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.
|13||1956||Dick Donovan||White Sox||31||234.2||4.60||2.26||0.84||3.64||3.40||5.0|
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:
And now, the top four starters for the 1970 Cubs:
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:
Roger Clemens is on this list three times in three consecutive seasons from 2001-2003. Let's check them out in order:
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):
|John Lackey||Red Sox||21||133||8.32||1.96||1.22||3.32||3.69||2.5|
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.
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