In 2012, the National League was a robust replacement league, which made mid-level performances (and mid-IP performances) more valuable throughout the season. Overall, National League clubs employed 73 regular starters to work 100+ innings in 2012. Those regular starters averaged between 28 and 29 G throughout the season, and approximately 168.7 IP, which left plenty of room for replacement starters and destroyed the five-man rotation. On average, even if a ballclub employed five regular pitchers, they would need approximately 17-22 more starts from a replacement starter of some type. Four of the sixteen National League rotations used eight or fewer pitchers, which amplifies the value of the starting five on the Nationals, Reds, Giants, and Cardinals. However, not every rotation experienced poor performances from their replacements; the Pirates, Braves, and Brewers provide interesting challenges to a rankings system with their average or better replacement performances.
This never gets old, even though I do it just about every year: Dodgers’ ace Clayton Kershaw pitched yet another elite season, placing him on a strong path to challenge Sandy Koufax as the Dodgers’ best southpaw in franchise history. Although Mr. Kershaw is a humble man, and always defers to Mr. Koufax in interviews, he actually performed as a significantly more valuable hurler prior to age-25 than the Dodgers’ Hall of Fame lefty.
Kershaw (through age 24): 61-37, 944 IP, 138 ERA+
Koufax (through age 24): 36-40, 691.7 IP, 100 ERA+
Beyond their basic pitching lines in their early careers, Kershaw’s consecutive campaigns from age 21 through age 24, from 2009 through 2012, are better than any four consecutive campaigns that Koufax pitched until his age 26 season. In the past, I’ve noted that it’s impossible to truly compare their performances, because one must wonder how good Koufax could have been if he had access to contemporary sports medicine and training, and organizational usage that eases pitchers into their roles; but, who else would want to see Kershaw on that big ‘ol mound Koufax got to use?
So, now we wait. Koufax has the upper-hand from age 25 forward, having worked one of the most elite stretches of any pitcher in MLB history.
Koufax (age 25 to 30): 129-47, 1632.7 IP, 156 ERA+
Kershaw (age 21 to 24): 56-32, 836.3 IP, 147 ERA+
Koufax learned a lot throughout his career, worked on his pitching approach, and put together amazing campaigns once he turned 25. It is worth noting that although Kershaw does not yet have five consecutive amazing seasons, his last four campaigns are not terribly far off from the level of Koufax (of course, we’ll never see Kershaw work 311-to-340 IP, so Koufax will always have that historical edge). Koufax became an elite starter after toiling as an average swingman; Kershaw now enters his prime with four elite seasons already under his belt.
Given the fluctuation of Giants’ ex-ace Tim Lincecum, and the above-average-but-not-elite seasons by Matt Cain, Kershaw safely holds the belt as the National League’s top starter over the last few years. This year, you’ll find that he was one of three “aces,” or pitchers that prevented more than 30 runs against average. Johnny Cueto and R.A. Dickey join Kershaw in that regard.
Yovani Gallardo #1
After a Top 30 season in 2011, the Brewers’ franchise starter Yovani Gallardo reached the Top 15 in 2012, overcoming an increase in walks and steady home run rate to work 204 notably above average innings. The righty was the best starter on the Brewers’ squad, running the board with his wins, innings pitched, runs prevented, you name it. Gallardo’s recent performances show the type of improvement or steady, above average performance seen by pitchers such as Justin Verlander, or even Jered Weaver, prior to their contract extensions and elite seasons.
If we regard pitchers such as Verlander or Weaver as better pitchers than Gallardo, it might not remain that way for long. Both Verlander and Weaver had some fluctuation in early performances, while remaining solid, above average starters through their age 26 seasons. Something clicked for both pitchers, and they worked significantly above average starters. One wonders if the same is in the cards for Gallardo:
Weaver (’06-’10): 896 IP, 779 K/252 BB/101 HR; 122 ERA+ (0.57 FIPratio)
Verlander (’05-’09): 840 IP, 746 K/282 BB/80 HR; 115 ERA+ (0.47 FIPratio)
Gallardo (’08-’12): 806 IP, 835 K/317 BB/89 HR; 112 ERA+ (0.54 FIPratio)
Certainly, there is no correlation between these stats that suggests that Gallardo will necessarily break out as a starter. Nevertheless, both Verlander and Weaver are interesting comparisons to Gallardo because both pitchers earned very clear contract extensions that can be compared to Gallardo’s age and service time. These relatively close comparisons lead me to ask, “How much should the Brewers spend to extend Gallardo again?” Surely, the Brewers already control Gallardo for a significant amount of time in terms of pitching years, and yet, Gallardo has made significant strides as a pitcher. I say, lock up this starter!
Between One and Three: Mike Fiers and Marco Estrada
The Brewers’ bloggers voted Marco Estrada the unsung hero of the 2012 Brewers, and that reward is well-deserved for the upstart righty. After serving as one of the National League’s best swingmen in 2011, working seven starts in 43 appearances, Estrada received his chance to shine after Chris Narveson suffered an early season injury. Although Estrada himself would suffer an injury this season, he arguably set the tone for the rough-and-tumble 2012 Brewers: Estrada was arguably one of the first Brewers to seize a job opening during the 2012 season, even though he sprinkled a few bad outings along with his early, good starts. Upon returning from injury, Estrada allowed 3 or fewer runs in 6+ innings in 10 of 17 starts, riding a reported mechanical adjustment to a strong performance.
Estrada 2011: 92.7 IP, 88 K/29 BB/11 HR
Estrada 2012: 138.3 IP, 143 K/29 BB/18 HR
Meanwhile, Fastballer Mike Fiers showed up for the Brewers’ series at Dodgers Stadium and never looked back, allowing one run (or less) while pitching at least six innings in 7 of his first 12 starts. While Fiers did not close the season on a strong note, his pitching performance was extremely strong overall, and his 135 K/36 BB/12 HR performance was even better than his stats suggested. Fiers used his deceptive delivery to his advantage, and simply hammered the strike zone. Although he threw one of the slowest fastballs in the National League, he also selected his primary fastball and cutter more than just about any starter in the National League.
Although Fiers and Estrada ranked within the Top 25 of 2012 National League starters, many Brewers fans question their ability to continue their performances going forward. Consider this: even if Estrada returns to his 3-year FIP performance, he will put the Brewers in the position to have a strong #3 starter (or better). Meanwhile, Fiers’s performance suggests that he simply limits the damage, and this is a long track record for the hurler:
MLB: 127.7 IP, 135 K/36 BB/12 HR
AAA: 119..7 IP, 118 K/40 BB/10 HR
AA: 93 IP; 99 K/23 BB/10 HR
While we can raise several questions about translating those minor league performances in the Pacific Coast and Southern Leagues into MLB-expectations, the basic picture should be clear. Mike Fiers is a pitcher that limits the damage and does not hurt himself. I don’t care how hard you throw, those traits can translate into valuable performances at the MLB level.
Should we expect Fiers and Estrada to serve as strong #2 starters once again? If their ability to limit the damage continues, and they capitalize on what they accomplished in 2012, these two starters could sneak into a valuable range of National League starters once again.
I pasted a GoogleDocs link to my rankings below. In this document, you will find several pieces of information:
(a) 73 starting pitchers w/ 100+ IP ranked according to their runs prevented against league/park (IP and G also provided)
(b) 3-year IP, 3-year R, and 3-year FIPratio numbers should show how pitchers deviated (or not) from their 2012 rankings over the course of 2010-2012. A very simple example would be Adam Wainwright ranking lower than his exceptional 2010 campaign during his first season after his injury, while Bronson Arroyo significantly outperformed his Fielding Independent ratios.
(c) I also attempted to normalize the average performance of each rotation spot (and rotation group, such as ace/one, one/two, etc.), in order to place each group on a “league average” scale, rather than a “park-adjusted” scale. This may or may not have been successful, but it’s an estimated start to paint a general picture of how these pitchers would look in a league where every park boasted a 4.31 runs average.
(d) I also provided a separate list of the 2012 FIP
deviations. This year, 21 starters ranked in a rotation place that deviated from their FIP-expectations. Now, some of these are misleading; Kershaw, Stephen Strasburg, Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, Josh Johnson, and Wainwright, among other starters, simply have FIP that are difficult to match with actual performances. Some of these pitchers still produced great 2012 campaigns, while others didn’t; I am particularly interested to see how Halladay and Wainwright rebound in 2013.
One final thing: enjoy! These are meant to be fun, compare them with WAR, compare them with FIP, make up your own rankings; this is simply one way I love to think about baseball. I enjoy seeing how pitchers perform simply in terms of runs allowed against their league and park.