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Not so fast on that “best rotation of all time” business

Dec 14, 2010, 11:00 AM EDT

Braves rotation

Last night, in an admitted fit of hyperbole and sleep-deprivation, I wrote that the 2011 Phillies may be better than those Braves rotations of the 1990s.  I still think such a thing is possible inasmuch as it would not take a career year from each and every one of them to match what the 1997 or 1998 Braves did, even if it may require something close to it.  But to actually predict such a thing is probably folly, in the same way that it is folly to ever predict that we’ll soon see the best-ever anything.

Mark Armour — friend, longtime HBT reader and, most importantly for our purposes today, excellent baseball scholar and author — wrote to me this morning to help set me straight.  The below-analysis is completely his own, not mine, but I’m not block quoting it because it would be too long and unreadable that way. So take it away Mark:

  • Greg Maddux’s first 10 years with the Braves (1993-2002) he was 178-77 (average 18-8), averaging 231 innings, a 2.51 ERA (171 ERA+).  The best pitcher of all time in my opinion.
  • Tom Glavine had a rough first few years (he came up at 21) and a long tail to his career.  However, over the years 1991-2002 (his final 12 years with the Braves), he finished 209-102 with a 3.15 ERA, averaging 225 innings per year with a 134 ERA+.  A machine.
  • John Smoltz from 1991 to 1999 (before he moved to the pen) was 129-84 over 212 innings per year and a 127 ERA+.
  • The fourth starter varied over this period, but was generally very good–Neagle, Millwood, Avery, etc.
  • Halladay has gone 151-69 over the past nine years, 147 ERA+ over 218 innings.  Well short of Maddux, but ahead of Glavine.  Pretty friggin’ great.
  • Giving Lee the best of it, you have to ignore everything before 2008.  His ERA+ the past three years: 168. 131, 130, averaging 220 innings pitched a year.  Looking ahead, I can see a couple of Glavine level seasons for him, but Glavine did it for 12 years.
  • Oswalt has had a Glavine like first half of his career, 10 years of 135+ ERA over 200 innings per year.  He has not had Glavine’s durability, which is true of basically everyone.
  • Giving Hamels the best of it, he has averaged 13 wins and a 125 ERA+ and 203 innings over the past four years.

But we are looking ahead, right, looking to 2011?   The Phillies top three pitchers will be 34, 32, and 33 years old.  The chances of them having years like the Braves had every single year for 10 years is pretty much zero.  Their pasts are pretty good, but the 2011 Phillies will not have a rotation like the Braves.  I predict that only Halladay a perhaps Lee will have a Glavine like season (220 innings, 135 ERA+) among the four pitchers.  Oswalt is less likely to hold up for that many innings, and Hamels has never had a year even approaching this level.

Man, those Braves were good!

It’s Craig again:  I agree with most of that, and I agree that it will be highly unlikely for the 2011 Phillies to match the Braves rotation at its height.  The point here, however, which remains true from last night, is that unlike the case for almost every single team out there, it’s not impossible for the Phillies to do it. While Maddux at his peak is pretty untouchable, all four of the Phillies top starters are capable of putting up Cy Young years next season, and all are at least capable of matching Glavine and Smoltz at their best.

But no one gets rich betting on such things, so let’s hold off giving out best-ever accolades until next October, OK?

  1. flyerscup2010 - Dec 14, 2010 at 11:06 AM

    calm down, sour grapes

  2. phillygirl4 - Dec 14, 2010 at 11:10 AM

    I really could care less if the Phillies current rotation is the best of all time or not. I only care that it’s the best right now – and it is. Period.

    • Jonny 5 - Dec 14, 2010 at 11:12 AM

      oh baby.. Talk like that some more please…

  3. Jonny 5 - Dec 14, 2010 at 11:11 AM

    Yup, as I said earlier.

    “Not the best rotation “ever”, Not yet anyway. They have to “be” the best rotation “ever” first.

    And i’m a Phillies Homer. And as mentioned above, it’s probably not possible for these guys to overtake THAT rotation. I mean damn.

    Not that it matters that much, to be the best rotation in the game NOW suits me just fine…

  4. Chris Fiorentino - Dec 14, 2010 at 11:15 AM

    I was going to write up this big post, talking about sour grapes, and how much those guys sucked in the postseason(thus the one lousy world series win with all those 1,000,000 ERA+ seasons) while Doc threw a no-hitter and Cliff Lee has one of the best post-season records of all-time, and Hamels was the 2008 World Series MVP, and Oswalt is still 5-1 in the postseason.

    But then I figured I wouldn’t rub it in anymore and let Craig-y have his “Braves has the greatest starting pitching of all-time” fantasy for as long as he wants…it’s his blog after all.

    • nps6724 - Dec 14, 2010 at 11:32 AM

      Smoltz is 15-4 (27 starts) with 4 saves and only 1 blown save in the postseason. Only Andy Pettitte has more postseason wins (he’s 19-10 in 42 starts). Glavine is 3rd with 14, Maddux is 5 with 11. Lee is 7-2.

      Going by winning percentage, Smoltz tops Lee by 2% (79 to 77).

      And last I checked, Philly only has 1 ring during their recent dominating period.

      • Chris Fiorentino - Dec 14, 2010 at 11:47 AM

        yeah, with Hamels, Myers, Moyer and Blanton…LOL. Like I said…if they dont win one of the next four, then you won’t hear me calling them the greatest rotation ever no matter what their ERA+ is.

      • canadaman54 - Dec 14, 2010 at 11:57 AM

        And none of those rings belong to Halladay, Lee, or Oswalt. I believe this puts the Braves foursome at a 4-1 advantage if i’m doing my math right.

      • CJ - Dec 14, 2010 at 12:06 PM

        It should be pointed out that the Phillies “recent dominating period” is a little less than the 14 years the Braves had to win their WS. Give it ten years and see how that comparison works out for ya. I would think we could at least double your total if given the same timespan. And with this rotation, that’s being humble about it.

        (sorry to repost, it didn’t attach to the comment last time)

      • nps6724 - Dec 14, 2010 at 12:15 PM

        That’s all part of it, CJ. Can Philly sustain their success for another 10 years? Can that rotation, 3 of which are over 30, sustain that success? Maybe, maybe not.

        I see too many people placing the “blame” for only winning 1 championship on the rotation. The Braves didn’t have anything close to resembling a potent offense. That was the problem more than anything. You won’t find too many Atlanta hitters on the all-time postseason leaders lists.

      • CJ - Dec 14, 2010 at 12:35 PM

        Can this rotation last those 10 years? heck no. My point was you compared a 14 year long Braves dynasty to this 4 year long Phillies dynasty by saying essentially, “Yeah…but the Phillies still haven’t won more WS championships than my team did when they had a run of success that was more than three times longer than yours. So there!”

        Admittedly, it won’t be easy to sustain as sort of success like the Braves did. I’d bet that such a run of division titles won’t be repeat by this current Phillies run of success, especially given the ages of most of the Phillies core players at this point. But it would be only slightly less foolish for you to take the position that this Phillies WON’T win at least one more World Series before this team gets torn apart.

      • nps6724 - Dec 14, 2010 at 12:48 PM

        Actually it was more of pointing out that Philly fans have nothing to gloat about since currently both teams have only 1 ring in the time frames being mentioned. The Braves won their ring in the 4th year of their run. There’s no guarantee Philly will win another ring no matter how good the rotation is. There’s just too many factors in the playoffs.

        Where did I take the position that Philly won’t win another title? I’m just not in the “Oh it’s a shoo-in!!!” crowd. Injuries, under-performance, bad luck, any of those can derail a sure-fire World Series winner. I mean hell, Seattle had the best regular season ever in 2001 and got whooped in the ALCS.

  5. Mr. Jason "El Bravo" Heyward - Dec 14, 2010 at 11:16 AM

    God, I hate the Phillies.

    • Chris Fiorentino - Dec 14, 2010 at 11:26 AM

      Feeling are mutual.

    • Chris Fiorentino - Dec 14, 2010 at 11:26 AM

      Feelings are mutual.

  6. nps6724 - Dec 14, 2010 at 11:17 AM

    It’ll be difficult for any rotation to top the 1997 Braves. Neagle, Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz all had 14+ wins, ERAs at or under 3.02, 33+ starts, 4+ CG, 2+ SHO, 232+ IP, 138 ERA+, WHIP at or under 1.16, and only Smoltz lost more than 7 games. That’s insanity.

    • BC - Dec 14, 2010 at 11:48 AM

      The 1986 Mets had five guys win 14 games or more if I recall.

  7. Joe - Dec 14, 2010 at 11:30 AM

    Wow, you people read this and thought “sour grapes”?

    Sensitive.

  8. hnirobert3 - Dec 14, 2010 at 11:31 AM

    And how many WS did that Braves rotation win?

    • nps6724 - Dec 14, 2010 at 11:35 AM

      You do realize there is an offensive side to the game of baseball, correct? Can’t win if you don’t score.

      • Brian - Dec 14, 2010 at 11:38 AM

        that’s what she said.

        also, expect a bounceback offensive season out of the phils to complement The H20Lee Quartet.

      • Mr. Jason "El Bravo" Heyward - Dec 14, 2010 at 11:41 AM

        Excellent “that’s what she said” usage.

      • nps6724 - Dec 14, 2010 at 11:42 AM

        Minus Werth? Maybe, but it’ll require Rollins to regain form, Ibanez to stay productive at 39, everyone to remain healthy, and Brown to emerge as a threat. That’s a lot to bank on.

        It’ll definitely make for an interesting season.

      • Brian - Dec 14, 2010 at 11:48 AM

        no, it requires Rollins, Utley, Howard and Ibanez to merely return to “average” form. Everyone with the exception of Ruiz (that includes Werth) had sub-average season last year. Even if they don’t put up career years and end up with average production, it’s an improvement that will ultimately make up for Werth’s absence. Odds are good Howard and Utley have very good years, and that Rollins bounces back moderately. That would make a potent offense.

      • nps6724 - Dec 14, 2010 at 12:05 PM

        Ibanez will be 39; his ’10 season could very well be his current “average”. Or he could suddenly go downhill, which happens at that age all the time (to guys not on PEDs anyway).

        Rollins has declined every year since his MVP season. If we go by his career averages, his average season would be slightly worse than his ’08, which was considered a disappointing year.

        Ruiz had a career year, hitting 40 points above his previous high and got on base 40 points above his previous high. Can he repeat a career year?

        Utley and Howard will need to surpass their average years to make up for Werth. Even if Ibanez and Rollins top theirs. They lost a much bigger bat than their fans want to admit. That all changes if Brown matches his potential.

        They’ll still be a very good-to-great team. But they still need a lot to go right for them to reach that high level.

  9. BC - Dec 14, 2010 at 11:44 AM

    The Mets had one of the best rotations ever in 1990 and won exactly bupkis. Viola, Cone, Gooden, Fernandez, Darling. And then there was fail.

  10. Chris Fiorentino - Dec 14, 2010 at 11:45 AM

    What’s the difference between a Braves fan and a Phillies fan?

    A Braves fan is proud of the Braves rotation of the 90’s. They were dominant, I agree. But they also won exactly one world series with 10+ years of Smoltz, Glavine, and Maddux. Shoot, the Phillies won one world series with Hamels, Myers, Moyer and Blanton…LOL.

    A Phillies fan watched his team have the single greatest month in baseball history last September, with 3 pitchers who pitched like no other 3 pitchers have ever pitched for a month in history. And their ace threw a no-hitter in his first postseason game. And the season was an utter failure. Complete. Utter. Failure. You will never hear me brag about how good they were, because they didn’t win it all. I don’t care about the offense not showing up. Throw shutouts then and stop whining.

    If in 4 years, the Phillies do not win another World Series, then the next 4 years will have been a failure. I don’t care if they win 120 games a year. I don’t care if all 4 pitchers have a combined 1,000,000,000,000 ERA+. Win it all, or it’s a failure.

    • nps6724 - Dec 14, 2010 at 11:54 AM

      After that rant, you should never get angry again if compared to Yankee fans.

      All that just makes for a pissed-off existence. The playoffs are a crapshoot; it’s all about matchups and who’s hot. In a short series, anything can happen.

      • Chris Fiorentino - Dec 14, 2010 at 12:49 PM

        Well then I guess Messirs Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz really, truly suck at craps then because they seemed to lose the “crapshoot” every year but one. The difference here is that when playing craps, the house has the edge. When the Phillies played in the playoffs, THEY had the edge. When my team is a 3-1 favorite, I expect them to win. When they don’t, it’s a failure. Call it what you want, but the fact is that the Phillies 2010 season was a failure. If they don’t win it all in the next 4 years, then they will be failures too.

      • nps6724 - Dec 14, 2010 at 12:51 PM

        Sucks for you, then.

        Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz are all in the top 5 in all-time postseason wins. Something tells me it wasn’t their fault in most cases. It takes 25 men to win the World Series, not 3.

    • Mr. Jason "El Bravo" Heyward - Dec 14, 2010 at 12:33 PM

      We don’t have a Chris Fiorentino in our population of fans. That’s the difference.

      • Chris Fiorentino - Dec 14, 2010 at 1:03 PM

        What you mean to say is that you don’t have a “person who wants to win and not just play well” in your population of fans.

      • Mr. Jason "El Bravo" Heyward - Dec 14, 2010 at 3:55 PM

        Is that what I meant to say? My original thought seemed much more succinct and concise, but oh well.

    • seeingwhatsticks - Dec 14, 2010 at 1:12 PM

      You’re totally right about the Phillies amazing September. I totally forgot that they went 20+ games without allowing more than 2 runs, and had the lowest staff ERA since the 1920’s. Oh wait, that was the Giants. Nevermind.

  11. apbaguy - Dec 14, 2010 at 11:57 AM

    Fascinating. I thought we saw some pretty good pitching by one team this last WS: Lincecum, Cain, Sanchez, Bumgardner. The oldest of those guys is 26.

    If I’m a Philly fan I’m crazy excited. But the road to the championship last year went through the Embarcadero.

    We won’t know for sure if that will happen again. The Phillies Aces have a longer track record. But that could be the problem. That track record is maybe getting too long.

    The only thing that’s certain is that there is a lot to look forward to this year, unless you’re a fan of the A’s or Orioles or Royals or Pirates. But hey, I’m 20 minutes from AT&T. I’m looking forward to seeing Lincecum vs. Doc, Cain vs Lee, etc.. That’s baseball. Think the house will be full? Get those garlic fries ready, cause I’m ready right now.

  12. sdelmonte - Dec 14, 2010 at 12:03 PM

    I want some serious analysis compare both these rotations to the 1971 Orioles staff.

  13. CJ - Dec 14, 2010 at 12:04 PM

    It should be pointed out that the Phillies “recent dominating period” is a little less than the 14 years the Braves had to win their WS. Give it ten years and see how that comparison works out for ya. I would think we could at least double your total if given the same timespan. And with this rotation, that’s being humble about it.

  14. churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Dec 14, 2010 at 1:10 PM

    Top 3 Seasons of fWAR:

    Phillies:
    Halladay – 7.5, 6.9, 6.9
    Lee – 7.9, 5.0, 4.3 (god bref.com isn’t as impressed with Lee as fangraphs is)
    Oswalt – 6.2, 5.6, 5.3
    Hamels – 4.7, 4.4, 4.1

    Braves:
    Maddox – 8.8, 8.4, 7.3
    Glavine – 7.4, 5.6, 5.6*
    Smoltz – 6.1, 4.7, 4.7
    Neagle/Avery – 4.1, 4.0

    ’71 Orioles:
    Palmer – 7.9, 7.6, 6.4
    Cueller – 6.5, 4.5, 4.3
    McNally – 4.7, 3.8, 3.1
    Dobson – 4.3, 3.1, 2.8

    Strictly at their peak [Hamels gets shafted since he doesn't have the years the others have], I think the Braves have a slight, slight advantage, but the Phillies are a lot closer than it appears.

    • churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Dec 14, 2010 at 1:13 PM

      Damnit forgot my posterisk. That 5.6 season from Glavine was the ’98 season he won the CY. Tell me how he deserved that award over Kevin Brown, who beat him in almost every meaningful category (more Ks, less BBs, less HRs, lower ERA over almost 30 more IP, more CG…)

      http://www.baseball-reference.com/awards/awards_1998.shtml#NLcya

  15. PanchoHerreraFanClub - Dec 14, 2010 at 4:07 PM

    I vote for the ’54 Indians. With Bob Feller as their 5th starter and three future HOFers in the rotation.

  16. johnnynewguy - Dec 14, 2010 at 4:26 PM

    From 1996-1998 with the Braves is far and away the best rotation ever. We have to look at the 5th starter spot because the Phillies will have a 5 man rotation this season. 1996-1997 the 5th starter spot for the braves was made up of Kevin Millwood, Jason Schmidt, and Paul Byrd. None of whom are bad pitchers on their own. But if that is your 5th starter production then you are damn good. 1998 was even better because Millwood came into his own and held the spot all season. Millwood produced a ERA + of 102 which is meh but again for a 5th starter production is awesome. He also was 17-8, with 29 games started, and 174.1 innings pitched. We may not see production from a 5th starter like that for 5 years or more at times. If the 2011 Phillies want to be in this discussion then come talk to me if they keep Blanton, and maybe not even then.

  17. bigtrav425 - Dec 15, 2010 at 1:31 PM

    You cant compare them unless you give them the same 6inches inside and out(mostly out to show im not a total hater ) that baseball gave maddux ,smoltz and glavine.If it wasnt for the extra foot they were givin it wouldnt even be close!…

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