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March 4, 2011

Prospectus Hit and Run

Rotation Rumble in the AL

by Jay Jaffe

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It's no secret that the Red Sox had a rough 2010 on both sides of the ball. Even so, despite a rash of season-ending injuries to Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis, Mike Cameron, and Jacoby Ellsbury, their offense ranked second in the league in runs scored. The larger reason for their finishing seven games out of first place and six games back in the wild card race owed to a disappointing performance from both ends of their pitching staff, which ranked eighth in the league in SNLVAR and an even lowlier 12th in WXRL despite the previous winter's commitment to run prevention.

When he wasn't busy chasing down some of the winter market's biggest game—namely Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez—general manager Theo Epstein augmented the back end of his bullpen with the additions of Bobby Jenks and Dan Wheeler. Yet he stood pat with the rotation, in part because over $150 million worth of future contract commitments to Josh Beckett, John Lackey, and Daisuke Matsuzaka left him with little flexibility. That trio combined for a 4.84 ERA and a .455 Support-Neutral Winning Percentage while missing around 15 starts, and they weren't helped by age finally catching up to the seemingly ageless Tim Wakefield, their sixth man.

Then again, the Sox's competition didn't make any marquee moves where their rotations were concerned, either, a consequence of Cliff Lee jilting his American League suitors. Most AL teams' changes to their projected starting fives come from within, either via minor-league promotions, role shifts, or returns from injury. Where the additions of Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum brought the Brewers a PECOTA-projected 6.6 WARP, and Lee's return to the Phillies added 4.9 WARP to an already-stacked rotation, not a single AL club signed or traded for starters who forecast to add even half that amount of value:

 

Team

WARP

Pitchers

A's

2.3

Brandon McCarthy (1.3), Rich Harden (1.0)

Orioles

2.0

Justin Duchscherer (2.0)

Rangers

2.0

Brandon Webb (2.0)

Royals

1.4

Jeff Francis (0.9), Vin Mazzaro (0.5)

Tigers

0.8

Brad Penny (0.8)

Yankees

0.6

Freddy Garcia (0.6), Bartolo Colon (0.0)

One could be forgiven for suggesting that such projections are taking this hope-springs-eternal bit to the extreme, given that the four pitchers representing the top three teams in the above table threw all of 120 innings last year and 242 the year before while battling major maladies—yet they're collectively forecast for 445 innings in 2011 via our depth charts. If Chien-Ming Wang's projected 65 innings had me ready to bet on the higher likelihood of the Easter Bunny showing up with two plus pitches, the above collectively suggests a wiser wager to be made on Santa Claus, the Loch Ness Monster, Sasquatch, and the Tooth Fairy pitching the Royals into the World Series, the efforts of Francis and Mazzaro notwithstanding.

Having delved into PECOTA's view of the best Terrific Tandems, Big Threes, Front Fours, Fab Fives, and Six-Packs to be found among NL rotations last time around, today we dig deep into the AL. For this, I took into consideration the weighted mean forecasts for each team's top six starters, since in many cases an alternate with fewer innings—a swingman, mid-season callup, or late-healing frontliner—projects to be more valuable than a pitcher with a higher innings total. As noted last time around, it's important to remember that the PECOTA in our depth charts differs slightly from what's in the downloadable spreadsheet, since once we assign playing time estimates, the league's expected run environment changes, and with it, the replacement level for pitchers and hitters.

To avoid repeating myself, 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

Red Sox

7.4

9.9

12.2

14.0

14.1

2

Angels

8.6

10.5

12.3

13.4

13.6

3

White Sox

7.0

9.2

10.9

12.2

12.2

4

A's

5.2

7.7

9.8

11.1

12.1

5

Rays

6.3

8.4

10.4

11.9

11.9

6

Yankees

9.1

10.6

11.2

11.6

11.7

7

Tigers

8.0

9.5

10.9

11.7

10.9

8

Rangers

7.1

9.1

10.4

10.9

10.7

9

Twins

5.4

7.5

9.1

10.0

10.5

10

Mariners

7.3

8.7

9.4

9.9

9.4

11

Orioles

4.5

6.2

7.4

7.8

8.1

12

Blue Jays

3.6

4.5

5.0

5.4

5.7

13

Indians

2.9

3.6

4.2

4.7

4.7

14

Royals

2.0

2.6

3.2

3.7

3.4

Terrific Tandems: Unlike the NL, there's no runaway winner in this category, with the top four teams separated by about a half-win apiece, and teams four through seven separated by less than a half-win combined. Even given their failure to sign Lee, the Yankees wind up with the AL's top tandem courtesy of CC Sabathia and Phil Hughes (5.5 and 3.6 WARP, respectively), in large part because the big man owns the league's second-highest WARP forecast behind Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez.

Ranking a surprising second is the Angels' duo of Dan Haren and Jered Weaver (4.5 and 4.1), with the former about to begin his first full season with the Halos and the latter fresh off a breakout season in which he produced his best strikeout, walk and homer rates while throwing a career-high innings total. Running third is the Tigers' power duo of Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer (4.5 and 3.5), who forecast for just shy of 200 strikeouts apiece. Coming in fourth is the pair of Red Sox who finished as the league's top tandem last year, Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz (4.1 and 3.3)—even with the latter's ERA projected to rise by more than a run, from 2.33 to 3.56, due primarily to regression from a .263 BABIP. Running fifth are Hernandez and Jason Vargas (5.9 and 1.4), almost entirely on the strength of the King. The Lee-less Rangers pair, Colby Lewis and C.J. Wilson (3.6 and 3.5), ranks sixth, with a presumably healthy Jake Peavy and John Danks (4.0 and 3.0) rounding out the league's top half.

Big Threes: In the realm of potential short-series post-season rotations, the top half-dozen power trios are separated by just 1.5 WARP. The Yankees still have the barest edge despite a middling projection for A.J. Burnett (1.5) via a 4.49 ERA, with the Angels gaining ground thanks to Joel Pineiro (1.9). The Sox gain even more ground on the top spot thanks to a sanguine projection for Beckett (2.5), and the Tigers hold fourth with a Coke (Phil, 1.5) and a smile. The White Sox gain ground on most of the teams above them via Gavin Floyd (2.2), the Rangers remain in the upper half via the potentially phantom Webb 2.0, and the Mariners stay on the good side via rookie Michael Pineida (1.4), whose forecast is exceeded by only one AL freshman hurler (about which more momentarily).

Front Fours: We're into the serious stuff, the potential best-of-seven series rotations, and it's here where Yankee general manager Brian Cashman's failure to formulate a backup plan lest he miss out on Lee and lose Andy Pettitte to retirement becomes apparent, as both the Angels and Red Sox blow past. The Halos' Ervin Santana (1.8) makes for a fairly formidable fourth man, bettered only by Boston's Lackey (2.5), who makes up nearly two wins on the Pinstripes' putative fourth, Garcia (0.6). Via Rick Porcello (1.4) and Mark Buehrle (1.7), just 0.3 wins separate the Yankees, Tigers, and White Sox at this level. The Rangers lose a bit of ground on the pack above them via Derek Holland (1.3), while the Rays finally crash the upper ranks via their homegrown quartet of David Price, Jeremy Hellickson, Jeff Niemann and James Shields (3.6, 2.7, 2.1, and 2.0, respectively); that's Hellickson with the highest forecast of any AL rookie hurler.

Fab Fives: The picture shifts considerably as the rotations round out. For whatever the marks against Matsuzaka (1.8), he's the class of the league's fifth starters on paper, enabling the Red Sox to edge ahead by more than half a win over the Angels, who would gladly lock in the 4.09 ERA, 150 innings, and 1.1 WARP offered by Scott Kazmir's forecast if they could. Climbing to third via Edwin Jackson (1.3) are the Pale Hose, with the Rays' Wade Davis (1.5) and the Tigers' Penny (0.8) both helping their clubs surpass the Yankees via flat fifth man Sergio Mitre (0.4). Finally breaking into the first division here are the A's, via Dallas Braden, Trevor Cahill, Brett Anderson, Gio Gonzalez, and McCarthy (2.7, 2.5, 2.5, 2.1, 1.3). PECOTA's more impressed with their collective depth than their individual merits, and in fact the A's climb all the way into fourth via Harden's sixth-man contributions, giving them a significant leg up on the Rangers in the AL West.

So on some level, the surprise is Boston's rotation taking home the league's top honors on paper despite a lack of turnover. A closer look at the unhappy Beckett-Lackey-Matsuzaka trio reveals that much of their woes owed to bad luck on balls in play and homers per fly ball. The trio's collective peripherals were still solid enough—0.9 homers per nine, 3.5 walks per nine, and 7.3 whiffs per nine—to produce a collective 4.19 SIERA, and they're forecast for an even better 4.02 mark.

The biggest surprises among the no-shows in the table are the Twins and Blue Jays. Our forecast is only so optimistic about the much-discussed Francisco Liriano, projecting him for a 3.67 ERA over 185 innings, good for 2.9 WARP. That last ranks 15th in the league, suggesting his credentials as an ace are being overstated amid the pros and cons of trading him. Similarly, the system sees Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey, and Carl Pavano (2.5, 2.1 and 1.6 WARP, respectively) as rather middling relative to their rotation slots, and even less optimistic about Brian Duensing and Nick Blackburn (0.9 and 0.5), but then all those pitch-to-contact types aren't prone to producing eye-popping projections. What mitigates their collective projection is that they don't appear to lose a whole lot of ground to a Tigers' unit offering more firepower up front.

Meanwhile, PECOTA appears to have a real beef with the Jays, who don't project to have a single starter with an ERA below 4.04. Despite last year's dazzling double-digit K rate, Brandon Morrow projects for just 2.2 WARP, and that's the staff high; Brett Cecil's 1.4 mark doesn't seem terribly out of place, but Ricky Romero's 0.9, via 4.66 ERA across 195 innings, is rather brutal considering the advances he made during his sophomore season. Similarly, the system is only so optimistic about rookie Kyle Drabek (4.84 ERA, 0.5 WARP), and doesn't hold out a ton of hope for Marc Rzepczynski and Jesse Litsch offering much support either. If there's a rotation for which you should take the over, it's theirs.

In any event, it's not tough to see that even a moderately-sized addition or injury could upset the above order before opening day, just as Adam Wainwright's loss did in the NL. Relative to the NL, there's far less separating the best AL rotations from the middle of the pack, confirming PECOTA's suspicion that 2011's closer races will be found here.

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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