Is The Best 1-2-3 Halladay, Hamels and Lee?

Okay, so now that I've filled your article-title-that-rhymes quota for the day, let's actually dig into this question a little bit. People seem to be pretty comfortable these days with the idea that the Philadelphia Phillies have the best three-pitcher combination of any team in baseball at the top of their rotation in Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee.

The funny thing, though, is that I've never really seen anyone investigate whether that's actually the case, as well as whether the gap between them and everyone else is as large as everyone perceives it to be. Sure, all three of those guy are putting up fantastic numbers. But the Angels have a few guys going bonkers, too. Those rascally Giants have a habit of tossing good pitchers on the mound, as well. I'm not so sure that we're looking at a league of rotations that can accurately be described as, "the Phillies at the top, and then everyone else."

 

First, let's look at the numbers that most people seem to be looking at: wins, losses and ERA. Here are those numbers for the Philly Big 3 and the other elite pitching trios in the game.

Trio W-L ERA
Halladay-Hamels-Lee 39-17 2.66
Weaver-Haren-E. Santana 34-19 2.59
Lincecum-Cain-Bumgarner 25-28 3.11
Price-Shields-Hellickson 29-26 3.31
Hernandez-Pineda-Vargas 22-29 3.38

The first thing you'll notice is that wins and losses are essentially worthless. The second thing you'll notice is that, yes, the Phillies are clearly in some special company. But probably the most important thing you'll notice is that the Phillies aren't alone in having this kind of dominance in their rotation. In terms of allowing runs, Halladay-Hamels-Lee hasn't even been the best pitching threesome in the game this season.

Yet, nobody is even considering the possibility that the Phillies don't have the best 1-2-3 punch of any pitching rotation in the game. I mean, it's Halladay-Hamels-Lee. Three guys that have pitched at the game's highest level, and then asked where the stairs are. We're talking about Cy Young Awards, World Series MVP trophies and hundreds of millions of dollars, all completely well-deserved.

And all of that kind of nudges toward my point. Barring some sort of serious injury to the likes of Halladay, Hamels or Lee, what possibly could've happened this season to convince the public that those three don't comprise the premier pitching trio in the game? I mean, the Angels are boasting three pitchers; one has a 1.78 ERA and 14 wins, one has a 2.81 ERA and the best strikeout-to-walk ratio in the AL, and one has a 3.21 ERA and recently threw a no-hitter. And yet, nobody is even wondering if this incredibly dominant trio is the most dominant trio in the game. I mean, they're just not Halladay-Hamels-Lee.

Which brings us to the next question, "Can the Angels trio sustain this?"

Because that's realistically the biggest difference between the two threesomes right now. When Halladay, Hamels and Lee are absolutely dominating, it makes sense. They're just doing what they do, what we've seen them do before. But Jered Weaver, Dan Haren and Ervin Santana? Sure, we've seen them all be very good before, but we've never really seen them be particularly great. None of them felt like ace pitchers until Weaver's breakout last season.

And if you disagree about that perception with Haren, okay, but I think he would've fetched more in trade for Arizona if other teams actually viewed him as an elite guy. I mean, look at what the Rockies got for Jimenez. The difference in price tag doesn't explain away how one guy fetches Skaggs-Corbin-Saunders and the other fetches Pomeranz-White-Gardner.

So let's take a look at their peripheral numbers- maybe the Angels trio can keep up when it comes to ERA, but once we adjust everything to try to strip away luck, will they still stack up?

Trio FIP xFIP SIERA
Halladay-Hamels-Lee 2.52 2.72 2.69
Weaver-Haren-E. Santana 2.96 3.45 3.34

And alas, this is why the Phillies trio is so exciting. When the Angels trio is putting up that ridiculously low ERA, all of the current ERA estimators out there essentially are in agreement that they won't be able to keep this up. But with Halladay-Hamels-Lee, it's all legit.

For the past few months, it's felt like the Angels and Phillies have been throwing ace pitchers out there three out of every five days. I'm guessing that their opponents have felt pretty much the same way. There's that one little difference, though: with the Angels, it only feels like they've had three aces; Philadelphia's are all quite real, though.

And that, my friends, explains why Halladay-Hamels-Lee is the ultimate one-two-three.

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