The Chicago Cubs All-Time Starting Rotation
Imagine you are chosen to be the manager for a fantasy team forming to represent the Chicago Cubs. It is your job to select the starting rotation and pitching staff from among the Cubs all-time roster. Who would be on your team? Who would you select for back up?
The rules here are simple. The starting pitchers must have logged 1,000 innings for the Cubs in their career. The quality you will get from the pitcher will be what he did for the Cubs, not his entire career. Relievers considered must have 250+ games with the Cubs.
Just so we are clear, the Cubs history goes back to before they were known as the Cubs! The team was one of the original teams in the National League charter in 1876. At that time they were the White Stockings. (Yes, heaven forbid they should be related in any way to the modern White Sox!).
Then, from 1890 (when the Player’s league began) to 1897 they were known as the Colts. From 1898-1902, they were the Orphans (that can be your extra credit project – to find out why?). Finally, then, in 1903 they became the team we know, the Cubs. But the Cubs of the first decade of modern baseball were anything but lovable losers!
In fact, the White Stockings were the most dominant team of the 1880s, winning six pennants.
Al Spalding as owner cooked the team after the ’86 season. It was the first major fire sale in baseball history! It seems he couldn’t tolerate having players who hung out together and drank after games, so off they went!
(Spalding was mainly responsible for sinking the Player’s league after only one year, truly a dubious honor.)
Cap Anson was the player/manager. They had some great early arms on their staff like Larry Corcoran, and Jim McCormick. Anson discovered John Clarkson in Michigan on a tour, and they quickly made him their lead pitcher.
But after only a few years, he was deemed too difficult to deal with, and he found himself in Boston with his favorite battery mate, King Kelly.
The next resurgence of the Cubs, no thanks to Mr. Spalding, began the year they got their name, 1903. From 1903-1913, they finished no worse than third in the National League. This was due, in large part to the dominance of their pitching staff.
From 1906-1910, the Cubs went to four of five World Series, winning in ’07 and ’08, behind the pitching of Mordecai Brown, Ed Reulbach, Orval Overall, and Jack Pfiester.
The Cubs in fact have won the NL pennant in 1918, ’29, ’32 ’35, ’38, and ’45. They took a break from the postseason despite some fine teams in the late 60s and early 70s until 1984.
Since 1984, the Cubs have made the post season six more times, but haven’t been to the World Series.
I mention the history of the team because the best pitching and pitching success will most often line up with when the team was at its best as well.
The Cubs team has a rich and varied history. There is a deep list of pitchers who made significant contributions to the team throughout the eras since the team’s inception.
There were so many fine pitchers to consider, especially from the earlier years, that I decided to expand the format here and list three separate starting rotations, representing the periods of Cubs history in order to evaluate them all for an all-time Cubs rotation.
The Early Rotation
The White Stockings were an early dynasty in the National League. Teams used one main pitcher for most games. Larry Corcoran and John Clarkson worked back-to-back to bring home six pennants for the Chicago team.
Clark Griffith, later the long-time owner of the Washington Senators, put up an impressive career for the Colts and Orphans in the difficult 1890s, winning 20 games six times.
He did, however, defect to play for Charles Comiskey and the White Sox for the opening of the new American League in 1901.
I put the back end of the dominant rotation (Orvall Overall and Jack Pfiester), from the 1903-1913 team in the fourth and sixth spots to fill out this rotation.
Overall could be especially dominant, leading the league in shutouts and K/9 twice each, Ks once, and giving up a scant 6.4-6.7 H/9 innings from 1907-1910.
Bill Hutchison had a relatively brief career for the Cubs. He started out like the next John Clarkson, headed straight for the HOF. From 1890-1892 he won 122 games, posted 864 Ks, and led the league in IP, and CG all three years.
However, when the mound was moved back to 60’ 6”, his ERA went from 2.76 to 4.75, and his Ks went from a league leading 314 to 81. His 181 wins for the Colts are still fourth on the team’s all-time list.
So the early rotation for the Cubs looks like this:
1 – Larry Corcoran – 175 W; ERA +128; 22 SHO
2 – John Clarkson – 137 W; ERA+ 151; 15 SHO
3 – Clark Griffith – 152 W; ERA+ 129; 9 SHO
4 – Orval Overall – 86 W; ERA+ 135; 28 SHO
5 – Bill Hutchison – 181 W; ERA+ 113; 21 SHO
Spot Starter – Jack Pfiester – 70 W; ERA+ 139; 17 SHO
The Middle Rotation
Mordecai “Three-Finger” Brown was the ace of the Cubs staff that won 530 games in five years. Due to a farm machine mishap, he was missing the index finger on his right hand, and his middle finger was very bent, allowing him to release the ball with unusual spins. He took advantage of his abnormality to create remarkable breaking pitches.
In 1906, the year the Cubs won 116 games, Brown went 26-6 with an ERA of 1.04 and 9 shutouts. His ERA was under 2.00 for this entire five-year run.
His duels with Christy Mathewson, the man most often considered the best pitcher in baseball during those years, became the stuff of legend.
The two teams, the Giants and Cubs, would line up the rotation so that the two would meet. In 25 career match ups, Brown won 13, with one draw.
Mathewson had a longer period of productivity in his career, but one would be hard-pressed to say he was better than Brown during these five years, 1906-1910.
Pitching behind Brown in the rotation and almost as dominant during these years was Ed Reulbach. He is said to have had the best curve of his generation. In 1906, he went 19-4 and allowed only 5.3 H/9!
Picking up for the Cubs almost when these pitchers left the game, was Hippo Vaughn. He was one of the finest left-handed pitchers of the era, and was the Cubs ace pitcher on the 1918 pennant winning team.
Only another one or two productive years and perhaps pitching out of the way in Chicago kept Vaughn out of the HOF.
The Chicago Cubs won four pennants between the years 1929-38. Two pitchers instrumental in this period of Cubs’ success are Charley Root and Lon Warneke.
Root still holds the team record for wins with 201. He pitched a long and successful career for the team from ’26-’41.
He was instrumental in the Cubs' four pennants. He carried a tough-guy persona on the mound, and it was Root who was pitching when Ruth claimed to have called his shot. Later in his career, he was also used in relief.
Lon Warneke burst into the Cubs rotation in ’32, winning 22 games and finishing second in the MVP voting.
He maintained his peak for four years, then after the ’36 season was traded to St. Louis. He was the lead pitcher for the team for the ’32 and ’35 World Series runs.
He returned to Chicago midway during the ’42 season. His career was somewhat interrupted by his enlistment to serve the country in the war effort. It left him at 192 career wins, just short of the 200 usually required for the HOF.
Claude Passeau was a strong pitcher for the team during the '40s. He contributed 124 wins with an ERA+ of 120.
We now have our middle rotation –
1 – Mordecai Brown – 188W; ERA+ 153; 48 SHO
2 – Charley Root – 201W; ERA+ 111; 21 SHO
3 – Hippo Vaughn – 151W; ERA+ 126; 35 SHO
4 – Ed Reulbach – 136W; ERA+124; 31 SHO
5 – Lon Warneke – 109W; ERA+ 131; 17 SHO
Spot starter – Claude Passeau – 124W; ERA+ 120; 22 SHO
The post-1950 rotation
The most dominant figure in Cubs pitching since 1950 has been Ferguson Jenkins. Born in Canada, Jenkins anchored the Cubs staff, winning 20 games or more for seven of eight years from ’67-’74. He was a hard thrower, but also featured excellent control.
Besides racking up over 3,000 strikeouts, Jenkins also led his era in K/BB ratio with a figure over 3.00, which he did for over 4500 IP! His 267 complete games rank second only to Gaylord Perry since 1965. Jenkins never made it to a postseason opportunity, but his record speaks for itself.
The second most prolific Cubs pitcher the second half of the century was Rick Reuschel. He was a workhorse type of pitcher who filled in a lot of innings in the 70s.
Greg Maddux got his start for the team in the late 80s. Just as he was hitting his peak and won his first Cy Young award, he left for Atlanta.
Greg returned to pitch for the Cubs to moderate success in 2004 and 2005. Altogether, he totaled 133 wins for the Cubs.
This past decade we have witnessed Carlos Zambrano leading many of the Cubs campaigns. Zambrano has a fiery disposition, keeps the ball down with good stuff, and walks a few too many batters. He has posted 105 wins thus far with a nice ERA+ 127.
Along with Ferguson Jenkins, the '60s Cubs featured another effective pitcher, Bill Hands. He posted three very nice years alongside Jenkins.
Around 2000 the Cubs were believed to be breaking in two of the top pitching prospects baseball had seen in decades: Kerry Wood and Mark Prior. Both succumbed to injuries without realizing their full potential. But Kerry Wood had more success, and pitched longer for the team.
He will act as the spot starter for the modern rotation, having contributed 77 wins with an ERA+ of 118.
The post-1950 rotation:
1 – Ferguson Jenkins – 167W; ERA+ 119; 29 SHO
2 – Rick Reuschel – 135W; ERA+ 113; 17 SHO
3 – Greg Maddux – 133W; ERA+ 111; 14 SHO
4 – Carlos Zambrano – 105W; ERA+127; 4 SHO
5 – Bill Hands – 92W; ERA+ 121; 14 SHO
Spot starter – Kerry Wood – 77W; ERA+118; 5 SHO
Here the team does not fall short! Lee Smith logged 180 saves for the Cubs, and Bruce Sutter saved 133 games with an ERA+ 170. Here are two of the best closers to help finish any game the starters might leave unfinished.
In addition, the Cubs also sport fine contributions from relief pioneers and legends Ted Abernathy, the submariner, and Lindy McDaniel with the great fork ball.
While this modern rotation would make for a fine rotation for regular season play, it wouldn’t challenge for the top rung among all-time rotations. Fortunately, the Cubs have a remarkable depth of fine pitching to draw from!
Putting together the Cubs all-time starting rotation and staff –
1 - Mordecai Brown – 1904-’16 - 188W; ERA+153; 48 SHO - looms as the most effective and shut down pitcher in Cubs history. Not many could out pitch Brown at his best.
2 – Ferguson Jenkins – 1966-’83 – 167W; ERA+119; 29 SHO – the best pitcher from the post-1950 team will follow Brown.
3 – John Clarkson – 1884-’87 - 137W; ERA+151; 15 SHO – One of the greats from the pre-modern era was at his best for the White Stockings. Just hire a team psychologist as well.
4 – Hippo Vaughn – 1913-’21 - 151W; ERA+126; 35 SHO – This is our lefty, and a darn good one. Vaughn was one of the best pitchers of the decade 1910-1920.
5 – Ed Reulbach – 1905-’13 – 136W; ERA+124; 31 SHO – We will keep intact one of the great pitching combinations in baseball history. From 1905–09 Ed Reulbach was 97-39 with 28 shutouts, and not once allowing as many as 7.0 H/9 in a season.
Our spot starters will be Larry Corcoran, Lon Warneke, Carlos Zambrano, and Orval Overall. Any one of these pitchers could shut down the best offenses of their time. Warneke especially faced some of the great offenses in the game, and came away with one of the best ERAs of his era.
We can have Lee Smith and Bruce Sutter available for relief duty.
Here the Cubs have an entire staff with the lowest ERA+ being Ferguson Jenkins’ +119! This is a staff that would be hard to score on.
I would bank an entire season on their success because of their depth. It would be a rare occasion to score as many as five runs on this staff.
Pete Alexander was generously left for the Phillies to claim. Greg Maddux didn’t crack the spot starter list. His stats were not good enough!
The Braves will get to claim him all to themselves. I doubt we will find a deeper collection of outstanding pitching talent on any team.
Cubs fans should know of the great pitching heritage their team has. This staff need not take a back seat to any other team!