September 21, 2021

Phils to Have Best Rotation of the Live Ball Era?

December 15, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

On my way in to work last evening, one of the talking heads on local sports talk radio insisted the 2011 Philadelphia Phillies have the best rotation he’s ever seen, and this before they’ve even thrown a pitch as a unit. Bringing Cliff Lee back to a threesome that includes two-time Cy Young Award winner Roy Halladay, 10-year veteran Roy Oswalt, who went 7-1 with a 1.74 ERA in 12 starts for the Phillies, and young lefty Cole Hamels, the hurling sensation of the 2008 postseason, has everyone all agog to see what the quartet can accomplish together. I immediately hearkened back to some of the best staffs that have existed during my lifetime—the 1971 Orioles, 1972 A’s, 1986 Mets, the Braves of the 1990’s, the Barry Zito/Mark Mulder/Tim Hudson A’s—then compiled a few lists based on different criteria to see which rotation stands out over the last 90 years.


Among staffs that featured starters with an ERA+ over 135 in which all starters qualified for the ERA crown and started in at least 60% of their appearances, one rotation stands out among the rest: the 1942 Detroit Tigers. The Tigers boasted five starters who met the above criteria, the only team with more than four. Twenty-one-year-old southpaw Hal Newhouser led the staff with a 2.45 ERA (162 ERA+), Tommy Bridges and Virgil Trucks finished with identical 2.74 marks (144 and 145, respectively), Al Benton pitched to a 2.90 ERA (136), and Hal White finished at 2.91 (136). Dizzy Trout had a very good 3.43 ERA and an ERA+ of 115, but he missed the mark I was shooting for. The bullpen was God-awful, otherwise Detroit most likely would have led the league in team ERA rather than the Yankees.

You’d think that a team loaded with the only five-man rotation to post an ERA+ better than 135 would be stellar, but you’d be wrong. Four of the six starters finished at .500 or below, and Newhouser, Trout and Benton went a combined 27-45 for a team that went 73-81 on its way to a fifth-place finish. The culprit was exactly what you’d expect from a team whose rotation pitched to a 2.89 ERA in almost 1,200 innings€”a serious lack of run support. The team scored an average of 3.78 runs per game, good for sixth in an eight-team league, and boasted the second-worst OPS+ at only 79. They couldn’t run either, stealing only 39 bases in 79 tries, and only the St. Louis Browns kept the Tigers from finishing last in that category. According to Lee Sinins’ Sabermetric Baseball Encyclopedia, had Newhouser, Benton and Trout received just average run support, they would have gone a combined 46-26 instead of winning at only a 38% clip.

The only other team with at least four starters to meet the criteria was the 1997 Atlanta Braves, featuring Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Denny Neagle and John Smoltz. In fact, they’re the only team with four starters who posted an ERA+ of 138 or better. Maddux was the ace of the staff with a 19-4 record and 2.20 ERA (189 ERA+), Neagle led the team in wins with a career-high 20 and pitched to a career-best 2.97 ERA (140), Glavine posted a 2.96 ERA (141) and Smoltz won 15 games and had a 3.02 ERA (138). As a unit, the four went 68-28 with a 2.80 ERA and helped lead the Braves to the NLCS. where they lost to the Florida Marlins.

By comparison, Halladay had a 165 ERA+ in 2010, Oswalt finished at 143 between Houston and Philadelphia, Hamels had a 132 mark and Cliff Lee went 130 between the Mariners and Rangers.

There were 13 teams that had three pitchers at 135 or above, including the 1939 and 1940 Tigers, and the 1996 and 1998 Braves, giving both teams excellent three- and four-year runs.

Wins Above Replacement (WAR)

There are only three pitching staffs to boast four starters with four or more WAR: the aforementioned ’97 Braves, the 1991 Braves and the 1967 Cincinnati Reds. In 1997 Maddux finished second to Pedro Martinez with a WAR of 7.3, and Glavine (5.0), Smoltz (4.5) and Neagle (4.1) finished seventh, eighth and ninth in the N.L., respectively. In 1991 the Braves also boasted four top-10 finishers; Glavine led the league at 7.4 on his way to the Cy Young Award, Smoltz finished fourth at 4.7, Steve Avery finished seventh at 4.5 and Charlie Liebrandt came in ninth at 4.3. The Reds had only two top-10 finishers and one of them was relief ace Ted Abernathy who finished sixth at 5.8. Nineteen-year-old Gary Nolan finished second to Hall of Famer Jim Bunning at 6.8, Mel Queen posted a WAR of 4.9, Jim Maloney weighed in at 4.7 and Milt Pappas at 4.3.

Last season Halladay finished second in WAR at 6.9 to Ubaldo Jimenez’s 7.1, Oswalt finished sixth at 5.1, Hamels finished seventh at 4.7 and Lee combined for 4.3 at his two stops. Had these four been together on the same staff, they would have become only the fourth team to boast four starters with four or more WAR.

Sean Forman looked at rotations of the live ball era and measured their WAR from their previous three seasons to see how they ranked going into a particular season. The 1976 Mets were number one, with the 2011 Phils at number two.

K/BB Ratio

I saw something on the MLB Network that mentioned the Phillies’ and their potential for having an outrageous K/BB ratio, and it appears that if career norms hold true, they have a chance to make history. Only four teams since 1920 have had three starting pitchers with K/BB ratios of 3.5 or better—the 1966 Dodgers, ’97 Braves, ’03 Yankees and ’05 Twins. The Dodgers were led by Sandy Koufax at 4.12 and Don Sutton at 4.02, and Don Drysdale finished just south of 4 with a 3.93 mark. Closer Phil Regan was almost as good at 3.67 but all 65 of his appearances came as a reliever. The Braves were led by Maddux’s Nintendo-like 8.85 K/BB ratio, followed by Smoltz at 3.83 and Neagle at 3.51. Glavine, who never posted numbers that high, finished at 1.92. The Yankees almost boasted four starters at 3.5 or above but fell just short. The lefty/righty tandem of David Wells and Mike Mussina were fantastic at 5.05 and 4.88, respectively. Andy Pettitte posted a 3.60 mark and his buddy Roger Clemens came in at 3.28. As if that wasn’t impressive enough, Mariano Rivera (6.30) and Chris Hammond (4.09) also posted ratios over 4.00. The best triumvirate belongs to the ’05 Twins, though. Carlos Silva walked only nine batters in 188 1/3 innings and posted a K/BB ratio of 7.89; Johan Santana came in at 5.29 and Brad Radke posted a mark of 5.09. And, oh yeah, closer Joe Nathan boasted a ratio of 4.27.

Last year Halladay led his league in K/BB ratio for the fourth time in his career with a gaudy career-best 7.30. With a career mark of 3.53 and a three-year run from 2008-2010 of 6.09, there’s no reason to believe he won’t be equally filthy in 2011. Hamels just missed the 3.5 mark last season with a ratio of 3.46, but he boasts a career ratio of 3.62 and has finished higher than 3.5 in three of his last four campaigns. Oswalt came in at 3.51 between Houston and Philadelphia and has a career mark of 3.57. Interestingly, the wild card here is Lee, who posted the second best K/BB ratio of ALL TIME last year with his 10.28, bettered only by Bret Saberhagen’s 11.0 in 1994, but has a career ratio of 3.10. On the other hand, since reinventing himself and winning the Cy Young in 2008, Lee’s K/BB ratio is 5.64 over his last 93 starts. So the Phils definitely have a chance to become the first team since the end of the Deadball Era to sport four starters with K/BB ratios of 3.5 or above.

Adjusted Pitching Runs (PtchR)

This is where things get admittedly murky for me, as I have limited knowledge of some of the newer stats being tossed around by my fellow Seamheads. But this is simply a measure of how many runs a pitcher prevented compared to an average hurler, adjusted for park factor, so I think I can manage. Last season, Halladay (44.4), Hamels (24.1), Lee (22) and Oswalt (20.9) all prevented 20 or more runs above average, so I used 20 as my cut-off point and you’ll never guess who’s among the only three teams since 1920 to boast four pitchers who prevented 20 or more runs above average in the same season. That’s right, the 1997 Atlanta Braves. In fact, not only were they all over 20, but they were all over 30, led by Maddux with 53.5, and followed by Glavine at 33, Smoltz at 31.9 and Neagle at 30.4.

The other two teams were the 1942 Tigers (see above) and the 1940 White Sox, featuring Thornton Lee, Ted Lyons, Johnny Rigney and Eddie Smith. Unfortunately I don’t have PtchR numbers prior to 1950, so it’s impossible to tell how these two stack up with the Braves.

Adjusted Pitching Wins (PitchW)

Just like Adjusted Pitching Runs but converted into wins. Last season, Halladay (4.9), Hamels (2.6), Lee (2.4) and Oswalt (2.3) all recorded at least 2.3 PitchW. If they do that in 2011, they’ll become the second team to boast four starters with 2.3 or more behind only…drum roll, please…the ’97 Braves, who, once again, destroyed the competition. All four had 3.2 PitchW or above, led by Maddux at 5.8, and followed by Glavine with 3.4, Smoltz with 3.3 and Neagle with 3.2. Oswalt was part of the 2005 Astros staff that sported three such hurlers, including former Yankees and best friends Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte, but the kings of PitchW are Maddux and Glavine, who appeared on the list together six times from 1993 to 2002.

Base-Out Runs Saved (RE24)

Now things are flying way over my head. Here’s an explanation of this from Given the bases occupied/out situation, how many runs did the pitcher save in the resulting play. Compared to average, so 0 is average, and above 0 is better than average. Um, okay. Halladay had an RE24 of 52.9 in 2010, Lee’s was at 31.2, Hamels at 30.6 and Oswalt at 24. The only team since 1920 with four starters to record an RE24 of 24 or more was the 1997 Atlanta Braves (did you really not see that coming?) Once again, they were dominant: Maddux (63.4), Glavine (44.7), Smoltz (35.8) and Neagle (33.5). But before we anoint the 2011 Phillies the second team to accomplish the feat, the young Oakland A’s might spoil the party. Last year Gio Gonzalez (33.8), Trevor Cahill (32.7) and Dallas Braden (24.1) became the 26th trio to record an RE24 of at least 24 in a season, and 22-year-old Brett Anderson came in at 18.4 during a very good but injury-marred season. If things go their way, they, and not the Phillies could be the team to match the ’97 Braves in this category.

Win Probability Added (WPA)

Again from Baseball-Reference: Win Probability Added by Pitcher. Given average teams, this is the change in probability. A change of +/- 1 would indicate one win added or lost. Halladay (5.3), Oswalt (2.8) and Hamels (2.7) all recorded marks of 2.7 or better for the Phillies, while Lee finished at 3.1 for the Mariners and Rangers. As expected, their only competition for the top spot comes from Maddux (6.2), Glavine (3.7), Smoltz (3.6) and Neagle (3.2), who were all 3.2 or better. In the early to mid-50’s this was a category dominated by the Cleveland Indians, led by Bob Lemon and Early Wynn, who were joined in the WPA club by Bob Feller in 1950, Mike Garcia in 1951 and Herb Score in 1956. But the Braves captured the category with a trio of WPA studs in ’93, ’96 and ’98 and their vaunted four-headed beast of 1997.

Of course none of this portends a World Series title. Of the teams listed above, none won the Fall Classic. On the other hand, there are three pennant-winners and a division-winner, which bodes well for the 2011 Phillies.

Mike Lynch is the author of Harry Frazee, Ban Johnson and the Feud That Nearly Destroyed the American League and It Ain€™t So: A Might-Have-Been History of the White Sox in 1919 and Beyond, and the founder of


One Response to “Phils to Have Best Rotation of the Live Ball Era?”
  1. Pedro says:

    terrific historical perspective of the top staffs. I would like to see details on K/BB since these are the most important numbers pitchers can effect (followed by HRs). the problem is that since Ks have increased drastically in the recent decades leaving pitchers from the pre-expansion era at a huge disadvantage. we should look more closely at K/BB above replacement which (fortunately) is published at

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