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December 15, 2010

Checking the Numbers

Ranking R2C2

by Eric Seidman

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:

Team

Year

3 Prior Years

SNLVAR – 3 Prior Years

Atlanta Braves

1998

1995-97

90.64

Atlanta Braves

1995

1992-94

78.70

Los Angeles Dodgers

1972

1969-71

77.17

Atlanta Braves

1997

1994-96

76.75

Oakland Athletics

2004

2001-03

74.89

Los Angeles Dodgers

1966

1963-65

74.86

Baltimore Orioles

1972

1969-71

74.19

Los Angeles Dodgers

1973

1970-72

74.14

Atlanta Braves

1999

1996-98

73.62

New York Mets

1976

1973-75

73.09

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:

Name

2008

2009

2010

Total

Roy Halladay

7.62

8.23

8.78

24.63

Cliff Lee

7.69

7.44

5.30

20.43

Roy Oswalt

5.66

4.63

7.21

17.50

Cole Hamels

7.18

3.81

6.51

17.50

Kyle Kendrick

2.13

2.36

2.16

6.65

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. 

Eric Seidman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Eric's other articles. You can contact Eric by clicking here

35 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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blw777

The Braves indeed traded for Smoltz, but as a minor leaguer. Certainly he was a prominent and top-ranked prospect, but definitely not similar to the way that Maddux arrived. In fact, I seem remember considerable angst at the trade.

Dec 15, 2010 05:24 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Eric Seidman
BP staff

Right -- what I meant is that acquiring Smoltz as a minor-leaguer still created the illusion that he was "raised" by the Braves, so while he was not homegrown, it was nowhere near the same thing as trading for Halladay, Lee, or Oswalt.

Dec 15, 2010 05:40 AM
 
jlefty

The Braves rotation will stand the test of time much, much better. People aren't going to remember that they were only slightly better in the 3 years leading up to their season(s) together. They'll remember that 3 of them were (or I assume they will be) Hall of Famers, pitching together around their peak.

Dec 15, 2010 06:25 AM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Eric Seidman
BP staff

That is what sets them apart. They are an example of how the qualitative aura only enhances their actual numbers. The difference between them and these 2011 Phillies is the idea that those Braves pitchers grew together. Yes, Maddux was a Cub, but that trio came into their own and peaked at the same time. The Phillies assembly feels more like a Yankees team assembling Clemens, Wells, etc.

Dec 15, 2010 06:44 AM
 
blw777

Another way to put this is that Maddux, Glavine and presumably Smoltz will all go to the Hall, and when they do, it's hard to believe that they'll wear any caps other than Braves. Sure, Maddux won a CY as a Cub, but he won three with the Braves. The others are even more obvious.

Unless these four Phillies pretty much sweep the pitching honors and win the World Series for the next couple of years, I think it is hard to predict what caps they might wear. Halladay seems pretty a pretty good bet for the Hall, but I don't think that Oswalt or Lee have their tickets punched yet, and of course Hamels is far too young to discuss.

Dec 17, 2010 06:38 AM
rating: 0
 
Hoff

Hey, why not include what the snlvar for those "4th years". the braves teams make repeat performances, but despite having a great year it seems that the 99 version lost 17 snlvar in the prior period. is that because 98 was 17 worse than 95, or where their personnel changes.

Also, fangraphs also took their wayback machine to three years prior period. There are good and fair reasons for that, but lee and halladay (to a lesser extent) also lose a good clip off their performance in 2007.

Ultimately they've got to play the games. I would bet good money(especially given odds) that the giants or red sox has a higher 1-5 snlvar than the phillies in 2011. on 2012-2013, that becomes even stronger.

Dec 15, 2010 06:36 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Eric Seidman
BP staff

I'll take that bet.

Dec 15, 2010 06:44 AM
 
Hoff

you have to admit its a fun bet.

Dec 15, 2010 07:28 AM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Eric Seidman
BP staff

Oh it definitely is. The front four for the Phillies is better than both of those teams, but Kyle Kendrick is nowhere near Zito or whomever is the Red Sox fifth starter. It just depends how much better R2C2 is than the others.

Dec 15, 2010 07:36 AM
 
Hoff

okay so last years count (for the pitchers, not the working staffs) was 25, sf to 30 r2c2, but i mark the top 3 in sf less likely to get injured or regress, and bumgarner gets a whole year to play. Siera did the giants were much luckier than the phils, so i could be crazy.

Dec 15, 2010 07:52 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Eric Seidman
BP staff

Any of the Phillies four is better than Madison Bumgarner. I am also not too confident that Jonathan Sanchez will continue his emergence as a dominant force. I don't know why someone like Lincecum is considered less likely to get injured. If you're going to comment, you gotta' bring it, dude! Don't give me "but I mark the top 3 in SF less likely to get injured or regress"... tell me WHY.

Dec 15, 2010 07:59 AM
 
Hoff

I mean, unfortunately discussing health outcomes without a model as good as will carrol's at hand is difficult.

its only a subjective assessment w.r.t. lincecum. He is the freak. Other causes for concern exist, but weighing them in what is clearly an outlier body type is hard.

halladay lee and oswalt are old and have been worked hard. See kevin goldsteins assessment of why lee having any health issues could be disastrous for his new found level of finesse.

Halladay, who has been quite durable may have tweaked his groin in that last game of the nlcs. He certainly altered his mechanics. Obviously he has plenty of time to recover from that, but 270 innings can take their toll, even when you're as efficient as halladay is.

Dec 15, 2010 09:10 AM
rating: 0
 
Hoff

also are you my high school english teacher or a baseball writer? hahaha.

Dec 16, 2010 06:03 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Eric Seidman
BP staff

Both... and your homework is late.

Dec 16, 2010 06:07 AM
 
TraderBob

Any early speculation as to Blanton's destination?

Dec 15, 2010 08:02 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Eric Seidman
BP staff

No -- and I say that because I don't think he will be moved until closer to the season. When Pavano signs, Zambrano goes to the Yankees, and depending on what happens with Garza, Blanton might actually become the most attractive SP on the market. If I had to guess, I don't know, he seems like the kind of guy the Padres or Brewers would like.

Dec 15, 2010 08:13 AM
 
fatted

The word is that the Phillies will have to eat some of Blanton's $17 million owed. What amount would make the Phillies just give up and say its better to keep him on their team.

I guess it depends on the prospects they get in return, but I'm just wondering how that amount of cash gets determined and what's too much.

Dec 15, 2010 08:59 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Eric Seidman
BP staff

They are not going to expect to get prospects of worth in return. They have little leverage in the situation because it is obvious they need to dump his salary. This was known from the time they were first reported to be in on Lee. The best type of trade for them would be one where the team assumes the max amount of the salary. But this is not going to be a trade where they get anything of value in return aside from salary relief.

Unless of course Blanton suddenly becomes the most attractive option available and teams start to bid, offering to pay 3/4 AND give prospects.

This will most likely end up being something like one of the following scenarios:

1) Blanton is traded to Team X for nothing in return but Team X pays $13 of the remaining 17 million

2) Blanton is traded to Team X for Prospect A who will be forgotten in two years, and Team X pays $8.5 of the remaining 17 million.

Dec 15, 2010 09:19 AM
 
flyingdutchman

Why is it a given that Blanton will be traded? He'll probably bounce back up to around league average, with the potential to be perhaps a little bit better than league average, and he's paid like a league average pitcher. So the Phillies are going to dump all these millions into a couple of marquee pitchers and then throw away a game or two by using Kyle kendrick instead of Blanton? Blanton is a better pitcher than Kendrick.

Dec 15, 2010 11:38 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Eric Seidman
BP staff

Well... duh. The reason they want to move Blanton is that Kendrick makes under a million bucks and Blanton stands to make $8.5/yr. They want to avoid having too high of a salary and in order to do that they would like to move either Blanton or Ibanez. Since it's doubtful nobody would take Ibanez, Blanton becomesthe odd man out.

And as for dumping millions into a couple of marquee pitchers, it's four. Four out of the five spots in the rotation are manned by legitimate #1 pitchers. This isn't like signing Lee and Halladay and then having Kendrick, Vance Worley, and Antonio Bastardo.

Dec 15, 2010 11:56 AM
 
flyingdutchman

Sorry I am so stupid, Eric. Apologies.

Blanton does not make an insane amount of money. Also, you say "too high of a salary". To high of a salary for what? For the amount of salary they have in mind? Where does that number come from, for one thing, and why does it suddently make sense to save $8 million and send a crappy pitcher out there every 5th day?

Dec 15, 2010 12:02 PM
rating: -1
 
BP staff member Eric Seidman
BP staff

I was joking about the Blanton better than Kendrick part. Your points are all valid -- I'm just telling you what THEIR rationale is with moving Blanton.

Dec 15, 2010 13:55 PM
 
flyingdutchman

Kendrick’s BABIP last year was .289, and he put up an ERA+ of 85 last year. His career K/BB rate is 1.54/1. Blanton had an ERA+ of 84 last year, but with a BABIP of .339 and a K/BB ratio of 3.12/1 (his career number is 2.32/1). Blanton is likely to bounce back to at least a 2-win or so player, and Kyle Kendrick is pretty much looking like a 0-win player.

I understand that there is a budget, but don’t you see what I’m saying here? You’re forking over big cash for Lee, and not just to sell jerseys. They are paying for wins, so why does it make sense to pay one guy $4 million or so per win over the margin but not another guy $4 million per win over the margin? Everyone says they “have to” get rid of someone. Why? Losing two wins by jettisoning Blanton is just as likely to cost them a playoff spot as losing two wins because one of their starting pitchers is 2 wins worse than expected.

Dec 15, 2010 12:18 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Eric Seidman
BP staff

Oh I don't think they have to, but THEY are acting like they have to, so that's where everything is coming from. Including Blanton helps them greatly, as Joe is like a 2.5-3 win pitcher when healthy (last year he was hurt for a while). If I had my druthers, Blanton would stay. I just don't see them keeping him around.

Dec 15, 2010 13:56 PM
 
flyingdutchman

Fair enough, but it's just repeated so often, by every single analyst, as though it's something they HAVE to do, as opposed to something they THINK they have to do. The repetition contributes to the idea that these teams are just terribly strapped for cash, and in the long run everyone buys it when they cry poor. Some of them are poor, and it's usually because they're badly run. The Phillies can afford to keep Blanton around.

You do mention that they're probably better off with Blanton, and that's to your credit. So what is the source of the rumor that Blanton wil almost certainly be traded? Did the Phillies just come out and say that?

Dec 15, 2010 15:00 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Eric Seidman
BP staff

Last year when they were getting Halladay their original course of action was to seek suitors for Blanton. They didn't find any that would take enough of the salary so they traded Lee instead since everyone would pay him $9 million. Now, all the sources that have provided all of these reliable reporters like Heyman, Rosenthal, et al, have indicated moving Joe Blanton is a desired course of action to clear some salary from their payroll.

They are obviously better with him because he is just better than Kendrick or Worley, but THEY seem to feel saving $8.5 mil over the next two years is of the utmost importance, which does seem kind of silly when you break the bank to build this team.

Dec 15, 2010 15:54 PM
 
flyingdutchman

Yeah, and I suppose they figure they'll make the playoffs one way or the other, and maybe they're right. If having Blanton instead of Kendrick changes your chances of making the playoffs from 90% to 93% or something, I guess they would have a point.

Dec 15, 2010 17:29 PM
rating: 0
 
j11forbes

How close are the Phillies to the luxury tax? I can't say I know how MLB's luxury tax works, but if it's anything like the NBA, saving that $8.5 million actually means saving the team $15 million.

Dec 16, 2010 22:30 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Eric Seidman
BP staff

For every dollar you go over you owe two dollars. And the Phillies will be dangerously close, if not over, with Joe Blanton. So that would be a major reason why they would try and move him. If they eat $8.5 of the $17 mil and send him elsewhere, then the AAV would be $4.25 mil for this and next year, I believe, which would lower their threshold for the luxury tax.

Dec 17, 2010 06:00 AM
 
flyingdutchman

Oh wow, I hadn't even considered that angle. I didn't know they were getting to that level. That's a good point.

Dec 17, 2010 15:24 PM
rating: 0
 
sgturner65

The Braves' rotation of the 90's may be the gold standard but I'd like to see a comparison to the Indians' rotations in the early 50's with Lemon, Wynn, Garcia and Feller.

Dec 15, 2010 09:45 AM
rating: 0
 
flyingdutchman

ERA+, not the best measure maybe, but good for a quick look:

1950:
112 Lemon
135 Wynn
112 Garcia
126 Feller

1951:
108 Lemon
126 Wynn
120 Garcia
109 Feller

1952:
134 Lemon
116 Wynn
141 Garcia
71 Feller

1953:
112 Lemon
96 Wynn
116 Garcia
105 Feller
99 Houtteman

1954:
134 Lemon
134 Wynn
138 Garcia
119 Feller
109 Houtteman

---------------------

2010:
165 Halladay
130 Lee
132 Hamels
143 Oswalt
84 Blanton

2009:
159 Halladay
131 Lee
97 Hamels
100 Oswalt
104 Blanton

Looks like the Phillies group will probably be better next year than the early 50's Indians were in general, though the Phils bottom 2 or so don't seem quite as reliable, for lack of a better way to put it. They'll use Kendrick instead of Blanton, which is dumb, so that will cost them.

Halladay and Lee are consistent, though we'll build a slight regression in for each. The real Hamels is probably somewhere between 2009 and 2010, though leaning toward 2010. We'll split the difference with Oswalt and make Kendrick 10% worse than league average, which is giving him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe this then:

2011:
150 Halladay
125 Lee
120 Hamels
121 Oswalt
90 Kendrick

This is about where the Indians were at their best, and better, generally, than they were in the early 50's, with 1954 being the exception. Too bad we have 5-man rotations now.

Dec 15, 2010 15:31 PM
rating: 0
 
John Carter

Yes, in 1954 Mike Garcia, Bob Lemon, and Early Wynn finished 1, 2, and 3 in ERA. Art Houteman was the fourth starter - and he was well above average. Feller was fading fast, but still had 19 starts and was well above average, too. They didn't have 5 man rotations, then, but they had many doubleheaders.

Yes, Maddox, Glavine, Smoltz, and whoever else pitched with them set the more modern standard of rotation excellence. Steve Avery had his three superlative years that came just before Maddox's arrival in 1993. Hence, they were a very comparable rotation. However, Avery went downhill fast from there. It will be earily similar if Cole Hamels falls apart. Denny Neagle's arrival in 1997 gave them four aces again. That lasted two years - just in time for Kevin Millwood to mature into a pitcher who went 18-7, 228 innings, 2.68 ERA in 1999. However, he wasn't consistently very good.

How about the 1966 Dodgers? Just in terms of personnel, their rotation was up there with any of those: Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Claude Osteen, and a rookie Don Sutton who debuted with 226 innings and a 2.99 ERA.

Dec 15, 2010 16:11 PM
rating: 0
 
Aquila9

I won't be shocked if they keep Blanton. It's a long season and those top 4 like to go deep into games. Pitchers get hurt and Blanton would be insurance. Kendrick's just not as dependable as Joe. What's a few more bucks?

Dec 15, 2010 21:09 PM
rating: 0
 
rcrary

I tend to agree. I wouldn't be surprised if they thought about flipping Blanton right away, didn't like what they were offered, then reconsidered. If trading Blanton is needed to clear up payroll (which is what everyone assumes), it's not evident to me how being forced to eat much of his contract would help. Better off keeping him unless he brings actual value back.

Dec 16, 2010 06:02 AM
rating: 0
 
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