Baseball generally doesn't do one-of-a-kinds. Babe Ruth was one of a kind until Hank Aaron arrived. Same goes for Willie Mays until Ken Griffey Jr. And Sandy Koufax until Clayton Kershaw. And so on.
But allow me to present something that could prove to be an exception to the rule: the trio of starting pitchers the Atlanta Braves had in the 1990s.
Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine—who will go into the Baseball Hall of Fame together this weekend—were the two big ones, and there was also Hall of Fame hopeful John Smoltz. The three occupied the same rotation for seven straight years between 1993 and 1999, and they had little trouble cutting their way through an era of extreme offense.
Since this was a while ago at this juncture, maybe you only have a vague recollection of just how good they were. If so, don't worry. We can fix that with a full-on, grand appreciation session.
According to FanGraphs, Braves starters compiled a 3.27 ERA between '93 and '99. That was more than half a run lower than any other team's starters managed. And while Steve Avery, Kevin Millwood, Denny Neagle and Kent Mercker helped, it really was all about Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz.
Behold what they did individually in that span:
|Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz Between 1993 and 1999|
With a minimum of 700 innings, you're looking at three of only six pitchers between '93 and '99 to post ERAs under 3.25. They were also three of only eight pitchers with an ERA+ (ERA adjusted for parks and leagues) of at least 130. Lastly, they were three of only 15 to compile at least 25.0 WAR.
So depending on which stat you favor, the Maddux-Glavine-Smoltz trio represented between one-fifth and half of MLB's elite starting pitchers in a seven-year span. The word you're looking for is "absurd."
And should we also mention that they took home five of the seven National League Cy Youngs in that span? Yeah, let's mention that, too.
What made it all possible? Certainly talent, first and foremost, but the domination of the Maddux-Glavine-Smoltz trio was also a collaborative effort.
Here's Smoltz speaking to USA Today:
It was a good time of our lives, I could tell you that. To pick each other's brains on each hitter and what they'd try to do was something I wouldn't trade for anything. We spent a lot of time in the car, and a lot of time on the golf course and had our share of fun. But we also learned a lot and took pride in what we did. That's why we lasted as long as we did.
We can look back now and know that there were at least two future Hall of Famers in the room every time Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz got together. This time next year, however, we could look back and know that all three of them were ticketed for Cooperstown.
All it will take is for Smoltz to get in on his first year on the Hall of Fame ballot, and there's at least a decent chance of that happening. He's the only pitcher in MLB history with 200 wins and 150 saves, and WAR rates him as one of the 25 greatest right-handers ever.
If Smoltz does join Maddux and Glavine in Cooperstown, be it next year or some other year, the Braves will be able to claim that the starting trio they had between '93 and '99 was the greatest ever assembled.
And they could do so with a straight face.
There have so far been only two instances of a team carrying three Hall of Fame starters for at least five straight seasons: the Philadelphia A's with Rube Waddell, Eddie Plank and Chief Bender between 1903 and 1907, and the Cleveland Indians with Early Wynn, Bob Lemon and Bob Feller between 1949 and 1956.
Here's how those trios stack up against Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz:
|Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz vs. Hall of Fame Trios|
The Waddell-Plank-Bender trio was awfully good, but it was mainly Waddell and Plank. Bender was just starting out at the time.
The Wynn-Lemon-Feller trio was also good, but it happened at a time when Feller's prime years were already behind him.
Now look at Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz. When they were in the Braves rotation between '93 and '99, each was in his prime age range. And while Maddux was clearly the best of the three, Glavine and Smoltz were also really, really good.
So if Smoltz does make it to the Hall of Fame, here's what we'll have seen between '93 and '99: the first and heretofore only time a team has had three Hall of Fame starters in their prime and in the same rotation for a lengthy stretch of time.
I'll be damned if that doesn't feel like a one-of-a-kind thing. And while baseball might be able to duplicate the feat, it's going to be really, really difficult.
To put together their excellent trio of starters, the Braves first had to develop Glavine and Smoltz into homegrown aces. That they were able to do so should not be taken lightly.
Even the best pitching prospects, after all, are prone to failure. In looking at Baseball America Top 100 prospects from between 1990 and 2006, Matt Perez of Camden Depot found that over 75 percent of top pitching prospects became busts and just 10.58 percent became great.
As such, a team turning just one pitching prospect into a Glavine or a Smoltz is a huge victory. A team turning two pitching prospects into such huge successes at the same time is something else entirely.
And after the Braves had Glavine and Smoltz lined up, they then had to sign Maddux as a free agent. That's not an impossible act to repeat in theory, but what's notable is that Maddux was only coming off his age-26 season at the time.
Thanks in part to the recent extension craze, it's become rare for a star player to hit the free-agent market that young. Most stars are hitting free agency in their late 20s or early 30s, leaving them with only so many prime years left to give. The notion of a team signing a free-agent ace and then getting as many as seven ace-like years out of him is presently laughable.
But developing two aces and signing a third aren't the only feats the Braves pulled off with the Maddux-Glavine-Smoltz trio. They also kept the trio healthy right up until Smoltz blew out his elbow in early 2000.
The idea of a team keeping three pitchers of any quality healthy for as long as seven continuous years is yet another idea that doesn't fit in modern times. Pitchers have always had a knack for getting hurt, and now we're in the Golden Age of Tommy John Surgery.
According to BaseballHeatMaps.com, there have already been 65 Tommy John operations in 2014. This after there were 57 in 2013 and 80 in 2012. There are all sorts of explanations for this trend, but maybe the biggest is one MLB can do little about.
In a recently released paper, Dr. James Andrews noted (via CBSSports.com) that much of the damage being done to pitcher elbows is happening in their amateur years. In other words: Many, if not most, young pitchers begin their careers as damaged goods.
Now, with the future being what it is, it is possible that things will be different later than they are now.
Maybe the development of pitching prospects will become an exact science. There's already an indication that teams are striving toward that, as FanGraphs' RA-9 WAR metric tells us that three of the eight best seasons ever for 25-and-under starters have happened in the last six years.
From there, maybe the extension craze will die down and free-agent markets will become more populated with in-their-prime stars. And who knows? Maybe MLB will find a way to influence how amateur pitchers are treated, hopefully while also keeping the pros healthy, too. And as B/R's Will Carroll recently noted, there's already an innovative piece of equipment that can help the war on elbow injuries.
So as tempting as it is to say definitively that we're never going to see a trio of starting pitchers like Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz again, "never" is a long time. Due to things changing and things simply happening, there may indeed come a day when we see a trio like that again.
But don't hold your breath. Things had to come together perfectly for the Braves to even so much as put the Maddux-Glavine-Smoltz trio together, and then their good fortunes held for seven years. The total package is one of the great gifts the baseball gods have ever given.
So rather than wait for greatness that could be, here's recommending that you spend your time appreciating greatness that was instead.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.
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