Phils Rotation vs Best Ever

There have been lots of great pitching staffs over the years with mulit-20 game winners and impressive numbers. Along with my partners, I selected two squads to compare the current Phils rotation against to see how they stack up. I'm going to pick a best season, a best "main stars" trio, and a best overall rotation. It's going to be a melding of a particular season, as well as historical perspective of the pitchers involved. First up is the 1971 Orioles with Jim Palmer, Mike Cuellar, Dave McNally, and Pat Dobson - the famed 4 x 20 game winners. The second staff is the 1998 Braves featuring Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Denny Neagle, and Kevin Millwood. Now there are caveats that need to be addressed which I'm sure you're already envisioning. First and foremost, the four man rotation vs the five man rotation. That alone gives the Oriole pitchers approximately five extra starts each. Second, pitchers were allowed to pitch deeper into games in the 70s and even the mid 90s. Also, those two eras were also more pitching dominated than today. Lastly, I'm a Mets fan, but I'll be objective. I'll break down the Oriole and Brave staffs and compare to the current Phils for the three decisions, none of which are easy.

The 1971 four 20 game winners were incredibly blessed with perhaps the best defensive infield in history. Gold gloves were earned that year by Brooks Robinson (3B), Mark Belanger (SS), and Davey Johnson (2B), and oh by the way Boog Powell had a .991 fielding percentage. Who knows how many runs this defense saved in 1971. The Oriole pitching staff included Mike Cuellar (20-9, 3.08 era, 124 K's), McNally (21-5, 2.89, 91), Palmer (20-9, 2.68, 184) and Dobson (20-8, 2.90, 187). Cuellar came over from Houston for a bag of peanuts basically a few years prior. He pitched 6 seasons in a row of 18 or more wins, goving over 20 three times. McNally was underrated, and his 1971 season culminated 4 consecutive 20 win campaigns. Most of you know that Palmer was a HOF pitcher and 1971 was his 2nd of 8 twenty win seasons (all done over a 9 year span). Dobson was a journeyman pitcher, with a career winning percentage under .500. 20 wins is 20 wins, but he likely benefited greatly from the defense and momentum the team provided that year. 1969-1974 when the big three, minus Dobson, were together netted 2 Cy Young awards and eleven 20 win seasons.

The 1998 Braves used the bats to provide the momentum and support for their pitching aces. Four guys on that team smashed 30 or more homers providing the pop for the starters. The pitching line was Maddux (18-9, 2.22, 204), Glavine (20-6, 2.47, 157), Smoltz (17-3, 2.90, 173), Millwood (17-8, 4.08, 163), and Neagle (16-11, 3.55, 165). Two notes: Smoltz won 17 games only starting 26 of them. Also, it appears by the ERA totals that Millwood and Neagle benefited from the potent lineup. Comparing the big three, Maddux is a lock HOF pitcher that notched 20 wins only twice. He did, however, have and additional five 19 win seasons, and also had the potentially unduplicatable 17 consecutive 15 win seasons. Glavine, another lock HOF pitcher, had five 20 win seasons of dominance for the Braves. Smoltz is a HOF pitcher in my opinon, though not a lock. 200 wins, 155 saves, and 3000 K's gives him Eckersley type numbers that are hopefully enough to punch a ticket to Cooperstown. Although the Braves pitchers were together longer, I'll give a similar 6 year synopsis, from 1993-1998, of their legacy. Totals netted 5 Cy Young awards and four 20 win seasons.

The 2011 Phillies are an interesting case study because they have the defensive prowess akin to the Orioles, and also the power bats similar to the Braves. Their projected pitching lineup and totals (based on 162 game averages from with adjustments) is as follows: Roy Halladay (17-9, 3.32, 175), Cliff Lee (16-9, 3.85, 168), Roy Oswalt (16-9, 3.18, 183), Cole Hamels (14-10, 3.53, 205) and Blanton/5th starter (12-12, 4.20, 140). It's not outside the realm of possibility that any one of the main four guys could go for 20 wins this year. Maybe even all of them, but probably not Hamels. Among them, although not in a tidy 6 year stretch, they possess 3 Cy Young awards and six 20 win seasons.

Bearing in mind all the stipulations laid out in the beginning, I contend the best pitching season was 1971. There's something really pretty about looking at four 20s in the win column. Among all the teams' big three combos, I'd take Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz ahead of Palmer/McNally/Cuellar and Halladay/Lee/Oswalt. The latter may take the mantle when all is said and done though. Begrudgingly, I will admit that if healthy, and fulfilling potential, having Cole Hamels as your #4 (a WS MVP) makes the Phillies new staff the best ever assembled in my humble opinion. I would greatly welcome comments, debates, and disagreements!


  1. There are a lot of things that caught me off guard digging into the numbers... the starters on that 1971 Orioles team threw 71 complete games compared to 24 complete games in the 1998 season. It was a different day and age but roughly half of their starts were complete games... that's remarkable. The debate really begins when you start looking at the advanced statics that my colleagues detest. Like Mc said, the 1971 Orioles were one of the best defensive teams that you're going to find and the 1998 Braves were a great team (offense and defense); ERA and wins are as much about the players around the pitchers as they are about the pitchers themselves. Projections for the current Phillies rotation that are based on 2010 numbers will be flawed because Hamels was unlucky and received very little run support, Joe Blanton was injured and dreadful by his standards and Lee/Oswalt spent a good part of their season playing for non-contenders. Looking at 2010 ERA and win totals, the Phils fall short but if you use advanced metrics that attempt to carve out the things that the pitcher can't control, the debate tips in favor of the Phils. Using 2010 WAR as a gauge, the cumulative WAR for the 2011 Phillies (based on their 2010 numbers) would be 20.3 compared to 17.5 and 13 for the Braves and Orioles, respectively. WAR is the number of wins that a player provides above a replacement player based on what he can control. What can a pitcher control? Strikeouts, HR's allowed and walks (non-intentional). Why no love for the Orioles? Because their defense was well above league average (which saved them many runs); when you look at K/9 rates, you'll see that their 4.9 K/9 is very underwhelming. Four twenty game winners is nice but they would probably place third on my list. I'm not ready to annoint the 2011 Phils the best of all time - they have to earn that title but if a few things go their way (Hamels gets some run support, the defense plays up to their potential and if everyone stays healthy), they could stake a claim. One thing I will say- in terms of ability to dominate a baseball game, they might be the best (four pitchers with very high strikeout rates). But all around, I'd give my vote to the Braves- they've got more shutouts than the other rotations, lower cumulative ERA, more total wins than the other staffs (five 15+ game winners is just as good as four 20 game winners) and a rotation that seemingly had it all.

  2. I'm a little more old school I guess. How do you not pick a rotation with 4 20 game winners? It has only been done once in history. 71 complete games between the 4 of them? That's 18 complete games per man. You don't need much of a bullpen with that. This is about the best starting rotation ever? That Braves team depended on a bullpen.

  3. u cant go against 4 20 game winners! i wanna see the braves world series stats in 98 oh thats right the padres were in the 98 world series. talk about big 3 seaver koosman matlack were pretty good in 73. wasnt one of koosmans better years but they lived and died on pitching and played good against the reds and a's. give this rotation a chance! too early too predict. i know orioles lost in 71 series but those braves teams all those great years 1 world series! and their best post season pitcher wasnt named maddux or glavine. smoltz was da man! the baseball reference projections lee era near 4.00 really?

  4. Actually, they won 2. 1966. Palmer and McNally were on that team. In fact, that staff shutout the Dodgers in the series 3 times. Palmer beat Koufax 1-0 in Koufax's last game.


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