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The Best Cardinal Rotations Since World War II

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A little of what you’d expect and a lot of surprises

Los Angeles Dodgers v St. Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

A few months back, I took a look at Cardinal lineups to ascertain which were the best since World War II. I used four data points: overall productivity (wRC+), walk rate (BB%), power (ISO), and the amount of variance in production from hitter to hitter in the lineup. In other words, we wanted to know that they could walk, hit for power, produce overall, and do so consistently from top to bottom in the order. Commenter country stuff pointed out that a similar methodology could be applied to pitching staffs, and today is that day. It gets tricky once you introduce bullpens. After all, a team might have some 200 innings contributed entirely by late season call-ups, quad-A chaff, spot starters, and players who generally had very little to do with the team’s planning other than an attempt at cromulent depth. Moreover, bullpen usage has changed so wildly since World War II- hell, it’s changed wildly just since 2010- that the complications make the effort not worth the while. Instead, we’ll focus entirely on starting rotations. Which Cardinal rotations since World War II were the best?

Before going too far, there’s an important note. FanGraphs data stops separating out the starter vs. reliever split beginning in 1974. That means that our team data from 1946-1973 will include all starting pitchers- that’s good- but will also include all of the innings pitched in relief by those same pitchers, which is bad. That makes it a little muddy for us, though their time spent in the bullpen also speaks to their quality. In short, it’s not perfect or perfectly clean, but I’m not sure it’s worth caring that much.

We’ll use three criteria to grade Cardinal starting rotations. First, we want to know how well they pitched independent of their defense, and adjusted to their league. That’s FIP-minus. We also want to know how dominant they were. Strikeout and walk rate is probably the best tool for that, but those rates are already accounted for in FIP-minus. Instead, we’ll use WHIP adjusted to league average (WHIP+). There’s a lot of noise in WHIP and the number of hits will surely be influenced by the defense behind the starters. However, this isn’t about assigning responsibility for why they were dominant. Rather, it’s about identifying simply that they actually were dominant. Not allowing baserunners is a great measure for that.

Finally, we’ll do the same thing we did in the lineup article. We’ll look at the standard deviation in FIP-minus from slot to slot in the rotation to determine how deep or top-heavy each staff was.

Here’s how FIP-minus and WHIP+ rates for starting pitchers compare for all teams since 1946. Not all teams are marked but I’ve labeled several just to give a rough idea for what type of rotation fits in each quadrant.

We have immediate contenders for best rotations, some of which are very surprising. The bottom left quadrant- which is where the best rotations go- is dominated by late 1940s teams. I didn’t expect to see that at all. The 1967-1969 teams, bolstered by peak Bob Gibson and a blossoming young Steve Carlton, also dominate the bottom left quadrant. That’s not a surprise in the least. The 2009 squad had two Cy Young contenders in Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter, so their inclusion is hardly a surprise. Seeing 1997 down there is a little surprising. Those are the teams immediately on the radar for best rotations.

Now we need to test depth. I collected every starting pitcher who:

a) ranked in the top six in games started for the Cardinals in their season. This omits, say, 2007 Sidney Ponson and 1988 Scott Terry. And,

b) ranked sixth in games started on the team and pitched fewer than 80 innings. This omits a lot of late season acquisitions like 2011 Edwin Jackson, 2001 Woody Williams, and 2010 Jake Westbrook.

From there, I calculated the standard deviation in FIP-minus by team. Here’s how the standard deviation looks in a scatterplot with the team’s FIP-minus.

Some of the 40s teams that looked so strong in the first graph were apparently a little top heavy, although not in the extreme. On the other hand, the 1969, 2009, 1948, 1972, and 1997 rotations landed in the bottom left quadrant again. I think we’re ready to start making some conclusions. Here are the best Cardinal rotations since 1946.

St. Louis Cardinals Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

1969

Everyone knows that this was Bob Gibson’s peak, just one year removed from his legendary 1.12 ERA season. Obviously, his presence was going to make all of the late 1960s Cardinal teams a factor in this. But this was no solo effort. Beyond Gibson (68 FIP-), a young Steve Carlton (82) was nearly as dominant. Those two were supported by Nellie Briles, plus 44 highly effective starts collectively made by Mike Torrez, Ray Washburn, and Chuck Taylor. Of the six mentioned, not one had a FIP-minus worse than league average. They were dominant and deep, which was enough- arguably- to take the crown as the best Cardinals rotation since World War II.

2009

The Cardinals had a devil of a time keeping both of their 21st century aces healthy at the same time. Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright seemingly alternated years lost to injury in the final seven or eight seasons of Carpenter’s career. It all clicked in place for two magical seasons. While 2010 was fine, 2009 was the far superior effort from Carpenter. Any rotation that boasts two of the top three vote-getters in Cy Young voting is going to be a force. That’s exactly what happened with this squad. The back of the rotation wasn’t imposing, but Joel Piñeiro used comically low homerun and walk rates to propel himself to a 79 FIP-minus, an impressive number from a third starter. Beyond that, uh... well, Todd Wellemeyer and Kyle Lohse were there. Eventually John Smoltz joined the rotation, although his late season trade didn’t afford him enough innings to count for this study. Brad Thompson and Mitchell Boggs also made contributions too small for this study. The point here is that Wainwright, Carpenter, and Piñeiro to a lesser degree were so effective that a withered husk of the rest of the rotation didn’t prevent them from landing at #2.

1948

Teammates Kissing Harry Brecheen
Teammates Kissing Harry Brecheen

Fun fact: I could not name a single member of this rotation before I looked it up. I ventured a guess that Max Lanier might be in there, but he didn’t play baseball from 1947 to 1948. The culprits here are Harry Brecheen (56 FIP-), Howie Pollett (86), Al Brazle (86), Red Munger (100), and staff workhorse Murry Dickson (115, but a team-leading 252.1 IP). Brecheen’s FIP-minus that season is the lowest by any Cardinal starter in franchise history (min. 100 IP). Other Cardinal rotations were more effective by FIP-minus, others were more dominant by WHIP+, and a few were more consistent from top to bottom in the rotation. However, very few teams were as effective in all three categories as this one.

1972

I previously wrote at length about how the highly talented 1970 Cardinals devolved into a goat rodeo. Despite trading both Steve Carlton and Jerry Reuss in the years prior, the 1972 Cardinals still rank as one of the best rotations the franchise has had since World War II. Color me shocked. Gibson was older but still very good (77 FIP-). He was followed in the rotation by homegrown Reggie Cleveland (93) and Rick Wise (87), both innings eaters and effective starters. In the shame of the Carlton trade, it’s easy to overlook the fact that Wise was quite effective in his two seasons in St. Louis. Past Gibson, Wise, and Cleveland, the rotation filled out with partial seasons from Al Santorini (89 FIP-) and half a season of Scipio Spinks (88, the acquisition in the Reuss deal). That’s 137 games started from pitchers with a 93 FIP-minus or lower.

St. Louis Cardinals’ starting pitcher Andy Benes s Photo credit should read JEFF HAYNES/AFP/Getty Images

1997

Here’s another shocker. The 1997 Cardinals had a FIP-minus comparable to those 1940s teams and the 1960s teams, and were a little less dominant by WHIP+. They made up for it with above average consistency and depth in a blend of veterans and youth. The veteran part of the equation was Andy Benes (a stunning 68 FIP-) and Todd Stottlemyre (88). The third and fourth starters were highly regarded youngsters Matt Morris (82) and Alan Benes (82). Donovan Osborne, the scourge of the NLCS the season before, was the worst starter with a 102 FIP-minus and youngster Manny Aybar (114) also supplied 12 starts. Somehow, a team with 2 months of Mark McGwire at his peak and one of the best rotations in baseball sputtered to 73 wins. We’ll file that away as a mystery to solve another day.

St. Louis Cardinals v New York Mets Photo by Rich Pilling /MLB via Getty Images

Honorable Mentions and Notes

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the 1947 and 1949 rotations again. Their 86 staff FIP-minus (both seasons) are the two best Cardinal years by FIP-minus since World War II. Brecheen, Pollett, Brazle, and Munger were contributors on all three teams. For that matter, the 1946 team came in at 88. If you want to think of this in multi-year terms, I wouldn’t argue if you wanted to claim the 1946-1949 rotations were the best in franchise history.

You’d think the 1968 team would rank a little higher because of Gibson’s dominance. Indeed, their 91 FIP- and 93 WHIP+ were impressive. However, the variance introduced by Larry Jaster (121 FIP-) and Nellie Briles (105) in the rotation sunk them just off the top of the list. 1967 is a similar story with a 93 FIP-, 92 WHIP+, but a few mediocrities at the back end dragging them down.

If you’re curious about the early part of the last decade when NLCS runs seemed to be a given (2011-2015), those rotations were all fine but had some combination of too high of a WHIP+ or too much variance to truly approach one of the franchise’s best.

Similarly, the best teams of the early 2000s (the back to back 100+ win teams in 2004 and 2005) were extremely top heavy, while the 2006 rotation was just downright awful.

Last year’s team had the smallest standard deviation in the rotation of any in the sample in an otherwise vanilla season. If you’ll recall from the lineup article, the 2019 lineup also had one of the lowest standard deviations in the study. Somehow, John Mozeliak built a roster completely made up of entirely interchangeable players.

If you want a look at the absolute worst Cardinal rotations since World War II, that list would be 1976, 1995, 2006, 1974, and 1984. The only thing keeping 2007 from that list is that they were at least consistently bad from top to bottom.