The 2011 season is three-quarters completed for the Phillies, and, frankly, it’s been a breeze. They’ve been in first place for all but one day in the season. The last time the Braves were within three games was in mid-July. The Phils haven’t had a losing streak longer than four games, and they’ve never been below .500. It’s been so easy for the Phillies, in fact, that I can’t help but feel that I’ve been taking for granted what a uniquely stress-free season we’re experiencing. Even after the 2007 season, magical as it was by any account, it was difficult, for a time, to shake the nagging question of whether or not the Phillies actually belonged there, mentioned in the same breath as perennial contenders. A World Championship helped beat back those doubts. But 2009 and 2010 were both peppered with maddening offensive droughts, losing streaks, injury woes, and under-performing players. It was a whole lot of stress, ultimately over nothing — both teams made the playoffs, and the former won the NL pennant.
The point, though, is that the Phillies have had no such (superficial) issue to (needlessly) pull our hair out over this season. It’s not as if they’re lucking their way to dominance, either. They’re only outplaying their Pythagorean expectation by two games at the moment. It’s just been some legendary pitching backed by an offense that is more than adequate to support it. The unrelenting, uninterrupted success of the 2011 Phillies is something that I, as a 27 year-old fan, don’t really have a precedent for. It’s tough to restrain one’s expectations for this team, and it’s tough not to think, when Cliff Lee whiffs his seventh batter in as many innings or Chase Utley works the strike zone like some kind of baseball android, that we’re watching the best Phillies team that has ever played. What previous iteration could have been better? The Phillies have had 13 playoff teams and two World Championships, yes, but a lot of things can happen in the playoffs that don’t reflect the true talent level of the team. Has any other Phillies club achieved, in the regular season, what this current group figures to?
We can take a look at the runs scored and runs allowed by previous Phillies teams and try to approximate an answer. Of course, comparing that sort of raw data between eras isn’t possible without some preliminary work. The NL has gone through countless different run environments over the years, and this season is particularly run-starved compared to the last 20 or so years. The league has also had several variations of season length, between the earlier 154 game standard, the strike-shortened 1994 and 1995 seasons, and others. By taking these teams’ run totals and adjusting them to a 4.5 runs per game environment and a 162 game season, we can lay out an equal playing field on which we can start to make comparisons. Plugging these adjusted totals into a Pythagenpat calculation, we can project a win percentage that endeavors to filter out at least some of the luck that goes into a team’s actual record.
These adjustments are still fairly crude. Of the best ten teams by our adjusted Pythagenpat record, four are from prior to the turn of the twentieth century. Two are from seasons prior to the integration of African American players, and well before any substantial number of Latino players had made their way into the league. The vast difference between baseball in the 19th century and baseball as we know it today, as well as the impact of non-white players on the game’s talent pool, are two things that transcend any one quantitative adjustment. To be safe, let’s limit our look to teams following the 1946 season, when integration in baseball got underway. As it turns out, it doesn’t make any difference in our top two teams:
||Adj. Run Diff.
ERA+ is an era and park adjusted version of ERA. 100 is average for that league and year, 110 is 10% above that average, etc. wRC+ performs this exact same adjustment with the wOBA offensive metric.
At least by this assessment, the 2011 Phillies are topped only by their 1976 counterparts, who finished the season 101-61. Like 2011, the 1976 NL was a run-starved league, and the Phillies that year relied on some hitters who were having far from their best seasons, but thriving relative to the league. Their anchor was a young core of hitters. Mike Schmidt (150 wRC+), Greg Luzinski (137), and Garry Maddox (133), all in their mid-20s, posted wRC+ figures of 130 or higher. Phillies fans were just beginning to understand the generational talent that they had in Schmidt; he had broken out two years prior with a .282/.395/.546 season, and, in 1976, led the NL in home runs for the third straight year. Jay Johnstone (130) and a declining Dick Allen (133), in the second year of his reunion tour with the Phils, chipped in as well.
In our hypothetical run environment of 4.5 runs per game, this offense would have managed 5.37, the second highest figure of all the post-1946 Phillies teams (and fourth highest over their entire 129 year history). This outstrips the 2011 club easily. Shane Victorino (157), Chase Utley (140), and Hunter Pence (138) match up favorably against the 1976 team’s top three, but Pence has only been with the Phillies for a little more than a week, and, in any case, the current club lacks the ’76 iteration’s depth down the lineup, and potent bench.
Not surprisingly, pitching is where the current Phillies really have an edge. The 2011 rotation, in the 4.5 runs per game environment, allows 3.53 runs per game, decidedly the best in Phillies history (the closest competitor was the 1886 Quakers, with a staff led by Charlie Ferguson, who posted a modest 165 ERA+ in 396 innings). Their present ERA+ of 127 leads the majors, and, among the starters, only Roy Oswalt and Joe Blanton have an ERA above 3.5. The 1976 crew featured a formidable bullpen — none of their qualified relievers had an ERA+ below 120 — but their starters just don’t stack up. And how could they? Five of the 2011 club’s qualified starters have an ERA+ above 120, which is higher than anyone in the 1976 rotation managed. This season’s pitching rotation has a legitimate claim to be placed among the best in baseball history, much less franchise history.
Fans in both 1976 and 2011 have had the privilege of watching a future Hall of Famer. Steve Carlton, though experiencing what could be called a “down year” by his standards, was still only 31 in 1976, and had 3 Cy Youngs ahead of him. Like Halladay, he regularly posted gaudy numbers in the innings pitched department, and, as Halladay has, he led the league in batters faced three times prior to the 1976 season. Compared through their age 33 seasons (1978 for Carlton, 2010 for Halladay), Carlton logged almost 1,000 more innings (in an era when they piled up much faster for starters) but Halladay has a significant edge in ERA+ (136 to 120) and K/BB (3.53 to 2.22). Both could be considered an enigmatic and quirky clubhouse presence, although Halladay’s relationship with the press is not nearly as acerbic. Each of them were and are blueprints for the hard-nosed, unrelenting work ethic of a truly elite starting pitcher. It’s easy to imagine, had Twitter existed in the 1970s, more than a few “after this, Carlton is going to go run some stairs” comments. Just like our 1976 counterparts in fandom, we await the remainder of Halladay’s career with unbounded expectations and wide-eyed reverence.
All the way down the list, this year’s Phillies match up well with the best teams in franchise history, the 1976 squad included. And this is without discussing the previous three years’ worth of teams, all of whom appear on our top ten list. As with the late ’70s, this is a golden era of Phillies baseball. 2011 could well be a standout in an era of dominance that likely isn’t over. When the playoffs compress this season into a few vital short series contests, many things could happen to derail this team. But the elite regular season performance, the myriad player personalities, and the dynastic multi-year success will persist in digital and oral history. I’m one of many people who have remarked recently that they look forward to telling their children and grandchildren the story of Chase Utley, or of Roy Halladay, or of Cole Hamels. There is plenty more to be written for all of them.