Believe it or not, last night’s Game 3 marked the first 2013 League Championship Series game started by a regular starting pitcher for the Cardinals. Thanks to a series of injuries and rotational shuffling, the Cardinals relied heavily on Joe Kelly as a swingman and Michael Wacha as late season replacements. Adam Wainwright finally took the mound the series’ third game, breaking the string of consecutive replacement starter victories. One could express shock that the Cardinals’ replacements beat Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw, a duo that was nearly 70 runs better than average on their own during the season (Kershaw was roughly 46 runs better than NL/Chavez Ravine, Greinke approximately 22 better than league and park). However, neither Wacha nor Kelly are one’s standard replacement pitchers (one might not even have them in mind when one considers “replacements”); they are replacements in the most basic sense of switching roles or being recalled from the minors to the big league club. What is shocking is that the Cardinals hold a series lead by using replacement starters against a Dodgers’ club that used seven short-term replacements throughout their season. If the Dodgers flipped their script and relied on their standard starters in the playoffs, their LCS is not reaping many benefits thus far.
One of my favorite parts of the off-season is working on ranking starting pitchers. While I don’t necessarily think starting pitchers are more significant than batters overall — teams really do benefit from a balance of hitting or pitching, and the last two World Series champs were all-hit, no-pitch squads — I do think it’s especially interesting to track how clubs actually use starting pitchers. What is the breaking point between a middle rotation and top rotation starter? Do clubs actually toss aside regulars for replacements? How many aces are in the National League? There are endless questions we can ask about starting pitching value, and for that reason, I love compiling lists that show how clubs used their pitchers.
While I am not going to publish the lists in full until the end of the postseason, I will start writing about areas of the rankings as they relate to specific issues related to the playoff teams and questions about the Brewers’ building plans. I want this to be more about narratives and what we can learn from NL practices, rather than a basic set of digits.
Given the Dodgers’ seven replacement starters in 2013, the Cardinals’ five replacements, the aggregate 388.7 IP worked between those dozen replacements, and Wacha’s and Kelly’s successful outings, I thought it’d be timely to address the general issue of replacement starters. This is especially important because the Brewers relied so heavily on replacement innings in 2013 — only the Cubs relied more on swingmen (<50% of total G were GS) or replacements (<100 IP for the season). Oddly enough, for all their replacement innings, the Brewers' replacements were not the worst in the NL — the Padres, Rockies, Phillies, and even the Dodgers all featured replacement staffs that were worse than Milwaukee's filler.
|Team||Replacement IP||Runs Prevented|
Depending on how you value the IP vs. Runs Prevented balance, the Pirates, Marlins, Giants, and Mets all had replacement staffs that technically prevented more runs than the Brewers' replacements, but in notably fewer innings (between 113 and 173 fewer innings). The Diamondbacks might have the most interesting squad — they used only two replacement starters, but they were 11 runs below average in 50 IP. While that might mean the Diamondbacks had a dependable series of regular starters, that fact did not correlate to notable success in 2013.
Replacements and Rotations
As the famous saying goes, there are lies, damned lies, and statistics. Meaning, depending on the slant you like, you can say, "the Brewers pitched more replacement innings than 13 NL clubs;" or, you might say, at least seven NL clubs featured worse replacement starters than the Brewers. The truth is somewhere in-between: the Brewers were both middle of the road in terms of replacement quality, and at the top of the league in terms of replacement quantity. Johnny Hellweg and Mike Fiers were dreadful, allowing approximately 26 more runs than NL/Miller Park on their own; Tom Gorzelanny was a stabilizer, working at a near-average level for more than 85 innings. Tyler Thornburg and Donovan Hand were above average, but Alfredo Figaro and Hiram Burgos were not. (Jimmy Nelson‘s single start qualifies him as an Emergency Starter, rather than a true replacement).
Obviously, a lot of this portrays the Brewers’ injury issues; Fiers was not a “true” replacement, but a member of the opening day rotation demoted after a couple of starts and then injured while climbing the rotational ladder, and Burgos suffered similar rewards from the injuries/ineffectiveness lottery. Mark Rogers never got the chance to defend his above average replacement campaign from 2012, depriving the Brewers of another (potentially) live arm. As rough a picture as one wants to paint the 2013 Brewers’ rotation, there are concessions to injuries one must make. One can argue about the likelihood that either Fiers or Rogers would have continued their success into 2013, but one cannot argue that losing depth arms such as Fiers and Rogers hurt the Brewers in 2013 (after all, both of those players were key to the 2012 Brewers’ rather solid rotation).
One of the themes of my 2013-2014 offseason articles will undoubtedly be the issue of the five man rotation. Six NL clubs featured exactly five starters with 100+ IP, but only the Giants, Reds, Pirates, and Braves featured at least three pitchers with 150+ IP. From those rotations, eight of 14 starters with 150+ IP were better than 10 runs above average (interestingly enough, not one of those pitchers was better than 20 runs above average. The NL teams with pitchers at least 20 runs above average were the Dodgers (2), Marlins, Mets, Phillies, Cardinals, Cubs, and Rockies, the exact inverse of “dependable” rotations). There’s an impasse here, one that shows that some playoff clubs were successful in part because they had some dependable, above average-but-not-great starters, while other clubs could not overcome their other shortcomings despite having an exceptional pitching performance.
With clubs such as the Dodgers and Cardinals achieving regular season — and playoff — success with groups of replacement pitchers, no five man rotation, and rookies (or, “newcomers”), the issue of rotation building necessarily shifts to questions of quality, rather than quantity (for instance, if Kershaw works 236 innings at 46 runs above average, who cares if you need seven other guys to work 279 innings at 39 runs below average? The aggregate between those arms covers more than half your starting pitching innings, and is ultimately seven runs better than average). The same goes for the Cardinals; no one wants to lose Chris Carpenter, Jaime Garcia, or even Jake Westbrook, but if you’ve got a couple of young arms that are already ready for the rotation (like Shelby Miller), and you have Kelly and Wacha around, that injury replacement task looks much less daunting.
One might argue that shifting equal focus to an organization’s depth arms — as much as their rotational arms — can produce valuable lessons for successfully competing throughout a 162 game season. Just about every rotation except for the Diamondbacks and Reds needed to replicate the workload of one regular starter (or maybe more) with their gang of replacements. Not only does this show the issue of injuries that each club faces, and mirror the relatively fleeting safety of dependable pitchers, but it lends a type of necessity to the idea that clubs will need to replace their arms. One might wonder if a club that enters the season prepared to effectively manage their replacements is a club that is more likely to succeed; certainly, the 2013 Cardinals suggest that there is some value to having a set of arms ready to pitch in place of rotational studs like Carpenter, Westbrook, etc. Depending on how the 2013 NLCS plays out, perhaps future baseball fans will clamor over which depth starters — like Kelly, or Wacha — a team can stack up for a playoff series, rather how many aces a team can pitch in a short series.
Baseball-Reference. Sports Reference, LLC., 2000-2013.