The greatness of a pitching rotation continues to be discussed mostly in simple terms of wins and losses, despite how much more we now know. Wins are what the game is all about--getting them however possible. But wins are a team stat, not an individual one. Few teams won as many games in a three year span as the Baltimore Orioles of 1969-1971. They won a combined 118 games en route to three straight pennants and one World Series title (1970). Much of the credit for their success has been lauded on their pitching staff, led by a young Jim Palmer. 1971 was the standout year, as all four starters reached that magical benchmark of 20 wins. But were all those wins the result of dominant pitching, or the byproduct of a great team executing in all facets of the game?
A clunky set of stats:
Jim Palmer 20W 2.68ERA 3.19FIP 4.1rWAR 126ERA+ .249BABIP
Mike Cuellar 20W 3.08ERA 3.75FIP 2.7rWAR 109ERA+ .236BABIP
Pat Dobson 20W 2.90ERA 2.92FIP 3.1rWAR 116ERA+ .261BABIP
Dave McNally 21W 2.89ERA 3.87FIP 3.1rWAR 117ERA+ .227BABIP
Team Totals : 530 runs allowed, 101 team wins
Top 4 Totals : 13rWAR 117ERA+
The numbers above represent a very good pitching staff, one that would be the envy of most teams across baseball history. However, the numbers do not suggest a dominant one. That each pitcher won 20 or more games is a testament to the team as a whole, which was also very good offensively.
Nothing should be taken away from this dynamic foursome; they were all above-average pitchers. But on a different team, they likely would not have managed to win so many games. I have included BABIP to display this staff's reliance on measures beyond their control to succeed. All four pitchers posted remarkably low BABIP, which suggests two things: they each benefited from a significant amount of luck, and they pitched with a very good defense backing them up.
Each pitcher relied heavily on defense, namely infield defense, to get outs. None of them struck out 200 batters. They combined for only 586 strikeouts in 1,081 innings pitched*. That is an awful lot of outs that necessitated the assistance of the defense. When you look at the players gobbling up those ground balls, the success of the Oriole pitchers becomes much clearer.
*1,081 innings pitched from four starters! That averages to just more than 270 innings per pitcher. I can't imagine we'll ever see such a workload carried by four starters ever again. This is a testament to the times, sure. But mostly to four good pitchers that manager Earl Weaver obviously had no interest in taking out of the game.*
At first base you've got Boog Powell, who is...well, Boog Powell. Not atrocious. But a first baseman needn't execute performance art out there, especially when the rest of the infield looks like this:
2B Davey Johnson : 3 gold gloves
SS Mark Belanger : 8 gold gloves
3B Brooks Robinson : 16 gold gloves
That's a combined 27 gold gloves among the three most important infield positions. Say what you will about the Gold Glove, it's hard to argue with that much hardware. Factor in centerfielder Paul Blair, who won eight in his career, and you've got one hell of an up-the-middle defense. And all four of those players won the award in 1971.
Palmer was certainly the ace of the Baltimore staff. He won 20+ games in eight different seasons, posted a career 2.86 ERA, 126 ERA+, and won three AL Cy Young Awards. He was inarguably a very good pitcher. He is viewed by most to have been a great pitcher, and perhaps he was. His numbers point to that. But he did have a career .249 BABIP, which is absurdly low. Palmer benefited greatly being surrounded by such good defensive players. That aside, due credit must be given, for Palmer learned how to win with the team he had behind him and pitched to its strength. He was always surrounded by a stellar infield and made himself a consistent groundball pitcher. He was also incredibly durable. So yeah, Hall of Famer. But on another team, I doubt he would have been elected by 92.6% on the first ballot.
Cuellar is one of those rare pitchers to hit his prime as an old man. Things finally clicked for Cuellar when he was twenty-nine during the 1966 season. For the next nine seasons ('66-74) Cuellar accumulated 31.2 WAR and an AL Cy Young. That includes a season in which he only managed 0.5 WAR. His ability to pitch effectively late into his 30s is even more surprising considering his diminutive size (6ft, 165lbs). If not for his late start, Cuellar may have a plaque in Cooperstown along with Palmer.
McNally was a solid pitcher who three a lot of innings during his prime. He won 20+ games in each of the '68-'71 seasons. His best season coming in 1968 when he posted a 4.7 WAR. Unlike Cuellar, McNally started young and burned out early, falling from competence by age thirty-two.
Dobson was the outlier on the staff, a journeyman pitcher picked up from San Diego prior to the 1971 season. He played for six different teams, never sticking for long in any one place. The '71 season was the only in which he won 20 games, but his best year was 1974 with the Yankees, where he posted a 4.3 WAR.
So while the 1971 Baltimore Orioles is the last team to have four 20 game winners, they were hardly the most dominant staff in history. They actually rate below the three previous staffs examined in this series. Despite this, I would gladly take them on my team any damn day, if for no other reason than the insane number of innings they ate up. But I would argue that it is safe to say that if these four pitchers were transplanted to a different team, with any other defense, it would be unlikely that any of them would reach 20 wins. How would all those ground balls work out for them if they all pitched for the 2012 Detroit Tigers?
A bit of accounting:
1971 Baltimore Orioles 13 rWAR 117 ERA+ 1,081 IP
2002 Oakland Athletics 20.7 rWAR 132 ERA+ 867 IP
1997 Atlanta Braves 20.9 rWAR 152 ERA+ 962 IP
2011 Philadelphia Phillies 22.5 rWAR 148 ERA+ 814 IP