The Greatest Fantasy Baseball Team Possible, Part 2: Pitchers

In Part 1, I listed my starting offense on the Greatest Fantasy Baseball Team Possible.

Here, in Part 2, I will unveil the starting rotation and bullpen to complete the team.

I placed 3rd in my fantasy league this year.  I had a lineup full of sluggers and a worthy bullpen, but like many real baseball teams, lack of starting pitching doomed my season.

The league champion had Justin Verlander, and the runner-up had Clayton Kershaw.  Verlander and Kershaw were undoubtedly the top two starters in baseball this season, so it’s no surprise they were the backbones of winning fantasy teams.

verlander kershaw

But how do their standout 2011 seasons stack up to the greats of the last 30 years?

As with the hitters in Part 1 of this post, I tried to find a good statistical blend.  You could stack the top 5 strikeout seasons since 1980, but you would take a big hit in wins, ERA and WHIP.  You could stack wins, but the ERA and WHIP issue would remain.  ERA and WHIP heavy seasons were very low in strikeouts and wins.  You get the idea.

Therefore, the true challenge is to pull the right strings that balances your staff.

To recap, here are some of the (self-imposed) rules I’ll go by:

  • Only seasons from 1980-2011 are eligible, since fantasy baseball started, in its modern form, in 1980.
  • I’m only including one season from any player.  This rule is only included to keep things interesting and give credit to the maximum number of players.
  • I’m choosing these players based on the standard categories in fantasy baseball: batting average, home runs, RBI, stolen bases and runs for hitters, and wins, strikeouts, saves, ERA, and WHIP (walks plus hits/innings pitched) for pitchers.  I know it’s not exactly saber-friendly, but these are the stats fantasy leagues were built on and that we continue to use today.
  • The idea is to add up all of the statistics for the team and enable it to best any other combination of the players’ seasons in at least 6 of the 10 scoring categories.
  • I haven’t examined every possible combination to see if my team is unbeatable based upon the criteria I have chosen.  I simply did a lot of research and chose the seasons I was most impressed by, and tried to make these statistics as well rounded as possible.
  • I challenge any readers to create their own teams to see if they can beat my team in at least 6 out of 10 categories.  Feel free to post your own teams or glaring omissions I may have made in the comments below.

With that out of the way, let’s have a look at my starting rotation.

Starting Pitcher 1:

pedro martinezPedro Martinez – 1999 – Boston Red Sox

23 wins, 313 strikeouts, 2.07 ERA, .923 WHIP, 0 saves

It truly pained me to leave out Pedro’s 2000 season (1.74 ERA and .737 WHIP), as he was truly unhittable in 2000, and to make matters worse for his opponents, he had impeccable control as well.

But Pedro’s 1999 season had 5 more wins and 20 more strikeouts, both of which are necessary in striking the right balance on this rotation.  His WHIP was still spectacular – although not as laughably fantastic as 2000 – and his ERA was 6th lowest for a starter since 1980.

I can only imagine his wins total if he’d been an innings-eating workhorse like some of the other pitchers you will see on this list.

 

Starting Pitcher 2:

randy johnsonRandy Johnson – 2002 – Arizona Diamondbacks

24 wins, 334 strikeouts, 2.32 ERA, 1.009 WHIP, 0 saves

The Big Unit could easily have landed on this list a couple of times, but due to my rule of only allowing one season per player, I chose 2002.  In that season, Johnson set a career high in wins and had an ERA nearly a full run lower than his career average —  all while supplying his usually stellar number of punchouts.

What is truly remarkable about Johnson’s 2002 season is that he was 38 years old and still managed to put up elite stats.  To put that in perspective, Pedro Martinez – Johnson’s closest statistical rival of that era – was retired by 37 and managed the amazing season above at age 27.  They were definitely different pitchers – the Big Unit a giant, southpaw fireballer with overpowering stuff and effective wildness; Pedro a diminutive righty who, while a hard thrower, possessed a more crafty repertoire.

Had Johnson been able to limit his walks a bit (he had one of the largest walks/innings ratios of all pitchers in consideration, which eliminated his 372 strikeout 2001 season) he would’ve had, in my mind, the greatest statistical season of a starting pitcher of the last 30 years.  And was there anybody more terrifying to hitters and avian species?

 

Starting Pitcher 3:

dwight goodenDwight Gooden – 1985 – New York Mets

24 wins, 268 strikeouts, 1.53 ERA, .965 WHIP, 0 saves

It might be hard for younger baseball fans to understand, but that guy who was on the latest season of Celebrity Rehab had one of the most amazing pitching seasons in baseball history.

At 20 years old, “Doc” Gooden was nearly invincible, dominating National League hitters as if they were high school players.  His massive win total and miniscule ERA were the big factors for including him on this list, but unlike other strong ERA performers (like Greg Maddux, who I’ll discuss further in a moment), he maintained a strong strikeout performance as well.

It’s sad to think about what could have been with Gooden, as he’d amassed 91 wins by the age of 23. Unfortunately, personal demons derailed his surefire Hall of Fame career, Dwight finished with only 194 victories, only pitching until age 35.

Not that it’s any real consolation, but his brilliance in 1985 lives on as one of the greatest fantasy baseball seasons by a starting pitcher of all time.

 

Starting Pitcher 4: 

mike scottMike Scott – 1986 – Houston Astros

18 wins, 306 strikeouts, 2.22 ERA, .923 WHIP, o saves

Mike Scott was the ace of the 1986 Astros team that lost in the NLCS to the eventual World Series champion Mets (who had their own ace, our friend Doc Gooden).  The series loss was no fault of Scott’s, however, as he pitched two complete games and yielded only a single earned run, winning both and striking out 19 in the process.  Pretty nasty.

As for the regular season – which is what we’re most concerned with for this exercise – Scott was just as ruthless, tallying one of only 13 300+ strikeout seasons since 1980.  The other guys who notched such seasons?  You may have heard of them: Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Nolan Ryan and Curt Schilling.

Scott also performed admirably in ERA and WHIP, more so considering the high strikeout total.

The only blemish on Scott’s resume is the relatively low win total of 18.  He took the loss 10 times in 1986, and though I wasn’t able to find run support statistics for that season, I have to believe that his was lacking.  There is no other explanation for such a solid season to have so few victories.  At least he won the Cy Young and a spot in the greatest fantasy rotation of all time.

 

Starting Pitcher 5:

justin verlanderJustin Verlander – 2011 – Detroit Tigers

24 wins, 250 strikeouts, 2.40 ERA, .920 WHIP

Maybe it’s just how recent this one is, or maybe I haven’t taken time to properly compare this to its historical competitors, but I feel like Verlander’s 2011 campaign is a completely balanced, excellent choice.

He is tied for the highest wins total of the period in question (and barely missed his 25th win, despite being rocked during his last start of the season).  His ERA and Ks are on the lower end of the seasons I considered, but not by a drastic margin.  His WHIP was in the top 3 of the 14 pitching seasons I considered.

I also think there’s something encouraging about Verlander’s season.  In the AL, unquestionably the better hitting league, he put up throwback numbers.  I know the spectre of PEDs still looms over baseball, even now, but I am encouraged to see dominant pitching performances again.

If I awarded a little too much credit for that feeling, so be it; I’ll take Justin Verlander on my fantasy team any day.

 

Also considered:

Greg Maddux – 1995 – My toughest omission and my favorite baseball player ever.  19 wins, 181 Ks, 1.63 ERA, .811 WHIP

Bret Saberhagen – 1989:  23 wins, 193 Ks, 2.16 ERA, .961 WHIP

Roger Clemens – 1997: 21 wins, 292 Ks, 2.05 ERA, 1.03 WHIP

John Tudor – 1985: One of those random great fantasy seasons.  21 wins, 169 Ks, 1.93 ERA, .938 WHIP

John Smoltz – 1996: 24 wins, 276 Ks, 2.94 ERA, 1.001 WHIP

Steve Carlton – 1980: 24 wins, 286 Ks, 2.34 ERA, 1.095 WHIP

Clayton Kershaw – 2011: 21 wins, 248 Ks, 2.28 ERA, .977 WHIP

 

The Bullpen

Unfortunately, the idea with closers is to stack saves and pretty much ignore every other stat.  If I don’t, it will be far too easy for someone to steal a point from me here.  For this reason, my three choices in this section are going to be very predictable, and by no means who I’d choose in real life to close a game (with perhaps one PED-aided exception).

 

Relief Pitcher 1:

k-rodFrancisco Rodriguez – 2008 – Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

2 wins, 77 strikeouts, 2.24 ERA, 1.288 WHIP, 62 saves

I disagree with the idea of the “save.”  Greg Couch at foxsports.com did a much better job summing up its flaws than I ever could.  In fantasy baseball, though, the save is a 10% slice of the pie, and therefore must be considered.

K-Rod put up massive save numbers for the Angels from 2005-2008 despite never being truly dominant, or even the best closer in his own league.

He did have a decent strikeout total, and his ERA wasn’t anything awful. His WHIP is pretty bad, but the same can be said for a lot of closers who rack up saves.  Any wins I can get from closers are simply considered icing on the proverbial cake.

 

Relief Pitcher 2:

bobby thigpenBobby Thigpen – 1990 – Chicago White Sox

4 wins, 70 strikeouts, 1.83 ERA, 1.038 WHIP, 57 saves

Thigpen held the saves record for 18 years before K-Rod broke it in 2008.  This stands as another excellent example of saves being unjustly hyped as an important statistic.

His stats are a bit of a mixed bag.  His ERA is very good, as is his WHIP, particularly for a reliever.  The four wins are a definite bonus (consider them Mike Scott supplemental wins), and while his strikeout total is low by a closer’s standards, it was his second highest K/9 IP ratio of his career.

Back injuries forced Thigpen to retire at age 30.  Not too many people can say they held a major statistical record in Major League Baseball for 18 years, though.  And not many people (three, to be exact) can say they had one of the greatest fantasy baseball seasons ever as a closer.

 

Relief Pitcher 3:

eric gagneEric Gagne – 2003 – Los Angeles Dodgers

2 wins, 137 strikeouts, 1.20 ERA, .692 WHIP, 55 saves

I had two choices for this third spot, as 2003 Gagne and 2002 John Smoltz each had 55 saves.  It didn’t take long to make a decision.  Seth Rogen’s stunt double it is.

Gagne’s gaudy strikeout total (15 K/9!) was almost enough for me to justify Maddux’s inclusion in the previous section, but ultimately I decided to let the Ks pile up.  Gagne only allowed 59 baserunners in 82.1 innings, which is an absolutely astounding figure.

As I discussed during the hitters portion of this post, it doesn’t matter how you get the stats in fantasy, just that you get them.  Gagne allegedly used steroids during this season (and others), but that doesn’t remove his ridiculous stats from the history books.  And it doesn’t make his 2003 fantasy league owners return their trophies, either.

 

Also considered:

Dennis Eckersley – 1990: I had to include this just to show everyone what true dominance looks like. None of that K-Rod, 1.29 WHIP stuff.  73 IP, 73 Ks, .61 ERA, .614 WHIP, 48 saves, 4 wins.  Holy schnikes.

Jose Mesa – 1995: 46 saves, 58 Ks, 1.13 ERA, 1.031 WHIP, 3 wins

Trevor Hoffman – 1998: 53 saves, 86 Ks, 1.48 ERA, .849 WHIP, 4 wins

Mariano Rivera – 2004: 53 saves, 66 Ks, 1.94 ERA, 1.081 WHIP, 4 wins

John Smoltz – 2002: 55 saves, 85 Ks, 3.25 ERA, 1.033 WHIP, 3 wins

All told, the pitching staff’s totals are:

121 wins

1755 strikeouts

2.04 ERA

.959 WHIP

174 saves

I think that staff is going to be tough to beat.  Again, I encourage you to make your own teams and try to beat me in 6 of the 10 scoring categories.  It’s really been fun looking back at these spectacular seasons.

If I left someone out, please let me know in the comments below.

(Click to see the Best Possible Fantasy Lineup: Hitters.)

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Follow me on Twitter @keithmullett

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Image credits: mlb.com, mlblogs.com, usatoday.com, espn.com, astrosdaily.com, worldbestsports.com, si.com, tiricosuave.com

 

About the Author

Keith Mullett

Keith is an Ohio-based sports and pop culture junkie who began writing for MSF in June 2011. His ramblings about sports, music, movies and books can be further enjoyed by following him on Twitter @keithmullett. In addition to his work for MSF, Keith operates a blog called Commercial Grade, in which he critiques television commercials from the perspective of the average viewer.