During this past offseason, starting pitcher Cliff Lee signed a five-year, $120 million deal with the Philadelphia Phillies. Lee immediately became the fourth top-tier starting pitcher on the Phillies roster, joining Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels.
In the history of major league baseball, there have been very few teams with three elite starting pitchers on the same roster, let alone four. And considering that Philadelphia has won four consecutive division titles, has a great defense and has several talented players on the offensive end, expectations coming into the season were incredibly high.
One could argue that Lee's decision to sign with Philadelphia was not much different than LeBron James' decision to sign with the Miami Heat, not in terms of betrayal, but as far as taking the easy road. After all, both players were among the very best in their respective sports at the time of the deal and they each moved to a team that was already loaded with talent.
While LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were all among the top four leaders in the NBA in Player Efficiency Rating during the 2009-2010 season, Lee, Halladay and Oswalt had the three best WHIP stats in all of baseball last season (Hamels was still very good at No. 23 overall). However, while James has been criticized constantly for his decision, Lee has made his way to Philly relatively unscathed.
Either way, the Phillies starting pitching rotation is being well documented and has a ton of pressure to carry the team deep into October.
So far in 2011, Philadelphia has more or less met expectations as a team. Despite a four-game losing streak, the Phillies currently have a half-game lead in the NL East over the Florida Marlins and have the best overall record in the NL at 25-16. But have the big four done their part?
Halladay, who won the NL Cy Young award last season for the Phillies, has certainly maintained his status as one of the most dominant pitchers in the game. He currently ranks among the top five in the NL in ERA, wins, innings, WHIP, and strikeouts.
Lee, on the other hand, has been far short of spectacular through the first quarter of the season. He is just 2-4 with an ERA of 3.84, currently 33rd in the NL in that category. However, Lee ranks 23rd in WHIP and has shown flashes of brilliance at times. The Phillies are hoping that Lee can get on a tear like he did in the first two rounds of the playoffs last season and during his Cy Young Award season in 2008.
Meanwhile, Roy Oswalt, who had been out since April 26th with a back injury, is now back in the rotation. He has pitched very well this season when healthy. In six starts, Oswalt is 3-1 with an ERA of 3.09 and an impressive WHIP of 1.04.
Cole Hamels, who is undoubtedly the most feared No. 4 starter we have seen in a long time, has done his part in the Phillies rotation. He is 4-2 on the year with an ERA of 3.19 and is among the top ten leaders in WHIP, which tends to be a predictor of future success.
Overall, the big four have combined to go 14-10 this season with an ERA of 3.06 and a WHIP of 1.08. This is just slightly under the pace of the big four's numbers from last season when they were 58-43 collectively with an ERA of 2.84 and a WHIP of 1.06.
Through the first quarter of the season, the top starting pitching rotations in the NL have clearly been the Phillies and the Atlanta Braves. The two NL East rivals rank one and two in almost every relevant starting pitching category.
But unlike the Braves, who have had received very good pitching from all five of their starting pitchers, the Phillies have gotten very little out of No. 5 starter Joe Blanton. Therefore, whether or not the Phillies have the best five-man starting rotation in the NL, they certainly have the best top four.
Meanwhile, in large part due to the absence of second baseman Chase Utley, who has right knee tendinitis, Philadelphia has struggled on offense for, really, the first time since 2002. They rank just 10th in runs scored out of the 16 NL teams.
But with a great top four in their starting rotation and a great defense, the Phillies are still in a good spot right now and should be even better off when Utley returns, which is expected to happen in the next few weeks.