Looking at the 2013 Brewers starting rotation, one can take several different angles of analysis. First, one might argue that the club was doomed without dependable starters from the get go, and their use of 12 total starters reflects the sorry state of their preseason rotation. Next, one might argue that the club set themselves up with a series of depth starters and organizational arms that allowed them to work outside of a five-man rotation. Between these two poles, one can address the construction of the Brewers’ preseason rotation, their organizational depth, and their actual production on the mound from different angles.
However, if one is inclined to argue that using 12 pitchers on its own is problematic, the 2013 playoff clubs from the National League might have some counterarguments. The play-in game winning Pittsburgh Pirates also employed a dozen starters in 2013; the Dodgers, 11; Atlanta and St. Louis needed 10; and, once again, the Reds had one of the most regular rotations in the league (however, this time they needed 8 starters). Of course, one can point to the quality of these clubs’ dependable starters, noting that it doesn’t necessarily matter how many other pitchers you use when you have Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke as your veterans, and Hyun-jin Ryu as your rookie (compared to Yovani Gallardo, Kyle Lohse, and rookie Wily Peralta). However, this perspective from the playoff clubs is necessary to throw aside assumptions about 5-man rotations; it is not necessarily correct to criticize the Brewers for using 12 starters or failing to use a five-man staff. In fact, not one National League team managed to field a five-man (or even a six-man or seven-man) rotation in 2013.
The lack of five-man (or “traditional” five-man-plus-swingman; think 2011 Brewers) rotations in the 2013 National League is reflected in the progression of 25+ GS pitchers over the last few years. Those extra starts from regular rotation hands are not only reflected in the number of pitchers who work 33+ starts, but also the number of pitchers who work 25-29 GS. Interestingly enough, over the last five years, the number of 30 GS starters has remained relatively consistent in the National League; those extra starts gained by “regular” rotations (or “lost” by “replacement” rotations) are reflected in the margins between 25-29 GS pitchers and 33+ GS pitchers:
|Year||25+ GS||30+ GS||33+ GS|
This seems like quite an interesting phenomenon: even though an extremely consistent number of pitchers are working 30-32 starts in a season, the number of pitchers working 33+ starts has significantly declined over the last three seasons. This suggests that even where starters are working “full” seasons (such as 30 GS), they are not getting those “extra” starts to complete the season in a regular five-man rotation (it might also be interesting to check the number of pitchers with innings caps or brief, 15-day DL stints among that group of 30-32 GS pitchers). It may seem logical that pitchers working 25-29 starts would also decline in this case, for if teams are simply covering the extra starts a pitcher would work between, say, 30 starts and 34 starts, those starts will be picked up piecemeal, rather than in the form of a “true” swingman or “regular” sixth starter.
Oddly enough, even where the number of pitchers working 25-29 and 33+ starts decline, the number of pitchers making five-or-fewer starts, and one start, respectively, has remained remarkably consistent:
|Year||<5 GS||1 GS|
It is interesting to note that even where the number of regular starters making consistent starts declines, teams continually use emergency starters and small-work replacements in the same way (think about Peralta and other youngsters brought up at the end of the season, or the work of true emergency starters like Miguel Batistia in 2011, or even Kameron Loe with the Braves).
What defines success in these conditions is not a five man rotation. In fact, a regular rotation might not really be the key to success whatsoever in the contemporary NL. The shifting roles of starters in 2013 appears to make having someone like Kershaw, or even Adam Wainwright, Bronson Arroyo, or A.J. Burnett more important: the 2013 NL playoff clubs are defined not by the regularity of their rotation or the balance of their pitchers, but rather by the strength of their best pitchers.
|Team||#||Starting Pitchers with 25+ starts (ERA+)|
|Braves||4||Mike Minor (120); Kris Medlen (124); Julio Teheran (121); Paul Maholm (88)|
|Reds||4||Bronson Arroyo (101); Homer Bailey (110); Mat Latos (121); Mike Leake (113)|
|Nationals||4||Gio Gonzalez (113); Jordan Zimmermann (116); Dan Haren (81); Stephen Strasburg (126)|
|Giants||4||Tim Lincecum (76); Madison Bumgarner (120); Matt Cain (83); Barry Zito (58)|
|Dodgers||3||Clayton Kershaw (194); Hyun-jin Ryu (119); Zack Greinke (135)|
|Pirates||3||A.J. Burnett (107); Jeff Locke (100); Francisco Liriano (117)|
|Cardinals||3||Adam Wainwright (123); Lance Lynn (91); Shelby Miller (119)|
|Rockies||3||Jhoulys Chacin (127); Jorge de la Rosa (127); Juan Nicasio (86)|
|Brewers||3||Kyle Lohse (117); Wily Peralta (90); Yovani Gallardo (94)|
|Diamondbacks||3||Wade Miley (108); Patrick Coribin (112); Trevor Cahill (96)|
|Cubs||3||Jeff Samardzija (91); Travis Wood (127); Edwin Jackson (79)|
|More than one team||3||Ricky Nolasco (101); Edinson Volquez (60); Ian kennedy (75)|
|Phillies||3||Cole Hamels (106); Cliff Lee (133); Kyle Kendrick (81)|
|Mets||2||Dillon Gee (98); Matt Harvey (157)|
|Padres||2||Eric Stults (87); Andrew Cashner (111)|
|Marlins||1||Jose Fernandez (176)|
Over the course of offseason debates, fans typically judge rotations by saying, “Pitcher X is in the club’s #1 spot, but he’s really a #3,” or, “You know, our club has a couple of #4 starters, but we really need a #1 or #2.” Brewers fans frequently say things like this about Gallardo, who despite being one of the NL’s most dependable pitchers over the last handful of seasons, is typically pegged as a “#2″ (although, as I’ve said in the past, if Kershaw is the definition of a #1, then I agree. Of course, then there are only a handful of #1 pitchers in the league).
One could argue that judging teams by the idea of a “rotation” any longer is not a proper way to assess the quality of their pitching staff. Even some clubs that employ a dozen starters — like the Pirates — had strong pitching staffs in 2013 (the Braves would be a good example in 2012, for that matter). So, as we’re working on the angles for analyzing the Brewers’ “dependable” starters, it appears that the ground for offseason debate has shifted. One can use the 2013 playoff clubs as a template for amorphous, quality pitching staffs. With an eye toward 2014, we can keep our focus on the Brewers’ Top Three.
Baseball-Reference. Sports Reference, LLC., 2000-2013.
IMAGE: McGinnis / Getty