On Monday night, Cliff Lee shocked the baseball world when he signed a five-year, $132 million dollar contract with the Philadelphia Phillies. Interest in Lee’s 2011 destination began as soon as he threw his final pitch to the Giants in the World Series, and all signs pointed to New York.
When the Phillies announced Monday that Lee would become a member of their already elite pitching staff, baseball fans around the country wasted no time in dubbing this fearsome four the best staff in baseball—and possibly, of all time.
On paper, it is hard to argue otherwise. The “Fearsome Four,” or “R2C2,” of Halladay, Lee, Oswalt and Hamels is a staff that one would have a difficult time assembling for a video game roster, let alone a Major League Baseball season. Halladay is arguably the best pitcher in baseball, and the other three would be considered number one starters on at least 25 of the other staffs in baseball.
Only the Giants boast a staff that is comparable, which brings us to the point of this column.
The question at hand is whether the 2011 Phillies pitching staff is the greatest ever assembled—and it is one deserving of serious debate. In reviewing various articles that address this question, I noticed something was missing from the debate, and from the conversation altogether. The Phillies are clearly the favorites to win the National League pennant, and they will—barring injuries—hold opposing teams to very few runs over the course of the season. However…so will the San Francisco Giants.
The 2010 San Francisco Giants pitching staff was finally able to thrust itself into the national spotlight when the group pitched itself past a solid Braves lineup, out-pitched the “best staff of all time at the time?” 2010 Phillies and then shut down the best lineup in all of baseball in the Texas Rangers.
Claiming that R2C2 is a better staff than the Giants', I can accept. Forgetting to mention the Giants in the conversation altogether, I cannot.
The Braves of the mid '90s had one of the best pitching staffs of all time. Their top three of Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz all pitched in different styles, and all put together Hall of Fame numbers in the steroid era. The media seems to assume that the Phillies are destined to duplicate the success of this Braves staff.
They will run over their competitors in the National League and come face to face with the Boston Red Sox in the World Series: a perfect showcase of dominant hitting vs. the best rotation in baseball (Giants vs. Rangers anyone?). Another possibility is that the youthful and exuberant Giants pitching staff will do exactly as they did last year and beat the teams dubbed "unbeatable."
The potential for a matchup between these two teams in the 2011 NLCS is the real story, and it is being ignored. I find it almost comical that fans, writers and analysts can forget to mention the Giants in argument with the supremacy of the 2011 Phillies. Do you not learn from your mistakes?
The Phillies may be the best pitching staff of all time in 2011—they certainly have the potential. Yet, so do the Giants. Perhaps the articles prematurely slobbering over the Phillies and Golden Boy Cliff Lee should wait until NLCS Round 2. Halladay, Lincecum, Lee, Cain, Oswalt, Sanchez, Hamels, Bumgarner: A line of names such as these only exists in Cooperstown. This is the real story behind Cliff Lee signing with the Philadelphia Phillies.
To attempt to make the debate as simple as possible, I have compared the pitching of the Giants and Phillies in slideshow format, comparing each starter head-to-head. Before I address specific players, first let me address the pros and cons of each staff as a whole.
The Phillies are aging, but not necessarily for the worse. I believe, however, that Oswalt may be losing a bit of extra life on his pitches. The Giants are incredibly young, with only Barry Zito aging for the worse. The Phillies' incredible starting staff will hand games over to a solid, albeit limited bullpen, and a closer plagued by inconsistencies from season to season.
The Giants starters will hand games over to an elite bullpen. It is better than the Phillies', and it is not even especially close. I consider the closer a primary contributor of a staff, and it must be noted that the Giants are superior here as well.
Let's now take a look at the starters.
What a matchup this is. Halladay is considered by many to be the best pitcher in baseball, and he won the 2010 Cy Young Award, stealing it from Lincecum. Before Lincecum’s bout of inconsistency in August, he was thought by many to be just as good, if not better than Halladay.
In the regular season, Halladay used impeccable command and tremendous sink on his fastball to limit baserunners, and hence scoring (note his 1.04 WHIP). Lincecum, however, struggled in August and failed to repeat his Cy Young success, not due to a loss in velocity as some have suggested, but due to a lack of command.
His stuff, however, remains elite, as is evidenced in his strikeout total, which for the third straight year was tops in the National League. For a season like he had last year to be considered a “down year” shows how good “The Freak” really is. Both Halladay and Lincecum dazzled in their playoff debuts and proved that they are truly the cream of the crop in the MLB.
Lincecum 2010 stats:
231 Strikeouts (led NL)
Halladay 2010 stats:
21-10 led MLB)
This is the comparison that is most interesting to me as a pitcher and baseball fan. Both Cain and Lee would be the aces for almost every other team in baseball, but fall second in command (pun intended) to the respective aces on each team.
The numbers for Cain and Lee in 2010 were eerily similar. Perhaps because Cain’s career win/loss record is below .500, he has been one of the most overlooked aces in the league over his entire career. Cain turned many heads in the postseason when he pitched three scoreless outings, producing a ridiculous 0.00 postseason ERA.
Lee, on the other hand, is possibly the most overrated pitcher in the league, and that is not for lack of talent. While Lee is definitely elite, I do not think he is one of the top five best pitchers in baseball, as many seem to believe. Lee’s continued postseason mastery over the Rays and vaunted Yankees offense overshadowed what was a very mediocre half season as starter for the Rangers.
His vulnerability was showcased yet again when he faced the Giants in the World Series, a team that had a plan against the strike-throwing Lee. Lee’s postseason credentials are among the best of all time, but Cain’s are better—albeit in a smaller sample size.
Both pitchers have solid, yet not overpowering stuff, getting ahead of hitters and putting them away with solid off-speed pitches that they can locate on either side of the plate. Both men are in their prime and should be considered in preseason Cy Young conversation.
Cain 2010 stats:
Lee 2010 stats:
1.00 WHIP (Led MLB)
At least in this stage in their respective careers, Oswalt is a statistically better pitcher than Sanchez. However, perhaps not for much longer. Oswalt has pitched incredibly well over his career, and if he had not been stuck on some pretty bad Astros teams, his numbers would be all the more impressive.
He has an electric fastball and pounds the strike zone with it. Sanchez, by contrast, has always struggled with command and had a breakout season of sorts last year by striking out enough batters to make up for his league-leading walk total. That Sanchez actually led the league in walks, yet posted a 3.07 ERA, is a testament to how filthy his stuff really is.
While Oswalt is getting older, and perhaps slightly less electric, Sanchez is doing the opposite—gaining experience and learning to harness his eccentric personality and loose command of the strike zone. If Sanchez can repeat the success he had last year, this will be a draw, but for now we will give the edge to Oswalt.
Sanchez 2010 stats:
Oswalt 2010 stats:
This is the battle of the youths. Hamels, at age 26, is the youngest of the Phillies' fearsome four and has many great years ahead of him. In 2010 he bounced back from a disappointing 2009 and once against thrust himself into the “elite” discussion. Bumgarner, at 21 years of age, is simply a baby.
Even before he could legally drink, Bumgarner made his presence known to the San Francisco Giants' fanbase, pitching with poise and a competitive fire well beyond his years—especially on the grand stage. A highly-touted prospect, Bumgarner has yet to prove himself over an entire season as Hamels has done, yet all indications are that he will be able to. His arsenal will be even more impressive as his trust in his new and occasionally devastating changeup grows, and he has been described by teammates as having “ice in his veins.”
Though Hamels is the superior pitcher on paper, based on my knowledge as a pitcher, Bumgarner’s composure and whip-saw delivery—a delivery that is murder on left-handed batters— leads me to believe that this is a draw.
I believe both of these pitchers will go on to have outstanding careers and eventually pitch as the number ones on their respective teams. Perhaps you can give the edge to Hamels here because of Bumgarner’s small sample size, but I simply do not see this kid getting any worse. And that is scary.
Bumgarner 2010 stats:
Hamels 2010 stats:
Clearly, the talent level falls off some in this matchup. Although both fifth starters could be considered strong for their role, Zito and Blanton have reached and passed their respective peaks. Zito’s, however, was that of a Cy Young winner back in Oakland.
This matchup is really more important than people think. Although only four pitchers are needed in the postseason, the fifth starter is the one that is able to step in and give the other four the rest that they need to pitch deep into games.
Zito started off 2010 incredibly hot, and some even began to believe he could once again become a top-level pitcher. Although he tapered off as the season wore on, Zito still posted relatively good numbers in 2010 and was a factor in the Giants winning the NL West.
Blanton also pitched decently and is by no means bad. His 4.80 ERA, however, is by far the highest of any pitcher's between these staffs, and he lacks the plus pitch that is necessary to excel at the Major League level.
Zito will not redeem his contract, and many Giants fans, myself included, are eager for his contract to expire. He remains, however, an above-average fifth starter, and a better option than either Kendrick or Blanton. This one goes to Zito, but not by much.
Zito 2010 stats:
Blanton 2010 stats:
Although the Giants earned the right to be called the best staff in the MLB last season, the Phillies with Cliff Lee have a shot to be even better. To me, they are even—let me know what you think!