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Oakland Moneyball Trio in Historical Context

By Mike Silva ~ November 24th, 2011. Filed under: Statistical Analysis.

When the movie Moneyball was released in September, the main gripe by the public was how Michael Lewis never addressed how that team was built on the foundation of great starting pitching. A couple of weeks ago I debated with Chris Plummer at the Perpetual Post who was the best member of the A’s during that Moneyball period. Forget Giambi and Tejada, it’s, in my opinion, the starting pitching trio of  Barry Zito, Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson by a wide margin.

When I had Rick Peterson, the pitching coach for that group, on my radio program he said that discussing the staff wouldn’t “make it the romantic Shakespearian character of Billy Beane a best seller.” So how good was that trio with respect to other great threesomes in the history of the game?

If you sort American League starting pitchers from 1999-2003 with at least 75 decisions from that time period in order of ERA+, Zito is #2 (142), Hudson #3 (137), and Mulder #7 (118). How many teams in the history of baseball had 3 starting pitchers who were in the top 10 of their league? The fact the A’s didn’t win more is probably due to their reliance on undervalued assets. This could have been a dynasty if they were able to hold on to Giambi, Isringhausen, and Damon. Imagine if they were able to buy other expensive parts for the bullpen, backend of the rotation, and bench.

Discussing the best pitching trios of all-time is certainly a subjective topic.  When you try to find trios that last at least 5 years together it becomes even tougher.

Atlanta’s Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, and Greg Maddux certainly are at the top of the list. Some other staffs I thought of were:

Dodgers: Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, and Johnny Podres. (1961-1965)

Orioles: Jim Palmer, Dave McNally, Mike Cuellar (1969-1973)

Indians: Bob Feller, Early Wynn, Bob Lemon (1950-1954)

Mets: Doc Gooden, David Cone, Ron Darling (1987-1991)

A’s : Catfish Hunter, Vida Blue, Ken Holtzman (1970-1974)

I realize some of these staffs went four or five deep, but I selected three just for the point of comparison.  Using Baseball-Reference Play Index, I wanted to see if another trio was in the top 10 of the league over a five year period. The only staff other than Oakland’s Moneyball trio that took 3 of the top 10 spots were Atlanta’s who were #1 (Maddux), #3 (Glavine), and #5 (Smoltz) from 1993-1997. Denny Neagle came later on and was 7th on the list.  The end result was Atlanta having 4 of the 10 best starters in the National League on one staff! The crazy part of it all is they won only one World Series, and that came in 1995, when Neagle was in Pittsburgh.

The real story here is not just how Billy Beane and Oakland were able to compete on a small budget, but they were able to keep their historic trio intact and healthy for a five year period. There aren’t many staffs in the history of baseball that can say the same.

Oakland and Atlanta may not be the best staffs of all-time due to their depth, but they certainly have the best threesomes that wasn’t fun to face in a short series. The fact they weren’t able to win more than one World Series in ten years combined tells you how the playoffs are truly a crapshoot.

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8 Responses to Oakland Moneyball Trio in Historical Context

  1. Stu B

    You omitted the Mets’ Seaver, Koosman, and Matlack, 1972-76.

    To raise another matter that I’d like to see discussed in some depth, the Phillies offered salary arbitration to Raul Ibanez, supposedly with a side agreement that he would decline. This is a fairly common practice that strikes me as a bit slimy.

    Can somebody explain why teams are allowed to make arbitration offers with side agreements that the player won’t accept the offer? What’s the point of a rule if it can be openly circumvented like this? It seems like a form of collusion between teams and agents. Why doesn’t MLB stop the practice?

  2. Chuck Johnson

    What bothers you about the practice, Stu?

    “Slimy” seems like a strong word.

  3. Stu B

    There’s a rule requiring a team to offer arbitration to a free agent to receive draft pick compensation if the player signs with another team. Often, a team having no desire to re-sign the player offers arbitration with a prior under-the-table agreement that the player won’t accept, just for the draft pick compensation. It bothers me that teams use this practice to circumvent the decision whether to offer arbitration. It strikes me as a collusive and underhanded way to avoid the spirit of the rule, and I’m surprised that MLB allows it.

  4. Chuck Johnson

    “Slimy” is Scott Boras convincing Bryce Harper to quit school and get his GED and enter a weak draft knowing that was his only chance to be the number one pick, which in turn gives Boras a bigger commission.

    There’s no evidence that Ibanez (or anyone else in his situation) would have turned down arbitration, it’s the obligation of the club to protect its rights.

    Do “previous agreements” happen?

    Of course, but I see nothing wrong with it, and this is coming from a guy who never was a fan of compensation to begin with.

    The new CBA makes all this irrelevant anyway.

  5. Stu B

    But if Ibanez promised the Phillies on the side that he wouldn’t accept arbitration, that removes any risk they take by offering it while securing their right to draft pick compensation if he signs elsewhere.

  6. NormE

    Yankees: Reynolds, Raschi and Lopat (1949-1953)

  7. Piazza

    When I think of great pitching trios, the 2000′s Oakland one does come to mind, along with Koufax-Drysdale-Podres, the Braves, and the 70s Mets.

  8. Mike Silva


    Ibanez is a Type B player so this practice won’t hurt him. Type-A status would only hurt his market as teams will not want to give up a draft pick for a 40 year old outfielder who plays bad defense and has declining offensive skills. If he were Type-A then I doubt he would be so amenable to this type of “handshake deal.”

    Unfortunately, this type of thing is pervasive in baseball. Its about relationships, but the fans don’t see to want to believe that. Also remember that Ibanez’s agent has other clients that Philly may remember for him being so cooperative with Raul.

    This is why the league had to move away from the Elias rankings in the new CBA…. it should make this an outdated practice because of the 1-year qualifying offers off at least $12 million annually or more.

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