Rotation Emperors

October 22, 2014

                There are two kinds of streaks in baseball that attract great attention, and many others that attract lesser but still significant attention.   The big two are hitting streaks—the term "hitting streak" is mentioned in every game broadcast, usually several times—and the famous Lou Gehrig/Cal Ripken consecutive games played streak.    But there are a million other streaks; I remember in the 1960 World Series that Whitey Ford broke Babe Ruth’s record for consecutive scoreless innings in a World Series.   There is the Doc White/Don Drysdale/Orel Hershiser streak (consecutive scoreless innings); there are streaks of consecutive strikeouts in a game, consecutive scoreless innings by a team, consecutive games with a home run, consecutive 10-strikeout games by a pitcher, consecutive complete games by a pitcher, consecutive 30-homer seasons, consecutive 20-homer seasons by a catcher, consecutive quality starts, consecutive quality starts by a rookie. . .we will never run out of streaks in baseball.  A no-hitter is a kind of a streak, a streak of consecutive non-hit events within a game.

                There is one kind of streak which is rarely mentioned, however, although the skill it highlights is central to team success.  We don’t hear as much about pitchers making consecutive starts.  What major league pitcher, at this moment, has the longest streak of starts made on schedule?  Who has the longest streak ever?   Who had the longest streak of the 1970s, or the 1980s?   Who is the Cal Ripken of starting pitchers?

                You may not know the answers to these questions, because it is a little bit hard to define whether a pitcher is or is not "on schedule".  Pitchers don’t start successive games; they start a game, and then their next "scheduled" start is five days later.  How do you know, exactly, when a pitcher has missed a start?   Has he missed a start if he doesn’t start until six days later?   Seven?  What?

                You just have to decide; you have to make up a set of rules and run with it.  The rules I made up were that a pitcher is considered to be in rotation and on schedule as long as the separation between two starts is:

1)      Not more than 7 days (that is, not more than Sunday to Sunday), OR

2)      Not more than 6 games for the team, OR

3)      Not more than 8 games for the team if the All Star break intervenes, OR

4)      Not more than 8 games at the end of the season.

I’m going to have to warn you, at this point, that this is strictly a take-it-for-whatever-you-think- it-is-worth type of exercise.  I have to alert you that my numbers here, some of the numbers I give you in this article, not only may not be right, but will not be right.   This is an effort to construct lists of the leaders in this area, but there are problems with the effort that will prevent us from being as successful as we might be.  I’m hoping to start the research in this area; somebody else can carry it forward if they choose to, or not.  Research has to start somewhere.

My research will not be absolutely right, for two reasons.  First, my list of games has a few gaps in its teeth in the early years.  That’s going to affect the accuracy of the list up until about 1962, more or less.   Maybe later; I don’t really know.   Second and more importantly, there are sometimes gaps in the record which were not gaps in real life.   Suppose that a pitcher starts are Sunday, and starts again on Friday, and starts again on the next Tuesday—but the Friday start is rained out after 3 innings, so that the game disappears from the official records.    What do we do?

For this study, that’s a huge, huge problem.   I assume that there are several names, somewhere, which should be on the lists, but which have been incorrectly excluded from the list because of these "rainout gaps".   I just have no way of knowing.    Phil Niekro, for example, made 56 consecutive starts in a stretch ending August 6, 1969, then did not start again until August 14, 1969.   Did he also start on August 10, 1969, but have his records washed off the books by a rainstorm?   I have no way of knowing.    After that, though, he made 118 consecutive starts—or is it 174?   Don’t know.    But he made (at least) 118 consecutive starts, ending May 26, 1973, then he didn’t start again until June 6, 1973.  Or did he?   Maybe he started on May 31, but the record of it was removed by a rainout; I don’t know.

But beginning on June 6, 1973, Niekro made another stretch of 42 consecutive starts, ending on June 9, 1974—42 starts, or is it 160, or is it 216?   We don’t know for sure.   But again, for the third time, Niekro missed only one start, just one little gap, then he made 25 more starts, then there’s another 8-day gap, and then he made 47 starts, and then there’s a 10-day gap, and then he made 161 consecutive starts, and then there’s a 9-day gap, and then he made 97 more starts, and then there’s a 10-day gap, and then he made 5 more starts.

Actually, Phil Niekro went 20 years without any REAL gaps in his career, without ever missing more than a couple of weeks.   Actually, he went 20 years without any gap as long as a couple of weeks.   I’m sure that there are SOME legitimate gaps in there, somewhere, but I am also sure that some of those gaps are just rainouts that disappeared from the record.

There is no other Phil Niekro out there; there is no other pitcher for whom this is as serious a problem as it is for Phil Niekro—but this problem does crop up on many other pitchers, once or twice.    Without spending months going through old newspapers, I’ve just go no way of knowing what is a legitimate gap and what is a rainout, and I don’t have months to spend on this project.  So. . . take these lists for what they are worth; I’m not claiming they are 99% accurate.

 

OK, I call the pitcher who has the longest current streak of making every start The Rotation Emperor.  I think of them as being like the Roman Emperors, riding atop the hierarchy, holding on for as long as they can; there is always an Emperor, and there is always an Heir Apparent (or Designated Successor), and behind them there is always a line of succession. . ..3, 4, 5, 6, pitchers building their record, trying to get their shot at the Emperor’s Chair.  In May, 1983, for example, the Rotation Emperor was Joe Niekro, who (at that time, at the end of the month) had made 166 consecutive starts.   The heir apparent was Steve Carlton, then 39 years old but working on a streak of 124 consecutive starts.   Behind Carlton were Mike Caldwell and Jerry Reuss, tied at that time with 110 starts each, then Len Barker (103), Phil Niekro (97), Dave Stieb (86), Frank Tanana (77), Geoff Zahn (74) and Fernando Valenzuela (73).  There is always a list; we just don’t know who is on the list because, as far as I know, this area has never been systematically researched.

Another question which arises here is whether we should cut the pitcher a break if he pitches in relief.   My answer is:  No; starting in rotation means starting on schedule.    This is a huge question in the 1950s, because in the 1950s, almost everybody pitched in relief sometimes, creating gaps in their ledger.  

The one pitcher who received more attention and acclaim for never missing a start than any other, in my experience, was Don Drysdale.   It was often said of Drysdale that he never missed a start because of injury from the beginning of his career in 1956 until he finally broke down in late August, 1968.   Well, OK, but Drysdale pitched in relief 15 times in 1958, 8 times in 1959, 5 times in 1960, 3 times in 1961 and twice in 1962.   Because of his relief appearances, he was often off-schedule with his starts, and, in my system, off schedule means off the list.    I’m not keeping a record of who stays healthy; I’m making a record of who stays in the starting rotation.

I start my list in 1955, and the first Rotation Emperor is Early Wynn.    Beginning May 30, 1952—or perhaps even earlier, I don’t know—Early Wynn stayed in rotation, making every start, through April, 1955, when I started my list.   Through the end of April, 1955, Wynn had made 96 consecutive starts.  Bob Porterfield was second in line at that time, with 69.

 

Early

Wynn

96

Bob

Porterfield

69

Carl

Erskine

60

Johnny

Antonelli

44

Ned

Garver

42

Steve

Gromek

37

Arnie

Portocarrero

31

Whitey

Ford

29

Frank

Sullivan

29

Bob

Lemon

22

Dean

Stone

22

 

It’s a very immature list; I am sure that some of these numbers are not right, and that there are other pitchers who should be on the list.  Almost certainly Robin Roberts by this time was at 150 or 200 starts, but he’s not on my list because I have missing data in the 1950s.   This isn’t a "real" list; this is a takeoff ramp.  We have to start somewhere.

In May, 1955, Wynn reached 100 consecutive starts, while Bob Porterfield, his closest pursuer, dropped off the list, making Carl Erskine the Heir Apparent.  By the end of the 1955 season Wynn was up to 126 starts, while Erskine and Antonelli had also dropped by the roadside, leaving old Ned Garver as the Heir Apparent, at 69 starts.

In April, 1956, throwing batting practice in cold weather in Kansas City, Garver "popped a muscle" after making just one start; Garver thus dropped off the list, and Frank Sullivan became the Heir Apparent to the Rotation Emperor Early Wynn.   Frank Sullivan dropped off in August, 1956, yielding his seat to Frank Lary of the Tigers, while Wynn had worked his way up to 161 consecutive starts.

Now, 161 is a good total.   161 is not a historic total, I suppose, but 161 starts is four years in the rotation in the 1950s, 5 years now, in a five-man rotation.  By the end of 1957 Wynn was up to 198 consecutive starts, Frank Lary still second at 103.

 

Early

Wynn

198

Frank

Lary

103

Brooks

Lawrence

63

Ray

Moore

47

Warren

Spahn

43

Billy

Pierce

39

Robin

Roberts

34

Jack

Sanford

34

Jim

Wilson

31

Jim

Bunning

29

 

                That’s the list for September, 1957, but actually Frank Lary was off the list by the end of September, 1957; he had a 12-day gap without a game appearance in mid-September, 1957.    I update the lists by months, so if a pitcher is still in rotation at the start of the month, he shows up on the list for that month.

                The list was beginning to form up, beginning to become a real, meaningful list.    Spahn, Roberts, Billy Pierce; these were the top pitchers of that era.    Jim Bunning had inherited Ned Garver’s spot in the Detroit rotation when Garver injured himself in April; by season’s end Bunning was on the list.  

                Compared to the lists we would see later, this is a very weak list.    In part, it is weak because gaps in my record create the appearance of gaps in the pitcher’s record—but for the most part, we’re dealing with real gaps.   In the late 1950s it was still standard practice for top starting pitchers to pitch emergency relief.   A starter would pitch four innings of relief, and he would be off rotation.  There were also, for what it is worth, many, many more rainouts at that time than there are now—probably, I would guess, 10 to 25 times as many.  Used to be pretty common, that a game would be started but rained out.

               

Early Wynn finally missed a start in June, 1958; he had run his string to 209 consecutive starts.   His heir was Warren Spahn, who was at 56 starts when Wynn finally missed.    Spahn became Emperor of the List at 57 starts—a very, very low number.  That would never happen now.

Warren Spahn remained Rotation Emperor until he pitched 5 and 2/3 innings of relief in a game against the Dodgers on July 9, 1959.   By that time Spahn was up to 96 starts, but the six-inning (almost) relief effort threw him off-schedule for his next start, which made his teammate, Lew Burdette, the Rotation Emperor.    Burdette made it up to 104 starts by May 14, 1960, and then the same thing happened to him:  he pitched 4.2 innings of relief in a game against the Cubs, and he was off-rotation for his next start.

OK, we’ve had three Rotation Emperors by early 1960:  Wynn, Spahn, Burdette.   With Burdette gone, the new Rotation Emperor was:   Early Wynn.   Wynn’s streak had been broken by two consecutive relief appearances in June, 1957; he was then 38 years old—but still rolling.   He rolled through the rest of 1958, all of 1959 (winning the Cy Young Award) and into 1960.   By the time Burdette bit the dust, Wynn was back to 67 consecutive starts.

Wynn is not the only man to take two turns as Rotation Emperor; there will be several more of those later on.   Now 40 years old, Wynn lasted as Rotation Emperor this time for only three months, until mid-August, 1960.   By that time he was up to 86 starts, while Larry Jackson was right behind him at 83.  Jackson became the fourth Rotation Emperor, or fifth if you count Early Wynn twice; I guess we’ll count Wynn twice. Jackson was like all the other top starters in that era; he would make 38 starts in a season and five relief appearances.

For whatever reason, though—some kind of off-season injury—Jackson was not ready to answer the bell at the start of the 1961 season.    The mantle passed to Jim Bunning.    What else do Bunning and Jackson have in common, do you know? 

They were both politicians.   Well, they were also both born in 1931, the greatest year ever for baseball player births—Mantle, Mays, Ernie Banks, Eddie Mathews, Ken Boyer, Frank Bolling, on and on.  Jackson would serve in the Idaho House of Representatives for eight years, and ran for Governor of Idaho in 1978.   Jim Bunning, of course, was in the United States Senate.

OK, so Bunning was the sixth Emperor.   When Bunning took over the list, he had only 72 consecutive starts.   Pedro Ramos was in second place with 62.   Ramos dropped off the list in June, 1961, leaving Frank Lary once more in the position of Heir Apparent.    Bunning and Lary were the 1-2 starters for the 1961 Tigers, who won 101 games, Bunning going 17-11 and Lary 23-9.

Lary lost his fastball that winter, however, and struggled out of the gate in 1962.   In April, 1962, this was this list:

 

Jim

Bunning

107

Frank

Lary

95

Bob

Friend

77

Don

Cardwell

64

Jim

O'Toole

61

Steve

Barber

52

Gene

Conley

51

Jack

Kralick

45

Joey

Jay

43

Ken

McBride

42

 

When Frank Lary dropped off the list that left Friend as the Heir Apparent.   He also was a politician; I think he ran for Governor of Pennsylvania or something.   Don’t quote me; maybe it was Lieutenant Governor.   He lost.   Anyway, by the end of the 1962 season Bunning was up to 139 consecutive starts, about half of them since taking over the Emperor’s Chair:

 

Jim

Bunning

139

Bob

Friend

107

Joey

Jay

75

Art

Mahaffey

70

Ray

Herbert

69

Don

Drysdale

57

Jack

Sanford

56

Bill

Monbouquette

53

Larry

Jackson

52

Ralph

Terry

49

 

Larry Jackson back on the list already, you will note.  For three years Bunning and Friend dominated the list, neither man missing a start.   Three years, in case you missed that the first time I said it.   It’s a long time.   Friend remained in rotation through 1962, 1963 and 1964; he was 18-14 in 1962, 17-16 in 1963 and 13-18 in 1964.    He got plastered twice in a row in September, 1964, so then he took ten days off to get over whatever was nagging him.    But by then Friend was up to 178 consecutive starts:

 

Jim

Bunning

212

Bob

Friend

178

Don

Drysdale

139

Orlando

Pena

78

Dave

Wickersham

71

Jim

Bouton

67

Dick

Ellsworth

67

Bob

Gibson

60

Ken

Johnson

59

Gary

Peters

58

 

So by this time we have three pitchers over 100 consecutive starts—evidence that (a) the list is maturing, and (b) the practice of asking starting pitchers to pitch in relief has essentially ended between 1959 and 1963.   Actually, at one point we had four pitchers over 100; Bill Monboquette had gotten to 103 in June, 1963, before he dropped off the list.

When Friend dropped out of the rotation Don Drysdale became the Heir Apparent, at 139 starts.   I mentioned that Drysdale was famous for never getting hurt and staying in rotation, so I checked him out thoroughly, but there is a gap in his record in July, 1961, that you just can’t get around.

So now Drysdale is chasing Bunning.   Drysdale is about 70 starts behind.  He chased him through 1965, and by the end of 1965 this was the list:

 

Jim

Bunning

252

Don

Drysdale

182

Bob

Gibson

97

Larry

Jackson

94

Jim

Kaat

67

Earl

Wilson

66

Jim

Grant

62

Chris

Short

59

Sam

McDowell

57

Bill

Monbouquette

56

 

Drysdale chased Bunning through 1966, and by the end of 1966 this was the list:

 

Jim

Bunning

293

Don

Drysdale

222

Jim

Kaat

108

Chris

Short

98

Mel

Stottlemyre

84

Sandy

Koufax

82

Gary

Bell

42

Denny

McLain

42

Sonny

Siebert

39

Dave

McNally

37

 

By the end of July, 1967, Bunning was up to 318, Drysdale, 247.    Drysdale did not start between July 31 and August 9, 1967.   That one may well be a rain-shortened game that is missing from the record, I don’t know, but in any case. …that’s the end of Drysdale.   He was the most famous "durable pitcher" of that generation, but he never did get to be the Rotation Emperor.    Drysdale’s consecutive-start streak, 227 games, runs from July 21, 1961 to July 31, 1967.

When Drysdale finally dropped off the list Jim Kaat became the Heir Apparent to Bunning, with Denny McLain behind Kaat, then Gary Bell, then Dave Giusti, then Dean Chance.

Before Bunning finally folded, however, McLain would go.    Jim Bunning’s streak lasted until April 24, 1968; it would stretch to 337 starts.    This is the longest streak in my data.   From then until now we have had almost 40 more Rotation Emperors, but none of them of has gotten to 337 starts—close, but not quite there.   Bunning also struck out almost 2,000 batters during his stretch of consecutive starts (1,959)—the most strikeouts of any pitcher during a consecutive game streak.    Bunning threw 35 shutouts during his stretch, another record.

Bunning pitched brilliantly in 1967—40 starts with a 2.29 ERA—and pitched a shutout in his second start in 1968.   But he was hammered in his third, pitched so-so in his fourth, and then for some reason took a week off, breaking his streak (barely).   He barely broke the streak, one day too long, but he was through; he was no longer effective in 1968.   Bunning’s streak (including the time before he reached the top of the list) runs from April 26, 1959 to April 24, 1968.

Who became the next Emperor is a little bit unclear.   Gary Bell was next in line, but Bell’s streak ended a few days after Bunning’s.   Assuming that Bunning remained Emperor until his 7 days were up and that Bell would have had to make his next start to move to the top of the list, he never did, so I’m going to say that Bell never became Emperor.    That drops it down to the next slot, but in the next slot Dean Chance and Dave Giusti were basically in a flat-footed tie.    Dave Giusti made his 70th consecutive start on April 27, 1968; Chance, on the 28th.    A month later Dean Chance was one day ahead, making his 76th consecutive start on May 27; Giusti, on the 28th.

This is the only time this has happened, the only time that it is less than clear and certain who inherited the throne (given the data that I have).   But Giusti dropped out after that, so I’m going to say that the Seventh Emperor was Dean Chance, and let’s say there was a little Civil War there before the throne was decided.    There was a tremendous battle among Bunning and Drysdale and Bob Friend and others, all strong rotation anchors.   Bunning ran the list for six solid years, from April 1962 to April 1968, longer than anyone else has stayed on the top in terms of games (although not in terms of years.)  He was the Caesar Augustus of the Rotation Emperors, but then the list very suddenly fell apart, and there wasn’t really anybody. Chance became the 7th Emperor when Giusti dropped out in early June, 1968; Chance at that time was at 78 consecutive starts.    That’s a very low number; no one since 1970 has claimed the throne with less than 118 consecutive starts, or 3+ years.

Dean Chance remained Emperor until April, 1969, pushing his total to 107 starts.    He was succeeded by a more worthy heir:   Ferguson Jenkins.  Jenkins took over at 94 starts, beginning, incidentally, with his first major league start.   By the end of the 1969 season, there were five pitchers who had streaks of 100 or more starts:

 

Ferguson

Jenkins

129

Sam

McDowell

113

Mel

Stottlemyre

107

Catfish

Hunter

105

Tom

Phoebus

103

 

                By July, 1970, Phoebus had dropped out, but three other pitchers had taken his place:

Ferguson

Jenkins

154

Sam

McDowell

138

Catfish

Hunter

132

Mel

Stottlemyre

131

Chuck

Dobson

113

Joel

Horlen

108

Dave

McNally

102

 

We can measure the overall strength of the list.   I measure the overall strength of the list by multiplying the number for the Emperor by one, the Heir Apparent by 2, the #3 man by 3, the #4 man by 4, etc., so that the depth of the list counts more than whether there are one or two pitchers having a good run.

The overall strength of the list reached 3,000 points for the first time in April, 1961, early in Bunning’s run.   It reached 4,000 points in June, 1966, and 4,639 points in July, 1966, with Bunning and Drysdale.    Under Dean Chance, though, the overall strength of the list dropped back to 2,848 points.

Now it began to rebuild, back to 4,000 points in July, 1969, to 5,000 points in June, 1970, and to 6,000 points in May, 1971.   In August, 1972, the list reached a peak of 6,663 points—the highest point it would reach for many, many years.

Catfish

Hunter

212

Gaylord

Perry

172

Fritz

Peterson

152

Claude

Osteen

150

Jim

Perry

139

Steve

Carlton

122

Rick

Wise

115

Phil

Niekro

109

Dick

Drago

103

Mickey

Lolich

102

 

There were now ten pitchers who had made 100 starts without a miss.    In 1968 Dean Chance had become Rotation Emperor with a total in the seventies; by 1972 there were ten pitchers over 100.   That wouldn’t happen again for decades.   Ferguson Jenkins remained the Emperor until June, 1971, reaching 184 consecutive starts.    Jenkins ceded his position to Sam McDowell, who held it for a little bit less than one month and then yielded his position to Catfish Hunter.    Catfish became the tenth Rotation Emperor, with Gaylord Perry as his heir apparent.  Catfish held the throne until July, 1973, with Gaylord Perry about 40 starts behind him the whole time.   This is July, 1973:

 

Jim

Hunter

244

Gaylord

Perry

206

 

Hunter’s streak, 244 consecutive starts, runs from October 2, 1966 to July 20, 1973.   Then Catfish dropped out, and Gaylord had it all to himself.   He would hold it for a long time.  Gaylord took over in July, 1973, and didn’t miss a start until July, 1976.    In April, 1976, these are the top 3:

Gaylord

Perry

298

Mickey

Lolich

229

Wilbur

Wood

227

 

Something interesting about that list, you know?    You got it?    In  1971, 1972 and 1973, both Wood and Lolich pitched many times on two days’ rest.   This was highly unusual, and they were the last two pitchers ever to do this, pitch repeatedly on 2 days’ rest.   In 1971 Mickey Lolich pitched 376 innings; in 1972 Wood pitched 377.  In modern theory, this workload should have destroyed them—but both Lolich and Wood stayed in rotation without missing a start for years after that.  Those are tremendously long streaks of consecutive starts, Drysdale length.    I’m not saying this "proves" that pitchers can pitch on two days’ rest, but it makes you think.

Mickey Lolich’s streak runs from June 19, 1970 to June 19, 1976.    Wood’s streak runs from April 12, 1971 to May 9, 1976.  Gaylord’s streak runs from June 28, 1968, to July 22, 1976.   Gaylord stayed in rotation for more than eight years, and his total reached 314 consecutive starts—the second-highest total in my data, behind only Jim Bunning. 

Gaylord Perry was the 11th Rotation Emperor, and one of the greatest ever.  His ERA during his stretch was 2.76.   From the beginning of his streak in 1968 until June, 1974—a year after he became the Rotation Emperor—his ERA was 2.55, the lowest ever for a reigning champion.  He completed 202 of the 314 starts, a record by far for complete games during a consecutive-starts streak; Bunning was second with 117.

Perry was succeeded—briefly—by Ferguson Jenkins, who regained the top of the list when Gaylord faltered in July, 1968.   Jenkins failed just weeks later, and he was succeeded by Catfish Hunter, the 10th and (now) the 13th emperor. 

Catfish had left the Emperor’s Chair with 244 consecutive starts; he moved back in with just 121—and he didn’t stay, either.    Catfish, after just a few starts in his second command, missed a start, giving the Emperor’s Chair to Randy Jones (14)—but Jones, too, lasted just a couple of months,  and then it was Doug Rau (15).   The overall strength of the list was deteriorating at a quite remarkable rate as the top pitchers all dropped out.

Doug Rau was the first of what we might call Third Starter to hold the Emperor’s Chair—but the first of many.   Basically, up to now the Emperor’s Seat had always been held by a #1 starter with the brief exception of Lew Burdette, who was #2 in that rotation behind Warren Spahn.   One of the things I didn’t know when I started this project was whether the list would always be dominated by superstar pitchers, or whether there would be ordinary #3 starter types who just stayed in rotation.   The answer to that one:   Up to 1977 the list is dominated by #1 starters, but not necessarily by the best #1 starters, not by Koufax, Gibson and Seaver, but by other guys who were clearly headliners.   Since 1977, the Rotation Emperor has as often as not been some less dominant pitcher.

Early Wynn was 110-70 (.611) in his first long sequence of starts, and 39-28 (.582) in his second.    Warren Spahn was 42-22 in his 72-start sequence (.656).    Burdette was 52-32, .619.   Larry Jackson was 40-30, .571.   Jim Bunning was 151-106 (.588) in his record-holding string of 337 starts, with an ERA of 3.00.    Dean Chance was just 47-41 in his 107-start run, the lowest winning percentage of any Emperor’s Stretch so far, but he had the best ERA (2.70).   Ferguson Jenkins was 97-57 in his first long stretch (.591, 2.96 ERA), and was 97-73 in his second stretch, which made him Rotation Emperor briefly again after Perry’s string was broken.   (Jenkins made 194 consecutive starts in his first long stretch, 195 in the second, although he just barely made it back to the top of the list in the second run.)    Sam McDowell was just 74-62 in his 170-game run of starts (.544), but had a 2.83 ERA and struck out 1,227 batters in 1,225 innings.   Catfish Hunter was 113-80 in his first run of 244 games (.585), and 69-42 (.622) in his second run (124 games.)    Gaylord Perry was 159-122 (.566) in his eight-year stretch of consecutive starts, with a 2.76 ERA. 

Randy Jones (129 games ending May 19, 1977) was just 55-53 in those games, the weakest won-lost record up to that point; Jones lost 22 games in 1974 but then won 20 games in 1975 and 22 in 1976, winning the Cy Young Award in 1976 and finishing second in the voting in 1975.   Jones yielded to Doug Rau, making Rau the 15th Rotation Emperor.   Rau lasted until April 10, 1978 (140 starts), and then was succeeded by Bob Forsch.   Forsch lasted until September 14, 1978, 141 starts.

Rau and Forsch were not stars; they were third starter types—but they did have won-lost records and ERAs, in their consecutive-start skeins, in keeping with the other Rotation Emperors.   Rau was 59-40 in his stretch, 3.17 ERA (although he struck out only 509 batters in 913 innings), and Forsch was 58-44, 3.40 ERA, but with only 407 strikeouts in 915 innings.

Forsch was hit hard on September 9, 1978 and then hit hard again on September 14, and then didn’t start again until September 22; it barely qualifies as a rotation break, but those are the rules as I wrote them.    You get knocked around twice and take a week off, I think it’s a missed start.   This made J. R. Richard the 17th Rotation Emperor.

J. R. Richard was very much a #1 starter; he is one of those guys, like Jim Maloney and Bret Saberhagen, who pitched at a Hall of Fame level, but just not long enough to be a Hall of Famer.  He was 6 foot 8 and extremely scary on the mound, kind of a right-handed Randy Johnson.  Most hitters of that generation would say that he was the most intimidating pitcher they ever faced.  He won 20 games in 1976, then 18 each year from 1977 to 1979.   This is the list from April, 1979:

 

J.R.

Richard

121

Phil

Niekro

117

Don

Sutton

106

Vida

Blue

101

Mike

Torrez

72

Bob

Knepper

71

Mike

Flanagan

70

Wayne

Garland

70

Ross

Grimsley

61

Ron

Guidry

60

 

You will note that Niekro is only 4 starts behind J. R. Richard.  Richard made 38 starts in 1979 (and led the league in ERA), but Phil Niekro made 44.   Niekro, a knuckleball pitcher, won 21 games in 1979 but also lost 20.

The rule that governs this list throughout all the rest of the 60-year time period we have studied is that once a pitcher becomes the Rotation Emperor, he holds that position until he misses a start.   You can’t ordinarily chase down another pitcher from behind—ordinarily.   But this is the one situation in which there was a "peaceful transition of power", so to speak; Niekro moved past Richard by catching and passing him, starting more frequently.  Phil Niekro caught Richard in very late August, 1979, and moved ahead of him in September, 1979, becoming the 18th Rotation Emperor.

Niekro never got more than two starts ahead of J. R. Richard.   In early May, 1980, Niekro had one of those troubling 9-day gaps in his record, May 2 to May 11, 1980.   It looks more like a rainout than an actual gap; he was pitching pretty well, and Niekro would lead the National League in Games Started in 1980, with 38.  There’s no indication of an injury.   Nonetheless, there is a 9-day gap between starts, so, in my (flawed) accounting, he is off the list.    So J. R. Richard, the 17th rotation emperor, now became the 19th as well—the only man to lose and regain the position within the same streak.

J. R. Richard’s streak lasted through June 17, 1980.   In mid-June he began to show early indications of the health condition that would end his career, very dramatically, a month later.    With Richard gone, Mike Flanagan became the Rotation Emperor.

Flanagan was only one start ahead of Mike Torrez—and at times, he and Torrez were actually tied.   This is the list from July, 1980:

 

Mike

Flanagan

126

Mike

Torrez

125

Joe

Niekro

81

Steve

Rogers

69

Tommy

John

60

Craig

Swan

57

Jon

Matlack

52

Tom

Underwood

52

Dennis

Leonard

47

Gaylord

Perry

46

 

That is still a very, very weak list, as you can see.   In the early 1970s there had been ten pitchers working on concurrent streaks of 100 or more consecutive starts.   By 1980, you could make the top ten list with 46 starts, and at times less than 46.   Anyway, Flanagan and Torrez were almost in lock-step, Flanagan about three days ahead during most of this run.   In Roman history there are many, many times when there were multiple people claiming to be the legitimate emperor, and, at the time, it wasn’t always clear who the "legitimate" emperor was.   In hindsight it is always clear, because somebody eventually wins the power struggle and cleans up the record after the fact.   We can regard Mike Torrez as one of these "rogue emperors", who never quite had a complete grasp on the position.  Torrez dropped off in mid-September, 1980, leaving Flanagan clearly in command. 

Flanagan continued to pitch in rotation until August 23, 1981.  He had two terrible starts and then was out almost a month, so that’s a clean break.   Joe Niekro became the 21st Rotation Emperor.

At the time he reached the top of the list, Niekro was the only major league pitcher with a streak of 100 consecutive starts:

 

Joe

Niekro

118

Dennis

Leonard

86

Steve

Carlton

74

Mike

Caldwell

66

Mike

Norris

62

Jerry

Reuss

61

Len

Barker

59

Bob

Welch

57

Rick

Langford

55

Phil

Niekro

53

Pat

Zachry

53

 

Joe and Phil Niekro were the only brothers to own the list, which is not obvious; Jim Perry appeared on the top-10 list before his brother Gaylord ever reached the majors, and Jim Perry would reach as high as third on the list, behind Bunning and Bob Friend in 1962, and Jim Perry would reach fifth on the list in 1972, with a stretch that reached 139 consecutive starts.   Bob Forsch had a brother/pitcher, although Ken Forsch never made the list, and Pedro and Ramon Martinez both made the list at the same time in the 1990s.    But Joe and Phil are the only brothers who both made it to the top position.

Although not a Hall of Famer like his brother, Joe Niekro was also a knuckleball pitcher, and won more than 200 games.   Joe Niekro came to the majors as a "straight" pitcher, but incorporated a knuckleball into his repertoire after he found himself back in the minor leagues in his early thirties.   In the late 70s he was a "hybrid" pitcher, mixing his knuckleball with his fastball like R. A. Dickey did in New York.   With the passage of time, the knuckleball became more and more important to him.

Joe Niekro ruled the list until mid-September, 1985, becoming one of the longest-tenured emperors.    With Niekro a steady hand at the top, the list re-built itself a little bit.   By June, 1984, there were six pitchers with active streaks of more than 100 starts:

 

Joe

Niekro

210

Steve

Carlton

167

Dave

Stieb

127

Fernando

Valenzuela

114

Rick

Rhoden

101

Luis

Leal

100

 

By August Dave Stieb had dropped off the list, but had been replaced by Charlie Hough, keeping the 100-game bench at six players. 

 

Joe

Niekro

223

Steve

Carlton

179

Fernando

Valenzuela

125

Luis

Leal

113

Rick

Rhoden

112

Charlie

Hough

103

 

Joe Niekro’s stretch, which ran from June 22, 1978 to September 11, 1985, reached 262 starts.   During that stretch he won 117 games, lost 92, and had a 3.14 ERA in a pitcher’s park.  I have written about this before, but in the first half of the 1970s there were more than a dozen Hall of Fame quality starting pitchers, whereas in the early 1980s there really were none.   In the early 1970s you have Carlton, Seaver, Jenkins, Catfish, Jim Palmer, Tiant, Tommie John, Jim Kaat, Vida Blue, Nolan Ryan, Don Sutton and others.   By the early 1980s Cy Young Awards were being won by guys like Lamarr Hoyt and Pete Vuckovich, while Palmer, Carlton, Ryan and Sutton remained among the best starting pitchers in baseball although they were no longer what they once had been.   This is reflected in the strength of the Rotation Emperor List in the early 1970s, and the weakness in the late 1970s.

In the early 1980s, though, the list was growing stronger.   By the time Joe Niekro abdicated, Fernando Valenzuela was at 165 consecutive starts.  Valenzuela became the 22nd Rotation Emperor.   Like Ferguson Jenkins, Valenzuela’s stretch begins with his first major league start (not his first major league appearance) on April 9, 1981.    In July, 1988, this is this list:

 

Fernando

Valenzuela

255

Bert

Blyleven

157

Doyle

Alexander

152

Orel

Hershiser

142

Mike

Witt

141

Frank

Viola

114

Shane

Rawley

103

Charlie

Hough

96

Jim

Clancy

95

Roger

Clemens

95

 

That was the strongest list of the 1980s, the strongest list since the early 1970s.     Roger Clemens was in 10th place with 95 consecutive starts; strong list.   It weakened quickly after that, as Valenzuela and his Heir Apparent, Bert Blyleven, disappeared from the list at the same moment, both failing to make their first scheduled starts in August, 1988.   That left the #3 man, Doyle Alexander, to become the 23rd Rotation Emperor.

Alexander was ugly, disagreeable, frequently traded and a soft thrower, so we don’t think of him as a #1 starter—but during this stretch of games he was highly effective, a worthy emperor.  Alexander held his seat for a year, through August of 1989, his streak reaching 191 consecutive starts—five to six years in the rotation.   During the first 170 of those starts Alexander was 76-48 (.613), albeit with a so-so ERA of 3.48.   In the last 21 games he was getting the hell beat out of him.   When Alexander became the Rotation Emperor his Heir Apparent was Orel Hershiser, at that time one of the four great pitchers in the game (Clemens and Saberhagen in the American League, Gooden and Hershiser in the National.)

Hershiser, though, missed his first start in June, 1989, and thus missed his chance to be the 24th Rotation Emperor.   The seat went, instead, to the 1988 American League Cy Young Award winner, Frank Viola.    Viola moved into the lead chair in late August, 1988, with 156 consecutive starts at that point.  Viola would become one of the greatest Rotation Emperors, his streak running to 274 starts.   His streak runs from July 10, 1985 to May 3, 1993, and during that stretch he was 129-96.  

The guy who played Drysdale to Viola’s Jim Bunning impression was Mark Langston; Langston had a long stretch, 200 consecutive starts, which began April 9, 1986 and ended August 25, 1991, but because of Viola he never did get to the Emperor’s Chair.  There were three Rotation Emperors in the 1950s (Wynn, Spahn, Burdette), and six in the 1960s (Burdette, Wynn again, Larry Jackson, Bunning, Chance, and Ferguson Jenkins.)   There were eleven in the 1970s (Jenkins, Sam McDowell, Catfish Hunter, Gaylord Perry, Jenkins again, Catfish again, Randy Jones, Doug Rau, Bob Forsch, J. R. Richard and Phil Niekro), and there were seven in the 1980s (Phil Niekro, J. R. Richard again, Flanagan, Joe Niekro, Valenzuela, Doyle Alexander and Frank Viola).  

I wanted to look at the lists for June, 1992:

Frank

Viola

249

Greg

Maddux

133

Jack

Morris

101

Mike

Morgan

100

Ramon

Martinez

93

Todd

Stottlemyre

93

Greg

Swindell

90

Bruce

Hurst

87

John

Smoltz

87

Scott

Sanderson

86

 

And for April, 1996:

Jack

McDowell

196

Chuck

Finley

115

Ramon

Martinez

100

Tom

Glavine

99

Kenny

Rogers

96

Pat

Hentgen

94

Ricky

Bones

85

Tim

Belcher

84

Jim

Abbott

78

Andy

Benes

77

 

Ramon Martinez was 6-foot-4, 165 pounds, the older brother of the Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez.   In baseball history there are several pitchers that we think of as fragile, injury-prone, unable to stay in the rotation, which really is not a completely accurate characterization.     Ramon Martinez rose to fifth on the durable-pitchers list in 1992, missed a couple of starts—and then made 100 more starts without missing one, rising (the second time) to third on the list.   He actually was a very durable pitcher in the early 1990s.   Something happened, he was pushed too hard at some point, and he broke down, but he was actually a tremendously durable starter for the first half of the 1990s.   He’s like Maloney, J. R. Richard and Brandon Webb—a pitcher of Hall of Fame quality who just didn’t quite last long enough to make Cooperstown.   Eric Show, who we don’t tend to think of as a rotation workhorse, does that as well:  he gets on the list, drops off the list, then starts another streak and gets back on the list.   There actually are several pitchers, like Ramon Martinez, who are thought of as "fragile", but who show up on the list of consecutive-start leaders.    Among the surprising pitchers who show up on the leader lists at some point and are not otherwise mentioned in this article: Gene Conley, Bud Daley, Bob Bruce, Hank Aguirre, Lew Krausse, Phil Ortega, Dave Boswell, Gary Nolan, Wayne Garland, Jerry Augustine, Craig Swan, and Tom Underwood.

In any corpse, Frank Viola was succeeded, in May of 1993, by Greg Maddux, the 25th Rotation Emperor.   In September, 1993, Maddux left a game in which he was pitching a two-hit shutout in the sixth inning, having thrown only 73 pitches, and after that he did not start for 8 days.    It seems like a technical violation of our rules, but. . .he missed a start.   When you miss a start, we thrown you off the emperor’s chair.   His place was taken by his teammate, John Smoltz, but Smoltz lasted there for only a few starts.   He had some sort of health issue in late April, 1994, and missed two starts, putting him on the road toward a sub-Smoltzian season.

The 27th Rotation Emperor, then, was Black Jack McDowell.    The 100-pitch limits were taking over the game then, and McDowell didn’t want to hear about it.    He wanted to finish his starts.   He threw 15 complete games in 1991, 13 in 1992, still led the league with 8 in 1995.    Eventually it caught up with him, but McDowell was the Rotation Emperor from April, 1994 to July, 1996, a run of two and a half seasons.     This is the last list of the Jack McDowell era:

 

Jack

McDowell

212

Chuck

Finley

132

Tom

Glavine

117

Kenny

Rogers

114

Pat

Hentgen

111

Tim

Belcher

102

Ricky

Bones

98

Andy

Benes

93

Steve

Avery

89

Mike

Mussina

86

 

McDowell’s stretch of games runs from April 13, 1990 to July 21, 1996.   During those 212 games he was 107-64 with a 3.63 ERA.    With the passing of McDowell, whose career petered out in a frenzy of injuries, the 28th Rotation Emperor was Chuck Finley.

I always thought of Chuck Finley as a great pitcher.   I know that the record shows he was not quite a great pitcher, but I always thought that he was a great pitcher who just couldn’t quite break through some sort of glass ceiling to that highest level, that Greg Maddux/Roger Clemens/Randy Johnson level.

Finley missed a week at the end of April, 1997.   The 29th Rotation Emperor was Tom Glavine, but he lasted only a month.    Glavine appears to have missed a start in mid-May, 1997, which may be a Rainout Game; I’m not sure.   It looks like a rain game.    Anyway, the 30th Rotation Emperor was Pat Hentgen.   Hentgen ascended to the top spot with just 136 consecutive starts, and carried the list forward for a year and a half, into late August, 1998.   The strongest list of the 1990s is this list, under Emperor Hentgen, from August, 1997:

 

Pat

Hentgen

152

Tim

Belcher

140

Andy

Benes

129

Mike

Mussina

126

Wilson

Alvarez

122

Jeff

Fassero

118

Pedro

Martinez

115

John

Smoltz

101

Todd

Stottlemyre

95

Jaime

Navarro

93

 

Over the next three years the list collapsed.  Contrast that list (above) with the list from August, 2000; you can see that the 2000 list is dramatically weaker

 

Steve

Trachsel

143

Rick

Helling

105

Tom

Glavine

94

Jesus

Sanchez

65

Gil

Heredia

63

Shawn

Estes

61

Pat

Hentgen

61

Andy

Benes

57

Matt

Clement

56

Aaron

Sele

54

 

What caused the change?   Normal cyclical up and down turns; I think that’s all.    Anyway, the 31st Rotation Emperor, succeeding Pat Hentgen, was Jeff Fassero.      Fassero, like Hentgen, came to the majors as a reliever, and (Fassero) spent two and a half years as a middle reliever before getting a chance to start.   His stretch of consecutive starts, like those of Ferguson Jenkins and Fernando Valenzuela, begins with his very first major league start, July 10, 1993, and runs to June 14, 1999, almost six years, 171 starts.    (The per-season average is low because of the 1994-1995 strike.)     His place was taken by Pedro Martinez, then in his first season with the Red Sox; Pedro’s stretch also reached 171 starts.

But Pedro—a spectacularly good pitcher, but never a spectacularly durable pitcher—held the title for less than a month before passing it on to Darryl Kile of the Rockies, the 33rd Rotation Emperor.    It would be noteworthy if Kile had actually died while holding the title, but that didn’t happen; Kile lost his job in the starting rotation.   I suppose people forget, but that was a very odd story.   Kile, who threw a huge curve ball and depended heavily on his curve ball, signed a big money, multi-year contract to pitch in Colorado, where everybody knows a curve ball does not break normally due to the thin high-altitude air.    It is mystifying why the Rockies signed Kile, or why Kile agreed to sign there.   It seems to be an act of rational defiance, like jumping off a skyscraper to mock all those fools who insist that human beings simply cannot fly.

Anyway, Kile—who was a very good pitcher as long as he could throw his curve ball—was jerked out of the rotation in mid-September, 1999 because he wasn’t getting anybody out.   So I’m not going to list anyone the incumbent at the end of that millennium; I’m going to list the position as vacant.   There were ten Rotation Emperors in the 1990s—Viola, Greg Maddux, Smoltz, Jack McDowell, Chuck Finley, Tom Glavine, Pat Hentgen, Jeff Fassero, Pedro Martinez and Darryl Kile.

The first Rotation Emperor of the 21st century was Kevin Brown, but Brown lasted only two starts, in April of 2000.   The 35th Rotation Emperor was Steve Trachsel.   We are churning the list here; in less than one season we have gone through Jeff Fassero, Pedro Martinez, Darryl Kile, Kevin Brown and Steve Trachsel.    Obviously that weakens the list, when that happens, and this is what drove the list to the low point documented above.   In Roman History the Year 69 AD is known as the Year of Four Emperors.   Nero committed suicide I think about midnight on December 31, 68 AD, leaving the Emperor’s chair empty as the New Year started.   Nero committed suicide because the armies of those who wanted to remove him from office (and from the planet) were closing in on all sides, and this introduced a period of chaos in which Galba, Otho and Vitellius all sat briefly on the throne before Vespasian—one of the greatest of Roman Emperors—restored order.   (A similar thing happened in 193 AD.   Commodus was murdered about midnight on December 31, 192 AD; 193 became The Year of Five Emperors.)

Anyway,   Trachsel was a third-starter type, perhaps the weakest Rotation Emperor of all time.   Trachsel ruled the list until September 7, 2000, his stretch running to 145 consecutive starts.   In those 145 games Trachsel won 44, lost 54, and posted a 4.69 ERA.   Trachsel was succeeded by Rick Helling,   Helling was a 20-game winner in 1997 and a 16-game winner in 1999, but by the time he reached the top of the list he was getting pounded severely about the head and shoulders, as well; he posted a 5.17 ERA in 2001, leading the majors in home runs allowed (38), hits allowed (256), and earned runs allowed (124).  

That will catch up with you, after a while, and Helling was dropped from the rotation in June, 2002.    The 37th Rotation Emperor was a reprise of the 29th, Tom Glavine.   As I mentioned at the time, it is not clear that Glavine ever legitimately left the position; in all of this period, when we’ve gone too fast from Hentgen to Fassero to Pedro to Kile to Brown to Trachsel to Helling, it may be that Glavine was the "legitimate" Rotation Emperor during all of that stretch.    I hope so; that would sure simplify the "legitimate" list.   I expect that 22nd century schoolboys will have to memorize this list of baseball’s rotation emperors, and it would be nice for them if they didn’t have to go through all this Tyler-Polk-Taylor-Brown-Trachsel nonsense.

Tom Glavine—an entirely legitimate Rotation Emperor—held the title from June, 2002 into early June, 2003.    He made 184 starts during his stretch, going 92-50, a spectacular .648 winning percentage.    At the time he moved into first place, Glavine’s record during his stretch was 80-36, a .690 percentage—the highest ever for a Rotation Emperor during his consecutive game streak.    Trachsel had the worst winning percentage for a reigning emperor; Glavine the best.  I know that most of you have blotted this out of your memories, but in the winter of 2002-2003 Glavine signed a four-year contract with the New York Mets.   Well, nobody can survive that, so Glavine gave up 16 runs in 11 and a third innings in three starts in late May/early June, 2003, and after that he was out of the rotation for a week and a half.

The 38th Rotation Emperor, succeeding Glavine, was Livan Hernandez.    Livan’s brother or half-brother, El Duque, was one of the most interesting pitchers I’ve ever seen.   El Duque was fun, man; he would bust the hitter with a 94-MPH fastball, and follow it up with a 58-MPH blooper, a straight change, a curve, a slider, a sinking fastball.   Watching El Duque pitch was like wandering through a carnival.

Livan was the other way; Livan was boring.   Livan was half-way between a pitcher and a batting practice machine.  He was a heavy-set guy who threw a sinking fastball, a four-seam fastball, a slider, curve, change—all of them mediocre, but he always had something he could throw, he knew how to use what he had, and he always took his turn on the mound. Livan ascended into the top spot in mid-June, 2003, having made 117 consecutive starts at that time.  He was still there at the end of the 2003 season; this was the list at that time:

Livan

Hernandez

135

Jamie

Moyer

123

Barry

Zito

119

Ramon

Ortiz

104

Mark

Buehrle

96

Roy

Halladay

87

Brian

Lawrence

76

Jarrod

Washburn

75

Ben

Sheets

72

Kerry

Wood

70

 

He was still atop the list at the end of 2004; this was the list then:

Livan

Hernandez

170

Barry

Zito

153

Mark

Buehrle

131

Brian

Lawrence

110

Greg

Maddux

88

Mark

Mulder

86

Bartolo

Colon

85

Steve

Trachsel

79

Brad

Radke

78

Roger

Clemens

76

 

Livan was still on top at the end of the 2005 season; at that point this was the list:

 

Livan

Hernandez

205

Barry

Zito

188

Mark

Buehrle

164

Brian

Lawrence

143

Greg

Maddux

123

Bartolo

Colon

118

Roger

Clemens

107

Jason

Johnson

107

Brandon

Webb

90

Mike

Maroth

88

 

He was still on top at the end of the 2006 season; this was the list then:

 

Livan

Hernandez

239

Barry

Zito

222

Mark

Buehrle

196

Greg

Maddux

157

Derek

Lowe

101

John

Smoltz

87

Miguel

Batista

84

John

Lackey

84

Carlos

Zambrano

77

Jeff

Francis

72

Dontrelle

Willis

73

 

There are a couple of things you should be picking up here:  1)  Livan is hanging in there really good, and 2) The list beneath him is growing quite a lot stronger.    Livan had reached the top of the list at 117; in 2006 the great Greg Maddux was in fourth place at 157.    But it was in 2007 that the list really took off.  And at the end of 2007, Livan was still on top. 

 

Livan

Hernandez

272

Barry

Zito

255

Mark

Buehrle

224

Greg

Maddux

191

John

Lackey

117

Miguel

Batista

116

Dontrelle

Willis

108

Jeff

Francis

106

Dan

Haren

104

Matt

Morris

97

 

This was the strongest list in history up to that time, finally breaking the record established in August, 1972.    I consider 200 or more consecutive starts to be a "historic" run. . .that is, a run of such magnitude it deserves to be noted.   By the end of 2007 Barry Zito was at 255 consecutive starts—and he was still not at the front of the line.

Hernandez’ long reign finally ended in mid-season, 2008.   His consecutive start stretch ran from September 23, 1999 to July 30, 2008, and mounted to 295 consecutive starts.    In those games Hernandez won 118, lost 110, and posted a 4.29 ERA, but walked only 641 batters in almost 2000 innings (1989.2).

By the time Hernandez’ streak was broken, however, Barry Zito and Mark Huehrle Buehrle had both dropped off the list.   Zito’s streak ran from July 22, 2000 to April 27, 2008; during the streak Zito was 113-82 and won a Cy Young Award, and his streak began with his first major league game, not merely his first major league start.   (No one has ever reached the Emperor’s Chair with a run beginning with his first major league game.   Zito had an extremely long run, 261 starts, but he did not reach the top spot.)

The near-simultaneous disappearance of Hernandez, Zito and Buehrle made Greg Maddux the 25th and 39th Rotation Emperor.    Maddux, who had taken a brief turn as emperor in 1993, returned to the seat 15 years later, as his career was winding down.   Maddux held the Emperor’s Seat until the end of the 2008 season, and then retired; he is the only man to give up the position by retirement, which I suppose makes him the Diocletian of Rotation Emperors.    The 40th Emperor was Dan Haren.    This may surprise you, but Dan Haren in early 2009 was not only the Rotation Emperor—the pitcher who had been in rotation the longest—but he was the #1 ranked starting pitcher in the world, for a little while.   It was an odd moment; Clemens and Maddux and Randy Johnson and Pedro were gone or no longer great.   Johan Santana was the #1 pitcher in the world most of the time between 2005 and 2008, but in 2007 Santana was modestly human (15-13 with a 3.33 ERA), and that created an opening at the top of the list.   For a little while, Haren was the #1 guy.

Haren, like Glavine and Phil Niekro, may have had a longer streak than we are giving him credit for.   He did not pitch between May 12 and May 23, 2008, which breaks his streak, but in that he was pitching well before and after that, the break in the streak may have some very innocent explanation.  In any case, in our system Haren lasted only two months, and was succeeded by Bronson Arroyo.  Arroyo had just 134 starts at the time that he moved into the front position.

Do you all know Bronson?   Bronson was in the minors a LONG time; Bronson made 177 minor league starts.    Try to find somebody else in this generation who made 177 minor league starts, but still became a rotation anchor in the majors.    In my first winter with the Red Sox, 2002-2003, the same winter that the Twins let David Ortiz go, the Pirates put Arroyo on waivers, and we claimed him.    In its own way that was every bit as inexplicable.   Arroyo had pitched for the Pirates in 2000-2001-2002, and he wasn’t great but he wasn’t terrible, either—and he was 39 games over .500 in the minor leagues (83-44); actually he was 71-38 in the minors before we got him, and 12-6 in 2003.    He didn’t walk anybody; in the majors his control had been OK, but in the minors it had been sensational.    It was (and is) hard to figure why the Pirates, who at that time needed pitching like a junkie needs a fix, wouldn’t just put him on the mound and let him roll.

Bronson was a one of kind guy, with a rock ‘n roll habit and a spooky ability to entirely disengage his emotions.    You don’t want to say it, but a big reason most people can’t pitch with a fastball just a little bit short is that they’re afraid of loud noises, specifically the kind of loud noises that happen when you throw an 89 MPH fastball in the middle of the plate.   Bronson was afraid of nothin’, man.    If you hit it, you hit it; I’ll throw you another one next time you come to the plate.  We got him over the bridge into a major league role and then, unfortunately, we also sold him short.   We thought we had a "surplus" of starting pitching—dumb idea—and we should take advantage of that to bring in a player with a huge upside:  Wily Mo.   Dumb, dumb, dumb; not him, us.

Well, we got Bronson for nothing and got nothing for him, but we got two good years out of him and got him into the majors and into the rotation, and he stayed there.   In late May, 2008, Arroyo became the 41st Rotation Emperor.    He is more a #3 starter than a #1, but in the last fifteen years the Rotation Emperor has generally been a #3 starter—Trachsel, Helling, Livan Hernandez; even Greg Maddux, at the time of his second shift as the Rot Emp, was really a #3 starter.

Like Hernandez but even more so, Arroyo got into the Emperor’s Chair and wouldn’t leave.   He was still there at the end of 2008, and 2009, and 2010, and 2011.   And 2012.   And 2013.   By the end of 2013 he had made 289 consecutive starts, the fourth-longest stretch in my data, behind Bunning, Gaylord Perry, and Livan Hernandez.  

Bronson was still in rotation, taking his turn, early in this season, the 2014 season.   He made 14 starts in 2014, stretching him to 303 consecutive turns—the third-longest stretch in this study.     His run goes from July 19, 2004, to June 15, 2007; he won 122 games, lost 107, and had a 4.14 ERA.

Under Bronson in June, 2012, the list of pitchers working on consecutive-game streaks was stronger than it had ever been.   You remember that the record was set in August, 1972, and then not bettered until August, 2007.    In June, 2012, a new record was set:

 

Bronson

Arroyo

240

Matt

Cain

205

Justin

Verlander

193

CC

Sabathia

152

Mark

Buehrle

149

Zack

Greinke

149

Gavin

Floyd

142

Felix

Hernandez

128

Johan

Santana

119

Trevor

Cahill

111

 

In August, 2013, that record was broken:

 

Bronson

Arroyo

284

Matt

Cain

247

Justin

Verlander

237

Mark

Buehrle

192

James

Shields

131

Tim

Lincecum

130

Adam

Wainwright

130

C.J.

Wilson

127

R.A.

Dickey

120

Madison

Bumgarner

111

 

And in June, 2014, that record was broken:

 

Bronson

Arroyo

303

Justin

Verlander

255

Mark

Buehrle

214

James

Shields

154

Tim

Lincecum

151

C.J.

Wilson

150

R. A.

Dickey

142

Madison

Bumgarner

132

Hiroki

Kuroda

127

Madison

Bumgarner

111

 

When Arroyo finally went on the DL Justin Verlander became the 42nd Rotation Emperor.    Verlander missed a start in late August, and Mark Buehrle became the 43rd.    Mark Buehrle is the current Rotation Emperor, and we credit him with 228 consecutive starts in a stretch beginning on September 16, 2007.    (It is unclear whether that is a "true" beginning to the streak, or not; Buehrle’s streak may in fact go back years before that.)

But here is the point I wanted to make. . .not that I made you read 25 pages of lead up just to make this point, but. . ..people talk about injuries to pitchers as if this were a new phenomenon; more and more pitchers every year are getting hurt.   Well, maybe.

But this study shows that the number of pitchers staying in rotation for years and years without any injury or interruption is clearly higher than it has ever been.   A record was set in 2012, broken in 2013, broken in 2014.   I don’t want to make too much out of that; the record is based on just ten pitchers out of a population of 150.   But there is certainly some indication that injuries to starting pitchers may not, in fact, be increasing.

Three notes in closing.  

1)  You may wonder whether the list tends to be stronger at one point in the season than in another.   Not really.    The average strength of the list has been lower in April and higher in May than in any other month, but the difference from top to bottom is only 5%:

April

4471

May

4726

June

4647

July

4694

August

4540

September

4585

 

2)  The average strength of the list has been much higher in this decade than in any previous decade:

 

1950s

Average

2089

1960s

Average

3377

1970s

Average

5241

1980s

Average

4622

1990s

Average

4888

2000s

Average

5118

2010s

Average

6618

 

3)  Here is a partial list of pitchers who never stayed in rotation long enough to become the Rotation Emperor:   Steve Carlton, Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, Bob Gibson, Juan Marichal, Jim Palmer, Luis Tiant, Jim Kaat, Don Sutton, Bert Blyleven and Jack Morris.

 

Thanks for reading.

 
 

COMMENTS (30 Comments, most recent shown first)

W.T.Mons10
Coming to this article late, but...

In June 1974, Phil Niekro had to miss a start due to muscle spasms in his back, per the Atlanta Constitution.

In May-June 1973, he had a pulled muscle in his rib cage. He was expected to miss 2-3 starts, but only missed the one. More relevantly, though, his first start in 1973 was on May 15 due to a sore arm, so his streak ended with the 1972 season.

Looking at some more gaps:
He did start a game rained out in the fourth on June 2, 1976. The same thing on May 7, 1980.
9:17 PM Jan 11th
 
Magpie
Buehjrle really did miss two starts in September 2007 (I just happen to have researched this recently). He wasn't hurt, it was just Ozzie experimenting a bit with the White Sox out of it. Near the middle of the month, John Danks was just coming off the DL and Ozzie wanted to give Danks a look. So Danks started in Buehrle's spot. In the final week, Ozzie decided to skip Buehrle again and let a rookie (Lance Broadway) get his feet wet. I'm pretty sure those two turns are the only ones Buehrle has missed since 2001.
7:40 PM Oct 31st
 
trn6229
Thanks, Bill.

What about Tom Seaver? Starting from his rookie year in 1967, he started 34,35,35,36.35,35,36,32,36,34,33,36, etc. This is from 1967 through 1978.

Take Care,
Tom Nahigian
12:03 AM Oct 30th
 
MarisFan61
FWIW, weather history shows "thunderstorm" in Philadelphia on that date.
4:47 PM Oct 27th
 
jdw
On Niekro, May 7, 1980 would have been his start away against the Phillies. Appears to have been rained out and rescheduled for a July 25 double header.

Google's terrific newspaper archive was taken down last year, and despite several statements from the company that it would be back up... it's pretty slow in going back up. I can't find a clear reference to the game online.

If any researchers have a sub to one of the pay newspaper archives, you might want to take a look at either the Philly or Atlanta papers on May 8... perhaps the LA Times as well since the game would have been cancelled by the time the Times went to bed, and my recollection is that at the time they were pretty decent in making notes about each game around the majors.
1:58 PM Oct 27th
 
shthar
Could the reason for more pitchers staying in a rotation for years and years nowadays be because there are more pitchers now than ever before?

The more pitchers you run out there, the more chances you got to stumble on a good one, like Arroyo.

If we only got 12 teams in each league, and we dont have 13 man pitching staffs, no way Arroyo gets even a sniff of the bigs.

I know people like to think fewer teams means better players on the teams, but that assumes teams know what they're doing when they judge players.
11:30 PM Oct 24th
 
articmike
Fellow Readers, I feel motivated to mention the name of a former Head Groundskeeper, Roger “The Sodfather” Bossard. I have little knowledge of and less allegiance to the White Sox, nor an emotional tie to Chicago, so I bring him up in my role as disinterested third party.

I know this Bill James article is about pitching, but indeed the subject of rainouts has come up.

Quite some years ago, a writer for Sports Illustrated wrote a feature on Roger and son Gene, whom Roger was grooming to displace him. The article treated the pair as groundskeeping revolutionaries. I don't know whether their innovation, which had to do with building a field upon sand, and then watering it like mad to keep the grass green, is still used, or whether the march of science has provided a more sophisticated strategy for keeping a field drained and playable.

No one can prevent a rainout, but the article came out within less than a couple of years of a changeover in Chicago's playing field, after which the cancellation for unplayable ground conditions had, by then, on that city's South Side, become virtually extinct.

The article gave the impression that just about any ballclub was readying itself, at that time, to re-do the foundations of their diamonds, and that it was the most advanced field drainage system unveiled to that date. If they're doing something differently in our era, I would have to assume they found an equivalent that permitted cost saving, because the writer portrayed the drainage itself at that time as being at the not-to-be-exceeded max.

I know I'm about to mention a huge time period, buy my memory tells me the era was 1986-2000, and I can't do any better than that in dating the revolution.
10:31 PM Oct 24th
 
337
Pretty amazing list of durable pitchers who never made Emperor. (Which, when I was growing up in Brooklyn, btw, is what us kids called the guy who calls strikes and balls and safe and out.) Could you tell us how high on the list Seaver, Clemens, Carlton, Morris, Gibson, et al peaked? Also, I’ll bet if you told us exactly what dates various pitchers missed a single start on, we could nail down quite a few of these in Readers’ Posts, taking one potential raindate apiece and going through old newspapers on-line. You may not realize what a potential resource you have in terms of free research scut-work, but you do.

6:58 PM Oct 24th
 
jdw
That's what I was perhaps unclear in asking: going backwards, where did your data hit a gap in starts for Robin?
12:50 PM Oct 24th
 
bjames
I didn't say there were gaps in Robin Roberts record; I said there were gaps in my data.
12:10 PM Oct 24th
 
jdw
Bill, one note and one question:

It happens to be Jim Bunning's 83rd birthday today. Well timed article. :-)

What were the breaks for Roberts in 1952-54?

Looking at Baseball-Reference's game logs, the three close calls look to be:

1952
Jul 30 to Aug 07: 98th team game & 102nd team game (saved by Rule 2)

1954
Jul 9 to Jul 16: All Star Game on Jul 13 (Rule 3)
Jul 21 to Jul 27: 6 days (Rule 1)

Looks like he came through clean in those three years.

Not sure how far back you went with the data, and whether you included 1950 & 1951 or earlier. As you guess, he does look clean in those years as well.
2:39 PM Oct 23rd
 
hankgillette
In any corpse, Frank Viola was succeeded, in May of 1993, by Greg Maddux, the 25th Rotation Emperor.

Is this a typo, or a joke that just went over my head?
2:00 PM Oct 23rd
 
hankgillette
This is not specific to this article, but I always appreciate it that when you do little studies like this, you present your methodology and parameters for the study, making it possible for someone to duplicate the study or to run a similar study with different parameters.
1:58 PM Oct 23rd
 
Davidg32
Thanks, Bill...I had no clue who that fourth starter might have been.
Would facing a knuckleballer like Niekro or a junkballer like Ruhle in between J.R. Richard and Nolan Ryan screw up a batter's timing, or does it not work that way?
1:12 PM Oct 23rd
 
bjames
David--I think Vern Ruhle may have been the fourth starter on that staff. And Vern Ruhle probably didn't throw as hard as Joe Niekro.
11:57 AM Oct 23rd
 
Davidg32
I think my favorite pitching staff of all time was the Astros staff when they had J.R. Richard, Nolan Ryan, and Joe Niekro all together. I wonder if they ever sandwiched a Niekro start between Richard and Ryan?
10:59 AM Oct 23rd
 
rtallia
One minor note--you've got Bumgarner twice on the July 2014 list....great article, thanks as always!​
7:38 AM Oct 23rd
 
77royals
I would imagine that during the 50's & 60's, that some guys were doing National Guard and Reserve duty, and probably missed some starts due to weekend drills.

No way to account for that, but it might explain some gaps.
4:34 AM Oct 23rd
 
mjhnyc
Sorry to say Glavine wasn't the legitimate emperor during the Trachsel-Helling period. He did in fact have a sore hand and miss a start in May 1997 -- no rainout.

Regarding Phil Niekro in 1980 -- the Braves had five starters with 26 to 38 starts that season, and after Niekro pitched on May 2 the other four started on May 3-4-5-6. Then there's a two-day gap with no games before they play again on May 9, with Niekro pitching May 11. Maybe there was a rainout on May 7 or 8. But I notice that by holding him out until May 11, they set up a Phil Niekro-Joe Niekro matchup. Phil won -- he threw complete-game victories on the 2nd and the 11th, which would seem to indicate he was healthy.​
1:25 AM Oct 23rd
 
MarisFan61
A lot has been said on the site about how Early Wynn doesn't show real great on most usual analysis. I've always felt 'something' was missing in that, something about how he was viewed when he played and which probably had legitimacy. I think "tough" and "horse" basically cover it -- and the Rotation Emperor thing must have been in there. I think we can be pretty sure nobody knew he would come out #1 in his time on actual calculation of this, but that for sure people had a general sense of it and that it was a big part of what gave him his image.

BTW, of no particular interest except that I like looking up things like this, Phil Niekro did pitch between Aug. 6 and Aug. 14, 1969. He pitched 1/3 inning of relief on Aug. 9 and wasn't good.

P.S. I assume the inclusion of Frank Bolling among the stellar group of 'born in 1931' was a little joke, but I bet a lot of people are going to fly right past that. :-)
9:44 PM Oct 22nd
 
BobGill
Bill, I don't know if you ever look back at these articles and wonder whether you could've presented them in a different way, but I thought I'd mention something about the presentation of this one. Toward the end, seeing those last few leader boards with higher totals than ever before, I had the specific thought that this seems to run counter to what you always hear about pitchers getting hurt more now than ever. And then about one minute later I came to the part where you mentioned the same thing. That's a pretty effective way to make the conclusion convincing, I'd say.
7:14 PM Oct 22nd
 
BobGill
For flyingfish: I think you're right in your most recent question -- that is, for the purposes of this article, "rainouts" means games that are started but called after just a couple of innings, rather than games that are called in advance. That was my assumption, anyway.
7:08 PM Oct 22nd
 
mskarpelos
Matt Cain had quite a streak going, but he was always just below Arroyo as the heir apparent, and he fell off the list when he was sidelined this year for the elbow and ankle surgery. Too bad. He would have been a fine emperor.
7:07 PM Oct 22nd
 
flyingfish
Just to clarify my thinking: If you call a game before it starts because you know it will rain, then I consider that a rainout. I guess the difference for our purposes here is that in the case where the game is called before it starts, the rotation emperor can simply start the following day and not lose his place, whereas if the rainout is unexpected, and he's already pitched a few innings, then he can't start again until it's too late. Right?
6:32 PM Oct 22nd
 
flyingfish
Hey, Bill, and thanks for your response. I guess I should have known about number 1, better fields, but didn't, so thanks for that. I need to think more about number 2, though. If you're canceling games because you EXPECT rain, that should lead to more, rather than fewer rainouts, unless it rains 100% of the time you expect it. In that case, you'd have the same number of rainouts, because you cancel games only when it rains or you know it will rain (no difference). So I'm not seeing how improved weather forecasts reduce the number of rainouts; only unexpected rainouts are reduced, but that's a subset of all rainouts and there's no change in the total number.
6:28 PM Oct 22nd
 
bjames
1) The fields are just vastly better now than they were in the 1950s. We know now how to build a baseball field so that a rain just drains right through it, leaving the surface usable.

2) We have much more confidence now in weather predictions. In the 1950s, a game was never called, as I recall, because rain was EXPECTED. In the 1950s, teams just started the game; if it rained, it rained. In the 1950s, the weatherman would never have said, to begin with, that it was going to rain about 3:30; he would say there was a 60% chance of rain some time during the day--and the projections were often just completely wrong. (I remember one time, summer of 1964, I was working with my father, building fence, when it poured down rain and we all took refuge in the car. It was pouring down rain, buckets. We turned on the radio, and the weatherman said "Zero percent chance of rain today.") Now, we take it for granted that we know when it will rain and how much it will rain, consequently are much less likely to start a game that is likely to be rained out.
6:00 PM Oct 22nd
 
hotstatrat
This was fun, thank you, but yes, it would be a serious list, if we could include those rained out starts. Losing a start for a suspension or an injury or a rest due to struggles - fine - off the list! But, somebody had to pitch those rainouts. That's earning and pitching a start.

"Fassero, like Hentgen, came to the majors as a reliever, and (Fassero) spent two and a half years as a middle reliever before getting a chance to start." Right. Hentgen pitched a year of relief before becoming a durable reliable starter as did these emperors' predecessor Chuck Finley and their successor Pedro Martinez. . . four in a row.
5:14 PM Oct 22nd
 
flyingfish
One more thought about rainouts. In 1950, there were 16 teams, none in dry places like Colorado, Oakland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Phoenix. Today, those dry places have teams but there are now 21 teams in humid places, minus a few domed parks (HOU, MIA, TOR?, MIN?), which still leaves at least 16 teams in humid regions. And most of the others don't have zero rainouts, just very few. So there should be MORE rainouts now, not fewer....
4:41 PM Oct 22nd
 
flyingfish
Hey, Bill, interesting article. There's a throwaway line in there that I have to ask about: "There were also, for what it is worth, many, many more rainouts at that time than there are now—probably, I would guess, 10 to 25 times as many." Why?? One thing I'm certain of is that it's not because the weather has changed. So what is it? 10 to 25 times as many in the 50s as now? That's staggeringly huge.
4:24 PM Oct 22nd
 
tangotiger
Bill:

Just started reading. If you weren't aware, Retrosheet has the "original" schedules:

http://www.retrosheet.org/schedule/

So, that might help in those who want to research potential rainouts.

And I also like that you noted the limitations, since it will be brought up anyway. Might as well cut it off at the knees.

Back to my reading...​
3:07 PM Oct 22nd
 
 
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