The Boston Red Sox made a blockbuster deal to acquire Chris Sale on Tuesday, giving them one of the most formidable starting rotations baseball has ever seen. The question now becomes, is it the best rotation ever?
It seems like every few years this question gets asked. What follows is a look at what the 2017 Red Sox will bring to the table, then a comparison to some of the other top contenders.
With Sale in the fold, Boston has added a five-time All-Star with a career ERA of 3.00 and a career WHIP of 1.06. At 27 years old he’s in the prime of his career and remains one of the best pitchers in the game. He’s joining a rotation that includes 2012 AL Cy Young winner and five-time All-Star David Price, 2016 AL Cy Young winner Rick Porcello and 2016 All-Star and former first-round pick Drew Pomeranz.
The Sox now boast: “a rotation that’s combined for 11 Cy Young vote finishes, two Cy Young awards and 14 All-Star appearances since 2010. They have two of the top-five Cy Young finishers from each of the past two seasons, including the only guy to be there in both.”
Here are the relevant statistics for each of the team’s top four starters in 2016:
Sale: 17-10, 3.34 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 233 strikeouts, 45 walks, 226.2 innings, six complete games, one shutout in 32 starts. WAR: 4.9
Price: 17-9, 3.99 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 228 strikeouts, 50 walks, 230.0 innings, two complete games in 35 starts. WAR: 3.0
Porcello: 22-4, 3.15 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 189 strikeouts, 32 walks, 223.0 innings, three complete games in 33 starts. WAR: 5.0
Pomeranz: (with San Diego and Boston) 11-12, 3.32 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 186 strikeouts, 170.2 innings in 31 appearances (30 starts). WAR: 4.0
Combined WAR: 16.9
Average WAR: 4.23
Dozens of rotations have been considered “all-time greats,” but here’s a look at a few and what they did during the year they were dubbed the best.
What follows is a look at a few of those rotations and what they managed to accomplish.
2011 Philadelphia Phillies
In 2011, the Phillies boasted a star-studded group led by Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels, with Joe Blanton at the No. 4 spot. Entering the season, that group had combined for three Cy Young Awards, 13 All-Star Game appearances and six 20-win seasons.
Blanton wound up missing much of the season, so here’s how his other rotation-mates fared in 2011:
Halladay: 19-6, 2.35 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 220 strikeouts, 233.2 innings, eight complete games, one shutout in 32 starts. WAR: 8.9
Lee: 17-8, 2.40 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, 238 strikeouts, 42 walks, 232.2 innings, six shutouts in 32 starts. WAR: 8.6
Hamels: 14-9, 2.79 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, 194 strikeouts, 44 walks, 216.0 innings, three complete games in 32 appearances (31 starts). WAR: 6.6
Combined WAR: 24.1
Average WAR: 8.03
1993 Atlanta Braves
In 1993 the Braves had three of their pitchers named to the All-Star team, and the fourth won the Cy Young Award. Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Steve Avery all represented the team at the Midsummer Classic, while Greg Maddux stayed home. Maddux took home the real hardware after the season though.
Maddux: 20-10, 2.36 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 197 strikeouts, 52 walks, 267.0 innings, eight complete games, one shutout in 36 starts. Won Cy Young Award. WAR: 5.8
Glavine: 22-6, 3.20 ERA, 1.36 WHIP, 120 strikeouts, 90 walks, 239.1 innings, four complete games, two shutouts in 36 starts. WAR: 3.3
Avery: 18-6, 2.94 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 125 strikeouts, 43 walks, 223.1 innings, three complete games, one shutout in 35 starts. WAR: 3.8
Smoltz: 15-11, 3.62 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 208 strikeouts, 100 walks, 243.2 innings, three complete games, one shutout in 35 starts. WAR: 2.3
Combined WAR: 15.2
Average WAR: 3.8
1971 Baltimore Orioles
The 1971 Orioles lost the World Series to the Pittsburgh Pirates in seven games, but boasted one of the best rotations in baseball history. The foursome of Mike Cuellar, Jim Palmer, Dave McNally and Pat Dobson all topped 20 wins, becoming just the second team in baseball history to accomplish that feat (the 1920 Chicago White Sox are the other). Cuellar and Palmer were All-Stars, while McNally finished fourth in AL Cy Young voting.
Cuellar: 20-9, 3.08 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 124 strikeouts, 78 walks, 292.1 innings, 21 complete games, four shutouts in 38 starts. WAR: 2.8
Dobson: 20-8, 2.90 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 187 strikeouts, 63 walks, 282.1innings, 18 complete games, four shutouts in 38 appearances (37 starts). WAR: 3.1
Jim Palmer: 20-9, 2.68 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 184 strikeouts, 106 walks in 282.0 innings, 20 complete games, four shutouts in 37 starts. WAR: 4.1
Dave McNally: 21-5, 2.89 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 91 strikeouts, 58 walks, 224.1 innings, 11 complete games, one shutout in 30 starts. WAR: 3.0
Combined WAR: 13.0
Average WAR: 3.25
1966 Los Angeles Dodgers
Yet another celebrated rotation was the 1966 Dodgers’ quartet of Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Claude Osteen and Don Sutton. This was Koufax’s final season and he was an All-Star and won the NL Cy Young Award before retiring at just 30 years old. Koufax, Drysdale and Sutton all wound up in the Hall of Fame, so you know this rotation is one of the greatest ever.
The Dodgers would eventually be swept by the Orioles in the World Series but not because of their starting pitching, as the rotation combined to post an ERA of 2.68 and struck out 840 batters.
Koufax: 27-9, 1.73 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, 317 strikeouts, 77 walks, 323.0 innings, 27 complete games, five shutouts in 41 starts. WAR: 10.3
Drysdale: 13-16, 3.42 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 177 strikeouts, 45 walks, 273.2 innings, 11 complete games, three shutouts in 40 starts. WAR: 2.8
Osteen: 17-14, 2.85 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 137 strikeouts 65 walks, 240.1 innings, eight complete games, three shutouts in 39 appearances (38 starts). WAR: 3.0
Sutton: 12-12, 2.99 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 209 strikeouts, 52 walks, 225.2 innings, six complete games, two shutouts in 37 appearances (35 starts). WAR: 3.6
Combined WAR: 19.7
Average WAR: 4.93
1954 Cleveland Indians
The 1954 Indians also had an all-time great rotation, and were also swept in the World Series. But the loss to the New York Giants in the Fall Classic didn’t diminish what the team did, going 111-43 with a four-man rotation for the ages. Mike Garcia, Bob Lemon and Early Wynn finished first, third and fourth in ERA, while Art Houtteman and a 35-year-old Bob Feller held their own. The staff combined for an ERA of 2.86, while the league average was 3.72.
Wynn: 23-11, 2.73 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 155 strikeouts, 83 walks, 270.2 innings, 20 complete games, three shutouts in 40 appearances (36 starts) WAR: 5.2
Garcia: 19-8, 2.64 ERA, 1.13, 129 strikeouts, 71 walks, 258.2 innings, 13 complete games, five shutouts in 45 appearances (34 starts). WAR: 4.8
Lemon: 23-7, 2.72 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, 110 strikeouts, 92 walks, 258.1 innings, 21 complete games, two shutouts in 36 appearances (33 starts). WAR: 4.1
Houtteman: 15-7, 3.35 ERA, 1.37 WHIP, 68 strikeouts, 59 walks, 188.0 innings, 11 complete games, one shutout in 35 appearances (25 starts). WAR: 1.2
Feller: 13-3, 3.09 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 59 strikeouts, 39 walks, 140.0 innings, nine complete games, one shutout in 19 starts. WAR: 1.6
Combined WAR: 16.9
Average WAR: 3.38
Obviously the comparisons will never be equal. As baseball has changed, the importance of having more quality starts has grown. There is also no objective way to measure the best rotation ever, so in this case I’ve used WAR (which is, admittedly, an imperfect statistic). On top of all that, it’s really hard to judge rotations from the pre-WWII era, as baseball was a completely different game back then.
The Red Sox stack up fairly well statistically against some of the most revered rotations in baseball history. Now they just have to go out and live up to the hype and equal or surpass the numbers they put up in 2016.
In an odd “only in baseball” twist, none of the all-time great rotations listed above were able to lead their respective teams to a World Series title. That proves a team needs more than great starting pitching to bring home a championship.