A's, Tigers join derby for best all-time rotation
Trade Deadline deals to acquire aces could put both teams' starters in the conversation
David Price makes his first start for the Tigers tonight at Yankee Stadium, and Jon Lester is only one start into his tenure with the A's.
So it's too soon to know whether last week's trades involving those two top-flight pitchers will impact the bids for a World Series ring in Detroit and Oakland, let alone whether we can count either team's rotation among the best of all-time.
That said, a little statistical perspective is in order. The Tigers are now fielding a rotation with the past three Cy Young Award winners, and the A's, in trading for Lester, Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel, grabbed three of the best arms available in the trade market. Could theirs be two of the deeper rotations ever assembled?
Here's what these Tigers and A's rotations look like right now, sorted by each player's 2014 Wins Above Replacement (entering Monday):
Tigers: Max Scherzer (4.2), Rick Porcello (4.0), Price (2.6), Anibal Sanchez (2.4) and Justin Verlander (0.6).
A's: Scott Kazmir (3.2), Sonny Gray (3.1), Lester (3.0), Samardzija (2.6) and Hammel (2.4)
This gives both clubs an outside shot at finishing the season with four guys with WAR marks of 4.0 or higher. Only six teams in the live-ball era have boasted such a collection:
• 1961 Dodgers (Don Drysdale, Sandy Koufax, Johnny Podres and Stan Williams)
• 1967 Twins (Dean Chance, Jim Kaat, Jim Merritt and Dave Boswell)
• 1967 Reds (Jim Maloney, Gary Nolan, Milt Pappas and Mel Queen)
• 1991 Braves (Steve Avery, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Charlie Leibrandt)
• 1997 Braves (Glavine, Smoltz, Greg Maddux and Denny Neagle)
• 2013 Tigers (Sanchez, Scherzer, Verlander and Doug Fister).
Now, not all of those rotations cracked our list of the best all-time, which -- like all lists of this nature -- blends the statistical with the subjective. But it certainly gives the Tigers and A's something to shoot for.
Here's our list:
15. 1972 A's: Catfish Hunter (2.04), Blue Moon Odom (2.50), Ken Holtzman (2.51), Vida Blue (2.80), Dave Hamilton (2.93).
Hunter, Odom and Holtzman all finished in the top 10 in American League starters' ERA. Blue and Hamilton fell short of qualifying but were obviously quite good. If you're counting, that's five guys with an ERA under 3.00. Even at a time when the AL average was 3.09, that's not too shabby.
14. 1927 Yankees: Waite Hoyt (22-7, 2.63), Herb Pennock (19-8, 3.00), Urban Shocker (18-6, 2.84) and Dutch Ruether (13-6, 3.38).
When we think of this club, we think of Murderers' Row, but the rotation was pretty deadly on its own. Hoyt and Shocker finished second and third in the AL in ERA, and Pennock (3.00) was eighth. Hoyt and Pennock would both reach the Hall of Fame. As a group, Yankees starters had a 3.13 mark, more than a run better than league average.
13. 1954 New York Giants: Johnny Antonelli (21-7, 2.30), Ruben Gomez (17-9, 2.88), Sal Maglie (14-6, 3.26), Don Liddle (9-4, 3.06) and Jim Hearn (8-8, 4.15).
Antonelli led the National League in ERA while Gomez and Maglie finished in the top eight, all well below the league average of 4.07. Liddle and Hearn split time as the fourth starter. Antonelli led the league in winning percentage, ERA and shutouts (six) in his first year with the Giants, quieting critics who didn't like that he'd been acquired in a trade for for 1951 "Shot Heard 'Round The World" hero Bobby Thomson. There was clearly much more to this team than Willie Mays' famous catch as New York swept the Indians in the World Series.
12. 1956 Milwaukee Braves: Warren Spahn (20-11, 2.78), Lew Burdette (19-10, 2.70), Bob Buhl (18-8, 3.32), Ray Crone (11-10, 3.87) and Gene Conley (8-9, 3.13).
The 1954 rotation of Spahn, Burdette, Conley and Jim Wilson would also be in the conversation. But two years later, Spahn had a WHIP of 1.07 and Burdette of 1.12. And four of the five starters who were used had an ERA well below the league average of 3.77.
11. 1967 Reds: Nolan (14-8, 2.58), Pappas (16-13, 3.35), Maloney (15-11, 3.25), Queen (14-8, 2.76) and Sammy Ellis (8-11, 3.84).
Nolan was a 19-year-old rookie who finished fourth in the NL in both ERA and strikeouts (206) and led in strikeouts per nine innings (8.2). The rest of his career was marred by injuries, although he did have a few more good seasons. Pappas is best remembered in Cincinnati for being part of the trade that sent future Hall of Famer Frank Robinson to the Orioles. Still, in this season, the top four starters each had a WAR of at least 4.0 and an ERA below the league average of 3.38.
10. 2013 Tigers: Scherzer (21-3, 2.90), Sanchez (14-8, 2.57), Verlander (13-12, 3.46), Fister (14-9, 3.67) and Porcello (13-8, 4.32).
In acquiring Price, the Tigers are merely adding to what was already an all-time great rotation a year ago. Sanchez won the AL's ERA title, yet he finished a distant fourth in Cy Young voting won by his own teammate, Scherzer. Sanchez, Scherzer, Verlander and Fister all finished in the top 20 in AL ERA, and Tigers starters posted the highest strikeouts-per-nine-innings mark (8.63) of all time.
9. 1985 Royals: Bret Saberhagen (20-6, 2.87), Charlie Leibrandt (17-9, 2.69), Danny Jackson (14-12, 3.42), Mark Gubicza (14-10, 4.06) and Bud Black (10-15, 4.33).
Leibrandt and Saberhagen finished second and third, respectively, in the AL ERA race, while Jackson was 11th and Gubicza was 23rd. These same four guys would all post a WAR of 3.5 or better in 1987, so they were at least as good that year. But 1985 was the year Saberhagen won his first Cy Young and the Royals won it all, so it's only natural to gravitate toward '85.
8. 1986 Mets: Ron Darling (15-6, 2.81), Dwight Gooden (17-6, 2.84), Sid Fernandez (16-6, 3.52), Bob Ojeda (18-5, 2.57) and Rick Aguilera (10-7, 3.88)
Once again, an argument could be made that another rotation from that era (1985 or '88) should be the pick. Still, the '86 pitchers were deep and dominant. The top four starters pitched more than 200 innings and all received Cy Young votes. Ojeda, Darling and Gooden ranked 2-3-5 in the NL in ERA, and Fernandez, Gooden and Darling were among the top seven in strikeouts. And yes, the Mets won it all.
7. 1946 Tigers: Hal Newhouser (26-9, 1.94), Dizzy Trout (17-13, 2.34), Virgil Trucks (14-9, 3.23), Fred Hutchinson (14-11, 3.09) and Al Benton (11-7, 3.65).
Per Baseball Reference, the Tigers' primary foursome of Newhouser (9.0), Trout (7.2), Trucks (3.9) and Hutchinson (3.8) compiled the highest combined WAR for a group of four starters of any team in the live-ball era. Newhouser won the AL's ERA title, while Trout finished fifth, Hutchinson 11th and Trucks 13th. Tigers starters had a 2.96 ERA against a league average of 3.41. Alas, the Tigers finished 12 games back of the Red Sox in the AL pennant race that season, so this rotation too often gets forgotten.
6. 2001 A's: Tim Hudson (18-9, 3.37), Mark Mulder (21-8, 3.45), Barry Zito (17-8, 3.48) and Cory Lidle (13-6, 3.59).
Like the Tigers, the A's also have a fairly recent history of truly dominant starters. In fact, any season in which Hudson, Mulder and Zito roamed Oakland Coliseum can qualify for this list, but this was the year in which Lidle joined the Big Three in finishing in the top 10 in the AL in ERA. All four had an ERA of 3.59 or lower, and this was right in the thick of the game's offensive explosion -- the average AL starters' ERA in 2001 was 4.57.
5. 2011 Phillies: Roy Halladay (19-6, 2.35), Cliff Lee (17-8, 2.40), Cole Hamels (14-9, 2.79), Roy Oswalt (9-10, 3.69) and Vance Worley (11-3, 3.01).
This was the fabled Four Aces rotation, but it didn't turn out exactly as expected. Halladay, Lee and Hamels each had an ERA more than a run below than the 3.81 league average and finished second, third and fifth, respectively, in the Cy Young voting. Oswalt and fifth starter Joe Blanton were hurt much of the season, but that allowed Worley a chance to step in and pitch well enough to finish third in the NL Rookie of the Year voting. The Phillies won a franchise-record 102 games but were upset by the Cardinals in the Division Series.
4. 1971 Orioles: Jim Palmer (20-9, 2.68), Mike Cuellar (20-9, 3.08), Pat Dobson (20-8, 2.90) and Dave McNally (21-5, 2.89).
Yes, the win has been devalued in today's statistics-minded society, but only twice in the modern era have four pitchers on the same team compiled 20 or more wins -- the other team being the White Sox way back in 1920. And to add even more perspective, consider that in the past 20 seasons, only six times have we seen four 20-game winners in all of Major League Baseball. The Orioles' fearsome foursome earned the victories, each compiling ERAs of 3.08 or lower while pitching at least 224 innings apiece.
3. 1961 Dodgers: Koufax (18-13, 3.52), Drysdale (13-10, 3.69), Williams (15-12, 3.90) and Podres (18-5, 3.74).
Not even the dominant Dodgers rotations of 1962 and '66 (Koufax, Drysdale, Claude Osteen and Don Sutton) could claim a rotation in which four guys had a WAR of 4.0 or better. The Big Four of '61 combined for a WAR of 20.1. To put that in perspective, the league average for rotations was 1.9. Still, the Dodgers finished second, four games behind the Reds.
2. 1954 Indians: Early Wynn (23-11, 2.73), Bob Lemon (23-7, 2.72), Mike Garcia (19-8, 2.64), Art Houtteman (15-7, 3.35) and Bob Feller (13-3, 3.09).
A rotation that featured three Hall of Famers -- Wynn, Lemon and a past-his-prime but still-effective Feller, who made 19 starts). Garcia, Lemon and Wynn finished first, third and fourth, respectively, in the AL in ERA, and this group collectively had a 2.86 ERA against a league average of 3.72. Interestingly, the WAR stat likes the '56 Tribe rotation, which featured Wynn, Lemon, Garcia and 22-year-old fireballer Herb Score, even better. But this was the group that led the Indians to 111 victories, so it gets the edge.
1. 1998 Braves: Maddux (18-9, 2.22), Glavine (20-6, 2.47), Smoltz (17-3, 2.90), Neagle (16-11, 3.55) and Kevin Millwood (17-8, 4.08).
Any number of Braves rotations in the 1990s could be represented. As we mentioned earlier, the teams in '91 and '97 were four (WAR) by four (starters) teams, so they could be in this spot. In '93, Glavine, Smoltz and Avery made the All-Star team. Maddux didn't, but he won the NL Cy Young Award. Still, the '98 team's first five starters combined for a 2.97 ERA, 1.27 earned runs lower than the league average. Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz finished first, third and sixth, respectively, in ERA. Glavine won the Cy Young while Maddux and Smoltz tied for fourth. Every starter finished in the top 10 in wins.
Of course, the 1990s Braves won just one World Series, in 1995. So the Tigers and A's will need more than just stellar starts to reach their ultimate goal of having the best rotation of all time.