The Great Debate: Baseball’s Best Rotation

This off-season, the Philadelphia Phillies emerged as that “mystery team” in the Cliff Lee sweepstakes, and the team gobbled him off the free agency market to a tune of five years, $120 million. Immediately, insiders around baseball deemed Lee’s addition to the Phillies’ stable of starters the “greatest signing in recent baseball history”. Lee, alongside Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels, scouts said, comprised such a dominant starting rotation that this team could go up against any pitching staff from any era.

Uhm, have people forgotten which team won the World Series in 2010 behind a dominant pitching staff of their own?

On HFA Radio this week, Steve Berman and I talked extensively about the strength of the San Francisco Giants pitching staff and how many people throughout baseball were overlooking them. One must remember: each pitcher on this “vaunted” starting rotation lost at one point to the Giants in the playoffs last year. The Giants handled Halladay, Oswalt and Hamels in the National League Championship Series, then dusted off Cliff Lee TWICE in the World Series.

But, for the sake of an argument, let’s break down these pitchers in a head-to-head match-up and see what we can come up with in regards to whose starting rotation is better.

#1 Tim Lincecum (SF) vs. Roy Halladay (PHI)

2010 Lincecum line: 33 starts, 212.1 innings, 16-10, 3.43 ERA, 231 strikeouts (league high) 1.27 WHIP – 10th in NL Cy Young Voting (two-time winner)
2010 Halladay line: 33 starts, 250.2 innings (league high), 21-10 (most wins in NL), 2.44 ERA, nine complete games (league high), 219 strikeouts – 2010 NL Cy Young (2nd time)

Choosing between Lincecum and Halladay is like choosing between a Monet and a Picasso. You can’t really go wrong with one or the other. Lincecum, known as “The Freak”, is only 26 years old and already has two Cy Young awards plus three All-Star appearances in his first four seasons. He’s lead the NL in strikeouts in each of the last three seasons, and even in what many considered a down year for the righty last year, he won 16 games while having a sub-3.50 ERA.

However, Doc Halladay may be the best pure pitcher in all of baseball. In five of the last six seasons, Halladay has led the league in complete games. He’s also won 16 games or more in each of the last five seasons, with four of those five seasons coming while he was on some poor Toronto Blue Jays teams. Not to mention, he’s managed to strikeout 200+ batters in seven separate seasons, including the last five. He’s won two Cy Young awards himself, but he’s played on signficantly worse teams than Lincecum has. Oh, he also threw a perfect game and a no-hitter last season.

EDGE: Phillies

#2 Matt Cain (SF) vs. Cliff Lee (PHI)

2010 Cain line: 33 starts, 223.1 innings, 13-11, 3.14 ERA, 177 strikeouts, 1.08 WHIP – 12th in NL Cy Young Voting
2010 Lee line (split between SEA/TEX): 28 starts, 212.1 innings, 12-9, 3.18 ERA, 185 strikeouts, 18 walks, 1.00 WHIP (league-best) – 7th in AL Cy Young Voting

This is Cliff Lee’s second tour of duty in Philadelphia. His last time in the City of Brotherly Love, he posted seven wins and a 3.39 ERA, but did his best work in the playoffs. Last year, Lee was significantly better pitching in the spacious Safeco Field in Seattle then he was pitching in the bandbox in Arlington. He is the best control pitcher in baseball, and has a solid track record of success playing in Philadelphia, so there shouldn’t be too much concern that his game won’t translate to the hitter-friendly Citizens Bank Ballpark.

But, Matt Cain is the best pitcher in baseball that you’ve probably never heard about. Cain should easily win 18 games a year, but continues to get the worst run support in baseball. People are quick to judge Cain by his win-loss figures, but those don’t do justice to the talent and ability that the 26-year old right possesses. He is dominant, and unlike Lee, who uses pitch placement and breaking balls to fool hitters, Cain has no problem unleashing his 95-mph fastball to offset his devastating 12-6 curveball. Give Cain a pedestrian four runs per game, and he’s a 20 game winner with serious Cy Young potential.

EDGE: Giants

#3 Jonathan Sanchez (SF) vs. Roy Oswalt (PHI)

2010 Sanchez line: 33 starts, 193.1 innings, 13-9, 3.07 ERA, 205 strikeouts, 96 walks (league-high), 1.23 WHIP
2010 Oswalt line (split between HOU/PHI): 32 starts, 211.2 innings, 13-13, 2.76 ERA, 193 strikeouts, 1.02 WHIP (league-high) – 6th in NL Cy Young Voting

Both of these pitchers represent their respective staff’s elder statesmen. The difference: Oswalt is 33, Sanchez is 27. Oswalt’s win-loss record is inflated by playing for an atrocious Houston Astros team in the first half, and was actually significantly better in Philly, winning seven games and posting a sub-2.00 ERA. Oswalt seemed to be re-energized by playing for a winner when he came over to the Phillies, and should be able to carry that momentum into the 2011 season.

Sanchez finally came into his own last season, posting a staff-best 3.07 ERA and striking out over 200 hitters. But, walks have always been a problem for him, as evident by leading the majors in most walks issued last year. His high pitch counts tend to cost him lengthy appearances in games, which is part of the reason why he only won 13 games last year for the World Champs. But, when Sanchez can locate his pitches, he’s electric, as evident by the no-hitter he has on his resume. If Sanchez can replicate his success from 2010 into 2011, he will provide the Giants with a huge boost out of the third rotation slot. However, he’s no Roy Oswalt.

EDGE: Phillies

#4 Madison Bumgarner (SF) vs. Cole Hamels (PHI)

2010 Bumgarner line: 18 starts, 111.0 innings, 7-6, 3.00 ERA, 86 strikeouts, 1.30 WHIP – rookie season
2010 Hamels line: 33 starts, 208.2 innings, 12-11, 3.06 ERA, 211 strikeouts, 1.17 WHIP

The notion around baseball circles is that no pitcher in this Phillies rotation will benefit more from the Lee acquisition then Cole Hamels. Hamels has been an enigma for the Phillies the last two seasons, after securing post-season accolades in the team’s World Series championship season of 2008. He’s 22-22 over the last two seasons, but with the benefit of facing lower-tier starters in his match-up, Hamels wins should take a healthy rise and the 27-year old lefty should right the ship.

That brings us to the Giants best kept secret, Madison Bumgarner. Bumgarner was long considered the Giants best pitching prospect since Tim Lincecum, and the 21-year old lefty did not disappoint in his first season. While his regular season numbers were average, he stepped up to the plate in the post-season, including an eight inning shut-out performance against the loaded Texas Rangers in the World Series. He has the experience under his belt and a World Series ring on his finger to boost his confidence. He, too, will benefit greatly from pitching behind the likes of Timmy, Matt and Sanchez, so his win numbers should be equally as impressive as Hamels. Both pitcher’s have question marks heading into the 2011 campaign, but the the potential of Bumgarner is too much to pass up for me.

EDGE: Giants, but by the smallest of margins.

I won’t bother all of you with paragraphs on Barry Zito and Joe Blanton. They’re lucky to be where they are and, at this point in their careers, are a wash.

If you want to look at what separates these two rotations as a whole, its the dominant Giants bullpen. Brian Wilson, as Berman mentioned on HFA Radio, is arguably the best closer in baseball today not named Rivera. Brad Lidge is mercurial, and that’s putting it very nicely. The likes of Sergio Romo, Santiago Casilla and Jeremy Affeldt aren’t found in the Phillies bullpen, which makes every Giants game that much shorter than a Phillies game. Yes, Halladay and Lee can finish their own games. But, the Giants don’t need their starters to finish. The bullpen does the job for them.

Therefore, I still believe that, as an entire pitching staff, the San Francisco Giants > the Philadelphia Phillies.

Oh, and the Giants have last year’s rings to prove it, too.

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About Home Field Advantage
We are two senior Sports Communication majors at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York. We have launched this blog as part of our senior year capping project, with the goal of creating a comparative analysis and multimedia approach to the differing sports cultures in America.

One Response to The Great Debate: Baseball’s Best Rotation

  1. Pingback: State of the Franchise: Philadelphia Phillies « HOME FIELD ADVANTAGE

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