February 7, 2006
Can Of Corn
Before I dive in, I'd like to self-servingly bellow from the rooftops that my new book, Winners: How Good Baseball Teams Become Great Ones (And It's Not the Way You Think), ships soon from Amazon.com.
Winners is both narrative and numbers, and it examines the stuff of winning baseball over the last 25 years. What do winning teams have in common? What do they do well, and what do they not do well? How are they assembled? Young or old? Cheap or expensive? Pitching and defense or hitting? Power or small ball? All these questions are answered in a lively manner. Winners also tells stories: the stories of the great teams, great players and even great trades of the modern era. Numbers are crunched, yarns are spun and jokes are made. So, in the words of the inestimable Video Professor, "try my product."
Plug over, moving on …
Going into the 2006 season, the A's, Cardinals, Red Sox, White Sox, Yankees all have at least a couple of things in common.
One, they're all notional contenders, and two, they all have at least six starters in the fold. In the rather conspicuous cases of the Red Sox and White Sox this has led to speculation and rumor-mongering as to when they're going to get around to dealing away one of those surplus starters. The A's could use a lefty stick on the bench, and the Yankees could use, well, any sort of bench at all. Otherwise, however, these are teams without urgent needs. Still, the idea of having a surfeit of starting pitchers is a bit troubling to those of us who ruminate on such matters. It shouldn't be.
Last season, six of the eight teams to make the post-season had at least six starters make 10 or more starts during the regular season. One team, the Yankees, had eight starters make at least 10 or more starts and another, Aaron Small, make nine on the year. And it's not an aberration.
Since 1982, 67.6% of teams have had six or more starters make at least 10 starts in a given season (data curtsey: James Click). Of course, with all teams in the mix there's the chance that prevailing lousiness is partly the cause. After all, the Royals and their unfortunate ilk aren't likely to make it a full 162 with a tidy rotation of five.
So if we limit the study population to teams that won 90 games or more during the season in question, we get this: 57.8% had six or more pitchers make at least 10 starts. The percentage declines, but it's still a healthy majority. Since 1982, there have been 147 teams to win at least 90 games. Here's how their rotation "division of labor" breaks down (gracias to Clay Davenport for the heavy lifting on these):
As you can see, even very good teams are more likely to use six starters on a semi-regular basis than they are the traditional five. So history suggests that not only is there nothing wrong with breaking camp with more than five starters, but it's also the optimal arrangement.
The ideal scenario is perhaps the one enjoyed by the White Sox. Chicago has five very good to solid starters with a highly capable swing man (Brandon McCarthy) who's either willing to fill any role or too short on tenure to do much kvetching about it. Manager Ozzie Guillen can use McCarthy as a high-leverage middle reliever until he's needed as a spot starter. If someone in the rotation goes down for an extended period of time, McCarthy can step in without any measurable drop-off.
In the Cardinals' case, they have five starters who are at least capable. However, fifth man Anthony Reyes, as promising as he may be, has a fairly grim injury history. Enter Sidney Ponson. Ponson is neither a particularly solid citizen nor a good pitcher, but there are other factors to be considered. First, he's stated he's perfectly willing to work out of the bullpen. Second, he's just the sort of pitcher (veteran with a middling record of performance) who tends to thrive under pitching coach Dave Duncan. So St. Louis is in straits similar to those of the White Sox, with the difference being that their fallback hurler isn't as nifty.
The A's and Yankees have similar arrangements (lots of arms, at least a couple of them willing to bullpen it), but the Red Sox may have trickier shoals to navigate. Three of their six starters (Josh Beckett, Curt Schilling and David Wells) have significant health and/or age issues, so it's highly likely that Boston will need to leverage its rotation depth at some point during the season. Getting someone to accept bullpen detail until that time is the problem. Tim Wakefield has before expressed displeasure at such toggling, and Bronson Arroyo, who's made more than 60 starts over the last two seasons, might not happily accept a change in role.
Fortunately for Boston, they have a couple of promising young arms in Jon Papelbon and Jon Lester who can step into the breach if a starter is traded. On the other hand, Papelbon is needed in the suspect bullpen, and Lester, as a fly-balling lefty who hasn't pitched above Double-A, may endure a rough introduction to Fenway. So the sensible tack, in light of the rotation's undeniable health issues, is to keep all six starters and leave the tough job (deciding who to dispatch to the pen and then maintaining some semblance of pitching-staff esprit de corps) to Terry Francona. After all, that's his job.
The point is that an overflowing rotation isn't an unfortunate situation braying for remedy; it's a good thing. Teams, even very good ones, tend to use more than five starters for an extended period of time. That's something for the White Sox, Red Sox and others to keep in mind before they deal away what they believe to be a superfluous arm in the rotation.