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Braves' staff is better than Phillies'


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Braves' staff is better than Phillies'

The Phillies have four terrific starting pitchers. But what about the depth behind them? It might have been the biggest story of the offseason: The Philadelphia Phillies collected four arms that collectively would challenge the best rotations in the history of the game. Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels would bring them to the promised land, or so the story went.

When you look at the Phillies, it appears that they are on their way to accomplishing the mission. The team is in first place and the Big Four are firing on all cylinders. They've given up the fewest runs in the major leagues as a staff, so perhaps the case is closed: Philadelphia's rotation is the best in baseball.

Except there is a team -- in their own division, no less -- that might not be so impressed, mostly because they've got an impressive rotation of their own.

The Atlanta Braves have practically pitched the Phillies to a standstill. Philadelphia's starting rotation has a 3.14 ERA; the Braves' hurlers stand at 2.88. Their underlying statistics so far are equally impressive, even if the names Tim Hudson, Tommy Hanson, Derek Lowe and Jair Jurrjens don't quite carry the same weight. These rotations are closer in quality than we thought.

Perhaps this won't be the case going forward. Lowe is showing a strikeout rate that far outshines his career numbers -- he's more of a ground-ball pitcher with good control and may now be dealing with a blister problem -- and Jurrjens won't continue to put up an ERA under two.

But there's reason to believe that the Braves can survive a little regression from their front four.

Teams averaged 1,444 innings pitched per staff in the National League last year. The ZiPS projections, compiled by Dan Szymborski and housed on FanGraphs.com, have the Phillies' Big Four throwing a combined 824 1/3 innings this year. Even with Roy Halladay projected to pitch more innings than anyone in baseball (231 1/3), there are about 620 remaining for the non-big-four to pitch. In other words, depth matters.

And in those 620 innings, the Braves will have the advantage.

For one, Atlanta has perhaps the best fifth starter in baseball. Brandon Beachy may not have had the pedigree of being a high draft pick (he was actually an amateur free agent), but as soon as he hit professional baseball, he never looked back. He has excellent control -- his 2.5 walks per nine in the major leagues are in line with his minor league work and well below the 3.3 average -- and he uses his four-pitch arsenal to rack up about a strikeout per inning.

Behind him, the Braves may also have the best sixth starter in baseball, Mike Minor. The lefty does have the pedigree, as he was drafted seventh overall just two years ago. All he's done since then is strike out 10 per nine in the minors -- with above-average control. Even in the major leagues, he's shown those abilities despite some early struggles. Behind Minor, the Braves have Julio Teheran -- the sixth-best prospect in baseball, according to Keith Law. Teheran, who spot-started Saturday, can touch the upper-90s and has a plus changeup.

For Philadelphia, the cupboard isn't as full. Behind Joe Blanton for the Phillies is Vance Worley, who has been performing admirably as a stand-in for Philadelphia so far. He's struck out 6.8 per nine over his minor league career and is thought of as a capable fill-in at best. Behind Worley, the Phillies have Kyle Kendrick, a pitcher with a 4.62 ERA in almost 500 career major league innings.

Atlanta's bullpen is also exceptional. Led by the excellent lefty-righty tandem of Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters, the Braves' 'pen has the third-best FIP (3.00) in the National League. They strike out 8.37 batters per nine and walk 3.29, with a 52.9 percent ground ball rate. Philadelphia relievers have struck out 6.87 per nine, walked 4.31 batters per nine innings and generated ground balls 47.1 percent of the time -- good for a FIP of 3.90. The Phillies are also currently on their third closer of the year, and while their bullpen isn't bad, it's certainly not as good as Atlanta's.

In addition, FanGraphs colleague Jeff Zimmerman has shown that veteran starters across baseball are about 38 percent likely to hit the DL. The Braves are much more prepared for that moment, with their excellent sixth and seventh starters. With those pitchers in place, and their excellent bullpen, Atlanta is more equipped to put up zeroes in those 620 innings that the Phillies' top four won't pitch.

As the Boy Scouts say, it's best to "be prepared." It's a long season, after all. The Braves seem better prepared in the bullpen and the rotation if something goes wrong, and that depth could carry them into the postseason.

Eno Sarris writes for FanGraphs, is the manager of the RotoGraphs fantasy blog, contributes to Bloomberg Sports and runs the Roto Hardball blog for SBNation.

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