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The Astros starting rotation is breaking baseball, literally

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Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Charlie Morton have some of the best combined numbers baseball has ever seen.

San Francisco Giants v Houston Astros Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

If you’ve ever read any of my previous articles then you’ll know I love pitching, it’s no secret. From ridiculous velocities like Noah Syndergaard, to crazy movement like Corey Kluber, it’s what got me hooked on baseball in the first place.

So a question I often find myself asking, as I’m sure others ask this too, is which team had the best rotation in baseball history? It’s a somewhat subjective question but it still can be answered objectively too. Naturally an avid baseball would react with: “the 90’s Atlanta Braves.” That’s hard to argue against when the trio consists of John Smoltz, Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine dominated together for seven seasons before Smoltz had Tommy John’s in 2000. Between them earning five Cy Youngs while they were teammates, they were a force to be reckoned with no doubt about it. Their stretch of dominance is still talked about and is often regarded as the best rotation in history simply for what those three guys were able to do.

However I would argue given the current pace that will not only change but any notion of the Braves trio being the best ever will also be shattered. I’m talking about the Houston Astros. With the trio of Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Charlie Morton putting up video game-like numbers, supported by an ever-improving Lance McCullers Jr. and an always solid Dallas Keuchel, not only could it be the best trio of starters in a single season but also the best rotation in a season ever.

First let’s dive into the Morton, Verlander, and Cole trio and see what’s there before we take a look at the rotation overall. The names of Maddux, Smoltz and Glavine are thrown around a lot, after all they are all Hall of Famers and among the greatest pitchers ever. So it makes sense why someone would say that, and they certainly have a solid argument to back it up with. But I would counter that what Morton, Verlander and Cole are doing isn’t just historic, it has never been done before. While Morton certainly won’t make the Hall of Fame, Justin Verlander is a no doubt first balloter and he’s still going. The jury is still out on Cole as he’s not even 28 yet, only time will tell with him. So subjectively the 90’s Braves have the Astros there, but the numbers do not agree. In fact the number say that the 1995 Braves, the year the won the World Series, were absolutely dwarfed by what the Astros trio are doing right now. Take a look.

2018 Astros vs 1995 Braves - Trios

Trio ERA WHIP FIP K% BB% SO/BB HR/9
Trio ERA WHIP FIP K% BB% SO/BB HR/9
2018 Astros 1.63 0.608 2.45 39.80% 6.90% 5.10 0.75
1995 Braves 2.61 1.093 3.00 20.70% 6.70% 3.11 0.48

Alright, so that’s a no-doubter, how about if we cherry pick the best season from each of the Braves trio while together and compare it to the Astros trio right now? I used Maddux’s 1994 season, Smoltz’s 1996 season and Glavine’s 1998 season. All three specifc seasons resulted in that pitcher getting the Cy Young, so they’re no doubt some of the best seasons of that time. Unfortunately due to FIP constants changing season to seaon, I am unable to get a combined FIP total.

2018 Astros vs Best of Braves - Trios

Trio ERA WHIP FIP K% BB% SO/BB HR/9
Trio ERA WHIP FIP K% BB% SO/BB HR/9
2018 Astros 1.63 0.608 2.45 39.80% 6.90% 5.10 0.75
Mixed Braves 2.38 1.038 N/A 21.80% 5.90% 3.68 0.47

That leaves little doubt about the objective numbers with respect to the Astros trio, but how about the entire rotation? Well, it’s really shocking because those numbers are even more jaw-dropping than just what the trio is doing. The Astros currently have a 2.28 ERA as a starting staff through 52 games. Not only would that be the best for a starting rotation since 1920, it would be the seventh best single-season ERA by any squad of relievers in that same time frame.

It’s ironic that the prior best rotational ERA through a full season since 1969, when the mound was lowered, is the 1981 Houston Astros with 2.43. With the likes of Nolan Ryan, Don Sutton, Bob Knepper, Joe Niekro and Vern Ruhle, they had up to this point the single most dominant season as a starting staff since the game changed when the mound was lowered.

For the best single seasons, I sorted the best seasons ever by OPS+ and then looked for more recent seasons to see how more recent rotations stack up to the Astros performance now.

2018 Astros Rotation vs Other Rotations

Rotation ERA WHIP FIP SO/9 SO/BB OPS+
Rotation ERA WHIP FIP SO/9 SO/BB OPS+
2018 Astros 2.28 0.955 2.86 10.5 4.13 57
1981 Astros 2.43 1.114 2.76 5.4 2.14 68
1994 Braves 3.28 1.182 3.53 7.5 2.58 68
2016 Cubs 2.96 1.067 3.72 8.4 3.11 68

But let’s not just focus on ERA given the propensity that other numbers tell more. Based on current pace the Astros have the lowest WHIP by starter-reliever splits through a season and the best starting rotation strikeouts per nine as well. Their OPS+ would also be number one and they wouldn’t even be in the top 10 for lowest batting average on balls in play. Basically, since the mound was lowered in 1969, starting rotations have never seen these types of numbers.

Given that and the chaos that baseball often is, it will likely change at some point in the season. One or more will go through a rough patch where they struggle. The silver lining in this is that besides the regular season numbers, the Astros are basically a lock for a date with the postseason, and remember what the Astros did with respect to starting pitching in last year’s postseason. Now you add a bonafide ace in Cole behind the same four that were the main starters last postseason and that already skews the win percentage in their favor.

We’re one-third of the way through the season and the Astros rotation looks like a freight train ready to run down anything in it’s path. Forget the offense and bullpen, both are great, and the bullpen is almost just as good as the rotation, but it will be the rotation that gives the Astros a deep postseason run and makes them very likely favorites for a World Series crown in 2018. I’m certainly betting the house on them if the rotations stays healthy.


Ron Wolschleger is a pitchaholic and a Contributing Writer for Beyond the Box Score as well as Bless You Boys. You can follow him on Twitter at @FIPmyWHIP.