Since the end of the 2012 season, the Milwaukee Brewers fans have been waiting for their team to get a free agent starting pitcher. Not just any pitcher. Not a decent pitcher. Not an amazing pitcher. The demand has been specific: The Brewers need a #2 pitcher. Someone to pitch behind the staff ace: Yovani Gallardo.
But how valuable is a #2 pitcher? Hang on; what the heck IS a #2 pitcher? Why use great pitchers followed by mediocre pitchers instead of all 5 “decent” pitchers? The obvious advantage is in the postseason. In a 7 game postseason series, the 1 and 2 pitchers get to pitch twice. However, in a 162 game season, the #1 and #2 pitchers start 33 games instead of 32. If the team goal is to win the division and make the playoffs, the value of true ‘ace’ pitchers is diminished.
Here’s a little game: pick 5 pitchers, choose the # of innings they throw and their ERAs. Total innings should add up to 800 and average (weighted by innings thrown) should be a 3.5 (good enough to get you a pennant). So it could look like one of these two examples:


Example 1 represents a rotation with the “ace” pitchers at the top of the rotation throwing more innings and giving up fewer runs. Here are the flaws of this traditional rotation:
1) Aces cost too much money. There is a nonlinear increase of cost with value. A 3 WIN pitcher (i.e. “mid rotation” pitchers) costs $5 Million. A 6 Win pitcher costs $1520 Million with multiple years of contract.
2) Reliance on 12 players. Even if you’re willing to pay the amount required for top of the rotation guys, they can be ineffective or injured for an entire season. Remember Tim Lincecum? No, not the multiple Cy Young winning “freak”. But the $18 Million Man that was worth 2 wins below a minor league pitcher.
3) Wins with large run differentials. Look, it’s all about winning games. It doesn’t matter if you win by 1 run or 5. In fact, any win with more than 1 run is a waste of resources.
4) Losses at the bottom end. Having below average starters at the bottom end means you’re more likely to lose those games. The rotation in example 2 represents a deeper rotation with no real “aces”. Such a rotation allows each game with an equal chance of winning.
Games aside, the rotation described in example 2 is a bit unrealistic. In reality, great pitchers are great and get to throw more innings. Average pitchers are average and get replaced by the bullpen. It would be difficult to find 5 “decent” pitchers; but it is possible. Here are the 2012 stats from two teams that match their respective examples.


Team 2 got similar results as Team 1 with an average salary of $4 million less! OK, I cheated a little and used 6 pitchers from Team 2. But that’s kind of the point, right? There’s cheaper and better ways to get the same results. You can be the Team 2, the Oakland A’s and rely on cheap young pitching. Or you can be the St. Louis Cardinals, Team 1, and have top heavy rotation. In fact, if you’d like to go that route, their ace, Kyle Lohse, is still a free agent.
However, for a small market and low payroll team that can play small ball in one run games, the Brewers are better off with a deep consistent rotation rather than reliance on more aces.
All very good points. I think if the Brewers were Team 2 up there, we’d all be happy. (Or should be)
The problem is that a number of these guys don’t seem to do that. Narveson’s best year for ERA was higher than just about any of those #s (3.83), and his average is almost a run worse than that… If Fiers pitches exactly like he did last year (brilliant followed by implosions followed by brilliant), you’re looking at an ERA in the 4 range, too… Meaning that we have a bunch of 4+ERA pitchers and no 2ERA guy. Meaning we’ve got some of the problems of team 1 without the ace, rather than the general quality of team 2 up there.
Or at least that’s the way a lot of us see it, I think.
Yeah that’s a good point Jeff. I was looking at teams that won a playoff spot last year. Obviously, 3.5 ERA would be phenomenal for miller park.
The brewers scored at the rate of 4.8 runs per game (not exactly per 9 because of extra innings or 8 inning games). So an average ERA of 4 would be fine.