A look at two strong staffs that couldn’t make the World Series

Cliff Lee’s 2011 team couldn’t get back to the World Series.

In 2009, the Philadelphia Phillies were two games away from winning the World Series, ultimately falling to the Yankees four games to two. Against the Yankees, left-handed starter Cliff Lee was dominant, leading the Phillies to both of their wins with a 2-0 record, 2.81 ERA, and thirteen strikeouts in 16 innings pitched, including a complete game, ten strikeout win in Game 1 at Yankee Stadium. However, Lee was traded to the Mariners that offseason, and in his place, the Phillies sent prospects to acquire who was at the time arguably the best starter in the American League Roy Halladay, who would win a Cy Young Award, and throw the second postseason no-hitter in baseball history in his first season with the Phillies. Throughout this entire process, left-hander Cole Hamels, who averaged 201.0 IP and 190 strikeouts from 2009-2010, remained in the Phillies rotation, giving them a vaunted H2O pitching trio upon acquiring longtime Astros ace Roy Oswalt at the trade deadline. However, this trio of aces was not enough to get the Phillies back to their third straight World Series, as they fell to the upstart San Francisco Giants in six games in the NLCS.

With a trio of aces ready to go for 2011 in Halladay, Hamels, and Oswalt, and coming off of a 97 win season in 2010, Phillies fans were rightfully optimistic for the season to come. Their optimism reached a fever point during the offseason, when Cliff Lee decided to return to Philly on a five-year, $125 million dollar contract, giving the Phillies yet another dynamic starter to add to their rotation. The Phillies were every bit as advertised in 2011, winning 102 games, the most in baseball, and steamrolling through the National League in the regular season. And their rotation not only lived up to, but also exceeded the hype, producing the startling numbers below.

  • Roy Halladay, 2nd in Cy Young Vote: 19-6, 2.35 ERA, 233.2 IP, 220 K, 1.040 WHIP, 6.20 SO/W, 8.7 WAR
  • Cliff Lee, 3rd in Cy Young Vote: 17-8, 2.40 ERA, 232.2 IP, 238 K, 1.027 WHIP, 5.67 SO/W, 9.2 WAR
  • Cole Hamels, 5th in Cy Young Vote: 14-9, 2.79 ERA, 216.0 IP, 194 K, 0.986 WHIP, 4.41 SO/W, 6.5 WAR
  • Roy Oswalt: 9-10, 3.69 ERA, 139.0 IP, 93 K, 1.338 WHIP, 2.82 SO/W, 2.2 WAR

However, just like in 2010, the Phillies rotation of aces was not enough to push them through to the next level, as they lost in the NLDS to the eventual World Series Champion St. Louis Cardinals 3-2, with Chris Carpenter outdueling Halladay in the deciding Game 5, a 1-0 Cardinals victory. To this day, the 2011 Phillies rotation has to be considered amongst the best ever to not win the World Series, given that they had three of the top five vote getters in the Cy Young race, and Lee, Halladay, and Hamels finished first, second, and sixth in the NL in WAR respectively. The fact that the Phillies, the heavy favorites to take home the National League, didn’t even make it out of the first round of the playoffs, makes it all the more stunning.

Yet as dominant as the 2011 Phillies pitching staff was, there was one other pitching staff that came to mind when looking at great teams to not make it out of the division series, which is that of the 2014 Detroit Tigers. In 2014, the Tigers had won 90 games and their fourth straight AL Central title behind the back of Max Scherzer, who followed up his 2013 Cy Young Award with another top-five finish in the voting. Heading into the year, it was well known that Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Rick Porcello, and Anibal Sanchez had the makings of a very good pitching quartet. At the deadline, Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski made a blockbuster move to upgrade the rotation, trading Drew Smyly and Austin Jackson for The Rays David Price, who at age 28 had already made four All Star games and won an AL Cy Young. The trade made it difficult to fathom that the Tigers wouldn’t be making a deep run into the postseason, especially because in the best of five ALDS, they would be rolling out Scherzer, Price, and Verlander in games 1-3, with a second dosing of Scherzer and Price if need be. But when the ALDS rolled around, their pitching staff did not live up to the hype, as they were swept 3-0 by the Baltimore Orioles, giving up a combined 19 runs in games 1 and 2 in the process. While Verlander had a down season, and Porcello was still young and up in coming (But also in the midst of his breakout season), it is hard to imagine that the Tigers got swept so easily, especially when you look at the success their starting rotation had some two years later, in 2016.

2014 Tigers with 2016 Stats

  • Max Scherzer, 1st in NL Cy Young Vote: 20-7, 2.96 ERA, 228.1 IP, 284 K, 0.968 WHIP, 5.07 SO/W, 6.4 WAR
  • Rick Porcello, 1st in AL Cy Young Vote: 22-4, 3.15 ERA, 223.0 IP, 189 K, 1.009 WHIP, 5.91 SO/W, 5.0 WAR
  • Justin Verlander, 2nd in AL Cy Young Vote: 16-9, 3.04 ERA, 227.2 IP, 254 K, 1.001 WHIP, 4.46 SO/W, 6.6 WAR
  • David Price: 17-9, 3.99 ERA, 230.0 IP, 228 K, 1.204 WHIP, 4.56 SO/W, 3.0 WAR

When looking at both of these pitching staffs that got bounced way too early in their respective postseasons, it must be noted that the 2011 Phillies would have the edge over the 2014 Tigers staff because the entire Tigers rotation didn’t put it together until 2016, at which point only Verlander remained with the Tigers. However, if comparing the Tigers pitchers with their 2016 stats to the 2011 Phillies rotation, it makes it a much closer call. At the end of the day, both rotations were amongst their leagues best, and the most exciting we’ve seen this decade, but both will also always be remembered for what they didn’t do, rather than all they were able to accomplish on the field.


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