Two weeks ago I wrote a column here called “Ten things I didn’t know about bullpens” in which I took the splits info at Retrosheet to examine the best and worst of relief units of all time. Since I can just as easily study the starting pitchers, it makes sense to look at that as well.
Both this column and the previous one are outgrowths of work on my book, Evaluating Baseball’s Managers, since I first started collecting info from Retrosheet to gain an idea about managerial preferences. These articles have one added feature: Because Retrosheet keeps updating, I can draw on a wider well of material from there.
In fact, since the bullpen column, Retrosheet has updated yet again, giving me splits info for the AL from 1942-44. I now have everything from 1920-onward the except the NL from 1940-44 and both leagues from 1949-51. That’s it in the lively ball era. I have info for 1,834 different starting rotations.
That’s fragmentary info, but a heckuva fragment! It’s over 95 percent of all lively ball rotations, and almost three-fourths of all teams since 1876. The following statements are based on that supersized fragment.
1. The best rotation of them all
Let’s hop to it. According to ERA+ (and I’m adjusting for park and league myself here), the best starting rotations that I know of are as follows:
Year Team ERA+ 1998 ATL 139 1997 ATL 138 1931 PHA 138 1981 HOU 135 1926 PHA 135 1993 ATL 134 1922 STB 134
Well, I guess it shouldn’t be too surprising that the 1990s Braves do so well. After all, they had Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz. It still is s bit surprising because as great as they were, there have been a whole herd of other fantastic rotations over the years. For that reason alone, it should be tough for one unit to dominate the top slots.
From the above list, the real stunner—to the point where I double-checked the results—is the 1922 Browns. They had an overall team ERA+ of 123, but did much better as starters. Actually, looking at personal ERA+s at Baseball-Reference.com disguises their success because they almost all pitched out of the bullpen at times. Ace Urban Shocker posted a 1.88 ERA as starter, but “only” 2.45 in relief. The No. 2 pitcher, Elam Vangilder, had a 3.39 ERA as starter and 3.71 in relief. Others posted better marks in relief than as starters, but Shocker and Vangilder bore the main loads as starters.
Way back when, SG of the Replacement Level Yankee Weblog ran some computer sims for me showing the 1922 Browns were one of the best teams to miss the World Series. Well, this shows one reason why they were so good.
The 1981 Astros had a 2.43 ERA, which is the best ever. Among teams pitching full seasons, the Bob Gibson-led 1968 Cards top them all at 2.49.
2. 1990s Braves: an appreciation
As impressive as the Braves’ result is, it actually underestimates how dominant they were. Look, I know saying the 1990s Braves had great pitching is hardly original, but the more I look at the results, the more amazed I am.
They pulled off three of the top seven marks (and three of the top six from full seasons) despite pitching in an era when starter ERA+ on the whole has declined. Since the bullpen has become an established part of the game, relievers lodge better ERAs than starters. Back when the 1931 A’s played, a starting rotation ERA+ of 100 would actually be below average, now it’s above average.
In the last 50 years, only seven rotations had an ERA+ of 130 or better. Four were by the Braves. In the last 22 seasons, 20 rotations have an ERA+ of 120 or higher. Bobby Cox managed half of them.
You know those great 1970s Orioles rotations? Well, they maxed out with an ERA+ of 119 in 1972. That’s a hell of a mark—in fact it’s the best mark by any AL rotation in the 1970s. But Cox’s Braves topped it 10 times from 1992-2005.
Here are the best rotations of the 1990s:
Year Team ERA+ 1998 ATL 139 1997 ATL 138 1993 ATL 134 1995 ATL 130 1994 ATL 129 1996 ATL 127 1992 ATL 126 1999 BOS 125
How ’bout them Red Sox!
If you’re curious, the 1999 Braves had an ERA+ of 118, and the 1991 squad was at 113. The best non-Atlanta staff was not quite as good as an average Atlanta staff—for an entire freaking decade! Dear lord.
3. Best by decade
Let’s look at it another way: What were the best starting rotations in each decade? Let’s see (and remember: info is fragmentary for the 1940s and 1950s). In case of ties I’ll list both teams from the decade:
Dec Year Team ERA+ 1920s 1926 PHA 135 1930s 1931 PHA 138 1940s 1948 CLE 133 1950s 1957 BRK 127 1960s 1964 CWS 130 1960s 1969 NYM 130 1970s 1970 CHC 127 1980s 1981 HOU 135 1990s 1998 ATL 139 2000s 2003 MON 130
That 1971 Cubs team was the only rotation in the 1970s over 123. The highest full season of the 1980s was 129 by the 1985 Dodgers. That was one of only two times all decade a full-season performance topped 122.
This makes Atlanta’s accomplishment in the 1990s that much more impressive. It wasn’t like the Braves competed against unusually middling competition: 125 had been a seemingly unbreakable ERA+ barrier for a generation, and they took up permanent residence there.
I never would’ve expected to see the 1957 Dodgers on top of the decade (they narrowly beat out the 1954 Indians), but when you look at their roster, it makes sense. All their pitchers had great years.
4. Worst ever
Let’s briefly take a gander at the other side: What are the worst rotations on record?
Year Team ERA+ 2005 KCR 72 1984 SFG 73 1964 KCA 74 1977 SDP 74 1939 PHI 74 2003 CIN 74
Hey look: It’s Lima time!
On the Royals in 2005, Jose Lima allowed 219 hits (including 31 homers) in 168.2 innings while walking 61 batters and whiffing only 80. As a reward for this horrible pitching, manager Buddy Bell decided to leave him in the rotation all year. Yeah, the Royals didn’t have many quality pitchers that year, but Bell benched guys doing worse. In fact, Lima tied a record that year for lowest ERA+ (63) for any pitcher in MLB history with more than 30 starts.
It’s also fun seeing the 1964 A’s up there. I mentioned them in my column on bullpens because their relievers still hold the record for most homers allowed in a season. One reason they achieved it: They threw so many innings because the starters were horrible.
The 1984 Giants had four men start more than 10 games. They had ERA+s of 81, 77, 77 and 66. Now that’s impressive.
The “award” for worst unadjusted ERA goes to the 1996 Tigers at 6.64. No one else is worse than 6.34. Those Tigers were managed by Buddy Bell in his first season as manager. Yeah, he had bad staffs, but I can’t help thinking he had no idea what to do with them.
5. Control kings: 2000 Twins
Here’s something I did in the bullpen article that works here as well: Take the rate stats (walks, homers and strikeouts per inning) and adjust them by league wide rates. After all, throughout its history both the way the game has been played and its environment has changed, causing those things to drop and/or rise. Adjusting for league rate allows us to better look at teams across eras.
To figure the best control staff, I divided league BB/9 by a team’s rate (that way higher equals better, and lower worse). Based on that: here are the best control staffs ever:
Year Team BB+ 2005 MIN 200 2000 ATL 169 1979 MIL 167 2003 NYY 161 2002 ARI 160
I can only assume there’s some sort of era bias causing really recent teams to dominate the list. More importantly, one team breaks from the field by a downright comical extent.
Like the 2005 Royals, the 2005 Twins had a pitcher who embodied their style on the mound: Carlos Silva. In 188.1 innings, despite fanning only 71 batters, he walked only nine guys. NINE. I have no idea how he did it. Its one thing to rely on your defense but batting practice pitchers have higher walk and strikeout rates. He didn’t fool anyone, but still refused to move off the plate.
By this approach the worst starting rotation was the 1971 Indians. Steve Dunning walked 109 guys on that team while staff ace Sudden Sam McDowell issued 153 free passes. The team as a whole issued 303 more walks than its batters attained, the worst walk differential by any team since World War I. The team traded McDowell in the offseason.
6. The 1946 AL flamethrowers
Apply the same approach given above to strikeouts, and the best staff of flamethrowers ever was the 1924 Dodgers. That doesn’t surprise me in the least. They had Dazzy Vance, who was personally responsible for every 13th strikeout in the league that year. Yes, you read that sentence correctly. He fanned 262 batters in a league where 3,408 Ks occurred.
For me, the memorable part was learning about the 1946 Tigers, who had the second best era-adjusted K-rate. That rotation recorded 5.89 strikeouts per nine innings. No previous squad I have information for topped 5.00K/9.
That was Hal Newhouser in his prime. On my list of articles to do is a piece about Newhouser, and 1946 will have a prominent place in it. As great as his end-of-the-year numbers look: 26-9 record with a 1.94 ERA and 275 strikeouts (please note he led the league in Ks the year before with only 212), they arguably minimize his accomplishments. He won his 20th game on July 27, when Detroit was 52-39. No pitcher since, not even Denny McLain, has made it to 20 in so few games for his team.
Beyond Newhouser, teammate Virgil Trucks was fourth in the league in strikeouts. Dizzy Trout was fifth, and Fred Hutchinson tied for sixth. It’s not too often that four of the top seven strikeout artists are on the same team.
Even still, this tidbit says “1946 AL flamethrowers” not 1946 Detroit flamethrowers. Remember how I said no known rotation before 1946 topped 5.00K/9? Well, another team did that year: the Indians, at 5.54. They were the only teams until the 1950s to break five, and they both shattered it.
It was less of a collaborative effort with the Indians. That was the year of Bob Feller. He threw an insane 371.1 innings, and whiffed 348 batters. He won his 20th game of the year in Cleveland’s 100th game (the Indians were 47-52 with a tie). Denny McLain didn’t win his 20th game until Detroit’s 101st contest in 1968 (though like the 1946 Indians, those Tigers had a tie).
7. Across the board brilliant
Only twice has a starting rotation topped all others in league in park-adjusted ERA, BB/9 and K/9: the 1996 Braves and 1928 A’s.
I suppose if it’s going to be any squad, it would be the 1990s Braves and Mack’s second coming in Philadelphia. After all, those were the two teams that made the best ERA+ list multiple times back at the top of this article.
Still, neither one of these teams were listed in that bunch. That’s what happens when you have a great corps of pitchers: It’s hard to spot what their most impressive season ever was.
(Quick qualifier: I haven’t yet ranked all the 1940s teams by their walk and strikeout rates—it’s hard to keep up with Retrosheet these days—but odds are no third team from then will enter the mix.)
8. 1930s St. Louis Browns: a non-appreciation
Six times a starting rotation has finished last in the league in park-adjusted ERA, as well as both walk and strikeout rates: 1932 Red Sox, 1936 A’s, 1937 Browns, 1952 Pirates, 1982 A’s and 2006 Royals.
The Browns are the staff I find most interesting. Not only were they last in all the above categories, they also allowed 111 homers, the most by any starting rotation up to that point in time. As an added bonus, the Browns kept up their horrible pace for the next several years.
In 1938, their starters walked 590 batters, over 50 more than the next highest team. I don’t mean the next highest team in 1938,; I mean of the 1,800+ starting rotations I have this info for.
In 1939 they posted an ERA of 6.34. Only Buddy Bell’s 1996 Tigers have ever had a worse starter ERA. Speaking of Bell, please note he managed the 2006 Royals, who were last in BB/9, K/9, and ERA+.
9. Homers allowed over time
The last point makes me wonder: How has the record for most home runs allowed in a season by a starting rotation changed over time? Well, with the continual qualifier that I don’t have some info from the mid-century, here are the record setting (or record tying) staffs:
Year Team HRA 1920 NYY 47 1921 NYG 79 1922 PHI 89 1929 PHI 90 1930 PHI 107 1934 CWS 108 1937 STB 111 1938 PHA 119 1953 CIN 134 1956 PHI 134 1961 CLE 134 1962 KCA 143 1963 DET 146 1986 MIN 160 1987 CAL 169
I’m rather impressed with the 1987 Angels. I remember 1987 being one of the game’s occasional Silly Ball years where homers flew out with abandon, but I would’ve guessed that a more recent season would hold the record.
One could argue the Angels’ continued dominance came because current staffs throw so few innings, but that doesn’t work. The Angels also hold the record for most HR/9 at 1.60. The runner-up is Buddy Bell’s 1996 Tigers, at 1.59. Man, you can’t swing a dead cat without running into a historically inept pitching staff he managed.
10. Homers going backwards
Let’s flip around the above list: What’s the fewest homers allowed by a rotation starting with 2009 and standing the calendar on its head? Since starters often throw fewer innings now, I’ll look at HR/9:
Year Team HR/9IP 2009 STL 0.72 2008 TOR 0.71 2005 FLO 0.68 1997 ATL 0.64 1993 LAD 0.63 1992 ATL 0.45 1984 LAD 0.43 1981 HOU 0.33 1945 WAS 0.27 1944 DET 0.22 1927 CIN 0.20 1923 CIN 0.17 1920 PIT 0.16
More appearances by Bobby Cox teams. He is the yin to Buddy Bell’s yang.
If you’re wondering, the list doesn’t change too much if you toss out the strike-shortened 1981 Astros. Then the 1984 Dodgers lead holds until 1976, when the Giants averaged 0.42HR/9. That was the fewest (that I know of) in a season since 1946, when the Pirates were at 0.36.
No pitcher on the 1976 Giants allowed a dozen homers that year. Meanwhile, MLB’s other teams featured 72 men who allowed at least that many. Their starting pitchers allowed 45 homers, 10 fewer than any other team in the entire 1970s. Aside from the 1981 season, that’s the fewest by any team that I know of in the last 60 years.
References & Resources
Thank you, Retrosheet!