The Indians Did Have Maybe the Best Pitching Staff Ever

The Dodgers snapped out of it. After an extended slump, the Dodgers did manage to snap out of it, and so they finished with baseball’s best record. The Indians ultimately had to settle for simply having the best record in the American League. And yet, one might consider the Indians to be baseball’s best team. They had easily baseball’s best second half. They had easily baseball’s best run differential. They had easily baseball’s best BaseRuns record. You could say it’s all just recency bias, but, recently, the Indians have been almost literally unbeatable. It’s quite a difficult thing to exaggerate.

The Indians this season could field, and the Indians this season could hit. More than anything else, however, the Indians this season could pitch. They could pitch when games were beginning, and they could pitch when games were concluding. It was a pitching staff without a clear weakness. According to WAR, Indians pitchers were better than the next-best staff by about seven wins. According to the other version of WAR, the one based on actual runs allowed, the Indians pitchers were again better than the next-best staff by about seven wins. Turns out these Indians weren’t just the best in 2017. They’re the best we’ve seen in a long, long while.

I just wrote about this a few weeks ago. My apologies if you don’t like when a subject is repeated. Yet I’m coming back to this for two reasons. One, the regular season is now actually over, so all the numbers are final. No more extrapolating or projecting out. And two, this is kind of important, at least as fun facts are concerned. This isn’t something just about how, like, the Nationals were pretty good at running the bases. This is about the Indians pitching staff being perhaps the best one ever. In baseball, “ever” is a long time. I mean, I guess in existence, “ever” is an even longer time, but there’s been a lot of baseball, is the point. And what is baseball if not the sum of its own history?

I went back to 1900. I looked at all the individual team-seasons. Here are the top 10 pitching staffs, sorted by WAR per 162 games.

Best-Ever Pitching Staffs
Team Year WAR/162
Indians 2017 31.7
Braves 1996 29.5
Braves 1994 28.8
Braves 1997 28.5
Yankees 2003 28.4
Yankees 2002 28.4
Phillies 2011 28.1
Braves 1999 27.8
Braves 1995 27.2
Cubs 1970 27.1

Indians, first place. This is out of a sample of 2,490. Let’s do the familiar thing with the numbers: the difference between first and second is 2.2 wins. The difference between second and ninth is 2.3. What’s driving this? The Indians finished with a team FIP- of 75, meaning, by the peripherals, they were 25% better than average. The previous best FIP- for any team was 80. That’s a fairly enormous gap, as these things go.

The WAR shown above is somewhat theoretical. It strips out, for example, matters of timing. There’s also RA9-WAR, which considers runs that have actually happened. Here is the same table, only this time showing RA9-WAR per 162 games.

Best-Ever Pitching Staffs
Team Year RA9-WAR/162
Cubs 1905 39.2
Cubs 1906 39.0
Cubs 1909 38.0
Cardinals 1944 37.1
Yankees 1939 37.1
Indians 2017 35.4
Braves 1974 35.2
Braves 1993 34.2
Cardinals 1943 33.9
Cubs 1907 33.5

Now we find the Indians in sixth, instead of first. That might be less sexy, but then, the most recent team with a better mark played baseball in 1944. Jackie Robinson debuted in the majors in 1947, and so began the so-called Integration Era. By this version of WAR, the Indians had the best pitching staff since the Paris Peace Treaties. It’s been more than 70 years. That’s a lot of baseball history being overwritten. See, the Indians finished with an ERA- of 74, which also stands as the sixth-best, and the best since 1910. For the record, last year’s Cubs finished at 75. That run-prevention unit was also absurd.

As a compromise, this table goes 50/50. So here’s one more top-10, taking the midpoint of each team’s WARs.

Best-Ever Pitching Staffs
Team Year Blend/162
Indians 2017 33.6
Braves 1997 30.9
Cubs 1909 30.7
Phillies 2011 30.4
Cardinals 1944 30.2
Braves 1974 30.2
Braves 1993 30.0
Braves 1999 29.9
Dodgers 2003 29.5
Braves 1995 29.4

The Indians go back to first, by a healthy margin. I’m not saying it’s true beyond any reasonable doubt the Indians had the best pitching staff ever. I’m just saying, if you have a counter-argument, the argument for the Indians is fairly convincing. They’re the best ever by our flagship pitching statistic. If you put more weight on actual runs allowed, they’re the best of at least the Integration Era. By ERA, there have been better teams, but those teams played under dramatically different conditions. Since baseball more inclusively opened its doors, no team has done what the Indians just finished doing.

The numbers are right there. There’s no hiding from them. And yet, I suspect this is a somewhat unpopular opinion. You don’t see many people calling this the best pitching staff ever. How could it be better than, say, those Braves staffs from the 90s? Between Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz, the Braves had three first-ballot Hall-of-Famers. The Indians can’t compete with that. But, well, allow me to break things down. Let’s look at all the Braves seasons from 1993 through 1999. They were all great! In this table, a comparison between those Braves and these Indians.

Braves vs. Indians Comparison
Team Split ERA- FIP- IP
1993 – 1999 Braves Overall 80 83 9617.1
2017 Indians Overall 74 75 1440.2
1993 – 1999 Braves Starters 77 81 7035.2
2017 Indians Starters 79 77 951.1
1993 – 1999 Braves Relievers 87 88 2581.2
2017 Indians Relievers 64 72 489.1

The Braves had amazing starters, and they threw 73% of all the innings. Indians starters, meanwhile, picked up just 66% of the workload. But look at the relievers. By ERA-, the Indians are better by 23 points. By FIP-, the gap is still an enormous 16. And Indians relievers threw the other 34% of the innings. Indians relievers were used more heavily, and, as a collective, the bullpen was spectacular. Look at that again — Indians relievers combined for an ERA- of 64. Pedro Martinez’s career ERA- was 66. The Indians simply didn’t use bad pitchers. They didn’t have any.

The Braves are remembered fondly in part because they stayed together for so long. They were dominant year after year after year, and the Indians are still working on that. But in terms of individual dominant seasons, the Braves are held in such high esteem because the best pitchers on the roster were some of the best pitchers on the planet. Those Braves were top-heavy, but that’s great for their perception, because staffs are often evaluated by their best weapons. The 2017 Indians didn’t function like the Braves of the 90s. There’s terrific top-end talent, sure, but there’s also just so much more depth, and more reliance on the relievers. Less was asked of the starters. Part of it’s just because of the era. Part of it’s because of how the team’s been constructed.

The Indians’ pitching staff doesn’t have three first-ballot Hall-of-Famers. It might not have a single Hall-of-Famer at all. In that sense, they have nothing on the best recent years from the Braves. Yet pitching staffs aren’t evaluated by the number of Hall-of-Famers they include. You don’t win games by having Hall-of-Famers. You win games by preventing runs from scoring. Top to bottom, the Indians did that better than the Braves did. The Indians did that better than anyone’s done, for an extremely long time. Pitching staffs nowadays are more complicated than ever, because of how starters have lessened in importance. But also, everything’s still wonderfully simple. You either keep runs off the board, or you don’t. The Indians did. You couldn’t ask for any more.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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ESimon

I’m a big fan of the Yankees, but I’m really surprised by the 2002-2003 Yankees being on the WAR/162 list. I remember having a good staff, but not historically good. Goes to show you how quietly good Mussina was.