>The Four Aces Are Not Necissarily the Best Hand

>By The Common Man

As you no doubt know by now, the Phillies have locked up the pole position in the National League and will go into 2011 as the favorites to make the World Series from the Senior Circuit. By no means guaranteed to make the Big Dance, it’s clear that Philadelphia has greatly improved its odds in the last 24 hours. That much, at least, is a given.

But this signing represents much more, as the Phillies will trot out what looks, at first glance, to be one of the strongest rotations in baseball history. Of course, there are competing tendencies within human nature to romanticize and idealize the past, and to forget it entirely and focus on the present. After all, all the sepia tone and pleasant voiceovers on a Ken Burns documentary doesn’t replace the fact that Sandy Koufax pitched in an extreme pitcher’s era. Nor will the flashy “Four Aces” nickname make the quartet pitch any better (nor, technically, is it very accurate since Cole Hamels is probably more of a “2” than an ace). So The Common Man can be forgiven if he does not simply take Craig Calcaterra’s word that the Phillies’ 2011 staff will top the mid-nineties Braves, the 1960s Dodgers, and others and rank among the top staffs in baseball history.

With a heap of healthy skepticism, TCM broke down the best performances by a “Top 4” during the Integration Era (1947-2010) using Wins Above Replacement (and where possible, he averaged the FanGraphs and Baseball Reference versions). Anything from before 1947 seems irrelevant here because pitcher usage patterns have changed so dramatically. Also, The Common Man chose to look at individual seasons, given the likelihood that this foursome will only be together for a single year (as Oswalt is a Free Agent next year and Hamels will make in excess of $10 million in arbitration and may prove too expensive).

In the Integration Era, there have been four thirteen teams with a Big Four who managed to collectively post a WAR of 20.0 or greater. They are listed after the jump in reverse order.

Team Big 4 WAR
1971 Cubs 20.1
1965 Phillies 20.5
1974 Mets 20.8
1997 Braves 20.9
1968 Cardinals 20.9
1996 Braves 21.4
2002 Diamondbacks 21.5
1966 Dodgers 22.0
1967 Phillies 22.3
1969 Cardinals 22.4
1973 Mets 22.9
1956 Indians 23.6
1969 Cubs 23.8


As you can see, there are a lot of familiar faces here. The Braves in question here are headlined by Maddux (15-11, 2.72, 162 ERA+ and 19-4, 2.20, 189 ERA+)-Glavine (15-10, 2.98, 147 ERA+ and 14-7, 2.96, 141 ERA+)-Smoltz (24-8, 2.94, 149 ERA+ and 15-12, 3.02, 138 ERA+) with support from Steve Avery in ’96 (7-10, 4.47, 99 ERA+) and Denny Neagle in ’97 (20-5, 2.97, 140 ERA+).

Both Cardinals teams appear thanks to huge seasons by Bob Gibson (22-9, 1.12 ERA, 258 ERA+ and 20-13, 2.18, 164 ERA+), in excess of 11.0 WAR each time, though the ’69 Cards had a 7.9 WAR performance by Steve Carlton (13-11, 2.99, 97 ERA+ in ’68 to a 17-11, 2.17, 164 ERA+ in ‘69). Ray Washburn (14-8, 2.26, 129 ERA+ and 3-8, 3.06, 117 ERA+) and Nellie Briles (19-11, 2.81, 103 ERA+ and 15-13, 3.52, 101 ERA+) rounded out their staff.

The ’73 and ’74 Mets had a mighty trio of Tom Seaver (19-10, 2.08, 175 ERA+ and 11-11 3.20, 112 ERA+), Jerry Koosman (14-15, 2.84, 128 ERA+ and 15-11, 3.36, 107 ERA+), and Jon Matlack (14-16, 3.20, 114 ERA+ and 13-15, 2.41, 149 ERA+) backed up by George Stone (12-3, 2.80, 130 ERA+) and Harry Parker (4-12, 3.92, 92 ERA+).

The mid-60s Phillies featured the dynamic duo of Jim Bunning (19-9, 2.60, 134 ERA+ and 17-15, 2.29, 149 ERA+) and Chris Short (18-11, 2.82, 123 ERA+ and 9-11, 2.39, 143 ERA+), a former swingman whose career burned very brightly for four seasons before injuries took him down. Ray Culp (14-10, 3.22, 108 ERA+) provided a strong season in ’65, and Ray Herbert (5-8, 3.86, 90 ERA+) rounded out the rotation. In ’67, the Phillies upgraded to 21 year old Rick Wise (11-11, 3.28, 104 ERA+) and veteran Larry Jackson (13-15, 3.10, 110 ERA+), who both had excellent years.

The 2002 Diamondbacks got swept out of the Division Series, unlike their World Series winning performance in 2001. But their pitching was better, with solid inning eating campaigns by Miguel Batista (8-9, 4.29, 107 ERA+) and Rick Helling (10-12, 4.51, 101 ERA+) backing up the typically excellent Randy Johnson (24-5, 2.32, 197 ERA+) and Curt Schilling (23-7, 3.23, 142 ERA+).

TCM was surprised that only a single Dodger team showed up on this list, but Koufax (27-9, 1.73, 190 ERA+) and Drysdale didn’t have nearly as much backup as you’d expect. Even though Big D had a down year in ’66 (13-16,3.42, 96 ERA+), rookie Don Sutton (12-12, 2.99, 110 ERA+) and veteran Claude Osteen (17-14, 2.85, 116 ERA+) picked up the slack.

The Indians of the mid-1950s also only put a single team on the list, which was a shock, though it ranks very high. Early Wynn (20-9, 2.72, 154 ERA+) and Herb Score (20-9, 2.53, 166 ERA+)led the way, but Bob Lemon (20-14, 3.03, 139 ERA+) also had a terrific season, and Mike Garcia (11-12, 3.78, 111 ERA+) did strong work as well.

Finally, the most surprising staffs on this list, in a good way, were the Cubs’ staffs of the late 1960s and early 1970s. As you can see, the ’69 Cubs got the highest WAR out of their four best starters than any other team since 1947. Both the ’69 and ’71 teams got great performances by Fergie Jenkins (21-15, 3.21, 126 ERA+ and 24-13, 2.77, 142 ERA+). Bill Hands was remarkable in ’69 (20-14, 2.49, 162 ERA+), though he was on the decline by ’71 (12-18, 3.42, 115 ERA+). The Cubs figured Ken Holtzman was following a similar path (17-13, 3.58, 113 ERA+ and 9-15, 4.48, 88 ERA+) and dealt him after ’71 . But the Cubs had replaced the competence of Dick Selma (10-8, 3.63, 111 ERA+) with the strong performance of Milt Pappas (17-14, 3.51, 112 ERA+), and didn’t see much of a drop-off.

The four pitchers who make up the Phillies staff are excellent, there is no doubt. But do they measure up? It depends on the data set you use. Based on last year’s rWAR, the Phillies’s aces had 21.0WAR between them. According to fWAR, however, which likes Cliff Lee and Roy Oswalt much better than the other version, the Phillies quartet comes in at 22.2 WAR. If we take the mean of the two WAR methods, the Phillies’ pitchers had 21.6 WAR last year. If you want to take a three-year average of each player’s performance (again taking an average of both methodologies), the combined staff has averaged 20.6 WAR per year over the past 3 seasons.

However you look at it, barring injury, the 2010 Phillies will easily have one of the 15 best rotations of the past 50 years. But the chances of them being actually performing like the best ever are pretty slim.