The Greatest Rotation Since Earth Decided to Spin officially came to be Wednesday afternoon when the Philadelphia Phillies announced the signing of Cliff Lee(notes). The moment his pen swiped across the contract that will pay him $120 million over the next five years, Mount Rushmore and the Monkees had a freshly minted challenger for The Most Awesome Grouping of Four in the History of Mankind.
Sorry. There's just something about this Phillies Pitching Staff That Inspires Capital Letters. War, famine, pestilence and death have nothing on 'em. There were only four states of matter – solid, liquid, gas and plasma – until the Phillies added Lee to Roy Halladay(notes), Roy Oswalt(notes) and Cole Hamels(notes) and created a fifth: awesome. Even Abraham Lincoln was a Phillies fan. "Four score and seven years ago," he said in 1863, and time has mangled the sentence's punctuation. The original draft said: "Four? Score!"
They're the Four Aces and the Fearsome Foursome and the human embodiment of a four-letter word. They've got a nerd-approved nickname – R2C2 – and might as well operate in the fourth dimension for all the deification going on here. Because even though nobody will know the answer for another 10 months, the visceral reaction upon the news of Lee's signing was to call the 2011 Phillies the greatest four-man pitching staff of all time.
The number crunchers gave their spreadsheets a workout, and the blowhards waxed poetic about the golden days, and all sorts of challengers presented themselves – from the 1912 Red Sox to the 1998 Braves – and as is the case with every baseball argument, nobody won and nobody lost. Still, one can glean from research that though the Phillies' rotation isn't going to yank the country out of the recession or eradicate the emerald ash borer, it certainly belongs in the best-ever discussion.
It's easy to laugh at such talk because the hype and hyperbole already are approaching Miami Heat proportions, and we aren't halfway through the offseason. And yet the confluence of established greatness – of four pitchers at or near their peaks, from whom we can reasonably expect All-Star-or-better-level performances – doesn't really dovetail with any team in baseball's modern era.
The real discussion starts with the 1954 Cleveland Indians and a past-his-prime Bob Feller, then the '55 group and rookie Herb Score, whose career was ruined by a Gil McDougald line drive to the face. Age – too old and too young – disqualifies the Indians, even if they fielded two other Hall of Famers in Bob Lemon and Early Wynn. One-upping them were the 1966 Dodgers, with Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale and Claude Osteen joined by a rookie named Don Sutton.
That's three Hall of Famers in one assemblage, a far more illustrious group than perhaps the game's most famous rotation: the 1971 Baltimore Orioles. Certainly Jim Palmer, Mike Cuellar, Pat Dobson and Dave McNally were good that year – good enough for each to win 20 games – but their gaudy victory totals were products of getting as many as 38 starts a season, and they didn't dominate like the 1981 Houston Astros, let alone the Atlanta Braves juggernauts of the 1990s.
Baseball fans needn't an excuse to rehash the accomplishments of the Braves' rotations in the '90s, though the Lee signing provides the perfect impetus to do so. For seven seasons, three no-doubt, 95-plus-percent-of-the-vote Hall of Famers topped Atlanta's rotation. Do the comparison thing: Greg Maddux(notes) for Roy Halladay, Tom Glavine(notes) for Cliff Lee, John Smoltz(notes) for Roy Oswalt. Pretty close. Pretty darn close. Stuff says so, and Wins Above Replacement say so, and postseason success says so.
And though the similarities are plentiful, here is where the Phillies stake the claim that indeed their rotation can be the greatest: Whereas Steve Avery was still a pup in '93 and never the same thereafter, and whereas Denny Neagle's one excellent season with Atlanta seemed an aberration, Cole Hamels has been nearly 25 percent better than the league-average ERA in his four-plus seasons, and his consistency allows us to tag him with an ace label that never fit the other teams' No. 4 options.
The Phillies could start Hamels on Opening Day. They could start Oswalt or Lee, too. It matters not that Halladay is their designated guy. Any of the others can fill that spot ably, and that is a truth no other team in baseball history can deny: The Phillies are the first to enter a season with four bona fide, legitimate, absolute No. 1-level starters. Amalgamate that with an unbalanced schedule against a relatively weak-hitting National League East, and destiny beckons.
There are roadblocks, of course – namely 162 games. While Oswalt has seven consecutive seasons of 30-plus starts, Halladay five straight of 31 or more, Hamels three in a row of his full complement and Lee enough innings to suffice, injuries strike at the nuttiest time. And they are the only things which can keep Philadelphia from ensuring greatness.
AccuScore.com ran a simulation of what the 2010 Phillies would've looked like with Lee on the team for the whole season, something they could've done had general manager Ruben Amaro not shoved him out the door in an ill-advised trade a year ago. By flipping Lee in for Kyle Kendrick(notes), the simulation showed, Philadelphia would've gone from a 97-win team to a 103-win monster.
Still can't say whether the Phillies would've beaten the San Francisco Giants in the NLCS. It is, however, amusing and exciting and brings together past and present and introduces new fans to parts of the game about which they might never have heard. The capital-letter inspiration comes from the desire to see something unique or historic or, very simply, special. And this Phillies rotation is the first two while aiming for the latter.
Four is a special number in baseball and elsewhere. We Connect Four and play foursquare. We use four-wheel drive and enjoy the four seasons. Buddhists live by the Four Noble Truths, the guiding principles to salvation and the cessation of suffering, and Phillies fans aren't wasting any time in adopting the four tentpoles in which they trust.