The comparison is so inviting that even a world-class dunce like yours truly has made it: With Cliff Lee, the Phillies would seem to have a rotation capable of challenging the best ever, and I’m of the opinion the best rotation ever worked here in the ’90s. Yes, there’s a major caveat: The Braves of the ‘9os went out and did it, while the Phillies must go out and do it. That said …
Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels. Roy Oswalt and now Cliff Lee. On paper, that’s pretty stinkin’ good. (Apologies to Mark Richt for borrowing his line.)
And it’s not just this world-class dunce who thinks so. All the smart guys who crunch baseball numbers are saying so, too.
From Dan Szymborski of ESPN Insider (link requires registration): “The 2011 Philadelphia Phillies rotation isn’t meant to just win; it’s meant to demolish other teams … The Phillies’ new rotation could be the best one we’ve seen in more than 40 years — and beating out staffs with [Tom] Seaver, [Bob] Gibson, [Steve] Carlton, [Dwight] Gooden and ‘Greg] Maddux is no small matter.”
From Tom Verducci of SI.com: “It’s the rotation with the best pure stuff and proven track record since the 1966 Dodgers of Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Don Sutton and Claude Osteen.”
From Buster Olney of ESPN Insider (requires registration): “On paper, it’s the best rotation we’ve seen in about 20 years.”
From Eric Seidman of Baseball Prospectus (requires registration): “The 1998 Braves [of Maddux, tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Denny Neagle] had the best rotation going into their season in baseball history, and with the addition of Cliff Lee, the Phillies rank second … 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.”
A dissenting note from Cliff Corcoran of SI.com: “The greatest rotations since 1954 … were those of the 1997 Braves and 1966 Dodgers, both of which were worth 33.6 wins above replacement. That shouldn’t come as any great surprise. The Dodgers of 1966 were the last team to feature Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale and the first to include rookie Don Sutton. That’s three Hall of Famers to match the ‘97 Braves trio of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz, all of whom are Cooperstown-bound … Where the Phillies’ four fall short is not on the back end, but up top. As great as Halladay is, he has never dominated over a full season the way Koufax or Maddux did.”
Projecting greatness, or the lack thereof, always makes for prime Hot Stove kindling. I know. In February 1993 I did a 100-inch story — for you lay people, that’s a long one — on where the Braves’ new rotation stacked up against the all-time best. I spoke with Bob Feller, who was part of a dandy one in Cleveland, and with Ray Miller, who was Earl Weaver’s pitching coach with the Orioles in the late ‘90, and with the aforementioned Sutton. Heck, I even went to the library — Al Gore hadn’t yet brought the Internet to the masses — to look stuff up.
And now I direct you to this fine (and lengthy) story by Jayson Stark of ESPN, in which he quotes Leo Mazzone, who knew the Braves’ rotations better than anyone. Rockin’ Leo employs a bit of revisionist history by saying the Braves “chose” to sign Maddux over Barry Bonds in December 1992 — actually, the Braves were devastated they didn’t land Bonds — but otherwise makes salient points. He likens Halladay to Maddux, Lee to Glavine, Oswalt to Smoltz and Hamels to Steve Avery.
Leo’s conclusion: “So these [Philly] guys all have signature pitches and stuff and makeup as good as anybody in the game in my opinion. And Lee, I think, is the best signing since Maddux in ‘93. But the one thing that Braves staff will always have is the longevity of greatness.”
And that’s the difference: The Braves’ rotation of the ’90s essentially stuck together. Maddux was 26 when he signed with the Braves. Lee is 32. Halladay and Oswalt are 33. These Phillies surely won’t have the staying power the Braves did. But they’re going to be mighty wicked in 2011.
By Mark Bradley