Could Phillies rotation be best ever?

Just one year after trading Cliff Lee to Seattle, the Philadelphia Phillies corrected their mistake Tuesday. By reacquiring their former ace, they have not only created the game’s best pitching staff, but possibly the best four-man rotation in baseball history.

By comparing the ERAs of a team’s top four starters with the league average, the fiercest competition for that title comes from the mid-1990s Atlanta Braves. Those teams featured Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz — who pitched together in Atlanta for nine seasons — and a revolving door of other good arms.

In 1997 and 1998, Denny Neagle held his own as the fourth wheel, giving the Braves four elite starters. In 1997, the combined ERA for the Braves’ top four starters was 1.4 runs below the league average, and in 1998, they lowered that to 1.48 runs below average. No four-man group has ever been able to match that kind of performance.

However, if you take the ERAs posted by Lee, Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels in 2010, their combined performance is just slightly better than that of the 1998 Braves — their overall ERA last year was 1.53 runs below the league average. If they repeat their performance next season, they would stand as the best group of pitchers in the game’s long history.

However, we must note that despite their dominant starting pitching, the Braves didn’t win the World Series in either 1997 or ’98. In fact, none of the five best four-man rotations in history by this measure won a championship.

The 1927 Yankees (sixth) did manage to win it all, but that team is more remembered for the likes of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig than the likes of Dutch Ruether and Urban Shocker.