to calculate what percentage a pitcher is above or below the league average in ERA. Any score above 100 is considered to be good while scores below 100 are considered to be bad.

Finally, we have RSAA or runs saved above average. This is similar to ERA+, but it is simply expressed as a number of runs. Those of you familiar with Total Baseball will recognize that this is the same as Pete Palmer’s pitcher runs. Now we will begin, the teams will be listed in chronological order.

                    NW      NL       PCT     SMPCT      ERA+    RSAA 
1906 Cubs           87      34      .719      81.6      170      132
1910 Athletics      90      46      .662      95.3      137      105
1912 Giants         84	    43      .661      92.1      141      136
1915 Red Sox        78      44      .639      86.1      144       87
1942 Cardinals      68      35      .660      75.3      141      111
1966 Dodgers        77      49      .611     100.0      128       87
1969 Orioles        70      45      .609      95.7      122       85
1998 Braves         82      43      .656      94.4      146      140

Composite           79.5    42.4    .652      90.1      141      110

Again, we cannot expect any rotation today to be equal to these, but we can take what they have in common and apply those principles. These rotations reached their heights in large part because of serendipity. The Dodgers rotation had three Hall of Famers in it (Koufax, Drysdale, and Sutton) and it is one of the worst rotations we’re looking at. The Cardinals and Red Sox rotation did not have any Hall of Fame performers (of course the 1915 Red Sox had Babe Ruth, but we can all agree that he is in the Hall of Fame for his hitting).

Of course, we cannot really find the commonalities until we break these rotations down. I don’t want to break down all eight and you don’t want to read that much. Like last time, I will find a few that fit the bill. In this case, there are three that stick out: the 1906 Cubs, the 1912 Giants, and 1998 Braves.

1906 Cubs

When you ask most fans which club has the best winning percentage in the 20th century their usual answer is the 1927 Yankees. Actually, the 1906 Cubs .763 eclipses the Yankees .714 winning percentage in 1927 (and .704 percentage in 1998). Even the Mariners amazing 2001 season fell well short with a .716 winning percentage. Most observers believe it was the Cubs pitching staff that threw them over the top that season.

                 NW  NL    PCT    GS  ERA+ RSAA  HOF
T.F. Brown       27   5   .844	  32   253   50  Yes
Jack Pfiester    21   7   .750	  29   174   32   No
Ed Reulbach      16   7   .696	  24   159   25   No
Carl Lundgren    13  10   .565	  24   119   11   No
Jack Taylor      10   5   .667	  15   143   14   No

The main reason I like the Cubs’ staff is that they look more like a modern staff than many modern staffs. None of their pitchers went over 300 innings even though Three Finger Brown served as the club’s closer in addition to being their ace. They are also the only staff here to have all of their starters at least ten percent above the league average in ERA+ and with more than ten RSAA.

Ironically, this extends beyond the top five starters to Orval Overall the team’s sixth starter. He started fourteen games and compiled a 12-3 real record. He had the same 10-5 neutral record as Jack Taylor and almost as many RSAA with 13. If you include him in the team’s total starts they would have had more than ninety percent.

Most people think Brown made the Cubs and it certainly is nice to have a pitcher that dominant on top of the rotation, but the real catalysts are the guys at the bottom of the rotation that kept it going. You cannot win 116 games with only once ace. You have to have guys all through the rotation capable of dominating. The Cubs had six such starters and that is why they could be the best rotation in history.

1912 Giants

If there is one word to describe the 1912 Giants rotation it is serendipity. Everyone knows about Christy Mathewson, but he was not as dominant at this point in his career as he was in the aughts. The real stars were Rube Marquard and Jeff Tesreau. Of course, Marquard is in the Hall of Fame, but every baseball historian readily admits that was a mistake. He got into the Hall of Fame largely because of this season. He set the record for consecutive victories and made it to Broadway and a rocky marriage on those exploits.

Tesreau was a good pitcher for two years and a solid one for three more. The Giants just happened to get lucky that all of these things happened to fall into place at the same time. There is nothing in the rulebook outlawing luck and every great team needs at least a bit of it to be great.

                    NW NL   PCT   GS   ERA+ RSAA  HOF
Christy Mathewson   25 10  .714   34   131    45  Yes
Rube Marquard       23 14  .622   38   159    28  Yes
Jeff Tesreau        18  6  .750   28   171    40   No
Red Ames            10  6  .625   22   137    19   No
Hooks Wiltse         8  7  .533   17   107     4   No

If you are a little into baseball history you may have heard of Red Ames. He had a decent career where he won 187 games (191 neutral wins). He got off to a promising start in his career with a 22-8 record in 1905 at age 22, but the 16-14 neutral record should have warned people at the time that he wouldn’t be the star they projected him to be. Wiltse was only 31 in 1912, but he was at the end of the line. He had two twenty seasons before, but twenty win seasons in the aughts were a dime a dozen.

Like the Cubs, the Giants had a decent sixth starter to pick up the slack for those missing starts. Doc Crandall had -3 RSAA in his ten starts and 27 relief outings and his 10-10 neutral record is certainly not on par with Overall of the Cubs, but it is certainly better than a lot of people in his situation. In many instances, it is the guys at the end of the bench and rotation that spell the difference between 95 wins and 110 wins.

1998 Braves

Finally we get to a team all of us can remember. One of the interesting things about this team is that they have a link with the 1927 Yankees, but could not get past the Padres in the NLCS. Sometimes the best constructed teams can’t win it all. The 1906 Cubs lost to the “Hitless Wonders” White Sox and the Cubs may have been the best team in the century.

ESPN.com started something around this time called “the Beane Count”. It was named after controversial general manager Billy Beane. Beane believed you could predict a team’s success or failure based on the ratio of home runs hit and surrendered. Here are the 1927 Yankees and the 1998 Braves compared

           HR  HRA   DIFF           
Braves    215  117    +98	      
Yankees   158   42   +116	     

The Yankees are the king, but the Braves came close in home run ratio. The big surprise is on both ends of the scale. The Braves were never known for their offensive exploits during this period, but they brought the heavy lumber in 1998. Limiting the league to 117 clouts is pretty impressive in “The Year of the Homer”. Well, enough history, let’s look at the staff.

                 NW  NL   PCT   GS  ERA+ RSAA        HOF
Greg Maddux      21   6  .778   34  191    55   Probably	
Tom Glavine      19   7  .731   33  171    44   Probably
Denny Neagle     16  11  .593   31  119    15         No
Kevin Millwood   13  12  .520   29  104     2         No
John Smoltz      13   7  .650   26  146    24      Maybe

Again, people will miss the point if they focus on Maddux and Glavine. Yes, they are sure Hall of Famers and they had great seasons, but they aren’t the reason why this staff is so good. You can throw John Smoltz into the group and put him in the Hall of Fame, but you’re only getting warmer. The key to this staff was Kevin Millwood and Denny Neagle.

Currently, Millwood is still trying to find his groove in Cleveland while Neagle is trying to save his career and marriage in Denver. Incidentally, why would anyone in their prime actually choose to go to Coors Field? It seems that city has ruined or temporarily derailed more careers than any other stadium.

Neagle and Millwood both had very good seasons in their career outside of 1998, but this still has to be considered good luck that they both performed this particular season. The fact that Maddux and Glavine turned in great seasons as well seals the deal. Smoltz was the only one not to live up to expectations (mainly because of health), but you can’t have the perfect rotation. Dennis Martinez qualifies as the sixth starter for the Braves in 1998 with five starts. When the all-time winningest Latino pitcher is your sixth starter you know you are a good team.

What have we learned?

I hope what we’ve learned that the best rotations were as great as they were because of their depth and not because of what they had on top. Similar rotations in history (2001 Mariners, 1998 Yankees, 1939 Yankees, and 1986 Mets) all had depth as well. If we put together this series of columns we’ve learned that depth is more important than concentrated greatness.

The pathway to greatness is not as bumpy as it might otherwise seem. You don’t have to go out and spend 120 million dollars like the Red Sox and Yankees have. The key is to remember that six good players are worth more in many instances than three great ones. Similarly, four good starters are definitely worth more than two great ones. Next time we will look at the Astros long-term prospects in the rotation and what they can do in 2006 to mirror those great rotations.

Scott Barzilla is the author of “Checks and Imbalances” and “The State of Baseball Management.”