Ranking the Brewers’ Rotation | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

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

It is rare for a club to follow a strict rotational pattern, in terms of the starters’ performances. While we conventionally call pitchers “#1 / #2 / #3 / #4 Starters,” teams typically cluster their starters in different spots. The 2008 Brewers featured two #1 (Sabathia, Sheets) and two #3 starters (Bush, Parra); in 2011, they had a gang of #2 starters (Wolf, Marcum, Gallardo). In 2009 and 2010, the Brewers failed to compete in large part due to their composition of #4 and #5 starters (Suppan, Looper, Bush, Parra; and, Narveson, Parra, Bush); in 2012, the Brewers did not make the playoffs, but they had a full group of #1 and #2 starters (Gallardo, Greinke, Fiers, Estrada, Marcum). The 2013 Brewers are the rarity, for their four regular starters all aligned in order: #1, #2, #3, #4.

Depending on the balance of rotation spots, it’s not necessarily good for a rotation to follow the #1-through-#4 ranking system spot-for-spot. In general, #3 and #4 starters are typically bad enough to wipe out the advantage of having a good #1 or #2 starter. Specifically, if each pitcher pitches below the average of their rotation spot, that rotation will have difficulty benefiting from their best pitchers (for, their worst pitchers will be notably below average). This is precisely what happened to the 2013 Brewers. Their low rotation spots worked approximately 40 more innings than the top two spots, and the #3 and #4 spots were approximately seven runs below the average performance for their spot:

Rotation Spot 2013 NL AVG IP 2013 RunsAvg 2013 Brewers IP 2013 Normalized*
#1 198.7 3.23 198.7 3.31
#2 167.7 3.62 128 3.76
#3 144.3 4.16 180.7 4.38
#4 155.3 4.92 183.3 5.06

*I normalized the Brewers’ runs average to correct for Miller Park, and simply compare the rotation spots and starters based on their runs prevented.

During the offseason, Brewers fans and analysts may say things like, “The Brewers need a #2 starter,” or, “The Brewers need another above average starter.” While this is technically true in some sense, it doesn’t capture the full picture of the rotation. What the Brewers need is for their pitchers to “clump” in a specific area of rotational spots. The Brewers need a #2 starter, yes, but they need a #2 starter while their #3 and #4 starters improve; basically, if the Brewers are to compete, they either need a great offense (a la the 2011 Cardinals and 2012 Giants), or they need a rotation that packs a lot of pitchers in one specific performance range (such as the 2011 Brewers, 2008 Brewers, or even 2012 Brewers).

Below, I’ve profiled the four main rotation spots, excluding the extreme “ace” seasons of Clayton Kershaw, Matt Harvey, and Jose Fernandez, as well as the low-end starters Barry Zito, Ryan Vogelsong, Edinson Volquez, and Edwin Jackson. I have included these starters’ runs prevented totals, as well as their estimated runs above replacement. You’ll notice that my replacement-level pitchers are better than those at FanGraphs; this is because I use “replacement” pitchers both ways. If a pitcher starts the season in a rotation and is injured and needs to be replaced after only working a couple of starts (like Chad Billingsley, or even Wandy Rodriguez), that pitcher is as much a replacement as a trade, a waiver claim, or a pitched recalled from the minors. This results in a list of replacement pitchers that is much larger, and therefore includes some better pitchers, but it also reflects the types of transactions teams need to make due to injuries (or other circumstances).

#1 Spot: Kyle Lohse (198.7 IP, 16 runs prevented, 32 runs above replacement)
Median #1 Starter: Jordan Zimmermann (213.3 IP, 16 runs prevented, 37 runs above replacement)
Watch Out For: Julio Teheran (185.7 IP, 17 runs prevented, 32 runs above replacement)
Familiar Face: Cliff Lee (third consecutive #1 spot ranking)

If one considers Kyle Lohse‘s strike outs, walks, and home runs, one might expect him to allow notably more runs than he actually does. Based on his FIP from 2011-2013, Lohse has allowed approximately 42 fewer runs than expected from his K, BB, and HR. This was a point of concern as he came to the Brewers from the Cardinals, having pitched an excellent season in St. Louis in 2012. However, in 2013, Lohse limited the damage with his walks and home runs once again, with the latter suffering only marginally from his move from Busch III to Miller Park.

Perhaps Lohse’s most significantly performance was with line drives, which he decreased by nearly 11% between 2012 and 2013. What bodes well for Lohse’s future performance is that his line drive rate in 2013 was nearly identical to his career rate, and he’s posted better line drive rates in his career. Furthermore, his line drive rate was worse in 2012, when he posted a better season for the Cardinals. One might argue that despite Lohse’s low K rate, he has the type of profile to continually outperform his expected rate of Fielding Independent runs.

#2 Spot: Marco Estrada (128 IP, 4 runs prevented, 15 runs above replacement)
Median #1 Starter: Cole Hamels (220 IP, 7 runs prevented, 25 runs above replacement)
Watch Out For: Shelby Miller (173.3 IP, 10 runs prevented, 24 runs above replacement)
Familiar Face: Homer Bailey (second consecutive #2 spot ranking)

One of the reasons that Brewers fans clamored for a full season of Marco Estrada in the rotation is that the righty is fantastic when he limits the long ball. Of course, that other side of the equation is difficult to balance, as Estrada continues to pitch all-or-nothing in terms of allowing home runs. If anything, Estrada proved to be consistent, returning from another injury with an excellent second half of the season once again in 2013.

It’s strange to think that Estrada has a losing record in Milwaukee, especially due to his 2011 performance. Since so much of his value prior to 2013 was from his ability to pitch from the bullpen or the rotation, it’s surprising how much better Estrada has pitched as a starter than in relief. From 2011 to present, Estrada is 1-6 as a reliever, with 30 runs allowed in 60.3 innings. As a starter, he’s 15-13 in 298.7 IP, with 133 runs allowed. Of course, Estrada did not pitch out of the bullpen in 2013, and his overall performance makes it difficult to pass up a full-time rotational role in 2014. Even if full-time is only 130-140 innings, there is a place on every rotation for a pitcher that performs at an above average rate for that workload.

#3 Spot: Yovani Gallardo (180.7 IP, -7 runs prevented, 8 runs above replacement)
Median #3 Starter: Charlie Morton (116 IP, -1 runs prevented, 8 runs above replacement)
Watch Out For: Zack Wheeler (100 IP, 1 run prevented, 9 runs above replacement)
Familiar Faces: Moton, Gallardo (both were ranked #3 starters in 2011)

If nothing else went right for Franchise Starter Yovani Gallardo in 2013, his home run rate and walk rate dropped from 2012. Of course, his strike out rate also dropped, and his line drive rate soared in 2013. It’s difficult to not focus on Gallardo’s fastball velocity, which dropped for the second consecutive year in 2013. Yet, his velocity was “low” during his excellent end of the year stretch, when he pitched seven quality starts in eight turns. During that stretch, Gallardo swapped his curve for his slider, selecting his sharp breaking ball nearly 30% of the time (he threw it approximately 24% of the time from April through July). During that stretch, his strike out rate increased notably, and Gallardo finished the season with a 4-1, 52.3 IP, 15 run affair.

Gallardo’s #47 ranking in 2013 feels disappointing because he was so good in 2012 (#14). Yet, Gallardo has fluctuated in the past, and returned to the top rotation spots. After a #17 ranking in 2009, he fell to #39, and then recovered with a #26 ranking in 2011, before his breakout in 2012. Even good, dependable pitchers, like Gallardo, experience performance fluctuations. The only question is how to gauge Gallardo’s two-headed season to judge him going forward. It is worth noting that his performance after he returned from injury placed him precisely between his 2011 and 2012 performance-levels. Gallardo has been a #3 starter before, and the last time that happened, he jumped a rotation spot the following season.

#4 Spot: Wily Peralta (183.3 IP, -21 runs prevented, 6 runs below replacement)
Median #4 Starters: Eric Stults (203.7 IP, -14 runs prevented, 2 runs above replacement), Dan Haren (169.7 IP, -15 runs prevented, 2 runs below replacement)
Watch Out For: Peralta
Familiar Face: Jake Westbrook (second consecutive #4 spot ranking)

After Tuesday’s feature, I don’t have much to say about Brewers youngster Wily Peralta. It is worth noting that Peralta was the “new face” among #4 starters, working his first full season in the MLB at the bottom of the rotation. This is not a fate set in stone. It will be interesting to watch Peralta, compared to Julio Teheran, Shelby Miller, and Zack Wheeler. Each of those pitchers were better than Peralta in their first full seasons, and they represent new faces among the #1, #2, and #3 starters. Of course, it is not necessarily where one begins their career, but where they settle, and in this regard, Peralta has a new chance to improve in 2014.

Baseball-Reference. Sports Reference, LLC., 2000-2013.
TexasLeaguers. Trip Somers, 2009-2013.
IMAGE: http://bigstory.ap.org/article/out-home-murphy-mets-lose-brewers-4-2

2011-2013 NL Rotations
2008-2012 NL SP Rankings
2013 NL SP 100+ IP

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