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So: how good is the Phillies rotation?

Dec 14, 2010, 1:19 AM EDT


Halladay. Lee. Hamels. Oswalt. And whoever. I’m not going to waste your time with wondering whether that’s the best rotation in the game today, because it clearly is. Any arguable next-best rotation probably has one guy who would crack that top four, and if you think otherwise, you’re dreaming.  No, we need to go with history here.

The most recent comparables are those Braves rotations of the 90s. But on a man-by-man basis, the Phillies are probably better. Maddux was better than Halladay at their best, but all three of the Phillies other big-four are probably better, on average, than Glavine, Smoltz and whoever else trailed them.* And there were many others taking that four-spot. Maddux-Glavine-Smoltz were a constant — at least when Smoltz wasn’t missing a year here or there for surgery — but beyond the top three, there was an often-changing cast of characters. Some Steve Avery here, some Denny Neagle there, and a dash or two of Pete Smith or Kevin Millwood to fill in the cracks.  They got great performances from those number four guys on occasion, but going in, none looked as strong top-to-bottom as the 2011 Phillies will.  At least on paper.

Going back, we reach those early 70s Orioles rotations. In 1971 the Orioles boasted four 20-game winners in Jim Palmer, Dave McNally, Pat Dobson and Mike Cuellar.  And they weren’t merely run-support-powered wins, as they had a 2.89 ERA — about a run better than the rest of the league that year — with Palmer, McNally and Dobson finishing 3-7-8 in ERA.  But we must also remember that (a) wins and ERA are not the most critical metric in judging a staff; and (b) these O’s played in a much more friendly pitchers’ environment than will the 2011 Phillies.  I think they break down similarly to the Phillies as the Braves rotations do — Palmer at his best is probably the best of the eight of them, though it’s way closer — but the 2-4 pitchers are better on Philly. And really, I’d probably take Halladay over Palmer simply because I think he faces better hitters than Palmer did. I bet this is the comparison you see most in 2011, with people wondering the the Phillies can boast four 20-game winners. Why? Because that’s fun.

The mid-60s Dodgers? Koufax and Drysdale weren’t alone. They had Don Sutton and Claude Osteen helping them out. They struck out tons of guys, walked few, and gave up very few hits. In 1965 and 1966 they made the World Series without having a ton of offense either.  But that’ s the thing: no one had a ton of offense in the 60s, and the Dodgers had the added benefit of playing in one of the more pitcher-friendly parks in modern memory, complete with an absurdly high mound.  People will consider it sacrilege to compare the Phillies to the mid-60s Dodgers because they roamed the Earth a much longer time ago and the name Koufax looms so large in history.  But I’m guessing some statheads will be able to make some arguments — that will be howled at by people who don’t understand era and context adjustments — that the Phillies are better.  They may even be right.

Beyond those guys we get into more ancient history and eras that begin to bear little resemblance to our own.  I’m guessing that any argument of the best rotations of all time will list those Braves, Dodgers and Orioles teams in the top five anyway. At least in the post-segregation era.  And the Phillies — barring injury — stand a damn fine chance of joining them.


*When I say, on average, I mean that any given expected season from a non-Maddux 1990s Braves pitcher is not as not as good as we can expect from Hamels, Lee or Oswalt next year.  They had better seasons in practice — Smoltz’s Cy Young year spring to mind — but it wasn’t the kind of thing you could bet on.

  1. baseballtowntom - Dec 14, 2010 at 1:32 AM

    Lets see the best rotation ever? A mediocre Giants lineup beat all 4 of them a total of 5 times last postseason. So are the four overrated or are the Giants starters underrated?

    • pipkin42 - Dec 14, 2010 at 2:22 AM

      Sample size, she is always relevant.

      • baseballtowntom - Dec 14, 2010 at 8:08 AM

        Yep we all know the postseason is a small sample size. Because Cliff is not earning 20 million per based on his regular season ERA being over 3.00 the past two years.

  2. Bob Timmermann - Dec 14, 2010 at 1:38 AM

    Sutton didn’t come up with the Dodgers until 1966. That was the year when Koufax, Drysdale, Osteen, and Sutton made nearly every start. Joe Moeller started 8 games to fill in when there doubleheaders.

    The 1965 Dodgers pitching staff was pretty much just Koufax and Drysdale for the first half. The Dodgers finished that season with a stretch of pitching that wouldn’t be seen again until the Giants in 2009.

  3. Mark Armour - Dec 14, 2010 at 1:41 AM

    I am very surprised at your ranking this rotation higher than the Braves (who Bill James has written was the best rotation of all-time). Maddux is clearly the best of the group, and I would put Glavine and Smoltz on par with Halladay. Lee has only had three years that are in this league, and is now 32. Oswalt is a notch below, and Hamels is clearly behind all of them.

    Glavine had a rough first few years and a long tail to his career. But from 1991-2002, he was 209-102 with a 3.15 ERA, averaging 225 a year despite the strike. He was a beast.

    • Craig Calcaterra - Dec 14, 2010 at 1:44 AM

      Just kind of a gut reaction. I doubt they’ll be as good in practice in 2011 as the 97 or 98 Braves. This is kind of an on-paper off the top of my head response. And very little sleep. I may walk it back. I may change the way I look at it. Just felt like spewing it at the moment.

      • Mark Armour - Dec 14, 2010 at 1:48 AM

        I understand, and you are not the only one saying it. As for me, I doubt we will ever see anything like what the Braves had for, what, 8 years?

    • Jonny 5 - Dec 14, 2010 at 9:16 AM

      Explain how Hamels is clearly behind all of them please. He’s been in the Majors for 5 seasons total and he’s 26. He’s had 3 awesome seasons of the 5 3.39, 3.09, 3.06. You can’t compare him to any “HOF’er”. No, Not yet. You need to sit back and let him develop, maybe he’ll be a great, maybe he’ll have a blowout in his career? Who knows?

      I have to say, and I’m a total Phillies fan.

      This is not the best rotation in baseball “ever”. No, not yet. They have to “be” the best rotation in baseball “ever” first.

      What they clearly are is the best rotation in baseball right now. And that’s what really matters.

  4. iamthedoublestandard - Dec 14, 2010 at 1:55 AM

    Craig, I usually love what you write but the way you so easily dismiss Maddux as compared to Halladay is pure and incorrect hindsight if I’m being honest. Just in a couple of key strokes you’re having memory loss? Maddux was unhittable at his best just like Halladay. I’m not saying one was better than the other and I’m certainly aware of the Halladay track record but you can’t bet your life that Halladay is definitively better than Maddux. The guy was a Picasso but is now remembered as a finger painter? Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. I’m not ready to say a hall of a famer, with over 350 wins, who pitched through the steroid era is inferior to a current player who is fantastic but isn’t even 100 games over .500. To think of it, who would I rather have in a big spot, Halladay or Pettitte? I’ll take Pettitte. Laugh all you want but go look at the numbers. Overall.

    • iamthedoublestandard - Dec 14, 2010 at 1:57 AM

      Ok, I see you halfway came to your senses as I was using my chubby fingers typing this on my phone. Get a good night sleep and get back to me. Sane.

    • cktai - Dec 14, 2010 at 3:17 AM

      I looked at the numbers
      Pettitte 240W 138L (63.5%), 6.63 K/9, 2.83 BB/9, 0.77 HR/9, 3.88 ERA, 1.38 WHIP, 3.72xFIP
      Halladay 169W 86L (66.4%), 6.71 K/9, 1.90 BB/9, 0.77 HR/9, 3.32 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 3.23 xFIP
      I laughed.

  5. marinermousse - Dec 14, 2010 at 2:00 AM

    Nice to fantasize, but the 71 Orioles went with a 4 man rotation. With a 5 man rotation that all teams have today I doubt if you will ever see 4 20 game winners no matter how good the pitchers are and quite frankly, I think having 2 20 game winners on the same team will be the apex for 5-man rotation teams. In fact, during the entire time the Braves had all three together, Maddux won 20 games only ONCE, Smoltz won 20 games only ONCE, and Glavine won 20 games five times….for a total of 7 20 win seasons amongst them all, and only in 1993 did Atlanta have two of them win 20 in the same season….Glavine and Maddux.

    I find the signing very curious. Some teams seem to be “unbalanced” and by going to Kendrick or whomever as #5 instead of Blanton (if they succeed in offloading him) they may be giving up 5 or more wins relative to what Blanton might have given them. They have an unknown in RF. Raul disappears after 2011 (if they don’t offload him). Rollins disappears after 2011. Polanco’s last year is 2012 and Utley’s last year is 2012 (with a very expensive option for 2013). Lots of offensive holes to fill, especially given that Howard’s bat is looking more one-dimensional all the time.

    The Giants have Lincecum, Cain, Sanchez (who could become a pure lights-out kind of pitcher with improved control), Baumgarner (only 21/22) and a fifth starter named Zito, who gives workmanlike 190-210 innings these days. In a short playoff, not sure that adding a 4th “gun” helps so much as having the best 3 guns.
    I think Philly was a lock to win the division in 2011, so the addition of Lee had to be with an eye to years past that and also to the post-season. Very curious. I guess they should contact the Yankees and see if they may want Blanton ;>>)

  6. seeingwhatsticks - Dec 14, 2010 at 2:09 AM

    The Giants rotation is just as good and just beat all those guys en route to the championship. They can definitely make a claim to being better, and unlike some rotations they don’t project to fall off a cliff 2-3 years from now.

    • seeingwhatsticks - Dec 14, 2010 at 2:11 AM

      Also, that Smoltz comment is crazy talk Craig.

  7. sdelmonte - Dec 14, 2010 at 4:18 AM

    All I know is that those four wonders of pitching will be eating Mets bats this year. Eighteen times.

    Almost makes me glad that Alderson isn’t trying to spend lots of money yet.

  8. Jonny 5 - Dec 14, 2010 at 7:48 AM

    Good Morning guys :)

    • mcsnide - Dec 14, 2010 at 8:32 AM

      Did you sleep at all?

      • Jonny 5 - Dec 14, 2010 at 9:18 AM

        Yeah, I went to bed early. I really didn’t expect to wake to this either.

  9. Jonny 5 - Dec 14, 2010 at 7:57 AM

    I read something that piqued my interest yesterday. About how the Phillies, and how strong their farm system really is. At least one scout was quoted “The Phillies have the most talented A level players in baseball hands down. And they’re likely to go on a Braves like run for a good decade.” Interesting that their rotation is being so closely compared.

  10. jkcalhoun - Dec 14, 2010 at 8:24 AM

    I don’t care what anyone says. That is, bar none, the best 4-man rotation ever to compile a cumulative sub-.500 won-loss record against the Giants (13-12 regular season, 2-5 postseason).

  11. wonkypenguin - Dec 14, 2010 at 8:52 AM

    Phillies = Miami Heat of baseball.

    Ladies and gentleman, the National League finally has their Yankees.

  12. chief5675 - Dec 14, 2010 at 9:03 AM

    Since results are what matter the most and the Yankees are far and away the most successful team in World Series wins and appearances why couldn’t you find one great set of pitchers to mention?
    ancient history right? Rashi, Reynolds, Lopat and Bryne are the first group I remember with multiple World Series wins.

  13. florida727 - Dec 14, 2010 at 9:40 AM

    I love all the “on paper” comparisons. But everyone knows games aren’t played on paper. They’re played inside television sets (courtesy of Kenny Mayne, ESPN).

  14. nickbartow - Dec 14, 2010 at 11:29 AM

    last nite my son came home from the air force a week early to spend the next few weeks with his family and he surprise me by hiding on my front porch with a buddy of his. needless to say they scared the s%*% out of me. we exchange hugs and i immediately knew his mother would be so happy to see him when she gets home. later on when she came home he surprised her and she kissed and hugged him a half dozen times. later on we saw a short sports comment how just maybe the phils could get lee. we brushed it off and thought it could not happen. we watched the mnf game and went to bed while my son stayed up with his friends laughing and having fun till late well on about 1am he burst into our bedroom and says mom you awake and ofcourse mom sleeps like a rock but i awoke and said whats up and he blurts out “the phils signed cliff lee” i said i’ll tell her when she wakes. he went back downstairs and i could not control myself and woke up mom. i told her the phils signed cliff lee and she pep right up and said “wonderful i can’t believe it” she then rolled over and i heard her say in a very sleepy low voice “today was a very very happy day” for a woman facing breast cancer surgery on the 21st she needed a little uplifting news and my son and cliff lee made that happen

    • handsfour - Dec 14, 2010 at 2:32 PM

      Thanks for the story. Happy holidays and best wishes for the surgery.

  15. perfectionrecords - Dec 14, 2010 at 12:56 PM

    Sorry until they win a championship, or even a division for that matter, the Giants are a better rotation. The Giants do their winning with half the run support the Phillies have. And the Braves rotation sustained their winning ways for years, this rotation has not thrown a pitch, in my opinion this column is Bush League!

  16. sayheykidwschamp - Dec 14, 2010 at 1:09 PM

    I hate all this best ever talk about teams/players still playing. But the Braves are the best that I have SEENsince ’75. I cannot speak of staffs before that based on just stats. But with all their greatness, they only won 1 championship. So the best regular season staff?

    Phillies and Giants are still making their case for greatness. But the Phillies have fewer years since their top 3 are on the wrong side of 30. And Hamels youth does not compare to the Giants youth. Aside from Zito, the Giants staff are all pretty young. And Sanchez is still on the good side of 30. And the Giants have another 1-2 starters in the wings ready to take over after 2012 in Wheeler and Runzler. So the youth of the Giants staff will be maintained for many years beyond 2012.

    Regualar season matchups are pretty even between both clubs with the Phillies having a 1 game advantage I believe. But it is hard to gauge for 2011 when Oslwalt was on the Astros and Lee was playing on the team of the month. So having all the pieces together for Phillies should make it a lock for them to contend for the Division championship. But at the end of the day, the Giants mediocre hitters and great young pitchers beat Halladay, Oswalt, Hamels and Lee when it counted the most…in the post season.

    I look forward to hopefully both teams playing against each other in the post season so that the Giants aren’t dismissed as having caught lighting in a bottle like many are saying for 2010. Because if the Phillies really want to capture the best staff in all NL title, they have to beat the defending champs…SF Giants! And those are the facts!

  17. teleco4 - Dec 14, 2010 at 3:18 PM

    The Giants still have the type of rotation that can beat them in the playoffs. Lincecum, Cain, Bumgarner, and Sanchez are just as good as the Phils top 4. Telephone Systems in NY and NJ

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