|The Big Three: A novelization by Nicholas Sparks.|
The night sky was dark. Not like coal, but dark like the undulating waves of Barry Zito's hair, cascading in folds across his laconic brow as the cool breezy Bay breezes flowed into the stadium. The lights came on. The crowd filed in, rapt in anxious excitement as they prepared for battle. A hotdog to calm the nervous swishing in their bellies, an ice cold beer to numb their nerves, which were dancing a waltz through their quivering bodies. The grass is green as freshly mowed grass, the rigid blades tickling the players' cleats like the love-hair prickles of a wanton lover...oh sugar! This is a baseball blog, not the newest from literary laureate Nicholas Sparks. You'll have to wait for that one. It will be published too soon.
Our search for the greatest pitching rotation in history marches on with The Big Three from Oakland, and that other guy. They were good, boyos. Even better than I remembered. But do they stack up to the best?
The Oakland Athletics of the early 2000s received a lot of attention. In part because of Moneyball and Billy Beane, but mostly because of Hudson, Zito, and Mulder anchoring the pitching rotation. The A's won a lot of games, which led to several division titles, but unfortunately they always made a premature exit from the playoffs. Beane gets much of the credit for building those teams, as he should, but having three stable, frontline starters provided the A's with the foundation to win consistently. From 2001-2003, the A's rotation was dominant, posting 56.6rWAR and a 132ERA+ en route to the teams winning 301 games over those three seasons. 2002 was the standout season for the Big Three and their fourth man, Cory Lidle.
A clunky set of stats:
Tim Hudson 15W 2.98ERA 3.60FIP 6.6rWAR 145ERA+
Barry Zito 23W 2.75ERA 3.87FIP 6.5rWAR 158ERA+
Mark Mulder 19W 3.47ERA 3.70FIP 4.3rWAR 125ERA+
Cory Lidle 8W 3.89ERA 3.66FIP 3.3rWAR 112ERA+
Team Totals : 654 runs allowed 103 Team Wins
Top 4 Totals : 20.7rWAR 132ERA+
The A's dominated the AL West until the dismantling of the The Big Three was complete following the 2006 season, with the exception of the Mariners' amazing 2001. However, they were built for the long season and found themselves outmatched in the short series format of the playoffs. The A's have yet to produce young starters with the quality of The Big Three, all of whom pitched very well up until their departure from Oakland.
Tim Hudson was and is the best of the three. He is the only one that has continued to be effective after being traded to Atlanta. 2002 was Zito's Cy Young season, yet a closer look at the numbers shows that Hudson was every bit as effective, though his name doesn't appear on the Cy Young voting results. He was the closest the club had to a power pitcher, and the only one hindsight suggests Beane should've kept.
Barry Zito was a very good pitcher for the A's, but washed up in the opposite end of the Bay DOA. His FIP numbers have always suggested the pitcher he has become, which is, quite simply, a minor leaguer. He won the Cy Young in 2002, though most folks still believe Pedro rightfully deserves that hardware. Zito's sharp fall aside, for a few seasons he was very good in Oakland and a significant contributor to their great run.
Mark Mulder was the least interesting of the three. He didn't have a remarkable out-pitch, nor was his curve ball as elliptically pleasing as that of Zito. But with his white cleats and clean-cut appearance he looked and pitched like a professional. He won 72 games in his four full seasons in Oakland, certainly benefiting by pitching for a very good team that could score a lot of runs. But he was consistent until his arm fell off his second year in St. Louis. Like with Zito, Billy Beane was wise to let Mulder go. In return Beane brought back Dan Haren, Daric Barton, and Kiko Calero. Dan Haren has become one of the best pitchers in the game (since dealt to Anaheim via Arizona), Barton still looks to be an up-and-coming talent.
The strength of the Big Three was already fizzling at the time of their dismantling. They had a phenomenal run despite never winning a World Series, a testament to Oakland's scouting and player development. Three young pitchers of such caliber don't often find themselves on the same team and approaching their peak together. Oakland fans had the pleasure of witnessing something great, and though at the time they were surely frustrated watching each one leave, the end came at just the right time.
A bit of accounting:
2002 Oakland Athletics : 20.7rWAR 132ERA+
1997 Atlanta Braves : 20.9rWAR 152ERA+
2011 Philadelphia Phillies : 22.5rWAR 148ERA+