As it stands, we are still more than two weeks away from pitchers and catchers reporting for Spring Training. The bulk of the notable free agents have been signed (knock on wood, James Shields). Arbitration eligible players have agreed on salaries, and pre-season trade rumours have already dwindled down. This time of year is surely a lull period, making any current news over-covered – so why not keep off the mainstream?
Max Scherzer signed with the Washington Nationals. This is relatively current news, as is the idea of the Nationals’ 2015 “dream” rotation. In fact, last season, the Nationals put together one of the league’s best rotations. After scamming Dave Dombrowski for Doug Fister and converting Tanner Roark into a strike-throwing machine, a rotation already compiled of Strasburgs, Zimmermans and Gio Gonzalezes was that much more pristine. However, this is less about the Nationals starting five, and more about their neighbours in Maryland.
Chris Tillman, Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez, Bud Norris. That sounds like either a list of #3 starters or a collection of 10th grade science teachers. You will notice I only listed 4 names, while modern day pitching rotations comprise 5 members. Kevin Gausman made 20 starts in 2014, most of which were pretty darn good. Ubaldo Jimenez made 22 starts, most of which were like the 12-year-old from Rookie of the Year pitching healthy. Sure, Ubaldo was once 19-8 with a sub-3.00 ERA in Coors Field, but those days are gone. Baltimore realized this eventually (not before giving him $50M) and only gave him 25 innings in the entire second half. With that in mind and for my purposes, Kevin Gausman was really Baltimore’s #5 starter. Here is what the five of them compiled:
There is nothing sexy about these ERAs. Gonzalez has the lowest ERA at 3.23, but on the other hand, nobody had ERAs above 3.65 (ala Bud Norris). The 5 of them were very good in 2014, with most of them putting together career years. Bud Norris recorded the best ERA of his 6-year career. Miguel Gonzalez, albeit a late bloomer, had a career best ERA himself. Wei-Yin Chen’s 3.54 ERA beat his career best by almost half an earned run. Chris Tillman has only qualified for the ERA title twice, and wouldn’t you know it, 2014 accounted for his lowest figure.
But hold on, the Nationals rotation all had ERAs even closer to 3.00, with Fister and Zimmerman sitting under the bar. Thankfully, we have our league- and park-adjusted ERA+ and ERA-. For a reminder, a 100 ERA+ is league average, with anything above 100 being better than average (the converse for ERA-). The Nationals rotation pitched to an 83 ERA- (roughly a 117 ERA+), while the Orioles rotation managed a 93 ERA- (roughly a 107 ERA). However, that is including the demoted Ubaldo, who we need to remove from this analysis, thus, Baltimore’s overall ERA+ lies somewhere in the 110-113 range, good enough for second best in the league.
If you take a second glance at the table, no ERA+ below 100 is visible. In other words, the Baltimore starting 5 were all better than average. Though it may seem like a simple task, only 10 rotations have done so since the turn of the century – that is, 10 out of 450 possible rotations. The list includes last season’s Nationals, the Halladay-Hamels-Lee trifecta, the 2011 Rangers and a handful of Cubs rotations. It’s worth noting that the last “dream” rotation in recent memory was the 2013 Tigers of Verlander, Scherzer, Sanchez and Fister, who did not make this list, as their 5th starter, Rick Porcello, was below average that year.
What can we take from this? The Orioles’ rotation was consistent and above average – it’s as simple as that. While most of the Tigers starters of 2013 may have all been extremely dominant, they were not all dominant. We are looking at a trade-off between better bottom line outcomes, and less volatility (more consistency). Is it more important to have guys throwing a couple shutouts and subsequently get shelled the next time out? Or, do we want our pitchers to “give the team a chance to win the game”. Ask the Orioles that question, because they won 96.
Unfortunately there is a “but.” We talked about how the Orioles’ starters essentially all had peak years. In statistics, it is not unusual to regress outcomes to the mean, as our sample gets larger. In baseball terms, it likely means we are not seeing repeats of any of these seasons, except for perhaps the rookie Gausman. If you are looking for more reasons for future cynicism, look no further than their rotation’s peripherals – the underlying:
On a strikeout-walk-homer basis, the four of the five pitched over their heads, with Gausman seemingly having the most predictable skill of the group. In their defense, some of the arms are known to have the ability to outpitch their peripherals. For example, Tillman allowed only one stolen base last year, and Miguel Gonzalez generated pop-ups on almost 6% of balls in play. Yet, even with those consolations, it is hard to envision the over-performing being anywhere near 100% controllable. In fact, according to ZIPS projections, all five are in line for an ERA in the 4’s. The Orioles’ rotation pitched strongly and consistently in 2014, but if the team wants any chance to win the division again, expectations should come from other areas than the starting five.Next post: He Doesn’t Suck – He’s Just Old!
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