The 2011 Philly Phour: Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels constituted one of most formidable rotations in the annals of the game. But just how formidable were they? Let's put them in historical context. We'll mostly consider just the front four of the rotations in question, so that those who toiled before the days of the five-man rotation can be evaluated on equal footing with teams of the contemporary era. Here are the greatest (four-man) rotations in the history of history ...
1926 Philadelphia Athletics
In a season in which the AL ERA was 4.73, here's what the Philadelphia starters achieved: Lefty Grove (who might just be the greatest pitcher ever): 258 IP, 2.51 ERA, 20 complete games, league lead in strikeouts; Eddie Rommel: 219 IP, 3.08 ERA; Jack Quinn: 163.2 IP, 3.41 ERA; Howard Ehmke: 147.1 IP, 2.81 ERA, 1 HR allowed
2002 Oakland A's
The '02 A's, of course, boasted Tim Hudson, Barry Zito and Mark Mulder. On the season, that trio combined for 675 innings, a 3.05 ERA and one Cy Young Award (courtesy of Zito). Fourth starter Corey Lidle worked 192 innings with a 3.89 ERA. In large part, it's because of the rotation that the A's barged to 103 victories and won 20 in a row late in the season.
1927 New York Yankees
You don't become (arguably) the greatest team in the history because of hitting alone. Yes, the '27 Yankees were a force of nature on offense -- Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Poosh 'Em Up Tony, and Earle Combs helped the Yanks post a .384 OBP as a team. The rotation, however, was almost as imposing. Hall of Famer Waite Hoyt turned in one of his best seasons, Urban Shocker (one of the most underrated hurlers of all-time) posted a 2.84 ERA in his final full season, Herb Pennock won 19, and Dutch Ruether notched a 3.38 ERA as the fourth starter.
Why limit ourselves to just one season? The Dodger rotation of this era is at once great and overrated in the main. Overrated because of the run-suppressing era and a home park that was pitcher-friendly (in part because of an illegally heightened mound) even by the standards of the times. Still, Sandy Koufax enjoyed one of the great peaks of all-time, Don Drysdale was above-average for several seasons, and rookie Don Sutton (a future Hall of Famer) came on board in '66 and immediately pitched well. Additionally, Claude Osteen was a strong presence in '65 and '66, and Johnny Podres and Bob Miller capably played supporting roles from time to time.
2011 San Francisco Giants
Lest we forget, the San Fran rotation carried the team to the belt and title last season, and ace Tim Lincecum owns two of the last three NL Cy Young awards. Need more? Matt Cain ranks ninth in career ERA among active pitchers, Jonathan Sanchez enjoyed a breakout campaign in 2010, and 20-year-old Madison Bumgarner posted a 3.00 ERA in 18 starts. Sure, the Philly Phour are hogging the ink and bandwidth right now, but the 2011 Giants also potentially boast one of the best rotations ever.
1971 Baltimore Orioles
Famously, the '71 Orioles produced four 20-game winners: Jim Palmer (20-9), Dave McNally (21-5), Mike Cuellar (20-9), and Pat Dobson (20-8). They don't stack up quite as well with some others on this list when you turn to the more illuminating statistics, but this quartet still grades out as one of the best ever. That season, Palmer, McNally, Cuellar, and Dobson combined for 70 complete games.
2011 Philadelphia Phillies
Perhaps you've heard of them? The hype surrounding Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels was the talk of basbeall before the season. For their part, the triumvirate of Halladay, Lee and Hamels turned in spectacular seasons, compiling an ERA of 2.53. Oswalt battled injury and pitched just 139 innings with a 3.69 ERA. Their season ended in disappointment with loss in the NLDS to the eventual world champion St. Louis Cardinals, and Oswalt didn't return to the team in 2012.
1981 Houston Astros
Offense was down somewhat, the Astrodome was a pitcher's haven, and the '81 season was shortened by a lengthy labor stoppage. With all those qualifiers acknowledged, there's this: The '81 Astros' rotation ERA of 2.43 is the all-time best mark. Even after you adjust for park and league, it's the fourth-best mark of all time. Future Hall of Famers Nolan Ryan and Don Sutton fronted the rotation, and Bob Knepper and Joe Niekro logged, respectively, ERAs of 2.18 and 2.82. Plus, their uniforms were awesome.
1948 Cleveland Indians
The '48 Indians won the World Series in part because of a stellar rotation. Bobs Lemon and Feller combined for almost 600 innings of work, and overshadowed lefty Gene Bearden won 20 and the AL ERA title. Sam Zoldak also contributed a sub-3.00 ERA in 105.1 innings of work. Of course, the greatest pitcher on the staff — in terms of career accomplishments — may have been 41-year-old rookie Satchel Paige. In limited action, the legendary right-hander authored a 2.48 ERA across seven starts and 14 relief appearances down the stretch.
1997 Atlanta Braves
Consider this a representative sampling. You could pick any number of 1990s Braves rotations and put them somewhere in the top 10. The '97 model, however, stands as the best of all-time. Fathom, if you can, this front four: Greg Maddux (232.2 IP, 2.20 ERA), Tom Glavine (240 IP, 2.96 ERA), John Smoltz (256 IP, 3.02 ERA), and Denny Neagle (233.1 IP, 2.97 ERA). In that group, you have three future Hall of Famers, 997 career wins (!), seven Cy Young Awards, and 28 All-Star appearances.