Philadelphia’s Pitching Staff “Fulphilling” Expectations

(The following is being syndicated from The Captain’s Blog).

The Phillies pitching rotation has had a monster season in 2011 (Photo: NY Times).

In the offseason, the Philadelphia Phillies “Four Aces” rotation was heralded as having the potential to be one of the best ever. Considering the track records of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, and Roy Oswalt, those lofty pre-season expectations were far from hyperbole. Perhaps that’s why much less attention has been paid to the fact that the Phillies have actually made good on even some of the most optimistic predictions.

To date, the Phillies’ team ERA of 3.05 ERA is the franchise’s lowest total since the dead ball era (2.46 ERA in 1917). Compared to the rest of the league, the current ERA+ of 128 also ranks as the NL’s best rate since the 2003 Dodgers ended the year at that same level. Put into further context, the Phillies have allowed 22.1% fewer runs than the league average, a comparative advantage surpassed by only 20 other teams since 1901. Clearly, the Phillies’ pitching has lived up to its billing.

Top-10* National League Pitching Staffs, Since 1901

*Based on percentage of runs allowed per game below league average.

Entering the season, the strength of the Phillies’ pitching staff was supposed to be its four front-line starters, and, for the most part, that has proven to be true. The triple-threat of Lee, Hamels, and Halladay have all posted an ERA+ of 150 or higher in at least 175 innings, which, if maintained, would mark only the fifth trio in major league history to exhibit such similar levels of dominance.

Teams with Three Dominant* Starters, Since 1901

Year Team Pitcher ERA+ IP
2011 Philadelphia Phillies Roy Halladay 157 196.2
Cole Hamels 151 178
Cliff Lee 150 194.2
1913 Chicago White Sox Eddie Cicotte 186 268
Reb Russell 154 316.2
Jim Scott 154 312.1
1910 Philadelphia Athletics Jack Coombs 182 353
Cy Morgan 153 290.2
Chief Bender 150 250
1907 Chicago Cubs Mordecai Brown 216 233
Carl Lundgren 213 207
Jack Pfiester 179 195
1906 Chicago Cubs Mordecai Brown 253 277.1
Jack Pfiester 174 250.2
Ed Reulbach 159 218

*ERA+ of at least 150; IP of at least 175.

According to the preseason expectations, the Phillies were supposed to have four aces, not three. However, injury and relative underperformance has limited Oswalt to a league average ERA in just under 100 innings. Enter Vance Worley.

Before his promotion at the end of April, Worley was an unheralded prospect with a near .500 record and 3.80 ERA in the minor leagues. In 17 starts since replacing the injured Oswalt, however, Worley has done more than just limit the damage. In fact, by going 10-1 with a 2.85 ERA (ERA+ of 137), Worley has been just as good as Oswalt was expected to be, if not better. Talk about an embarrassment of riches.

Meanwhile, Phillies’ starters haven’t been the only members of the staff making historic contributions. Left handed reliever Antonio Bastardo, who has dazzled with a 1.38 ERA in 52 innings, has proven to be almost unhittable…literally. Among all pitchers since 1901 with at least 50 innings, Bastardo has turned in the lowest ratio of hits per nine innings (and therefore the lowest batting average against).

Lowest H/9IP (minimum 50 IP), Since 1901

Player Year Tm H/9 BA IP ERA ERA+
Antonio Bastardo 2011 PHI 3.27 0.112 52.1 1.38 284
Eric Gagne 2003 LAD 4.04 0.133 82.1 1.20 337
Carlos Marmol 2008 CHC 4.12 0.135 87.1 2.68 172
Jeff Nelson 2001 SEA 4.13 0.136 65.1 2.76 152
Billy Wagner 1999 HOU 4.22 0.135 74.2 1.57 287
Jose Valverde 2003 ARI 4.29 0.137 50.1 2.15 219
Grant Balfour 2008 TBR 4.32 0.143 58.1 1.54 287
Hong-Chih Kuo 2010 LAD 4.35 0.139 60 1.20 321
Joaquin Benoit 2010 TBR 4.48 0.147 60.1 1.34 295
Troy Percival 1995 CAL 4.50 0.147 74 1.95 241

Note: A pitcher with a lower H/9IP can have a higher BAA because of outcomes like double plays and caught stealings.

All of the Phillies’ pitching accomplishments wouldn’t matter much if they didn’t add up in the win column. Despite an offense that ranks below league average, Philadelphia has still managed to compile the best record in the game. In fact, the Phillies’ current winning percentage of .654 has put the team on pace for 106 victories. That total would not only far surpass the franchise record of 101, which was accomplished in 1976 and 1977, but also rank among the 10 highest totals in National League history (based on winning percentage, the 2011 Phillies currently rank within the top-20).

In just about every sense, it has been a banner year for the Phillies. Of course, the one banner that matters most, a World Series flag, has yet to be attained. As other great teams have learned, surviving the post season gauntlet can sometimes require as much luck as talent, so Philadelphia can’t rest on the laurels of its dominant pitching just yet.  Although four aces are hard to beat, some might say that lineups like the Yankees and Red Sox resemble a Royal Flush.

5 thoughts on “Philadelphia’s Pitching Staff “Fulphilling” Expectations

  1. Awesome, awesome post William. It’ll be very interesting to see whether the vaunted Phillies’ staff can carry through on its promise in the postseason.

    A World Series berth seems all but guaranteed; but while there’s no denying what the Phils’ starters have been able to accomplish, they’ve also been able to feast on a relatively lackluster NL offensive environment. Four of the top five wOBAs in all of baseball belong to the four AL teams likely headed to the playoffs. If the Phils do make the World Series, whoever their AL opponent is will be the deepest lineup the pitching staff has seen all season — should be a very interesting postseason this year.

  2. That is a good line, your finish: “Although four aces are hard to beat, some might say that lineups like the Yankees and Red Sox resemble a Royal Flush.”

    That’s our only hope, William J., and we did just trump a pretty good pair in Boston.

  3. Great team, and much more balanced than the 90s ATL teams in their lineup and bullpen. It’s difficult to imagine that this team won’t be a dynasty over the next few years. If the Yanks get a chance to play them, I’ll be happy. Any time you hang a league pennant, its a good year.

    • I don’t see a dynasty. The offense is aging and in decline and even Lee and Halladay are getting up there. Oswalt could be gone next year and Hamels isn’t far from free agency. This team looks to have a window of about 2 years as currently constituted.