MILWAUKEE When Cliff Lee signed with the Philadelphia Phillies in December2010, putting the finishing brush strokes on a piece de resistance of a pitching rotation, the baseball world took notice.
The Phillies, it appeared, had just constructed one of the best rotations in the history of major league baseball.
That's not a title that anyone around the sport takes lightly, either. To be the best-ever anything in baseball requires a legendary amount of talent and skill, considering the sheer pedigree of players that have been a part of the league for over a century. But the Phillies, before they had even played a game, were undoubtedly the best, it seemed. Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, Joe Blanton, and Roy Oswalt were mythically good, miles ahead of mere mortal pitching staffs that populated the rest of the majors.
The 2011 season only fed the media fire surrounding the Phillies' staff, as Philadelphia's rotation indeed turned in one of the best single season efforts in major league history. They tallied the best strikeouts per walks ratio of all time (4.22) and ranked in the top five all-time in wins above replacement (25.8), strikeout percentage (21.6 percent), and walk percentage (5.1 percent). The Phillies finished with the best record in baseball, winning 102 games.
But their rotation couldn't get them farther than the first round of the playoffs, as they lost to the eventual World Series champion Cardinals. Still, heading into 2012, the Phillies rotation still carried the luster it did when the group graced the well-known April cover of Sports Illustrated in 2011 with the title "NO HITTERS" emblazoned below them.
That is, until the legendary, eye-popping results suddenly stopped, and everyone and anyone seemed to be able to hit the Phillies.
The 2012 season has not been a kind one to the Phillies as a whole, and that goes double for a rotation that was supposed to be one of the best of all time. Halladay has been on and off the disabled list, starting in just 17 games and tallying a 6-7 record and 3.80 ERA that qualifies as his worst season since 2004. Lee has been similarly ineffective with just two wins and a 3.83 ERA. And while Hamels has been outstanding his 13-6 record and 2.91 ERA would likely put him in contention for the NL Cy Young the guys rounding out the rotation, Vance Worley and Kyle Kendrick, have been little more than average.
But with a reputation so well established and a pedestal placed so highly above the rest of the rotations in baseball, does the potential for greatness and sheer hype outweigh the reality of the Phillies' pitching problems?
"I think because there are some other staffs that are so good now certainly the Giants have to be in there but there are some other staffs that are fantastic," Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said on Friday. "It's hard for me to say this year that they're the best staff. I would've said that last year, and the year before I would've said they're the best starting staffs."
This year, the one-time Greatest Rotation of All-Time is fighting just to be considered as one of the best in the National League. Six NL teams rank above them in rotation ERA, and eight NL teams have a lower batting average against than they do.
The Phillies are still tops in many of the categories still that put them in the conversation as one of the baseball's all-time greats. Their strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.82) leads both leagues and is a full strikeout higher than 22 other teams in major league baseball. But through struggles that have been evident to any team keeping a watchful eye on the Phillies, has the luster of a seemingly unhittable, unshakeable, and indestructible pitching rotation worn off?
"It's still around," Roenicke said. "Everybody, when you talk about the Phillies staff, it's always, 'Wow, you have to face the Phillies' staff?' It's always thought of very highly. ... When you look at numbers of Halladay and Lee, you still know that, when they're on their game, you're not going to get any runs. You don't really look at so much just numbers."
The trio of Halladay, Lee, and Hamels still carries that reputation with them, even if the results haven't necessarily been there this season. Players are fully aware that the potential is still there, with any of them, to throw a complete-game shutout or roll through a lineup for 10 strikeouts in a single start.
Brewers shortstop Cody Ransom knows that potential well, considering he played behind two-thirds of the top-tier trio during the 2010 season. Since then though, he, like many of their opponents, have focused on minimizing the intimidation that comes with a title like "the best of all-time".
"They're great pitchers," Ransom said. "It's fun to play behind them because they like to be out there. They all want to throw complete games. It's pretty special to have pitchers like that. They're good, and they've been good for a while. But when you're facing somebody, you can't give them that kind of credit. You can't think like that."
But 20 games back in the hunt for the NL East, it won't likely matter how well the Phillies rotation pitches for the rest of this season. Beyond that, it's unclear whether the rotation will remain in place for the near future. Hamels is now locked down by a multi-year contract, but the team was open about their options to move Lee before the trade deadline. And it's unclear whether Halladay will be able to bounce back from what's been an injury-riddled season.
Still, as other pitching rotations attempt to match what the Phillies put together before the 2011 season, Philadelphia remains the benchmark, with three of baseball's 16 winningest active pitchers at the top of their rotation.
But for how long?
"They're amazing baseball players," Brewers second baseman Rickie Weeks said. "Granted, they've had their struggles this year, but they have a track record. You have to abide by that."
Follow Ryan Kartje on Twitter.