Halladay. Lee. Hamels. Oswalt. And whoever. I’m not going to waste your time with wondering whether that’s the best rotation in the game today, because it clearly is. Any arguable next-best rotation probably has one guy who would crack that top four, and if you think otherwise, you’re dreaming. No, we need to go with history here.
The most recent comparables are those Braves rotations of the 90s. But on a man-by-man basis, the Phillies are probably better. Maddux was better than Halladay at their best, but all three of the Phillies other big-four are probably better, on average, than Glavine, Smoltz and whoever else trailed them.* And there were many others taking that four-spot. Maddux-Glavine-Smoltz were a constant — at least when Smoltz wasn’t missing a year here or there for surgery — but beyond the top three, there was an often-changing cast of characters. Some Steve Avery here, some Denny Neagle there, and a dash or two of Pete Smith or Kevin Millwood to fill in the cracks. They got great performances from those number four guys on occasion, but going in, none looked as strong top-to-bottom as the 2011 Phillies will. At least on paper.
Going back, we reach those early 70s Orioles rotations. In 1971 the Orioles boasted four 20-game winners in Jim Palmer, Dave McNally, Pat Dobson and Mike Cuellar. And they weren’t merely run-support-powered wins, as they had a 2.89 ERA — about a run better than the rest of the league that year — with Palmer, McNally and Dobson finishing 3-7-8 in ERA. But we must also remember that (a) wins and ERA are not the most critical metric in judging a staff; and (b) these O’s played in a much more friendly pitchers’ environment than will the 2011 Phillies. I think they break down similarly to the Phillies as the Braves rotations do — Palmer at his best is probably the best of the eight of them, though it’s way closer — but the 2-4 pitchers are better on Philly. And really, I’d probably take Halladay over Palmer simply because I think he faces better hitters than Palmer did. I bet this is the comparison you see most in 2011, with people wondering the the Phillies can boast four 20-game winners. Why? Because that’s fun.
The mid-60s Dodgers? Koufax and Drysdale weren’t alone. They had Don Sutton and Claude Osteen helping them out. They struck out tons of guys, walked few, and gave up very few hits. In 1965 and 1966 they made the World Series without having a ton of offense either. But that’ s the thing: no one had a ton of offense in the 60s, and the Dodgers had the added benefit of playing in one of the more pitcher-friendly parks in modern memory, complete with an absurdly high mound. People will consider it sacrilege to compare the Phillies to the mid-60s Dodgers because they roamed the Earth a much longer time ago and the name Koufax looms so large in history. But I’m guessing some statheads will be able to make some arguments — that will be howled at by people who don’t understand era and context adjustments — that the Phillies are better. They may even be right.
Beyond those guys we get into more ancient history and eras that begin to bear little resemblance to our own. I’m guessing that any argument of the best rotations of all time will list those Braves, Dodgers and Orioles teams in the top five anyway. At least in the post-segregation era. And the Phillies — barring injury — stand a damn fine chance of joining them.
*When I say, on average, I mean that any given expected season from a non-Maddux 1990s Braves pitcher is not as not as good as we can expect from Hamels, Lee or Oswalt next year. They had better seasons in practice — Smoltz’s Cy Young year spring to mind — but it wasn’t the kind of thing you could bet on.