Maddux. Glavine. And Smoltz: Incomparable Trio
Maddux. Glavine. And Smoltz. From the time Greg Maddux came to Atlanta as a free agent in 1993 until John Smoltz was forced to sit out the 2000 season because of Tommy John surgery (after which the three were not in the same rotation again, Smoltz returning as a closer), the Braves had the most sustained run of pitching excellence in baseball history. While finishing with the best record in the National League every year except 1994--which was terminated 48-games short in early August because of a catastrophic players' strike--the Braves led both leagues in fewest runs allowed every year from 1993 to 1999, and their adjusted earned run average over those seven years, taking into account their home park and the offensive level at the time, was a major league-best 26 percent better than the average pitching staff. Maddux went 128-51 (.715), won at least 19 games four times, led the league in ERA four times, allowed the fewest runners on base four times, and won the Cy Young Award in each of his first three seasons with Atlanta (giving him four in a row, to go with the one he won with the Cubs in 1992). Glavine, a southpaw who had established himself among elite pitchers before Maddux's arrival with back-to-back 20-win seasons in 1991 (when he won Cy Young) and 1992, went 114-56 (.671) between 1993 and 1999, leading the league with 22 wins in 1993 and 20 in 1998, was honored with a second Cy Young Award in 1998, and his league-leading 21 victories in 2000 helped ease the Braves' pain of not having Smoltz on the mound. Smoltz, before blowing out his elbow landed him in surgery, went 100-59 (.629), led the league in winning percentage and innings pitched twice, won 24 and his own Cy Young Award in 1996, and struck out more batters than innings pitched three times. At 342-166 (.673), Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz won two-thirds of their decisions, had a combined winning percentage 49 percentage points better than Atlanta's overall .625 from 1993 to 1999, and captured five Cy Young Awards when they were in the same rotation.
Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz are all three likely to be Hall of Fame inductees. Only two other teams had three Hall of Fame pitchers together in their starting rotation for as many as five years, but neither with the impact at the time that the Braves had with their three. Back when the American League was still a fledgling, Connie Mack's Philadelphia Athletics from 1903 to 1907 had the benefit of the services of southpaws Eddie Plank and Rube Waddell together with right-hander Chief Bender. The three started two-thirds of Philadelphia's games during those years, combining for 299 (72 percent) of the A's 414 wins. Despite their efforts, however, the Athletics won only one pennant (in 1905) and competed for only one other (in 1907), and only once did the Philadelphia pitching staff they led finish better than fourth in the league in earned run average. Nonetheless, Waddell (107-75, .588) and Plank (116-67, .634) were two of the most dominating pitchers in the league for the entirety of those years, with the eccentric (too often to a fault) Rube dominating the league in strikeouts each year, while Bender (76-54, .585)--whose rookie season was in 1903 at the age of 19--was still coming into his own and was not among his league's five best pitchers in any of those seasons. Mack counted on Waddell and Plank for 300 innings per season; Bender reached 270 innings in his rookie season, but did not throw as many as 250 again until 1909, averaging only 23 starts per year from 1904 to 1907.
With the arrival of Early Wynn in a trade from Washington in 1949 to join up with Bob Feller and Bob Lemon, the Cleveland Indians had a trio of future Hall of Famers in their core rotation for the next five years. Lemon and Wynn were just entering the peak of their best seasons. With 20 wins in 1948 to establish himself as one of baseball's best pitchers, Lemon was a 20-game winner in six of the next eight seasons and led the league with 18 wins in one of the two years he did not win 20, and Wynn won 20 for Cleveland four times. Bob Feller, however, was on the downside of his great career; although he was still only 30, Feller had already thrown nearly 2,500 innings in 10 seasons. He had been a 20-game winner five consecutive seasons and led the league in strikeouts seven straight years (not including three full seasons lost to World War II and a late return to the diamond in 1945), but after 1948, Feller won 20 only once more and never again approached the strikeout totals from earlier in his career. Bob Feller was actually the fourth-best pitcher in Cleveland from 1949 until the sands of time ran out on his career.
Mike Garcia was the third man joining with Lemon and Wynn from 1949 to 1956 to give Cleveland one of the best starting threesomes in baseball history. Garcia won 104 games with a .650 winning percentage in his first six years with the Indians before descending toward mediocrity in 1955, had back-to-back 20-win seasons in 1951 and 1952, and led the league in ERA in '49 and '54. From 1949 to 1954, Lemon (128-68, .653), Wynn (112-63, .640), and Garcia (104-57, .646) were three of the five best pitchers in the American League, based on the WAR metric for pitcher value, and Cleveland led the league in ERA four times. With a temporarily-rejuvenated Feller, Garcia, and Wynn winning 20 in 1951 and Wynn, Garcia, and Lemon doing so in 1952, the Indians became the first major league team since the New York Giants in 1904 and 1905 to have three 20-game winners in back-to-back seasons. While competitive virtually every year, Cleveland won only one pennant, in 1954, because the Yankees had an all-around better team during those seasons, including their own imposing trio of top starters in Allie Reynolds, Vic Raschi, and Ed Lopat. The Yankees would not have been as successful without those guys, but Lemon, Wynn, Garcia, and a declining-but-still-effective Feller gave the Indians the better pitching staff.
The only team since the '51 and '52 Indians to boast three 20-game winners in back-to-back seasons was the Baltimore Orioles in 1970 and 1971 (when they had four). The Orioles from 1969 to 1974 are the only team to potentially rival the Maddux-Glavine-Smoltz Braves for having the best-three front line starters. Jim Palmer (106-54, .650) and lefties Mike Cuellar (125-62, .668) and Dave McNally (111-65, .631) had a combined .654 winning percentage, 44 percentage points better than their team's, during the six years the Orioles won five division titles and three American League pennants. Palmer, who had four straight 20-win seasons from 1970 to 1973 (before being temporarily sidetracked by arms problems that condemned him to a 7-12 mark in 1974), is the only one of the three in the Hall of Fame. Although neither Cuellar and McNally was able to sustain their level of excellence for a long enough time to have been serious Hall of Fame candidates, both (along with Palmer) were among the five best pitchers in the league between 1969 and 1972 based on their consistency compared to other pitchers during those years. McNally had his own stretch of four consecutive 20-win seasons beginning in 1968, and Cuellar won 20 four times, including three in a row from 1969 to 1971 when the Orioles dominated the American League by winning the first three pennants in the new division-era, and 18 twice. In their six years together, the trio won 342 games--the same number as Atlanta's threesome in seven seasons, except in an era when complete games were still prevalent. Palmer, Cuellar, and McNally completed 44 percent of their starts, compared to Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz completing 14 percent of theirs in an age when relief specialization was coming into its own. The Orioles were the stingiest team in all of major league baseball in the first five years that Palmer, Cuellar, and McNally pitched off the same rubber at Baltimore's Memorial Stadium, with a major league-best adjusted ERA 19 percent better than the league average.
When Cliff Lee came back to the Philadelphia Phillies in 2011 as a free agent, the baseball world was quick to anoint the Phillies' front-three starters--Lee, Roy Halladay, and Cole Hamels--as the next coming of Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz. Although both were in their early 30s, Halladay and Lee was each still a top-flight ace. Hamels, also one of the game's best pitchers, had just entered his prime. The three combined for a 50-23 (.685) record in 2011 for a team that won 102 games and contributed to the Phillies having by far the best pitching staff in major league baseball, with the lowest ERA and by far the highest collective pitcher value as measured by the WAR metric. Unfortunately, their greatness together was short-lived as Halladay, now in his mid-30s, endured shoulder problems that limited him to only 28 starts in 2012 and 2013 and substantially reduced his effectiveness. Lee and Hamels remain at the top of their game, but two isn't three.
Finally, it remains to be seen whether some combination of Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez, and now Doug Fister will give the Washington Nationals--my local team--a compelling threesome for the next four or five years that might someday be spoken of in the same vein as . . .
Maddux. Glavine. And Smoltz.
Note: the following are links to two earlier blogs on Greg Maddux: http://brysholm.blogspot.com/2013/05/the-greg-maddux-anomaly-part-i-not-k.html and http://brysholm.blogspot.com/2013/05/the-greg-maddux-anomaly-part-ii-maddux.html