Top of the Cliff

'Always Sunny' has made Green Man into a regular at Phillies games.

‘It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s Charlie is definitely seeing green after his Phillies’ 2010 offseason; they have assembled what might be a rotation for the ages. Already having Cole Hamels, they added Roy Halladay last winter. Then, Roy Oswalt came over in the summer and now Cliff Lee is Philadelphia-bound this winter.

The reigning NL East champions have a right to be excited. These pitchers all had stellar 2010 seasons. ERA+ is a stat that measures a pitcher’s ERA compared to league average and adjusts based on the ballparks he pitched in. An ERA+ of 100 is exactly league average, 105 is 5% better than league average, 95 is 5% worse than league average, and so on. In 2010, they all posted ERA+ of 130 or better: Roy Halladay (165), Roy Oswalt (143), Cole Hamels (132), and Cliff Lee (130).

To put that in perspective, only one team has ever had 4 pitchers post that high of ERA+ for a season: the 1997 Atlanta Braves. In fact, even having 3 people accomplish this at once is rare. Here are the only teams that have even had 3 of them:

  • 1906 Naps: Addie Joss (152), Bob Rhoads (145), Otto Hess (143)
  • 1925 Reds: Dolf Luque (156), Eppa Rixey (142), Pete Donohue (133)
  • 1956 Indians: Herb Score (166), Early Wynn (154), Bob Lemon (139)
  • 1996 Braves: Greg Maddux (162), John Smoltz (149), Tom Glavine (147)
  • 1997 Braves: Greg Maddux (189), Tom Glavine (141), Denny Neagle (140), John Smoltz (138)
  • 2003 Cubs: Mark Prior (179), Carlos Zambrano (139), Kerry Wood (136)
  • 2005 Astros: Roger Clemens (226), Andy Pettitte (177), Roy Oswalt (144)

Brooks Robinson and Mark Belanger at 3B and SS respectively also aided these lucky '71 Orioles. They are 1st and 5th in career defensive WAR.

There are some high-profile pitching staffs missing from this list, clearly. The 1971 Orioles, for example, had 4 twenty game winners with low ERAs, but ERAs were low all over the league and Camden Yards played as a pitcher’s park. Thus, none of their 4 starters had ERA+ above 130.

Tim Hudson, Barry Zito, and Mark Mulder posted ERA+ above 130 in 2003, but Mark Mulder missed a month and a half, a pretty significant chunk. In none of their other years as teammates did they all dominate to this degree simultaneously.

Incidentally, 2011 might feature multiple teams joining the list above. In addition to the Phillies, the Red Sox had 2 pitchers with 2010 ERA+ above 130 (Jon Lester and Clay Buccholz), and each of their other 3 starters have had a season above 130 since 2007 (John Lackey, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and Josh Beckett). If one or two of those guys returns to that level, they might end up with a memorable staff.

Of course, all of this is fueled by a pretty assumptive argument. The Phillie Phour (trademark pending) have yet to throw a pitch together in 2011. Before we crown them as one of the best rotations ever, I think we should probably see if they can all stay healthy and elite for a 162-game season. Oh, and there will be a game every 5 days without any of them pitching, and I think those count equally for the team, so they are a long way from celebrating another World Series victory.

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