What in the name of the 1907 Chicago Cubs is going on here?
More than one-third into the 2011 season, the Mariners have unleashed a starting rotation that harkens back to The Deadball Era. There is Felix Hernandez and there is Erik Bedard and there is a wunderkind in the form of Michael Pineda.
Most important, there are a total of five solid starters, with the worst ERA being Jason Vargas’ 3.94 — just barely above the league average. As a group, Seattle’s starters have a 3.26 ERA, and those numbers can be taken at face value because Safeco Field thus far hasn’t been as friendly to pitchers as it typically is.
The result is a team record hovering right around the .500 mark, which is about 100 percentage points better than could have been expected this season. And the rotation has been the driving force behind that.
Oh, comparisons to the 1907 Cubs might be a bit of an exaggeration. After all, those guys would be really, really old by now. Plus, they compiled a ridiculous team ERA of 1.73.
That was a much different game in a much different time, and the point is that Seattle’s rotation of Hernandez, Pineda, Bedard, Vargas, and Doug Fister has been outstanding.
And it has us thinking about some of the best rotations of recent years. We’ll arbitrarily start the clock at 1980, about the time the modern use of relievers came into vogue:
• 1980 Oakland Athletics
These A’s were a demarcation point in baseball history. Manager Billy Martin decided that he didn’t need relief pitchers, and his starters threw the outlandish total of 94 complete games.
Rick Langford went 19-12 with 28 complete games; Mike Norris went 22-9 with 24 complete games. Even Brian Kingman was left in games long enough to lose 20 of them.
The result was a surprising second-place finish, but the problem was the aftermath.
The Athletics’ starters all were 28 or younger, and they all burned out their arms. They combined for 79 wins that year and combined for 127 victories over the rest of their careers.
No manager since then has pushed his starters so hard.
• 1986 New York Mets
With Dwight Gooden near the peak of his powers, along with Ron Darling, Bob Ojeda, Sid Fernandez, and Rick Aguilera, the Mets’ starters went 78-33 with a 3.16 ERA.
They might have been even better in 1988, when they added David Cone, who went 20-3, but 1986 was the year they won the World Series.
• 1990s Atlanta Braves
With Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz as the anchors, the Braves put together the most successful long-term rotation in baseball history.
Their best combined season probably was 1998. With Denny Neagle and Kevin Millwood joining the Big Three, Atlanta’s starters went 90-40 with a 3.06 ERA.
• 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks
For the season, the Diamondbacks’ starters went 67-49 with a 3.88 ERA. Nothing historic about that.
But they had one of the great 1-2 punches of all-time in Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, and that was enough to propel them to a World Series title. Johnson and Schilling started 11 of Arizona’s 17 postseason games, going 9-1 with a 1.30 ERA and 103 strikeouts in 89⅔ innings.
Amazing factoid: Johnson and Schilling finished 1-2 in the Cy Young voting in both 2001 and 2002.
• 2005 Houston Astros
Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, and Roy Oswalt each pitched at least 211 innings and combined for an ERA of 2.43. The result was the only World Series trip in the Astros’ history.
For their careers, Clemens, Pettitte, and Oswalt have combined for a .638 winning percentage and a 3.37 ERA. Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz combined for .591 and 3.33.
The Mariners’ rotation thus far doesn’t rank with any of those teams from the past three decades. But it’s tantalizing to consider the impact a great rotation can have.
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