The Best Rotation in Baseball History is Still Here, Even if Delmon Young is Too

Otto Greule Jr

A redefinition of statistics results in an unofficial crown coming to Philadelphia.

A lot went wrong for the Phillies in 2012, so much so that it's easy to forget just how good they were in 2011, and how many essential parts of that 2011 team remain intact heading into the 2013 season. The primary reason for the Phillies' success in 2011 was, of course, their starting rotation. How good was it? That's a question I attempted to answer late that September in a piece for SI.com by comparing the collective Wins Above Replacement of the purported "four aces," Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, and Roy Oswalt to that of other rotation quartets throughout history. However, the May 2012 recalculation of Baseball-References' WAR stat (hereafter bWAR) and the diminished significance of Oswalt in the intervening season has led me to revisit my conclusion in a way that has produced a noteworthy change.

My conclusion from September 2011 was that the Phillies' four aces did indeed combine to form one of the best starting rotations in major league history. Based on a list I assembled of the top rotation quartets of all time, I reasoned that Halladay, Lee, Hamels, and Oswalt were in the top 10 in the modern era, the top eight in the liveball era, and the top seven since integration. That conclusion was based on a pro-rated (because the season was not over yet) combined bWAR of 21.4 wins above replacement. However, if you replace Oswalt (9-10, 3.69 ERA in 139 innings, 2.0 bWAR) with Vance Worley (11-3, 3.01 ERA in 131 2/3 innings, 3.2 bWAR) and use the revised version of bWAR for all four pitchers, that total leaps up to 26.2 bWAR. That's not just a significant increase in the estimated value of the 2011 Phillies' rotation. Best I can tell, it makes the 2011 quartet of Halladay, Lee, Hamels, and Worley the best rotation foursome by bWAR since 1891, a decade before the creation of the American League.

Now, it's worth remembering that bWAR is a comparative statistic, one that measures performance against replacement level for a given season and league and adjusts for ballpark effects and strength of opponent. Those are all things WAR should do, but they are also things that create counterintuitive results, particularly when comparing contemporary players to those from completely different eras. For example, the top four men in the 1913 White Sox's rotation posted a 1.94 ERA over 1,048 innings (totals that include various relief appearances). By comparison, the 2011 Phillies' quartet posted a 2.59 ERA over 814 1/3 innings. How, then, was the Phillies' quartet two wins better than the White Sox's according to bWAR?

For starters, the average National League team scored 4.16 runs per game in 2011, while the average American League team scored just 3.93 runs per game in 1913. A far greater portion of the latter was comprised of unearned runs. The league-average ERA in the AL in 1913 was 2.93. In the NL in 2011 it was 3.81. In 2011, Citizens Bank Park had a pitching park factor of 103, meaning it favored hitters. In 1913, Comiskey Park had a pitching park factor of 95, meaning it favored pitchers. In 2011, Halladay, Lee, and Hamels finished second, fourth, and ninth in the NL innings pitched despite none having thrown more than Halladay's 233 2/3 innings, a total that would have ranked 22nd in the eight-team AL in 1913, a year in which just 33 pitchers qualified for the AL ERA title.

It's also worth remembering that even Baseball-Reference itself admits that their Wins Above Replacement (as with any other iteration) is "an approximation" and that, over a full season, a difference of a win or two isn't "definitive." Still, for Phillies fans, the following list of the top rotation quartets of the modern era by bWAR should be a source of both pride and optimism. Prior to Halladay, Lee, and Hamels in 2011, the only three rotation mates in modern baseball history to each surpass 6.0 bWAR in the same season were Reb Russell, Jim Scott, and Eddie Cicotte of those aforementioned 1913 White Sox, and the only nineteenth-century team to turn the trick was the 1891 Boston Beaneaters of John Clarkson, Kid Nichols (both of whom won 30 games and threw more than 400 innings), and Harry Staley.

Rk

Year

Team

Top 4 bWAR

1

2011

Phillies

26.2

2

1912

Red Sox

24.4

3

1913

White Sox

24.2

4

1901

Beaneaters

23.4

5

1946

Tigers

22.8

t6

1991

Braves

22.4

t6

1969

Cubs

22.4

t6

2002

Diamondbacks

22.4

t9

1969

Cardinals

22.3

t9

1903

Giants

22.3

The Phillies' three aces are all two years older, and all those innings and complete games seemed to finally catch up to Halladay last year in his age-35 season, but those three are still set to lead the Phillies' charge in the coming season, the primary reason that, Delmon Young or not, the Phillies can't be counted out in 2013.

Cliff Corcoran is one of SBN’s Designated Columnists. His work also appears at SI.com. Follow him at @cliffcorcoran and the Designated Columnists at @SBNMLBDCers.

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