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Do the Nationals (or Astros!) have the best “Big Three” ever?

Two great pitching trios remain in the playoffs.

League Championship Series - St Louis Cardinals v Washington Nationals - Game Four Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images

The Washington Nationals have reached the World Series, and it’s not hard to understand why. With apologies to Anthony Rendon, Juan Soto, and Trea Turner, it’s their incredible starting pitching that delivered them to the promised land. Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer, Patrick Corbin, and even Aníbal Sánchez combined for 27 innings and just four runs allowed against the Cardinals, all of which were surrendered by Corbin when they already led 7-0 in Game Four.

The incredible front three starters have been the story all season for the Nationals. By WARP, Strasburg was the top pitcher in MLB this season. Scherzer has unquestionably been the best hurler of the past half decade or so. Corbin didn’t disappoint as the highest paid free agent pitcher from last offseason. These three aces have been the best trio of starting pitchers we’ve seen in a long time... with one exception.

The Astros enjoy a 2-1 lead over the Yankees in the ALCS. FanGraphs give them a 77.7 percent chance of meeting the Nationals in the World Series, and FiveThirtyEight pegs their odds at 69 percent. While their position player group and bullpen are much stronger than the Washington’s, they also employ a dominant starting pitching threesome: Gerrit Cole, Justin Verlander, and Zack Greinke.

Ben Lindbergh of The Ringer detailed how starting pitcher usage in the 2019 postseason has increased relative to recent years. He hypothesizes multiple reasons for this change— including the dejuiced ball— but one of the most obvious is the quality of starting pitchers on two of the last three teams standing. Washington and Houston are both riding their best horses as long as they can.

Having a dominant “big three” isn’t a guarantee of playoff success— ask a Braves fan— but it surely doesn’t hurt to build around elite starting pitching. Strasburg, Scherzer, and Corbin ranked first, sixth, and tenth in pitching WARP this season (Baseball Prospectus’ version of WAR). Cole and Verlander actually tied for second place, while Greinke finished eleventh— though 23 of it was with the Diamondbacks before his trade to Houston.

The Best “Big Three?”

These pitching trios were the best in baseball by far. The inevitable follow-up question is, “How do they rank all-time?” To answer that, we would have to measure them against the best three starters for every team ever, but that wouldn’t be an apples-to-apples comparison. It was much easier to have three great starters before expansion when there were only 16 teams. For example, it was much easier for Connie Mack to assemble aces Eddie Plank, Chief Bender, and Jack Coombs on the 1911 Philadelphia Athletics than it is for Billy Beane to do the same on today’s Oakland A’s.

We also have to agree on a pitching metric to use— measuring pitching is hard! The three main WARs available all use a different basis. Baseball-Reference uses RA9 for bWAR, FanGraphs prefers FIP for fWAR, and BP’s WARP is based on their proprietary DRA. BP’s method is the most advanced, accounting for the most factors that pitchers can control while eliminating the most factors they can’t, so that’s what we’ll use.

Here are the leaders for most WARP by a “big three” since 1998 when MLB expanded to 30 teams:

Best Big Three by WARP (since 1998)

Team Big 3 WARP Ace #1 Ace #2 Ace #3
Team Big 3 WARP Ace #1 Ace #2 Ace #3
1. 1998 Seattle* 24.6 Randy Johnson 10.5* Jamie Moyer 7.4 Jeff Fassero 6.7
2. 2002 Arizona 23.8 Curt Schilling 10.7 Randy Johnson 10.4 Miguel Batista 2.7
3. 1998 Houston* 23.3 Randy Johnson 10.5* José Lima 6.4 Shane Reynolds 6.4
4. 1998 Atlanta 22.7 Greg Maddux 10.9 John Smoltz 6.4 Denny Neagle 5.4
8. 2019 Houston* 21.6 Gerrit Cole 7.9 Justin Verlander 7.9 Zack Greinke 5.8*
15. 2019 Washington 20.3 Stephen Strasburg 8.3 Max Scherzer 6.2 Patrick Corbin 5.9

It appears the winner is the 1998 Mariners, and that the present-day Astros and Nationals only rank eighth and fifteenth. There are a lot of asterisks on the chart, though. The top three teams all feature Randy Johnson, which is no real surprise. However, his 10.5 WARP in 1998 counted for both the Mariners and the Astros. He was traded in the middle of one of his best seasons, and both teams also had a pair of other 6-7 win pitchers. Should he count for both, just one, or neither? That’s up to you!

If you declare both of Johnson’s 1998 teams invalid, his 2002 Diamondbacks take the lead. He and Curt Schilling combined for 21.1 WARP all by themselves, which is more than the entire 2019 Nationals “big three!” It’s hard to say they had three aces though, as Miguel Batista’s 2.7 WARP was decent, but unremarkable. In the spirit of the exercise, you may decide this team shouldn’t count either.

In that case, the best “big three” belongs to the 1998 Braves, which is also no surprise. Maddux, Smoltz, and Neagle added up to 23.3 WARP. A fourth ace— Kevin Millwood— came pretty close as well with 5.1. The glaring omission is Tom Glavine, who’s 3.8 WARP was fifth on his own team, but with a league-leading 20 wins, he took home the Cy Young Award!

Adjusting for Era

Just comparing with pure WARP isn’t exactly a fair fight though. Starting pitchers threw a lot more innings 20 years ago. 11 of the top 13 “big threes” were pre-2005. Randy Johnson threw more than 240 innings each year from 1998-2002. No one in MLB has thrown that many in a season since 2014.

For a better comparison, we need to adjust for innings pitched. Here are the “big three” leaders adjusted for 180 innings pitched:

Best Big Three by WARP/180 (since 1998)

Team Big 3 WARP/180 Ace #1 Ace #2 Ace #3
Team Big 3 WARP/180 Ace #1 Ace #2 Ace #3
1. 1998 Atlanta 19.95 Greg Maddux 7.8 John Smoltz 6.9 Kevin Millwood 5.3
2. 2003 Arizona 19.00 Curt Schilling 7.2 Brandon Webb 6.0 Randy Johnson 5.8
3. 2019 Washington 18.79 Stephen Strasburg 7.1 Max Scherzer 6.4 Patrick Corbin 5.2
4. 1998 Seattle* 18.79 Randy Johnson 7.7* Jaime Moyer 5.7 Jeff Fassero 5.4
5. 1999 Atlanta 18.73 John Smoltz 6.8 Kevin Millwood 6.6 Greg Maddux 5.3
6. 2019 Houston* 18.05 Gerrit Cole 6.7 Justin Verlander 6.4 Zack Greinke 5.0*

By this measure, the 1998 Braves indeed had the best pitching staff ever. Millwood replaces Neagle here, and Cy Young winner Glavine is still fifth in his own rotation. Randy Johnson shows up twice more, although the same trade caveat still applies to his 1998 Mariners.

Our 2019 teams fare better when adjusted for workload. The Nationals have higher overall quality in their “big three,” placing third overall. The Astros finish a respectable sixth. Of course, Greinke compiled most of his value in Arizona, but that matters little in October. He’s still a 5.0 WARP/180 pitcher this season, and he’s only pitching for one team in the postseason.

It’s worth noting that most of the highest WARP “big threes” came from extremely high offense periods: the steroid era and the rabbit ball of 2019. Apparently, when the average pitcher across MLB gives up more runs, the best run preventers stand out even more. A 2.50 DRA is more impressive when the league DRA is 4.00 than when it’s 3.50.

There are only two franchises in MLB that have never played a World Series game. When the Nationals take the field this coming Tuesday, there will only be one: the Seattle Mariners. This isn’t an original take, but would things have been different if they retained Randy Johnson (not to mention Álex Rodríguez and Ken Griffey, Jr.)? They’ve been asking that question in Seattle for more than 20 years, and based on what we’ve learned from 2019, they’ll continue to wonder even more.

It’s also worthwhile to point out that the three highest salaries in baseball this year belong to Strasburg, Scherzer, and Greinke. The Nationals three aces earn a combined $89.8 million, while the Astros top three earn $76.1 million (though the Diamondbacks paid much of Greinke’s salary). As the two likeliest World Series participants— and two of the best pitching rotations ever— maybe spending money on great baseball players isn’t such a bad idea!

Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. Tweets @depstein1983.