Commentary

Measuring Phillies' rotation historically

Philadelphia's top four starters arguably the best that one team has ever assembled

Originally Published: December 14, 2010
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

The ace is a two-time Cy Young winner, a three-time 20-game winner, and a man who just finished leading the National League in wins, innings, shutouts and win probability added. That would be Roy Halladay.

His right-handed partner in crime has won 20 twice himself, has the fifth-best winning percentage of any right-handed pitcher in the live-ball era and just led the NL in WHIP. That would be Roy Oswalt.

[+] EnlargeCliff Lee
Noah K. Murray/US PresswireCliff Lee will be a part of a vaunted Phillies rotation in 2011.

They're joined on the left side by a fellow who has won a World Series MVP trophy and an NL Championship Series MVP trophy, and just had the best ERA after July 1 of any left-handed starter in baseball. That would be Cole Hamels.

And then there's the man who rocked the baseball universe this week. He's another former Cy Young, one of three pitchers in history to win his first seven postseason decisions and the man who just led all starting pitchers in the whole sport in WAR (wins above replacement). That would be Cliff Lee.

There are about 15 teams in baseball that would kill for one starter like that. All of a sudden, once the Lee signing becomes an official done deal, those ace-a-holic Philadelphia Phillies will have four of them. And let's just say that rotation of theirs is the talk of baseball.

"I think it can be as good as anybody's rotation in the history of the game," longtime Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone said.

"That's scary," said Davey Johnson, who played behind the legendary Orioles rotation of the '60s and managed the great Mets rotation in the '80s.

Or you can contemplate the three succinct words of an NL general manager who had this reaction upon realizing his team would have to face this group: "Oh … my … God."

They just don't make rotations like this anymore -- on the computer screen, at least. But how good can this Phillies rotation be in real life? And how does it measure up against the great rotations of modern times?

These are questions people are posing all across baseball. So let's take a look:

The numbers

ESPN's fabulous Stats & Information crew has been gathering the numbers on this group. Here are some of the gems it uncovered:

• Halladay, Oswalt, Hamels and Lee each had a WAR of 4.3 or better this past season, according to Baseball-Reference.com. Only three teams in history have had four starters do that in the same year: the 1909 A's (Chief Bender, Eddie Plank, Harry Krause, Cy Morgan), 1967 Reds (Jim Maloney, Gary Nolan, Milt Pappas, Mel Queen) and 1991 Braves (Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Steve Avery, Charlie Leibrandt).

• Or if you want to cite another of our favorite sabermetric stats, adjusted ERA-plus, all four Phillies starters hit 130 or better this past season (meaning they were at least 30 percentage points above league average). In the live-ball era, only two teams have had at least four qualifying starters with ERA-plus numbers that good in the same year: the 1942 Tigers (Hal Newhouser, Virgil Trucks, Al Benton, Tommy Bridges, Hal White) and 1997 Braves (Glavine, Smoltz, Greg Maddux, Denny Neagle).

• Of the top 10 active pitchers in strikeout-walk ratio, the Phillies now employ three of them: Oswalt (fifth), Halladay (seventh) and Lee (10th). No other team has more than one. And oh, by the way, if we lowered the innings threshold to 900, Hamels would rank above all three of them.

• Of the top eight active pitchers in career winning percentage, the Phillies now can trot out three of them: Halladay (first), Oswalt (fifth) and Lee (eighth). The only other team with more than one is the Yankees (CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte).

• Halladay, Oswalt and Lee all have winning percentages of .620 or better. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, that will make the Phillies the first NL team to enter a season with three pitchers with winning percentages that good, over at least 100 career decisions, since the 1957 Dodgers (Sal Maglie, Don Newcombe, Carl Erskine).

• And what really makes this foursome special is its ridiculous postseason success (a combined 20-8, with a 3.08 ERA). Of the top 11 game scores rolled up by starting pitchers over the past seven postseasons, six of them were by a current Phillies starter -- i.e., more than all other rotations in baseball combined.

"There's not a better staff in major league baseball than that staff," Mazzone said. "I know the Giants can run three guys at you that are pretty damned good, and the No. 4 [Madison Bumgarner] is going to be real good, too. … But I really feel like, ability-wise, these four guys in Philly could match up with anybody in the history of the game."

So how do these Phillies match up? Since they've never played one game together, it's a little early to award them their own museum. But if we go by track record and ability, it's still fun to stack them up against three of the most famous rotations of the expansion era.

2011 Phillies vs. 1971 Orioles

Modern rotations don't get much more storied than the '71 Orioles. Yeah, sure, these Phillies now have three pitchers who won 20 games in a season at least once in their careers. But those '71 Orioles had four who all won 20 in the same season.

Only one other rotation in history (the 1920 White Sox) could match what Jim Palmer, Dave McNally, Mike Cuellar and Pat Dobson did that year. So we wish these four horsemen in Philadelphia luck on matching this feat.

But Johnson, the second baseman on that team, says he'd take this Phillies rotation over those Orioles, believe it or not.

"I would probably say the Phillies, and that's tough for me because I love Baltimore," Johnson said. "I love the fact that both teams have two good left-handers and two good right-handers. The Orioles had Cuellar and McNally [as left-handers], and they were good against both [left-handed and right-handed hitters]. But so are Lee and Cole.

"But I'd have to give the edge to Halladay and Oswalt from the right-hand side. Palmer was great. But Dobson was basically slider-slider-shakeoff-slider. You know what I mean?"

So what do the numbers say? We've learned, all these years later, to look past the wins column -- especially while making comparisons like this. And if we look at ERA-plus, which adjusts for league averages and for ballparks, we find Johnson is exactly right.

As we mentioned earlier, all four Phillies starters had an ERA-plus of 130 or better this past season. And that's no fluke. Halladay and Oswalt both are better than 130 for their careers. Hamels has topped 130 three times in his four full seasons. And Lee has unfurled a 130 ERA-plus or better three seasons in a row.

So how many of those '71 Orioles had a 130 ERA-plus? That would be none. Palmer led the team with a 126, followed by McNally (117), Dobson (116) and Cuellar (109). In other words, edge -- theoretically -- to the Phillies.

2011 Phillies vs. 1989 Mets

We could have measured this Phillies rotation against any of Johnson's great Mets staffs of the late '80s. But we picked this one because, as Buster Olney wrote Tuesday Insider, 1989 was the season the Mets went out and dealt for the defending American League Cy Young winner, Frank Viola, at the trading deadline.

Viola joined a rotation that included David Cone, Ron Darling, Bob Ojeda, Sid Fernandez and Dwight Gooden, who had gone down that July with shoulder problems. But despite the glittering credentials of that group, the Mets missed the playoffs in both 1989 and '90. And they never could get all their starters going at the same time.

For one thing, Johnson recalled, the trade for Viola gave them six starters for five spots. And that in itself was an issue, particularly after Gooden was healthy again the next spring.

"I remember having a meeting in spring training in the outfield, when I had six starters," Johnson said. "I said, 'Guys, I love all six of you guys. But I'm going to make a decision here in front of you. Somebody's got to go to the bullpen. But if any of you guys get hurt or don't cut the mustard, that guy will be right back in there.'"

So Johnson sent Ojeda to the bullpen -- but not for long. Darling scuffled early and got bounced out of the rotation himself, and the team had such a rough time of it in April and May that Johnson eventually was fired after 42 games. That isn't a fate likely to await Charlie Manuel, but it's a reminder of the kind of expectations great pitching staffs can produce.

Nevertheless, as Johnson looks back on those Mets staffs he managed from 1984 to '90, he thinks overall they have a slight edge over this Phillies rotation -- if only because he had six great starters, compared with the Phillies' four.

From the left side, the Phillies have Lee and Hamels. But Johnson had Viola, Ojeda and Fernandez -- "so that's a close one," he said.

"I love Viola, but I got him a little late [in his career]," Johnson said. "But I also had Ojeda. So with Ojeda, Viola and Fernandez, I'd have to give the Mets the edge [over the two Phillies left-handers].

"And then, with Cone and Gooden and Darling, I'd have to give the Mets a little edge from that [right] side. … Those three, to me, outweigh Oswalt and Halladay. I had three [left-handers] and three [right-handers]. So I had more ammunition."

But Johnson admits it's close if you're talking quality versus quantity. With the Mets, "I had six guys I would classify as top-three starters," he said. But these four Phillies starters "would all be No. 1s if they were on a team by themselves."

He wasn't 100 percent sure how to sort this out historically. He just knew, as a guy who now works for the Nationals (as a senior adviser to the GM), that he wasn't real happy to see Lee wind up in the NL East. "That," Johnson said, laughing, "really hacked me off."

What do the numbers say? Again, if we go by ERA-plus, Johnson's six primary starters combined for five seasons of 130 or better between 1984 and '90. Over the past seven seasons leading into this one, these four Phillies starters have combined for 14.

2011 Phillies vs. 1993 Braves

Now we arrive at the closest parallel -- these Phillies versus a '93 Braves team that went out and signed another free agent who turned down more money from the Yankees. You might remember him -- Mr. Greg Maddux.

Maddux joined a team that had been to two straight World Series, and was coming off a season in which it had ripped off 26 complete games, 14 shutouts and the best ERA in baseball. And it was that world-class rotation that propelled the Braves to a 104-win season in which Maddux, Glavine, Smoltz and Avery combined to go 75-33.

"The signing of Cliff Lee really reminds me of when we signed Maddux in '93," Mazzone said. "We had a great staff in '92. The Phillies had a great staff last year. Now you're adding another tremendous piece to an already great staff. And as Bobby Cox used to say, you can never have enough pitching. That was the year we had a chance to add Maddux or Barry Bonds. We took the pitcher."

Now, Mazzone looks back at his rotation, then looks at this Phillies rotation and almost feels as if he's staring into a mirror. That's how similar they look -- from a standpoint of stuff and talent -- to a man who ought to know.

"On an individual basis," Mazzone said, "Halladay is as good as Maddux. He's even got that signature Maddux pitch -- that ball he can start out of the zone on a left-handed hitter and bring it back into the zone for a called strike three.

"Then you've got Cliff Lee, with his beautiful, smooth delivery and being able to change speeds. And that was Glavine. Glavine lived off the plate a little more because he never gave in, but they're comparable.

[+] EnlargeRoy Halladay
Chris Trotman/Getty ImagesRoy Halladay likely will still be the Phillies' starting pitcher on Opening Day.

"Now, when you're talking Smoltzie, you're talking pure hell stuff. Best breaking ball from a right-handed pitcher that I've ever seen. And a nasty split and power fastball. But Oswalt's nasty. He can pitch north and south, east and west. And he's in attack mode all the time.

"And then you've got Cole Hamels. I've loved Cole Hamels for a long time because I love the way he changes speeds. He compares to Avery, I think.

"So these guys all have signature pitches and stuff and makeup as good as anybody in the game in my opinion. And Lee, I think, is the best signing since Maddux in '93. But the one thing that Braves staff will always have is the longevity of greatness."

That longevity, obviously, creates a giant divide between these two staffs that the Phillies can't possibly overcome. Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz were teammates from 1993 through 2003. That's 11 seasons. It's possible, given the mutual option in Oswalt's contract after 2011, that this Phillies foursome will pitch together for only one season.

"So what separates all of this," Mazzone said, "is the time we all spent together in Atlanta. They did it for a long period of time, and they did it an era of offensive baseball. So what I'm saying is, it's going to be very difficult for them to say they're as good as some of the great Braves rotations because, No. 1, we had three guys who were going to the Hall of Fame. And No. 2, all of us stayed together for such a long period of time."

Between 1993 and 2003, Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz combined for 20 seasons with an ERA-plus of 130 or better and five Cy Young Awards. And that's the gold standard for starting-rotation brilliance in the wild-card era, if not any era.

But beyond that, it's a reminder of something more important:

Great as this Phillies rotation might look, it hasn't done anything yet. It's just four names printed out on a roster. Period.

They might be four awfully famous names, with already-spectacular track records. But until they actually pitch together, dominate together and win together, anyone who tries to compare them with the great rotations in history is just speculating -- or dreaming.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com