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October 30, 2001

Doctoring The Numbers

Riding the Horses

by Rany Jazayerli

The Arizona Diamondbacks are keeping it simple. Their philosophy of winning is not at all complicated. It isn't predicated on some strange brand of aggressive baserunning, or a managerial zeal for sound fundamentals, or the ticking-time-bomb brand of big-inning baseball practiced by the Oakland A's.

No, the Diamondbacks' theory on winning is this: hand the ball to Randy Johnson or Curt Schilling. Say hello to win column. Repeat as often as possible.

Ever since Gerry Hern wrote a little ditty about Warren Spahn and Johnny Sain back in 1948, there has been a romantic quality associated with the plight of a team seeking greatness on the backs of two great starters. "Spahn and Sain and pray for rain" inspired a nauseating number of copycat rhymes, all seeking to distill the essence of a team into a pair of pitchers.

But while "Johnson and Schilling and then God willing" may not match Hern's line in terms of wit, it surpasses it in terms of accuracy. Few teams in baseball history--if any--have relied so heavily on two starting pitchers to reach the postseason.

And having reached the postseason, where the combination of extra days off and the life-or-death nature of every game make fourth and fifth starters more a luxury than a necessity, the Diamondbacks are free to ride Johnson and Schilling even more. Arizona has gone 2-2 in the playoffs when pitchers other than their two aces start, but thanks to three dominant performances by the Big Unit and four consecutive victories--three of them complete games--by Schilling, the Diamondbacks are up 2-0 in the World Series.

The question is this: has any playoff team been so reliant on their top two starters as these Diamondbacks are? And having carried the D'backs this far, can Johnson and Schilling finish the job and pull the team all the way to the summit?

The first question is easier to answer than the second one. By almost any reasonable measure, Johnson and Schilling were the two best starting pitchers in the major leagues this year. They ranked first and second in the majors in ERA, innings pitched, and strikeouts, and they ranked first and third in wins. They will almost certainly finish 1-2 in the Cy Young vote for the National League this year, becoming the first set of teammates to do so since Don Newcombe and Sal Maglie did so for the 1956 Dodgers, the year the Cy Young Award was first presented.

Prior to 1956, though, such an occurrence wasn't nearly so unusual. The two highest-ranking pitchers in the MVP award voting hailed from the same team nine times. It even happened to the same pair of teammates in back-to-back years; Bucky Walters and Paul Derringer were the two best pitchers in the NL in 1939 and again in 1940, helping to lead the Reds to a pair of pennants and a World Series title.

But even Walters and Derringer, as good as they were, didn't do it alone. The Reds had a pair of 13-game winners on the staff in 1939; the following year, their #3 and #4 starters won 16 and 14 games respectively. Not so the Diamondbacks, whose #3 starter by default, the bookish Miguel Batista, won 11 games all season and pitched out of the bullpen for part of the year. No one else on the pitching staff won more than six games. Even Spahn and Sain had Vern Bickford, who won 46 games over a three-year span, as a teammate. Johnson and Schilling have nobody.

Against that background, the work of Johnson and Schilling stands out in an even bolder relief. Johnson went 21-6 for the Diamondbacks this season, finishing second in the league in winning percentage--to Schilling, who finished 22-6. Together, they won 43 games and lost 12, for a .781 winning percentage. The Diamondbacks, as a team, finished just 92-70 (.556)--meaning that their pitchers, aside from their two aces, compiled a measly 49-58 (.458) record.

The difference between the Johnson/Schilling combo and the rest of the team--323 points of winning percentage--is the third greatest by any playoff team in history. Amazingly, it's not even the greatest of Randy Johnson's career:

Year Team Aces                        Record  Rest of Team  Diff Overall

1997 SEA Johnson, Moyer 37-9 (.804) 53-63 (.457) .347 90-72 1940 DET Newson, Rowe 37-8 (.822) 53-56 (.486) .336 90-64 2001 ARZ Schilling, Johnson 43-12 (.781) 49-58 (.458) .323 92-70 1985 LAN Hershiser, Welch 33-7 (.825) 62-60 (.508) .317 95-67 1990 BOS Clemens, Boddicker 38-14 (.731) 50-60 (.454) .276 88-74

As you can see, the Big Unit has had plenty of practice when it comes to carrying a playoff team to the postseason on his (and a friend's) shoulders.

Now, maybe winning percentage isn't a fair way of looking at the issue, because over the course of a single season it's possible that a team might score a disproportionate number of their runs with one or two starters on the mound. For example, neither Hershiser nor Welch was the ace of the Dodgers' staff in 1985; Fernando Valenzuela was. But the Dodgers gave Valenzuela relatively few runs with which to work, while scoring runs by the bucketful with his comrades on the mound. Ditto the 1940 Tigers: Schoolboy Rowe was actually the team's third starter when he wasn't carrying his backpack to class, but lucked his way into a 16-3 record despite a higher ERA than #2 starter Tommy Bridges.

So let's look at this another way. Schilling and Johnson combined to throw more than 500 innings this year, and together posted a 2.74 ERA. (By comparison, no other starting pitcher in the major leagues had an ERA under 3.00) The rest of the Diamondbacks' staff finished with a 4.47 ERA, which would have ranked 11th in the NL. With their two aces pulling the train, the D'backs actually finished second.

The combined ERA of the two was 1.73 runs better than the rest of their team, a margin that once again ranks among the largest ever for a playoff team:

Year Team Aces                           ERA  Rest of Team  Diff Overall

1997 SEA Johnson, Fassero 2.98 5.61 2.63 4.79 1997 SEA Johnson, Moyer 3.03 5.47 2.45 4.79 1987 MIN Viola, Blyleven 3.47 5.29 1.82 4.63 2001 ARZ Schilling, Johnson 2.74 4.47 1.73 3.87 1930 PHA Grove, Shores 3.12 4.85 1.73 4.28

The 1987 Twins are brought up in any discussion of flawed playoff teams, and rightfully so. The Twins won their division despite an 85-77 record; only the 1973 Mets made the playoffs with a worse record. Yet the Twins were led by a pair of All-Star pitchers, and the similarity to the 2001 Diamondbacks is striking. Frank Viola, like Johnson, was perhaps the best left-hander in the majors, and Bert Blyleven, like Schilling, was a right-hander who led the league in homers allowed.

The Twins' third starter was a guy named Les Straker, which should tell you all you need to know about the rest of their pitchers. Aside from Viola and Blyleven, the Twins were about as intimidating as Derek Zoolander. But with their two best pitchers starting on three days' rest in the playoffs, the Twins shocked the Detroit Tigers in five games in the ALCS, then squeaked past the Cardinals in seven games to win the World Series.

The Twins won only one game not started by Viola or Blyleven, but that was all they would need: Viola and Blyleven combined to start nine of the Twins' 12 postseason games, and went 7-2.

Before Diamondbacks fans get all warm and fuzzy, though, there are the 1997 Mariners to consider. The Mariners weren't supported by two great pitchers, but three: behind Johnson, who went an ungodly 20-4 with a 2.28 ERA, both Jamie Moyer (17-5, 3.86) and Jeff Fassero (16-9, 3.61) had terrific seasons. The rest of the pitching staff was brutal, combining to go 27-54 with an ERA above 6.00. The team's ostensible closer, Norm Charlton, had a 7.27 ERA, and everyone knows it's bad luck when your closer has the ERA of a Boeing.

Still, with a sure-fire Hall of Famer and a pair of wily veterans to back him up, it didn't look like their other pitchers would cost the Mariners in the postseason, because they wouldn't even need them. But a funny thing happened on the way to the World Series: the Mariners were quickly disposed of by the Orioles in the first round. The blame fell squarely on the three pitchers of whom so much was expected, particularly the Big Unit, who twice lost to Mike Mussina.

So, to answer the second question: there is certainly precedent in baseball's past for a pair of great pitchers to lead an otherwise unremarkable team to a championship. And if Johnson flirts with another no-hitter and Schilling continues to perform an uncanny imitation of Christy Mathewson, it might just happen. But they better continue to pitch as if they don't expect to get any help from their teammates, because it doesn't look like they will.

Rany Jazayerli is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.

Rany Jazayerli is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Rany's other articles. You can contact Rany by clicking here

Related Content:  The Who,  2001 Diamondbacks,  Playoff Starters

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