Matt Garza, and the Importance of an Average Rotation | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

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

As you’ve been told many times, the Brewers finalized a deal this past weekend with Matt Garza. The contract, which guarantees four years and offers various possibilities for a fifth, values Garza as providing an additional 2 to 2.5 wins per season.

I am absolutely delighted by this signing, which is exactly what the Brewers needed to compete sensibly in 2014: sign an effective, proven starter with upside, and do so without sacrificing a draft pick.

Others have criticized the move, saying it makes the Brewers rotation merely “average” at best. The Garza signing does indeed make the Brewers a league-average rotation, but that is exactly the point. When it comes to a team’s chances for the postseason, being “average” means quite a lot.

Let’s look at the teams that made the postseason in 2013:

2013 Postseason Team Rotation Position Players
Athletics Average Above Average
Braves Average Above Average
Cardinals Above Average Average
Dodgers Above Average Above Average
Indians Above Average Average
Pirates Average Average
Rays Average Superb
Red Sox Superb Superb
Reds Average Above Average
Tigers Superb Above Average

In one column, I’ve ranked the regular-season performance from each team’s top 5 starters as compared to the other rotations in the major leagues. Next to that, I’ve ranked the total regular-season performance of the position players (the “lineup”) for those teams. I used total Fangraphs Wins Above Replacement (WAR) for each category. Instead of the underlying numbers, I used standard deviations to sort each team’s performance into one of five categories: “Bad,” “Below Average,” “Average,” “Above Average,” and “Superb.”

One thing that jumps off the chart: it is perfectly ok to be “Average,” particularly when it comes to the starting rotation. In fact, half the teams in the 2013 postseason had merely “Average” rotations, compared to the rest of baseball. As long as you have a lineup capable of doing some damage, your pitching doesn’t have to be terrific: it just has to be good enough to keep you in games and allow your lineup (and some good luck) to do the rest.

What is important is that no postseason team’s rotation or lineup rated as “Bad” or “Below Average.” It might be possible to overcome a Below Average ranking in one category or the other, but it’s not a path that anyone plans on following.

This fact is quite relevant to the Brewers, whose 2013 rotation never gave them a chance to compete. Here is how the 2013 NL Central rotations compared:

Team 2013 Rotation Quality
Brewers Bad
Cardinals Above Average
Cubs Average
Pirates Average
Reds Average

The Brewers’ rotation was not only “Bad” — one of four clubs with this dubious distinction — but it was a full two levels worse than anyone else in the division. The rotation’s struggles were overshadowed by the debacle at first base and the lineup’s rotten injury / suspension luck, but the subpar rotation ensured that better results with the lineup would have made no ultimate difference.

With the Garza signing, things have changed. Using Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projections for the 2014 season, we can re-rank the NL Central by each team’s top 5 starters, using the same grading bins from last year. Look at the difference now:

Team 2013 Rotation Quality 2014 Rotation Quality
Brewers Bad Average
Cardinals Above Average Above Average
Cubs Average Average
Pirates Average Below Average
Reds Average Superb

The addition of Garza, plus some expected improvement from other starters, propels the Brewers into a solid “Average” projection range for 2014. (Unlike the Cubs, the Brewers are on the high side of that “Average” bin).

Equally notable is the contrary predicament of the Pirates. If A.J. Burnett signs elsewhere, as this chart assumes, the Pirates are in trouble. The Pirates were the only team to make the postseason last year with merely “Average” performances from both their rotation and lineup. They did so largely on the strength of their bullpen, but it is questionable whether their bullpen can be otherworldly two years in a row, and even more questionable whether any bullpen can compensate for a “Below Average” starting rotation.

In terms of the lineup, it would be surprising if Brewers did not collectively rate “Above Average” in 2014. Brewers position players are due for some injury luck, and are constructed to benefit from the run-scoring tendencies of Miller Park. The Brewers should also be solid defensively, which will minimize the runs given back. Before the Matt Garza signing, the primary thing holding the Brewers back was the rotation, and that no longer projects to be the case.

If the Brewers can combine an Above Average lineup with an Average starting rotation, there is no reason they cannot be in the mix for a Wild Card this year. If they do, Matt Garza likely will be the key to making that happen.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter @bachlaw.

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