Over at NBC’s Hardball Talk, my friend Craig Calcaterra had a fun little game with his readers and Twitter followers to come up with the best rhyming insult to describe the Los Angeles Dodgers’ pitching rotation after the outstanding 1-2 punch of Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke. Some of the responses were clever and funny, but they suffered from one common malady: they were inaccurate.
The inspiration for this game, of course, was the old “Spahn and Sain and two days of rain” poem written by Gerald Hern of the Boston Post to describe the 1948 Boston Braves’ rotation. Here’s the poem in its entirety:
First we’ll use Spahn, then we’ll use Sain,
Then an off day, followed by rain.
Back will come Spahn, followed by Sain,
And followed, we hope, by two days of rain.
I was not alive in 1948, so I don’t know if Hern’s poem reflected conventional wisdom at the time. It was published on September 14, 1948, and when it appeared in that morning’s newspaper, Warren Spahn and Johnny Sain did have four of the Braves’ past five victories. More pertinently, the poem was a reflection of current events. After the Braves swept the Dodgers in a Labor Day doubleheader, with Spahn and Sain earning the victories, torrential rains hit the Boston area, and the Braves did not play again until Saturday, September 11. Braves manager Billy Southworth did what any good manager would do after four days off: he sent his two aces out to the mound again, and again they swept a doubleheader, this time against the Philadelphia Phillies. The Braves split another doubleheader the next day, with neither game started by the poem’s stars, and then had an off day on Monday before the poem appeared on Tuesday morning.
As it turns out, though, the Braves had a pretty good pitching staff in 1948. Sain was the unquestionable leader of the staff that year, and Spahn had a good season that pales in comparison to some of the other seasons in his Hall of Fame career. But Bill Voiselle and Vern Bickford both made solid contributions, posting a combined 3.48 ERA in 361.2 innings. In fact, both Voiselle and Bickford had a better ERA and ERA+ than Spahn that season. But because of the persistent permanence of poetry, the 1948 Braves are remembered as having Spahn and Sain and no one else.
Which brings us to the 2015 Dodgers and the Kershaw/Greinke rhyme. I was in the Dodgers’ dugout before yesterday’s game against the Cincinnati Reds as manager Don Mattingly met with the media, and someone asked him if the Dodgers have a clear number-three starter. Mattingly seemed almost perplexed at the question, and he gave an understated, almost sarcastic, “Umm, Brett’s been pretty good.”
Brett, of course, is Brett Anderson, and as number-three starters go, he has been outstanding this season. Perhaps in time, his name will be as unfamiliar to us as Bill Voiselle and Vern Bickford are today. But right here, right now, in 2015, Brett Anderson is one of the best, most consistent number-three starters in baseball.
I put together a spreadsheet of all 30 “number-three starters” in baseball, along with their innings pitched (IP), earned run average (ERA), and fielding-independent pitching (FIP). I use quotes there because “number-three starter” is not a concrete, easily identifiable notion. The guy who is third in the rotation might be a team’s best pitcher, or he might be their worst. I looked at each team’s pitching staff and basically tried to determine it this way: if this team were starting a playoff series right now and the manager were setting the rotation based on merit, who would be the number-three starter? While the reader may quibble with my selections, I don’t think there is enough quibble room to drastically alter the results that I found.
And here is what I found: Among the 30 number-threes in baseball, Anderson ranks eleventh in IP at 128.2, ninth in ERA at 3.43, and tenth in FIP at 3.75. Even more telling, there is only one pitcher who ranks above him in all three categories: John Lackey of the incredibly stacked St. Louis Cardinals.
I think Anderson suffers unfairly in comparison to Greinke and Kershaw. Every team in baseball has a number-three starter who would badly fail the “Is he as good as Greinke and Kershaw?” test, so why should we hold it against Anderson that he has only been good and not historically great?
The Dodgers certainly have concerns when it comes to their starting pitchers. Newly acquired starters Alex Wood and Mat Latos have both had their struggles, although each pitcher’s tenure is the very definition of a small sample size. The numbers four and five slots in the rotation are big question marks right now; will Wood and/or Latos improve, or will we see pleasant surprise Mike Bolsinger back in Los Angeles soon?
But the Dodgers have an excellent number-three starter, and his name is Brett Anderson. So I humbly suggest, this poem, which is lousy but accurate and rhymes pretty well:
First you have Clayton, and then you have Zack,
Brett makes it a solid 1-2-3 attack.
Bolsinger at four was looking quite good,
But he’s in OKC thanks to Latos and Wood.
The four and five slots are open to a fight,
While the bullpen sets fire to a dumpster each night.
Questions at 4-5, concerns in relief?
This isn’t uncommon as some might believe,
Uncertainty pitching, you know that that means?
The Dodgers are much like all the other teams.