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March 2, 2011

Prospectus Hit and Run

Rotation Rumble in the NL

by Jay Jaffe

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With Adam Wainwright already lost for the year due to Tommy John surgery, the NL Central race rates as the league's most wide-open according to our new Playoff Odds, and that's without accounting for Chris Carpenter pulling up lame with a hamstring strain as he did yesterday. Four teams have at least a 10 percent shot of winning the division, and the percentage point gap between the first-place Cardinals and fourth-place Cubs is roughly the size of those between the top two clubs in each of the Senior Circuit's other two divisions. Gaining the most from this turn of events, at least in terms of proximity to the top spot, are the Brewers, whose winter efforts to double down for one last run before Prince Fielder's inevitable departure are suddenly coming into sharper focus.

Since returning to major-league relevance in 2005, when their 81-81 season snapped a string of 12 straight losing campaigns, the Brew Crew has struggled to piece together a decent rotation. Aside from 2008, when they got an outstanding year from pending free agent Ben Sheets and an off-the-charts half-season from CC Sabathia, they haven't boasted a unit that was significantly better than mid-pack in terms of our SNLVAR and Fair Run Average measures. In each of the last two years, they've ranked in the NL's bottom three in both categories, undercutting offenses that have ranked first and second in the league in True Average:

Year

SNLVAR

NL Rank

SP FRA

NL Rank

2005

19.6

8

4.42

7

2006

17.2

11

5.12

10

2007

18.1

8

4.85

7

2008

23.5

4

4.32

4

2009

8.0

16

5.70

16

2010

11.8

14

5.07

14

Brewers general manager Doug Melvin didn't take this turn of events lying down. In fact, no NL GM was more aggressive about upgrading his rotation this winter than Melvin, who cashed in his blue chips to acquire Shaun Marcum from the Blue Jays for Brett Lawrie, and to snare Zack Greinke from the Royals for Jeremy Jeffress, Jake Odorizzi, Lorenzo Cain, and Alcides Escobar. According to our PECOTA-based Depth Charts, the Brewers' added more WARP to their rotation from outside than any other NL team. Here are the top five:

Team

WARP

Pitchers

Brewers

6.6

Zack Greinke (4.0), Shaun Marcum (2.6)

Phillies

4.9

Cliff Lee (4.9)

Marlins

3.0

Javier Vazquez (3.0)

Mets

2.8

Chris Young (1.8), Chris Capuano (1.0)

Cubs

2.4

Matt Garza (2.4)

The Dodgers, who added Jon Garland (1.1), were the only other NL team to bring in a single starter above 1.0 WARP, while the Pirates and Nats netted out at less than a full win. Six teams seemingly steered their rotations in the wrong direction via moves that actually netted between -0.8 WARP and 0.0 once potential sixth starters are considered, while the Reds and Braves stood pat, relying upon those already on hand or promoted from within their own systems.

It's important to note that in moving from the PECOTA spreadsheet weighted mean WARP projections to the depth charts, our replacement level shifts a bit; like that box of animal crackers, the contents may have settled during shipping. When we initially build the weighted means, we're using a generic league average derived from projections prorated by the previous season's playing time, and the replacement level is a defined percentage above or below that average, depending upon whether we're considering pitchers or hitters. Once we build the depth charts with playing time estimates, we calculate a new league average and via that, a new replacement level. Hence the WARP values that differ from what you've downloaded. (Thanks to Colin Wyers for his patient explanation of this.)

Having reloaded, the question becomes how a Brewers' upgraded rotation rounded out by holdovers Yovani Gallardo, Randy Wolf, and Chris Narveson stacks up against the rest of the league. Again sticking with the WARP'd view of the world of our Depth Charts, and with an eye towards something between fun argument starter, instructive inquiry into PECOTA's workings, and premature playoff preview, I tallied the best Terrific Tandems, Big Threes, Front Fours, Fab Fives, and Six-Packs for each NL team. (I'll repeat this exercise for the AL next time around.) I took into consideration each team's top six starters, since in many cases an alternate with fewer innings—a swingman, midseason callup, or late-healing frontliner—forecasts to be more valuable than a pitcher with a higher innings total.

To avoid repeating myself (and driving my editors crazy with endless table-setting), here's the master table, ranked by the combined WARP of the top six starters, and showing the combined WARPs of smaller subsets.

Rank

Team

2

3

4

5

6

1

Phillies

10.3

14.0

17.2

18.2

18.2

2

Giants

9.6

12.0

14.3

15.5

15.0

3

Dodgers

6.9

9.8

12.7

13.8

13.8

4

Braves

6.2

8.2

9.9

11.5

11.9

5

Brewers

6.9

9.5

10.8

11.5

11.5

6

Marlins

7.3

9.7

11.1

11.2

11.3

7

Cardinals

5.6

7.3

8.4

8.6

8.6

8

Cubs

5.0

6.9

8.0

8.4

8.3

9

Reds

3.6

5.1

6.5

7.4

7.3

10

Mets

3.5

4.8

5.8

6.8

7.1

11

Rockies

4.7

5.6

6.4

6.9

6.9

12

Astros

4.3

5.6

6.6

7.1

6.6

13

Padres

5.0

5.8

6.3

6.5

5.9

14

Diamondbacks

5.7

6.2

6.2

5.7

4.9

15

Pirates

2.4

2.7

2.9

3.0

2.7

16

Nationals

2.1

2.6

2.9

3.1

2.5

Terrific Tandems: As far as one-two punches go, it's no surprise that last year's NLCS participants stand head and shoulders above the rest of the pack. The collective ranking of the Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee (5.4 and 4.9 WARP, respectively) justifies the Phillies' efforts to unite the two, who have the edge on the Giants' Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain (5.6 and 4.0). Here it's appropriate to observe a moment of silence for the Cards' duo, because Wainwright and Carpenter (4.6 and 3.7) would clearly rank as the third-best tandem in the league. Into the breach, albeit a full win lower, step the Marlins' Josh Johnson and Javier Vazquez (4.0 and 3.3), with the latter presumably bearing more resemblance to the Braves' Cy Young contender from 2009 rather than the pinstriped palooka of yesteryear. Tying for fourth at 6.9 are the Brewers' Greinke-Gallardo duo (2.9 from the latter) and the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw and Hiroki Kuroda (3.9 and 3.0). Rounding out the upper half of the bracket are the Braves' Tommy Hanson and Tim Hudson (3.6 and 2.6), with the Diamondbacks' Dan Hudson and Ian Kennedy (3.0 and 2.7) making a surprisingly strong showing for a noncontender, and the reconstituted Cardinals duo of Carpenter and Jaime Garcia (1.9) knocked down several pegs. Meanwhile, the Golden Raspberry award goes to the Nationals, for having no stronger one-two to offer than Jordan Zimmerman and Tom Gorzelanny (1.4 and 0.7); to be fair, Stephen Strassburg (5.1 WARP in the spreadsheet) would have bumped them into the upper half of the bracket.

Big Threes: The spaced-out schedules of the best-of-five Division Series lend themselves well to power trios, and here the gap between the Phormidable Phils and the rest of the pack grows, with Roy Oswalt (3.7) trumping Jonathan Sanchez (2.4) for a full two-win difference between the top two teams. The Dodgers nose into third via Chad Billingsley (2.9), overtaking the Marlins (who add Ricky Nolasco at 2.4) and Brewers (Shaun Marcum, 2.6). The Braves (Derek Lowe, 2.0) hold their position, with the Cardinals (Wainwright fill-in Kyle McClelland 1.7) and Cubs overtaking the Diamondbacks, the latter via a trio of Ryan Dempster, Matt Garza, and Carlos Zambrano (2.6, 2.4, and 1.9, respectively). The Golden Raspberry here still belongs to the Nats, particularly if you believe the proposition that Chien-Ming Wang will throw 65 innings of 4.24 ERA ball and thus be worth a half of a win; betting hard cash on the Easter Bunny to show up with two plus pitches and a fringe-average third would be safer.

Front Fours: Here we get to the real action, the units likely to wind up gunning for glory in a best-of-seven series. Via Cole Hamels (3.2), the Phillies gain just shy of another full win on the field, with the Giants (Madison Bumgarner, 2.3) also losing ground to the Dodgers (Ted Lilly, 2.9). Hanging tough with the fourth-best quartet are the Fish (Anibal Sanchez, 1.4), with the Brewers (Randy Wolf, 1.3) still close behind. The Braves gain some ground via rookie Mike Minor (1.7), while the Cardinals and Cubs hold their positions via Jake Westbrook and Randy Wells (1.1 apiece). At the bottom of the table, the Pirates finally sink to a share of the basement via a trio of James McDonald, Kevin Correia, and Ross Ohlendorf (1.5, 0.9, and 0.3, respectively), with the Nats quartet rounded out by Jason Marquis (0.2).

Fab Fives: In rounding out the starting fives, there's plenty of daylight between the Phillies, Giants and Dodgers, with the Braves elbowing their way into a tie for a distant fourth with the Brewers via Jair Jurrjens (1.6), the only fifth starter worth more than a win and a half. As such, we'll avoid further descriptive accounts of the minutiae and instead direct you to peruse the depth charts and the master table above. The Marlins wind up on the same tier as the Brewers and Braves, with the Cubs and Cards a level down, and then very little separation between the ninth-ranked Reds and the 14th-ranked Diamondbacks—less than or equal to the separation between each of the top three teams, in fact.

Speaking of the Reds, what gives with the 2010 NL Central champions' rotation? Does PECOTA foresee Dusty Baker's chickens coming home to roost? At this point, none of his charges is currently projected for even 2.0 WARP, in part because Edinson Volquez is only forecast for 134 innings. As the owner of Volquez in the BP Kings Scoresheet league, my initial impression upon discovering this was that that total was too low, but given the fact that he's thrown more than 63 major-league innings just once and that the Reds run deeper than most other clubs, it's not an unfair starting assumption. In any event, our current projections put Travis Wood as the most valuable Reds starter at 1.9 WARP, followed by Volquez (1.7), Bronson Arroyo (1.5), Johnny Cueto (1.4) and Homer Bailey (0.9), with poor Mike Leake (-0.1) particularly unloved. Among that group, only Volquez has a projected ERA under 4.00, and it's at 3.93. Cueto's 4.35 mark seems particularly pessimistic given the advances he made last year in cutting his homer rate and ERA, but then PECOTA takes multiple years of data into account, and it's not entirely convinced.

The other glaring omission from the upper half of the table is the Wild Card-chasing Rockies, whom PECOTA appears to assume are still playing without a humidor or an understanding that keeping the ball on the ground is the key to surviving at altitude. Ubaldo Jimenez is projected for 3.5 WARP and a beefy 3.94 ERA, more than a run higher than last year's 2.88 mark. Young Jhoulys Chacin is the only other Rox starter projected for an ERA below 5.00 or a WARP above 1.0. Jorge De La Rosa is projected for a 5.01 ERA despite a 4.22 mark last year and a 4.49 mark across three occasionally spotty, occasionally tantalizing years in Colorado. Then again, last year the Rockies ranked only 12th in SNLVAR and 11th in Fair Run Average, so perhaps it's just my own overestimation of them which is driving this disconnect.

As for the Brewers, this exercise confirms that they're amply armed to contend, with a rotation that holds a clear advantage on the post-Wainwright Cardinals as well as the rest of the NL Central, and one which deepens the further you get into the contenders' respective rotations. By no means does this license the Brewers to start printing playoff tickets yet, but it's worth recognizing the effort Doug Melvin and company have put into upgrading the team's most glaring weakness to make one last foray with Fielder instead of punting the pudgy slugger for prospects.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

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