Sports Illustrated’s 2011 Baseball Preview featured an entire starting rotation of one team on the cover. But it wasn’t the starting rotation of the defending world champs. It was the starting rotation of the team the San Francisco Giants beat in the NLCS, the Philadelphia Phillies. Last year, the Phillies traded for Roy Halladay and during the middle of the season, traded for Roy Oswalt. And this year, they signed free agent Cliff Lee. Cole Hamels was now their fourth best starter and Joe Blanton rounded out the staff. Many Phillies’ blogs dubbed the cover, “The Four Aces … and Joe Blanton”.

Giants fans erupted in discontent screaming that the East Coast bias was in full effect again. They touted their starting rotation of Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez, Madison Bumgarner, and Barry Zito as superior than the newly bought and traded for Phillies starting staff.

Let’s take a look at how those two staffs are performing thus far. We’ll throw win/loss record out of the equation because it’s not a true definition of how well a pitcher does his job. Bob Welch went 27-6 and 1990 and was barely the third best pitcher on his team. Case closed.

(The Giants’ 4th starter, Barry Zito is hurt and has only started three times. Phillies’ 5th starter, Blanton, has only started four times because of injury.)

Going deep into games

One of the things you want out of a starting rotation is for them to pitch deep into games. The Phillies big five go deeper into games by about an inning per start. Barry Zito’s three starts for the Giants kill this metric as he’s only averaged just over four innings per start. Phillies’ horse Roy Halladay has averaged over seven full innings pitched per start so far this season, while Giants’ ace Tim Lincecum isn’t quite averaging seven per start.

ERA

The Giants starting staff has an ERA of about 3.45, which is good, though probably just a tad higher than expected based on how well the staff pitched in the playoffs. The Phillies’ staff is a bit lower at 3.30 and except for Blanton, surprisingly, the pitcher who has given up the most runs has been Cliff Lee.

Strikeouts

The way a pitcher can make sure to be in control of his own outcome is to strikeout hitters. The more hitters a pitcher can strikeout, the less the ball is put into play. When the ball is put into play, lots of things can happen, and some of them bad. But if you strike guys out consistently, you lessen the possibility of base runners and runs given up. Lincecum leads both staffs with 57, but Halladay and Lee are next in line with 47 and 44 respectively, while Cole Hamels and Jonathan Sanchez are tied with 40. But Sanchez hurts himself more because he’s constantly walking hitters, nearly negating all those strikeouts. As staffs, they strikeout just about the same amount of batters per inning.

Other interesting nuggets

I’m not a huge fan of the quality start as a statistic, but if you are, the Phillies have 22 and the Giants have 15. If you’re a fan of WHIP, only Blanton has a WHIP of higher than 1.12 on the Phillies while on the Giants, everyone other than Lincecum has a higher WHIP than 1.20.

So, did Sports Illustrated choose correctly? So far, yes. The Phillies starting staff has been more dynamic and has been a huge reason why they are currently 20-9. The Giants, at 15-15 (as of this writing) have been slightly let down by their lights out staff. But some of that has to do with the Giants playing so many more games on the road to start this season, rather than at their friendly confines in San Francisco.

In the end, we’ll probably see the Philies not be quite as good and the Giants be a tad bit better and the staffs will look a little more close to even. Both teams should battle for their division title this season, and maybe we’ll get to see them battle it out again in the playoffs.

Whose staff is better? Right now, not even 25% into the season, it’s the Phillies, though I predict the Giants close the gap by mid-season.

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