Coming into the 2005 season, the Houston Astros had lost middle-of-the-lineup forces Jeff Kent and Carlos Beltran, while franchise bulwarks Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell were another year older. On a park-adjusted basis, the ’04 Astros, who made it to Game 7 of the NLCS, didn’t have a terribly imposing offense, and now that unit was all the weaker. Indeed, this year’s model leads the Wild Card chase despite ranking only 11th in the NL in runs scored.

As you might expect, the Astros are succeeding this season by keeping runs off the board; they rank second in the league in fewest runs allowed. More specifically, Houston’s being ferried along to the post-season by an exceptional front of the rotation. Here’s the cumulative line of Roger Clemens, Roy Oswalt and Andy Pettitte this season:

IP     K/9     BB/9     HR/9     H/9     K/BB     R/G
446.1  7.0     2.02     0.50     7.5     3.47     2.46

The rest of the Houston staff? On the season they’ve worked 491.2 innings with a 5.73 R/G. As you can see from that latter figure, a tremendous amount of the team’s value is concentrated in the troika of Clemens, Oswalt and Pettitte.

ERA is far from the most evocative pitching statistic around, but, laying its flaws aside for the moment, Clemens, Pettitte and Oswalt are thriving at it. Clemens’ ERA of 1.46 would be lowest by a qualifier since Bob Gibson‘s unthinkable mark of 1.12 back in 1968. Needless to say, Clemens’ ERA this season easily would be the best ever for a 42-year-old (the current record for a qualifier of that age belongs to Warren Spahn, who in 1963 put up an ERA of 2.60). As for Pettitte, his park-adjusted ERA would be the tenth-best mark ever for a 33-year-old. Oswalt? His ERA of 2.46, relative to the league, is in the top 15 all-time for 27-year-old hurlers.

The question here is how great they are as a trio. To find an answer, we’ll use a Baseball Prospectus metric called Runs Prevented (RP), which measures how many runs a pitcher has kept from scoring relative to a league-average hurler throwing the same number of innings. If trends hold, Clemens, Pettitte and Oswalt will combine for an RP total of 166.9. Here’s how that would rank on the all-time trio single-season RP list:

   Pitchers (Team)                                          Total RP
1. R. Clemens, A. Pettitte, R. Oswalt (2005 Astros)         166.9*
2. P. Donohue, D. Luque, E. Rixey (1925 Reds)               161.8
3. T. Lewis, C. Young, G. Winter (1901 Red Sox)             159.4
4. C. Mathewson, J. McGinnity, D. Taylor (1904 Giants)      155.6
5. L. Gomez, M. Pearson, R. Ruffing (1937 Yankees)          154.3
6. G. Earnshaw, L. Grove, R. Walberg (1931 A's)             149.4
7. M. Brown, O. Overall, E. Reulbach (1909 Cubs)            148.7
8. B. Dineen, C. Young, G. Winter (1902 Red Sox)            145.7
9. R. Ames, C. Mathewson, J. McGinnity (1903 Giants)        143.1
10. R. Benton, E. Rixey, D. Luque (1923 Reds)               140.2

(* - Projected total)

Yep, the Astros’ triumvirate is on pace to be the greatest in the annals of the game, by a fairly comfortable margin. In fact, if Clemens, Pettitte and Oswalt were to pitch not a single inning over the season’s final two months, they’d still come close to cracking the top 30 all-time.

In the above list, modern trios are rather conspicuous in their absence, and instead the top ten is peppered with hoary, interred names like Cy Young, Christy Mathewson and Lefty Grove. If we confine the rankings to those toiling after World War II, here’s how the list changes:

Pitchers (Team)                                          Total RP
1. R. Clemens, A. Pettitte, R. Oswalt (2005 Astros)         166.9*
2. R. Clemens, P. Hentgen, W. Williams (1997 Blue Jays)     134.9
3. T. Glavine, G. Maddux, J. Smoltz (1997 Braves)           134.1
4. T. Glavine, G. Maddux, J. Smoltz (1998 Braves)           132.3
5. B. Lemon, H. Score, E. Wynn (1956 Indians)               130.2
6. D. Lowe, P. Martinez, T. Wakefield (2002 Red Sox)        129.7
7. G. Bearden, B. Feller, B. Lemon (1948 Indians)           128.5
8. R. Garces, D. Lowe, P. Martinez (2000 Red Sox)           128.2
9. R. Johnson, B. Kim, C. Schilling (2001 Diamondbacks)     127.2
10. A. Benton, M. Garcia, B. Lemon (1949 Indians)           127.0

Not surprisingly, the modern list contains a couple of Glavine-Maddux-Smoltz iterations. It’s also striking just how dominant the current Astros’ trio has been relative to others in the modern era. Of course, they’re on target to be best of this or any era.

As great as Clemens has been this season, it’s not as though he’s schlepping two drastically lesser teammates to the top of list. Here’s how they break down:

Pitcher                RP             RP MLB Rank
Clemens                46.2           1
Pettitte               25.0           10
Oswalt                 36.9           3

All three have been among the ten best pitchers in all of baseball, as measured by RP. And not many would have guessed that Roy Oswalt, All-Star game afterthought, is within ten runs of Clemens in terms of RP. If they keep it up, the Astros will become the first team since the 1972 Orioles to have three different starters log at least 200 innings while maintaining an ERA of less than 2.75.

In any event, Clemens’ individual brilliance notwithstanding, the top three Astro starters as a unit aren’t getting the bandwidth they deserve. After all, they have an appointment with history that they’ll likely keep.

James Click contributed research to this column.

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