Monday, May 4, 2009

Comparing Cubs Aces

After last night's Jenkins/Maddux graphstravaganza, I got to thinking: how do the various Cubs aces of the last half century stack up against one another? I mean, the turn-of-the-century (20th, that is) Cubs had a fistful of aces: Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown, Hippo Vaughn, Orval Overall, Pete Alexander, and Ed Reulbach were all dominating pitchers (some for longer than others, of course). But as I thought about the last fifty years, very few names sprang to mind. Of course, there was Fergie Jenkins, who I fully expected to top the list of Cubs pitchers, and Greg Maddux, who I expected to top the overall list. And there's Big Z, though he's had a couple off years of late, and his near-contemporary Kerry Wood (during his prime as a starter, anyway). And who could forget Rick Sutcliffe's brief period of 80's dominance?

But the list pretty much ended there. Sure, several Cubs pitchers had a solid season or two; some even put together seasons I'd call great (2003 Mark Prior, anyone?). But I was hard-pressed to think of many Cubs starters who were true aces for more than a year or two.

So I dove into to find a sample set on which to perform a couple quick-and-dirty historical WAR tests. I had a few criteria in mind: First, each pitcher had to have at least a couple Opening Day starts under his belt (I'm looking for staff aces, after all). Second, each pitcher had to be a legitimate ace for a few years, so no ERA+ 100 guys who simply happened to be better than three subpar options (ie. Jon Lieber, Larry Jackson), and no pitchers with one good year and then little else to show for themselves (Prior). And finally, each pitcher had to have played in Chicago for at least five or six years (this was the loosest of my criteria, as it turned out that nobody who belonged on my short list played fewer than eight seasons in a Cubs uniform).

Using these three criteria to thin the crowd, I narrowed down my list to my original suspects (Jenkins, Maddux, Zambrano, Wood, Sutcliffe) and one pitcher I'd completely overlooked: Rick Reuschel.

Here's how the final six stacked up against one another while in Cubbie blue, with seasonal WAR graphed from best season to worst:

As I expected, Jenkins (blue) was well ahead of the pack, but there were certainly plenty of surprises here. First and foremost, I'd forgotten just how good Reuschel (orange) really was (a consequence of being too young to remember his best years with Chicago, methinks); he was far and away the best of the rest while a Cub, which is saying something in this crowd. On the other side of the coin, Sutcliffe (purple) didn't fare nearly as well in this little experiment as I'd expected him to, nor did Big Z (green). I expected Wood (brown) to suffer due to his injury seasons and his switch to the bullpen, but he actually outpaced Sutcliffe and wasn't significantly outperformed by Zambrano (though Z clearly has the edge). Maddux's (red) Cy Young year is right up there with Jenkins' and Reuschel's best years, but it's an outlier; as a Cub, Maddux was generally more similar to Wood and Zambrano than Jenkins valuewise.

Next up, I graphed each pitcher's career, fully expecting to see Maddux pull away from the pack, Jenkins to settle comfortably into second, Reuschel to drop back into the pack, and Wood and Zambrano to fall behind Sutcliffe:

As expected, Maddux was King of the Mountain careerwise, with Jenkins just behind. But Reuschel continued to surprise me; seriously, how did I miss this guy? Wood and Zambrano didn't change a bit, as neither had played for anyone other than Chicago before 2009. Sutcliffe had some absolutely Godawful seasons away from Chicago, which drag his career value down significantly. Once again, I found that I'd conveniently overlooked Sutcliffe's bad years while almost completely ignoring Rick Reuschel. I feel like I should send him a letter of apology or something:
Dear Mr. Reuschel,

Although I was only two years old when you left my Chicago Cubs (who were, incidentally, still four years away from being "my" team), I feel terrible for having underestimated your contributions to Cubs baseball in the late '70's and early '80's. I am currently taking measures to rectify what I feel is a grevious
error. Fortunately, I write for a largely-unknown baseball blog with a loose focus on the NL Central; rest assured that I will do everything in my power to make mention of your achievements whenever possible.

Please accept my humble apologies.

Your new biggest fan,

David J. Marincic
That should do it. While I track down a stamp, here are a couple more graphs I made just for funsies. Both are, as I expected, convoluted rat's nests due to the fact that there are six pitchers included in the dataset, but they're fun nonetheless.

First up, here is each pitcher's Cubs years. The x-axis represents which year in the pitcher's career he threw for the Cubs, so a pitcher whose career begins at "1" was a rookie in Chicago. Only their Cubs WAR values are displayed for pitchers who threw for more than one team in a season:

Next, here is each pitcher's year-by-year WAR. All seasons are accounted for, and WAR values for pitchers who split time between multiple teams in one season are combined to create a yearly total:

Sweet merciful crap, I'm out of unicorn postage stamps! I'd better run to the store; Mr. Reuschel has had to wait almost thirty years for this letter, and damned if I'm going to let him wait a day longer...


  1. Reuschel is surprising. I thought Wood's best years were better than they apparently were.

  2. So did I. It seems that a lot of the difference in WAR has to do with IP. Reuschel was a workhorse even by the standards of the late '70s and early '80s (234-260 IP in every single full season with the Cubs). Kerry Wood only topped 200 innings twice, and although he struck out more hitters, he also gave up more walks and homers while maintaining similar ERA+ and WHIP.

    WAR digs finishers (coffee is for closers). WAR cares not that Kerry Wood pitched out of a five man rotation in an era in which pitch counts mattered.