Three Aces

There have been a number of great pitching duos in the history of baseball, but rarely are three pitchers of the caliber of Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels all dressed in the same uniform.

It's difficult enough to have to face a couple of aces in a short series. Koufax and Drysdale. Spahn and Sain. Mathewson and McGinnity. Caruthers and Foutz (there's a pair most people won't know). Walters and Derringer. Seaver and Koosman. Roberts and Simmons. The Dean Brothers (at least for a couple of years). Marichal and Perry. Johnson and Schilling. You get the picture. All of those combinations led their teams to World Series, and most of them won a World Series.

So what do you do if you have to face three (or more) aces in a series? Head to Brazil ? Take two and hit to right? Drop back 10 and punt? Mail in two or three losses most of the time? Pray for rain, or maybe a hurricane? The options are sort of limited but, fortunately for most major league teams, it's not real common for a team to put together that kind of rotation. However, when it does happen, especially for an extended number of years, look out.

At least eight times in the past, a major league team has put together a three or four man rotation of aces that stayed together for five or more seasons. (Admittedly, the definition of "ace" is indefinite. For these purposes, let's say a pitcher who would be the number one starter on an average team -- not a definitive accounting, but not bad.) Collectively, they accounted for 47 seasons worth of aces around. The final results included 23 World Series appearances and 12 titles.

Although they only faced each other in the World Series once, and then after one team's ace corps was broken up, the Chicago Cubs and the Philadelphia Athletics dominated their respective leagues for much of the first decade of the 20th Century, thanks to two dominating rotations -- a four man group on the west side of Chicago (this was before Wrigley Field was built) and three man group in Philadelphia's Brewerytown neighborhood (this was before Shibe Park was built.)

Everybody knows the ace of the early Cubs rotation -- it was Mordecai Peter Centennial (he was born in 1876) Brown, better known as Miner or Three Finger. In the five seasons from 1906 to 1910, he went 127-43 (including a 29-9 year), or better than 25-9 every year. So great was Brown that his three compatriots, fine pitchers all for more than just a couple of years, are largely forgotten. That's too bad, because Ed Reulbach (91-33), Orval Overall (82-39, and maybe a better name than Mordecai Peter Centennial Brown) and Jack "The Giant Killer" Pfiester (70-36... guess which team he was tough on) each would have been the ace of just about any other team. Pfiester, the least of the four aces, had an average record of 14-7 for those five years, and single years of 20-8 and 17-6. Together, they went 370-151 between 1906 and 1910, a winning percentage of .710. Is it any wonder these five Cubs teams won an astounding 530 games? (Even though they only split four appearances in the World Series.)

Reulbach, Overall and Pfiester would have been the ace of just about any other team in their era, except the A's. That's because, between 1903 and 1907, they had Eddie Plank, Rube Waddell and Charles Albert Bender, and these three worthies won exactly 300 games in those five seasons, losing 194, a .607 winning percentage. All three of these guys are in the Hall of Fame (only Brown made it among the Cub Quartet), although Plank and Waddell were far more dominant during this five year stretch than was Bender, who was a 20 year-old rookie in 1903. The two lefties, one so sedate, the other a wild man who was probably mentally handicapped, went 226-139 from 1903 to 1907. Although they only made one Series (which they lost in 1905), they were in the race every other year and were, in fact, jobbed out of the 1907 American League title by an umpire's decision in a key game with the Tigers.

The story of the 1928 to 1932 version of the Athletics parallels the early Cubs rotation better than the early A's rotation, in that Hall of Famer Lefty Grove was so good (128-33, a better record than Brown put up) that George Earnshaw (93-48) and Rube Walberg (85-57) tended to get overlooked. Although Walberg was the lesser of these three, he still averaged a 17-11 mark for those five seasons, including a 20-12 year in 1931. Altogether, these three A's Aces had a much better composite record than Mack's three earlier Hall of Famers. They went 306-138, a .689 winning percentage.

The 1940s and 1950s saw three great rotations that all stayed together for at least five years. The first was the Yankees three man staff that won five straight World Series from 1949 to 1953, and just missed the Series in their first year, 1948. Vic Raschi, Allie Reynolds and Eddie Lopat. Although, outside of Raschi, they weren't generally 20 game winners (Raschi won 20 three times in this span, Reynolds and Lopat once each), they were very hard to beat. Raschi went 111-48 (.698), and Lopat and Reynolds a practically identical 97-47 (.674) and 99-48 (.673) marks. Because they all had relatively short careers, none of them made the Hall of Fame.

The year after Raschi/Reynolds/Lopat came together, the Indians had three other superb pitchers to complement their fading ace, Bob Feller. Although Feller had pretty well thrown his arm out by pitching 371 innings worth of fast balls in 1946 after missing most of the previous four seasons, he was still BOB FELLER, and Cleveland wasn't about to get rid of him. He was a good 85-56 (.603) between 1949 and 1954 (including his last 20-win season in 1951), an average mark of 14-9. However, Bob Lemon (128-68), Early Wynn (112-63) and Mike Garcia (104-57) were a lot better. All together, they rolled up a collective .647 winning percentage, 10 more 20-win seasons, and an average yearly record of 19-10. The reason they only appeared in one World Series (which they lost in an upset in 1954) was, of course, the Yankees, who had as equally as good a rotation (even though Feller, Wynn and Lemon all made the Hall), and a better team behind them.

The next year, Feller was through, but another pretty good three man rotation came along, this time in Milwaukee for a fine seven year run from 1955 to 1961. Everyone who was around in those days remembers how great Hall of Famer Warren Spahn and Lou Burdette were, but not everyone remembers the third man in the rotation, Bob Buhl. He may not have been Spahn (143-85) or Burdette (127-76), but he would have been a star on another team, going 94-56 (.627) between 1955 and 1961, with two 18-win seasons. (In fact, he would have won more than 100 games in this stretch, but he was hurt in 1958.) This bunch spilt two Series with the Yankees and lost a playoff for the NL crown to the Dodgers in 1959.

While it's hard to measure fame, the Baltimore Orioles rotation from 1969 to 1974 was (and still is) famous. Although only Jim Palmer made the Hall of Fame, he and Dave McNally and Mike Cuellar made the O's very tough in a short series (especially the 1970 World Series), even though they did choke away the 1969 and 1971 World Series and then couldn't stop the Oakland A's in 1972, 1973 and 1974. Between the three of them, they went 343-182 (.653) with 11 20-win seasons, including two years back-to-back (1970 and 1971) when all three of them won 20. (1971 being the fluky year when Pat Dobson was a one-hit wonder, and also won 20.) Only the Indians group were able to match that feat, in 1951 (Feller, Garcia, Wynn) and 1952 (Lemon, Garcia, Wynn).

Most recently, there's the Braves three man, all-Cy Young rotation of 1993 to 1999. While you may think that Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz were together longer than that, the Braves didn't sign Maddux away from the Cubs until 1993, and Smoltz was hurt in 2000, eventually going to the bullpen up until the time Glavine left for New York in 2004. This was another rotation that was hard to beat, at least in the regular season. Like the Yankees from 1949 to 1954, they didn't win 20 too often (Glavine twice, Maddux once, Smoltz once), but they didn't lose too often, either. Together, Maddux (126-51), Glavine (114-56) and Smoltz (100-59) were 340-166 from 1993 to 1999, a .672 winning percentage. Also note that, except for 1996, when he was 24-8, Smoltz was clearly the lesser of the three aces, to a certain extent benefitting from the reflected glow of being part of the rotation that won five straight NL East pennants, and then lost three of four World Series (although that was partly due to a substandard bullpen.)

To rank these eight rotations by winning percentage, they look like this... For whatever it may be worth, the only group with all members in the Hall of Fame had the lowest winning percentage (although Smoltz may get in to join sure things Maddux and Glavine).

Cubs  .710
Athletics II  .689  
Yankees  .682
Braves II  .672
Orioles  .653
Indians  .647
Braves I  .627
Athletics I .607

Despite the justly-deserved praise on behalf of the 2010 Phillies three aces -- Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, and Cole Hamels -- it is unlikely that they will ring up a record anywhere near that of these eight historical rotations, mainly because Halladay and Oswalt are probably too old to likely both be aces for another four years each, at which point Halladay and Oswalt would both be 37. (Hamels won't turn 27 until the very end -- Dec. 27 to be exact -- of 2010.) Still, it's not out of the question, and, if the Phillies can find the money to keep this threesome together, it's at least possible they'll make life miserable for the rest of the National League long enough to join the select company already mentioned.


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