Improving Pitching & The Five Man Rotation | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

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

In the 2015 National League, six teams produced 800+ inning pitching rotations.

ROTATIONS IP / Runs Prevented Core IP / RunPrv Replacement IP / RunPrv 2014 Core; Replacement
Cardinals 1003.3 / 112 884 / 104 (!!!) 119.3 / 8 720.7 / 67; 296 / -47
Dodgers 960 / 71 745 / 98 215 / -27 854.3 / 49; 171.3 / -49
Cubs 1026.7 / 64 784.7 / 71 242 / -7 687.7 / -23; 293.3 / 0
Nationals 1024.3 / 49 836.7 / 47 187.7 / 2 936 / 95; 76.3 / -2
Mets 1015.7 / 32 901.7 / 32 114 / 0 853 / -6; 221.3 / -6
Pirates 991 / 27 856 / 14 135 / 13 892.3 / 3; 96.7 / -24
Giants 957.7 / -6 765.3 / 8 192.3 / -14 747 / -27; 286 / -3
Diamondbacks 951 / -9 615 / -11 336 / 2 715.3 / -48; 313.7 / -20
Marlins 999.7 / -27 428.3 / -6 571.3 / -21 578 / 13; 378.3 / -39
Rockies 944 / -52 538 / -26 406 / -26 570 / -2; 387.7 / -44
Reds 918.7 / -55 566 / 9 352.7 / -64 902.3 / 53; 130.3 / -7
Braves 966.3 / -67 751 / -16 215.3 / -51 938.3 / 15; 141.7 / 1
Brewers 952 / -81 824.3 / -67 127.7 / -14 752.7 / 7; 291.7 / -4
Padres 970 / -85 877 / -77 93 / -8 686 / -14; 305.7 / -13
Phillies 900.7 / -122 422 IP / -45 478.7 / -77 856 / -17; 160 / -6

On the surface, this suggests that six teams effectively aimed for a “traditional rotation,” and earned it. Here is how each rotation’s 100+ “regular” core starters and replacements shifted from 2014 to 2015, in terms of runs prevented and innings pitched:

2015 Improvements Rotation Core IP / Runs Prevented Replacement IP / Runs Prevented
Cubs +97 / +94 -51.3 / -7
Dodgers -109.3 / +49 +43.7 / +22
Mets +48.7 / +38 -107.3 / +6
Cardinals +163.3 / +37 -176.7 / +55
Diamondbacks -99.7 / +37 +22.3 / +22
Giants +18.3 / +35 -93.7 / -11
Pirates -36.3 / +11 +35.3 / +37
Marlins -149.7 / -19 +193 / +18
Rockies -32 / -24 +18.3 / +18
Phillies -434 / -28 +318.7 / -71
Braves -186.7 / -31 +73.7 / -52
Reds -336.3 / -42 +222.3 / -57
Nationals -99.3 / -48 +111.3 / +4
Padres +191 / -63 -212.7 / +5
Brewers +71.7 / -74 -164 / -10

However, glancing at the Mets, Cardinals, Padres, Pirates, Nationals, and Brewers, and assessing their improvements and declining performances, the truth is much murkier.

800+ IP Rotations (Runs Prevented) #1 #2 #3 #4 #5 #6
Mets (32) J. deGrom M. Harvey N. Syndergaard B. Colon J. Niese
Cardinals (104) J. Lackey J. Garcia C. Martinez L. Lynn M. Wacha
Padres (-77) T. Ross J. Shields I. Kennedy O. Despagne A. Cashner
Pirates (14) G. Cole A.J. Burnett F. Liriano J. Locke C. Morton
Nationals (47) M. Scherzer J. Zimmermann G. Gonzalez S. Strasburg D. Fister
Brewers (-67) T. Jungmann M. Fiers J. Nelson W. Peralta K. Lohse M. Garza

The Cardinals are one of the most intriguing rotations in the 2015 National League, given that they returned three below average 2014 replacements and morphed them into (basically) full-time pitchers. Carlos Martinez, John Lackey, and Jaime Garcia were 27 runs below average in 193.7 innings last year. After Adam Wainwright went down for most of the season, this gang of arms went 527.3 innings and prevented 76 runs. Respectively, they ranked #5, #9, and #11 in the entire National League, filling the power vacuum left by the Nationals. In fact, the 2015 Cardinals rotation featured five starters that ranked as #1 starters, which is an almost unbelievable accomplishment for a pitching rotation.

San Diego and Milwaukee truly “went for” that true five-man rotation style. They relied heavily on moderate-to-better-than-average veteran talent, as well as some younger, controlled talent that might have some question marks and promise in equal parts. For the veterans and the youngsters alike, almost across the board, the question-marks, or injuries, or sheer ineffectiveness reigned supreme.

  • Andrew Cashner declined by 38 runs.
  • Kyle Lohse declined by 30 runs.
  • Matt Garza declined by 29 runs.
  • Odrisamer Despagne declined by 22 runs.
  • Ian Kennedy declined by 17 runs.
  • Wily Peralta faced injuries.
  • James Shields made his NL debut with his worst season since 2010.
  • Jimmy Nelson was four runs below average during his full-season debut.
  • Mike Fiers and Taylor Jungmann were solid, serviceable, maybe even surprising arms.
  • Tyson Ross improved by four runs.

Among that list of solid, even good pitchers, just about everything went wrong in 2015, and both the Padres and the Brewers boasted significantly below average starting rotation cores. Of course, compared to the high stakes and (arguably) closing competitive window for the Washington Nationals roster core, their rotational decline may not have been the most important. (A counterargument would pose that given the Padres’ smashing offseason and Brewers’ own closing window, both the Padres and Brewers had even more to lose than Washington). The Nationals had similar fates:

  • Max Scherzer had a smashing debut in Washington worthy of his elite contract.
  • Doug Fister fought injuries and declined by 30 runs.
  • Jordan Zimmermann declined by 17 runs.
  • Gio Gonzalez basically remained steady.
  • Stephen Strasburg struggled with injuries and ineffectiveness.
  • Tanner Roark shifted into a swingman role and declined by 27 runs.

Meanwhile, the Pirates eschewed their buy-low fantasies of the 2014 rotation, doubling down instead on A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano. Both pitchers rewarded the Pirates, posting an aggregate improvement near 50 runs in 2015. Gerrit Cole decided to fight his own fights and finally emerge atop the Pirates rotation; he had a very strong season, improving 23 runs. Even declining years by Jeff Locke and Charlie Morton were not enough to derail the Pirates, who went with the “traditional” #1 / #1 / #1 / #4 / #4 rotational format.

There are lessons galore in these rotations:

  • Don’t surrender on below average pitchers, when scouting and mechanical adjustments can help them improve (see St. Louis).
  • Don’t rely on mid-level contract veteran starters as a sure thing (see San Diego, Milwaukee, and even Washington). Use organizational depth wisely.
  • Use homegrown starters if you must, but don’t forget that free agents, trades, and other transactions can develop a strong rotation (see Noah Syndergaard, Lackey, Martinez, Scherzer, Burnett, Liriano, and even Tyson Ross (not to mention his brother, Nationals replacement Joe Ross).
  • Where these lessons conflict — that external talent can be both good (as noted above) and bad (see Garza, Lohse, Shields, Kennedy, Cashner, and others), rely on scouting, strategical analysis, and mechanical analysis to find the best moments to make those moves.

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