For of all sad words of tongue or pen,
The saddest are these: “It might have been!”
~John Greenleaf Whittier
Cliff Lee’s surprise signing with the Philadelphia Phillies and the resulting juggernaut of a starting rotation has spurred a torrent of speculation about the all-time great pitching staffs. Sean Foreman of Baseball-Reference compared the 2011 Phillies against (most of) history, running a comparison based on three-year Wins Above Replacement, and found that the fantastic four of Halladay, Lee, Oswalt, and Hamels (59.7 WAR) were bested only by the Tom Seaver led Mets of 1976 (63.4 WAR). A similar WAR based approach was taken by Dave Cameron, while Ron White and Andrew Johnson give a more general rundown of the likely suspects.
As the question of greatest-staff-that-ever-was seems to have gotten plenty of press we here at the Juglandaceous Porthole offer some thoughts on the less ubiquitous question of greatest-staff-that-never-was—but darn well might have been, with the slightest flap of a butterfly’s wings on the winds of history.
Back in college one of my friends religiously espoused the belief that if we change one thing in the past we can’t make any assumptions about anything that would have happened subsequently. He might be right, but we’re going to stick with the far simpler assumption that our key players would have put up the same numbers regardless of the theoretical change in uniform color and see how the hypothetical rotations stack up using Foreman’s three year WAR criterion.
1. Catfish and Pussyface?
But for one of the most colorful near misses in baseball history, Don Sutton might have ended up in Oakland had he come up with a more plausible nickname. In 1964 Whitey Herzog was a scout for the A’s and did everything he could to get Charlie Finley to sign Sutton. Knowing how crazy his boss was about a good nickname, Herzog tried to resolve the impasse:
“Don’t you have a nickname? I could get you the money if you had a snappy nickname.”
Sutton shrugged and said, “Heck, I don’t care. Tell him anything you want. Tell him my name is Pussyface Sutton if you want, just get me the money.”
I said, “Charlie, I’ve got a kid here named Pussyface Sutton you can get for $16,000.”
But not even Charlie Finley was that crazy. (From Herzog’s biography White Rat)
Had Pussyface Sutton joined the A’s he could have pitched alongside Catfish Hunter, Vida Blue, and Blue Moon Odom. (Actually, their 46.2 WAR would only place them third among current teams, but they make the list for style points.)
2. A happy ending to 1986 for Roger Clemens?
If Roger Clemens had signed when the Mets drafted him in 1981 he would have missed out on a College World Series, but on the plus side the off season would have been considerably more pleasant after ‘86. Joining Doc Gooden, Ron Darling, and Sid Fernandez he would have completed a foursome entering the 1988 season with a combined three year WAR of 56.1, falling just below the 1997 Braves sixth place entry. (Speaking of those guys, more coming up…)
3. Tom Seaver made his decision and will (probably) stand by it
Seaver was drafted by the Dodgers in 1965 but remained unsigned when they balked at his $70,000 asking price. Had he signed he would have been part of, in our fantasy world, a rotation including Tommy John, Don Sutton, and Claude Osteen whose 1974 three year WAR of 58.6 would put them just behind the 1971 Cubs for fourth among the greats. Of course, in the “real world” Seaver was on the number one rotation AND a part of the Miracle Mets, so he might not be so eager to accept the trade. Maybe if we threw in a racehorse?
4. The Royal dynasty continues?
It seems strange now, but the Kansas City Royals used to be really good—there are even some people still alive who can attest to this. From 1976 through 1989 they won the AL West six times and finished second another six times. The good times might have lasted a little while longer if they had signed their 16th round draft pick from 1978, Frank Viola. Put him in a rotation with Bret Saberhagen, Mark Gubicza, and Charlie Leibrandt and you’ve got a rotation with an impressive combined 65.6 three year WAR going into 1990, besting any real-life foursome (though still not the best in our make-believe world).
5. And finally, as if they needed him…
Steve Avery was a fine number four starter in the early nineties, but it is scary to think what the Braves might have looked like if they had signed their fourth round pick in the 1982 draft: Randy Johnson. His senior year in high school he struck out 121 in only 66 innings and capped off his career with a perfect game, but rather than signing with the Braves he headed to USC. Had the Big Unit landed with the Braves their 1998 staff would have come in at 69.4 WAR, an astounding six wins above any other staff in modern history.