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July 4, 2001
Doctoring The Numbers
Great Young RotationsThe Florida Marlins are trying to do the unthinkable. They're doing their best to prove that yes, you can have too much pitching.
Or, at the very least, too much young pitching. Dave Dombrowski, who has a nose for young pitching unlike any other GM today, has assembled a collection of young aces-in-training that is the envy of baseball:
The Marlins have received 87% of their starts from pitchers under the age of 27. Is that a record? Not even close. Seventy-five teams have received all of their starts from the 26-and-under crowd. Most of those are 19th-century teams, a time when pitchers threw 500 innings a season and few pitchers made it into their thirties, or even late twenties. Since 1900, six teams have had a rotation made up exclusively of pitchers younger than 27:
There are some success stories on this list. The 1968 A's would ascend to the top of the AL West within three years, with Catfish Hunter and Blue Moon Odom--and Vida Blue, who was only 18 in 1968--as key members of the rotation. The 1990 White Sox are by far the best team on this list, going 94-68 with their young rotation, and they would win the AL West in 1993. But of the four starters listed, only Jack McDowell would still be in the rotation. (Alex Fernandez, who made 13 starts in 1990, was the #2 starter on the division titlist.) The 1999 Twins didn't look like they were on the road to anywhere except the cellar, but two years later, Brad Radke, Eric Milton, and Joe Mays make up arguably the best 1-2-3 combo in the league as the Twins continue to hold on to the AL Central lead.
Let's look at this from another angle. If you calculate the average age of the Marlins' pitchers, weighing each starter's contribution based on how many starts he has made, you find that the average age of the Marlins' rotation is 25.64 years old.
The youngest rotations since 1900:
You remember the 1915 A's, don't you? In the wake of the greatest fire sale in major-league history, Connie Mack went with the youngest rotation ever. The A's went 43-109 that year (down from 99-53 and the AL pennant a year before), but two of their young starters, Bob Shawkey and Herb Pennock, are both remembered as members of the 1927 Yankees, and Pennock went into the Hall of Fame.
But for sustained youth, no rotation comes close to the 1966-69 Kansas City/Oakland A's. Consider this chart:
The 1966 A's featured one of the youngest rotations of all time, and the rotation actually became younger over the following two years. That's tough to do.
But while the young A's would eventually develop into the dynasty that would win three straight World Series, they did not reach the playoffs until 1971, when their pitchers had matured into their mid-20s. None of the teams listed above made the playoffs with their baby-faced rotation.
This year's Marlins don't simply boast a young rotation, but a good young rotation. Or, as my colleague Michael Wolverton writes,
I did a quick study for the A's SNWL comment in this year's book where I looked at the best young rotations of recent years. Here "best young rotations" was arbitrarily defined as the ones who got the most production (SNWAR) from starters under 25.
The Marlins, who despite stumbling against the Phillies this weekend are still just 5 1/2 games out of first place, would have one of the youngest rotations for a playoff team in history should they bounce back:
All ten teams made the World Series, and seven won championships, including the first of the Sandy Koufax/Don Drysdale champion Dodger teams, as well as the 1966 Oriole rotation that officially ended the Dodger run of greatness (coinciding with Koufax's decision to retire) with the greatest pitching show in World Series history: the Dodgers scored just two runs in the four-game sweep, and no runs after the third inning of the first game.
The Whiz Kids brought the Phillies a pennant in 1950 after the team had finished above .500 once between 1918 and 1948. (That's 30 losing seasons in 31 years, for you Devil Ray fans who are wondering how long misery can last.) The 1986 Mets represented the culmination of Davey Johnson's impressive work as a manager and team-builder. The 1985 Royals simultaneously won a World Series and deluded the franchise into thinking that a weak offense is no impediment to greatness.
The early years of the Big Red Machine, from 1970-72, featured the most consistently young rotation on a great team in modern times. The 1970 and 1972 Reds won the NL pennant; the 1971 team (listed above) had the youngest rotation of the three (courtesy Don Gullett, who made 31 starts at age 20...and who had to retire at age 27), but finished 79-83.
But the most impressive young rotation has to be the 1912-16 Red Sox, who won three World Series in five years, each time with a rotation younger than the Marlins' staff of today. Think about that for a moment.
For any contrarians out there that want to make a claim for anyone other than Babe Ruth as the greatest player of all time, you would do well to contemplate Ruth's position as the junior member of two of the three youngest World Champion rotations of all time. Before Ruth turned 24 years old, he had won 80 games--only Bob Feller and Dwight Gooden have matched that feat since--and three World Championships.
Rany Jazayerli is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.