Is this the best starting rotation in Astros franchise history?
1980: J.R. Richard, Nolan Ryan, Joe Niekro, Ken Forsch, Vern Ruhle
What a Big Three this was, but it was tragically short-lived. Richard was in his prime, coming off a 1979 season in which he led the majors in ERA and strikeouts, and he’d won at least 18 games in four straight seasons. The free agency signing of Ryan gave the Astros an incredibly intimidating 1-2 punch.
Richard had a 1.90 ERA in 17 starts in 1980, earning his first All-Star nod. Then he suffered a stroke that ended his season and his career. At his peak, there was no one hitters were more scared of than Richard.
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Ryan went 11-10 in his debut season with the Astros, throwing 233.2 innings. As is the case with 1986, he had better seasons in Houston, but his presence in the rotation is enough.
Niekro had his best years with the Astros, with 1980 being one of them. The knuckleballer won 20 games with a 3.55 ERA, finishing fourth in the Cy Young voting. He would win 221 games in a 22-year career.
Forsch was in his final season with the Astros in ’80, having spent a good portion of his time in Houston as a very effective reliever. He made 32 starts that year, posting a record of 12-13 despite a solid 3.20 ERA over 222.1 innings.
The late right-hander Ruhle won a career-best 12 games in ’80 with a 2.37 ERA. He had a few good seasons for the Astros, but this was his most significant, as he made the most starts and threw the most innings of any season he had in Houston.
When it comes to a Big Three, this one matches up remarkably well with the current trio. Both consist of two flamethrowing strikeout machines (Verlander/Cole, Richard/Ryan) and one of the more crafty variety (Niekro, Greinke).
Greinke is probably the superior pitcher to Niekro, and both Richard and Ryan had the tendency to walk quite a few batters. Still, the 1980 club had five quality starters, while this year’s club really only has four. There’s a case to be made that the 1980 group is still the best.