Twenty-one Aces who dealt Triple Sevens

Since 1901, twenty-one pitchers have reeled off at least three straight years of 7+ rWAR. One pitcher has a chance to crash the list in 2013.

The 7-WAR “triples,” arranged by age:


Walter Johnson had the longest such streak, seven years from age 22-28; Christy Mathewson had six straight from 26-31. Lefty Grove and Roger Clemens had two separate 3-year streaks of 7+ WAR, with Grove’s stretching from 30-33 and 35-37. (In between was Grove’s first year with Boston, a dreadful injury-racked year that must have given the Fenway brass fits, in light of the simultaneous decline of Max Bishop, acquired in the same trade.)

The pitcher poised to join them — if any pitcher can be “poised” for a 7-WAR year — is Justin Verlander, who turned 30 on Wednesday.

For age 28-29 combined, Verlander’s 15.9 WAR ranks 8th since 1901. If he does log 7+ WAR this year, he’ll be at least 10th-best for age 28-30 and 9th for age 29-30.

Granted, it’s one hell of an “if.” The past 10 MLB seasons averaged just two 7-WAR pitchers; Verlander was the only one to do it last year.

Just two other active pitchers logged 7+ WAR for two straight years, and both fell well short of the triple: Tim Lincecum (2008-09, but 3.0 WAR in 2010), and Roy Halladay (2010-11, but 0.7 WAR in 2012). Halladay and Johan Santana are the only actives with a 6-WAR triple.

The long view brings a surprise: Since 1901, more 7-WAR seasons happened at 30 than any other age but 27.

7-WAR seasons by age


Yeah, but … that age-30 spike looks like a small-sample fluke when you see the normal curve on the chart of
5-WAR years:

Pitchers 5-WAR years by age


But the fan in me still thinks J.V. can do it!

Some notes on those 7-WAR-at-30 pitchers:

  • 15 of 29 who are Hall-eligible have been elected.
  • John Hiller was the only reliever, with 7.9 WAR in 1973 when he set the Saves record. It was also the relief WAR record, now #2 (with Goose on top).
  • Togie Pittinger came from way-outta-nowhere; the other 30 guys had at least 22 career WAR.
  • There’s that 30-year-old rookie Curt Davis again!
  • In years when an MVP or Cy Young Award was given, 5 out of 6 who led their league in WAR/pitch won the Award. No others won the Award.
  • My favorite? Wilbur and Sandy are tempting, but at the end of the day, I have to ride The Big Train. In a war-shortened 128-game season, Johnson tossed 326 innings and finished all 29 of his starts, averaging 10.24 IP (thanks to games like this and this), as well as all 10 relief outings. He had a 2.41 ERA in his 13 losses, 0.71 in his 23 wins.

47 thoughts on “Twenty-one Aces who dealt Triple Sevens

  1. 1
    Hartvig says:

    The fact that Justin Verlander still has enough energy to put up a 7 WAR season while having Kate Upton as a girlfriend can only mean that in reality he is actually Superman.

  2. 2
    Brandon says:

    Actually Upton declared herself a free agent on Letterman the other night.
    Somehow I doubt JV will have trouble finding a new GF.

    • 4
      Hartvig says:

      Which means he’ll either focus all that frustration into one of the greatest seasons in history or he’ll go to piece’s like a paper kite in a tornado.

      If I had Kate Upton for a girlfriend and she left me I would be looking for the nearest tallest building that I could find that was close to a rail line so I could jump off it in front of an oncoming train preferably while shooting myself on the way down…

      But that’s just me.

      • 10
        MikeD says:

        Perhaps he’s just looking to be Detroit’s Derek Jeter, who has long taken comfort knowing that one when model leaves, another is knocking on the door.

    • 13
      Jonas Gumby says:

      I saw that too. I think Atlanta traded Heyward for her to complete the trifecta.

      • 23
        bstar says:

        Nice. I too thought of BJ and Justin when I saw the “Upton” in the comment.

        Of course, that ruins the whole “Up, Up, and a Hey” in the Braves outfield (but that was mildly stomach-turning anyway). Plus I doubt Kate’s dWAR is going to match Heyward’s in right (but who cares now?)

  3. 3
    Tim Pea says:

    Was Frank Tanana the oldest player ever to get his first ML hit? Did he play the most seasons until he got his first hit? Sorry if this has been covered before and I missed it.

    • 5
      John Autin says:

      Tim — Question #2 is yes. Tanana got his first hit in his 21st season.

      I haven’t figured out the search that pins down question #1 yet.

      • 8
        Richard Chester says:

        Satchel Paige, Chuck Hostetler and Diomedes Olivo were all older than Tanana when they got their first hit.

        • 9
          John Autin says:

          Thanks, Richard!

          I was hoping that Tanana might still be the oldest to hit his first triple, but no — Orlando Hernandez, Kenny Rogers and Johnny Niggeling all hit their first triple at 40.

          And Nick Altrock hit his first at 47, although the other team was wholly complicit in that particular feat.

  4. 6

    Wow, those graphs are excellent! If anyone ever doubts a pitcher’s peak is age 25-28, the proof is right there.

    Nice work.

  5. 11
    David says:

    The post says only Clemens had two separate 3-year streaks. Didn’t Grove do it too?

  6. 14
    Brooklyn Mick says:

    Pedro’s 6.9 WAR in 1998 kept him from being on the list twice.

    1997 – 8.7
    1998 – 6.9
    1999 – 9.5
    2000 – 11.4

    That 9.1 four year average is pretty slick.

    • 16
      John Autin says:

      Indeed. Pedro’s ratio of WAR to innings in 2000 is the record since 1901 for an ERA qualifier; his 1999 ranks 4th; and his 7.8 WAR in 2003 is the most by any SP with less than 200 innings.

      • 26
        Brooklyn Mick says:

        When you mentioned Pedro’s 2000 I thought sure it was the year he had the 1.39 FIP, which some argue was his best year. I was wrong, and 1999 was the 1.39 FIP year. Anyhow, I’m mentioning it because of the differences between Pedro’s b-WAR and FIP based f-WAR for the 1999 and 2000 seasons.

        b-WAR: 1999-(9.5), 2000-(11.4)
        f-WAR: 1999-(12.1), 2000-(10.1)

        I’m sure you remember Bryan O’Connor’s (shout out) article on the seven sub-2.00 FIP seasons all time, but for those who haven’t, here’s the link.

        • 29

          Thanks for the shoutout, Mick. It still baffles me that, while most of the high-WAR pitcher seasons in baseball history came from guys who threw 300 or 350 innings, Pedro threw 430 1/3 over those two years and earned 22.2 (or 20.9) WAR.

    • 17
      John Autin says:

      Pedro’s 1998 September slump may have also kept him from winning 4 straight Cy Young Awards.

      Through August, Pedro and Clemens (who wound up winning the CYA unanimously) both had made 28 starts. Pedro was 18-4 with a 2.67 ERA and 208 strikeouts in 199 IP; Clemens was 17-6, 2.64, with 216 strikeouts in 198 IP.

      Each made 5 starts in September. Clemens went 3-0, 2.70, with a ton of Ks, and wound up with his 2nd straight “triple crown”. Pedro went 1-3, 4.15 in September. His first 20-win season and 2nd CYA would have to wait a year.

      • 18
        Ed says:

        Equally damaging to Pedro was the four game stretch between May 25th and June 10th. In 24 innings, he gave up 23 runs, all earned.

      • 19
        Brooklyn Mick says:

        Good post John. I’m just poking around looking for guys that just missed the Triple Seven Club.

        Fergie Jenkins just misses out with his 6.8 in 1970.

        1969 – 7.0
        1970 – 6.8
        1971 – 9.6

        Three year average of 7.8.

        And the Dominican Dandy comes up a little short of being a repeat Triple Seven with:

        1963 – 7.4
        1964 – 6.0
        1965 – 9.9
        1966 – 8.8

        Four year average of 8.0.

        Can’t forget Dave Steib:

        1982 – 7.3
        1983 – 6.7
        1984 – 7.6
        1985 – 6.5

        Which averages out to exactly 7.0.

        • 24
          bstar says:

          Dave Stieb’s forgotten by toooo many people. He sure seemed like the best pitcher of the ’80s to me.

          In fact, checking the numbers, Stieb had about 10 more WAR than any other pitcher in baseball in the ’80s (with Blyleven second). He also led in ERA+ for anyone with 1500 IP in the decade (John Tudor was a close second). With 1500 IP, I was trying to capture those pitchers who pitched for most of the entire decade.

          Yeah, Stieb was the best pitcher of the ’80s, Jack Morris be damned.

          • 25
            Brooklyn Mick says:

            If I had to use one word to describe Steib going on memory alone it would be sharp. Looking back at his numbers though, it looks like he was more of a warrior workhorse grinder. Not to say he wasn’t sharp, but he walked a lot more batters than I remembered. I also didn’t realize he led the league in HBP (5) times, not that that’s a bad thing, in fact I think it’s a good thing. That’s memory for you, it can’t be trusted.

            From ’81-’85 he led the league in IP twice, and was 2nd, 3rd, and 5th twice.

            In the same time he ranked 2nd, 3rd, 7th twice, and 10th in SO, while at the same time ranking in the top 10 in BB (9th once and 6th four times).

            The bottom line is that for that 5 year period a racked up 32.4 WAR, 22.7 WAA, a 144 ERA+, and a neat 3.28 RA9.

            Also kind of interesting that the player most similar to Steib at Adam’s HOS is Kevin Appier.

      • 20
        Brooklyn Mick says:

        Warren Spahn

        1951 – 7.2
        1952 – 6.2
        1953 – 8.5

        Three year average of 7.4.

        Dizzy Dean

        1934 – 8.4
        1935 – 6.5
        1936 – 6.6

        Three year average of 7.2.

        Dazzy Vance

        1927 – 7.6
        1928 – 9.7
        1929 – 4.9
        1930 – 7.0

        Four year average of 7.3.

        Carl Hubbell

        1932 – 6.6
        1933 – 8.5
        1934 – 6.9
        1935 – 4.4
        1036 – 9.3

        Five year average of 7.1.

        And if it wasn’t for the strike in ’94 Kevin Appier might be on the list.

        1992 – 7.7
        1993 – 9.0
        1994 – 4.3

        Three year average of exactly 7.0.

        • 22
          Brooklyn Mick says:

          Appier got off to a dreadful start in 1994. After his first 9 starts he was sitting at 3-5 with a 6.24 ERA, .311 BAA, and .375 BAbip.

          Over the next 14 games he was 4-1 with a 2.57 ERA, .199 BAA, and .257 BA bip. He still needed 2.3 more WAR to get to 7.0, but with most of August and all of September wiped out he didn’t have a chance.

  7. 21
    Phil says:

    Gooden averaged 7.0+ from ’84-86, thanks to his huge ’85 season. I guess that’s not all that uncommon, though.

  8. 27
    Brooklyn Mick says:

    John, let me be the first to tip my cap to the wonderfully symmetrical analogy to the old riverboat. Great find! If Verlander does it this year, Twenty-Two Aces Dealing Triple-7’s won’t have the same ring to it, but I’m sure you won’t be complaining. 🙂

  9. 28
    John Autin says:

    Besides those already mentioned, these guys totaled 23+ WAR in any 3 consecutive seasons:

    – Stan Coveleski, 1917-19 (23.7 WAR) and 1918-20 (23.6) — seasons of 8.0, 9.4, 6.3 and 7.9.

    – Tom Seaver, 1971-73 (24.9 WAR) and 1973-75 (23.7 WAR).

    – Red Faber, 1920-22 (25.0 WAR).

    – Ed Cicotte, 1917-19 (23.4 WAR).

    – Roy Halladay, 2009-11 (23.4 WAR).

    And of course:

    – Cy Young, 1901-03 (28.7 WAR) and 1902-04 (25.3 WAR).
    Young was kept off the first list by the 1901 start date. Counting since 1893 (the 60′ distance), Young cleared 7 WAR for the first 5 years, and another 4 straight from 1899-1902.

  10. 30
    mosc says:

    Answer honestly guys, how well do you think some of these old time pitchers would do against a modern hitter? I think having Cy Young face the 2012 Giants, he’s not going to have a good day very often. The velocity is just not there to keep guys honest. The pool of players for old time baseball was pretty small, today’s game is international. I sometimes think Cy Young pitched in something more similar to the Nippon league than today’s MLB.

    That said, I think the defense behind the old time pitchers was atrocious by modern standards. Today’s athletes have much better range and arms, and even drastically better gloves. Also, I think the old timers were bred on complete games, shorter rest, and fear of throwing their arm apart. All of that trained them to keep the velocity down. Brought up in a modern era, I think they would have totally different mechanics, totally different velocity, and be more in keeping with modern pitchers characteristics. Without needing the high velocity fastball, pitchers could use “awkward” deliveries regularly without as much injury risk. That probably works well against guys with crappy swings and bat speed robbing heavy bats but a modern hitter trains himself to maximize the pitch recognition time. Also Speedsters would eat up those old crazy deliveries around the basepaths.

    • 31
      John Autin says:

      mosc, I see your point here. At the same time, I think a guy like Cy Young was smart enough to figure out how best to exploit his opponents’ weaknesses, whatever they might have been in a given era.

      What did Spahn say? “Hitting is all timing and it is the pitcher’s job to disrupt his timing.”

      I don’t have a clue how Young’s “stuff” would compare with today’s pitchers. But Spahn didn’t have the greatest stuff. Neither did Tom Glavine, or even Greg Maddux.

      Point is, you don’t have 20 years of success without adapting to changing conditions and figuring out how to get the most out of what you’ve got.

      I think Cy Young would have been a big star in today’s game.

    • 32
      Lawrence Azrin says:

      I have to disagree somewhat – while of course Cy Young wouldn’t post the insane career Wins/IP/Complete Games/ GS totals, I think he could’ve been as good as all but a handful of modern pitchers.

      As for his alleged lack of a great fastball – do you know _why_ he was called “Cy”? It was short for “Cylone”, which is supposedly to be what the backstop looked like in a minor league game, after he turned it into splinters. More to the point, he was in the Top-10 in K’s 17 of 18 years from 1891-1908.

      Granted, he was no Amos Rusie, and his high K totals were partly a function of his very high IP totals – Top-10 in K/9 innings only 8 times, and never led. Still, he was well-known for his fastball, and hardly a soft-tosser.

      Also, while the fielders gloves were certainly inferior in Young’s days (little more than leather driving gloves), I doubt that today’s fielders are truly_vastly_ better in range and arm strength. Baseball has always been a multi-dimensional game involving a number of skill sets; it is far more than who can run the fastest, or throw the hardest. Otherwise, Bo Jackson would’ve been one of the very greatest players ever :).

      I do agree with you that pitchers were taught to throw as absolutely as hard as they could only a few times a game, only when they really needed to – read Christy Mathewson’s “Pitching In A Pitch”. However, I disagree in that I think that the best pitchers in Young’s time, throwing as hard as they could, indeed did throw as hard as modern pitchers.

      I fear that there will be an un-ending and progressive devaluation of players from previous eras that the then-current fans never saw. In the same way that some historians nowadays downgrade Cy Young, Ty Cobb, and even Babe Ruth,I wouldn’t be surprised if in 40/50 years the current fans dismiss the likes of Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Mickey Mantle, because they never observed them play live.

      We can only judge any one MLB player against the other MLB players he played against; to do otherwise is make a series of assumptions about the relative quality of play between eras that I think is unwarranted.

    • 33
      MikeD says:

      The level of competition is much higher today that it was 100 years ago. It’s higher than it was 45 years ago, although marginally so.

      I’m convinced a team of all-stars today would easily beat a team of All-Stars from 1903, although that’s a very different statement than saying I don’t believe the truly great stars from back then were truly great. They were. Taking it more recently, I’m not convinced a team of allstars from today would necesarilly beat the the team of allstars from the late ’60s/early 70s. Aaron, Robinson, Clemente, Seaver, Koufax, Gibson, Bench, etc. would be a team that no generation of all stars would want to face. Picking who would win might come down to the conditions and time they faced each other. If today’s stars had to play the ballparks, old astro turf, use thicker-handled bats, lesser equipment from 40-plus years back, then I would actually place my bet on the 1970 all stars. If the 60s/70s all stars played against an all star team today, then I would go with today’s all stars.

      Yet that’s not quite the question you asked. Under this science fiction scneario, if Cy Young were transported to today and had to face today’s teams, no, he would not have a good day. Yet, Cy Young wouldn’t be Cy Young if he was born today, nor would Kershaw be the pitcher he is today if he was born 100 years back. Hell, even you transported a pitcher from today to the dead ball era, and he had to use the soft balls of the time, and he had to finish every single game, pitching 400 or 500 innings, umm, well, I’m sure of one thing. Today’s pitcher would change how he pitches drastically. And, yeah, he’s not getting great plays behind him he does today, and his catcher won’t have the equipment of today’s catchers, so he’s going to have to factor that in.

      It’s not as much of a slam dunk you might think it is. Cy Young born today is a much different pitcher. We have recognize that and rate players only against their generation. Cy Young was an excellent pitcher for a very long time.

      • 35
        John Autin says:

        Following up on Mike D’s remarks:

        I agree that a team of all-stars today would easily beat a team of All-Stars from 1903, provided that:

        (a) the game was played under today’s conditions; and
        (b) the 1903 team was simply transported to the present day and put on the field with little preparation time.

        But if the game was played under 1903 conditions, I think the 1903 team wins handily. Offensively, the modern team might be seeing slower pitches, in general — but they’d also be swinging from the heels, with much less chance of hitting it out of the yard. (Plus they’d be facing spitballs.) The old-timers would be facing faster pitches than they were used to, but their contact-based approach would make the best of that situation.

        Defensively, I think the modern team would be taxed by the rough condition of the field and by the old-timers’ aggressive baserunning.

        In the bigger picture … I totally agree that the overall level of play is better today than it was before integration and internationalization. But I also think that most of the old-time stars would have been stars today, if they had been born in this era. It’s competition that develops skills; most athletes don’t become any better than is necessary to succeed against the top competition.

        If Ty Cobb had grown up in a context of faster pitching and longer hitting, but with his same competitive fire, I think he would still rise to the top.

        • 39
          Hartvig says:

          “But if the game was played under 1903 conditions, I think the 1903 team wins handily. ”

          With so many all-or-nothing hitters today you’re probably right.

          But put one of Whitey Herzog’s Interstate 70 teams of the 70’s or 80’s on the field with those guys and I’m thinking it might just be a different story.

          • 41
            John Autin says:

            Hmmm … Does Whitey get to install artificial turf for this dream game?

            In his 13 full years with KC and STL, his teams played .571 ball on turf (equivalent to 93-69), but .495 on grass (80-82).

            Now, maybe their turf success was a mark of a team that would have thrived under dead-ball conditions. But it’s something to ponder.

            (By the way, that turf/grass split was most pronounced with KC — in his 4 full years, they played at a 104-win pace on turf, 78 on grass. With the Cards, it was 89/82.)

          • 42
            Ed says:

            John A – I wonder how meaningful that split is. Doesn’t most if it represent simple home vs. away dynamics? Seems like a more meaningful comparison would only look at road games (though you’d really want to factor in quality of opposition as well)

          • 44
            John Autin says:

            Ed @42 — Good job — I brain-cramped on that turf/grass = home/road angle.

          • 45
            Hartvig says:

            I still say Willie Wilson is standing on third base exactly 2 pitches after reaching first every time.

            Of course, getting him on first might present a problem depending on what stage in his career we’re talking about.

          • 46
            Voomo Zanzibar says:

            Willie Wilson wasn’t so very inclined to steal third.

            668 SB
            65 / 14 SB3 / CS

            By comparison:

            Vincent Coleman
            189 / 32

            Joe Morgan
            41 / 8

            Dagoberto Campaneris
            130 / 17

            Kenneth Lofton
            115 / 35

            Otis Junior Nixon
            123 / 23

            Juan Pierre
            125 / 15

            Maurice Wills
            88 / 18

            Ozzie Smith
            131 / 67 (not so good)

          • 47
            Ed says:

            Thanks John A (#44). Just to follow-up, in 1976, Herzog’s first season as Royals manager, KC was the only AL team with turf. So all of the Royals turf games were home games. From 77-79, the Mariners were the only other AL team with turf. After that, Herzog was in the NL where there were more turf teams.

            BTW John, you’re only allowed 5 brain cramps a year!!! 🙂

      • 37
        Lawrence Azrin says:

        This would be a reasonable All-Star team for 1903:

        SP – Christy Mathewson
        SP – Cy Young
        SP – Rube Waddell
        SP – Joe McGinnity
        SP – Eddie Plank
        Relievers as specialists didn’t exist then, but any one of at least a dozen top starters probably would’ve done well, such as Sam Leever, Deacon Phillippe or Noodles Hahn.

        C – Johnny Kling, Roger Bresnahan (Yeah,I know that he mostly played OF that year),Lou Criger?
        1B – Frank Chance?
        2B – Lajoie
        SS – Honus Wagner, Bill Dahlen, Fred Parent, Bobby Wallace
        3B – Bill Bradley, Jimmy Collins

        LF – Jimmy Sheckard, Buck Freeman
        CF – Jimmy Beaumont, Cy Seymour
        RF – Elmer Flick, Patsy Dougherty, Sam Mertes

      • 43
        Paul E says:

        Mike D. …et al:
        Men of merit exist in every generation, but, men in general prefer the meritorious of their own generation….

        I think I would take a ’60’s outfield of Aaron, Mantle, and Mays over Reggie Jackson, Bobby Bonds, and Stargell? That being said, those 1960’s middle infielders didn’t exactly drive the ball…..(Larry’s Lintz and Bowa come to mind)

  11. 34
    Lawrence Azrin says:

    #32/MikeD –
    Very thoughtful and nuanced response. You said a lot of what I wanted to say in #32 above, but better.

    Isn’t it so totally and incredibly predictable how the players of the then-current generation get dowgraded by the players of previous generations (“Only three players on current team X could’ve started on my old team Y”). Funny how almost everyone acknowledges that the NFL is considrably better than 40/60/75 years ago, but retired MLB players inevitably insist that their era had the best players…

    Bill James commented on this at length in the NBLHA.

    • 36
      John Autin says:

      One thing I really enjoy about “The Glory of Their Times” — the old-timers’ opinions of the modern stars are pretty evenly split between disdain and admiration.

  12. 38
    Chuck Hildebrandt says:

    Word nerd comment: thank you for saying these pitchers “reeled off” three straight 7+ WAR years, and not “ripped off” three straight 7+ WAR years as so many people say. Major pet peeve on the latter.

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