Best. Rotation. Ever?

After a six week dance with New York and Texas, Cliff Lee has apparently decided to spurn them both and sign with the Mystery Team Philadelphia Phillies. If the Jayson Werth deal was a shocker, this one breaks the Richter Scale. It is perhaps the most surprising, and one of the most interesting, free agent signings in baseball history.

Once we get financial terms, we’ll be able to break down the costs and benefits of the signing. Until then, though, there’s one question staring us in the face – is the best rotation we’ve ever seen?

Roy Halladay is the best pitcher in baseball. Cliff Lee is in the mix of guys right behind him for #2. Hamels and Oswalt aren’t quite in that class, but we’re still talking about All-Star caliber starting pitchers. Over the last three years, here are their WAR totals and where that ranks among starting pitchers:

Roy Halladay: +21.5 (#1)
Cliff Lee: +20.9 (#2)
Cole Hamels +11.9 (#16)
Roy Oswalt: +11.2 (#21)

Total: 65.5

All four of them could be legitimate #1 starters on a playoff contender, and now they might all be teammates. I’m not sure we’ve ever seen anything like this.

The obvious parallels are to the great Braves rotations from the 1990s, but it is actually hard to find a group from those teams that compares to this one. The 1993 to 1995 version of their staff is one option, giving us this breakdown:

Greg Maddux: +23.1
Tom Glavine: +11.6
John Smoltz: +11.0
Steve Avery: +10.3

It’s nearly identical at spots #1, #3, and #4, but this Phillies roster would have a significant edge in the #2 spot, where Cliff Lee’s last three years best the early career version of Tom Glavine, even if you adjust for the fact that those totals are depressed by the 1994 strike. What if we fast forward a few years to when Smoltz and Glavine had really hit their stride? Here’s their 1996 to 1998 totals.

Greg Maddux: +23.7
John Smoltz: +20.6
Tom Glavine: +13.9
Denny Neagle: +8.6 and Steve Avery: +2.4

Avery pitched in 1996, and then was essentially replaced by Neagle for 1997 and 1998. They combined for +11 WAR over that three year span. So, that five-man/four-slot rotation was on par with how the Phillies foursome have performed over the last three years. However, that rotation never took the hill for Atlanta in 1999, as Denny Neagle was traded to Cincinnati after the 1998 season. By the time the Braves had four established high-caliber arms, they found it necessary to ship one off.

That was part of what made that Braves run so spectacular. They kept swapping out guys behind The Big Three and getting high-level performances even with all the changes. There were times where they got equivalent production to what we might expect from Philly’s rotation in 2011, but they never had four guys who had established themselves at this level going into a season.

If there’s a four-man rotation that has ever looked this dominant heading into a new year, I can’t find it. It is almost certainly in the discussion for the greatest four-man rotation of all time.

There is one big asterisk on all this, though: as those great Braves teams show, a ridiculously great rotation is not enough to start planning a parade. The Phillies are certainly contenders, but they’re going to need more than just their Big Four to win it all. It will be interesting to see what the rest of their off-season looks like now that Lee is back in Philadelphia.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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11 years ago


11 years ago
Reply to  Anthony

Says it all.

11 years ago
Reply to  Anthony

It’s funny how different I feel about this signing than I would have if it were a Yankee signing.

With the Phils signing the “Wow” “OMG” “think of the rotation” exclamations all pop to mind but if it were the Yankees I would definitely respect the rotation and team as a whole but would not be as stunned. I’m not sure if that is because I expect the bottomless wallet that is the Yankees to bring in every targeted free agent or if it is because even the Lee led Yankees would have potential equals in the Sox and Rays.

I cannot think of another team where the news of this singing would have shocked/impressed me more. Maybe the Giants. OK…with more thought it would have to be the Giants as they are the only team I can imagine where this news would make me say “World Series Team” like this did for the Phils. The AL East teams all have to compete with each other and there’s not another team out there where Lee puts them “over the top”.

11 years ago
Reply to  v-Skippy

While I will excuse your baseball stupidity and cast a few throwbacks that would be superior. Dodgers staff of Koufax, Drysdale, Podres Osteen, Sutton. Indians staff of Lemon, Wynn, Garcia, Score, Feller. We could outline more but it is pointless. The Phillies have a extremely talented staff. But greatest! Far from it. Beyond that, how about seeing what they achieve as a unit before you rate them among Baseball’s greatest.

Jason B
11 years ago
Reply to  v-Skippy

“While I will excuse your baseball stupidity”

Does that mean we have to likewise excuse your arrogant asshole-ishness?

Bob R.
11 years ago
Reply to  v-Skippy

Both of those teams had great rotations, but I don’t think the comparison you suggest is valid. You have to look at a particular year and see whether those names represent pitchers still pitching at a very high level for some 3 year period that includes that season.

In the Indians case, if you choose 1954, Feller was essentially through as a great pitcher and Score was not yet there. If you select 1956, Garcia was clearly in decline with Lemon not far behind and Feller of course irrelevant.

With the Dodgers, if you select 1966, it is Koufax’s last year and Sutton’s first so there is no history on which to draw for him, while Podres is a non-factor and has been for 3 years. If you prefer 1964, neither Sutton nor Osteen are there and Podres is already in serous decline.

I don’t know if the 2011 Phillies rotation will be the best ever, or even the best in 2011, but all 4 pitchers were outstanding in 2010, all four have a history of excellence and none seem to be on their last legs.

11 years ago
Reply to  v-Skippy

Do you have any idea how dominant Halladay and Lee would be if they pitched on the mound that Koufax and Drysdale used to rack up their numbers?

11 years ago
Reply to  v-Skippy

I’m glad sfar505 mentioned the team because the 1955 Cleveland Indians probably need to be included in any comparison. This is what that club was working with for a starting 5 rotation (using FIP since we don’t have xFIP stats posted for the 50s)

(stats from 1952-1954, leading up to 1955)
2.91 FIP over 822 IP – Mike Garcia
3.47 FIP over 854 IP – Bob Lemon
3.58 FIP over 808 IP – Early Wynn
3.68 FIP over 586 IP – Art Houtman
3.88 FIP over 507 IP – Bob Feller
With rookie Herb Score ready for a spot as well

And what the 1955 Indians actually saw
3.12 FIP over 210 IP – Mike Garcia
3.29 FIP over 227 IP – Herb Score
3.46 FIP over 230 IP – Early Wynn
3.59 FIP over 211 IP – Bob Lemon
4.02 FIP over 83 IP – Bob Feller
4.19 FIP over 124 IP – Art Houtteman

Where this is the current Phillies (2008-2010 stats)
2.85 FIP over 667 IP – Cliff Lee
3.03 FIP over 735 IP – Roy Holladay
3.60 FIP over 601 IP – Roy Oswalt
3.70 FIP over 629 IP – Cole Hamels
with either
4.44 FIP over 568 IP – Joe Blanton (until he is removed)
5.07 FIP over 362 IP – Kyle Kendrick

It will probably be difficult for Halladay, Lee, Oswalt and Hamels to surpass what Garcia, Score, Wynn and Lemon actually produced for the 1955 Tribe, and Kendrick (or outside chance, Blanton) should be hard pressed to top the Feller/Houtteman combo.

But overall, the two rotations match up pretty dang well and (with those 90s Braves clubs) have definitely jumped into the Top Rotation Ever Assembled argument.

Bob R.
11 years ago
Reply to  v-Skippy

I don’t have any data on comparable FIPs, Matt, but when BB-Reference neutralizes each pitcher’s statistics to account for eras it has them with the following career ERAs, perhaps not the best stat, but in a neutralized form it may have some value.

Halladay: 3.26
Lee: 3.98
Koufax: 3.00
Drysdale: 3.42

It does not suggest that Halladay/Lee would be more dominant than Koufax/Drysdale were. Perhaps there are other comparisons that would suggest otherwise.

P. Hertz
11 years ago
Reply to  v-Skippy

1971- Orioles.
McNally -21-5
Palmer -20-9
Dobson -20-8
Cuellar – 20-9

11 years ago
Reply to  v-Skippy

The problem is that the Baltimore rotation wasn’t really all that good.

3.46 ERA – 1971 AL Average
3.87 FIP – McNally
3.75 FIP – Cuellar
3.19 FIP – Palmer
2.92 FIP – Dobson

You can see that Cuellar and McNaully were actually pitching worse then the league average pitcher. Basically putting them on par with like a modern day Jon Garland type. (An extremely average pitcher who won 18 twice by benefiting from the same things the Baltimore rotation did)

And while yes, the Four are historical because they each won 20 games, there are three real reasons why:

Top-notch Defense

.261/.347/.398/.745, 112 OPS+, 4.70 R/G – Baltimore Offense
.254/.325/.405/.730, 102 OPS+, 4.33 R/G – Second best AL offense from 1971 (Detroit)
.247/.317/.364/.681, 93 OPS+, 3.87 R/G – Average AL club in 1971
Baltimore’s offense was so far and away superior to the other clubs that wins were inevitable for the rotation

142 – that’s the number of starts Palmer, Dobson, Cuellar and McNally made; winning 81 for a win percentage of 57%. Is that really any better then say the 2001 Mariners starting 4 of Freddy Garcia (3.48 FIP), Jamie Moyer (4.17 FIP), Aaron Sele (4.35 FIP) and Paul Abbott (5.01 FIP) – those 4 won 70 of their 127 starts, or 55%

When you make that many starts in front of a superior fielding team while your offense scores an average of just about a run higher then the average club (and even a half run more then the next best)… well, its hard not to win as long as you are posting anything close to average production yourself.

11 years ago
Reply to  Anthony

for what it’s worth, asks more or less the same question, but tweaks the (teams with 4 sp with 30+ gs and era+ of >130). they credit the ‘braves (maddux, smoltz, glavine, neagle) as being the only other team comparable to the ’11 phillies (based on their ’10 stats). nine other teams came close with 3 sp’s.