We’ve already picked our position players, and now we will use single season WAR to select five starting pitchers, a closer, and I’ll even throw in a best non-closing relief pitcher and lefty set-up man.
As with the position players, if there are significant disagreements between fWAR and bWAR, I’ll consider agreement between the two numbers, but also examine other factors including FIP, FIP-, xFIP and K/BB, and WPA. In some cases I get downright granular.
It’s important to note that there are some major discrepancies between fWAR and bWAR when it comes to the pitchers. Moreso than the position players, which is surprising as we already know the two main WAR values calculate defense differently. In fact, the discrepancy is so great in some instances that it’s much harder to create a definitive list with pitchers than position players, even with a thorough examination of the peripherals. I guess we’ll have to argue about it! Yay, baseball fight.
As with the deep dive into position players I found some upsets, favorites overturned, Hall of Famers shut-out and Cy Young winners denied. Narratives shape our perception of greatness and nothing creates sports narrative more than a championship run. But sometimes the best performances were not in championship seasons. Sometimes the most memorable performers on a championship team were lifted up by team-wide talent instead of their individual contribution.
One thing I can say for certain, there is absolutely no doubt who the greatest pitcher is to ever wear the Green and Gold, as he accounts for not just the best season ever pitched in Oakland, but the second best season as well. And his name is...
Pitcher #1: Vida Blue, 8.5 bWAR / 8.8 fWAR, 1971
Chris Berman’s favorite baseball trivia question: Who was the last switch-hitter to win the American League MVP? Vida Blue! And he won it in 1971 as well as the Cy Young in the most dominant season ever by an Oakland pitcher.
Bill James rated Vida Blue and Nolan Ryan as the two hardest throwers of the early 70s. Vida came at you with a high 90s four-seamer that regularly touched 100. Peter Rose said he never faced anybody who threw harder than Vida Blue. He was an absolute phenomenon in 1971, but there had been hints of his coming greatness in his 1970 call-up when he threw a no-hitter, and a one-hitter among his handful of starts.
Two things stand out to me about Vida’s career with the A’s. First, it’s absolutely insane that they had him throw more than 300 innings as a 21 year old in 1971 after only 171 (majors & minors combined) in 1970. He was obviously losing gas as the season went on too, and it probably affected his performance the following year as much as his notorious hold out. They had a Thoroughbred and they treated him like a plow-mule.
Second, Vida’s place in the Swingin’ A’s era is overshadowed because his best seasons did not align with the run of World Series championships. Also, his post-season record with the A’s was shaky at 1-5, whereas Catfish Hunter went 5-2 during that same stretch. Though Vida did have some key moments in the post-season, including dominant pitching in relief against Detroit in the playoffs in 1972, and outdueling Jim Palmer in 1974 to beat the Orioles with a complete game two-hitter.
Vida’s second best season with the A’s also fell outside the World Series run in 1976 when Vida put up 7.6 fWar / 7.7 bWar. But those two seasons, 1971 and 1976, are the two best seasons ever thrown by an Oakland Athletic. As a side note, Vida put up two other 5 WAR seasons while he was with the A’s, but in an era where there was much more focus on pitcher wins, Catfish Hunter’s run of 20 win seasons got the attention.
Lots of great detail and stories about Vida’s career here: https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/397acf10
Pitcher #2: Tim Hudson, 7.4 bWAR / 5.8 fWAR, 2003
Surprised? Were you thinking Hall of Famer Catfish Hunter would be here? Or Cy Young winners Bob Welch, or Barry Zito? Or Dave Stewart with his string of 20 win seasons? Nope! Huddy’s the guy.
However, this comes with several caveats and I will note straight up this is the most difficult ranking I’ve had to make in this series and the most arguable. Because not only does Catfish Hunter have a very strong claim as #2, there’s an outlier single season performance with wildly different Fangraphs and B-Ref values that needs consideration. Also you may be surprised by the year, as 2003 was not the year Tim Hudson came in second in the Cy Young after winning 20 games. Let’s examine it more closely.
The first thing that should jump out at you is the discrepancy between the bWAR 7.4, and fWAR of 5.8. That’s a very significant difference, basically the margin between being All-Star worthy and a Cy Young candidate.
Now consider Catfish Hunter’s 1974 season when he won the Cy Young award, and posted 6.9 bWAR / 6.3 fWAR. He pitched 318 IP, and had 41 starts! Catfish won 25 games, and 23 of those were complete games. Talk about a bullpen saver.
Huddy has the higher bWAR at 7.4, but there’s much more agreement between Catfish’s two scores. I get no clarity when I look at the average of the two scores because they both come out to exactly 6.6 WAR.
Here’s why I give Huddy the nod, though. Huddy’s FIP in 2003 is 3.38; Catfish’s FIP in 1974 is 3.17. But Huddy’s FIP- (which factors in park and league and bases off 100, where the lower the score is better) is 76. Catfish’s FIP- is 86. In that stadium in that era, Tim pitched better.
Huddy’s 2003 season ranks top ten in Franchise history when you dig into the deep analytics. His Adjusted Pitching runs of 45 is tied for 6th all time. That’s not just Oakland, baby, that’s up there with Lefty Grove! His WPA/LI score of 4.8 is 7th all time. The deeper you dig the more daylight you find between Huddy and Catfish.
Also, Tim accrued his WAR in 35 starts, compared to Hunter’s 41. On the one hand, give Catfish credit for the extra innings, but on the other hand, Tim contributed as much or more on the mound in fewer starts. You can go round and round on this one, including credit for Catfish’s post-season in 1974 (he went 2-1).
But wait, there’s more! Now you can buy Popeil’s Pocket Fisherman for only... I mean as if that wasn’t as muddy as a catfish’s natural environment, we’ve got an even murkier season to consider.
Kenny Rogers, 7.5 bWAR / 4.5 fWAR, 1998. So he was either a Cy Young level pitcher, or slightly worse than an All-Star pitcher. Thanks for clearing that up WAR. I just don’t see where B-Ref could be getting that valuation. I remember Kenny pitching very well for us in his lone season with the A’s, but I don’t remember thinking “This is an all-time great for the Green and Gold.” His FIP was 3.95. K/9 5.02. BB/9 2.53. I think the B-Ref WAR value is completely off-base, and while I am appreciative of the Gambler’s fine career, he doesn’t rate as #2 on this list, nor even in the top five. Please feel free to correct me if you think I’m off-base here, but I don’t think I am.
#3 Catfish Hunter, 6.9 bWAR / 6.3 fWAR, 1974
I just enumerated all of Catfish’s superlatives for ‘74 in my Tim Hudson ranking. I will note that another factor in my ranking was that Huddy’s second and third best seasons in 2001 ( 4.5 bWAR/ 5.1 fWAR), 2002 (6.9 bWAR / 4.7 fWAR) are both better than Catfish’s best seasons in Oakland. In Catfish’s defense, I will note that one of his better season came in 1967 for the Kansas City A’s where he put up 5.1 fWAR, and that his first season with the Yankees he also put up 5.7 fWAR.
I don’t mean in anyway to downplay Catfish Hunter’s importance to the A’s or his greatness as a pitcher. But I will argue that a lot of his reputation comes (justly!) from his post-season performance, playing in front of one of the all-time great defensive units, in front of a powerhouse offense, and that’s how he accrued those pitcher wins.
Certainly the narrative looks great, leading the A’s to three WS championships and then contributing to the resurgent Yankees of the late 70s. But looking at his performance in the cold light, he reminds me more of Eric Chavez’s contribution. Which is to say that Catfish Hunter was a consistent all-star that you could build a team around, but that he wasn’t a dominant talent. Vida Blue was clearly a better and more dominant pitcher, and I think Tim Hudson had a higher peak as well.
#4 Mike Norris, 5.9 bWAR / 6.0 fWAR, 1980
The poster boy for pitcher abuse (after Vida Blue) would be Billy Martin’s favorite workhorse, who turned in 284.1 sterling innings pitched for the Oakland Athletics. Far and away Mike’s best season, he came in second in Cy Young voting in 1980, and also won the first of two Gold Gloves. He was out of baseball by 1984, though I was extremely heartened when the A’s brought him back in 1990 where he threw 27 perfectly cromulent innings for us, giving him 10 seasons in the majors, and probably securing some pension money for him.
Mike Norris’s 1980 season ranks in several Franchise (not just Oakland) top ten pitching categories. Those rankings caught my attention and gave me some confidence in his placement at #4. Consider his Bases Out Runs Saved (RE24) score of 49.43, which ranks behind five Lefty Grove seasons, and Vida Blue’s 1971. His WPA of 6.7 is also a Franchise Top ten behind Lefty Grove and KC’s Bobby Shantz. His Adjusted Pitching Runs, and Adjusted Pitching Wins totals are also Franchise Top ten. Bases Out Wins Saved is top 5. In all the most sophisticated and granular analyses his 1980 season easily ranks as a top five for Oakland, and a top ten season for the Franchise going back to Philly.
#5 Barry Zito, 7.1 bWAR / 4.5 fWAR, 2002
Once again, we have a huge discrepancy in WAR values. When I delineated between Catfish and Huddy, I went with Huddy’s higher bWAR, over the consonance of Catfish’s two scores. Whereas, here I’m valuing the close alignment of Mike Norris’s two scores. Am I inconsistent? I contain multitudes. For one thing, Mike’s WPA score in 1980 was a whopping 6.22, compared to Barry’s 3.81.
But I come to praise Barry, not bury him with a statistical knife between the shoulder blades. In some ways, the perception of Zito comes from everybody and their mother’s correct opinion that the Giants vastly overpaid for Barry’s services, and that take seemed validated by (a) his performance with SF, and (b) him being left off the post-season roster during their 2010 championship run.
However, Barry - like Catfish- was often at his best in huge post-season games. He out-dueled Johan Santana in game 5 to lift the A’s over the hump with their first post-season series win of the 21st century in 2006. He threw two gems in the 2012 postseason for the Giants, including a win or go home game against the Cardinals and beat the Tigers in the World Series. Not to mention beating the Yankees in NYC as a rookie in 2000.
Mark Mulder 5.7 fWAR in 2001 (and 5.3 bWAR in 2003)
Ken Holtzman, 5.4 fWAR in 1974
Sonny Gray 5.4 bWAR in 2015 (but only 3.5 fWAR)
Joe Blanton, 5.3 fWAR in 2007 (only 3.6 bWAR)
Ken Holtzman, 5.0 fWAR in 1973
Dave Stewart, 4.9 fWAR in 1990
Dan Haren, 4.7 fWAR in 2007
Brandon McCarthy, 4.5 fWAR 2011
The only thing the WAR values are confident about is that Vida Blue pitched the two best seasons ever for the Oakland A’s. After that the top ten lists between Fangraphs and B-Ref diverge and really makes you want to get under the hood and see how they came up with such different assessments. (Please forgive me if I made any transcription errors here, it’s all starting to get blurry...)
Fangraphs Top Ten A’s Pitching Seasons:
Vida Blue, 1971, 8.8
Vida Blue, 1976, 7.6
Catfish Hunter, 1974, 6.3
Mike Norris, 1980, 6.0
Tim Hudson, 2003, 5.8
Mark Mulder, 2001, 5.7
Vida Blue, 1974, 5.5
Ken Holtzman, 1974, 5.4
Joe Blanton, 2007, 5.3
Vida Blue, 1975, 5.1
Tim Hudson, 2001, 5.1
Dave Stewart, 1988, 5.1
(With those last three being tied for 10th.)
Baseball Reference Top Ten A’s Pitching Seasons:
Vida Blue, 1971, 9.0
Vida Blue, 1976, 7.6
Kenny Rogers, 1998, 7.5
Tim Hudson, 2003, 7.4
Barry Zito, 2002, 7.2
Tim Hudson, 2002, 6.9
Catfish Hunter, 1974, 6.9
Mike Norris, 1980, 5.9
Mark Mulder, 2003, 5.8
Catfish Hunter, 1972, 5.7
I’m highly confident in Vida Blue at #1. I’m pretty sure I’ve got the right top 5, but you can definitely quibble about the order. I don’t think you can make a case for Stew being in this rotation. In fact, he’s almost certainly behind Ken Holtzman and Mark Mulder.
Dave Stewart falls into that same category with Catfish Hunter, or Eric Chavez. A reliable all-star level performance for a good 5+ year stretch. But not elite.
Closer, Blake Treinen, 4.3 bWAR / 3.6 fWAR, 2018
Alex Hall sums up Blake’s historically great performance in 2018:
Key takeaway: “Treinen posted the lowest ERA in all of MLB history for any pitcher with at least 80 innings thrown.”
Blake also put up a 6.47 WPA. He was a frickin’ stud. In 2018, Blake Treinen was as dominant as any pitcher I’ve seen in an Oakland uniform. It wasn’t fair.
However, the A’s have a tradition of outstanding closers. Do any other teams even have two closers in the HoF? We’ve got Eck and Rollie Fingers.
Now I think there’s been enough detailed analysis to rate Blake’s season as the best by an A’s closer ever. However, it’s important to note that neither Fangraphs, nor Baseball Reference ranks Blake’s season as the best A’s relief single season by WAR. I don’t think WAR is the best way to look to look at a relief pitcher’s performance but these two lists deserve a look.
Fangraphs Top Ten A’s Relief Seasons by WAR:
Rollie Fingers, 1976, 4.1
Liam Hendriks, 2019, 3.8
Blake Treinen, 2018, 3.6
Rollie Fingers, 1974, 3.3
Dennis Eckersley, 1987, 3.3
Dennis Eckersley, 1990, 3.2
Dennis Eckersley, 1992, 3.1
Sean Doolittle, 2014, 2.5
Rollie Fingers, 1973, 2.4
Michael Wuertz, 2009, 2.3
Andrew Bailey, 2009, 2.3
Huston Street, 2006, 2.3
(again with a three way tie for 10th)
Baseball Reference Top Ten A’s Relief Seasons by WAR:
Mudcat Grant, 1970, 4.5
Blake Treinen, 2018, 4.1
Rollie Fingers, 1976, 3.8
Andrew Bailey, 2009, 3.7
Liam Hendriks, 2019, 3.5
Keith Foulke, 2003, 3.5
Dennis Eckersley, 1990, 3.3
Dennis Eckersley, 1987, 3.0
Huston Street, 2005, 2.9
Dennis Eckersley, 1992, 2.9
(I’ll note Brad Ziegler is right there at 11th place with 2.8 bWAR in 2008.)
A couple things jump out. Bearing in mind that the closer’s job in the early 70s was very different, you can certainly make a case for Rollie Fingers 1976 season as the best ever if you’re just looking at WAR.
Rollie ‘76 3.8 bWAR / 4.1 fWAR
Blake ‘18 4.1 bWAR / 3.6 fWAR
Also, among our run of Single Season closers that included Isringhausen and Foulke and Koch, Andrew Bailey was probably the best.
Eck was consistently fantastic for several years in a row, but he wasn’t our number one. It’s really hard for a relief pitcher to generate 3+ wins in a season, but he did it multiple times. As we are bitterly aware, that kind of consistency is hard to find in a bullpen.
One thing I’ve come to realize in this exercise is that championship teams are built around a core of players who can perform at an all-star level consistently for several years in a row. Vida Blue’s best year didn’t bring a championship. But when he and Catfish and Holtzman were all putting up 5 win season, then you start scooping up trophies. Same with the Bash Brother era, where Rickey is the only elite talent, but you’ve got all-star level production all over the field from Canseco, McGwire, Stewart, Weiss, Steinbach, Eck, Moore, Hendu.
You don’t win championships with Mike Trout. You win with five or six guys capable of putting up a 5 WAR season. (Guys like...Chapman, Semien, Olson, Laureano, Luzardo, for example.)
Best Non-Closer Relief Pitcher: Mudcat Grant, 1970, 4.5 bWAR / 0.8 fWAR
Admittedly, that’s a Hall of Fame name, but I’m also trying to parse those two WAR values. He was with the A’s in 1970, and traded at the end of the year to the Pirates who needed bullpen help for the playoffs. Then the Pirates traded him back to the A’s in ‘71 where he pitched in the ALCS against Baltimore. He had a WPA of 5.2 in 1970 for the A’s. He pitched in 72 games, and finished 49 of them.
Here’s what really caught my attention though. He has the second best Adjusted ERA+ in Franchise History (not just Oakland) with 198. That’s second only to the legendary Lefty Grove’s 1931 season at 217. Mudcat was like Petit but better. He could come in for middle relief, or close a game out.
Best Lefty Set-Up Man: Sean Doolittle, 2012, 0.8 b/WAR /1.6 fWAR
Now Sean put up a better fWAR in 2014 as our closer at 2.5, but that doesn’t scale the heights of our all-time closer list. However, I want you to consider that he put up his 1.6 fWAR in 2012 in just 44 games as a lefty set-up man for Cook and Balfour. His FIP was 2.08. His K/9 was 11.41, and his BB/9 was 2.09. K/BB was 5.45. Oh yeah, and his K% was a blistering 31.4%. Here comes the high heat! Nothing but fastballs and you still can’t catch up!
Now you might want to dig around in our relief history and pull up lefties like Rick Honeycutt or Darold Knowles (2.6 bWAR in ‘72) or Paul Lindblad, and they were all good. But they weren’t as good as Sean’s half season in 2012, and you know it in your heart. Plus, it’s the most A’s Story Ever! Let’s turn our failed position player into an elite relief pitcher. By gum, it worked!
Lordy Lou, that took forever. Pitchers were a lot harder to do than the position players, but the more I investigated the more confident I became with my assessments.
I’m tempted to do a few follow-ups since we’re killing time now before opening day. I’m curious to do a down-and-dirty KC A’s team, a Philadelphia A’s team (deep cuts!), and maybe that all-defensive team I was talking about.