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This past Christmas, presumably filling airtime during the hockey strike, TSN was rebroadcas- ting the ’92 World Series. I saw parts of Games 1 and 5, but missed the one I really wanted to see, Game 3, with Devon White’s triple-play-that-wasn’t-called (as clear as ever looking at the replay on YouTube). I couldn’t even remember who won Game 1 as I watched the middle innings over at my sister’s--guessed the Jays, but it was Atlanta. The ‘92 Jays’ pitching staff has taken on a certain retroactive fascination for me over the years. Has a deeper staff ever been assembled? I don’t mean deep in terms of what they accom- plished that particular year--like most any team, even division winners, the ‘92 Jays had a bunch of guys at different stages of their careers, some pitched well and some didn’t, and as a team they only finished in the middle of the league in ERA (bottom half, actually)-- but rather when you take a step back and look at their staff from the standpoint of career accomplishments in the aggregate. There are a variety ways you could try to measure the somewhat amorphous concept of “deepness”--wins, career WAR, and career ERA are the three most obvious--but none of them are quite what I had in mind. On Fangraphs’ WAR table, a season of 4.0-5.0 is designated as an all-star season, and that’s much closer to what I wanted to measure: how many all-star seasons, quantified objectively, did these pitchers produce over the course of their careers? (Okay--I’m fudging the numbers a bit here. Baseball Reference, whose WAR figures are the ones I’m actually using, identifies an All-Star season as 5.0+. In all honesty, though, 4.0-5.0 on Baseball Reference looks All-Star calibre to me. Here are some names that fell in that range last year: Melky Cabrera, Aaron Hill, Gio Gonzalez, Cole Hamels, Albert Pujols, Alex Rios, Felix Hernandez. Surely they all met the All-Star threshold.) When I look at the ’92 Jays, I see so many guys, both starters and relievers, who had long, successful careers. Only one them, Jack Morris, looks like he’ll end up in the Hall of Fame, even though they likely had four other starters who were better pitchers. But as a group, there are enough 4.0+ WAR seasons for four or five Hall of Famers. Let me look at the starters, first--I’ll get to the relievers after that. (I’m using WAR here because the numbers are easy for me to access. You could probably use James’s Win Shares and end up more or less the same place.)
Group 1: Hanging OnJack Morris – Morris was the team’s putative ace in ’92: a big free-agent signing from the Twins (coming off his famous Game 7 win), he went on to record a 21-6 record, and he started the opening game of the World Series. As was often the case with Morris, his W-L record was misleading--he really didn’t pitch all that well in ’92, with a below-league-average 4.04 ERA and a lousy K/BB ratio. He could just as easily have gone 15-12. He got hammered by the Braves in the World Series and was finished by 1994. Over the course of his career, Morris had five seasons of 4.0+ WAR: 1979, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1991. Dave Stieb – I can’t remember if he went down with an injury or if he just got pulled from the rotation, but Stieb was terrible in ’92, pitching fewer than 100 innings. He didn’t pitch an inning during the postseason--pretty sure he wasn’t even activated--and 1993 would essentially be his final year. (He attempted a comeback in ’98, something I have no recollection of.) Total 4.0+ WAR seasons: seven, all but one during the ‘80s.
Group 2: Prime, More or LessJimmy Key – Key was right in the middle of his career in ’92, his last year with the Jays; he moved over to the Yankees in ’93, where he contended for the Cy Young his first two seasons. His final season was 1998. Total 4.0+ WAR seasons: seven. David Cone – Getting Cone from the Mets late in ‘92 (August 27, for Jeff Kent...) was the move that finally got the Jays to the finish line for the first time. He only threw 50 (very effec- tive) innings in the regular season, but he had two starts in each of the LCS and World Series; for anyone who remembers, though, the real key were the reverberations his acquisition sent around the league--it had never been clearer that the Jays were going all in. He was gone in ’93, won the Cy Young in the strike season of ’94, and had three very good years (and one abys- mal one) with the Yankees in the late ‘90s. Total 4.0+ WAR seasons: eight. Juan Guzman – He was maddening to watch, forever fidgeting and shaking off his catcher, but Guzman pulled off a pretty good Whitey Ford imitation his first three years in the league. He won 40 of his first 51 decisions, twice posting sub-3.00 ERAs, and in ’96 he led the league in ERA. By the time he left for Baltimore in ’98, he had long worn out his welcome. Total 4.0+ WAR seasons: two.
Group 3: Just Getting StartedDavid Wells – Wells started 14 games for the Jays in ’92, same number as Stieb, and didn’t pitch well. He was 29 years old and had 47 career wins at that point; I doubt many people expected him to win almost 200 more games the rest of the way. Total 4.0+ WAR seasons: six. Al Leiter – ’92 was a low point in Leiter’s career. The Jays got him from the Yankees in ’89 for Jesse Barfield, and for the next four seasons he was constantly on the disabled list. It was amazing--from ‘89-‘92, he pitched a sum total of 15.2 innings for the Jays (exactly 1.0 in ’92). He was healthier from ‘93-‘95, pitching well in two of those seasons, but I guess the Jays had had enough, and they traded him to Florida. From that point forward, at the age of 30, he turned it around completely, going 122-88 with a 3.44 ERA over the next nine seasons. Total 4.0+ WAR seasons: five, including his last season with the Jays. Pat Hentgen – ‘92 was Hentgen’s second season, and it wasn’t until ’93 that he became a full time starter (going 19-9 and finishing sixth in Cy Young voting). He went on to win the Cy in ’96, and for the most part had a good decade run with Toronto. Total 4.0+ WAR seasons: three. So: you’ve got eight different starters right there, all in the same place at the same time, responsible for 43 seasons of 4.0+ WAR pitching. Todd Stottlemyre was also around, and he never had a 4.0+ season--he got close a couple of times, in ’91 and ’94. But he did a) win 138 games over his career (.533 winning pct.), b) pitch over 2000 innings and strike out over 1500 batters, c) have a full-time spot in some team’s rotation nine different seasons, and d) author the most entertaining godawful slide ever in Game 4 of the '93 Series. He was never a star, was never really close. But neither was his career negligible. Looking at the Jays’ relievers, I’ll have to rely on more traditional metrics. To compile a 4.0+ WAR for a season, you pretty much have to be a starter--relievers pulled off a few such seasons when they were throwing 100+ innings a year (a couple of examples: Goose Gossage in ’75, Mike Marshall in ’79), but ever since Dennis Eckersley redefined the closer’s role in the late ‘80s, 4.0+ relief seasons are almost unheard of. Even Eric Gagne, in his near-perfect Cy Young season of 2003, only compiled a 3.9 WAR. (As it turns out, the ’92 Jays did have one of those relievers who once posted a 4.0+ season on their roster.) The most important guy in the bullpen on the ’92 Jays was, of course, Tom Henke, who was finishing off an exceptional seven-plus-year run as the team’s closer. Where did Henke rank during those years (1985-1992)? Dennis Eckersley, even though wasn’t converted to a closer until 1987, was #1; from ’88-’92, he vies with Mariano Rivera as the best closer ever. As to who was second-best, here’s a very quick comparison of Henke to three other ubiquitous names during those years: Henke: 217 saves, 2.48 ERA Jeff Reardon: 271/3.51 Lee Smith: 275/2.89 John Franco: 222/2.47 Pretty much dead even with Franco in the #2 slot, unless you prefer Smith’s bulk save total. And Henke pitched in the DH league, unlike Franco. The Jays’ set-up man in ’92 was Duane Ward. Because Ward burned out so quickly--he retired in ’95 at age 31--it might not be appreciated just how dominant he was from 1991-93 (he moved into the closer role in ’93, after Henke left). His rate stats for those three seasons: 2.31 ERA, 6.6 H/9, 10.7 K/9, 3.42 K/BB ratio. Not quite Eckersley numbers, but--in ’92 and ’93 especially--he was awesome. Midway through the ’92 season, the Jays brought Mark Eichhorn back in a trade with the Angels. Eichhorn was still remembered for his phenomenal rookie year with the team in ’86 (14-6 in 157 innings of middle relief, 1.72 ERA, under a baserunner per inning, and, yes, a 7.1 WAR), and by ’92, he was still effective as the guy who handed the ball over to Ward. Mike Timlin and David Weathers were on the ’92 roster--Timlin was actually on the mound for the final out of the World Series. Both guys were just beginning their careers in ’92, and neither was an integral part of the team: Weathers only pitched in two games, Timlin in 26. But what they did for the rest of their careers, bouncing around on a number of teams, is almost total 2,000 games between them. Timlin’s 1,058 GP ranks seventh on the career list, Weathers’ 964 ranks 18th. There were only three guys on the ’92 staff whose careers amounted to nothing: Bob Macdonald, Doug Linton, and Ricky Trlicek. The other 14 guys who pitched for the Jays in 1992 included: 43 seasons of 4.0+ WAR pitching between their starters (44, if you include Eichhorn); arguably the second-best closer of his generation; another reliever who was almost as dominant as Roger Clemens or Dennis Eckersley for three seasons; two guys who rank very high on the career Games Pitched list; and Todd Stottlemyre, who won 138 games. Back to those 4.0+ WAR seasons among the starters. I’m not sure if 43 is the highest figure ever recorded by one staff in history, but it may very well be. Here’s how the ’92 Jays compare to the 10 greatest pitching staffs ever assembled according to the Bleacher Report website, in a piece posted a couple of years ago. (Oddly enough, a list of 50 that includes not the ’92 Jays, but the ’93 team instead, at #28. Doesn’t make sense to me.) 1. 1995 Braves: 31 (26 from Maddux/Glavine/Smoltz) 2. 1971 Orioles: 12 (8 from Palmer, no one else more than one) 3. 1954 Indians: 25 4. 1966 Dodgers: 29 (some by relievers) 5. 2003 Yankees: 39 (3 from Mariano) 6. 1905 Athletics: 22 7. 1973 Athletics: 12 8. 1979 Orioles: 16 9. 1948 Indians: 18 10. 1978 Yankees: 21 Only one team comes anywhere close, the ’03 Yankees--but among starters only, the Jays lead 43-36. I’m not going to check all 50 staffs on the Bleacher Report list, so maybe there’s a team or two in there with more than the Jays. I highly doubt it, though. In the midst of putting this together--I started a month ago, then put it aside for awhile--the subject of the ’92 Jays’ pitching depth came up in a comments thread on the excellent High Heat Stats baseball blog. Someone wondered how a team with so many well known pitchers ended up ninth in team ERA, followed by someone else pointing out that of the 199 pitchers since 1901 with a career WAR over 30, the ’92 Jays had more of them (seven) than any other team. Which is just one more indicator of something I’ve come to be- lieve about the collection of pitching talent the Jays had that year: widening out from the ’92 season itself, no one ever had a deeper staff.