Jeff Sullivan over at Fangraphs.com recently had a very interesting article about the five starter rotation myth. The most effective writing is that which makes you think and Sullivan certainly brings a perspective on a topic we don’t think about very often. While he admitted his methodology was a bit sloppy, the basic point was that the average MLB team ends up getting 32 starts a season from pitchers other than the supposed top five of the rotation. Think about that for a minute. As he states, that is a full rotation slot made up of guys off the bottom of your pitching roster, emergency trades and minor league depth.
Despite the Yankees’ injury problems in 2013, they came under the curve on this one as they needed only nineteen starts from pitchers that were not considered the five rotation pieces. They were pitched by David Phelps (12), Adam Warren (2), Vidal Nuno (3) and David Huff (2). The team had 29 such starts in 2012 and 19 again in 2011.Say what you will about the quality of the rotation over the past three seasons, but durability has not been one of the problems.
How did the Yankees do in those nineteen starts in 2013? Surprisingly well. The ERA came up a little high in the 99 total innings thrown in those 19 starts with a cumulative 4.93. But the rest of the numbers are not bad at all.
In those 99 combined innings the combined WHIP was 1.333 with 7.00 strikeouts per nine and 3.00 walks per nine for a strikeout to walk ratio of 2.33. They averaged 5.21 innings per start and the Yankees went 13-6 in those games.
Compare that to the overall starting pitching numbers to 2013: 4.08 ERA, 1.311 WHIP, 7.0 strikeouts per nine, 2.78 K/BB and 5.99 innings per start and the numbers did not drop off that much other than the ERA. Those same pitchers are still available to the Yankees as starting depth, which provides some comfort level. The top five is currently the scary part.
If the Yankees do not sign Tanaka and if Michael Pineda is not ready to start the season or craps out altogether, then up to two of these swing guys will be counted on for the rotation. If that happens, the Yankees would lose their depth at the swing position and the 2013 numbers would be difficult to match.
It is interesting to speculate on the best use of these pitchers during a season. Which would you choose if one was needed for the starting rotation? My first choice would be Vidal Nuno because I love left-handed starters and Nuno was very good in his three starts last year and was also good in the Arizona Fall League. The problem is keeping him healthy.
My second choice would be David Phelps simply because he does not excel in spot starts. In admittedly a practically meaningless sample size, Phelps has a 2.95 ERA with five days of rest between starts with a WHIP of 1.234. When he has over six days of rest between starts, his ERA is over nine with a WHIP of 1.432.
David Huff has the exact opposite splits than Phelps. I would never give Huff a regular rotation slot because he has had success in starts with more than six days of rest and gets toasted in a regular five day rest rotation. The sample size for Huff in these situations is much larger. David Huff is a great guy to start once a month or something but never against the Red Sox!
There simply is not enough information from Adam Warren. He made one start in 2012 that was an epic disaster but then had two good starts in 2013. But they were against the Blue Jays and the Astros, so what do you really learn from those? He throws harder than Phelps so theoretically has more of an upside, but needs a chance to see what he can do. As such, he will remain a bullpen piece and an insurance policy.
As Sullivan states perfectly in his closing:
“The tricky thing is the unpredictability. You never know when you might suddenly have a need, and you never know for how long that need might exist. As noted, it’s tough to build quality rotation depth, because good starters are always valued at a premium. But depth is still important, for all of the uncertainty. Every team employs a five-man rotation, but those rotations, in the end, will have consisted of more than five men. Depth should be preserved, not depleted, and the best teams are the teams prepared for the inevitable adversity. The absence of quality depth will usually cost a team, in one way or another.”
Some side notes: I got sidetracked in researching this post and did a search on pitchers with the most starts on more than six days rest since 2009. If I don’t include ace-types like Kershaw and Lee who are good no matter how much rest they have, some of the findings were interesting.
For example, Juan Nicasio of the Rockies has never lost in his eleven such starts since 2009 with a 1.78 ERA and a 1.02 WHIP. Jeremy Hellickson has made 17 such starts since 2009 and is a much better pitcher in those starts than he is on regular rest. And it turns out that Jaime Garcia is a guy the Cardinals should pitch once a week (preferably at home).
The most interesting guy in the list was John Danks. He has made 21 such starts since the start of the 2009 season and is 9-5 with a 2.53 ERA and a 1.10 WHIP in those starts. He has really struggled the last three years in all other starts.