The best no. 3 starters in history

One of these Tigers hurlers is looking to become one of the best number three starters in recent memory. - Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Teams are often known for their one-two punch at the top of a rotation, but the third arm is often vital to the team's success. Here's a tribute to the best number three starters in baseball history including Ken Holtzman, Roger Clemens, and maybe ... Justin Verlander?

You can never have enough starting pitching. I normally hate using cliches in writing, but this one is true and actually means something tangible. Pitching depth is really important. You know that, I know that, and I'm not sure if you could even get Brian Kenny and Harold Reynolds to argue about it on MLB Now.

I'm not here to talk about the importance of depth, but rather to highlight occasions of exceptional depth. Specifically, the best number three starters in baseball history. Recently in these pages, Stephen Loftus took a look at how many building blocks a team needs and basically came to the conclusion that the performance of a team's top three starters is nearly as predictive as the performance of the team's top four or five.

I encourage you to read Loftus' piece because I'm not doing justice to the nuance. The basic point that I'm going to run with is that you need good pitching overall to win, but it's your three best guys that are going to carry the staff so it pays to have a really great number three starter.

Let's take a look at some of the best in baseball history. First we'll check out the best number three starters on a team using fWAR dating back to 1901.

*Author's Note: Much of this analysis was conducted manually. If you notice a missing player, please comment below. This data includes only pitchers who spent their entire season with a single team and does not consider #4 or #5 starters who may also have pitched equally as well.

Rank Season Name Team GS IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 ERA FIP WAR
14 1996 Tom Glavine Braves 36 235.1 6.92 3.25 0.54 2.98 3.49 5.0
13 1956 Dick Donovan White Sox 31 234.2 4.60 2.26 0.84 3.64 3.40 5.0
12 1997 Denny Neagle Braves 34 233.1 6.63 1.89 0.69 2.97 3.34 5.2
11 1966 Don Sutton Dodgers 35 225.2 8.34 2.07 0.76 2.99 2.53 5.2
10 1963 Jim O'Toole Reds 32 234.1 5.61 2.19 0.50 2.88 2.72 5.2
9 1968 Ray Sadecki Giants 36 254 7.30 2.48 0.50 2.91 2.34 5.3
8 1962 Johnny Podres Dodgers 40 255 6.28 2.51 0.71 3.81 3.11 5.3
7 1932 Wes Ferrell Indians 34 287.2 3.29 3.25 0.53 3.66 4.14 5.3
6 1925 Eppa Rixey Reds 36 287.1 2.16 1.47 0.25 2.88 3.55 5.3
5 2005 Andy Pettitte Astros 33 222.1 6.92 1.66 0.69 2.39 3.07 5.4
4 1999 John Smoltz Braves 29 186.1 7.53 1.93 0.68 3.19 3.14 5.4
3 2001 Roger Clemens Yankees 33 220.1 8.70 2.94 0.78 3.51 3.29 5.6
2 1969 Ken Holtzman Cubs 39 261.1 6.06 3.20 0.62 3.58 3.18 5.9
1 1970 Ken Holtzman Cubs 38 287.2 6.32 2.94 0.94 3.38 3.60 6.7

This is a list of every number three starter in history to be worth at least 5.0 fWAR in a season. You'll notice a handful of recent names like Clemens, Smoltz, Pettitte, Neagle, and Glavine but I have to direct your attention to Ken Holtzman who posted the two best seasons from a number three starter in history and did so in consecutive years.

Here are the top four starters for the 1969 Cubs:

Name GS IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 ERA FIP WAR
Dick Selma 25 168.2 8.59 3.84 0.69 3.63 2.94 3.8
Ken Holtzman 39 261.1 6.06 3.20 0.62 3.58 3.18 5.9
Bill Hands 41 300 5.43 2.19 0.63 2.49 3.00 7.5
Fergie Jenkins 42 311.1 7.89 2.05 0.78 3.21 2.64 9.1

And now, the top four starters for the 1970 Cubs:

Name GS IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 ERA FIP WAR
Milt Pappas 20 144.2 4.98 2.24 0.87 2.68 3.54 3.5
Ken Holtzman 38 287.2 6.32 2.94 0.94 3.38 3.60 6.7
Bill Hands 38 265 5.77 2.58 0.68 3.70 3.24 7.3
Fergie Jenkins 39 313 7.88 1.73 0.86 3.39 2.78 10.5

Holtzman posted 12.7 fWAR from 1969-1970 and wasn't even the second best pitcher on his team in either season. That's incredible. If you can believe it, neither of those Cubs teams made the playoffs.

Some of the names on that first list are from long ago, so let's update the list with the best number three starters since 1990:

Rank Season Name Team GS IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 ERA FIP WAR
15 1997 Bob Tewksbury Twins 26 168.2 4.91 1.65 0.64 4.22 3.51 4.3
14 2002 Roger Clemens Yankees 29 180 9.60 3.15 0.90 4.35 3.30 4.4
13 2003 Barry Zito Athletics 35 231.2 5.67 3.42 0.74 3.30 4.05 4.5
12 2000 Dave Burba Indians 32 191.1 8.47 4.28 0.89 4.47 4.00 4.5
11 2003 Roger Clemens Yankees 33 211.2 8.08 2.47 1.02 3.91 3.60 4.6
10 2011 Cole Hamels Phillies 31 213 8.15 1.86 0.76 2.75 3.00 4.7
9 1999 Jose Lima Astros 35 246.1 6.83 1.61 1.10 3.58 3.76 4.7
8 1998 Tom Glavine Braves 33 229.1 6.16 2.90 0.51 2.47 3.50 4.7
7 2001 Barry Zito Athletics 35 214.1 8.61 3.36 0.76 3.49 3.53 4.8
6 1990 David Cone Mets 30 210.2 9.91 2.73 0.90 3.25 2.83 4.9
5 1996 Tom Glavine Braves 36 235.1 6.92 3.25 0.54 2.98 3.49 5.0
4 1997 Denny Neagle Braves 34 233.1 6.63 1.89 0.69 2.97 3.34 5.2
3 2005 Andy Pettitte Astros 33 222.1 6.92 1.66 0.69 2.39 3.07 5.4
2 1999 John Smoltz Braves 29 186.1 7.53 1.93 0.68 3.19 3.14 5.4
1 2001 Roger Clemens Yankees 33 220.1 8.70 2.94 0.78 3.51 3.29 5.6

Roger Clemens is on this list three times in three consecutive seasons from 2001-2003. Let's check them out in order:

Name GS IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 ERA FIP WAR
Roger Clemens 33 220.1 8.70 2.94 0.78 3.51 3.29 5.6
Andy Pettitte 31 200.2 7.36 1.84 0.63 3.99 3.02 5.7
Mike Mussina 34 228.2 8.42 1.65 0.79 3.15 2.92 6.8

Name GS IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 ERA FIP WAR
Roger Clemens 29 180 9.60 3.15 0.90 4.35 3.30 4.4
Mike Mussina 33 215.2 7.60 2.00 1.13 4.05 3.64 4.6
David Wells 31 206.1 5.98 1.96 0.92 3.75 3.68 4.6

Name GS IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 ERA FIP WAR
Roger Clemens 33 211.2 8.08 2.47 1.02 3.91 3.60 4.6
Andy Pettitte 33 208.1 7.78 2.16 0.91 4.02 3.35 5.2
Mike Mussina 31 214.2 8.18 1.68 0.88 3.40 3.09 6.2

That's pretty amazing. Clemens put up 14.6 fWAR from 2001-2003 and was the third best pitcher on the Yankees the entire time. Which brings us to the present. While Lotus' article was the catalyst for me to actually research this topic, I've been thinking about the best number three starters all season because the Detroit Tigers are making a run at collective rotation immortality thanks to some incredible work by their entire staff.

As it stands now, and as I've been writing about obsessively for several months (see here and here), the Tigers are currently tied with the 2011 Phillies and 1971 White Sox for the best FIP- ever by a starting staff at 77. You can't put up a number like that without great years from your three, four, and five starters.

So where does the Tigers' current number three starter rank all time? Well it's probably worth pointing out that the Tigers third best starter is Justin Verlander and that we're currently living in a strange alternate dimension, but once we get over that we can see he has an fWAR of 3.5. At this exact pace, he figures to finish at 4.6, which would be the 11th best mark since 1990. Granted, he's capable of picking up the pace, so we could be looking at something close to 5.0, which would put him in the top five since 1990.

It's also worth mentioning that Doug Fister and Rick Porcello are probably doing really well compared to number four and five starters in history, but that's a topic for another day. Should you be interested, here is Verlander's 2013 competition (entering play on August 15th):

Name Team GS IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 ERA FIP WAR
Gio Gonzalez Nationals 24 144.2 9.08 3.55 0.87 3.42 3.50 2.0
Shelby Miller Cardinals 22 121.1 9.79 2.60 0.89 2.89 3.09 2.3
John Lackey Red Sox 21 133 8.32 1.96 1.22 3.32 3.69 2.5
Justin Verlander Tigers 25 158.2 8.74 3.23 0.79 3.57 3.40 3.5

If anyone is going to make a run at being one of the best number three starters in baseball since 1990 or even all time, it's going to be Verlander or whichever Tigers' starter ends up third on the team. Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez, Fister, and Verlander could all conceivably finish with 4.5 WAR or better. None of them are in Ken Holtzman territory, but they're probably okay with that. Who would want to be the third best pitcher on a team that didn't make the playoffs anyway?

. . .

All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.

Neil Weinberg is a Staff Writer at Beyond The Box Score, contributor to Gammons Daily, and can also be found writing enthusiastically about the Detroit Tigers at New English D. You can follow and interact with him on Twitter at @NeilWeinberg44.

More from Beyond the Box Score:

Btbs-twitter-insert_medium

X
Log In Sign Up

forgot?
Log In Sign Up

Please choose a new SB Nation username and password

As part of the new SB Nation launch, prior users will need to choose a permanent username, along with a new password.

Your username will be used to login to SB Nation going forward.

I already have a Vox Media account!

Verify Vox Media account

Please login to your Vox Media account. This account will be linked to your previously existing Eater account.

Please choose a new SB Nation username and password

As part of the new SB Nation launch, prior MT authors will need to choose a new username and password.

Your username will be used to login to SB Nation going forward.

Forgot password?

We'll email you a reset link.

If you signed up using a 3rd party account like Facebook or Twitter, please login with it instead.

Forgot password?

Try another email?

Almost done,

By becoming a registered user, you are also agreeing to our Terms and confirming that you have read our Privacy Policy.

Join Beyond the Box Score

You must be a member of Beyond the Box Score to participate.

We have our own Community Guidelines at Beyond the Box Score. You should read them.

Join Beyond the Box Score

You must be a member of Beyond the Box Score to participate.

We have our own Community Guidelines at Beyond the Box Score. You should read them.

Spinner.vc97ec6e

Authenticating

Great!

Choose an available username to complete sign up.

In order to provide our users with a better overall experience, we ask for more information from Facebook when using it to login so that we can learn more about our audience and provide you with the best possible experience. We do not store specific user data and the sharing of it is not required to login with Facebook.

tracking_pixel_9351_tracker