WAR Remix: The Greatest Pitching Peaks of Our Lives, Part 2


Last week we looked at the greatest 3-year, 4-year, and 5-year peaks for pitchers as determined by ERA+ and, as many of you probably expected, Pedro Martinez dominated the page. His presence was so ubiquitous in fact, that by the end of the article I was just sick of him. Pedro completed a full trifecta, topping the rankings in each table, and even went on to win the 6-year and 7-year Peaks as well.

But Pedro's sweep came with an unavoidable caveat: despite showing the best ERA+ over each of those time-frames, he also consistently displayed some of the lowest innings totals of the group. So, before we go ahead and conclusively anoint Pedro Martinez as the pitcher with absolutely The Greatest Peak of Our Lives, we need to be certain that Pedro's limited IP totals haven't compromised the value of his ungodly run-prevention skills across consecutive seasons.

To account for this, then, let's add a second opinion to our search for the greatest pitching peak by consulting Baseball-Reference's WAR.

And let's also remember that we ran into the problem of overlapping peaks last week, when Pedro, Maddux, and Walter Johnson were the only names to show up in the top-10 in each time-frame. So, to prevent these three repeaters from bogarting the rankings, I've once again included only the pitcher's best peak and removed the rest.

GREATEST 3-YEAR PEAKS BY rWAR

# NAME Years 3Y_WAR
1 Old Hoss Radbourn 1882--84 38.7
2 Tommy Bond 1877--79 38.7
3 Walter Johnson 1912--14 38.7
4 Bobby Mathews 1873--75 35.7
5 Silver King 1888--90 34.9
6 Cy Young 1892--94 34.5
7 Pud Galvin 1882--84 34.5
8 John Clarkson 1887--89 34.2
9 Al Spalding 1874--76 33.4
10 Jim McCormick 1882--84 32.8

.

Names like Old Hoss, Silver, and, Pud aren't typically the ones that come up when this sort of discussion is raised. In fact, of these ten dead-ball era pitchers only Walter Johnson appeared in any of our ERA+ examinations from last week. The source of the disconnect between the two is obviously the disproportionate amount of innings that dead-ball pitchers racked up compared to their live-ball era counterparts. The lowest IP total of this group is Johnson with 1086 over the 3-year period, an average of 362 IP per season. The highest IP total of the group is Old Hoss himself with 1777 IP over the 3-year period, an average of just under 600 IP per season.

Obviously, the game has changed dramatically since the 19th century, and though WAR is often the best tool at our disposal for accurately comparing performance across eras, it comes up short here. So, allow me to focus on the 'Our Lives' portion of this article's title, and exclude those exemplary pitching performances from the dead-ball era (with apologies to any of the internet-savvy octogenarians among the readership this morning).

GREATEST 3-YEAR PEAKS BY rWAR SINCE 1920

# NAME Years 3Y_WAR
1 Bob Gibson 68--70 29.8
2 Lefty Grove 35--37 29.2
3 Wilbur Wood 71--73 29
4 Randy Johnson 00--02 28
5 Pedro Martinez 98--00 27.8
6 Hal Newhouser 44--46 27
7 Roger Clemens 96--98 26.8
8 Gaylord Perry 72--74 26
9 Robin Roberts 52--54 25.9
10 Bob Feller 39--41 25.4

And there you have it. With the switch to rWAR, Pedro Martinez is dethroned immediately.

Perhaps I gave it away by selecting his photo for the lede, but here is one more example of how truly amazing Bob Gibson was during his peak. Gibson amassed an ERA+ of 258 at a time when the league ERA was the lowest it has ever been in the live-ball era. So, unlike Pedro, whose other-worldly ERA+ scores from his peak seasons owe a sizable debt to the high run-environment of the times, Gibson was preventing runs at an outstanding rate in a season where the league was preventing runs at an outstanding rate as well.

Gibson's peak did not break the top-ten in our ERA+ search, as his follow-up season was merely a mortal 164 ERA+, and an even mortal-er 133 in 1970. This adds up to a 167 ERA+ over the three seasons, good for just 20th best after removing the repeaters.

Gibson, however, pulls away from the competition in the WAR queries by virtue of his tremendous innings totals during that time. A 167 ERA+ over three seasons is one thing, but doing it over 912 innings is entirely another. During Pedro's oft-celebrated 3-year peak from 1999-2001, he was only good for just over half of that, at 547 IP.

Unfortunately, after his 3-year peak from '68-'70 Gibson was then entering his age-35 season where he promptly began to decline. His 119 ERA+ in 1971 drags him down to 4th amongst the greatest 4-year Peaks:

GREATEST 4-YEAR PEAKS BY rWAR SINCE 1920

# NAME Years 4Y_WAR
1 Randy Johnson 99--02 36.8
2 Pedro Martinez 97--00 36.5
3 Sandy Koufax 63--66 34.9
4 Bob Gibson 68--71 34.4
5 Lefty Grove 30--33 34.4
6 Wilbur Wood 71--74 34.2
7 Robin Roberts 51--54 33.5
8 Hal Newhouser 44--47 32.6
9 Greg Maddux 94--97 32.4
10 Juan Marichal 63--66 32.1

The Left Arm of God suddenly leaps in from out-of-nowhere to 3rd in the rankings. This is mainly because Koufax's 5-WAR seasons in '64 and '65 are book-ended by two +7 WAR seasons in '63 and '66. What is most incredible about this peak is that the end of Koufax's 4-year run, the third best of it's kind, was also the end of his career. Not many pitchers, or athletes for that matter, have gone out on top the way Mr. Koufax did.

It's also interesting that Juan Marichal's 10th place showing occurred over the exact same period as Koufax's, 1963-1966.

Randy Johnson, whose 3-year peak was inferior to those of Gibson, Grove, and Wood, displayed much more sustainability over a four-season period and rises to #1 in the rankings with Pedro not far behind. But the Big Unit's 2003 season, in which he was limited to just 114 IP and and ERA+ of just 110, prevents him from dominating the 5-year table. Instead, with Johnson's slip, we are forced to endure the the return of an old nemesis at #1.

GREATEST 5-YEAR PEAKS BY rWAR SINCE 1920

# NAME Years 5Y_WAR
1 Pedro Martinez 97--01 52.8
2 Randy Johnson 98--02 52
3 Robin Roberts 50--54 49.9
4 Lefty Grove 28--32 49.7
5 Roger Clemens 87--91 49.5
6 Greg Maddux 92--96 48.7
7 Bob Gibson 66--70 48.3
8 Phil Niekro 75--79 47.7
9 Sandy Koufax 62--66 46.7
10 Tom Seaver 70--74 46.5

In the 5-year sample, Marichal and Newhouser are ousted from the top-ten in favor of innings-devouring knuckle-baller Phil Niekro, who reaches #8 in our rankings despite an ERA+ of just 120 during that time. Roger Clemens rejoins the group, but with a peak that begins almost a decade before his 3-year showing. And Tom Seaver makes his first appearance on the merits of his terrific 1970-74 run. Like Maddux, Seaver seems to have been a long-peak pitcher and will continue to rise in the rankings as the scope of the sample is broadened:

GREATEST 6-YEAR PEAKS BY rWAR SINCE 1920

# NAME Years 6Y_WAR
1 Pedro Martinez 97--02 59
2 Roger Clemens 87--92 57.9
3 Randy Johnson 97--02 57.7
4 Lefty Grove 28--33 57
5 Greg Maddux 92--97 56.3
6 Bob Gibson 65--70 55
7 Phil Niekro 74--79 54.2
8 Tom Seaver 70--75 54
9 Robin Roberts 50--55 53.8
10 Gaylord Perry 69--74 51.7

Conversely, some of the short-peak pitchers, like Gibson and Koufax, begin to slide from the top as we extend the sample to a 7th consecutive season:

GREATEST 7-YEAR PEAKS BY rWAR SINCE 1920

# NAME Years 7Y_WAR
1 Pedro Martinez 97--03 66.8
2 Greg Maddux 92--98 62.6
3 Randy Johnson 99--05 62.3
4 Roger Clemens 86--92 61.5
5 Lefty Grove 27--33 61.5
6 Tom Seaver 68--74 59.7
7 Bob Gibson 66--72 59.7
8 Phil Niekro 74--80 57.3
9 Gaylord Perry 69--75 57.2
10 Sandy Koufax 60--66 56

In fact, there are only three pitchers that remained in the top-5 in each of the 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7-year samples: Randy Johnson, Lefty Grove, and, of course, Pedro Martinez. Pedro's weakest showing was the 3-year sample, in which he still averaged 9.3 WAR per season.

Another knuckle-baller, Wilbur Wood makes a strong showing at #3 in the 3-year sample, then slides to #6 in the 4-year, and then completely vanishes beyond that. Wood's '71-'73 peak had a comparatively low ERA+ at just 136, but along with Niekro and Perry showed an uncanny ability to rack up innings, with almost 350 per season during that time. Wood, incidentally, is only pitcher to make this list that never got the call from Cooperstown.

Both Gaylord Perry and Bob Feller eked into the 3-year sample and then disappeared for the next few. Perry curiously returns for the 6 and 7-year tables, while Feller is unable to sustain consecutive years of dominance with the arrival of in WWII.

Feller, of course, returned to the states in 1945, but pitched just 72 innings, which limited him to just 1.8 WAR in his comeback year. In his next season, however, Feller once again posted a +9 WAR season. This is really impressive-- from 1941 to 1943 he averaged 8.5 WAR per season, then missed three years, and in his first full-season back posted another 9-WAR season. We are left only to imagine how high Feller would have climbed in the larger year samples if his tremendous run in the 1940's had not been interrupted.

For lessons in modesty, humility, and self-constraint, follow @JDGentile on twitter.

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