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Best Rotation of All Time?

Back in February, in an article I wrote for ESPN, I pondered the historical possibilities for the 2011 Phillies starting rotation. Last year, the four aces each finished the season with at least four Wins Above Replacement per Baseball Reference. Cliff Lee, of course, spent his time between Seattle and Texas while Roy Oswalt played with Houston and Philadelphia. With all four in the same starting rotation in 2011, though, they had the potential to become the third starting rotation with four pitchers posting individual seasons with four or more WAR.

How have they fared thus far in 2011? Roy Halladay has 6.2 rWAR; Lee, 6.1; Cole Hamels, 5.2. Due to time missed due to injury, Oswalt is only at 1.3. In nearly as many innings, though (about 110), Vance Worley is at 2.5. While the Phillies didn’t quite meet the stringent criteria used in my article from February, I still think you can make an argument that the starting rotation rivals that of the 1991 and ’97 Atlanta Braves.

In 1991, Tom Glavine posted 7.4 rWAR, followed by John Smoltz at 4.7, Steve Avery at 4.5, and Charlie Liebrandt at 4.3. In 1997, Greg Maddux led the way at 7.3, followed by Glavine at 5.0, Smoltz at 4.5, and Denny Neagle at 4.1. As yet, no Phillie is better than the Braves’ best starter in either year, but their #2 and 3 starters rate better.

On average, the Braves rotations were about a fifth of a win (0.2) better than the ’11 Phillies but if you combine Oswalt and Worley’s contributions (only about 20 innings more than Halladay has pitched), then the Phillies’ rotation comes out on top slightly, on average.

Going by defense-independent metrics, the Phillies sprint ahead. Their top three starters each have a strikeout-to-walk ratio at 4.0 or greater. All of the ’91 Braves’ starters were below 3.0. In ’97, Maddux had an amazing K/BB approaching 9.0, but Smoltz and Neagle were below 4.0. Per FanGraphs, this year’s squad has a 2.93 FIP, which is lower than the ’97 Braves (3.30) and ’91 Braves (3.55) by a significant margin. The 1971 Baltimore Orioles’ starting rotation, which had four — four! — 20-game winners, had a collective FIP of 3.60.

There is no way to definitively prove that one starting rotation was better than another, but the deeper you go with Sabermetrics, the more the 2011 Phillies’ rotation looks like the greatest of all time. With three starts left apiece, the Phillies’ starters still have time to move further and further ahead, and you know the Braves, Brewers, and Diamondbacks are watching, paralyzed in fear.