December 15, 2010
Checking the Numbers
As Kevin Goldstein noted, Monday, December 14, 2010 may go down as one of the 10 best baseball nights in the history of Twitter. The night had it all: accounts successfully replicating those of very reliable sources to pull a prank, subsequently sending everyone and their followers into a veritable frenzy, the cream of the free-agent crop signing a lucrative contract, the revelation of a mystery team akin to a turn in a wrestling story line, and practically anyone that cares about baseball emotionally invested in every twist and turn. When the dust settled, Cliff Lee had agreed in principle to sign with the Philadelphia Phillies, a year to the day after Ruben Amaro Jr. acquired Roy Halladay and 363 days after Amaro traded Lee to the Mariners in a companion deal that drew the ire of every Phillies fan. The news was shocking, as it had seemed for weeks that Lee’s decision would boil down to the Yankees or Rangers. After all, both were contending teams making big offers.
The Nationals were reportedly interested but never considered serious candidates. The Phillies were barely mentioned as a possible destination as the whole situation seemingly surfaced out of thin air. In what felt like the blink of an eye, the Phillies added Lee to a rotation already boasting Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, and Cole Hamels. Four aces. Four pitchers who could easily top the rotations for at least two-thirds of the teams in both leagues were suddenly all in the same rotation. Phillies fans who had grown accustomed to the term “No. 1 pitcher” coinciding with the arrivals of Omar Daal, Robert Person, Kevin Millwood, and Jon Lieber now got to stake claim to four legitimate aces. From 2008-10, Roy Halladay led all pitchers in aggregate SNLVAR, Cliff Lee ranked sixth, and Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels tied for the 12th spot on the leaderboard. In other words, four of the top 15 pitchers in the game over the last three seasons will now be pitching together. Here we will examine where this fearsome foursome ranks historically based on their production leading into the year they pitch together. But first, how did this all come to be?
Everything started in July 2009, when the Phillies were plodding along with an inconsistent starting rotation. They sent Lou Marson, Jason Donald, Carlos Carrasco, and Jason Knapp to the Indians for Lee and Ben Francisco. Lee propelled the team to the World Series, but the Yankees proved to be too much to handle. Halladay joined the team in December 2009, with the Phillies unloading Kyle Drabek, Travis d’Arnaud, and Michael Taylor. To make the finances work, Amaro sent Lee to the Mariners a mere two days later for Phillippe Aumont, Tyson Gilles, and J.C. Ramirez. When it seemed that the combination of Halladay and Hamels was not going to be enough to push the Phillies into the playoffs, Amaro turned around and dealt J.A. Happ, Anthony Gose, and Jonathan Villar to the Astros for ace righty Roy Oswalt. The H2O trio dominated down the stretch, but the Phillies fell short of their third straight pennant by falling to the Giants in the National League Championship Series.
Despite falling short of their goal, optimism persisted as the Phils were set to get a full season from Oswalt, and it seemed increasingly likely that the offensive production from Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, and Shane Victorino would all improve—all four spent time on the disabled list last season. Adding 33 starts from one of the very few pitchers worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as Halladay was just icing on top of an already delicious-looking cake. Essentially, the Phillies traded one top-flight pitching prospect in Drabek, a mid-level pitching prospect in Carrasco, a lefty starter with mid-rotation upside in Happ, and a pu-pu platter of depth for Halladay, Lee, Oswalt, and Francisco, and the three prospects received when Lee was originally sent to the Mariners.
With the introductions out of the way, does this shape up to be, on paper, the best rotation ever assembled? It may sound hyperbolic, and I am certainly wont to exude hyperbole at times, but I do not think I am reaching by suggesting that the Phillies’ rotation, aptly nicknamed R2C2, could become the gold standard for starting staffs. I do not necessarily think it is a stretch to think that a decade from now they might supplant the mid-‘90s Braves staffs as the go-to example of the best rotation assembled. But how can we find out where they rank preemptively, especially considering that 2011 season has yet to begin? What makes this R2C2 quartet so special is how well they have all pitched over the last three seasons. The question then becomes if any starting staff ever amassed as high of an SNLVAR tally in the three years prior to pitching together? Are the Phillies potentially walking on undiscovered ground?
My goal here is not to evaluate how well certain groups of starters pitched while in the same rotation, but rather how much collective talent was assembled for particular staffs, to decipher which rotations, entering a season, had as much going for them as the 2011 Phillies. I pooled together all starters who made at least 25 starts for a team in any season from 1954 onward. I then added their SNLVAR total in each of the three preceding years. As an example, the 1998 Braves got 25 or more starts that season from Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, and Denny Neagle. That foursome combined to produce 90.64 wins from 1995-97. Maddux led the way at 28.96, followed by Glavine at 22.05, Smoltz at 21.38, and Neagle at 18.25. Neagle’s tally, though last amongst that rotation, is still fantastic at an average of over six wins per year.
Essentially, what we are measuring here is what rotations would have received similar reactions to that of the 2011 Phillies, based on what has fueled our reactions to this staff so far. The rationale for restricting the target year to pitchers with 25 or more starts is to avoid a situation where a team is credited with more SNLVAR starts than is capable of being achieved. For instance, the 2002 Yankees received just eight starts from Jeff Weaver. Does it really make sense to include his 1999-2001 numbers in their three-year total, when he did not factor into much of their success? By including a pitcher along these lines, the Yankees would reap the benefit of Weaver’s 13.29 SNLVAR from 1999-2001, inflating their total over that span. With that in mind, here are the top 10 rotations in the Retrosheet era based on these criteria:
There is a clear line of demarcation between the 1998 Braves and everyone else, as the difference between the first two spots is greater than the separation between the second- and 10th-place teams. It should also come as no surprise that the mid- to late-‘90s Braves staffs feature so prominently on this list as the Maddux-Glavine-Smoltz trio and anyone else who came along for the ride. Both the 1998 and 1995 staffs lost out on added wins due to the strike years, which makes the numbers all the more impressive. The 1995 staff featured Steve Avery and Kent Mercker in addition to the trio, though the latter didn’t do much in the preceding years. Realistically, this group seems like a decent comparable for the 2011 Phillies, with Kyle Kendrick playing the Mercker role. However, all four of the Phillies main starters are superior to Avery.
Where do the 2011 Phillies rank? Using Kendrick as the fifth wheel as opposed to Joe Blanton, who is very likely to be traded prior to the season, here are their numbers over the last three seasons:
These five pitchers total 86.71 wins via the SNLVAR statistic, which adjusts for the strength of the opposing lineup as well as the replacement level. They don’t quite top the list, although they are very clearly in second place. One could argue that Lee’s number should be bumped up a bit given that he missed a month, but the Braves also lost production due to the strike, so these differences should ultimately wash out. Others might say Blanton should be included instead of Kendrick, which actually would push the Phillies ahead, but that would be a cherry-picked move since the odds of him staying are incredibly low. No matter how you slice it, the 1998 Braves had the best rotation going into their season in baseball history, and with the addition of Cliff Lee, the Phillies rank second.
This is all on paper right now, though, and if the Phillies go out and win the World Series or win a couple over the next few seasons, it would be tough to deny their rightful place in history. What makes this feel so potentially different than the Braves teams is how the players were acquired. Though Smoltz was acquired in a trade, he was still technically raised by the Braves. Glavine was homegrown, and by 1998 Maddux was firmly entrenched as a Brave. With the Phillies, everyone aside from Hamels was acquired over the last year and a half, in rather unexpected and/or dramatic fashion. There is more shock value or oomph behind their rotation right now, but do not forget the dynamic Braves rotations of the 1990s. They are still the gold standard in starting rotations, though history may soon be rewritten.