Friday, February 18, 2011


"T-shirts! Get your T-shirts!!"
Got my "Phour Aces" T-shirt in the mail yesterday (getting me into a shirt with a collar these days is roughly as difficult as a successful loan modification...) and it set me onto the whole notion of stockpiling "dominant" pitchers. It hasn't happened all that often, as it turns out. As we'll see, the foursome of Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels collectively possess the best four-year ERA+ average of any such combination of pitchers in the live ball era.

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:

1972 Orioles
1971 Cubs
1953 Indians
1951 Tigers

Four-year ERA+ data for the "Phour Aces"
We can look at the performance results for these four "four ace" teams and get a rough sense of how things worked out for these pitchers and their teams. The first thing that will leap out at you, of course, is that none of these teams won a pennant or went to the post-season in the year listed. (The Orioles went to the World Series the year before, when they had four twenty-game winners; the Indians went to the World Series the year after, when two of their starters rebounded from disappointing seasons.)

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.
But what actually happens in the year where everyone is expecting money in the bank? Well, we already  mentioned the fact that none of the other four teams with "four aces" made it into the post-season: let's take a look at the results for these teams in greater detail.

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
So what happened? Palmer turned a corner and stepped onto the path leading to the Hall of Fame; McNally dropped down a notch. Cuellar improved, and Dobson had pretty much the same year he'd had in '71, except--

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
Not nearly so well-remembered are the 1971 Cubs, whose foursome of Fergie Jenkins, Bill Hands, Ken Holtzman and Milt Pappas actually have the next-best ERA+ in their immediately preceding season (in this case, 1970). Some of you will feel the urge to heap ridicule on poor Uncle Miltie, but he actually turned his career around after his acquisition in late June, at the tail end of the Cubs' epic twelve-game losing streak. From that point until early September, Pappas posted a 9-4 record and a 2.01 ERA and was instrumental in getting the Cubs back into the NL East race. (Fear not: they lost seven of nine in late September to go belly-up as usual.)

It's OK to call him "Uncle Miltie" now...
Bill James has already gone on record over-praising this foursome (in Win Shares), but let's give credit where credit is due. This staff was deeper across the board than the more vaunted Mets, even with Seaver and Koosman at the top of their rotation. The 1971 Cubs were given an even chance in the NL East at the time.

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
Let's move on to the 1953 Indians. The 1952 squad had three twenty-game winners and spent the entire season in a frustrating, fruitless chase of the Yankees, winding up two games back. Their "four ace" rotation featured three Hall of Famers (Bob Feller, Bob Lemon, and Early Wynn) plus Mike Garcia, who was pitching better than any of the others over the 1949-52 time frame. Problem: Feller had pitched himself out in the seasons immediately following WW II and was only a shadow of his former self, despite winning 22 games in '51.

Bob Feller, Mike Garcia, Early Wynn, Bob Lemon
Bigger problem: the 1953 Yankees, who hauled off and went on an 18-game winning streak--fourteen of  them on the road (!!!)--and made it abundantly clear that no matter what the Indians' "four aces" did, it wasn't going to make much of a difference.

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
On board with these two: the good-hitting Fred Hutchinson, sixth-highest in AL wins from 1946-50 (77), and Art Houtteman, a young finesse pitcher who'd recovered from a 2-16 record in 1948 to win 34 games over the next two seasons for the Tigers (including a team-leading 19 in 1950). Houtteman's preternatural maturity was highly revered by baseball insiders, but they didn't recognize that his "pitch-to-contact" style and cerebral nibbling were recipes for what we now quaintly call "career interruption."

Art Houtteman: all too briefly a star
And the '51 Tigers had their own version of that. Houtteman was drafted and missed the entire year; Trucks struggled unsuccessfully to recover his pre-1950 form. Newhouser, worked hard as a young superstar from 1944-46, also showed significant arm fatigue issues. The Tigers went from second in the league to dead last in just two years.


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).

Those Orioles are worth keeping in mind for another reason. The Phillies have had a solid offense over the past 3-4 years, but they've lost a key component of it with the departure of Jayson Werth, and while we shouldn't expect Philadelphia to come up 200+ runs south of their 2010 total, they are more at risk than most. While that won't necessarily have any impact on the quality of the pitching from the "Phour," fewer runs scored often lead to fewer wins. Ask Roy Oswalt, who went 7-1 with the Phils after coming over in a trade, thanks to getting twice as much run support (4.41 r/g) as he got from the Astros (2.25).

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.