Top 10 rotations in MLB history

Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Greg Maddux were a formidable trio in the 1990s for the Braves. AP Photo/Doug Mills

I grew up as a crazy Los Angeles Lakers fan right in the middle of Boston Celtics country in central Vermont, which meant that all of my friends rooted for Larry Bird and Robert Parish and Cedric Maxwell, and I rooted for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson. I loved the debate, even when it was certain that we would disagree.

It is in that vein that we present a weeklong series ranking the greatest units in baseball history -- the greatest rotations, the greatest bullpens, outfields, infields, lineups and teams.

It's a sure thing: We are going to disagree. And that's a big part of the fun.

Here's my list of the top 10 MLB rotations of all time:

1. 1997 Atlanta Braves

The Atlanta rotation was so good for so long that you could actually make a case for about a half-dozen other seasons -- 1995, the year that the Braves won the World Series, or 1998, 1999, 1993 or maybe 2002. I solicited opinions on this from a bunch of colleagues, from Jayson Stark to Justin Havens to Frank Labombarda of the Elias Sports Bureau, and Jayson sent along a list of the teams with the greatest differential between their staff ERA and the league average. Five of the top 30 teams were those Braves teams of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz.

In 1997, the difference between the Braves' staff ERA of 3.18 was more than a run better than the league average -- 1.03 runs, to be exact -- which is the fourth-best of all time. That year, John Smoltz had 241 strikeouts in 256 innings, with a 3.02 ERA, and he was arguably the fourth-most effective starter in their rotation. Denny Neagle went 20-7 with a 2.97 ERA and 1.084 WHIP, and finished third in the Cy Young voting; Glavine had a 2.96 ERA; and Maddux finished second to Pedro Martinez in the Cy Young voting after posting a 2.20 ERA.

And within the next five years, we'll probably be able to say that three-fifths of the Atlanta rotation was composed of Hall of Famers, which means even more today than it did two weeks ago.

2. 1966 Los Angeles Dodgers

This rotation included three pitchers who would eventually be inducted in the Hall of Fame. Sandy Koufax, in his last season before retiring, posted a career-low 1.73 ERA with 317 strikeouts in 323 innings. Don Drysdale had the highest ERA among the starters at 3.42, and the guy filling the No. 4 spot in the four-man rotation was 21-year-old Don Sutton, who went 12-12 with a 2.99 ERA. Claude Osteen, the Dodgers' No. 3 starter, surrendered just six homers and 65 walks in 240 1/3 innings, the foundation for his 2.85 ERA. The difference between the Dodgers' staff ERA that season -- built on the 1,062 innings of those starters -- and the league average was 0.98 runs, the eighth-best in major league history.

3. 2011 Philadelphia Phillies

On the second day of spring training that year, the Phillies' rotation of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, Roy Oswalt and Joe Blanton held a news conference together, and the whole thing was a little awkward. Halladay and Lee are naturally reticent, and none of the other three was inclined to speak out of turn. When Blanton was asked, in so many words, whether he felt he was worthy of being in the same company as the other four, Oswalt reacted with a look of disgust at the question.

But while they didn't like talking about themselves, they lived up to the hype. The Phillies' rotation posted a 2.86 ERA that season, best in the majors, and Philadelphia went 102-60. Halladay, Lee and Hamels all posted ERAs at 2.79 or lower, and at one time or another, each of them was part of the Cy Young conversation during that summer. Halladay threw the second no-hitter in postseason history.

Halladay could retire today and be all but assured of induction into the Hall of Fame, and Hamels has started his career strongly and given himself a chance to someday join Halladay. Either way, Hamels and the rest of the 2011 Phillies can say they were part of one of the greatest rotations of all time.

4. 1954 Cleveland Indians

The Indians went 111-43 that year, setting the modern-day American League record for wins -- later broken by the 1998 New York Yankees and then the 2001 Seattle Mariners -- and their rotation led the way. Early Wynn and Bob Lemon each won 23 games, Mike Garcia went 19-8, and No. 4 starter Art Houtteman went 15-7 with a 3.35 ERA. The No. 4 starter? The 35-year-old Bob Feller, who mustered a 3.09 ERA in his 19 starts. Wynn, Lemon and Feller all were eventually inducted into the Hall of Fame -- as was a veteran reliever on that team who chipped in with one spot start, the 33-year-old Hal Newhouser. Cleveland posted a staff ERA that year of 2.78, markedly better than any other team's; the Chicago White Sox finished second at 3.05.

5. 1907 Chicago Cubs

It was the dead ball era, and pitching dominated, but no staff might have dominated the way that this Cubs team did. The Cubs' ERA was 1.73, with five of the eight members of the team checking in with ERAs under two runs per game: Orval Overall went 23-7 with a 1.68 ERA; the legendary Mordecai Brown had a 1.39 ERA; Ed Reulbach at 1.69; Carl Lundgren, 1.17; and Jack Pfeister, 1.15. In the sweep of the Detroit Tigers, which included a 3-3 tie in Game 1, the Cubs' staff allowed four earned runs in those five games.

Oh, what the Cubs would give to have a pitcher like Overall now.

6. 1986 Houston Astros

That year, a 39-year-old Nolan Ryan struck out 194 in 178 innings with a 3.34 ERA -- and he was the Astros' No. 3 starter. Mike Scott's splitter (or whatever it was) was at its best, and he posted a 2.22 ERA with 306 strikeouts in 275 1/3 innings. Bob Knepper was 17-12, 3.14, and Jim Deshaies was 12-5, 3.25 in 26 starts. That staff generated 1,160 strikeouts, easily the most in the majors, and Houston's rotation ranked No. 1 in ERA in the majors that year at 3.06.

Their season would end with a wrenching playoff defeat to the New York Mets, because the Astros on that team -- and some Mets, for that matter -- will always believe that if Houston could have forced a Game 7, Scott would have gotten the ball and won. He had been dominant in his first two starts, allowing one run and one walk in 18 innings, with 19 strikeouts.

7. 1971 Baltimore Orioles

The Orioles lost the World Series in seven games that year, but this might have been the best pitching staff among the many great staffs managed by the late Earl Weaver. This rotation is famous for being the only rotation in history with four 20-game winners -- left-hander Mike Cuellar (20-9), right-hander Pat Dobson (20-8), right-hander Jim Palmer (20-9) and left-hander Dave McNally (21-5). The Orioles' staff pitched 1,415 1/3 innings that year, and the starting four accounted for 1,081 of those.

It's hard to make a case for this quartet as being the greatest rotation of all time, though, given the fact that Baltimore's staff ERA was just a shade better than those of the Oakland Athletics, the California Angels and the White Sox. But the Orioles' staff was extremely efficient: Baltimore finished ninth in the league in strikeouts that season but allowed the fewest walks -- and in keeping with Weaver's directive about avoiding beanball battles, the Baltimore batters hit only 18 opponents that year, the fewest in the majors. The Orioles had a great defense, and Weaver implored his pitchers to take advantage of it -- and in 1971 they did, day after day.

8. 1948 Cleveland Indians

Cleveland's staff ERA was more than a half-run better than any other AL team's, and the Indians' primary five starters of Bob Lemon, Bob Feller, Gene Bearden, Sam Zoldak and Don Black did a lot of heavy lifting in that season -- manager Lou Boudreau used each of them for at least six relief appearances as well. Lemon had a couple of saves and Feller had three among the Indians' league-leading 30 saves. The Indians' ERA of 3.22 was 1.06 runs better than the league average, the third-highest of all time.

The difference in eras may be best borne out by this number: Cleveland's accomplished staff combined for 593 strikeouts in 1,409 1/3 innings, or 3.79 per nine innings. According to Katie Sharp of ESPN Stats & Info, the last team to post a strikeout/9 ratio this low was the 1983 Kansas City Royals.

9. 1939 New York Yankees

It's a group of pitchers mostly forgotten by history because of the dominance of the Yankees' lineup that year, but consider this: The staff ERA of 3.31, or 1.31 runs better than the league average of 4.62, represents the greatest difference in baseball history. The Yankees' ERA was almost three-quarters of a run better than any other AL team's, in a year in which New York went 106-45. Manager Joe McCarthy employed his own version of a pitch count that year: Eight different pitchers had at least 11 starts, and not one of them started more than 28 games. Nonetheless, Red Ruffing went 21-7 with a 2.93 ERA, and Lefty Gomez went 12-8 with a 3.41 ERA, in 26 starts. Three of the top four leaders in hits per nine innings were members of the Yankees' rotation.

That season will always be remembered for the last days of Lou Gehrig's consecutive-games streak and for Joe DiMaggio's pre-eminence. But the Yankees' pitching was sensational.

10. 1905 Philadelphia Athletics

It was a different time, and really, a different game. Connie Mack used a total of seven pitchers that year, and his big four of left-handers Eddie Plank and Rube Waddell and right-handers Chief Bender and Andy Coakley combined for 1,169 of the team's 1,383 innings that season. Waddell had a monster season, posting a 1.48 ERA and striking out 287 hitters in 328 2/3 innings -- and he went 27-10.

Others considered: The 1968 St. Louis Cardinals -- It was very, very difficult to leave them out. With Bob Gibson leading the way with a record-low 1.12 ERA, St. Louis had an ERA of 2.49 that year, and he was followed in the rotation by Nelson Briles and Steve Carlton.

The 1926 Philadelphia Athletics -- At a time when offense had started to take over the sport, Connie Mack's staff posted a league-best 3.00 ERA. Philadelphia finished third that year even though that the staff ERA was 1.02 runs per game better than the league average, the fifth-best of all time. Hall of Famer Lefty Grove led the way for that rotation.

The Oakland Athletics' rotations from 1972 to 1974 -- Catfish Hunter, Ken Holtzman and Vida Blue were the Maddux-Glavine-Smoltz of those years.

The 1986 New York Mets -- Before they outlasted the Astros and Red Sox in the postseason, the Mets were a regular-season machine, going 108-54 -- and their rotation did staggering work. Sid Fernandez, their No. 4 starter, allowed just 161 hits in 204 1/3 innings, and their No. 5 was a 24-year-old Rick Aguilera. Dwight Gooden, Ron Darling and Bobby Ojeda fronted the rotation, with Gooden posting a 2.84 ERA.

The 1998 Yankees -- Led the AL in ERA by a significant margin as the Yankees won 114 regular-season games.

The 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks -- Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson combined for 665 strikeouts in 506 1/3 innings that year and carried that rotation.

The 2003 Oakland Athletics -- Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson and Barry Zito were in their prime.