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February 4, 2013

Western Front

They Took Their Turn

by Geoff Young

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Nine teams in MLB history have had five pitchers make 30 or more starts in a season. Two of them faced each other in the 2012 NLDS. How have previous teams that accomplished this feat fared the previous and following seasons?

Good question. Let's look.

1977 Dodgers
Three-year overview

Year

GS5*

Pct*

W-L

Finished

Manager

1976

156

96.3

92-70

2nd in NL West

Walter Alston/Tommy Lasorda

1977

158

97.5

98-64

NL champions

Tommy Lasorda

1978

149

92.0

95-67

NL champions

Tommy Lasorda

*GS5 is the number of games started by the team's top five starters. Pct is GS5 divided by the total number of games played by the team (usually 162).

This was a consistent group. Alston and Lasorda used the same five guys for three straight years, with a dash of Bob Welch thrown in at the end.

Rotation

Player

GS

IP

ERA+

Don Sutton

33

240.1

121

Doug Rau

32

212.1

112

Burt Hooton

31

223.1

147

Tommy John

31

220.1

138

Rick Rhoden

31

216.1

103

Others: Bobby Castillo (1), Al Downing (1), Charlie Hough (1), Dennis Lewallyn (1)

When we think of durable rotations, John, Rau, and Rhoden don't immediately leap to mind, but there they are. John, in his second year back after undergoing the experimental surgery that now bears his name, won 20 games. Each of the others won at least 12. Hooton was low-man in that category; he also was the only one to work a game in relief, picking up a save in his lone appearance out of the bullpen. These guys not only pitched when asked, they did so effectively.

As a side note, Dusty Baker started in left field for this team. He also managed last year's Reds. It is perhaps less surprising to see Baker ride his starting pitchers hard when we consider that he spent years watching Lasorda do the same.

The 1978 Dodgers repeated as NL champs. They had four pitchers make 30 or more starts—the same guys from the year before except Rhoden, who made 23 starts (he also was the odd man out in 1976, making just 26 starts). Rookie Welch made all of the team's other 13 starts. Every member of the rotation saw his effectiveness decrease from the previous season. Hooton was terrific again, while the others (except Welch in his limited appearances) were just okay.

Everyone remembers the Dodgers infield from that era, but the same five pitchers missed just 23 starts over a three-year period. This is no small accomplishment, especially given that one of them was returning from a potentially career-ending injury.

1980 A’s
Three-year overview

Year

GS5

Pct

W-L

Finished

Manager

1979

115

71.0

54-108

7th in AL West

Jim Marshall

1980

159

98.1

83-79

2nd in AL West

Billy Martin

1981

103

94.5

64-45

Lost ALCS

Billy Martin

Martin clearly had a different philosophy than his predecessor. He achieved remarkable success with it, although at a cost. But then, pretty much everything Martin did came with a cost.

Rotation

Player

GS

IP

ERA+

Rick Langford

33

290.0

116

Mike Norris

33

284.1

149

Matt Keough

32

250.0

129

Steve McCatty

31

221.2

98

Brian Kingman

30

211.1

98

Others: Dave Hamilton (1), Bob Lacey (1), Craig Minetto (1)

Martin took a terrible team and made it his own. This is the most recent of 22 teams in MLB history to have five pitchers work 200 or more innings. Before the 1980 A's, you have to go all the way back to... well, the 1977 Dodgers. But before that, the last team to do it was the 1957 Tigers. Then six teams did it in the 1920s, five more in the 1910s, seven in the 1900s, and on back to the 1898 Reds.

A's starters pitched 94 complete games in 1980, mainly because Martin didn't trust his bullpen. Only two men made more than 20 relief appearances, and “closer” Lacey notched six saves. Langford, the most efficient member of the rotation, has expressed no regrets at being worked so hard.

Still, it is interesting to note the difference between each pitcher's performance through 1980 and their performance after:

Player

Through 1980

After 1980

GS

IP

ERA+

GS

IP

ERA+

Matt Keough

98

666.2

103

77

523.1

78

Brian Kingman

47

324.0

97

35

227.2

85

Rick Langford

118

915.2

102

78

575.1

85

Steve McCatty

56

441.2

96

105

746.2

94

Mike Norris

90

669.2

101

67

454.2

91

These guys were all between 24 and 28 years old in 1980, theoretically in their primes. Sure, McCatty won the AL ERA title in 1981, but this is not a pretty picture.

Starters accounted for nearly 86 percent of Oakland's innings, much higher than the AL average of 71 percent that year. The A's got an inning more per game out of their starters than the AL's next-most heavily-used rotation, Jim Frey's AL champion Kansas City Royals.

1993 Dodgers
Three-year overview

Year

GS5

Pct

W-L

Finished

Manager

1992

147

90.7

63-99

6th in NL West

Tommy Lasorda

1993

160

98.8

81-81

4th in NL West

Tommy Lasorda

1994

113

99.1

58-56

1st in NL West

Tommy Lasorda

Lasorda liked to ride his starters in the '70s. Nothing much had changed in the '90s except the names.

Rotation

Player

GS

IP

ERA+

Orel Hershiser

33

215.2

106

Ramón Martínez

32

211.2

111

Kevin Gross

32

202.1

111

Tom Candiotti

32

213.2

122

Pedro Astacio

31

186.1

107

Others: Pedro Martínez (2)

There goes Lasorda again. The only reason 1992's totals are so low is that the Rodney King riots forced the Dodgers to play four doubleheaders in six days. When they recalled Pedro Astacio to make a spot start in the second game on July 3 (one of the strangest games I've attended in terms of atmosphere), Astacio tossed a three-hit shutout and stayed in the rotation.

As for the 1993 Dodgers, they posted the worst regular-season record of our nine teams. This is the “Guys You Forgot Were Dodgers” team: Tim Wallach, Eric Davis, Brett Butler, Cory Snyder, Roger McDowell.

They also had a kid named Pedro Martínez who helped McDowell set up Jim Gott in the bullpen. Lasorda didn't think Martínez could handle a starter's workload (and when we consider Lasorda's definition of a starter's workload, there is a certain logic in his thinking) and shipped him to Montreal for Delino Deshields after the season.

The men in this rotation were durable in general. Astacio and Gross are card-carrying members of Innings Eaters of America. Candiotti was a knuckleballer. Hershiser wasn't the perennial Cy Young Award threat that he had been before his arm fell off in 1990 but still managed to take his turn for several more years. Similar sentiments apply to Ramón Martínez, whose younger brother's career may have been saved by Lasorda's lack of faith in him (nobody got to see what would happen if Pedro had to throw 234 1/3 innings at age 22, as Ramón did).

2003 Mariners
Three-year overview

Year

GS5

Pct

W-L

Finished

Manager

2002

131

80.9

93-69

3rd in AL West

Lou Piniella

2003

162

100.0

93-69

2nd in AL West

Bob Melvin

2004

124

76.5

63-99

4th in AL West

Bob Melvin

Our first fluke season is also the most spectacular, as Melvin's moundsmen didn't miss a start all year. His team achieved the exact same record as his predecessor's a year earlier, so getting 31 extra starts out of his main five guys didn't help much.

Rotation

Player

GS

IP

ERA+

Jamie Moyer

33

215.0

132

Freddy García

33

201.1

95

Joel Piñeiro

32

211.2

114

Gil Meche

32

186.1

94

Ryan Franklin

32

212.0

121

Others: none

This is the last team to use only five starters in a season. By comparison, last year's Padres used three times as many.

Before the 2003 Mariners, we have to go back to the days of the four-man rotation to find a team that made it through a season with only five starters. That would be the 1966 Dodgers, which featured Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Claude Osteen, Sutton, and “fifth starter” Joe Moller. They were swept by the Orioles in the World Series, in case you're wondering.

Before that? Well, there were the 1901 Washington Senators, led by Doughnut Bill Carrick; 1901 Boston Beaneaters, led by Kid Nichols; and the 1904 Boston Americans, led by 37-year-old Cy Young (Bill Dinneen was a member of both Boston rotations).

Anyway, a century later, Melvin landed his first managerial gig and stumbled into the most durable starting rotation in big-league history. Remarkable when you consider what he'd inherited.

García was a workhorse in those days, so no surprise there. And then-40-year-old Moyer, who won 20 games for the second time in his career, doesn't count because he's baseball's version of the cockroach—in a good way, of course.

But Melvin got career highs in starts and innings from Franklin, who broke 100 IP just four times in career and made a permanent move to the bullpen in 2006. Meche was returning from two shoulder surgeries that caused him to miss all of the previous two seasons. Piñeiro established career highs in starts, innings, and wins. He has made 30 or more starts in just three of his 10 full seasons.

2005 Cardinals
Three-year overview

Year

GS5

Pct

W-L

Finished

Manager

2004

154

95.1

105-57

Lost WS

Tony LaRussa

2005

160

98.8

100-62

Lost NLCS

Tony LaRussa

2006

131

80.9

83-78

Won WS

Tony LaRussa

The worst of these three teams in terms of rotation durability and wins is the one that brought home a championship. Baseball is funny that way.

Rotation

Player

GS

IP

ERA+

Chris Carpenter

33

241.2

150

Jason Marquis

32

207.0

103

Mark Mulder

32

205.0

116

Jeff Suppan

32

194.1

119

Matt Morris

31

192.2

103

Others: Cal Eldred (1), Anthony Reyes (1)

The 2005 Cardinals had the best regular-season record of teams studied. This also marked the first time in history that two teams accomplished the feat in the same season.

Two years removed from shoulder surgery, Carpenter set career highs in pretty much everything. Suppan and Morris were innings pigs by this point, with Marquis about to follow a similar path, taking over for the soon-to-be-finished Mulder (after averaging 30 starts in each of his first six seasons, he would work just 106 more innings in his career).

2005 Indians
Three-year overview

Year

GS5

Pct

W-L

Finished

Manager

2004

133

82.1

80-82

3rd in AL Central

Eric Wedge

2005

158

97.5

93-69

2nd in AL Central

Eric Wedge

2006

138

85.2

78-84

4th in AL Central

Eric Wedge

Like the 2003 Mariners, this rotation was something of a fluke. It's by far the most stable of Wedge's managerial career.

Rotation

Player

GS

IP

ERA+

Jake Westbrook

34

210.2

93

Cliff Lee

32

202.0

111

Scott Elarton

31

181.2

91

C.C. Sabathia

31

196.2

104

Kevin Millwood

30

192.0

147

Others: Jason Davis (4)

Westbrook's most similar pitcher at Baseball-Reference is Piñeiro. You know about Lee and Sabathia: both would later win the AL Cy Young Award in Cleveland before making bank elsewhere. Sabathia also is listed at 140 pounds heavier than a guy nicknamed Doughnut, which is all kinds of awesome.

Millwood won the ERA title. No, I'm not kidding; look it up. Other than that, he's exactly the kind of pitcher we'd expect to find here. He averaged 31 starts and 189 innings a year from 1998 to 2010.

The surprise is Elarton, who has made more than 25 starts in a season just three times in his career and qualified for the ERA title twice. He missed all of 2002 recovering from shoulder surgery and generally hasn't been healthy or effective since. Elarton posted a 5.41 ERA at Triple-A Lehigh Valley last season, so of course the Twins jumped all over that, signing him in December.

Like many of the other rotations we've examined so far, this one featured at least one surprise. The '77 Dodgers had John, the '03 Mariners had Meche, and the '05 Indians had Elarton. At the time, none of those pitchers would have been considered reasonable candidates to be part of anyone's durable rotation. (Though, with the benefit of hindsight, John might have qualified.)

Wedge used the same top three in 2006. Paul Byrd replaced Elarton and was essentially the same pitcher, while Jeremy Sowers and Jason Johnson split Millwood's duties but did not come close to matching his performance.

2006 White Sox
Three-year overview

Year

GS5

Pct

W-L

Finished

Manager

2005

152

93.8

99-63

Won WS

Ozzie Guillén

2006

159

98.1

90-72

3rd in AL Central

Ozzie Guillén

2007

150

92.6

72-90

4th in AL Central

Ozzie Guillén

This was a remarkable three-year run, not unlike those of the '76-'78 and '92-'94 Dodgers. Four of the five from '05 returned in '06, and four of the five from '06 did likewise in '07. The only guys outside that core were 39-year-old Orlando Hernández in 2005 and 22-year-old John Danks in 2007.

Rotation

Player

GS

IP

ERA+

Freddy García

33

216.1

105

Jon Garland

32

211.1

105

Mark Buehrle

32

204.0

95

Javier Vázquez

32

202.2

98

José Contreras

30

196.0

111

Others: Brandon McCarthy (2), Charlie Haeger (1)

García and Garland were still in their 20s, when both pitched often and well. If you ever wanted to see the definition of a pitcher aging badly, you could do worse than to look at these two.

García pitches about half as often and not as well as he once did:

Ages

GS

IP

ERA+

22-29

31

205

112

30-35

16

90

95

Garland just plain broke. He made 33 starts at age 30 and 9 at age 31. All done.

Meanwhile, 2006 is the year Buehrle stunk and folks wondered if his inability to put the ball past hitters had finally caught up to him. Nope, he just had a lousy season. Buehrle is the active leader in seasons pitching 200 or more innings, with 12 (that's more than Jim Palmer, Juan Marichal, and several other Hall of Famers). Actually, he has done it every time he has spent a full year in the big leagues. Not bad for a 38th-round pick.

Vázquez, as was his wont, ate innings. So did Contreras, who made his first and only All-Star team. This rotation, unlike some of the others here, was built to last. These guys were all durable. It's always a surprise when an entire rotation stays healthy all year, but it's somewhat less so when the big risk is Contreras than when it's Meche or Elarton.

Also, the difference between '06 and '07 is interesting. Guillén had the same core rotation, but his offense disappeared, scoring 175 fewer runs. Keeping your starting pitchers off the disabled list is a good feature of winning teams, but you can't back that with the league's worst offense and expect positive results.

Finally, you may notice that García started for the 2003 Mariners. He is the only guy to show up in two different rotations. You want him on your team. Right, Padres?

2012 Giants
Two-year overview

Year

GS5

Pct

W-L

Finished

Manager

2011

146

90.1

86-76

2nd in NL West

Bruce Bochy

2012

160

98.8

94-68

Won WS

Bruce Bochy

This is a nice start. Especially that whole winning the World Series thing.

Rotation

Player

GS

IP

ERA+

Tim Lincecum

33

186.0

67

Barry Zito

32

184.1

84

Madison Bumgarner

32

208.1

103

Matt Cain

32

219.1

125

Ryan Vogelsong

31

189.2

103

Others: Eric Hacker (1), Yusmeiro Petit (1)

Finally, we have our first World Series champions. Cain is a horse who has worked between 217 and 223 innings every year from 2008 to 2012, so no surprise there. Bumgarner broke 200 innings for the second time in his career, at age 22. Scary, right? Maybe, maybe not. Here are the 10 pitchers before Bumgarner to work at least as many innings (534) as he had by that age:

Player

IP

Felix Hernández

666.1

Jeremy Bonderman

535.0

C.C. Sabathia

588.0

Steve Avery

543.0

Dwight Gooden

924.1

Bret Saberhagen

549.0

Fernando Valenzuela

752.0

Dennis Eckersley

633.1

Frank Tanana

840.2

Bert Blyleven

1054.2

I count two guys whose careers ended prematurely (Bonderman, Avery), two Hall of Famers (Eckersley, Blyleven), and six who enjoyed—or are enjoying—fine careers.

Meanwhile, Vogelsong slipped from his surprising 2011 campaign but was still solid. The former Cy Young Award winners, Lincecum and Zito, not so much.

2012 Reds
Two-year overview

Year

GS5

Pct

W-L

Finished

Manager

2011

124

76.5

79-83

3rd in NL Central

Dusty Baker

2012

161

99.4

97-65

Lost NLDS

Dusty Baker

As noted earlier, Baker played under Lasorda, which may or may not be significant. Two other Baker-led teams just missed our list: The 2002 Giants (Jason Schmidt made 29 starts) and the 2003 Cubs (Shawn Estes made 28).

In a shade more than 3,000 career games, Baker has gotten about 83 percent of starts from his big five, although that number has fluctuated over time. From 1993 to 1997, it was 77 percent. From 1998 to 2003, 91 percent. And from 2004 to 2011, back down to around 79 percent.

Rotation

Player

GS

IP

ERA+

Johnny Cueto

33

217.0

152

Mat Latos

33

209.1

122

Homer Bailey

33

208.0

115

Bronson Arroyo

32

202.0

113

Mike Leake

30

179.0

93

Others: Todd Redmond (1)

Redmond kept the Reds from becoming the second team ever to get all 162 starts from five pitchers. He worked 3 1/3 innings in his big-league debut in the second game of a doubleheader on August 18.

Cueto exceeded his previous career high in innings pitched by 31, Latos did the same by 15, Bailey by 76, Leake by 11.

Arroyo? He does this every year; he has averaged 33 starts and 212 innings over the past eight seasons.

Ted Berg notes on Twitter that Bryan Price was the pitching coach for this team and the 2003 Mariners. Price will have his work cut out for him trying to coax 30 starts out of Aroldis Chapman.

* * *

So, what does this all look like? The last thing this article needs is another table, but here's the average three-year profile of the teams we've examined:

Year

N

GS5

Pct

W-L

≥ .500

Playoffs

WS appearances

WS championships

Season -1

9

140

86.3

83-79

5

2

2

1

Season 0

9

160

98.6

92-70

9

4

2

1

Season +1

7

130

88.0

73-74

4

3

2

1

Teams got 20 more starts out of their main five and nine more wins in the season studied than in the preceding season. The 2004 Cardinals and 2005 White Sox are the only playoff teams from Season -1. Both got more than 150 starts out of their big five, both went to the World Series. The other team to get more than 150 starts in Season -1 was the 1976 Dodgers, who won 92 games.

Season +1 includes two strike-shortened seasons (1981 A's, 1994 Dodgers). As a group these teams did much worse the year after their durable rotation season. The 1978 Dodgers made it to the World Series, while the 2006 Cardinals won it despite winning 17 fewer games during the regular season.

What does all of this mean for the Giants and Reds? There aren't a lot of teams to study, but we can make a few observations:

  • They will probably get fewer starts out of their big five (only the '93 Dodgers saw their percentage rise the following year, and they benefited from a shortened season).
  • They will probably win fewer games (only teams affected by work stoppages saw their winning percentage increase, and only by a little; several teams were much worse).
  • There's a decent chance they'll make the playoffs anyway.
  • One of them should trade for Freddy García.

4 comments have been left for this article.

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