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February 23, 2010
Overrating Fifth Starters
This week, position players join pitchers and catchers at spring training. For those who travel to Florida or Arizona to cover the teams, reporting on the same story lines can grow tiresome. For others, enjoying watching the same story lines pop up again and again is half the fun.
One traditional source of March copy has been position battles. Teams, wisely or not, sometimes view spring training as a sort of tryout, and so beat writers can craft a narrative around Player A vs. Player B, while maintaining that both players simply want what's best for the team. Later in the spring, players will battle for the last roster spots-which is a battle with serious implications for the players and their careers. But this early in spring training, the dominant story lines are about rotation spots, particularly the fifth starter's job. Aside from their dramatic value, do such battles have any significance?
Camptown Racetracks Five Weeks Long, Oh, Doo Dah Day
Let's start with one of 2010's battles for a fifth starter job. The most notable is being waged in Tampa between Yankees rotation candidates Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes. Both were highly touted starting pitching prospects in the minor leagues, but each has experienced setbacks at the major-league level. Chamberlain, saddled with the unfortunate (and inaccurate) perception that he is more valuable as a reliever, must battle the "B-Jobbers" in addition to Hughes. Hughes, on the other hand, is likely subject to an innings limit and was also effective as a reliever last year (his 3.84 WXRL ranked 14th in the majors last year). This sounds like a perfect battle between worthy adversaries, doesn't it?
The world champs aren't the only ones having trouble identifying their fifth starter. The NL champion Phillies, too, do not yet have a clear fifth starter. The primary battle is between the 47-year-old [sic] Jamie Moyer (4.65 SIERA last year) and the newly hirsute Kyle Kendrick (3.34 ERA at Triple-A in '09). This one's got built-in archetypes, as the aged veteran attempts to return from multiple off-season surgeries to battle the uneven youngster one last time.
Perhaps slightly less compelling is the battle in Bradenton, Florida. Pirates pitchers Daniel McCutchen (4.94 SIERA in 36
Is This Going to be on the Exam?
A more basic question we could ask about all of these battles is whether the ostensible winner will end up pitching more than the loser. Put slightly differently, what difference is there between the pitcher who pitches the fifth-most starts on a team and the pitcher who pitches the sixth-most starts? After all, most teams don't even need a fifth starter until a few weeks into the season, and use every opportunity they get to skip the weakest link. On the other hand, pitcher injuries are all too frequent. Combined with trades, injuries mean that there is a good bit of rotation in the, er, staff. Of course, you want numbers, and who am I to get off on being withholding?
I ranked each team's pitchers by games started in 2009. I then took the fifth- and sixth-ranked pitchers on this score and subtracted the number of starts for the sixth man from the number of starts for the fifth man. No team's sixth starter started fewer than six games (Brad Penny and Ryan Sadowski for the Giants both did). No team's fifth starter started more than 26 games (Rich Harden of the Cubs). On average, fifth starters took the ball just over 16 times, while sixth starters averaged just less than 12 starts. That's a very small margin given the importance attached to spring battles. Here's the full list:
Team 5th Man 5 GS 6th Man 6 GS Delta Braves T. Hanson 21 T. Hudson 7 14 Dodgers E. Stults 10 V. Padilla 7 3 J. Weaver 7 Giants R. Johnson 17 B. Penny 6 11 R. Sadowski 6 Cardinals Wellemeyer 21 M. Boggs 9 12 Cubs R. Harden 26 S. Marshall 9 17 Mariners J. Vargas 14 I. Snell 12 2 White Sox C. Richard 14 B. Colon 12 2 Phillies C. Lee 12 B. Myers 10 2 Tigers J. Washburn 8 D. Willis 7 1 D'backs Y. Petit 17 B. Buckner 13 4 Angels M. Palmer 13 S. O'Sullivan 10 3 Yankees S. Mitre 9 C. Wang 9 0 Reds H. Bailey 11 J. Lehr 11 0 Rays Sonnanstine 22 S. Kazmir 20 2 Marlins A. Sanchez 16 A. Miller 14 2 Pirates I. Snell 15 J. Karstens 13 2 Rangers V. Padilla 18 B. McCarthy 17 1 Red Sox C. Buchholz 16 D. Matsuzaka 12 4 Indians C. Pavano 21 A. Laffey 19 2 Blue Jays B. Cecil 17 Rzepczynski 11 6 Royals K. Davies 22 B. Chen 9 13 S. Ponson 9 Athletics G. Gonzalez 17 J. Outman 12 5 V. Mazzaro 17 Mets J. Maine 15 O. Perez 14 1 Padres C. Young 14 J. Peavy 13 1 T. Stauffer 14 Astros F. Paulino 17 R. Ortiz 13 4 Twins K. Slowey 16 C. Pavano 12 4 Nationals G. Mock 15 --- -- 0 S. Martis 15 J. Martin 15 Orioles R. Hill 13 K. Uehara 12 1 C. Tillman 12 Brewers D. Bush 21 M. Burns 8 13
One thought you might have is that better teams tend to have less turnover in their rotation. But a quick regression of the delta term against team wins revealed a very low correlation (r-squared = .005). More significant, however, was the correlation between team-wide starters' ERA (r-squared = .14). This suggests that perhaps some of the explanation for why a fifth starter might get more starts than the sixth starter is due to the overall quality of the team's starters. However, the low correlation also points out the essential randomness of the baseball season. The excellent Braves (3.52 starters' ERA in '09) got just seven starts from their No. 6 (Hudson), but the nearly as good Dodgers (3.52) got just three more starts from their No. 5 than from their No. 6. At the other end of the spectrum, the poor Brewers squeezed a 5.37 ERA out of their starters and yet their fifth starter (Dave Bush) took the ball 21 times.
Question of the Day
Certainly, there are better ways of measuring which is the fifth and which is the sixth starter than mere games started. But does this simple method show that, over the course of the season, even the guys who lose out on the fifth starter's job can still expect to start at least 7-10 games per year? Is there a psychic significance to making the rotation out of spring training I am overlooking? How about an economic difference?