Anyone who watched baseball in the 1990s can recall the trio of Atlanta Braves starters who caused nightmares for hitters around the league.
The Braves owe much of their success in that decade to Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, who combined to capture six of the eight NL Cy Young Awards from 1991-98. Maddux and Glavine will likely be first-ballot Hall of Famers in 2014, with Smoltz set to join them a few years down the road.
In 2014, the St. Louis Cardinals will have a trio of starters who should dominate the National League in a similar fashion. Adam Wainwright, Shelby Miller and Michael Wacha have the potential to form the best pitching trio in the game in 2014 (though Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez might have something to say about that.) Miller and Wacha likely will not reach their true potential until a few years down the road, but that doesn't mean they can't post solid numbers next year.
Even if they do not post numbers akin to last year's totals, the Cardinals' young starters should have no reason to worry. The Braves trio of pitchers didn't reach their full potential for their first couple of years in the majors, with Glavine and Maddux starting especially slowly.
Glavine lost a league-leading 17 games in his first full season, 1988, then won the Cy Young Award just three years later. Maddux was even worse, posting a 5.61 ERA in his first full season. Even Smoltz endured several years of mediocrity before turning it around in 1995.
As noted, the current younger Cardinals starters have yet to reach their potential, but they still hit the ground running upon debuting in the majors.
Miller won 15 games with a 3.06 ERA in his rookie season last year, nearly pitching a perfect game in the process. Wacha compiled a 2.78 ERA in 64.2 innings last year, including a 1.42 ERA in his last 38 innings. He was nearly unhittable in the postseason, allowing one total run his first three starts, spanning 21 innings. These performances are especially scary considering they are only the beginning of what we may see from these young starters.
Don't forget Wainwright, who posted 14 wins and a 3.70 ERA in his first full season, 2007. He hasn't looked back since, and in 2013 he led the National League in several categories including wins, innings and shutouts.
Of course, comparing these three Cardinals starters to the 1990s Braves trio is a bit premature. Miller and Wacha both have yet to prove themselves over the course of a full season. The Cardinals pitchers have a long, long way to go before they can match the accomplishments of those three Braves starters.
Yet in the sample size we have seen, there is nothing to suggest the two young aces-to-be cannot come close to matching the Braves pitchers' success from the 1990s.
One could also argue that Wainwright is already on that same level. The ace of the Cardinals staff has won at least 19 games with an ERA under three in three of the past four years. In his best season, 2010, his ERA was 2.42, which is well below what Glavine, Smoltz and even Maddux accomplished in many of their prime seasons.
Looking ahead to 2014, all signs point toward the three pitchers matching their 2013 performances. In fact, they are likely to improve upon them.
One of the primary reasons for this is a vastly improved defense. Most importantly, Peter Bourjos replaces Jon Jay, statistically the second-worst center fielder in the game. Also gone is third baseman David Freese, who left in the trade that brought in Bourjos.
The loss of Freese is a fielding-improvement trifecta. Aside from acquiring Bourjos (1), the Cardinals lose the worst fielding third baseman in baseball (2) and allow Matt Carpenter to move back to his natural spot, third base, thereby improving his defensive value tremendously (3).
The Cardinals' rookie starters will also have quite a bit of experience under their belts when they return for 2014. Miller started 31 games last season, effectively shedding his rookie image. Wacha, while appearing in a limited number of regular season innings in 2013, has the experience of pitching in the World Series (and throughout the playoffs), and performing rather well in most of those situations.
In terms of comparing the pitching styles of the two trios of pitchers, there are many similarities that go beyond the common trait of dominating batters. Wainwright and Maddux, each the aces of their respective staffs, share a major similarity, in that they both pitch with impeccable command.
Wainwright walked six batters in his first 12 starts in 2013, finishing with just 35 free passes on the season. His rate of 1.3 walks per nine innings was eerily similar to Maddux's totals throughout the 1990s.
In addition, Wainwright tended toward trying to beat his opponents with his control more in 2013, with some of the slowest pitch velocities of his career. Wainwright's primary pitch, his cutter, traveled an average of just 88 MPH. Of course, Maddux is known as one of the greatest control pitchers in the game's history. He, too, dominated his opponents despite lacking the ability to overpower them.
In addition to his control, Maddux was one of the best fielding pitchers to ever take the mound, winning 18 Gold Glove Awards throughout his career, including 13 in a row from 1990-2002. Interestingly enough, Maddux won his final Gold Glove in 2008. The following year, Wainwright succeeded him when he won the 2009 National League Gold Glove, again claiming the honor in 2013.
The comparisons don't end there, as Wacha and Smoltz are also particularly similar. They are both tall right-handers from the Midwest who made their MLB debuts in their age-21 seasons. Furthermore, they both throw hard. Wacha's average fastball velocity last season was 93.1 MPH, according to Fangraphs. In 2007, the first year in which the data was tracked, Smoltz averaged 92.7 MPH on his fastball. You can bet his velocity was even closer to Wacha's during his prime.
Even the two teams are rather similar. The Braves made the postseason with remarkable consistency with Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz, claiming 11 consecutive NL East division titles beginning in 1995.
Even if they cannot capture the division with such regularity as the Braves, the addition of the second Wild Card spot means the Cards have an excellent chance of making the playoffs every year for the foreseeable future. A run similar to the Braves' of the late 1990s and early 2000s is not too far-fetched.
The road the Braves trio took to attain their level of dominance is a bit different than that which the Cardinals pitchers will take. The latter started out on top, while the former improved after starting out slowly. The Cardinals pitchers also tend towards overpowering hitters instead of using their impeccable command, unlike the Braves trio. Yet, no matter how they get there, or how they maintain their performance, the true successor to the Braves rotation of 2013 is the Cardinals staff.
They are primed to dominate for years to come.
All statistics courtesy of baseball-reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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