2013 Pitching Rankings: NL Rotations | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

We'd like to go to the Playoffs, that would be cool.

The St. Louis Cardinals are arguably the top organization in baseball’s Senior Circuit. The Cardinals won the 2011 World Series, lost this year’s Fall Classic, and appeared in three consecutive League Championship Series. The old saying goes, “Pitching Wins Championships,” and yet, in the last three years, the Cardinals’ clubs are as much a testament to offense, relief pitching, and balance as they are to starting pitching. While Adam Wainwright‘s return gave the press an ace to write about, and youngsters like Shelby Miller, Lance Lynn, Michael Wacha, and Joe Kelly — among others — give the club some promise of young bodies to fill injuries and work in the rotation (or, as swingmen), it is only recently that one might tout the Cardinals’ excellent pitching. Their 2013 rotational core of Wainwright, Miller, Lynn, and Jake Westbrook was 10 runs better than the NL/Busch III, and Kelly and Wacha anchored an exceptional replacement staff (10 runs better than average in 309.3 IP). Their starting rotation and replacements were 21 runs better than average (overwhelmingly thanks to Kyle Lohse), and their Championship Club in 2011 featured a notably below average pitching staff. In three years, the exceptional Cardinals’ organization was driven by starting pitching that was six runs better than average.

ACCOMPANYING LINK: 2011-2013 NL Rotations w/ runs prevented

Brewers’ GM Doug Melvin, on the other hand, has the reputation of being unable to develop starting pitchers. For all the criticisms of trades and free agency signings over the last few years, Melvin’s rotations were solid. The story of 2013 was the Brewers’ replacement woes, as the Brewers’ core rotation comprised four starters that only amassed 690.7 IP. Yet, Yovani Gallardo, Marco Estrada, Wily Peralta, and, of course, Lohse, were not terrible; they were moderately below average as a group. The Brewers’ starters were largely below average due to their replacements and swingmen, who worked more innings than every NL replacement group (save for the Cubs). Unlike the 2011 Cardinals, the 2013 Brewers did not have an exceptional offense and overall balance to win despite their starting shortcomings. However, the overall track record for the Brewers’ last three rotations is not bad: the Brewers’ starters are 10 runs better than Miller Park/NL from 2011-2013, largely on the strength of 2012’s “inexperienced arm” surge and 2011’s extremely balanced rotation.

Respectively, the Brewers’ starting rotations were sixth best from 2011-2013, the Cardinals’ rotations seventh. Both clubs managed to reach the playoffs and League Championship Series despite falling outside of the top third of starting pitching staffs. They are a part of a surprisingly successful “middle group” of starting pitching staffs in the NL, perhaps clubs that generally don’t have aces, but don’t let that stop them from preventing runs.

Top Rotations
The Phillies, Braves, Dodgers, Nationals, and Reds claim the top third bragging rights for NL starters from 2011-2013. Using runs prevented, Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, Clayton Kershaw, Johnny Cueto, Gio Gonzalez, and Jordan Zimmermann boast 10 of 15 spots in the Top Five Rankings of NL starters with 100+ innings from 2011-2013. Oddly enough, the success of these top five teams is not entirely due to aces.

In fact, there are some strongly contrasting rotation-building examples. For instance, while Clayton Kershaw basically accounts for 83% of the Dodgers’ rotation core runs prevented from 2011-2013, 55% of the Braves’ runs prevented came from their replacements and swingmen over that time frame. Kris Medlan is the best example of the Braves’ successful replacement strategy, which is defined by both their ability to develop young starters and their crazy injury history. The Nationals and Reds are two teams that use the disappearing “traditional rotation core,” as they have kept rather consistent cores in place from 2011-2013. The Reds present one of the best examples of fluctuating pitching value (they are the counter to the Giants’ shift), as their rotation core was 31 runs below average in 2011, and 80 runs better than average in 2012.

This year, I am preparing my pitching rankings in the context of three year performance for clubs and individual players. While it is useful to see how a pitcher’s 3-Year Fielding Independent Pitching, Innings Pitched, and Runs Allowed compare to his current year, it is also instructive to look at the context of teams’ rotations to determine the value (or likelihood) of strong individual performance. If one can understand the context of a club’s rotation, the importance of their pitchers’ performances will become more clear. Not all Wins Above Replacement are equal; in the context of a competing club’s rotation, that extra starter who works at an average or better level will be more valuable than the breakout rookie or “ace” surrounded by below average pitchers on a non-competing club. Similarly, one can compare the strength of rotations with the consistency, fluctuations, and transactions involving individual players.

In the following charts, the “Core” comprises pitchers that:
(1) Worked 100+ IP
(2) Pitched >50% of their G as GS

The other runs prevented numbers include replacements, swingmen, and emergency starters. These pitchers can work any number of innings, but they usually don’t reach 100 IP, they might have encountered injury, and they might have <50% of their G as GS.

PHILLIES 115 (178 for rotation core)
2013 Core 7 runs prevented
2012 Core 31 runs prevented
2011 Core 140 runs prevented
2013 -54 runs prevented
2012 29 runs prevented
2011 140 runs prevented
Replacement + Emergency 9
One Playoff Appearance
BRAVES 112 (50 for rotation core)
2013 Core 37 runs prevented
2012 Core -2 runs prevented
2011 Core 15 runs prevented
2013 53 runs prevented
2012 43 runs prevented
2011 16 runs prevented
Replacement + Emergency 15
Two Playoff Appearances
DODGERS 110 (144 for rotation core)
2013 Core 71 runs prevented
2012 Core 36 runs prevented
2011 Core 37 runs prevented
2013 32 runs prevented
2012 37 runs prevented
2011 41 runs prevented
Replacement + Emergency 17
One Playoff Appearance (1 LCS)
REDS 87 (99 for rotation core)
2013 Core 50 runs prevented
2012 Core 80 runs prevented
2011 Core -31 runs prevented
2013 52 runs prevented
2012 80 runs prevented
2011 -45 runs prevented
Replacement + Emergency 7
Two Playoff Appearances
NATIONALS 86 (81 for rotation core)
2013 Core 23 runs prevented
2012 Core 69 runs prevented
2011 Core -11 runs prevented
2013 26 runs prevented
2012 61 runs prevented
2011 -1 runs prevented
Replacement + Emergency 16
One Playoff Appearance

Middle Rotations
28 runs separate the top five starting pitching staffs, which is a rather small margin over the course of three years. Essentially, the difference between the #5 and #1 rotations on this list is the difference between one #2 starter per season. On the other hand, 76 runs separate the fifth and sixth clubs; after the #5 Nationals’ rotational runs prevented of 86, the #6 Brewers come in at 10 runs prevented. This should demonstrate (1) just how difficult it is to build a good rotation, and (2) just how much starting pitching fluctuates. The top five clubs are generally defined by their lack of fluctuation (the Reds make up for that with their extreme shift from terrible to GREAT); the middle five are defined by their extreme range of fluctuation.

Between the #6 Brewers and #10 Pirates stands 79 runs. While the Brewers’ 2011-2013 starters were 10 runs better than average, the 2011-2013 Pirates were 69 runs below average (mostly due to replacement pitchers). Meanwhile, the Diamondbacks share remarkably similar traits with the Cardinals, except for the LCS and World Series appearances. The Diamondbacks’ fate shows the trouble injuries can cost to pitching staffs; while their core starters were 66 runs above average, their replacements gave almost all of those runs back. The Marlins rode rookie arm Jose Fernandez through an exceptional campaign, and along with Ian Kennedy (2011) and Adam Wainwright (2013), Fernandez carries the torch as the top season among these middle rotations.

Even if these middle clubs don’t have the ace power to match the top clubs, their performances and value are defined more by their replacements. Among the top five clubs, replacement starters cost 40 aggregate runs (or, eight per team). Between #6 and #10, more than 140 aggregate runs were eaten up by replacements over three years, ruining solid cores in Milwaukee, Arizona, and maybe even Miami:

BREWERS 10 (32 for rotation core)
2013 Core -8 runs prevented
2012 Core 24 runs prevented
2011 Core 16 runs prevented
2013 -33 runs prevented
2012 28 runs prevented
2011 15 runs prevented
Replacement + Emergency 14
One Playoff Appearance (1 LCS)
CARDINALS 6 (4 for rotation core)
2013 Core 10 runs prevented
2012 Core 21 runs prevented
2011 Core -27 runs prevented
2013 20 runs prevented
2012 22 runs prevented
2011 -36 runs prevented
Replacement + Emergency 13
Three Playoff Appearances (3 LCS /2 WS)
DIAMONDBACKS 5 (66 for rotation core)
2013 Core -21 runs prevented
2012 Core 26 runs prevented
2011 Core 61 runs prevented
2013 -32 runs prevented
2012 8 runs prevented
2011 29 runs prevented
Replacement + Emergency 13
One Playoff Appearance
MARLINS -19 (2 for rotation core)
2013 Core 38 runs prevented
2012 Core -5 runs prevented
2011 Core -31 runs prevented
2013 17 runs prevented
2012 -5 runs prevented
2011 -31 runs prevented
Emergency + Replacement 18
PIRATES -69 (-21 for rotation core)
2013 Core 23 runs prevented
2012 Core -34 runs prevented
2011 Core -10 runs prevented
2013 4 runs prevented
2012 -34 runs prevented
2011 -39 runs prevented
Replacement + Emergency 18
One Playoff Appearance

Bottom Rotations
The New York Mets might be the best argument in baseball about the inability of one ace to lead a club to contention. Over the last three years, the Mets have had two Top Five pitchers, first with R.A. Dickey, and then, Matt Harvey. These two starters were leaps and bounds better than the majority of pitchers in their respective leagues, but without a combination of bats, relievers, or even any rotational balance, the club simply could not win with those pitchers.

METS -79 (-34 for rotation core)
2013 Core 6 runs prevented
2012 Core 21 runs prevented
2011 Core -61 runs prevented
2013 -11 runs prevented
2012 -14 runs prevented
2011 -54 runs prevented
Replacement + Emergency 19

Meanwhile, the Cubs are rebuilding, and the Padres and Rockies are the NL’s Replacement Outlet — they are the only two clubs with more than 20 replacement pitchers from 2011-2013, and Colorado made it all the way to 30 replacements and emergency starters. With these clubs, their starting rotation cores are so thin that the runs allowed stats belong almost exclusively to replacements. Not one of the Padres or Rockies’ clubs from 2011-2013 used five regular starters with 100+ IP, and in 2012, both clubs didn’t even have three regular, 100+ IP starters (only the 2011 Padres, 2013 Padres, and 2013 Rockies rotations reached four starters). In fact, Edinson Volquez (-49 runs prevented) and Jhoulys Chacin (46 runs prevented) were the only starters to appear as regular, 100+ IP starters in two seasons (this means that of the 18 regular rotation spots these clubs did manage in three seasons, 78% of those spots were basically revolving-door, one-time pitchers).

GIANTS -108 (-67 for rotation core)
2013 Core -90 runs prevented
2012 Core -22 runs prevented
2011 Core 45 runs prevented
2013 -113 runs prevented
2012 -22 runs prevented
2011 27 runs prevented
Replacement + Emergency 10
One Playoff Appearance (1 LCS / 1 WS)

The Giants are the opposite of the Padres and Rockies, but one might question the effectiveness of that decision. San Francisco managed five-man rotations in each of the last three seasons, and twelve of those 15 spots were shared by the same core of four starters (Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, Ryan Vogelsong, and Madison Bumgarner). Barry Zito claims two other spots, and Jonathan Sanchez is the odd man out (one spot). The downside of this stability is the cost for their performance; while the Giants paid more than $65 million to Zito, Cain, Lincecum, and Vogelsong in 2013, that group’s performance shifted from 37 runs better than average in 2011 to 105 runs below league/park in 2013. If you think I’m punishing them too harshly with AT&T Park’s downright oppressive park factor, well, they were still 77 runs below average if you use the basic league mark. (That’s $870,000 for every run below average, for the Moneyball folks). If Cincinnati is the action that kept a standard rotation around and improved, San Francisco is the opposite reaction. We’re probably all in this boat, though; if someone asked you in 2011, “Do you want Cain, Lincecum, Zito, Bumgarner, and Vogelsong, or Bronson Arroyo, Homer Bailey, Mike Leake, and Cueto?,” most of us would have chosen the Giants’ arms.

CUBS -132 (-50 for rotation core)
2013 Core -14 runs prevented
2012 Core -2 runs prevented
2011 Core -34 runs prevented
2013 1 run prevented
2012 -42 runs prevented
2011 -91 runs prevented
Replacement + Emergency 18
ROCKIES -193 (18 for rotation core)
2013 Core 13 runs prevented
2012 Core -5 runs prevented
2011 Core 10 runs prevented
2013 -63 runs prevented
2012 -101 runs prevented
2011 -29 runs prevented
Replacement + Emergency 30
PADRES -215 (-91 for rotation core)
2013 Core -65 runs prevented
2012 Core -21 runs prevented
2011 Core -5 runs prevented
2013 -111 runs prevented
2012 -100 runs prevented
2011 -4 runs prevented
Replacement + Emergency 23

There is a strong set of dichotomies within these rotational performances that could be carried in several different directions. Contextual research about each of these organizations would certainly help to complete this analysis with relevant details for specific performance shifts. In general, however, I am inclined to draw two general dichotomies of rotational health:

(1) While having consistently elite aces can help to anchor above average rotations (cf. Dodgers and Phillies), elite aces are not necessary for great rotations (cf. Braves, or arguably Nationals). However, elite pitching performances may not be enough to build contending clubs, or even good rotations (cf. Mets, or arguably Marlins). As much as fans clamor for top rotation pitching, the organizational resources used to secure aces might also become a hindrance to other areas of roster building or replacement (cf. Giants).

Top Starting Staffs Runs prevented
2011 Phillies 140
2012 Reds 80
2012 Nationals 61
2013 Braves 53
2013 Reds 52
2012 Braves 43
2011 Dodgers 41
2012 Dodgers 37
2013 Dodgers 32
2011 Diamondbacks 29
2012 Phillies 29
2012 Brewers 28
2011 Giants 27
2013 Nationals 26
2012 Cardinals 22

(2) Maintaining consistent roster cores does not necessarily produce consistent rotational results. By separating the 45 rotational performances from 2011-2013 into three categories, one can find that 40% of NL clubs have both one season in the Top Third and one season in the Bottom Third (some, such as the Phillies and Reds, have all three seasons in either the Top Third or Bottom Third). Pitching fluctuations can be extreme, even with the same group of pitchers. Even within the span of one season, one club’s struggling arms can become anchors for a successful rotation, while another rotation’s anchors become below average hurlers.

Bottom Starting Staffs Runs prevented
2013 Diamondbacks -32
2013 Brewers -33
2012 Pirates -34
2011 Cardinals -36
2011 Pirates -39
2012 Cubs -42
2011 Reds -45
2013 Phillies -54
2011 Mets -54
2013 Rockies -63
2011 Cubs -91
2012 Padres -100
2012 Rockies -101
2013 Padres -111
2013 Giants -113

It would be easy to preach discipline in maintaining pitching balance, but it is difficult to apply that ideal when 162 games are involved, professional jobs are on the line, and competition and revenue-enhancements are the goals. A pitcher such as Wily Peralta might be instructive here; the Brewers have a young, controllable, solid, workhorse arm with a hard fastball and slider, who was approaching replacement level. At the league minimum, and a couple of years removed from arbitration, Peralta could be a mainstay of the Brewers’ rotation for years to come. The logic of replacement is not hard and fast; one cannot simply draw a line, and replace each and every replaceable pitcher. In this regard, the economics of the game speak loudly, especially in the case of pitchers like Peralta.

One might argue that pitching fluctuations occur not only due to the fickle nature of repeating mechanics and locating a small ball, but also due to the fact that economics and scarcity requires these arms to continue working. Therefore, Peralta might be above average in 2014, he might not make it until 2016, or he might fluctuate each and every year. This is the difficulty of balance and rotation-building — but, it’s an easier equation at this level, compared to the decisions San Francisco needs to make with $20 million pitchers. Whether pitchers are locked in to extensions, or controllable, their fluctuating performances will be judged against their respective contracts, regardless of the actual flexibility a club has in moving any of their pitchers. The balance of rotation building is finding the right time to lock-in on a pitcher, and the right time to ride out a fluctuating performance.

Baseball-Reference. Sports Reference, LLC. 2000-2013.
Cot’s Baseball Contracts. BaseballProspectus. Prospectus Entertainment Ventures, LLC., 1996-2013.

IMAGE: http://www.fancloud.com/articles/brewers-win-2-0-shutout-for-wily-peralta-milvscin-miller

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