I recently picked up a copy of Bobby Bragan’s autobiography and have been reading bits of it. I came across a passage early on where Bragan talks about the World Series champion Cincinnati Reds of 1940 and great Reds pitchers like Bucky Walters, Paul Derringer, and Johnny Vander Meer, and it occurred to me that none of the men are in the Hall of Fame. In fact, no one who threw so much as one pitch for Cincinnati in 1940 is in Cooperstown. With the Baseball Writers Association of America set to announce on Wednesday who it will enshrine this summer, I decided to look for other great pitching staffs without any Hall of Famers.
It’s an interesting task. From what I found, teams often have at least a future Hall of Fame pitcher or two, and for teams that historically have not, the occasional position player has taken the mound and disqualified them from consideration here, like Ty Cobb with the Tigers in 1925 or Jimmie Foxx with the Phillies in 1945 or George Sisler with the Browns in 1920, 1925, and again in 1926. To rate a possible mention here, a team generally had to have a collection of ordinary pitchers putting up career numbers. Some of the best staffs I found thrived without much offensive support, either.
What follows is my list of 10 of the best pitching staffs without any Hall of Famers. I chose to look at teams between 1920 and 1990, since I didn’t want to consider anyone from the Deadball Era and before or have a list front-loaded with recent or current pitchers. I loosely related my picks to stats like win-loss record, ERA, ERA+ (how the team’s ERA compared to other teams that year), WHIP (walks plus hits divided by innings pitched) and SO/9 (strikeouts divided by nine innings) though I didn’t adhere rigidly to stats. Where’s the fun in that?
Anyhow, here are my ten:
1. 1942 St. Louis Cardinals: From 1938-1951, St. Louis did not have a Hall of Fame pitcher. No matter. With the exception of 1938, St. Louis kept its ERA under 4.00 and its record above .500 every year of this run. In 1942, the pitching peaked. National League champion St. Louis’s 2.55 ERA and 136 ERA+ would be fine work for one pitcher, let alone a staff. At the top of the rotation, Johnny Beazley went 21-6 and staff ace Mort Cooper finished 22-7 with a 1.78 ERA and a well-deserved National League Most Valuable Player award.
2. 1968 Detroit Tigers: On individual achievement alone, this staff would rate highly due to Denny McLain’s 31 win-season and Mickey Lolich’s triumphant World Series performance. As a staff, these Tigers were also outstanding, posting a 2.71 ERA, 1.118 WHIP and 6.7 SO/9. It’s why Detroit went 103-59 and prevailed in the Series over the Cardinals despite hitting .235 as a team.
3. 1986 New York Mets: One of the deepest pitching staffs in baseball history, the ’86 World Champion Mets starting rotation went a combined 76-30 with Dwight Gooden, Ron Darling, Bobby Ojeda, and Sid Fernandez each finishing with at least 15 wins. Gooden, Darling, and Ojeda also had ERAs below 3.00. In the bullpen, Jesse Orosco and Roger McDowell each contributed 20-save seasons.
4. 1944 St. Louis Browns: I challenge anyone reading to name a Browns pitcher from the only year the team went to the World Series before moving to Baltimore and becoming the Orioles. St. Louis’s collection of no-names went 89-65 with a 3.17 ERA and four top starters who combined to go 62-37. The strong pitching compensated for an offense that hit .252 in a hitters park and was devoid of stars, save for shortstop Vern Stephens.
5. 1940 Cincinnati Reds: Like the ’68 Tigers, the Reds won a World Series with several pitchers who could at least be in the Hall of Very Good, namely Derringer, Vander Meer, and Walters. Vander Meer, who pitched back-to-back no hitters in 1938, was injured most of 1940, though Derringer and Walters each won 20 games and accounted for all of the Reds victories in the World Series.
6. 1972 Pittsburgh Pirates: The Pirates just missed the World Series in 1972 with a rotation free of any pitchers close to making Cooperstown. Two of the Pirates’ best starters in 1972, Steve Blass and Dock Ellis may have each had Hall of Fame talent, but Blass mysteriously lost his ability to pitch shortly thereafter, and Ellis’ career was curtailed by substance abuse, though he once pitched a no-hitter on acid.
7. 1985 Los Angeles Dodgers: It would have seemed unlikely in the 1980s that between Dwight Gooden, Orel Hershiser, and Fernando Valenzuela, none would be enshrined today. In 1985, they did some of their best work, with Gooden winning a Cy Young for the Mets and Dodger teammates Valenzuela finishing 17-10 with a 2.45 ERA and Hershiser going 19-3 with a 2.03 ERA.
8. 1922 St. Louis Browns: The Browns’ 3.38 ERA, 1.556 WHIP, and 2.46 SO/9 would seem pedestrian here, but it was outstanding for the time, when hitters ruled, strikeout totals were low, and ERAs high. St. Louis’s staff ERA+ of 123 is the third-highest total here, behind the ’42 Cardinals and ’40 Reds.
9. 1972 Minnesota Twins: A young Bert Blyleven somehow won 17 games, along with posting a 2.73 ERA and 228 strikeouts for a Twins team that scored just 537 runs, hit .244 and finished 77-77. Blyleven was the best thing going on a pitching staff that had a 2.84 ERA and a 1.166 WHIP. Blyleven also may be the first player discussed in this post to disqualify his team from future consideration here, if he gets an expected call from Cooperstown on Wednesday.
10. 1933 Boston Braves: The Great Depression severely impacted the Braves, who were lucky to break .500 in this time and nearly went out of business. But at the low point of the Depression, a Braves team that hit .252 and scored just 552 runs finished 83-71 largely on the strength of defense and pitching. Boston posted a 2.96 team ERA and featured 18-game winner Ed Brandt and 20-game winner Ben Cantwell.