OpinionApril 9, 2004

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Baseball’s Best Rotation

By Mike Baber

A new baseball season has begun. After a productive winter that once again benefited the Yankees the most, the first games are in the books. But before we immerse ourselves in the new campaign, we first must review the offseason. Roger Clemens postponed his retirement to join ex-Yankee teammate Andy Pettitte on the Astros, Greg Maddux became reacquainted with the Cubs, Curt Schilling left Arizona for the Red Sox and their curse, the Yankees picked up Kevin Brown and Javier Vazquez, and, quietly, the Athletics acquired former Marlin pitcher Mark Redman. These signings, along with many other big-time trades and pickups, once again promises an amazing year of baseball, but leaves us with one question: who has the best starting five in baseball?

For me, it comes down to four teams � the Red Sox, the Athletics, the Cubs, and the Astros. Many people are probably wondering, “What about the Yankees?” and I agree; if I had to pick my top five rotations, the Yankees would be included. This article, however, is about the top four pitching rotations, and with great sadness, I eliminated the Yankees from the running. Mike Mussina has not proven himself as a legit ace, Kevin Brown is getting old, and it will be hard for him to repeat last year’s numbers, Javier Vazquez has never pitched in the spotlight before, and Jose Contreras and Jon Lieber are too unpredictable. That leaves four teams.

Don’t get me wrong, the Astros, Red Sox, Athletics, and Cubs all have great pitching staffs, but only one can be the best. So before doing anything else, I looked at the 2003 stats:

Houston Astros

Roger Clemens17-93.911.21190
Andy Pettitte21-84.021.33180
Roy Oswalt10-52.971.14100
Wade Miller14-134.131.31161
Jeriome Robertson15-95.101.5299
Team Average15-84.011.30146


Chicago Cubs

Mark Prior18-62.431.10245
Kerry Wood14-113.201.19266
Greg Maddux16-113.961.18124
Carlos Zambrano13-113.381.31128
Matt Clement14-124.111.23171
Team Average15-103.421.20187


Boston Red Sox

Pedro Martinez14-42.221.04206
Curt Shilling8-92.951.05194
Derek Lowe17-74.471.42110
Tim Wakefield11-74.091.30109
Byung-Hyun Kim9-103.311.12102
Team Average12-73.411.26156


Oakland Athletics

Tim Hudson16-72.701.08162
Barry Zito14-123.301.18146
Mark Mulder15-93.131.18128
Mark Redman14-93.591.22151
Rich Harden5-44.461.5067
Team Average13-83.441.23131


When looking at the stats, it seems obvious that the Cubs have the best staff hands down. They are tied for the lead in wins, are first in strikeouts and WHIP, and second in ERA. The one drawback to these stats, however, is that they do not tell the whole story.

First of all, both the Athletics’ and the Astros’ team averages are brought down by their number five starters. While Jeriome Robertson was 15-9 for Houston, he had a 5.10 ERA and a WHIP of1.52. Take away his stats and the Astros’ team ERA goes from 4.01 to 3.76, and their WHIP drops from 1.30 to 1.25. The same is true for Oakland and Rich Harden. Appearing in 15 games as a rookie, he recorded only five wins and 67 strikeouts while compiling a lofty 4.46 ERA and 1.50 WHIP. Filter out Harden’s stats and the Athletics’ other SPs average 15 wins, 147 strikeouts, a 1.17 WHIP, and an amazing 3.18 ERA.

The stats also do not take into account injuries affecting how many games a pitcher appears in, therefore limiting his win and strikeout totals. After a stellar start, Roy Oswalt was hampered by groin injuries the rest of the season, and collected only 10 wins and 100 strikeouts. For the Red Sox, Pedro Martinez was injured for much of the beginning of the year, and managed only 14 wins. The same thing happened to Curt Schilling: an injury forced him to miss time and he won only eight games. And while not on the shelf, Byung-Hyun Kim was a reliever much of 2003, which held him to only nine wins. If Boston had not been plagued by injuries, the Red Sox’ team averages would have been significantly better. In Oakland, Mark Mulder, coming off 21 and 19 win seasons, injured his left hip and was forced to miss a few starts, limiting him to 15 wins. Barry Zito, who won the Cy Young award the previos year with a 23-5 record, only managed to win 14, although his 2003 stats were not much worse than those from his Cy Young season. You can expect him to be back to his normal self this year. Strangely, it seems that the Cubs were the only team not hampered by injuries or any other conditions that may have brought their averages down, one of the reasons why their averages were so much better.

Now it comes time to choose. Of the four teams, I believe that the Red Sox are the weakest. After Martinez and Schilling (both coming off injuries), nobody else is very dependable. Lowe did win 17 games, but he had a 4.47 ERA and a 1.42 WHIP. When Wakefield’s knuckleball is working, he can be dominating, but on other days hitters can tee off on him. Byung-Hyun Kim, who never seems to put together a solid, consistent season, gives up too many home runs and has only started 12 games in his career, all last year.

Next go the Astros. While all of their pitchers have high win totals (except for Oswalt, who was injured), only one pitcher had an ERA below 3.90, and only one posted a WHIP below 1.20. Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens benefited from the Yankee bats, which could explain their 21 and 17 wins, respectively, in spite of less-than-stellar ERAs. Those high ERAs will translate into losses, making the Astros the next team to be eliminated.

Two teams are left � the Cubs and the Athletics � and a good case could be made for either one of them. Looking at the stats, the Cubs have the clear advantage, winning in every category. But those basic stats do not tell the whole story. Mulder, Zito, and Hudson are all capable of winning 20 games this season. Mark Redman is a solid fourth option, and he gained World Series experience with the Marlins. Rich Harden has a very bright future, making me believe that overall, the Oakland staff has the most potential. I agree that Prior is better than anyone on the Athletics’ staff, and you could make a case for Kerry Wood too, but after that, things start to go downhill. Greg Maddux is still a good pitcher, but he has been around for a while and cannot be counted on to top 15 wins. Carlos Zambrano, a good pitcher with a bright future, is too inconsistent and needs to be more efficient, walk less batters, and bring his pitch count down. While Matt Clement had an above-average 1.23 WHIP, he also had a 4.11 ERA and, like Zambrano, needs to be more efficient with his pitches to be effective. And that is why I choose the Athletics as having the number one pitching rotation in baseball.

Mike Baber’s thoughts can also be found in the Cafe Forums, where he posts as bucsfan04. He longs for the day when the Pirates can be included in a discussion of the elite rotations.

Which team do you think has the top rotation in the majors? With so many star-studded staffs, it’s a bit like picking the proverbial prettiest Miss America…

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