The Pittsburgh Pirates All-Time Starting Rotation: Wilbur, “The Babe,” and Gang
Imagine you were given the responsibility of putting together an all-time fantasy starting rotation for the Pittsburgh Pirates. You could select pitchers from the beginning of baseball to the present to form a rotation and staff that would then compete against all other teams selected.
Who would you select? We are not looking for the best single years here, but the best careers with the most solid to great years pitched for the Pittsburgh Pirates – at least 1,000 innings for the team.
It may be a surprise to many people that the Pirates have not always been in the basement of the National League central division! While their current streak of a lack of a winning season has been record setting, it has not been a permanent condition.
Going back in history, Jim Leyland directed the team to three straight division titles from 1990-92. The “We are Family” Pirates of 1979 came from behind to take the World Series from the Baltimore Orioles. The Pirates of the early 70s had division winning teams, and the 1960 team shocked the Yankees with a game seven victory at the hands of Bill Mazeroski.
The team has sported such on the field greats as Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell, and Barry Bonds, but it would be a chore for most baseball fans to name more than a couple of pitchers worthy of an all-time team from the Pirates roster after 1950.
It was a chore. Ultimately, this group from post-1950 is not going to dominate many games. Rather it’s a group that could keep your team in a game, and occasionally come through in the clutch. This is a little disappointing when you are facing putting an all-time team on the field that will have to compete against pitchers like Christy Mathewson, Warren Spahn, and Greg Maddux.
The Best of the Post-1950 Pirates:
Our first pitcher anchored the Pirates staff for close to 15 years, from 1951-66. Bob Friend garnered the nickname of the “Warrior”. He fought Pittsburgh’s battles for those years. He still ranks fourth in team history in wins – 191, and third in shutouts – 35, while posting a fine 1.94 K/BB ratio.
“The Candy Man,” John Candeleria, our staff’s first lefty, formed a very good pitching duo with Bert Blyleven that helped the Pirates to a second place finish in 1978 and the World Series title in 1979. Candeleria pitched the first 10 years of his career with Pittsburgh. At 6’ 7” he was an imposing figure on the mound, and his K/BB ratio of 2.83 was one of the highest figures of the era, demonstrating his outstanding control.
Pitching third in the modern rotation will be 1990 Cy Young award winner, Doug Drabek. Drabek was a fine pitcher who had his best years with the Pirates. He won 92 games in those six years and posted an ERA of 3.02, good enough for an ERA+ 118.
The fourth spot in the modern rotation will be manned by Bob Veale. Veale was a tall lefty who led the league in strikeouts in 1964. He posted seven consecutive strong years for the Pirates from 1964-70.
Bookending the Pirate’s modern rotation will be Vern Law. Law’s career was almost exactly concurrent with Bob Friend. He began in 1951 and finished his long career exclusively with the Pirates in 1967. He wasn’t always the most consistent pitcher from year to year, but won the Cy Young award in 1960 when the Pirates won the pennant.
All of these pitchers were pretty durable, even if they did not have the longest careers. If you would need a spot starter for your modern staff, you could chose from Doc Ellis, Al McBean, and Rip Sewell, who pitched a fine career for the Pirates in the 40s.
For closers , the Pirates fortunately have two of the best. Elroy Face is easily among the top five most significant relief pitchers before 1970. He was prolific and had the first and best forkball, his signature pitch.
Kent Tekulve was the closer for the 1979 championship team. Tekulve was tall and gangly. He came at the batter from a severe low right angle, as he was a side-arm/ submariner. He had several impactful seasons among his first 11 with the Pirates, leading the league in games and games finished three times each.
The Pirates rotation from the early years and the all-time rotation -
It’s unlikely even many Pirate fans are aware that they had a very strong claim as the team of the decade in the 1900s. This was the advent of the modern era. Pittsburgh had just absorbed many of the folding Louisville team’s best players, including Honus Wagner, Fred Clarke, Rube Waddell, and more.
While Honus Wagner and Fred Clarke became the face of the team for the next 20 years, it was most likely the pitching that took the Pirates to three consecutive pennants, 1901-03, and a World Series title in 1909. The Pirates were loaded!
Jack Chesbro was a member of these early Pirate teams at the turn of the 20th century, he later was traded to the AL New York Highlanders and won 40 games one season, boosting his entry to the HOF decades later.
But his Pirate innings pitched total leaves him short of the required 1,000 IP. So we must set him aside. In fact, other future HOF pitchers made appearances with the Pirates during these early years, including, Burleigh Grimes and Waite Hoyt.
The staff we can use consists of five HOF caliber pitchers and several very strong careers in support. The HOF pitchers, Pud Galvin and Vic Willis, are worthy of the honor, and the other three are all clearly better than some of the other HOF pitchers from their eras!
Our somewhat surprise ace of the all-time Pirate rotation is Sam Leever. Leever was from Goshen, Ohio and taught school when he wasn’t playing ball. He was consistent and dominant, posting 39 shutouts in 2,660 IP. His ERA+ 123 is the best of the rotation. His career mark of 194-100 was pitched entirely for Pittsburgh. He never had a losing season, and won 20 games four times.
Following Leever, and picking up the slack for the Pirates in the 1909 season, his first, is the Babe. That is, Babe Adams, perhaps the finest control pitcher in the history of the game!
He splashed on the scene in 1909 in a big way. He joined the Pirate rotation part way through the season, and posted a 12-3 record with a 1.11 ERA/+231; and only allowed 80 hits in 130 IP. Then he followed it up by stumping the Tigers in the World Series, going 3-0.
Babe, in 1919, only walked 23 batters in 263 IP. I guess not satisfied with that, he followed it up with only 18 BB in the same 263 IP in 1920. Truly incredible! In his career he led the league in WHIP five times, fewest BB/9 four times, and the top K/BB ratio those same four years.
Babe wasn’t just stingy allowing people on base. Many times they didn’t score. He posted 44 shutouts among his 194 wins.
The third spot in the rotation will be filled by “the little steam engine,” and 364 game winner, Jim “Pud” Galvin. Galvin’s only other main team was Buffalo, so the Pirates get to claim him all to themselves. Galvin stood at only 5’ 7”, but he pitched one of the longest careers on record, at 6,003 IP.
Galvin was consistently good throughout his career. He also had excellent control, walking only 745 batters, and posting an excellent 2.42 K/BB ratio over 6,000+ innings. His other main positive stat besides his 364 wins, are his 57 shutouts. This was more than any other pitcher in baseball until surpassed by Cy Young, whose career crossed over into the modern era.
Following Galvin will be Wilbur Cooper. Cooper was a lefty, slight of build, with a very smooth delivery. From 1918-22, he won 107 games, teaming up with Babe Adams to form quite a pitching combination. Cooper won 216 games overall. More than the 200 required for the HOF. He may have the best career of any Pittsburgh pitcher.
Rounding out the rotation is Vic Willis. It took the veteran’s committee a long time to find Willis, his 249 wins and 50 shutouts, but he was inducted into baseball’s HOF in the 1990s. He pitched four solid seasons for the Pirates, from 1906-09, winning 20 games each year. So he was a big part of the World Series championship team, and of the Pirates being the team of the decade.
Pirates actually have more worthy pitchers during the first three decades of the 20th century. Ray Kremer (20s) and Lefty Leifield (10s), were excellent pitchers who won’t make our team.
The all-time rotation
1 – Sam Leever, RHP
2 – Babe Adams, RHP
3 – Pud Galvin, RHP
4 – Wilbur Cooper, LHP
5 – Vic Willis, RHP
Spot starters – Jesse Tannehill, Doug Drabek, Deacon Phillippe
Phillippe and Tannehill were part of that pitching juggernaut the Pirates had at the turn of the century.
Closers – Elroy Face, Kent Tekulve
So Pirate fans can walk away with their heads held high. This is quite a formidable rotation and staff, with a very high quality level in their depth. There might not be many flame throwers or strike out artists, but you won’t see many free passes to first base either! This is a rotation that will try to make every pitch count.
I hope the Pirate fan has found some new pitchers to be proud of. They were one of, if not the best pitching team in baseball for a long time.
Did I miss your favorite Pirate pitcher? Let me know in your comments.