2013 Rotation: Greatest of All Time?

Ace of Clubs - Andy Lyons

Well, no, not yet, but maybe.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: I started this article over a week ago, well before the Cueto injury. Of course, I had a strong feeling that posting this kind of article would be viewed as hubris by the fates, and such an injury would occur after it appeared. However, with the Cueto boo-boo, and the less-than-stellar Villarreal outing coming before the article's appearance, we have the rare opportunity to work a backwards jinx on the universe. What's more, I've kept the Cueto photo attached to the article in hopes for an unprecedented double reverse negative jinx. This should work, and you're welcome. -rf76

Does success breed stupidity? The Reds have been enjoying a pretty good run thus far in 2013, and by my eye, there have been two things worth complaining about. One is the rash of injuries, but even then we all know that injuries are part of the game and we also know that the Home Team has weathered the storm well, and so the first thing worth complaining about hasn't been worth complaining about.

The second thing is the ongoing, continued, and exorbitant success of the Cardinals. Again, however, this is nearly a perennial phenomenon, and people who complain about the same stuff every year are either stupid or miserable or both. That's not how we roll, per se, so let's cross off that complaint for now, too.

We are now left with zero things worth complaining about.

This, of course, presents a significant problem for newspaper writers and other media types, most of whom appear to have two marketable skills. Complaining is one. Writing/saying stupid shit is the other, especially if the stupid-shit commentary involves constructing a straw man for the express purpose of triumphantly knocking it over in a burst of passionate glory, all within 750 words or however many happen to fit in a single newspaper column.

Also helpful are single sentence paragraphs.

This year, by my count, the Cincy locals and assorted followers have been treated to professional discussions regarding:

  • Is Joey Votto actually any good at his chosen vocation of professional baseball?
  • Is Brandon Phillips better than Joe Morgan was?
  • Is Brandon Phillips the team MVP?

There have probably been others, but I don't read the newspaper, either in digital or analog form. The above examples seem to creep into the collective consciousness like a burrowing rodent under your shed. Unhelpful, unwanted, unnecessary. Not, however, unintelligent. The pesky animals know their role and they do it well. Columnists, of course, seek eyeballs, and the fastest way to the top is by burrowing to the bottom. We all have our callings.

This article is not about them, but I do want to use their example to help set the stage for my premise. Most notably, I want to define the terms of my argument up front--what constitutes success and so forth--and not force fit the facts to a pre-determined outcome.

Here's the thesis: the 2013 Reds' starting rotation deserves to be in the conversation for the greatest staff in franchise history.

I've selected, for your perusal, ten of the best Cincy rotations. They may not precisely be the ten best rotations, but I'm fairly confident that the organization's all-time best rotation is one of these ten. In chronological order, they are:

1919

1923

1940

1941

1944

1964

1967

1970

1990

2012

Which one is the best, and how does 2013 compare? We'll go in general order by picking off those years which are least likely to house the greatest rotation in team history.

Let's start by explaining what each of these buckets in the below tables represents.

Year: Anno Domini

# of starters: Count of pitchers who logged at least one game started for the Reds that year

% of starts by top 5: Sum of the five highest GS totals divided by the number of games played by the team that year

Starter wins: wins credited to each starting pitcher in games they started

Starter losses: losses credited to each starting pitcher in games they started

% vs team: The aggregate starting pitcher W-L percentage compared to the team's overall winning percentage. In this instance, +1% means that the starter winning percentage of .579, compares favorably by one percentage point to the 1944 Reds' overall winning percentage of .578.

Starter ERA: The aggregate ERA for all starting pitchers in games they started

Starter IP: The cumulative innings pitched total for all starting pitchers in games they started

Starter IP%: The percentage of team innings pitched logged by starting pitchers in games they started

NL IP%: The same metric as above, calculated for the entire National League

ERA+: The normalized ERA score (adjusted for park and offensive era) for Reds' starting pitchers in games they started. Higher is better.

1-5 spread: The gap in ERA+ from highest to lowest for the five pitchers with the most games started that year

Starter stats: Pitchers 1-5 are the pitchers with the five highest games started totals, ranked by pitching WAR. Pitcher #6 is always the pitcher with the 6th most starts from that season. The "slash stats" are innings pitched/games started/ERA+. Note that in some instances (especially in older eras), the starting pitchers were also frequently used in relief, and total stats in these listings (i.e., IP and ERA+) represent the total stats for each pitcher in all appearances, including relief appearances.

So, what makes a good starting staff? In essence, there should be three basic demonstrations of strength. First, the overall quality should be strong (high ERA+); second, there should not be any weak links (high minimum ERA+ in the 1-5 spread); third, relative to the typical usage patterns of the times, the starting staff should eat up a lot of innings (team IP% should be higher than league IP%).

As we walk through each team, I'll try to give my quick and dirty response to a basic question: Why isn't this rotation the best in team history...

Year

# of starters

% of starts by top 5

Starter wins

Starter losses

% vs team

1944

12

74%

77

56

+1%

Starter ERA

Starter IP

Starter IP%

NL IP%

ERA+

1-5 Spread

2.94

1191.3

85%

78%

119

146-106

#1 Starter

#2 Starter

#3 Starter

#4 Starter

#5 Starter

#6 Starter

Bucky Walters

285/32/146

Ed Heusser

191/23/147

Tommy de la Cruz

191/20/108

Harry Gumbert

156/19/106

Clyde Shoun

202/21/116

Arnold Carter

149/18/135

Why isn't 1944 the best rotation in team history?: As you'll see, the overall numbers for this staff are pretty good. Better, in fact, than some of the rotations to come. However, my overwhelming personal bias is that anything that happened while a significant number of MLB players were off on war duty should be severely discounted. It's simply too tough to rank anything from this era as wholly legitimate, and if you want to accuse me of partially developing this stance in response to the Cardinals owning two World Series titles and an additional NL pennant in the period between Pearl Harbor and D-Day, well...

Year

# of starters

% of starts by top 5

Starter wins

Starter losses

% vs team

1923

8

94%

80

61

-24%

Starter ERA

Starter IP

Starter IP%

NL IP%

ERA+

1-5 Spread

3.17

1163

84%

79%

123

201-65

#1 Starter

#2 Starter

#3 Starter

#4 Starter

#5 Starter

#6 Starter

Dolf Luque

322/37/201

Eppa Rixey

309/37/139

Pete Donohue

274/36/115

Rube Benton

219/26/106

Johnny Couch

69/8/65

Cactus Keck

86/6/105

Why isn't 1923 the best rotation in team history?: Not enough depth. Look, these are some serious names on this chart, and you certainly wouldn't kick this staff off your roster for eating crackers, but this was basically a 3-man rotation with a spot starter thrown in as needed. They were different times, etc., but drop this rotation into modern times, and they might not hold up. Pretty strong, but in today's game, you'd be holding your breath every fifth day, at least.

Year

# of starters

% of starts by top 5

Starter wins

Starter losses

% vs team

1990

9

79%

64

49

+4%

Starter ERA

Starter IP

Starter IP%

NL IP%

ERA+

1-5 Spread

3.62

983.7

68%

68%

111

148-93

#1 Starter

#2 Starter

#3 Starter

#4 Starter

#5 Starter

#6 Starter

Jose Rijo

197/29/148

Tom Browning

228/35/105

Jack Armstrong

166/27/117

Danny Jackson

117/21/111

Rick Mahler

135/16/93

Norm Charlton

154/16/146

Why isn't 1990 the best rotation in team history?: No one would believe it. It's the only World Series team most of us can remember, and I can guarantee that none of you thinks of the rotation as the team's primary strong point. Individually, those are all fine numbers for each of the starters, but the aggregate ERA+ of 111 is the weakest of the ten teams on our list. This team has a bit of an anomaly, in that Charlton and Mahler each started 16 games, and while Charlton certainly out-produced Mahler, I essentially "demoted" Charlton for playing a greater role in the team's bullpen that year.

Year

# of starters

% of starts by top 5

Starter wins

Starter losses

% vs team

1941

9

86%

76

61

-16%

Starter ERA

Starter IP

Starter IP%

NL IP%

ERA+

1-5 Spread

3.10

1152.7

83%

76%

117

161-74

#1 Starter

#2 Starter

#3 Starter

#4 Starter

#5 Starter

#6 Starter

Bucky Walters

302/35/127

Elmer Riddle

217/22/161

Johnny Vander Meer

226/32/128

Paul Derringer

228/28/109

Gene Thompson

109/15/74

Jim Turner

113/10/116

Why isn't 1941 the best rotation in team history?: The weakest link is too weak. With the 1923 squad, you could partially excuse the weak link argument by the fact that the weak link hardly pitched. With 15 starts, it's much more difficult to ignore Gene Thompson's struggles from that season (he was otherwise a fine pitcher, by the way-he broke through with a spectacular rookie campaign in 1939). The team had a great year, regardless (finishing the year at 22 games above .500), but when Thompson was pulled from the rotation on June 9, the team was languishing at breakeven: 25 and 25. Thompson was 1-3 with a 5.68 ERA at the time. The Reds likely wouldn't have won the pennant even with a strong 5th starter, but the weakness there was representative of the overall malaise the team began their title defense with.

Year

# of starters

% of starts by top 5

Starter wins

Starter losses

% vs team

1964

8

82%

72

58

-14%

Starter ERA

Starter IP

Starter IP%

NL IP%

ERA+

1-5 Spread

3.22

1119.7

76%

72%

113

136-95

#1 Starter

#2 Starter

#3 Starter

#4 Starter

#5 Starter

#6 Starter

Jim O'Toole

220/30/136

Jim Maloney

216/31/133

Bob Purkey

196/25/119

Joey Jay

183/23/107

John Tsitouris

175/24/95

Joe Nuxhall

155/22/89

Why isn't 1964 the best rotation in team history?: Call this a super-scientific answer if you must, but it's just lacking a little oomph. The overall numbers are fine, although the 113 staff ERA+ is towards the bottom end of the range of teams we're looking at. Jim O'Toole, at a 136 ERA+, is the weakest "ace" of the staffs we're looking at. ‘Twas a very good rotation overall, albeit one guilty of having two #2 starters in lieu of a #1.

Year

# of starters

% of starts by top 5

Starter wins

Starter losses

% vs team

1970

11

93%

77

44

+6%

Starter ERA

Starter IP

Starter IP%

NL IP%

ERA+

1-5 Spread

3.62

1038

72%

73%

115

139-103

#1 Starter

#2 Starter

#3 Starter

#4 Starter

#5 Starter

#6 Starter

Gary Nolan

251/37/128

Jim McGlothlin

211/34/117

Wayne Simpson

176/26/139

Jim Merritt

234/35/103

Tony Cloninger

148/18/109

Jim Maloney

17/3/38

Why isn't 1970 the best rotation in team history?: Sparky. This was a rock-solid rotation from top to bottom, but the bullpen was better (Wayne Granger, Clay Carroll, and a teenaged Don Gullett), and Sparky Anderson was none-too-shy about using them (hence the Captain Hook moniker). This is the only staff in our top ten which ate up less innings than average. If you're into alternate histories, imagine one in which the Reds--mindful of their massive divisional lead--use Cloninger and Simpson more often in lieu of the 22-year-old Nolan, who doesn't then proceed to blow out his arm in '73 (in real life, he pitched a combined ten innings in 1973 and '74). With ace in hand, the Reds don't lose to the Mets in the '73 NLCS, win the World Series, win the '74 division (instead of losing by 4 games), take that Series, too, and win 132 and 147 ballgames in '75 and '76, respectively, before seeing the league offices cancel the postseason in each season due to lack of competition. Worth pondering, certainly.

Year

# of starters

% of starts by top 5

Starter wins

Starter losses

% vs team

2012

6

99%

66

43

+7%

Starter ERA

Starter IP

Starter IP%

NL IP%

ERA+

1-5 Spread

3.64

1018.7

70%

66%

116

151-92

#1 Starter

#2 Starter

#3 Starter

#4 Starter

#5 Starter

#6 Starter

Johnny Cueto

217/33/151

Mat Latos

209/33/120

Bronson Arroyo

202/32/112

Homer Bailey

208/33/114

Mike Leake

179/30/92

Todd Redmond

3/1/43

Why isn't 2012 the best rotation in team history?: Todd Redmond, j/k lol. There's really nothing wrong with this rotation, per se. The competition gets a little fierce closer to the top, and the 2012 set was a tad shy on total quality. The top 3 staffs all had ERA+ marks above 120, for instance. One also has to assume that that the numbers of the 2012 rotation were at least marginally inflated by its ability to assign 161 of 162 starts to the 5-man staff. A bit fluky, probably.

Year

# of starters

% of starts by top 5

Starter wins

Starter losses

% vs team

1940

9

92%

79

47

-27%

Starter ERA

Starter IP

Starter IP%

NL IP%

ERA+

1-5 Spread

3.08

1165.3

83%

76%

124

154-105

#1 Starter

#2 Starter

#3 Starter

#4 Starter

#5 Starter

#6 Starter

Bucky Walters

305/36/154

Paul Derringer

297/37/124

Gene Thompson

225/31/115

Jim Turner

187/23/132

Whitey Moore

117/15/105

Johnny Vander Meer

48/7/102

Why isn't 1940 the best rotation in team history?: Well, they might just be the best. There's not much in the above table to suggest a whole lot of weakness. If there were any doubts, however, they're buried in that number that shows the aggregate starter winning percentage as 27 percentage points lower than the overall team. In particular, the '40 Reds had two fireman relievers (Joe Beggs and Elmer Riddle) who were lights out (ERA+ in the 200 ballpark). Neither was used as like a traditional closer, and I wonder how much of the high ERA+ marks from the starting staff was dependent on these two relievers bailing the starters out of various jams. It's probably a nitpick, but enough to keep this team from the #1 spot. You should note Bucky Walters' presence on three of the staffs presented here. He was good.

Year

# of starters

% of starts by top 5

Starter wins

Starter losses

% vs team

1967

9

89%

68

56

+11%

Starter ERA

Starter IP

Starter IP%

NL IP%

ERA+

1-5 Spread

3.15

1082.3

74%

73%

121

147-99

#1 Starter

#2 Starter

#3 Starter

#4 Starter

#5 Starter

#6 Starter

Gary Nolan

227/32/147

Mel Queen

196/24/137

Jim Maloney

196/29/116

Milt Pappas

218/32/113

Sammy Ellis

176/27/99

Billy McCool

97/11/111

Why isn't 1967 the best rotation in team history?: Maybe they weren't quite as innings-eating as you might otherwise demand, but this was a fine, fine rotation. Top o' the staff was Gary Nolan, who turned 19 two months after the season began. All told, there's nothing here that screams weakness, and the numbers here have the additional benefit of looking like a modern day rotation, which help with any comparisons to current staffs. If you're the kind of guy who likes to discount most everything that occurred before integration, or World War 2, or the death of the dead-ball era, then this may be your best bet for top rotation in franchise history.

Year

# of starters

% of starts by top 5

Starter wins

Starter losses

% vs team

1919

9

89%

84

42

-19%

Starter ERA

Starter IP

Starter IP%

NL IP%

ERA+

1-5 Spread

2.21

1107.3

87%

84%

127

154-117

#1 Starter

#2 Starter

#3 Starter

#4 Starter

#5 Starter

#6 Starter

Dutch Ruether

242/29/154

Slim Sallee

228/28/136

Jimmy Ring

183/18/124

Hod Eller

248/30/117

Ray Fisher

174/20/129

Dolf Luque

106/9/107

Why isn't 1919 the best rotation in team history?: It is! Unless you want to lean on a couple of potential caveats. First, this was an era in which "pitching to contact" was a given; the Redlegs' hurlers struck out just 407 batters in 1919, and the team's fielding percentage was tops in the league. In a period prior to homers and whiffs, the pitching was even more fielding-dependent than it is today. It's plausible, even likely, that the strong composition of team defense lifted all boats, so to speak. The second caveat is of the top 5 starters on this team, exactly zero of them rank on the current iteration of Top 100 franchise players. Ruether, Sallee, and Ring were all one or two year wonders, each coincidentally colliding in 1919 with his career season. It's a bit aesthetically unsatisfying that the pitching dominance of '19 was so completely unsustainable. But maybe that's pitching in a nutshell: tough to quantify, tough to separate from the effects of fielding, tough to predict altogether.

And what about 2013?: The short answer is that the current squadron has a mighty good shot at cracking this list, with a reasonable chance at topping it. The shorter answer is that it's still early, and a lot can change between now and the end of the year. All the same, this staff is on pace to be as good as anyone's ever seen in the city of Cincinnati; we're just setting parameters of how to gauge such a thing. Let's go to the table:

Year

# of starters

% of starts by top 5

Starter wins

Starter losses

% vs team

2013

7

88%

24

12

+67%

Starter ERA

Starter IP

Starter IP%

NL IP%

ERA+

1-5 Spread

3.24

375.3

69%

66%

127

189-106

#1 Starter

#2 Starter

#3 Starter

#4 Starter

#5 Starter

#6 Starter

Johnny Cueto

37/6/189

Mike Leake

69/11/148

Mat Latos

78/12/141

Bronson Arroyo

80/12/121

Homer Bailey

75/12/106

Tony Cingrani

33/6/126

That's tied for the highest staff ERA+ on record, with not a below-average starter in the arsenal. We're far enough into the season, and the league average of innings given to starting pitchers is low enough, that we can be reasonably certain that the staff will be better than average at eating innings. We can check that box off.

To be considered the top staff in franchise history, then, we're looking at two numbers: The staff ERA+ greater than 127, and the low man on the staff having an ERA+ above 117. Both will be tall orders, although it's certainly reasonable to expect Bailey's numbers to improve. Mike Leake, in particular, appears to be outkicking his coverage quite a bit, so this is by no means a slam dunk (mixed sports metaphors!).

A much more likely scenario is one in which the staff exceeds the exploits of '67, with the two targeted numbers being 121 and 99. Still not a gimme, but definitely within range. There are four long months left in the season, and injuries and slumps are never completely out of sight, but the coveted title of greatest post-war pitching staff in team history is there for the taking.

There is irony here, provided my repeated watchings of Reality Bites have left me with an appropriate understanding of the word. The (potential) summer of the great pitching staff was preceded by a spring's worth of arguments regarding whether or not we should be disappointed about the guy who was left out of the rotation. We didn't even need the guy who throws 100 MPH!!, he said, not at all tempting fate whatsoever.

Regardless of where or how this staff is ultimately ranked, there are at least two items worth raising a glass for today. The first is the evolution of a legitimate pitching staff in Cincy, which borders on the miraculous, given the long history of pitching futility on this club. The second is its consistency, which borders on the incredulous, given Dusty Baker's supposed track record as an armwrecker. Cheers!

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