If any team in the National League epitomizes the league’s shift from stable pitching to replacement haven, it’s the 2011-2012 Milwaukee Brewers. Last year’s Brewers were one of a handful of NL rotations to use eight (or fewer) starting pitchers; this year’s Brewers rotation starred eleven starters: six regular starting spots, four replacement starters, and one emergency starter. It was a wise decision for the Brewers’ front office not to deal from their strength last year; this year, the Brewers needed every ounce of pitching they could find.
This year, I am starting my NL 100+ IP ranking series with a post on replacement pitchers. The reason is, the 2012 NL was largely a league defined by their replacements, simply because so many were required. Although 2012 NL clubs used 73 regular starters with 100+ IP, they also needed 72 replacement starters and 16 emergency starters. Those numbers look extreme compared to 2011, when NL clubs used 71 100+ IP regular starters, along with 66 replacements and 11 emergency arms. While 70 regular starters worked at least 120 IP last year, only 64 regular starters managed to reach that level in 2012. For those extra innings — along with other injuries and trades — replacements ran wild in 2012 NL.
If value is production against scarcity, the 2012 regular starters cannot be judged until we understand the replacement situation. Their value will depend on our understanding of this extreme league environment. In this post, you’ll find analysis of some of the signature replacement starters at different IP workload levels, including links to Google documents listing each replacement level.
Kris Medlen and the High IP Replacements
Braves youngster Kris Medlen began 2012 seeking to work his first trouble-free season since his 2010 elbow injury. The Braves’ organization started the righty in the bullpen, where he worked just under 55 innings with a stellar 2.48 ERA and 8/9 leads converted for his club. Medlen began his work as a starter with a trio of moderate 5-6 IP starts, although he only allowed three runs over those starts.
Those first three starts were only a sign of things to come. Medlen followed his first three starts with a stretch of three scoreless starts that spanned another 24 IP for the youngster. By the end of August, Medlen worked nearly 41 innings as a starter, allowing three total runs. No one could live up to this type of stretch of course, and Medlen didn’t; in six September starts, Medlen allowed eight runs over 43 IP.
Medlen’s damage was done; he worked twelve starts, all victories for the Atlanta nine. Over 138 IP, Medlen’s 26 runs allowed were forty-one runs better than his league and park. There’s hardly a category for this type of performance; he worked as an effective middle reliever for his club, converting the vast majority of his leads, and then worked as an elite starter. Medlen is officially a “swingman” according to my survey (<50% G are GS), but there's really no comparison in the 2012 NL to his performance. He is the obvious leader of the high-level replacements.
Other high-IP replacements include Wandy Rodriguez‘s work for the Pirates after the trading deadline, as well as a whole gang of injured, regular starters from Josh Collmenter to Jeff Karstens.
Matt Harvey and the Mid-Level Replacements
BaseballAmerica ranked righty Matt Harvey the 2nd best prospect in the Mets’ system. The youngster worked a full season for the Mets’ organization, pitching 20 starts in AAA Buffalo before debuting in the MLB. Harvey carried a strong 112 K/48 BB/9 HR ratio into his MLB debut, where he struck out 11 Diamondbacks over 5.3 scoreless innings. Unfortunately, even though Harvey’s performance as a MLB starter was good, the Mets lost seven of his ten starts. Harvey struck out 70 against 26 BB and 5 HR in his first season for the Mets, and he was nine runs above average during his first MLB season.
Top 100 prospect Nathan Eovaldi was a strange type of replacement starter in 2012. Despite starting the season in AA, he worked more than 100 IP in the National League. However, he split those innings between Los Angeles and Miami, serving as part of Miami’s loot for unloading Hanley Ramirez. Eovaldi became a replacement starter due to that trade (a replacement for the Marlins). Ben Sheets made his comeback to the MLB for the Atlanta Braves, and he qualified for this category of replacement starter, as did Brewers’ starter Mark Rogers and former Marlins ace Josh Beckett‘s return to the NL from Boston.
Wily Peralta and the Low Workload Replacements
The Brewers suffered through eleven different pitchers in 2012, but surprisingly, the vast majority of those starters were above average. One of the surprises was Wily Peralta, one of the Brewers’ top pitching prospects that overcame difficulties at AAA Nashville to post a respectable 4.66 ERA (according to PCL standards). Peralta received his first call from the Brewers for a mid-season bullpen appearance, which turned out to last all of one appearance. His second call came to replace Mark Rogers, who reached his innings-pitched ceiling. Peralta captured Rogers’ fire, and the two youngsters’ rotation spot included a series of six consecutive victories during the Brewers’ improbable playoff chase. Peralta may have only worked 29 innings for the Brewers, but his performance was a hefty six runs better than average, qualifying him as the best low-IP replacement.
Padres’ hurler Cory Luebke is one of the most notable low-IP replacements in 2012, as is Brewers’ southpaw Chris Narveson or Cardinals’ starter Chris Carpenter. These starters are examples of replacement-starters by default, pitchers that encountered injuries while preparing for or serving as one of their club’s expected members of the regular pitching rotation. Jeff Suppan also returned to the NL for the Padres, and John Lannan waited patiently in the minors before starting for the Nationals when the innings ceilings occurred.
Low IP Replacements
Tim Lincecum Versus Randy Wolf
Overall, the 2012 NL replacements boast an ugly set of stats. Divided by group, we find the following performances:
14 High IP Replacements (per starter): 94 IP, 48 R
28 Mid IP Replacements (per starter): 50 IP, 29 R
30 Low IP Replacements (per starter): 22.7 IP, 14 R
Three Replacement Levels Combined: 166.7 IP, 91 R (11 runs below park-neutral league average)
One of the difficulties of determining a replacement level of performance is that replacements are so fluid. The Giants’ ex-ace Tim Lincecum and the Brewers’ final-year free agent Randy Wolf were perfect examples of how clubs handle poor performances differently. In the case of the Brewers, righty Shaun Marcum was returning from the disabled list, and an upstart gang of young hurlers were seizing roster spots like their lives depended on it. In this type of environment, releasing a final-year starter such as Wolf becomes a relatively easy transaction. In the case of the Giants, they maintained the reserve rights for Lincecum, and even though they were paying him a king’s ransom for 2012, they kept Lincecum in the starting rotation throughout the season.
It’s a superficial judgment to say Lincecum and Wolf were worse than replacement-level starters. To reach 186 IP, the Giants would have needed a couple of swingmen, or at least three mid-level replacements.
Lincecum: 186 IP, 111 R
Two swingmen: 188 IP, 96 R
Three Mid-Level, One Low-Level: 172.7 IP, 101 R
Without adjusting for ballpark environment, it’s true to suggest that replacement starters would have been better than Lincecum in 2012. However, look at the number of transactions the Giants would have had to make to accomplish this feat; if they were lucky, they might have been able to draw a Medlen-esque performance out of a youngster, but that’s the exception rather than the norm. The Giants would have needed at least two transactions, and maybe as many as four or five, to yield 186 IP out of replacement starters. On the rotation that only required two emergency starts for the entire season, interrupting the peace of the five-man rotation would arguably have been a riskier move for the Giants.
Meanwhile, look at the Brewers’ situation with Wolf. The club already moved ace-in-trading Zack Greinke, and Narveson, Marco Estrada, and Marcum had already been injured at various points in the season. The Brewers would already require six starters to even reach 859.3 IP; counting on another 100 replacement innings is a piece of cake when you have young starters working well in replacement roles, and you’re already running a shoestring rotation with a lot of different transactions. In this case, it made a lot of sense for the Brewers to note that Randy Wolf was no better than a replacement starter:
Wolf: 142.3, 94 R
Marcum: 124 IP, 54 R
Peralta, Rogers, Thornburg, Narveson: 99 IP, 44 R
Sure, this over-simplifies things, but the basic idea remains the same: if you have a pitcher like Marcum ready to be activated from the DL, and a gang of upstarts ready in the minors, replacing a 142.3 IP, 94 R starter becomes an easier decision.
We should keep these types of situations in mind when we think about the idea of replacement level performance. Certainly, there is an abstract level of performance that regular players reach where one might say, “we could go to the minors to get better production.” Yet, that move alone requires a transaction. There are scenarios in which the peace of maintaining a regular starter is preferable to moving to multiple replacement pitchers. Engaging in replacement level transactions is only as easy as the environment of stability surrounding the club, and the actual strength of the available replacements.