Greatest Starting Rotations of All-Time; Where Will Phillies Fit?
The Phillies' shock agreement to a five-year, $120 million deal with Cliff Lee late Monday night gave them what appears to be not just the best starting rotation in baseball heading into next season, but one of the greatest in the history of the sport.
Lee joins Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt in the City of Brotherly Love to form a fearsome foursome that has won a collective three Cy Young Awards, World Series MVP and made 13 All-Star Game appearances.
That quartet should make life awfully difficult for National League hitters over at least the next two seasons -- Hamels can become a free agent after 2012, while the Phillies possess a '12 club option on Oswalt -- but what kind of competition will they have to match up with to make history as one of the greatest rotations ever?
Let's start with the modern canon:
1971 Baltimore Orioles: Their four-man rotation of Mike Cuellar, Jim Palmer, Pat Dobson and Dave McNally each won at least 20 games. Cuellar's 3.08 ERA was the high mark of the group. Despite their dominance, the Orioles lost the World Series in seven games to the Pirates.
1993 Atlanta Braves: The Braves' 1990s dynasty was built on pitching and it might never have been better than in '93, when Atlanta brought Greg Maddux in his prime into the fold before the season. Maddux won 20 games and the Cy Young Award after posting a 2.36 ERA. The three guys behind him -- Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Steve Avery -- racked up another 45 wins between them, and Smoltz's 3.62 ERA was the highest of the bunch. Avery threw the fewest innings of the quartet with 223 1/3. Like the '71 Orioles, the Braves were unceremoniously dumped out of the playoffs. The Phillies bested them in six games in the NLCS that year.
Early-1950s Cleveland Indians: In 1951, Bob Feller, Mike Garcia and Early Wynn all won at least 20 games. The only principal member of the rotation that didn't win 20 that year was Hall of Famer Bob Lemon. The next year Lemon, Garcia and Wynn combined for 67 wins, and it was Feller who struggled. Two years later, that same trio combined for another 65 wins, Art Houttemann went 15-7 and Feller brought up the rear at 13-3. If you're sensing a building theme, these Indians teams also failed to win a title, appearing in the World Series only once. They were swept by the New York Giants in 1954.
Mid-1960s Los Angeles Dodgers: This group, anchored by Hall of Famers Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, did win a pair of championships in 1963 and 1965. From '63-66, Drysdale and Koufax combined for 170 wins and a 2.30 ERA, impressive marks even in a decade dominated by pitching, and Koufax won three Cy Young Awards. In 1966, the last year of their run, a 21-year-old Don Sutton made it a trio of Hall of Famers in the Dodgers' rotation. Fittingly, they fell short in the World Series that year, getting swept by the Orioles.
Early-2000s Oakland Athletics: The big three of Barry Zito, Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder formed the foundation here. Between 2001-03, they combined to go 158-74 with a 3.18 ERA, and Zito won the Cy Young Award in 2002. But the trio also had a good supporting cast during those seasons. The late Corey Lidle won 21 games between 2001-02 and posted a sub-4.00 ERA in both years. In '03, Ted Lilly and Rich Harden were the No. 4 and No. 5 starters, respectively. As Moneyball detractors will point out loudly, this group never won so much as a playoff series.
Those are five of the most famous rotations in baseball history, but if there's anything we've been taught by sabermetricians over the years, it's that a look past win totals and ERA can be surprising and illuminating, so let's peer deeper into the numbers.
Lee, Halladay, Hamels and Oswalt all had an ERA+ (ERA adjusted for ballpark, league and year, where 100 is average) above 120 in 2010. If they all duplicate that feat in 2011, they'll join select company. Only 25 pitching staffs since 1901 have ever boasted four or more pitchers who qualified for the ERA title with an ERA+ equal to or greater than 120, according to Baseball-Reference.com. Oddly enough, none of the rotations above except for the '01 A's appear among those 25. The highlights of that list:
1905-07 Chicago Cubs: By this standard, the '05 Cubs had the greatest rotation ever. Six members -- Buttons Briggs, Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown, Carl Lundgren, Ed Reulbach, Jake Weimer and Bob Wicker -- all had an ERA+ above 120. No other team since has had more than five. The '07 Cubs won the World Series and had five members with an ERA+ above 120 -- Brown, Lundgren, Reulbach, Orval Overall and Jack Pfiester.
1911-13 New York Giants: Two Hall of Famers -- Rube Marquard and the great Christy Matthewson -- were in the middle of everything for a Giants team that went to and lost in the World Series three times during this span.
1927 New York Yankees: This team was known better for its lineup -- the top six was dubbed Murderer's Row -- but opposing hitters can't have enjoyed facing Waite Hoyt, Herb Pennock and Urban Shocker, to say nothing of swingman Wilcy Moore.
1938-40 Chicago White Sox: Thornton Lee, Ted Lyons and Johnny Rigney were the spine of this rotation, but they didn't do the Pale Hose much good. Chicago never finished higher than fourth in the American League despite the sterling top three.
1947-49 St. Louis Cardinals: There was plenty of turnover here, but in '47 the Cards had five pitchers who fit our criteria for rotation excellence and in '49 they had four; Harry Brecheen and swingman Al Brazle are the only two pitchers who had an ERA+ of 120 or better in both seasons. St. Louis finished in second place in the NL during all three years of this run.
1997/2002 Atlanta Braves: Maddux and Glavine remained the heart of Atlanta's rotation in both campaigns, and Smoltz led the team in innings in '97. But by '02, Smoltz had converted to closing. The Braves had a historically great rotation anyway thanks to Kevin Millwood and -- remember him? -- Damian Moss.
So can the Phillies join this elite company? The talent is certainly there, no question. But if there are a few lessons in all this history, it's that (1.) greatness in the starting rotation is usually awfully fleeting and (2.) it doesn't guarantee success in the postseason and World Series.
FanHouse TV's Steve Phillips discusses the implications of Cliff Lee's deal with the Phillies.