OK, let’s start with some history. There are two teams in baseball history that had four pitchers who made at least five starts and went to the Hall of Fame. It’s a fun piece of trivia. But it’s just that — trivia. To be honest, it’s never really happened that a team had four Hall of Fame starters.
Look: The 1930 New York Yankees had Lefty Gomez, Waite Hoyt, Herb Pennock and Red Ruffing. That’s four Hall of Famers. The Yankees that year actually had FIVE starters who went to the Hall of Fame because Babe Ruth started a game (he threw a complete game, allowed three runs and won). But those Yankees didn’t really have four Hall of Famers pitching for them. Lefty Gomez was just a 21-year-old kid and he was just called up and he made only six starts. Pennock was 36 and no longer an especially effective pitcher. And though Waite Hoyt was only 30, he did not pitch like a Hall of Famer that year or hardly ever again (except for a brief renaissance in Pittsburgh). That team had players who would go to the Hall of Fame, but they did not have not great pitchers. And that team finished third.
The 1949 Cleveland Indians also featured four Hall of Fame starters — Bob Feller, Bob Lemon, Early Wynn and Satchel Paige. Lemon was in his prime, Wynn was about to enter it and Feller at age 30 still had a couple of good years later. But Paige was a “rookie” of indeterminate age and he only made five starts. Incidentally, that team also finished third.
So no, it has never happened that a major league baseball team had four Hall of Fame starters all at once, all in or around their prime, all an equal and essential part of a pitching staff.
It could be happening now. Well, wait, let’s not get carried away. It’s way too early to talk Hall of Fame for the Phab Phour Phillies — Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels. Of the four, only Halladay seems a Hall of Fame lock at this point. But when the Phillies shocked everyone by signing Cliff Lee, they put together the most spectacular four man rotation since … well we’ll get to that in a minute.
First, let’s take a quick look at the resumes of the Phillies pitchers:
Halladay (33): Two Cy Young Awards, seven-time All-Star, dominant performer coming off perhaps his best year.
Lee (32): One Cy Young Award, postseason pitching beast, coming off season with 185-18 strikeout to walk ratio.
Oswalt (32): Former ERA champ, five times in Top 5 in Cy Young voting, perhaps most underrated pitcher of his era.
Hamels (26): The 2008 Championship Series and World Series MVP, not even 27 yet, throws one of the best change-ups in baseball.
Not bad, eh? Most people around baseball would tell you that there are probably fifteen true No. 1 starters in baseball at any given time. A quick list might look like so (and we are assuming health):
— Zack Greinke, Kansas City Royals
— Roy Halladay, Philadelphia Phillies
— Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners
— Ubaldo Jiminez, Colorado Rockies
— Josh Johnson Florida Marlins
— Cliff Lee, Philadelphia Phillies
— Jon Lester, Boston Red Sox
— Tim Lincecum, San Francisco Giants
— Roy Oswalt, Philadelphia Phillies
— David Price, Tampa Bay Rays
— C.C. Sabathia, New York Yankees
— Johan Santana, New York Mets
— Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers
— Adam Wainwright, St. Louis Cardinals
— Jered Weaver, Angels
Now, you could add a few guys to this list if you want — Matt Cain, Francisco Liriano, Dan Haren, Mark Buehrle, Chris Carpenter, Cole Hamels, young guys like Clay Buchholz and Clayton Kershaw, there are others — but I suspect that most people would go the other way and say some of the top guys listed are not true No. 1 starters. People tend to be pretty strict on the question of what makes a TRUE No. 1 starter. Point is that that while 30 teams have someone they CALL their No. 1 starter, the truth is that fewer than half of the teams in baseball have a real ace.
The Phillies now have two aces for sure with Halladay and Lee, a third (I think) in Oswalt if he’s healthy and pitches the way he did down the stretch (and as he has for most of his career). Heck, Hamels has a chance to be one as well. It’s staggering. At least it feels that way now, in December, with Opening Day a few months away.
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So I asked Bill James what he thinks about all this. Well, the first thing — we talked about the greatest rotations since World War II. As it turned out, we agree that the best rotation is the 1993-98 Atlanta Braves. No team in baseball history has ever had three sure-fire Hall of Famers — Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz — pitching together in their prime for that long. It is absolutely amazing. We will get back to the Braves in a minute but here’s a fun way to show you just how dominant those three starters were over those six years:
Cy Young Winners from 1993-1998:
1993: Greg Maddux (Tom Glavine finished third)
1994: Greg Maddux
1995: Greg Maddux (Tom Glavine finished third)
1996: John Smoltz (Greg Maddux finished tied for fifth)
1997: Pedro Martinez (Maddux finished second, Braves teammate Denny Neagle finished third)
1998: Tom Glavine (Maddux and Smoltz tied for fourth)
Now, of course, Cy Young voting is flawed and you don’t want to base too much on it — but that’s still a lot of fun. The Braves won five of the six Cy Young awards and usually played two in the voting. Another way to look at the Braves Three is to simply at their composite numbers over six seasons:
The Braves Big 3 from 1993 to 1998:
Greg Maddux: 107-42, 2.15 ERA, 1087 Ks, 199 walks, 196 ERA+.
Tom Glavine: 100-45, 3.07 ERA, 877 Ks, 464 walks, 137 ERA+.
John Smoltz: 89-51, 3.25 ERA, 1,204 Ks, 382 walks, 130 ERA+.
We’re also going to talk about Wins Above Replacement in a minute — let’s just say that only one team in the last 85 years has had three pitchers with a WAR 5.5 or above in a single season. That was the 1996 Braves.
OK, but because we’re talking about the Phillies, we really need to talk about FOUR man rotations. And the Braves were really a three-man rotation. Yes, a couple of times a fourth pitcher emerged with a good year (you see the 1997 Denny Neagle year). But, in general, it was really Maddux-Glavine-Smoltz.
So, what were the best four-man rotations since World War II? Bill says three come to mind:
– 1971 Orioles. That team is usually the first one people think about because all four pitchers — Jim Palmer, Mike Cuellar, Pat Dobson and Dave McNally — won at least 20 games. That only happened once before, way back in 1920, when four Chicago White Sox’ starters (Red Faber, Eddie Cicotte, Lefty Williams and Dickey Kerr) all won at least 20. Few remember that because, of course, Cicotte and Williams were two of the Eight Men Out and they were were banned from baseball after the season. Anyway, 1920 was a different era. And now we see that 1971 was a different era too. We have not had four starters in BASEBALL win 20 games since 2008.
— 1966 Dodgers. Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale were the stars, Claude Osteen was the excellent third starter (he would go on to win 196 big league games) and the fourth starter was a 21-year-old rookie named Don Sutton. He would pitch for another 22 years after that and go to the Hall of Fame.
— 1955 Cleveland Indians. The 1954 Indians rotation is more famous because that team won 111 games (and lost to Willie Mays’ Giants in a World Series sweep) and had an aged but still feisty Bob Feller pitching along with Lemon, Wynn and the very good Mike Garcia. But we both think 1955’s rotation was a bit more impressive in retrospect. Feller was not really that team’s fourth starter in ’54 — their fourth starter was Art Houtteman, who had a few good years. But in 1955 — with Lemon, Wynn and Garcia still going — Houtteman was replace by a 22-year-old phenom named Herb Score, who promptly led the league in strikeouts. Lemon and Wynn, as mentioned, are in the Hall. Garcia wasn’t quite that good, but he was very good. Score had his career famously derailed, but not before becoming one of the greatest young pitchers in baseball history.
There are other interesting four-man rotations like the 1985 Royals (Bret Saberhagen, Charlie Liebrandt, Danny Jackson, Mark Gubicza), the 1973 Oakland A’s (Catfish Hunter, Vida Blue, Ken Holtzman, Blue Moon Odom), the 2005 Chicago White Sox (Mark Buehrle, Jose Contreras, Freddy Garcia, Jon Garland) and even this year’s San Francisco Giants (Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez and Madison Bumgarner, who at 20 only made 18 starts).*
*And, since we’re already winding all over the place, it’s worth taking a detour to look at the 1967 CIncinnati Reds. That is not remembered as a great pitching staff for clear-cut reasons, but it actually had a chance to be something remarkable. The team was led by 19-year-old Gary Nolan who, along with a young guy named Tom Seaver, looked to be the next great pitcher in the game. Jim Maloney was a big star who had thrown two no-hitters in 1965 and some say he threw even harder than Koufax. Milt Pappas was mostly known as the other guy in one of the worst trades in baseball history — “who can forget Frank Robinson for Milt Pappas, for god-sakes” — but he won 209 games and was a good pitcher for many years. And the fourth starter was Mel Queen, an outfielder turned pitcher who for one year threw some serious gas. He had only one pitch, his fastball, but he could throw the heck out of it, and that one year he finished fourth in hits per nine innings and fifth with a 137 ERA+. He won six games for the rest of his career.
Still, if you are talking about great four-man rotations, you probably stick with with the ’71 Orioles, ’66 Dodgers and ’55 Indians. Thing is, none of those staffs really matches up with this year’s Phillies. The 1971 Orioles were obviously terrific, but Pat Dobson while good that year was not a great pitcher over his career. The 1966 Dodgers were more of a fortunate coincidence than anything — that was Koufax’s last year and Sutton’s first, they just barely crossed paths. The 1955 Indians had four terrific pitchers, but the timing was off. Lemon was close to the end, Garcia was close to the end, and, of course, Score was just starting his fateful path.
We don’t know about the timing of these Phillies yet. But we do know that all four pitchers:
1. Are already bonafide.
2. Seem to still be in their primes.
Let’s look at this this way — I told you we would look at Wins Above Replacement (WAR). Well, here are the four pitchers’ 2010 WAR (according to Baseball Reference):
— Roy Halladay: 6.9
— Roy Oswalt: 5.1
— Cole Hamels: 4.7
— Cliff Lee: 4.3
What do those numbers mean? Well, to give you an idea: Halladay’s 6.9 WAR was second best in baseball (behind hot-starting Ubaldo Jiminez) — you will, on average, get one or two pitchers a year in baseball who post a WAR around 7. Post a number around 7 and you probably have a good shot at being the Cy Young winner. Every now and again you will get a pitcher who had an absurdly great year and might post an 8 or 9 or even 10 WAR (the last 10 WAR was Pedro Martinez in 2000, the one before that was Roger Clemens in 1997 and then you have to go all the way back to Dwight Gooden in 1985).
OK, so a 7 is a great WAR number, and so is a 6. A 5 WAR generally ranks you as one of the best pitchers in the league. And a WAR above 4 is more or less All-Star caliber. Last year, 25 pitchers in both leagues posted a WAR of better than 4.0. The year before that, 26 pitchers did. In 1997, there were 23. In 1980, when there were four fewer teams, there were 16 pitchers with a 4.0 WAR. And in 1968, the year of the pitcher, there were 26.
Point is a 4.0 WAR pitcher is pretty much without exception a very, very good pitcher. Matt Cain last year was just under 4.0 — he was 3.9. The point here is not to sell you on the merits of WAR but just to give you an idea how good all four guys were last year.
Anyway, only five teams in baseball history have had four starters with a better 4.0 WAR. Two of them — the 1909 Athletics and 1912 Red Sox — played during deadball and don’t really match up.
One of those teams was the 1967 Reds I referenced in the italics above.
The other two are 1990s Braves teams … and we finally come around full circle.
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Yes, something like this Cliff Lee thing did happen once before. That was 1993. That was the year the Braves signed Greg Maddux to go along with the Braves already great rotation of Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Steve Avery. There was some of the same hype then as there is for this Phillies team now … and rightfully so. The Braves had won back-to-back pennants. Glavine had won a Cy Young award, Smoltz had led the league in strikeouts, Avery was just 23 and (like Hamels) seemingly limitless in potential. And Maddux was already Maddux — he had won the Cy Young for Chicago in 1992 and his 2.18 ERA was the lowest for a Cubs starter in almost 30 years.
Bill: “You know, when the Braves signed Maddux, they already had the best rotation in the National League, and people started talking immediately about it being the greatest rotation of all time. I remember telling a friend that they would bomb, because that seemed like that was how those stories always end; when expectations are THAT high, you always bomb.”
Of course, as Bill quickly points out — they didn’t bomb. They exceeded expectations and became perhaps the most enduring rotation in baseball history. But it is true that things did not go off without a hitch. There was the Steve Avery fall. Avery was widely viewed as more or less the equal of Glavine or Smoltz. And he followed this up with a very good 1993 season (that 1993 Braves team has an argument as the best four-man rotation in baseball history too). But he was never again even a serviceable pitcher. He had an arm injury, and he threw A LOT of pitches when he was young, and those things could have sparked his problems. Or maybe it was something else. In any case, the Braves had to go on without him. And, of course, they did.
If you want to be realistic, you have to figure something like that could happen to the Phillies four too. That’s baseball. That’s pitching. Hamels had a bizarre 2009 season when he struggled, you can’t know for sure what will happen with him. Oswalt and Lee and Halladay are all in their young 30s, and the odds suggest all three won’t be successful pitchers in their mid-to-late 30s. But, yeah, the simple truth is that this rotation has a chance to be remarkable.
The Braves went the playoffs all five years of their amazing pitching run (with 1994, obviously, being a non-year). They won two of five pennants, lost the other three in the NLCS. They won 100 games three of the four seasons that were not shortened by strikes. And, of course, they won only the one World Series … which has (fairly or unfairly) left those Braves branded with the black mark of UNDERACHIEVER.
What will happen to these Phillies? It’s hard to say. Their lineup IS getting old — every player in the lineup except Dominic Brown figures to be 30 or older. Their shortstop and soul Jimmy Rollins has been on a pretty steady decline since winning the MVP award back in 2007. Their second baseman and best player Chase Utley is coming off an injury plagued season and a postseason where he simply did not look like himself. Their power and glory guy, Ryan Howard, had a down year too, his power numbers were down, and his five-year $125 million deal doesn’t start until the year AFTER next. And so on.
But, oh, that rotation. Bill says he doubted that amazing Braves rotation but after seeing what they did, “I am less skeptical now, almost twenty years later. That’s some kind of a starting rotation, that’s for sure.” I think so too. With Halladay, Lee, Oswalt and Hamels the Phillies are clear cut favorites in the National League. They now have the burden of potentially great teams, meaning that they can only do two things: Win or disappoint.