Bitchin’ Pitchin’ Not Always Bewitchin’

In the years since I wrote this piece about the underachievement of great pitching staffs, the starting pitching of the Philadelphia Phillies from 2010-11 became another case in point.  They assembled a starting rotation that many saw as invincible and was described in some circles as maybe the best ever, consisting of four aces – Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels – plus some other decent starters in Vance Worley and Joe Blanton.  They didn’t manage to beat the Giants in the 2010 NLCS though and in 2011 were undone even earlier in the NLDS when Halladay lost a great pitching duel 1-0, to Chris Carpenter of the Cardinals in the deciding fifth game.  This year’s Blue Jays were thought to have put together a pretty vaunted starting staff themselves, but so far their pitchers have underperformed to such an extent that they can’t even be considered yet as an example of this odd syndrome of failure.

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“In baseball, you don’t know nothin’. “ – Yogi Berra

“Good pitching always stops good hitting, and vice versa.” – Casey Stengel

The above famous quotes serve to underscore something odd I’ve noticed over the years, namely that great and deep pitching staffs have quite an awful record in post-season play. I first noticed this with the Baltimore Orioles in the 1970s, who were pitching-rich, to say the least. Their 1971 staff had four 20-game winners :

Dave McNally (21-5), Jim Palmer (20 -9), Mike Cuellar (20 – 9) and Pat Dobson (20 – 8).

The first three guys won twenty often, Dobson was a one-off but he was still a solid starter. The Orioles lost the 1971 World Series in seven games to Pittsburgh, whose pitching staff didn’t match up at least on paper, but got really hot in the Series. Steve Blass had two complete game victories in which he gave up a total of one run, Nelson Briles threw a complete-game shutout, and rookie Bruce Kison threw 6 1/3 innings of one-hit relief to win the other. Plus Roberto Clemente was impossibly great at bat and in the field for them. The Orioles had the same big three (Cuellar 23-7, McNally 20-7, Palmer 16-7, plus Tom Phoebus, 14-7) in 1969 and were Series losers in five games to the Mets, who didn’t have as deep a staff but did have Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman, who were lights out.

I won $100 betting on Pittsburgh in the 1979 Series against Baltimore. The Orioles’ pitching then wasn’t quite what it was in 1971, but they were still pretty loaded – Mike Flanagan, 23-9, Scott McGregor,13-6, Dennis Martinez,15-16 (but great stuff), Jim Palmer,10-6 (an off-year after eight seasons winning 20) and Tippy Martinez,10-3. The wise money was on Baltimore’s pitching, but I put $50 on the Pirates because I didn’t see how their batting order could lose. I doubled down after Baltimore led 3 games to 1, and for once I was right. (For you jazz fans, the late Paul Grosney was my victim.)

Another example I’ve noticed is the 1954 Indians. They won 111 games with a superb rotation of :

Early Wynn (23-11), Bob Lemon (23-7), Mike Garcia (19-8, league best ERA of 2.64), Art Houtteman (15-7) and Bob Feller (13-3).

They also had the great bullpen tandem of Ray Narleski and Don Mossi plus a great veteran in Hal Newhouser to pitch middle relief etc. How could they possibly lose? In four straight to the New York Giants is the answer, believe it or not.

Then there are the Atlanta Braves of 1991-2000, just loaded with pitching. John Smoltz and Tom Glavine were constants from the start, with Steve Avery and Charlie Liebrandt in the early days. In 1993 they added Greg Maddux, who was the best pitcher of his time not using steroids (355 wins, hiya Roger Clemens.) To this big three they added solid pitchers like Denny Neagle and Kevin Millwood in the later years. As you know, the Braves won exactly one Series during this time, in 1995 against Cleveland. (This killed me, I loved that Indians team, the 1997 one too.) Take your pick as to which year they under-achieved the most, but I’ll go with 1997:

Maddux (19-4), Neagle (20-5), Glavine (14-7) and Smoltz (15-12).

They didn’t even make it to the Series, Florida took them out in the NLCS. Or how about 1998? : 

Maddux (18-9), Smoltz (17-3), Glavine (18-9), Millwood (17-8) and Neagle (16-11).

That’s 86 wins by their starters alone, but this group didn’t get to the Series either – the friggin’ Padres beat them in six in the NLCS. We’ll never know, but it’s doubtful the Braves would have beaten the Yankees in the Series – the 1998 Yankees won 114 games and I think they’re the best single team in my lifetime – they had everything but a weakness. Bobby Cox will probably get into the Hall of Fame for his overall managing success from 1985- 2010, but I don’t think he’d get my vote, if I had one.

These are the examples I’ve noticed on my own. In writing about this, the great Bill James points out a few others. The 1963 Yankees went from a one-pitcher team in 1962 (Whitey Ford, plus Ralph Terry, who was OK), to having a great rotation by adding two great kids:

Whitey Ford (24-7), Ralph Terry (17-15), Jim Bouton (21-7) and Al Downing (13-5)

The young Bouton was terrific and Downing pitched only in the second half, but on Koufax’s level – he struck out 174 guys in half a season. The Yanks were swept by the Dodgers in the Series, but I’m not really crazy about this example. The Dodgers pitching wasn’t as deep, but they had the great one-two of Koufax at his peak (likely the best ever at that point), and Drysdale, who was kind of the Roger Clemens of his day, meaner but not nearly as much of a jerk (who is?) The Dodgers, pitching-rich themselves, were swept in the 1966 Series by Baltimore (L.A.’s staff consisted of Koufax, 27-9, Drysdale,13-16 in an off year, Claude Osteen,17-15 and a young Don Sutton,12-12, plus a great bullpen.)

James also mentions the 1931 Philadelphia A’s, who had a great rotation of :

Lefty Grove (31-4, the best pitcher in baseball by far), George Earnshaw (21-7), Rube Walberg (20-12) and Roy Mahaffey (15-4).

They lost the 1931 Series in seven to the Cards, but the staff with the same first three helped the A’s win the Series in 1929 and 1930 pretty handily, so again a good example, but… He also mentions the 1922 Yankees, who he reckons had the best rotation of the 1920s (most of them had been “property of the Boston Red Sox”) but were swept by the Giants. Much the same staff won the 1923 Series against the Giants in six though.

James rates the 1985 Royals staff as the best of the 1980s (Bret Saberhagen, Mark Gubicza, Danny Jackson, Charlie Leibrandt, Bud Black plus Dan Quisenberry in relief.) They’re the only team with a decade-best rotation to win a World Series in his estimation but even then, it was close – it took seven games and one blown call by Don Denkinger to beat the Cards.

Two other rotations I’ve noticed are worth mentioning, and neither even made it to post-season play : The late-’40s Tigers, and the late-’60s to early-’70s Cubs. The Tigers had by far the best rotation of the ’40s : Hal Newhouser, Virgil Trucks, Fred Hutchinson and Dizzy Trout, who were outstanding, plus Art Houtteman, who was no slouch. They kept the offensively challenged Tigers in contention 1946-50, and I’m not counting their 1945 wartime Series win (most of these guys were in the service.)

As for the Cubs pitching, it was really, really good back then. They had Fergie Jenkins, who won 20 games a year like clockwork, plus Ken Holtzman, Bill Hands and Milt Pappas, all of whom won 16-19 games several times in there. They were backed by some really good players like Billy Williams, Ron Santo, catcher Randy Hundley and a good double-play combo in Don Kessinger and Glenn Beckert. They won diddly-squat, coming oh so close in 1969, but running into the Miracle Mets.

It’s hard to explain any of this, or draw any conclusions. I’m not trying to suggest pitching isn’t important, because obviously it is. Here are a few thoughts:

1) A good, deep rotation is a great thing to have over the grind of a 162-game season, but in the post-season, with short series and days off (especially lately), it often comes down to how killer your top two starters are, and how effective your bullpen is, especially your closer and set-up guy. Look at the teams who’ve won it all on two dominant starters – the Dodgers with Koufax and Drysdale, the Mets with Seaver and Koosman (plus Ron Taylor and Tug McGraw in relief), the D-Backs with Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling in 2001, the Red Sox with Josh Beckett and Schilling in 2007 (plus Jonathan Papelbon and Hideki Okajima in relief.)

2) Starting pitching isn’t everything. If you have a great lineup defensively and offensively and a great bullpen, you can win even with spotty starting pitching. Just ask the Reds or Pirates of the ’70s, or the ’50s Dodgers – none of those teams were noted for their rotation, but they could hit the ball and score some runs.

3) A rotation’s record is compiled against a whole league, but when you’re in post-season play you’re by definition up against above-average teams. Don’t expect your starters to look as good against teams that do everything better than average ones. Pretty numbers on paper won’t stop a good team from beating you.

4) Sometimes a difference in league-quality comes into play. The NL from the late ’60s to the early ’80s was a much better league than the AL (remember the All-Star Game streak?) and Baltimore ran into this, didn’t do as well as expected. By the ’90s this had reversed, and the AL was dominant, which may have been a factor the Braves had to deal with when they managed to reached the Series (1991,1993,1995,1996 and 1999.)

5) Who the hell knows? If this answer is good enough for Yogi, it’s good enough for me.

 

 

 

© 2013, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.

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