January 25, 2006
One of baseball's great cliches is that you can't have enough pitching. One of the reasons for this is that the pitchers you start out with rarely, as a group, carry the load the entire length of the season. In 2005, the five most-active starters on each team averaged about 136 games initiated. The majority of teams had to come up with at least 20 starts from somebody other than these five pitchers.
Once spring training opens you are going to hear and read a lot about pitchers trying to win the number five slot in the rotation. It's really much ado about nothing since, as we'll see below, the fifth most-active pitcher on major league teams in 2005 averaged just 18.6 starts. That's not fifth starters, that's fifth most-active. After a certain point in the season, a pitcher's placement in the rotation becomes lost in the soup. It doesn't begin to matter again until the playoffs start.
What follows is a breakdown of the activities of the men ranked one-through-six in the number of games started for each team.
At this point, 35 appears to be about the most number of games we can expect from a starter. Given a strict, five-man rotation, the number one man is going to get 33 chances to start. Factor in the practice of going with four men in the early going to take advantage of the increased number of off-days in April and two extra starts is about the most we can expect a number one or two man can get.
I think most of us are under the impression that pitchers used to start more games than they do now. To some extent, that is true, but mostly in comparison to the madness of the early '70s. League leaders in other periods are only about 10 percent higher than those of today. For instance, nobody started more than 38 games from the years 1924 to 1937. From 1947 to 1961, only two pitchers broke 40 (Robin Roberts with 41 in 1953 and Bob Friend with 42 three years later.) Of course, some of this has to do with the 154-game schedule. Where pitchers got in their extra work compared to those of today was on the back end of a game, not the front. While they may have started about the same number of games, they were expected to last longer in them. It wasn't until the '60s that the league leaders regularly reached 40. This was a trend that actually lasted less than 20 years.
Here is the downward progression of the pitchers who've led the majors in games started, non-knuckleball division.
Last non-knuckleballer to start:
Charlie Hough is the last man to start 40 games, something he did in 1987. Phil Niekro began 44 in 1979 and Wilbur Wood had 48 in 1973 and 49 in 1972. They were all knuckleballers, of course. Wood's amazing workload proved to be too much even for a knucklemeister as he was done by the age of 36, a very early retirement for one of his ilk. That Lolich number in 1972 is pretty mind-blowing in that you have to pull in the Federal League--a loop with a dubious big league credential--to find a higher figure anywhere within 60 years. (According to research in The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers, Davenport was a big ol' boy who threw very hard.)
On the lower end, this is the first time in the millennium that no team had its leader come in below 30 starts. Even the Reds managed to find somebody to start 30 games for them, something they did not have the previous two years. These are the clubs who haven't had a 30-game starter since 2001 and their won-loss records:
2004: Cincinnati (76-86)
It's pretty much the kiss of death to go this route but if you don't want it to be, be sure to have Barry Bonds on hand with a 112.6 VORP like the Giants did in 2003.
Getting two pitchers to 35 starts like the Brewers did in 2005 is pretty rare. (If they can repeat the feat and a revived Ben Sheets shows up for duty, the Brewers might be on to something for '06.) The Diamondbacks had two at 35 in 2004 as did the A's in 2001. The Braves had three in 2000 and in 1996. They had four in 1993 and two in 1992 and three in 1991. The Orioles had two in 1992 as did the A's in 1991. That's just 10 times in the last 15 years mostly by pretty good teams. The exception is the '04 Snakes. Imagine how insanely bad they would have been without Randy Johnson and Brandon Webb starting 70 games, though.
Colorado's drop from first to second is nothing like that of Montreal in 2004 (19 games started) or Kansas City in 2003 (18). Ironically, that was the Royals' best year of the last decade.
I would have to think that not many teams in history won as many games as the Yankees did piecing together a rotation week in and week out the way they had to. Dropping off to 17 starts from your third most-active starter is a pretty big burden to overcome. Consider that Texas was next-lowest with 20 and then came Colorado with 22. Compare their records with the Yankees for an indication of what New York achieved with such adversity. (Don't compare their lineups, though, because that would take the fun out of it.) Of course, the Yankees brought it upon themselves by relying on the old and the dubious coming out of the gate. In the end, they got only got 111 starts from their five most-active starters, second-worst in the majors.
This list will not surprise you.
Most starts by five most-active starters:
160: St. Louis
It's also not really surprising that the Rangers have turned over their entire starting rotation--though the Chris Young trade was a bit of a surprise. The Rangers got the fewest starts out of their five most-active starters (105) and are to be commended for attacking a very obvious problem.
Four of the top six teams made the playoffs and one of them, Cleveland, should have. Bad pitchers are not long for rotations unless a team can either afford to carry one bad apple, has no other choices or simply doesn't know any better. (For instance, Jose Lima got 32 starts for Kansas City last year.) It would be pretty shocking to see a very bad team trotting out the same five guys for 150-plus starts--just as it was shocking to see the Yankees succeeding in spite of being ranked at the bottom of the heap.
Can the Cardinals pull this off again? 30 or more starts from five pitchers? With Morris gone off to San Francisco, his likely replacements are Anthony Reyes and Sidney Ponson. Reyes is 24 and has yet to have a big workload in the minors or college. This is both good and bad. It's good because it means his arm hasn't been fried, died and laid to the side. It's bad--at least as far as the chances of them having five men start 30 games again--because he might not be ready to take on that kind of load. A revived Ponson can certainly handle the work, quality not withstanding. Of course, the other four have to return to full capacity as well.
Drese had the distinction of being a problematic member of one of baseball's most problematic rotations, getting cut and then picked up to shore up the most problematic back end of another team's rotation. Given his negative VORP with Washington, he didn't really succeed.
Arizona ranked 15th in games started by their five most-active. They jumped into a tie for fifth in games started by the six most-active. The upside of this is that they only had to assign six games to spotters, call-ups, journeymen, road apples and lie-abouts.