Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The better starting staff: 1998 Braves or 2011 Phillies?

The debate has begun on how good the 2011 Phillies starting pitching staff is…is it one of the best of all time?

In most recent memory, the Braves of the mid-90’s often held that title. As far as debating goes, the 1998 was probably the best year for the Braves pitching staff.

So comparing the two starting staffs, which team was better?

Let’s look at each team’s big 3.

Maddux Halladay
Smoltz Oswalt

The first thing that I will say is that I believe that Maddux, in his prime, was the best of all 6 of these pitchers. I might be a bit biased here, but Halladay, who I believe is the best of the Phillies pitchers right now, isn’t quite at the same level. In 1998, Maddux only posted a 2.22 ERA. I say ‘only’ because that was only the 5th best mark of his career. Maddux’s career ERA+ at that point was better than Halladay’s is right now. One thing to remember, though, is that Halladay played much of his career in a much tougher division than Maddux did in his career, but that, theoretically is adjusted for in the ERA+ statistic. Maddux in 1998 was basically at the same point of career as Halladay is now, and though the two have often drawn comparisons, it appears to me like Maddux was the superior pitcher. Advantage, Braves.

I see Glavine as the second best of this group from the Braves, and he matches up with Lee, a fellow left hander on the Phillies side. Again, both of these pitchers, at the dates in question, were at approximately the same point in their careers. This I would give a decided advantage to Glavine who was dominating from 1991 to 1993 and won the Cy Young in 1998. Even though Lee has been very good over the last 3 years, he hasn’t had the dominating stretch that Glavine did. Lee also has had some less than stellar years while he was with the Indians, most notably 2006 and 2007. At this point, though, Glavine’s best days were just about at an end…something the Phillies probably should be concerned about with Lee. Advantage, Braves.

That leaves the question on whether John Smoltz is better than Roy Oswalt? Statistics would say that Oswalt is better to date than Smoltz was. Smoltz rarely put up the win and ERA numbers up that Maddux and Glavine did, but he was nasty as far as strikeouts. Smoltz also had some issues staying on the mound as injuries eventually drove him to the bullpen a couple of years later. Oswalt was the rock of the Houston staff for 9 years before being traded this past season. His numbers never were eye popping, but he consistently was near the top of the National League in ERA and wins. Oswalt’s ERA+ of 132 is significantly better than Smoltz’s of 120. Advantage, Phillies.

So, the 1998 Braves have an advantage in 2 of the 3 top spots. Then comes the #4 starter. Hamels vs. Neagle. It’s a difficult pick between these two. Hamels is younger, but Nagel went into 1998 with a 3rd place finish in for the Cy Young in the previous year. Neagle had an impressive 1998, but not great compared to the others in the Atlanta rotation. 16 wins and a 3.55 ERA were pretty good. Cole Hamels has had a two very good years and one so-so year over the past 3 seasons. Hamels ERA of 3.03 this past year was impressive as people questioned whether or not his 2009 struggles were going to continue. I call this a wash.

#5 starter: As it stands right now, that would be a competition between Kevin Millwood and Joe Blanton. Millwood was just starting out at this point…and got 17 wins in the 1998 season. Blanton? He’s 29…and while he has had some value as a starter for a number of years, he has never achieved the level that Millwood really did in 1998 and 1999. Blanton is likely to be traded before the season starts, so this is all a moot point. Anyway, this, again, appears to be advantage Braves.

In the end, comparing the 1998 Braves to the 2011 Phillies is pointless until the season is played. You never know what will happen. But as of right now, calling the 2011 Phillies starting staff as the best of all time just doesn’t quite hold water as compared to the 1998. At the very least, the comparison of these two pitching staffs is likely to give us something debate for a very long time.