To see Cole Hamels last October was to see an ace, and, it seemed, a fully-formed one destined for many years in that role. In pitching the Phillies to their first world championship in 28 years, the 24-year-old Hamels authored a brilliant postseason in which he was named both NLCS and World Series MVP to firmly establish himself as one of the game's premier pitchers.
To see Cole Hamels now is to see a still-promising pitcher struggling to match his accomplishments of autumn. There is no doubt that Hamels is still supremely gifted, but there can also be no doubt that the honor of being called the team's ace is one he no longer deserves. It may be his California-cool confidence, or the simple reality that comes with toting an under-.500 record and an ERA approaching 5.00, but nobody knows that better than Hamels. And he knows he isn't fooling anyone these days, certainly not major league hitters and definitely not himself. The once and likely future ace of the Phillies, Hamels does not hesitate to cede that crown to his teammates, older and younger, on the Philadelphia staff. "[J.A.] Happ is the guy who's earned it," he said recently. "Cliff [Lee] has been mind-boggling. If you're not the hot guy, you kind of understand."
But, he added, "It's just a matter of time before I get back to it."
Hamels' difficulties one year after looking like he would be heading the Phillies staff for years to come only serve to, once again, illustrate the enduring importance of a deep starting pitching rotation. Yet, it also points to the success of the Phillies talent development and financial flexibility. Even with Hamels pitching nothing like he did during that magical month last fall, the team has pieced together one of the best 1-2 punches atop their rotation in all of baseball, finding a gem of a prospect in its bullpen and dealing for a veteran Cy Young winner.
GALLERY: DOMINANT PITCHING TANDEMS IN HISTORY
The Phillies rotation might be the deepest in the game, but is it the best one at the top? Below is an effort to assess which five teams have the best 1-2 punches in the game. Performance to date was weighted heavily, but potential postseason performance was given strong consideration as well. This is not to say that these five teams have the best staffs in all of baseball, only that they have the best top two right now, and that in a short series, would be the most likely to carry their clubs deep into October.
Lincecum: 12-4, 2.43 ERA, 214 K'sCain: 12-4, 2.39 ERA, 133 K's
No club has a duo as feared as the Giants' Cain and Lincecum, which is especially helpful for San Francisco because there isn't much else to be afraid of on that team. The Giants are 34-18 in games started by those two, and 35-40 in all other contests. And with an offense that is as soft as the waters of McCovey Cove, it is the young arms of their two right-handed stars that carry the burden of the Giants playoff hopes.
Fortunately, those arms have been up to the challenge. As hard as it might be to believe, Lincecum has been even better than he was a year ago during his Cy Young-winning campaign. His ERA, WHIP, H/9 and BB/9 are all down from 2008, and his K/BB ratio is up. Cain's success is more surprising, although his talent has always been overshadowed by a deceptive won-loss record. In 2007 and 2008, he posted a 3.71 ERA, the 22nd best among all starters, but a 15-30 record for the second worst winning percentage in that same group. This year, his record is more reflective of his stellar pitching performance. He's striking out fewer batters than in any other full season, but he's relied on breaking pitches to be more efficient, with a career-low 15.1 pitches per inning.
Carpenter: 14-3, 2.16 ERA, 111 K'sWainwright: 15-7, 2.50 ERA, 157 K's
Carpenter, the 2005 NL Cy Young winner, is making a serious challenge to Lincecum to win the award again this year. He leads the league in ERA, ranks second in wins and WHIP and third in strikeout/walk ratio. Because of a month spent on the disabled list, he's made just 21 starts, but upon his return, the Cardinals took off. They were three games out when he rejoined the rotation May 20, and they've never been that far back again. Three times since he came back, Carpenter has won a game that pushed the Cardinals into first place, including most recently on Aug. 7, when they beat the Pirates to move atop the NL Central. They've stayed there ever since.
Wainwright, once a middle reliever who became a closer late in 2006 and nailed down the Cardinals' World Series win that October, had put together a pair of impressive years as a starter but made just 20 starts a year ago due to a finger injury. This year, he's stayed healthy and durable, leading the league with 27 starts and 187.0 innings pitched. He's also first with 15 wins, and ranks fourth in ERA. What's more, in Joel Pineiro (12-9, 3.15 ERA, 1.107 WHIP), the Cardinals also have as good a third starter as there has been in the National League all season.
Verlander: 14-7, 3.38 ERA, 211 K'sJackson: 10-5, 2.86 ERA, 128 K's
If there is a close American League comparison to what the Giants have in the NL it is found in Motown, where a pair of hard-throwing righties in their mid-20s have carried an otherwise unremarkable ballclub into the heart of the playoff chase. Verlander, 26, has been the Tigers best pitcher since his first full season as a 23-year-old in 2006. He's one of the hardest throwers in baseball, and leads the league in both strikeouts and K/9. Perhaps his most interesting development has been his control. He has drastically reduced his BB/9 (from 3.9 a year ago to 2.5 this season), while more than doubling his K/BB ratio (1.9 to 4.2).
If Verlander, the No. 2 pick in the 2004 draft, was more of a sure thing, than Jackson has been a pleasant surprise. He's been in the majors since his 20th birthday, when, in 2003, he memorably beat Randy Johnson in his major league debut as a September call-up. But despite a world of talent, he spent more time in the minors over the next three years, and was just 5-15 when he finally cracked a big league rotation in 2007. Despite leading the pennant-winning Rays with 14 wins a year ago, he was bumped from their rotation in the postseason, and traded straight up to the Tigers for prospect Matt Joyce. While Joyce has batted .188 in 11 big league games, Jackson has blossomed into an All Star, ranking third in the league in ERA, eighth in WHIP and third in fewest hits per nine innings.
Lee: 5-0, 0.68 ERA, 39 K's (12-9, 2.62 ERA, 146 strikeouts overall)Happ: 10-2, 2.59 ERA, 93 K's
It is remarkable that the Phillies are not only comfortably in front in the NL East but boast what manager Charlie Manuel referred to as "the best rotation since I've been here" considering that neither of these two pitchers were in their rotation at the start of the year. Happ was in the bullpen and didn't make his first start until late May, while Lee was in Cleveland, and didn't join the defending champs until late July. Yet, their presence has reshaped the Phillies rotation and the balance of power in the National League.
Happ has been the biggest surprise, having started just five games in his career until he took over for a struggling Chan Ho Park on May 23. Happ, who leads the league in winning percentage, pitches to contact more than most aces do, and he certainly has room to improve his control, but he has already proven to be an extremely effective starter. So effective, in fact, that, when Pedro Martinez was ready to join the rotation a few weeks ago, it was 250-game-winner Jamie Moyer, and not the 26-year-old Happ, who was sent to the bullpen.
If Happ's performance was an unexpected blessing, than Lee's has been exactly what the Phillies hoped for when they sent him to Cleveland for four prospects a few days before the trade deadline. Lee had been an impressive pitcher for the Indians, though not nearly as impressive as he had been in winning the AL Cy Young a year ago. And since the trade, he has been even better than he was during his magical '08 run in Cleveland, winning all five of his starts, allowing just three earned runs and immediately becoming the most likely option to start Game 1 of the playoffs in six weeks.
Beckett: 14-5, 3.65 ERA, 154 K'sLester: 10-7, 3.60 ERA, 187 K's
There are several tandems that would have been just as worthy of the fifth and final spot: the Rockies, with Ubaldo Jimenez and Jason Marquis; the Dodgers, with Chad Billingsley and Clayton Kershaw; the Rangers, with Kevin Millwood and Scott Feldman; and the Yankees, with C.C. Sabathia and A.J. Burnett. But each of those pairings have their shortcomings. Jimenez has the look of a future star, but Marquis is outperforming his previously unremarkable career numbers so much so that it's questionable if he can keep it up (and those 84 strikeouts aren't scaring anyone). Billingsley has been impressive all year, but Kershaw is just 21, and aside from being severely untested in the kind of pennant race pressure he is about to face, he has also gone way past his previous high for innings pitched, making it difficult to project how good he'll be down the stretch. By this time next year, expect the Dodgers duo to be comfortably on this list.
As for the Rangers, Feldman is embarking on a career year but has never been tested in big games before. And while the Yankees' Burnett has been fantastic at times, he has been maddeningly inconsistent, and his 4.08 ERA is higher than the No. 2 pitchers of each of those other contenders, plus a few more that will have to settle for honorable-mention status (White Sox and Braves).
That leaves Beckett and Lester, who have the numbers, and the big-game experience -- and, more importantly, big-game success -- to warrant inclusion on this list. Would you rather have Beckett/Lester starting a playoff game, or Jason Marquis or Scott Feldman?
Beckett, 29, is arguably the best postseason pitcher of his generation, going 7-2 with a 2.90 ERA and padding his resume with an ALCS MVP and World Series MVP honors. Yes, he's been rocked in his past two starts, surrendering 15 runs in 13.1 innings pitched against the Blue Jays and Yankees, causing his ERA to soar from 3.10 to 3.65. But he's still second in the AL in wins, fourth in WHIP and complete games, sixth in strikeouts and eighth in innings pitched. And should Boston make it to October, he will be the one pitcher nobody wants to face.
Lester, 25, has also been a playoff stalwart, winning the clinching game of the 2007 World Series and pitching 14 shutout innings against the AL's best team, the Angels, in the 2008 ALDS. In 2009, he's been significantly better than he was a year ago, even if he doesn't have the wins to show for it. Lester has a lower WHIP, fewer hits/9 and much better K/9 and K/BB ratios than at any point in his career. He got off to a dreadful start, going 3-5 with a 6.07 ERA. But he has pitched more like himself since then, with a 12-4 record and 2.24 ERA since May 31, the best in the American League over that time. And although his win total is underwhelming, he has six no-decisions in his last 10 starts, even though nine of them have been quality starts.
Honorable mention: Dodgers (Billingsley and Kershaw), Rockies (Jimenez and Marquis), Rangers (Millwood and Feldman), Yankees (Sabathia and Burnett), Braves (Javier Vazquez and Tommy Hanson), White Sox (Mark Buehrle and John Danks).
BALLARD:Why does every team use a five-man rotation?
GALLERY: Dominant pitching tandems in history