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September 3, 2007

Lies, Damned Lies

The Contenders' Rotations

by Nate Silver

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I've done radio gigs in several different markets over the course of the past couple of weeks, and very often the first question I get asked is about the perceived inadequacy of the home team's starting rotation. Sometimes-as in the case of the Mets-the question is valid, but nobody is entirely happy with their pitching staff this time of year. Someone is always injured, or slumping. Maybe a team has a deep rotation but no ace, or maybe it's the other way around.

To help sort out the answers, I have prepared a handy guide to the starting rotations of the 16 teams that retain a tangible shot of reaching the playoffs according to the latest version of the playoff odds report. The metric I'll be using is QERA, which evaluates a pitchers performance based solely on his strikeout rate, walk rate, and groundball-to-flyball ratio, three numbers that stabilize relatively quickly, and are largely unaffected by park and league effects. For a more detailed guide to QERA, please read last year's piece on playoff hurlers.

Teams are rated according to both their September and October QERAs. "September" represents performance over the balance of the regular season, assigning full credit to the #1-4 starters, and half-credit to the #5 starter, who will get skipped as often as possible this time of year. "October" represents what happens if a team is fortunate enough to reach the playoffs, where the rotation becomes significantly more top-heavy. It assigns 31 percent of the credit to a team's #1 starter, 28 percent to the #2, 23 percent to the #3, 18 percent to the #4, and no credit at all to the #5 starter, based on an empirical accounting of how teams structure their rotations in the playoffs. I've then ranked the teams from 1 to 16 with an eye toward both September and October performance, making a few judgment calls along the way in cases where I think that QERA might not be telling the whole story.

Just a little bit more housekeeping and then we'll get underway. I have assigned a slight penalty to National League pitchers, reducing their strikeouts by five percent, which should roughly cancel the boost they get by getting to throw to the opposing pitcher (Colorado pitchers were exempted from this penalty, since that is the one park that does tangibly reduce strikeouts). Also, you will see some pitchers with an asterisk (*) next to their name, which means that their QERA incorporates minor league statistics. In these cases, I have evaluated their QERAs at the minor league level, and then added 1.25 runs to represent the rough skill difference between the majors and advanced minors. Thus, Ian Kennedy's 3.10 minor league QERA becomes a 4.35 major league QERA, or EqQERA if you prefer.

16. Rockies

Francis    3.94
Cook       4.63
Jimenez*   5.33
Fogg       5.02
Morales*   5.74
September  4.84
October    4.65

Granted, it's nearly impossible to do a quick and dirty sabermetric evaluation of a Rockies pitcher, but do you really want any of these guys but Jeff Francis pitching an important game for you in September? Josh Fogg throws about as hard as I do, Aaron Cook isn't even healthy yet, and Ubaldo Jimenez and Franklin Morales are outpitching their minor league statistics over small major league sample sizes.

15. Cardinals

Wainwright  4.36
Looper      4.76
Wells       4.68
Reyes*      4.74
Pineiro     4.35
September   4.60
October     4.61

Adam Wainwright is pitching better of late, but he's now up to 163 1/3 innings after working out of the bullpen last year, and it's hard to say whether the next tick is going to be up or down. Even if you give Wainwright credit for being a #2 starter, he's still buttressed by four guys who might generously be described as #4s.

14. Diamondbacks

Webb        3.25
Hernandez   5.70
Davis       4.86
Owings      4.65
Petit*      6.22
September   4.79
October     4.56

The D'backs have their ace at least, but you can see how much this team was counting on Randy Johnson. If Micah Owings stays hot, he and Brandon Webb working on short rest might just be enough to give a team with a good offense a fighting chance in the playoffs; unfortunately, that does not describe the Diamondbacks. I still like this team's future, but if they make it to October this year, they're going to be one of the more prohibitive underdogs in recent memory.

13. Phillies

Hamels      3.33
Moyer       4.69
Lohse       4.68
Kendrick*   5.15
Eaton       5.24
September   4.55
October     4.35

And to think we thought they had too much pitching to start the season. This rotation has a similar structure to that of the Diamondbacks (assuming that Cole Hamels can come back healthy), except that QERA thinks that the weight at the back end isn't quite as dead. As an aside, it's hard for me to fathom why Charlie Manuel hasn't put Brett Myers back into the rotation.

12. Mariners

Hernandez   3.03
Washburn    4.84
Batista     4.81
Weaver      4.69
Ramirez     5.54
September   4.48
October     4.25

We complete the triumvirate of pitching staffs with an ace but no depth; the difference here is that the Mariners never looked like they'd have any depth to begin with. When Jeff Weaver is your second best starter according to QERA, you've got issues.

11. Mets

Glavine     5.23
Perez       4.20
Hernandez   4.34
Maine       4.29
Martinez*   4.35
September   4.50
October     4.57

This rotation is getting killed by Tom Glavine's 5.23 QERA, but Glavine has always been a guy who has outpitched his peripherals. On the other hand, we're giving the Mets credit for Pedro Martinez in the #5 slot based on some very sketchy minor league data. There's a little bit more upside here than on the staffs that we've covered so far, but there's not guarantee that the Mets are going to pick the right three or four guys to be pitching in October.

10. Cubs

Zambrano   4.50
Lilly      4.06
Marquis    5.07
Hill       3.72
Marshall*  4.75
September  4.38
October    4.37

We've jumped up to another tier here, but the Cubs still have their issues. Carlos Zambrano isn't nearly as adept at generating groundballs as he once was, to the point that QERA actually thinks he's overachieved this year rather than underachieved. The Cubs are also fairly likely to give Jason Marquis priority for October starts ahead of Rich Hill, which would be devastatingly stupid.

9. Dodgers

Lowe          3.50
Penny         4.28
Billingsley   4.07
Wells         4.82
Loaiza*       5.96
September     4.37
October       4.09

You can't get much more desperate than to have to tap David Wells and Esteban Loaiza to fill out your September rotation. On the other hand, this has the potential to be a fairly strong October staff, especially if Grady Little is willing to use Lowe, Penny, and Billingsley on short rest.

8. Braves

Smoltz      3.26
Hudson      3.84
James       5.09
Carlyle*    4.32
Cormier*    5.00
September   4.22
October     4.03

Tim Hudson cannot quite be described as an ace-his rediscovered sinker has produced dramatically better groundball/flyball numbers, but his strikeout and walk rates are still very average. Nevertheless, between him and John Smoltz, this is a rotation that magically loses a lot of its issues if it can manage to advance to October.

7. Brewers

Sheets      4.00
Bush        3.91
Suppan      4.93
Gallardo*   3.84
Capuano     4.05
September   4.16
October     4.16

The principal question is whether Ned Yost can manage to deploy his pitching assets correctly. Jeff Suppan is the guy who should be missing starts when the schedule affords it, but instead the Brewers have soured on Chris Capuano, whose problems have been caused almost entirely by his .335 BABIP (the only reason Capuano gets listed at all is because Claudio Vargas just hit the DL). Ben Sheets is the other variable, since he could be anywhere from a 3.00 to a 4.50 ERA pitcher depending on how healthy his arm is. Handled properly, the rotation ought to be an asset for the Brewers.

6. Tigers

Verlander    3.77
Bonderman    3.47
Robertson    4.49
Rogers       4.63
Durbin       5.07
September    4.20
October      4.01

Jeremy Bonderman is the anti-Glavine, a pitcher who has underperformed his peripherals in almost every season of his major league career. As we commented in Baseball Prospectus 2007, much of the problem is that he tends to struggle in the first inning and against leadoff hitters, meaning that he's sort of always pitching uphill. Nevertheless, he and Justin Verlander make for one of the better 1-2 punches. If there's something to note, it's that QERA thinks the Tigers might have made a small mistake in demoting Andrew Miller (4.59 QERA).

5. Angels

Lackey     3.79
Escobar    3.85
Weaver     4.43
Saunders*  4.38
Santana*   4.56
September  4.16
October    4.06

If you want to translate QERA into everyday language, you would do fairly well with the following:


QERA             Description
3.50 or less     #1 starter
3.50-4.00        #2 starter
4.00-4.50        #3 starter
4.50-5.00        #4 starter
5.00+            #5 starter

By that reckoning, neither John Lackey nor Kelvin Escobar can quite be described as a #1 starter; Lackey's strikeout numbers have been down this year, and Escobar has been very good, but not quite as good as his peripherals. Jered Weaver, meanwhile, has his QERA undermined by his high flyball rates. It's a good pitching staff, maybe a very good pitching staff, but perhaps not one that can carry a team to a World Championship without staying hot.

4. Yankees

Wang       4.17
Pettitte   4.20
Clemens    4.05
Hughes*    3.83
Kennedy*   4.35
September  4.09
October    4.09

This is such a strange mix of talent, but the Yankees do have plenty of it, especially if you consider Joba Chamberlain (sporting an awesome 2.80 EqQERA) part of the mix. What's going to be fascinating is to see how the Yankees play their cards if they make it to October. You have the low-risk, low-reward group in Chien-Ming Wang and Andy Pettitte, and the high-risk, high-reward group in the three rookies, with Roger Clemens falling somewhere in between. If the Yankees had a worse offense, I would be agitating for some crazy things, like bumping Pettitte from the October rotation to make room for Chamberlain. But since they hit the ball so well, low-risk might be the way to go. Either way, I think the ability to make choices here is a real asset, which is why I rank the Yankees ahead of the Angels.

3. Indians

Sabathia    3.03
Carmona     3.71
Byrd        4.38
Westbrook   4.54
Laffey*     4.33
September   3.96
October     3.80

A really quiet, underrated pitching staff. C.C. Sabathia is a bona fide ace, and guys like Byrd and Westbrook are generally going to give you an even-money shot to win against playoff-caliber opponents. The one critique is that the Indians' rotation does not miss a lot of bats-they rank ninth among the 14 American League teams in strikeouts-whereas playoff conditions generally favor power pitching staffs.

2. Padres

Peavy      3.00
Young      4.20
Maddux     3.83
Germano    4.55
Cassel*    4.75
September  3.99
October    3.81

The number that stands out is Chris Young's 4.20. Although there's no doubt that Young has been fairly hit-lucky, QERA is also punishing him for his high flyball rates, something that won't be a problem so long as he starts in Petco. Kevin Towers and Bud Black ought to be smart enough to engineer the Padres' playoff rotation such that Young makes as many starts as possible at home. If they make the playoffs as the Wild Card team, for example, that means that their first two Division Series games are on the road; in that case, then it should be Peavy and Maddux making those starts. In any event, this is a good October rotation, and the Padres should probably be the money-line favorites right now to represent the NL in the World Series.

1. Red Sox

Beckett    2.98
Matzusaka  3.68
Schilling  3.90
Wakefield  4.85
Tavarez    4.54
September  3.93
October    3.72

I won't have too many complaints if Josh Beckett wins the Cy Young Award this year. He has the best QERA of any likely playoff starter in either league, although he's slightly behind Erik Bedard (2.48) and Johan Santana (2.81) among non-contenders. The Red Sox' rotation isn't entirely without risk, since you can envision scenarios where any of Beckett, Matsuzaka, and Schilling are tired or unavailable come October, but if healthy it's a tremendous group, and Tim Wakefield is an outstanding insurance policy because of his ability to pitch on any number of days of rest (like any DIPS-based metric, QERA underrates knuckleballers because they have systematically low BABIPs). The Red Sox have some real incentives to lock up their playoff spot as soon as possible, because that means they can put Beckett, Dice-K, and Schilling on a 90- or 100-pitch leash in the last couple of weeks of September.

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

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