Ah, the Dog Days of March, am I right? The days when the initial excitement of Spring Training has probably started to wane and, admittedly, there’s not a whole lot going on in the game of baseball. I was going to use this week’s column to bash the kid in the ‘Dad Saves Son From Flying Baseball Bat’ photo for being on his fucking iPhone during a live baseball game. But then I realized the kid was nine-years-old, celebrating his birthday with his dad and adorably sending photos of the game to his mom back home. And I don’t want to sound like Goose Gossage telling Bryce Harper to get off his lawn or watching a Jose Bautista bat flip and wanting his country back. So this week, I’m going to do a continuation of a theme I’d touched on the previous week, and that’s hating on the New York Mets.
At some point last week, I heard Karl Ravech of ESPN say that he really thinks the young Mets staff is going to go down as the greatest pitching rotation of all time. My immediate reaction was to think, “Okay great. Now I know I never have to listen to anything Karl Ravech says ever again.” But the more I thought about it, the more I decided I should probably know which staffs in baseball history are currently in that conversation to begin with. I can’t just be some derpy politician claiming Hillary Clinton is the worst Secretary of State of all time if I can’t name anybody else who did the job. I mean, I assumed the Maddux-Glavine-Smoltz Braves teams of the nineties had to be in there somewhere. But I didn’t know if there was some rockstar Philadelphia A’s team in the 1920’s with Flippo Gumslaw and Pud Hayseed or some shit.
So I decided to look into it. And yes, it turns out the nineties Braves are the greatest pitching staff of all-time. I can go ahead confirm that for you right now. That’s based on the combined WAR of each team’s top four starters. And yes, I know everybody has a five man rotation now. And yes, I know the Mets might go with a six man this year. But I had to stay with four to keep things fairly even across eras. We good now? Okay. Let’s get back to the Braves. I could have just said “Seven Cy Youngs, 873 wins and three first-ballot Cooperstown plaques” and dropped the mic. But again, what about the Flippos and Puds of the world?
What I found is that, for the top four starters on any given team, a combined WAR of 15 means a staff is pretty good. An 18 means they’re really good. And anything above a 20 is basically all-time great. Last year’s Mets staff (where the best four were Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard and Bartolo Colon) got a 15.2 combined WAR. Their projections for 2016 (with Steven Matz replacing Colon as the #4) are also between a 15 and 16. Just so we’re all clear, let’s look at what those nineties Braves staffs did.
1993. Maddux. Avery. Smoltz. Glavine. 19.8
1994. Maddux. Glavine. Avery. Smoltz. 15.6*
1995. Maddux. Smoltz. Glavine. Avery. 19.3
1996. Smoltz. Maddux. Glavine. Avery. 23.9
1997. Maddux. Smoltz. Neagle. Glavine. 23.5
1998. Maddux. Smoltz. Glavine. Milwood. 20.8
1999. Maddux. Milwood. Smoltz. Glavine. 20.7
That’s insane. But when I looked through all the stats, I also realized just how rare it was for a team to have that many quality starters to get to a 18-20 WAR. Especially after the Dead Ball Era. For a pre-Babe-Ruth Era team (when the players were white, but the balls were not) to be in the ‘best of all time’ running, they usually had to revolve around a Hall of Fame-level super-ace like Christy Mathewson or Walter Johnson. And while there have been plenty of amazing individual single-season pitching performances over the years, the idea of a dominant staff is a much more recent phenomenon. In other words, aces come and go. That part is fairly easy. The hard part is getting yourself a Steve Avery – the Braves’ #4 pitcher, not the beloved Manitowoc County murderer from the Internet.
So who’s the second-best rotation ever, you ask? Surely it must be the Sandy Koufax/Don Drysdale Los Angeles Dodgers of the 1960’s or the Randy Johnson/Curt Schilling Diamondbacks of the early 2000’s or that 2011 Phillies team with Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt. Nope, Nope and Nope. While those teams are up there near the very top, I’d say the second-best staff of all-time and the placeholders before the Braves came around were the 1969-1970 Chicago Cubs. Seriously. Well, I guess it’s hard to be a placeholder, when nobody back then had advanced stats and everybody would have just been looking at stuff like win totals and then slobbering over overrated teams like the 1971 Orioles, who had four 20-game winners, but a combined WAR of 14.8. But that Cubs staff anchored by Fergie Jenkins, Ken Holtzman and Bill Hands put up a crazily-impressive 23.4 in 1969 and a best-ever-in-history 24.7 in 1970.
And while it may be easy on the surface of things to poo-poo a Cubs staff led by a 3rd-ballot Hall of Famer and some other dudes you’ve never heard of (especially when the 1969 Cubs are synonymous with curses, black cats and choking) just realize that Jenkins is one of the more underrated pitchers of all-time, Holtzman threw TWO no hitters in his career and also the cold hard fact that no other team in the history of baseball besides the ’96-’97 Braves ever put up those kind of combined WAR numbers. Like, ever. Not the Christy Mathewson-led New York Giants. Not the Walter Johnson-led Washington Senators. Not the Flippo Gumshaw/Pud Hayseed Philadelphia Athletics of the pretend 1920’s. Not even even those ’72-’74 Oakland teams where Holtzman ended up winning three World Series rings. And they did it all in Wrigley Field, which isn’t necessarily known as a pitching-friendly park. The numbers are there, whether you’ve Googled these guys or not (and fun fact: Googling ‘Bill Hands’ in 2016 gets you some equally interesting results on both Bills Cosby and Clinton).
All of this is probably why people like Karl Ravech think they have a point. A staff as deep as the current Mets are on paper is a rare sight in baseball history. And we don’t celebrate many of the other great staffs in history besides Glavine, Smoltzie and the Professor. Individual pitchers, yes. But great staffs, not so much. So it seems easier to spout off about ‘greatest ever’ without some asshole like me with the free time to do some basic fact checking. And since we’re dealing with the entire history of baseball here, the 1990 Mets had Dwight Gooden, Frank Viola, David Cone and Sid Fernandez. Their combined WAR was 20.8. There’s also three Cy Young Award winners, 14 All-Star Games and 10 World Series rings among them. Call me when this Mets staff even approaches that level. In fact, call me when they approach the 1976 Mets (19.0 WAR) with Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Jon Matlack and Mickey Lolich. And know that just because you don’t know something, it doesn’t give you the right to spout off about it with confidence.
You really think this Mets staff is going to go down as the greatest of all-time? Keep checking your iPhone for it to happen. Maybe your dad will save you seconds before a bat smashes you in your stupid face.