What is a dependable starting pitcher? 2008-2012 NL SP | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

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Five years ago, I received an opportunity to start blogging about baseball at SportsBubbler, a daily Wisconsin-sports round-up, which lead to our work at Bernie’s Crew, and now Disciples of Uecker. A lot has changed about my views on baseball, and hopefully my writing style is better, since those earliest fan blogging year. Yet, one practice I’ve kept over the years is ranking the National League starting pitchers with 100+ innings. Over the years, I’ve changed some areas of that practice; I used to rely on Baseball Prospectus for the “runs prevented” stat; now I calculate my own; in the last two years, I’ve also added replacement pitching analysis, to account for the scores of pitchers that don’t count as regulars.

Brewers’ Offseason: Starting Pitchers Wanted!
I gather that if one were to poll Brewers fans, more than 80% of Brewers fans would say that the ballclub’s 2012-2013 offseason need is starting pitching; at least another 50% of Brewers fans would probably say, “this club needs two starting pitchers.” I’m not immune to this, either, as I’ve analyzed the expected IP output from the Brewers’ youngsters. Adam McCalvy captured a great quote by Doug Melvin, who also plays into the starting pitching speculation by speaking of a young starting rotation like the 2012 Oakland Athletics: ” “Do all of us have the nerve to do that? Do we have the patience to do that?” Yet, Melvin spoke loudest when he nearly filled the Brewers’ 40-man roster to protect several youngsters from the Rule V draft; with a 40-man roster filled with 39 players, the Brewers appear to be an unlikely club to fix their rotation with several free agents.

As the offseason progressed, and I implied that the Brewers might need more than one starting pitcher due to the potential innings limits of their youngsters, a new question grew in my mind: What is a dependable starting pitcher? You see, this seems to be the logical assumption or requirement in fans’ and GMs’ minds when they move away from young rotations, in favor of rotations filled with veteran hurlers. Presumably, the argument against starting the season with Fastballer Mike Fiers, pocket ace Marco Estrada, top prospect Wily Peralta, and/or resurrected Mark Rogers in the rotation is that these starters have little-to-no track record as regular MLB starters. The assumption appears to be that in an MLB rotation, a team needs someone dependable to anchor their rotation, as well as to pitch throughout the rotation.

2008-2012 NL SP 100+ IP rankings

Who is a dependable starting pitcher?
On the surface, this appears to be a logical assumption. So, I hit the data with those assumptions: digging through five years of National League starting pitching rankings, I asked, WHO is a dependable starter?. First and foremost, (1) I looked for pitchers that worked 100+ IP for every season from 2008-to-present; then, (2) I moved to pitchers with 100+ IP workloads from 2009-to-present; finally, (3) I looked at pitchers with 100+ IP performances in the NL from 2010-to-present; after these three classes, (4) I took a look at pitchers who returned to the 100+ IP rankings in 2012 after injuries in 2010 and/or 2011, and (5) I looked at starters who appeared in the 2012 NL 100+ IP rankings for the first time.

Total: 360 Individual spots ranked w/ 100+ IP from 2008-2012
(1) 15 (!!!) starters pitched consecutive 100+ IP from 2008-2012 (20.8% of total ranked spots)
(2) 4 starters added consecutive 100+ IP seasons from 2009-2012 (5.6% of total ranked spots)
(3) 11 starters added consecutive 100+ IP seasons from 2010-2012 (15.3% of total ranked spots)
(4) 17 starters appeared in 2012 100+ IP rankings for the first time (4.7% of total ranked spots)
(5) 5 starters returned to 100+ IP rankings after injuries in 2010 and/or 2011 (these starters own 15 total rankings from 2008-2012, or 4.2% of total ranked spots)

Now, obviously these rankings underrate pitchers such as Mark Buehrle, Cliff Lee, and Zack Greinke, who happen to be dependable pitchers that worked in the AL and NL from 2008-2012 (just to name a few). And of course, pitchers such as CC Sabathia, Felix Hernandez, and Justin Verlander (again, just to name a few) are not accounted for by looking at dependable pitchers in the NL. However, even looking at AL pitchers on their own, only 48 AL starters worked 500+ IP in the AL from 2008-2012, which hardly means that each and every one of those starters would be classified as “dependable.”

I believe that by looking at pitchers that consistently work 100+ IP, year-in, year-out, we can find a better meaning of a classification such as, “dependable starter.” Clayton Richard is one of my favorite counter-examples; Richard worked 218.7 IP in 2012, returning from an injury-shortened 2011 campaign. After breaking into the majors with the Chicago White Sox in 2008, he worked 150+ innings in 2009, and cracked the 200 IP mark in 2010. Richard boasts two seasons in which he was average at best, working his best campaign in 2010, when he was part of the trade that brought Jake Peavy to the windy city. Overall, Richard worked more than 700 innings from 2008-2012; is he the type of pitcher that we have in mind when we say the Brewers need an arm they can depend on?

Dependable Quality
When we return to the National League rankings, we might argue that some requirement of quality be added to the “dependable starter” moniker. Surely, if we want the Brewers to pick up a dependable starter, we want that dependability to result in a performance that is worth the cost of acquisition — or, certainly, a performance that is better (or more readily expected to be better) than a group of prospects and upstarts (such as Fiers, Rogers, Peralta, and Estrada).

When we group the 15 starters that worked 100+ IP in each of the last five seasons in the National League, and average their rankings, here is the division between pitchers:

Matt Cain #10.6 (18-4-8-12-11)
Clayton Kershaw #11.2 (34-8-9-3-2)
Cole Hamels #11.6 (6-34-7-5-6)

Tim Lincecum #19.2 (1-2-13-7-73)
Johnny Cueto #23.8 (52-42-18-6-1)
Ryan Dempster #28.6 (4-25-47-58-9)
Wandy Rodriguez #30.2 (30-11-41-22-47)
Chad Billingsley #31.6 (8-35-25-56-34)

Bronson Arroyo #36.0 (54-20-23-70-13)
Carlos Zambrano #38.0 (23-22-26-53-66)
Paul Maholm #38.0 (16-46-74-28-26)
Randy Wolf #42.2 (53-13-48-27-70)
Aaron Harang #46.2 (48-37-66-36-44)

Ricky Nolasco #48.8 (14-56-49-65-60)
Kevin Correia #60.6 (71-33-71-63-65)

I gather that these types of pitchers give us clear measurements for “rotation spot” types; Matt Cain, Clayton Kershaw, and Cole Hamels are undoubtedly among the top candidates for MLB aces over the last five years. Meanwhile, pitchers such as Chad Billinglsey and Tim Lincecum are pitchers that are typically average or better (although Lincecum’s fate is undoubtedly skewed by his 2012 performance); we might call this group #2 starters; of course, there are also the group of “dependable” starters that are typically around average at best, or pitchers that are as likely to put together a replacement-level performance as a slightly-above average performance. These last seven pitchers are clearly examples of “dependable” starters that Brewers fans would not want in the Milwaukee rotation (despite their ability to work regularly).

Among 4-consecutive and 3-consecutive season starters, we have another 15 pitchers that are on their way to becoming regular, dependable workers on the Senior Circuit:

4-year regulars:
Yovani Gallardo #24.0 (17-39-26-14)
Tommy Hanson #32.0 (15-19-31-63)
Homer Bailey #38.3 (43-46-46-18)
Chris Volstead #61.8 (58-54-64-71)

3-consecutive seasons:
R.A. Dickey #10.7 (11-18-3)
Roy Halladay #15.7 (1-1-45)

Mat Latos #18.3 (10-35-10)
Ian Kennedy #18.3 (22-4-29)
Madison Bumgarner #25.0 (15-25-35)
Anibal Sanchez #31.3 (28-23-43)

Jaime Garcia #38.3 (16-57-42)
Mike Leake #45.0 (55-29-51)
Travis Wood #46.0 (33-49-56)
Jonathon Niese #46.3 (61-61-17)

Bud Norris #60.7 (70-51-61)

In this group, we have some new aces on the rise, as well as some new entries for solid #2 or #3 starters. Yet again, though, we find some average-at-best, or even below average starters, that receive regular work.

“Dependability” among MLB pitchers appears to be connected simply to the ability to pitch regularly, rather than some necessary component for quality innings. While there are certainly regular aces, those pitchers are the exception (probably as much an exception as the truly regular replacement pitcher).

Dependable Fluctuation
What’s more interesting is the extent to which these regular pitchers have fluctuating performances. For instance, when considering those 5-year starters, those eight “#1” and “#2” starters average a ranking between #20 and #21 over those five seasons (not bad!); however, their standard deviation (among 40 separate seasons) is nearly 19 spots. There are plenty of reasons for this; Lincecum’s 2012 campaign, sure; but, how about fluctuations or improvements (in some combination) by Hamels and Kershaw? Or, Johnny Cueto? Look at Billingsley, perhaps the poster boy for fluctuating seasons: a strong #8 ranking in 2008, followed by #35 and #25 seasons, a #56 season, followed by this year’s injury shortened, #34 campaign. Surely, Billingsley has the stuff and overall performance well-suited for a #2/#3 starter; and his performances have been everywhere from fringe-ace to fringe-replacement over the last give years.

The same can be said for those seven lower-rotation starters that worked 100+ innings from 2008-to-2012. While averaging a #44 ranking, or a solid/low #3 spot ranking, these 35 individual seasons featured a standard deviation of nearly 20 spots; surely Bronson Arroyo and Randy Wolf are the best examples in this class of pitcher. They each boast #13 and #70 seasons within the last five years, and otherwise, they have rankings that span from #20, #23, and #27, to #48, #53, and #54. These two starters are surely dependable; and, on any given season, they might come close to a #1/#2 type season, a #3/#4 season, or a replacement season. Literally, flip a coin.

Among the 3-year and 4-year pitchers, the fluctuation is slightly less extreme. Both the top- and bottom-rotation classes in this group of 15 starters boast standard deviations between 14 and 16 spots. The Brewers’ own Yovani Gallardo is a good example here, jumping between near-#1 to solid #3 performances between 2009 and 2010, only to return to solid #1/#2 range performances. Mat Latos split two Top 10 seasons with a solid #3 campaign in 2011, and Tommy Hanson and Jaime Garcia are pitchers that followed two strong #1/#2-type seasons with #3/#4 campaigns.

Clearly, a lot of these pitchers are better than some of their individual season rankings. This is as true for pitchers like Zack Greinke (after his 2011 campaign) as it is for Arroyo or Garcia after their 2011 campaigns. But, what also seems clear is that even though dependable starters might have some types of ceilings that are valuable to their respective clubs, their true value is their ability to pitch steady innings. I gather this is true because pitchers such as Arroyo, or Bud Norris, or Chris Volstad keep hanging around the league. Clearly, the replacement-value theory of pitching is not applied to actual club transactions in a lot of cases; GMs simply need warm bodies to fill their rotation spots sometimes, and, that means that someone like Volstad or Arroyo or Billingsley or numerous other pitchers will stick around even when they have below-average seasons.

Argument
Perhaps we should take Doug Melvin’s 39-man roster as a sign of faith in his gang of young starters. Furthermore, perhaps we should question whether the Brewers really need to spend money on multiple veteran, dependable arms to fill their rotation spots. After all, if even the most dependable of dependable NL starters fluctuate between one-or-two (or even three) rotation spots during any given year, we can surely stomach the same from our very own gang of upstarts and prospects.

If Fastballer Fiers drops an entire rotation spot, he’ll be a strong #3/#4 candidate; the same goes for Marco Estrada; Wily Peralta need only work something like a 150 IP / 75 R campaign to earn a solid #3 ranking; the same goes for Mark Rogers, who is probably the most likely of these pitchers to serve as a swingman between the rotation and bullpen (in that case, he’ll be golden with a 110 IP / 60 R affair). Obviously, we would like to think that each and every one of these pitchers will be better; heck, Fiers and Estrada limit the damage in ways that suggest that they can reasonably sneak into the solid-#2 starting class for a second consecutive year. If Peralta can continue to limit his control issues, as he exhibited during his late-2012 improvement, he can surely outpitch a 150 IP / 75 R campaign.

Moreover, even the candidates to land $90-to-$120 million contracts boast massive fluctuations between seasons. If you want Zack Greinke’s 2009 and 2012, that’s great, but you have to get through 2010 and 2011 to get there; Anibal Sanchez worked solid seasons in 2010 and 2011, but his 2012 was in that mid-rotation range that we’re looking to Peralta to work. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’d be thrilled if the Brewers signed either of these starters, since they don’t cost draft picks, and they’re a great opportunity for the Brewers to land good pitchers with good upside. Once we get into the grind of the season, however, we have to think about those fluctuations; if the Greinke, Billingsley, Lincecum, and Arroyo-types each have their brand of fluctuations, surely we cannot argue against a young rotation solely on the basis of their inexperience or potential regressions in 2013.

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