Monday, February 06, 2012

Best Pitching Rotations Ever

Last year, I used the Baseball-Reference WAR statistic to determine the best infields and outfields in the history of baseball.  Now, I'm going to attempt to do the same thing with pitching rotations.  Pitching is more difficult for a couple of reasons.  In any pitching analysis, there is the challenge of separating run prevention into pitching and fielding.  Lots of statistics have been proposed over the years - ERA, Pitching Runs, FIP, SIERA, WAR, etc.  All are useful but none are perfect or even close to perfect. 

A historical comparison of pitching rotations is even trickier because of the changing use of pitchers over time.  Starting pitchers used to pitch a lot more innings in the early 1900's compared to today where they share a great deal of the workload with relievers.  Determining the quality of a team's starting rotation is an art as well as a science, but when looking at every team between 1901-2011, it's useful to have a formula.  So, I'm going to use the Baseball-Reference Wins Above Replacement (rWAR) system.  This won't give us a definitive leader board, but it is as good a system as any. 

The rWAR statistic was developed by Sean Smith, now a statistician for a major league team.    It is an estimate of the number of wins a pitcher is worth over a replacement level pitcher (e.g Brad Penny in 2011).  For example, Tigers ace Justin Verlander had 8.6 WAR last year, so he was worth an estimated nine wins more than a pitcher such as Penny.    The rWAR metric is based on a pitcher's innings, ERA and league average ERA.  It also adjusts for the estimated runs saved by the defense behind a pitcher as well as the pitcher's home park.   A very accessible explanation of the measure can be found at Beyond The Boxscore

Most of my analysis uses a database purchased from Mr. Smith a couple of years ago.  The data are now housed at Baseball-Reference.  There may be a few small discrepancies between the old database numbers I'm using and Baseball-Reference due to recent upgrades of the system, but nothing that should significantly change the conclusions.  By the way, the r in rWAR stands for "Rally" which was Sean's screen name. 

Now that we've established that rWAR is the statistic of choice, the next step is to develop a set of criteria qualifying a staff as one of the best.  Because five-man rotations have not always been used, four-man rotations will be selected.  I wanted each of the four pitchers in a rotation to have some level of both quantity and quality so the following criteria were chosen for each pitcher: at least 20 starts, 162 innings pitched and two rWAR. 

The top quartets of all time according to rWAR and the stated qualifications are listed in Table 1 below.  The best rotation was the 1912 Boston Red Sox with 24.1 rWAR.  That foursome was headed by right-hander Smoky Joe Wood (9.6 rWAR) who posted a 1.91 ERA in 344 innings.  Other top starters on that team were Buck O'Brien (5.3 rWAR), Ray Collins (5.1) and Hugh Bedient (4.1).

 Table 1: Best Starting Rotations by Baseball-Reference WAR, 1901-2011

Year
Team
Pitcher 1
WAR
Pitcher 2
WAR
Pitcher 3
WAR
Pitcher 4
WAR
Total
1912
BOS
Smoky Joe Wood
9.6
Buck O'Brien
5.3
Ray Collins
5.1
Hugh Bedient
4.1
24.1
1946
DET
Hal Newhouser
9.0
Dizzy Trout
7.2
Virgil Trucks
3.9
Fred Hutchinson
3.8
23.9
1969
CHN
Bill Hands
8.8
Fergie Jenkins
7.6
Ken Holtzman
4.7
Dick Selma
2.7
23.8
1909
CHN
Mordecai Brown
8.7
Orval Overall
7.1
Ed Reulbach
5.5
Jack Pfiester
2.3
23.6
1956
CLE
Early Wynn
8.2
Herb Score
7.6
Bob Lemon
5.4
Mike Garcia
2.4
23.6
1967
PHI
Jim Bunning
8.4
Chris Short
6.6
Rick Wise
3.7
Larry Jackson
3.6
22.3
1985
NYN
Dwight Gooden
11.7
Ron Darling
4.4
Sid Fernandez
3.7
Ed Lynch
2.4
22.2
1966
LAN
Sandy Koufax
10.8
Don Sutton
4.3
Claude Osteen
3.7
Don Drysdale
3.2
22.0
1949
DET
Virgil Trucks
7.2
Hal Newhouser
5.9
Fred Hutchinson
4.4
Ted Gray
3.5
21.0
1991
ATL
Tom Glavine
7.4
John Smoltz
4.7
Steve Avery
4.5
Charlie Leibrandt
4.3
20.9
1913
NY1
Christy Mathewson
6.8
Rube Marquard
5.1
Jeff Tesreau
5.0
Al Demaree
4.0
20.9
1968
SLN
Bob Gibson
11.9
Ray Washburn
4.0
Nelson Briles
2.5
Steve Carlton
2.5
20.9
1997
ATL
Greg Maddux
7.3
Tom Glavine
5.0
John Smoltz
4.5
Denny Neagle
4.1
20.9
1901
BSN
Vic Willis
7.2
Bill Dinneen
5.1
Kid Nichols
4.9
Togie Pittinger
3.6
20.8
1987
KCA
Bret Saberhagen
7.0
Charlie Leibrandt
5.5
Mark Gubicza
4.6
Danny Jackson
3.6
20.7


The second best staff was the 1946 Detroit Tigers with 23.9 rWAR.  They were led by Hall-of-Fame southpaw Hal Newhouser (9.0 rWAR).  Prince Hal had a league-leading 1.94 ERA in 293 innings and earned his second consecutive MVP that year.  Other major contributors were Dizzy Trout (7.2), Virgil Trucks (3.9) and Fred Hutchinson (3.8).  The same cast except for Ted Gray replacing Trout finished ninth with with 21.0 rWAR in 1949.  

 In a later post, I'll concentrate just on the Tigers listing their best rotations of all time.

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