When it was announced that Cliff Lee was going to sign with the Philadelphia Phillies as a free agent, some began heralding the Phillies pitching staff as possibly the greatest in baseball history. Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt, and Cole Hamels are all #1 quality pitchers suddenly put together on a single pitching staff. My immediate reaction was far more muted than most. I just couldn’t believe that some would believe the 2011 Phillies pitching staff was on par with the great Braves pitching staffs from the 1990s. However, when investigating this topic deeper, it appears the comparison is far more reasonable than I expected.
For the Braves, I’ll look at the pitching staffs from 1991 through 2002. We begin in 1991 because that is the year Tom Glavine won his first Cy Young award and began the run of Braves pitching excellence for so many years. We end in 2002, the year that Tom Glavine left the Braves as a free agent.
From 1991 through 2002, the Braves pitching staff won an astounding *six* Cy Young awards: Tom Glavine in 1991 and 1998, Greg Maddux in 1993, 1994, and 1995, John Smoltz in 1996. When you add in the Cy Young award that Greg Maddux won in 1992 as a Cub, the Braves pitching staff at one point owned *seven* Cy Young awards over an eight year period. How does that compare to the 2011 Phillies pitching staff? So far, they’ve won 3 Cy Young awards total, two from Roy Halladay and one from Cliff Lee. While it’s possible for the Phillies staff to catch up on this count, it’s probably unlikely.
The Cy Young wins definitely give an edge to the Braves pitching staff right now, but Cy Young voting can be finicky. For example, you could make a very good argument that Kevin Brown should have won the award in 1996 instead of John Smoltz. Instead of measuring actual Cy Young victories, how about a measurement of just being in contention to win. From 1991 to 2002, Braves pitchers placed from 2nd to 5th in the Cy Young voting 12 times. Ten of those times were from the trio of Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, and John Smoltz. Denny Neagle and Kevin Millwood each placed third one time during that span. (Steve Avery peaked in Cy Young voting with a 6th place finish in 1991.) So far in their careers, Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Roy Oswalt have placed from 2nd to 5th in Cy Young voting 10 times. (Cole Hamels has peaked in Cy Young voting at 6th place in 2007.) These numbers strongly match the staff Cy Young competitive staffs of the 1990s Braves. With a few more years under their belts, the 2011 Phillies staff could have some Cy Young numbers to more closely match those great Braves staffs.
Naturally, Cy Young voting may not be the best measure as Cy Young voting may have been biased. Lets instead look at some sabermetrics data such as ERA+. From 1991 to 2002, Braves pitchers had an ERA+ of 125 or higher an amazing 31 times. Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, and John Smoltz provided 25 of those seasons. Outside of the main trio, Steve Avery, Denny Neagle, Kevin Millwood, and John Burkett provided 5 more of these years. (Of the main trio, John Smoltz is the only one to have additional such seasons in his career, 3 times from 2005-2007.) If we even want to take a more extreme measurement, from 1991 to 2002, Braves pitchers had an ERA+ of 140 or higher an amazing 20 times. The main trio provided 17 of these years, with Kevin Millwood, Denny Neagle, and John Burkett providing the 3 other times.
Amongst Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels, they have 18 seasons of an ERA+ of 125 or higher in their careers and 13 seasons of an ERA+ of 140 or higher. Those numbers don’t quite have the counts of the Braves staffs, but they are pretty darn close and the Phillies staff still has time to catch up on the numbers.
In conclusion, after finding the above information, it appears to me that the Phillies really have something special. They’ve assembled a pitching staff that can be amongst the best ever assembled. However, they still need to show it on the field to really be established as amongst the best. Right now, they are a legendary pitching staff only on paper.
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“Baseball-Reference.com – Major League Baseball Statistics and History”, Baseball-Reference