Quality against Quantity: Shuffling the Rotation | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

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

After signing Tom Gorzelanny, Burke Badenhop, and a gang of minor league relievers, and (thankfully?) losing out on starting pitching free agents such as Ryan Dempster or Francisco Liriano, it is apparent that the Brewers are going to trust their young core of starters. These starters seized jobs throughout 2012, and present the 2013 Brewers coaching staff and front office with a flexible-if-unassuming look. Now that we can highly expect that the Brewers’ rotation is an in-house gang, we can revisit some questions posed throughout the offseason. This morning, I’d like to take a quick look at innings pitched ceilings.

Revisiting Workloads
On November 6, I asked, “How many starters do the Brewers need?” I focused that article on the Brewers starters’ innings pitched workloads and ceilings. Digging deep into the gang of in-house arms, it became apparent that the Brewers’ young pitching staff featured some arms better suited for the bullpen than full-season starting roles. Considering Wily Peralta, Fastballer Mike Fiers, Marco Estrada, Tyler Thornburg, and Mark Rogers as the main starting pitching candidates (along with the injured Chris Narveson, we can revisit their 2012 workloads…

Rogers 2012: 39 IP MLB; 95.3 IP AAA (134.3 IP, +90 IP over 2011; +18.3 IP over 2010)
Fiers 2012: 127.7 IP MLB; 55 IP AAA (182.7 IP, +56.7 IP over 2011)
Estrada 2012: 138.3 IP MLB; 8 IP AAA (146.3 IP, +53.7 IP over 2011; +3 IP over 2009)
Peralta 2012: 29 IP MLB; 146.7 IP AAA (175.7 IP, +25 IP over 2011)
Thornburg 2012: 22 IP MLB; 112.7 IP MiLB (134.7 IP, -2 IP over 2011)

…as well as their potential 2013 ceilings (judging them by the standard 30-50 IP increase, and the fact that only 89.5% of 2012 NL starts were made by the regular five rotation spots):

Fiers (197 IP maximum, assuming .895 of 30 IP-50 IP increase)
Peralta (184 IP maximum, assuming .895 of 30 IP increase)
Estrada (166 IP maximum, assuming .895 of 30 IP-50 IP increase)
Rogers (156 IP maximum, assuming .895 of 30 IP-50 IP increase)
Thornburg (147 IP maximum, assuming .895 of 30 IP increase)

These IP ceilings do not look large, but then again, when we look at numbers like this, we typically assume “hey, everything is going great in the rotation, and everyone is pitching full time.” Of course, this is typically not the case in — in fact, only five 2012 National League teams had rotations with four starters that reached 147 or more IP; nine NL teams featured four starters with 147 or more IP in 2011 (2012 Nationals, 2012 Reds, 2011 and 2012 Giants, 2011 and 2012 Cardinals, 2012 Phillies, 2011 Diamondbacks, 2011 Brewers, 2011 Dodgers, 2011 Pirates, 2011 Astros, 2011 Marlins, and 2011 Mets). Overall, fewer than half of the National League clubs in 2011 and 2012 featured rotations with four spots that pitched what we might consider a full-time starting role; and that, of course, doesn’t even approach the fact that somewhere in there, a fifth rotation spot is floating around.

Accompanying Data: 2011-2012 NL Rotations with Runs Prevented

The Lack of Glamor in NL Rotations
If it feels like I am piling on the wishful thinking lately, good, I am. The reason is, this is our rotation, we have a lot of questions about it, and there are a lot of potential issues with the rotation. However, just like we can address the causes of Fiers’s difficult 10 GS stretch, or look at why Estrada’s late season surge is not uncharacteristic, we can address the make up of NL rotations themselves. By looking at the actual composition of rotations, we can learn about how our assumptions about starting rotations are mistaken; although we might like to look at a group of starters and see more than Yovani Gallardo and a gang of question marks, the truth is, most rotations don’t get any better than that. This fact should influence how we view the Brewers’ 2013 rotation.

Even further, rotations like the 2012 Giants surely had few question marks before the season, and yet that rotation’s main starters were more than 20 runs below average (thanks largely to Tim Lincecum and Barry Zito). We can say the same about the 2011 Cardinals rotation, which missed Adam Wainwright but still managed to start four regular pitchers; those pitchers were nearly 30 runs below average (thanks to Jaime Garcia and Jake Westbrook). I think that even the 2012 Reds’ rotation is instructive of how question marks about starters work: their rotation was one of only a handful to feature multiple, notably above average starters; but, how many of you would take Bronson Arroyo, Homer Bailey, and Mike Leake (as a group) over Peralta, Estrada, and Fiers (as a group)?

If we hold the Brewers to the standard of constructing a rotation with four or five solid, “dependable” spots, we are holding the Brewers to an unrealistic standard. Not only is our assumption about five man rotations mistaken — that is, most NL clubs do not field even four starters that reach 147+ IP, but our assumptions about the inherent quality of a five man rotation is mistaken: you can have Cain, Vogelsong, Bumgarner, Zito, and Lincecum, run ’em out there every day, and still have a rotation with two replacement-level performances and an aggregate 20 runs below average. How about the 2011 Mets behind R.A. Dickey? Dillon Gee, Jonathon Niese, Mike Pelfrey, and Chris Capuano were each between 13 and 25 runs below average. Same with Anibal Sanchez, Javier Vazquez, Chris Volstad, and Ricky Nolasco as a rotation in 2011 (-31 R); and, Wandy Rodriguez, Bud Norris, Brett Myers, and J.A. Happ in 2011 (-48 R). Jeff Karstens and Paul Maholm pitched well in 2011, but rotation-mates Charlie Morton, James McDonald, and Kevin Correia significantly dragged down that rotation. Even the 2012 Cardinals made the playoffs with one great pitcher (Kyle Lohse), one above average one (Lance Lynn), two below average starters (Adam Wainwright and Jake Westbrook) and a few placeholders.

In this case, even some of the exceptions in that class of full-time, four starter (or more) rotations from 2011 and 2012 are instructive about our questions for the 2013 Brewers. Before 2011, how many of us would have taken Ian Kennedy, Josh Collmenter, Joe Saunders, and Daniel Hudson as a group? A group that was 61 aggregate runs above average!

Conclusion
By now, the point should be clear: certainly, there are questions about the 2013 Brewers’ rotation. We question the previous workload of our starters, we scrutinize their good performances to see if they’re flukes, we might even expect the worst for some reason. As fans, I can’t help but think some of us are fine-tuned for “Murphy’s Law,” and after years of disappointing Brewers teams, maybe we default to the mode of lowering our expectations so the eventual losses aren’t as crushing. Yet, this set of starters, this gang of Gallardo to Narveson, Peralta to Rogers, Fiers to Thornburg, and pocket ace Estrada, are nothing like those old, disappointing Brewers rotations of yore. Their workloads might look suspect, and their IP ceilings questionable, but this is the National League where most rotations have the exact same questions (or worse); the fact that we might not expect these guys to work more than 180 IP each (or something) is not a detrimental argument against a starting rotation in contemporary baseball.

Rotation Alignment
(a) Full-time Starters:
Gallardo (once every five days, please!)
Fiers (IP profile projects for a full 25+ starts)
Narveson (start the season, see what happens)
Peralta (IP profile projects for a full 25+ starts)

(b) Part-time Starters:
Estrada (perfect sneaky ace, but also a good swingman. Flexible SP, with an IP profile that still projects for 25+ starts)
Rogers (pitch arsenal profiles well for bullpen. Swingman #2) (See J.P. Breen’s mailbag for an excellent counterargument)
Thornburg (Was 2012 organizational treatment indicative of future in bullpen? Swingman #3)
Gorzelanny (certainly found himself as a reliever, but good history as a swingman. Swingman #4)

Series
2012 NL 100+ IP Rankings
Mike Fiers Pitch Selection & Struggling Starts Profile
Marco Estrada’s Excellent Starts Profile
What is a Dependable Starting Pitcher? 2008-2012

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