When the Phillies signed Cliff Lee this offseason, adding him to a rotation that already included defending Cy Young Award winner Roy Halladay, 2008 World Series MVP Cole Hamels, and one of the best pitchers of the past decade in Roy Oswalt, comparisons to the best rotations in memory- the early ’70s Orioles and mid-’90s Braves- started popping up all over the blogopshere. We all know that baseball is unpredictable, and that collections of baseball superstars rarely live up to the hype. While Oswalt has been often injured and somewhat ineffective when he has pitched, the rest of the Four Aces have somehow exceeded expectations, to the point where the Phillies have the three best pitchers in the National League.
We expected these three (and maybe Oswalt) to be great, but with Tim Lincecum still working in the National League, and budding stars like Clayton Kershaw, Yovani Gallardo, and Tommy Hanson ready to step into the spotlight, did anyone expect that Halladay, Hamels and Lee would be the three best in the league?
My pitching metric, Season Score, has Halladay leading the NL at 321, with Hamels a point behind (he’d likely be well ahead if not for Adrian Gonzalez’s comebacker off his wrist in yesterday’s game) and Lee in third at 299. For the record, Kershaw is within striking distance at 292, but no other NL pitcher is above 250.
To back up Season Score’s findings, fangraphs’ WAR, which is based on true outcomes within a pitcher’s control (strikeouts, walks, and home runs) has Halladay way out in front, at 4.6, with Hamels at 3.8, and Lee at 3.6, .2 ahead of Kershaw and Arizona’s Daniel Hudson. The three Phillies have struck out 352 batters this season, while walking just 64, a tremendous 5.5 to 1 ratio. For reference, Tim Lincecum, last year’s NL strikeout champ, has a K/BB ratio just over 3 to 1.
Perhaps most importantly, these three pitchers are for real. Halladay has won Cy Young Awards in both leagues and can still make a case as the best pitcher in baseball at age 34. Lee won a Cy Young in the AL and has twice been a postseason hero, guiding the Phillies and Rangers to series victories. Lee may even improve on his numbers, as his 1.99 walks/nine are his highest since 2007. He struggled (at least by his standards) with control and balls in play for two months before giving up just one run in all of June. Hamels, at 27 the youngest and least proven of the Phillies’ aces, may regress a bit due to a possibly unsustainable .265 batting average on balls in play, but he’s kept his ERA low (2.41) by surrendering a career low 1.63 walks and just .47 home runs per nine innings. Pitchers like Jaime Garcia and Jair Jurrjens may swing by the leaderboards as a result of a few dominant (and sometimes lucky) outings, but these three can expect to stay near the top as long as they stay healthy.
Will Halladay, Hamels, and Lee finish the season in the top three spots in Season Score and WAR? We don’t know- the National League has a lot of good young pitching. But as the Red Sox learned this week (even without having to face Halladay), a three-game series against the Phillies can make even the most powerful, patient lineups in the game look like Little Leaguers. And that’s exactly what they’ll be tasked with in October.