Hi, my name is Dan Shaw and I’m going to contribute a vast array of research pieces all across professional sports. Today, I’m going to compare the 2011 Philadelphia Phillies rotation to the 1997 Atlanta Braves that featured Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, and Denny Neagle, who were all in their prime. The question begs to be answered: Which rotation is more impressive?

Three Hall of Famers In One Shot

Back in December, the Phillies made the most intriguing move of the offseason when they signed Cliff Lee to a five-year $120 MM contract. By now we all know the story: Rangers and Yankees were in a bidding war and right when it looked like the Yankees were ready to land Lee, the Phillies came in and stole him away, adding another major arm to their already loaded starting rotation.

The move sent shockwaves throughout baseball. Sport media outlets began writing and talking about the shear greatness of the Phillies’ rotation, and rightfully so. With the addition of Lee it’s hard to argue that the Phillies don’t have the best rotation in all of baseball for 2011 and, most likely, for the next three to five years. But as great as the Phillies’ rotation looks to be in 2011, how does it stack up against the 1997 Atlanta Braves rotation, which is touted as the best single season starting rotation of the last twenty-years?

In 1997 the Braves starting rotation consisted of Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, and Denny Neagle, gave Major League Baseball the best single season starting rotation in recent memory. The quartet combined for 67 wins with an ERA of 2.80 and a 1.09 WHIP. Maddux headlined the group with his 18 wins, 2.20 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, and 8.85 SO/BB ratio, finishing second in the NL Cy Young voting only behind Pedro Martinez. Glavine and Neagle both finished the year with sub-3.00 ERAs. Neagle won 20 games while Glavine, along with Smoltz, finished with SO/BBs above 3.50. These numbers translate into pure dominance. The Braves starting rotation won 71% of the games in which they factored into the decision, an accomplishment that is unheard of in today’s game.

On paper, the 2011 Phillies have the arms to rival the 1997 Braves and playing in a weak NL East division, they have a very good chance of doing so. With Roy Halladay, Lee, Cole Hamels, and Roy Oswalt, the Phillies have two of baseball’s top five starters and two that could be the ace of the staff on nearly every team in the league. Lee had his career year in 2008 with the Indians going 22-3 with an ERA of 2.54. Halladay has been the definition of dominance, winning at least 17 games in each of the last three seasons while maintaining a sub-2.80 ERA during that time. Hamels and Oswalt have had their struggles, but both have kept their ERAs below 3.50 and SO/BBs above 3.15 on average over the last three years.

Over the last three years those 2011 Phillies’ starters have averaged, a combined 57 wins a year. Add in Joe Blanton’s 10 average wins per season and the Phillies meet the Braves mark of 67. Over that same time period, the Phillies’ 2011 staff has sustained a SO/BB ratio of 3.76, besting the Braves 3.52. However, the Braves used their fifth spot in the rotation as a floating slot, spot starting different guys throughout the season. To make the comparison fair, we must take Blanton’s numbers out and the Phillies dominate the Braves in SO/BB, raising their number to 4.27. However, that’s where the comparison ends when we look at the Phillies staff’s historical performances. With the top four from each rotation, the Braves beat the Phillies in every other category:

1997 Braves 67 71% 2.80 1.09 742 3.52
2011 Phillies – Trailing 3 Season Avg. 57 54% 3.12 1.13 720 4.27

But that’s all historical. How do the two compare when using Bill James’ predictions for the upcoming season?

1997 Braves 67 71% 2.80 1.09 742 3.52
2011 Phillies – Bill James Projection 63 63% 3.37 1.15 744 4.20

Still the Phillies don’t compare.

When evaluating the two rotations, it’s easy to note that both are the best amongst their peers, but when compared against each other, the 1997 Braves rotation was just downright filthy, featuring three Hall of Fame locks. Do the 2011 Phillies have the capability of matching or surpassing that Braves’ quartet? You bet. Will they? It’s unlikely. Too many things have to go right. Everyone has to stay healthy and produce at a very high level. It all went right for the Braves in 1997. They avoided injuries and Denny Neagle gave them production he never matched again in his career. Either way, the Phillies rotation will be fun to watch over the summer and maybe, as August and September roll around, we’ll be revisiting this same debate. The 2011 Phillies will look to accomplish something that the 1997 Braves failed to do, win a World Series championship.

1997 Braves
Maddux 18 83% 2.20 0.96 177 8.85
Smoltz 15 56% 3.02 1.16 241 3.83
Glavine 14 66% 2.96 1.15 152 1.92
Neagle 20 80% 2.97 1.08 172 3.51
4 Player Rotation 67 71% 2.80 1.09 742 3.52
2011 Phillies – Trailing 3 Season Average
Halladay 19 65% 2.67 1.07 211 6.09
Lee 13 61% 2.98 1.12 179 5.64
Hamels 12 52% 3.47 1.18 165 3.16
Oswalt 13 57% 3.45 1.17 165 3.44
4 Player Rotation 57 54% 3.12 1.13 720 4.27
Blanton 10 54% 4.52 1.38 136 2.43
5 Player Rotation 67 58% 3.37 1.17 856 3.76
2011 Phillies – Bill James Projection
Halladay 18 67% 3.16 1.11 190 5.00
Lee 14 58% 3.50 1.22 169 4.39
Hamels 15 63% 3.45 1.18 209 3.60
Oswalt 16 64% 3.38 1.18 176 3.38
4 Player Rotation 63 63% 3.37 1.15 744 4.20
Blanton 10 48% 4.22 1.36 127 2.40
5 Player Rotation 73 60% 3.52 1.19 871 3.79