Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Is the Phillies’ rotation the best ever?

Last night as everyone caught their collective breath and gathered themselves, as if a boxer pulling himself up by the ropes, following the Phillies’ – AKA the “Mystery Team” – signing of Cliff Lee, wild statements on Twitter began to be strewn about. One such statement was made by the brilliant Mariners blogger of the Seattle Times, Geoff Baker. Geoff simply said: “For those comparing the Phils to the 1990s Braves rotation-wise: Halladay and Lee have both won Cy Young’s in the AL. Tougher hitters faced.” Somehow, my next post was born.

Everyone is entitled to their opinion, and much of what he quipped is right. I mean, sure, the AL is the better of the two leagues. That’s obvious. I directly replied to him saying: “Except the AL dominance doesn’t date back to when THAT Braves rotation existed.” Why? Because, what I think he was trying to say, is that the combo of Lee and Halladay was – in his mind – somehow automatically superior to Maddux and Glavine, to Maddux and Smoltz, and to the Braves’ rotations of the mid-90s without even so much as a single pitch thrown. He then replied to my statement about the NL’s inferiority not dating back to the Braves’ hay-day, saying: “Sure it does. From 1992-2000, [the] AL won 6 of 8 WS [World Series’]. Just before, you had LaRussa’s A’s. Halladay and Lee don’t rely on K’s a foot off [the] plate.” And a couple hours later he was posting on it here, confirming what I believed to be his stance.

I don’t know how we really got here, or even that we were arguing – or agreeing to disagree – about the same thing. But anyway, I’ll use this space to disagree with him because I not only think he’s wrong, but that it’s so premature to anoint a rotation the “Greatest Ever,” that it’s preposterous. As great as the Halladay-Lee-Oswalt-Hamels rotation looks to be in 2011, the Gold Standard is still the Braves of the mid-90s and it won’t be easy for any rotation to ever equal it, let alone exceed it.

He did as much to provide two links to support his argument within his blog. One from the hardball times, which he hyperlinked with the words: “by the 1990s, the AL was clearly the better league.” Unfortunately, if you read it carefully you’ll find that it completely contradicts his statement. It says, within it: “The salient theme of 1993-2003 is that if it weren't for the DH* -- a major caveat, to be sure -- there would be no significant points of difference between the American and National Leagues. They present products of similar style and quality in similar venues, and are similarly popular.” It does appear Steve agrees with me, despite Geoff’s attempts to use it in order to prove the contrary – which, by the way, I don’t mean to say he was posting in directly reply to me. In all likelihood, he was not.

*It’s true that the AL has the DH, and both Halladay and Lee should get credit for that. That alone accounts for a decent portion of the difference in ERA between leagues.

That’s my first piece of evidence to dispute the claim that the AL was superior in the mid-90s. Also, there’s this. Between 1992 and 2003, the NL won 889 games versus 871 for the AL, and this includes both interleague play and the World Series. If you don’t wish to include the 2000’s, you’ll find that from 1992-2000, the NL won 482 games to the 478 the AL won, again including interleague and the World Series. True American League dominance didn’t begin until 2004, when, over the last seven seasons the AL has dominated in interleague play. I think these are much more representative samples of the quality of each league.

Geoff also said: “If you don’t like the WS samples…” – and I don’t – “…check out ASG [All-star Game] results or ERA inflation for crossover pitchers.” Ok. The AL has dominated the ASG for a number of years, to be sure. They went 12-0-1 from 1997 to 2009. But the NL won in each of 1994, 1995 and 1996, while the AL won the two prior. So, my point was never that the AL isn’t dominant now, it is; it was that it wasn’t dominant then. Moreover, the All-star teams are selected by the fans, rendering it a ridiculous popularity contest. And, the All-star games of the mid-90s simply don’t support his notion. How about in terms of the ERA inflation of crossover pitchers? I won’t dispute that. I alluded earlier to the fact that the presence of the DH automatically adds to this phenomenon, and that it’s happened more so in recent years is irrelevant. The AL is more dominant now, a point on which most everyone can agree.

If you have a good feeling that the AL dominance does not date back to the mid-90s, you’re ready to move on.

But, there’s good news. There’s a nifty little statistic called ERA+ that might help us settle this regardless of whether or not you believe the AL was a force in 1995. It does this: ERA+ adjusts a pitcher’s earned run average (ERA) according to the pitcher’s ballpark, and the ERA of the pitcher’s league. Average ERA+ is set at 100. Anything above that is obviously above average, and everything below that is obviously below average. So what does this mean? Well, it allows us to compare pitchers more easily by determining how much better they were than their peers in a given season. It even gives us a decent way to compare pitchers from varying decades. It does this regardless of whether or not they played in a great pitcher’s park or a terrible one, a weaker league or the more talented one.

Let’s start with Cliff Lee. Over his last three seasons, in which he was 29-31 and in his prime, his ERA+ stands at 142. That’s roughly 42% better than the other starters, and plenty good enough to land you in the Hall of Fame if you do it for a sustained period of time. Over that same period, Roy Halladay has a 158 ERA+. Again, absolutely fantastic, elite stuff. Those were his age 31-33 seasons, very much in his prime and possibly at the tail end of it. Roy Oswalt, another vaunted arm in the Phillies’ rotation, has a 119 over that period. He’ll be 33 next season and, like Halladay and Lee, is no spring chicken. Finally, the Phillies' starter with the best chance to improve is Cole Hamels. He has a 122 over his past three campaigns but has room to improve in 2011, his 27 year old season. If we take a crude average, and assume these four studs have seasons in 2011 that are on par with their previous three – this is probably optimistic – their combined ERA+ will be 135. That is indeed excellent.

How does that compare to some of the Braves rotations? Let’s find out. In 1993, a very young rotation of Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Steve Avery posted an ERA+ of 137. Again, I used a crude average by not weighting their innings. In strike-shortened 1994, a group of the very same men posted a 146. It certainly helped being anchored by Greg Maddux who finished with a remarkable 271. In 1995, they posted a 157, again behind the ballast that was Maddux – he had a 262 in that season. He sure was good. After all, he won four consecutive Cy Young awards starting in 1992 with the Cubs before winning three more with Atlanta.

We can also take a look at 1996-1998. Those same gentleman who pitched so brilliantly in ’93, ’94 and ‘95 threw down a 139 in 1996. In ’97, Denny Neagle slipped in in place of Avery; they had a 152 ERA+. And finally, in 1998, pulling the ERA+’s of their top-five, which included Maddux, Glavine, Smoltz, Neagle and now a young Kevin Millwood, the Braves’ ERA+ was a robust 144. Smoltz and Glavine were pretty good, too. Smoltz won the Cy Young in 1996 and Glavine in 1998.

That’s six consecutive seasons with a combined ERA+ better than that of our projected, and probably generous, 2011 Philadelphia Phillies rotation. Their rotation stands to be phenomenal. It will probably be the very best in either league, even surpassing the brilliant rotation the Giants enjoy. Heck, it might even be historical.

But, instead of paring back our exuberance over the Braves’ behemoth, we should actually do so with these Phillies. Take a moment to take a closer look at what the Braves were able to accomplish between the sixty feet, six inches from the rubber to the plate over that period - this is something that has already happened, the dust has settled, the stats are written - and pay especially close attention to "Mad Dog," or "The Professor" if you prefer. For he's the primary reason it’s premature to give the edge – over a historically great staff – to a rotation that’s yet to throw a single pitch together.


  1. ERA+ tells us how much a pitcher was better than other pitchers in his league. It does not necessarily account for differences in league quality.

    It is quite possible that the theoretical league averaging a 4.00 ERA actually has superior pitching to the league averaging a 3.50 ERA (e.g. if the 4.00 ERA league ALSO has superior hitting).

    While we do not assume the AL blew the NL out of the water in the early 90's, neither can we assume they were identical in talent each year. More in-depth analysis would be needed to make any definitive argument.

  2. you can thank me later:


  3. did you really just say Halladay is at the tail end of his prime after pitching a perfect game and a no hitter? you're a jacktard for that comment alone....

  4. I never said my argument was definitive, but it's much more compelling than: The AL is superior, Halladay and Lee will destroy the NL.

    Also, Halladay is at the tail end of his peak. Doesn't mean he doesn't have a year or two of greatness left, or that he won't still be excellent when he regresses. Thanks for the two cents though, they're worth about as much.