|"T-shirts! Get your T-shirts!!"|
I decided to look for groupings of "four aces" since World War II and look at what happened to them in the season where the maximum performance expectation would occur.
It turns out that there are four other examples of the "four ace" phenomenon in addition to the 2011 Phillies. In reverse historical order, these teams are:
|Four-year ERA+ data for the "Phour Aces"|
First, however, let's look at the data for the 2011 Phillies (above). There's no doubt that we're looking at an extremely impressive collection of starting pitchers: their four-year ERA+ averages (shown in the blue band) stand above the other foursomes by a solid margin. Their most recent year (2010, highlighted in orange for ease of viewing) is also the best combination of single-season performances from a foursome in the live ball era. Expectations in Philly (and, indeed, in all segments of baseball fandom, from the casual to the professional) are through the roof.
|Four year ERA+ data for the 1972 Orioles foursome: |
purple shading means performance significantly below
expectations; green shading means performance
significantly above expectations.
First up, the 1972 Orioles. Now some of you probably want to know why this isn't the 1971 Orioles, with their four twenty-game winners, who occupy this position. The answer is that the expectation surrounding Pat Dobson (who became the fourth twenty-game winner on that '71 team) was not all that high going into 1971 outside of Baltimore. But in 1972, the O's were sporting four twenty-game winners (though, as you can see, their ERA+ values in 1971 were merely good, not great). Given the rarity of the "four twenty-game winner" scenario--it's happened only once before (the 1920 White Sox)--folks following baseball in 1972 were more than a bit ga-ga over the O's starters.
|Mike Cuellar, Pat Dobson, Jim Palmer, Dave McNally|
Except that the Orioles' hitting crashed. The '72 O's scored more than 200 runs less than the '71 team. Frank Robinson was gone, traded to the Dodgers; Merv Rettenmund, given a full-time job at last after hitting over .300 in the past two seasons, skidded to .233. Dave Johnson tanked. The O's starters had been 81-32 in 1971; they were 68-54 in '72, despite the fact that their aggregate ERA+ was almost exactly the same.
|Four-year ERA+ data for 1971 Cubs|
|It's OK to call him "Uncle Miltie" now...|
As you can see, Milt Pappas didn't deviate much from his overall four-year average in '71. Hands and Holtzman, however, came up a good bit short of theirs. The Cubs stumbled out of the box in 1971, but from June 2 to August 20 the foursome (led by Jenkins and Pappas) got in the groove enough to push the Cubs to a 46-28 record, which brought them to the fringes of the division race (4 1/2 games behind the Pirates). Naturally, they faded into the woodwork.
|Four-year ERA+ data for 1953 Indians|
|Bob Feller, Mike Garcia, Early Wynn, Bob Lemon|
As is also abundantly clear, of course, these "four aces" got another shot at it in 1954, and did the world of baseball a big favor by revving things up and winning 111 games, thus preventing the Yankees from copping ten consecutive pennants.
Moral of this story: it isn't all under your control. The other teams have something to say about what happens...
The saddest story in our mini-saga of "four aces" occurred just a few years earlier, as the Detroit Tigers seemed poised to be a force in the AL equal to the task of taking on the Yankees, Indians and Red Sox. Led by Hall of Famer Hal Newhouser, the Tigers' pitching staff was deep and talented: the 1950 squad gave the Yankees a hell of a run for the pennant despite the loss of Virgil Trucks for most of the season due to arm miseries.
|Four-year ERA+ data for the 1950 Tigers|
|Art Houtteman: all too briefly a star|
SO when we add it all up for the four "four ace" teams, the scorecard shows that two pitchers exceeded their previous four-year ERA+ averages, seven fell significantly short of those averages, and one missed the season completely. What we've got, then, is a classic coin flip. 50% of the time the pitchers performed at or above expectation; 50% of the time they performed below expectation (or didn't perform at all).
Now what does this tell us about the "Phour Aces"? Well, to temper our expectations, of course. But keep in mind that R2C2 (and yes, you can get that on a T-shirt, too...) are coming from a significantly higher performance level than any of the other "ace" combos. Even if they all decline, they can all still be solid (though the chances of them matching the '71 O's 20-win feat are exceptionally remote).
Final thought: snap up a T-shirt, we're not going to see ph--, er, four guys this good together on one pitching staff again any time soon.