One of the narratives of the 2013 Brewers’ season was Yovani Gallardo‘s struggling campaign. The Brewers’ franchise pitcher worked his worst season of his career — his first below average season, even — after serving as one of the National League’s most dependable young pitchers from 2008-2012. Of course, the shift in Gallardo’s performance was especially disappointing given that he put together (arguably) his best season of his career in 2012. As Brewers fans and analysts asked about Gallardo’s potential to breakthrough as an ace, he put together a year that — at its best — will stand between middle-and-low rotation levels.
Gallardo’s story is not unique in a National League that seemed to eschew dependable starters. Even playoff teams such as the Cardinals and Pirates largely relied on unproven pitchers, as some (like Adam Wainwright, Wandy Rodriguez, or Jaime Garcia) stood between various stages of injury or injury recovery years, and the Braves continued their perpetual project of introducing young starters into the Senior Circuit. The Reds’ rotation featured the most dependable starters, but even their ace Johnny Cueto did not have a chance to build on his exceptional 2011 and 2012 progression. Clayton Kershaw was the ACE of the playoff clubs, solidifying his position as one of modern baseball’s best pitchers ever, improving on his 35-runs-prevented 2012 season with a ho-hum 46-runs-above-average year in 2013.
Between injuries, transactions that moved pitchers to the AL, or other circumstances (see Carlos Zambrano, Randy Wolf, and Chris Volstad), the 2013 National League lost 15 dependable starters. They lost a series of pitchers that had worked five-or-more consecutive seasons with 100+ IP as regular starters, and they lost some younger pitchers to injury, trades, etc., too. In the meantime, pitchers such as Cliff Lee, Zack Greinke, Jordan Zimmermann, and Chris Capuano established themselves as dependable NL arms (working their third consecutive seasons at 100+ IP in the Senior Circuit). Others, such as Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jeff Samardzija, and even Marco Estrada will look to work their third consecutive 100+ IP NL season in 2014. (This is a preliminary list; as I complete 2013 NL 100+ IP SP rankings, I will probably find more near-dependable or dependable starters).
Even beyond a gang of injury-laden years in the NL, Gallardo’s descent from strong-dependable to weak-dependable starter was not rare in 2013. On average, the NL’s dependable arms shifted approximately 16 aggregate runs between 2012 and 2013. However, the pitchers that declined dropped moreso than the pitchers that improved; twelve arms declined at an average of 21 runs (!!!), while nine pitchers improved at a rate of 11 runs. (This is one of the only stats where Kershaw is average — his jump from 35 to 46 runs above average was only an “average” increase. Ha!) Matt Cain lost his claim to acehood, and Ian Kennedy, Chris Capuano, Kyle Kendrick, and Ryan Vogelsong fell from varying shades of average to below average. In this regard, Gallardo has rather good company in Senior Circuit regulars that will look to improve in 2014.
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As I analyzed last year, pitchers that we might call “dependable” fluctuate rather frequently. It is not uncommon to see dependable pitchers completely shift between rotational rankings with their performances. Even someone as good as Cole Hamels jumps between average, to above average, to elite, and back. While that’s quite a good example of a desirable long-term arm to have within an organization, teams like the Pirates, Cardinals, and Braves are proving the benefits of going along with well-scouted, well-developed youngsters. One way or the other, the rub is that teams must scout specific traits, whether they’re looking for dependable arms or rookies. Either way, it’s difficult to project pitching performances into future seasons; one year’s dependable, above average arm might be next year’s replacement-level low rotation filler (as always, Bronson Arroyo, Tim Lincecum, and Wolf might be the best examples of how dependable starters can fluctuate from replacement-to-solid and back).
In this regard, one of the toughest areas for the Brewers to assess in the offseason will be their rotation. While serviceable, their rotation features a couple of dependable veterans (Gallardo to Kyle Lohse), a workhorse rookie (Wily Peralta), and an arm on the cusp of becoming dependable (Estrada). Each of these pitchers has their strengths and weaknesses, and the balance of the 2014 club will require sharp assessment of each of these arms.