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July 4, 2001

Doctoring The Numbers

Great Young Rotations

by Rany Jazayerli

The 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:

  • A.J. Burnett, 24, acquired for Al Leiter during the Marlins' fire sale after 1997, has a 2.89 ERA and has allowed just 56 hits in 75 innings, including a no-hitter on May 12 and a two-hitter on June 9.

  • Jesus Sanchez, 26, also acquired in that deal, made his first start of the season last week and allowed two hits in eight innings.

  • Brad Penny, 23, stolen from the Diamondbacks as part of the Matt Mantei heist two seasons ago, has a 3.47 ERA and a K/BB ratio of 90/30 in 112 innings. His one-hit, one-walk, 13-strikeout performance on June 26 was as impressive as Burnett's no-hitter.

  • The Diamondbacks, not content to give up Penny alone for Mantei, also tossed in Vladimir Nunez, 26, who has made three spot starts for the Marlins and has a 2.95 ERA in 49 innings overall. (They also threw in five-tool outfielder Abraham Nunez, but we'll save our Joe Garagiola insults for another time.)

  • Ryan Dempster (24), who was pilfered from the Rangers for John Burkett in 1996, has already established himself as the Marlins' ace after going 14-10, with a 3.66 ERA and 209 strikeouts in 226 innings last season. Just imagine how good that trade would look if the Marlins hadn't traded Rick Helling, also acquired in the deal, back to Texas for Ed Vosberg the following season, a trade that almost certainly qualifies as the worst trade not made under duress of Dombrowski's career.

  • Matt Clement, 26, picked up before the season for Mark Kotsay, has loads of talent and has already made 81 major-league starts, but has walked 271 batters in 494 innings and has a career 4.90 ERA. If a case is to be made that the Marlins have too much pitching, it's that they really didn't need Clement as much as they needed a quality right fielder like Kotsay. In Clement's defense, he's recovering from a bout with autoimmune hepatitis this spring and is a good candidate to bounce back.

  • Toss in Jason Grilli, 24, a former Giants' #1 pick who was acquired in the Livan Hernandez trade, and the Marlins have received 71 of their 82 starts from pitchers who have yet to turn 27 years old. The other 11 have all been made by 31-year-old Chuck Smith, who was the most promising 30-year-old rookie in recent times when he debuted last season.

    Smith, like Dempster, was nabbed from the Rangers, coming over last season in a three-way trade that netted Texas Dave Martinez. (Think Doug Melvin has some splainin' to do?) The Marlins have not only assembled a rotation that is made up almost entirely of pitchers 26 and younger, but they've done so without developing a single starting pitcher themselves!

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:

Team Year Primary Starters

Washington (AL) 1914 Walter Johnson (26), Doc Ayers (24),
Jim Shaw (20), Joe Boehling (23)
Chicago (NL) 1961 Don Cardwell (25), Dick Ellsworth (21),
Glen Hobbie (25), Jack Curtis (24)
Oakland 1968 Jim Hunter (22), Chuck Dobson (24),
Jim Nash (23), Blue Moon Odom (23)
Chicago (NL) 1974 Rick Reuschel (25), Bill Bonham (25),
Steve Stone (26), Burt Hooton (24)
Chicago (AL) 1990 Melido Perez (24), Greg Hibbard (25),
Jack McDowell (24), Eric King (26)
Minnesota 1999 Brad Radke (26), Eric Milton (23),
LaTroy Hawkins (26), Joe Mays (23)

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:

Team Year Age Primary Starters

Philadelphia (AL) 1915 22.60 John Wyckoff (23), Rube Bressler (20),
Joe Bush (22), Tom Sheehan (21)
Oakland 1967 22.96 Jim Hunter (21), Jim Nash (22),
Chuck Dobson (23), Blue Moon Odom (22)
Washington (AL) 1914 23.24 Walter Johnson (26), Doc Ayers (24),
Jim Shaw (20), Joe Boehling (23)
Oakland 1968 23.54 Jim Hunter (22), Chuck Dobson (24),
Jim Nash (23), Blue Moon Odom (23)
Cincinnati 1971 23.61 Gary Nolan (23), Don Gullett (20),
Jim McGlothlin (27), Ross Grimsley (21)

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:

Year Age Rank (1900-present)

1966 23.63 6th
1967 22.96 2nd
1968 23.54 4th
1969 24.23 14th

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.

By that measure, the Marlins' under-25's (Burnett, Dempster, Grilli, and Penny) have a total SNWAR of 5.0, which projects to 10.5 over the full season. That would rank them fourth among young rotations for the years I have data (1978-present, except 1991).

The 1985 Gooden/Darling/Aguilera Mets were first with 14.3 SNWAR, the 1993 Fernandez/Alvarez/Bere White Sox were second with 13.6, and the 1985 Saberhagen/Jackson/Gubicza Royals were third with 10.9. (The 1994 White Sox would also finish ahead of the 2001 projected Marlins if we projected the strike-shortened 1994 to a full season.)

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:

Team Year Age Primary Starters

Baltimore 1966 23.79 Dave McNally (23), Jim Palmer (20),
Wally Bunker (21), Steve Barber (27)
Boston (AL) 1916 24.51 Babe Ruth (21), Dutch Leonard (24),
Ernie Shore (25), Carl Mays (24)
Boston (AL) 1915 24.75 Rube Foster (27), Ernie Shore (24),
Babe Ruth (20), Dutch Leonard (23)
Kansas City 1985 24.98 Charlie Leibrandt (28), Bud Black (28),
Bret Saberhagen (21), Danny Jackson (23)
Cincinnati 1970 25.06 Gary Nolan (22), Jim Merritt (26),
Jim McGlothlin (26), Wayne Simpson (21)
Cincinnati 1972 25.19 Jack Billingham (29), Ross Grimsley (22),
Gary Nolan (24), Wayne Simpson (23)
Los Angeles (NL) 1959 25.23 Don Drysdale (22), Johnny Podres (26),
Sandy Koufax (23), Danny McDevitt (26)
New York (NL) 1986 25.26 Ron Darling (25), Dwight Gooden (21),
Sid Fernandez (23), Bobby Ojeda (28)
Philadelphia (NL) 1950 25.47 Robin Roberts (23), Curt Simmons (21),
Russ Meyer (26), Bob Miller (24)
Boston (AL) 1912 25.58 Joe Wood (22), Buck O'Brien (30),
Hugh Bedient (22), Ray Collins (25)
Florida 2001 25.64 Ryan Dempster (24), Brad Penny (23),
Matt Clement (26), A.J. Burnett (24)

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.

Rany Jazayerli is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Rany's other articles. You can contact Rany by clicking here

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