The Houston Astros are right now on pace for 103 wins, they’re tied with the Twins for the best run differential in the American League. Zack Greinke has yet to make a start for them. 

The Astros of course recently acquired Greinke from the Diamondbacks in a blockbuster that went down just minutes before the July 31 trade deadline arrived. Greinke is having yet another standout season in 2019, and he pairs tantalizingly well with his new rotation label-mates Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Wade Miley. Verlander and Cole already made for the most imposing rotation front in baseball, and now you add Greinke to that potent mix? This sums it up nicely: 

The possibilities are tantalizing, no doubt. Greinke’s addition to an already-excellent roster has made the Astros prohibitive World Series favorites. Obviously, that’s an eminently reasonable stance. However, this is baseball — the sport with the most structural parity and the least predictable postseasons — and no matter the strength of the squad it’s always wise to take the field over any one team. That’s still the case with the post-Greinke Astros. 

Yes, it’s a legendary rotation that’s freshly in place, and given that there’s no need for a fifth starter in the postseason the Astros will be trotting out an ace or something close to it for every one of their October tilts (at this point, it’s safe to assume that Miley has found a new level, at least for the near- to mid-term). It’s long been received wisdom that postseason play is about pitching to a greater extent than the regular season is. Given all that, why shouldn’t you assume that the Astros will wind up hoisting the trophy this autumn? Simply put, you shouldn’t assume that because time and again great rotations have failed to elevate their teams to the belt and the title. 

Consider what follows to be a non-exhaustive walking tour of some of those great rotations whose championship efforts came to grief:

  • Connie Mack’s 1905 Athletics had Rube Waddell, Eddie Plank, Chief Bender, and Andy Coakley as his big four. They fell to John McGraw’s Giants in the World Series in five games.
  • That 1905 favor was returned in 1913. McGraw’s Giants that year had a rotation of Christy Mathewson (153 ERA+), Jeff Tesreau (145 ERA+), Al Demaree (142 ERA+), and Rube Marquard (126 ERA+). Still and yet, Mack’s Athletics bested them in the World Series in five games.
  • The 1954 Indians barged to 111 wins in the regular season thanks in large measure to a staff ERA of 2.78 for the season. The rotation featured the likes of Bob Feller, Bob Lemon, Early Wynn, and Mike Garcia. The Giants swept them in the World Series.
  • The 1966 Dodgers got swept in the World Series despite a rotation of Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Claude Osteen, and 21-year-old Don Sutton. Koufax was of course at the peak of his powers in ’66, which turned out to be his final season.
  • The 1971 Orioles famously boasted a quartet of 20-game winners: Jim Palmer, Mike Cuellar, Pat Dobson, and Dave McNally, who combined for almost 1,100 innings during the regular season.. They fell to the Pirates in seven games in the World Series.
  • In 1986, the Astros had Cy Young winner Mike Scott and his legendary splitter and Nolan Ryan, who was still quite effective in his age-30 campaign. As well, they rounded out the rotation with Bob Knepper and Jim Deshaies. They fell to the Mets in six games in a legendary NLCS. 
  • The Braves of the 1990s and early aughts had six seasons in which eventual Hall of Famers Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz made at least 25 starts (this isn’t counting 1994), and in only one of those — 1995 — did they win the World Series. In a number of those seasons, they also had high-quality fourth starters like Steve Avery, Denny Neagle, and Kevin Millwood. 
  • Tim Hudson, Barry Zito, and Mark Mulder twirled the A’s to four straight playoff berths from 2000-03, but they failed to win a single postseason series over that span.
  • The 2003 Cubs memorably featured a front three of Carlos Zambrano, Mark Prior, and Kerry Wood. They ceded the NLCS to the Marlins in agonizing fashion.
  • The 2011 Phillies had a front four of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, and Roy Oswalt. Despite having one of the greatest rotations ever and winning 102 games in the regular season, they were bounced in the NLDS by the Cardinals.
  • Consider the 2014 Tigers. They had a rotation of Verlander, Max Scherzer, Rick Porcello, Anibal Sanchez, and Drew Smyly. Prior to the deadline they shipped off Smyly as part of a rotation upgrade that landed them David Price. Detroit went on to be swept by the Orioles in the ALDS. 
  • Let’s bring it full circle with the 2018 Astros. Last year’s Houston model had Verlander (161 ERA+), Cole (141 ERA+), and Charlie Morton (130 ERA+), and they rounded out the rotation with Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers Jr. The lost in five games to the Red Sox in the ALCS.  

As noted, this isn’t a full list of the great rotations that failed to reach their ultimate goals, but it’s enough to work against the current state of assumption. Look, the Astros are to be praised for dealing away prospects in exchange for Greinke. That’s how contenders are supposed to behave, and they indeed significantly improved their World Series chances because of that bold swap. 

The MLB postseason, however, is far less predictable than its NFL and NBA counterparts, but we tend to transfer those mentalities onto baseball. It just doesn’t work that way. Baseball leans heavily on randomness and sudden departures from the expected. That’s part of its greatness. Maybe the Astros with their best-on-paper roster won’t fall victim to those whims, but history suggests they easily could. In other words, yeah, you should still watch the playoffs no matter how imposing the best team of the regular season looks going in. 



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