This week, position players join pitchers and catchers at spring training. For those who travel to Florida or Arizona to cover the teams, reporting on the same story lines can grow tiresome. For others, enjoying watching the same story lines pop up again and again is half the fun.

One traditional source of March copy has been position battles. Teams, wisely or not, sometimes view spring training as a sort of tryout, and so beat writers can craft a narrative around Player A vs. Player B, while maintaining that both players simply want what’s best for the team. Later in the spring, players will battle for the last roster spots-which is a battle with serious implications for the players and their careers. But this early in spring training, the dominant story lines are about rotation spots, particularly the fifth starter’s job. Aside from their dramatic value, do such battles have any significance?

Camptown Racetracks Five Weeks Long, Oh, Doo Dah Day

Let’s start with one of 2010’s battles for a fifth starter job. The most notable is being waged in Tampa between Yankees rotation candidates Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes. Both were highly touted starting pitching prospects in the minor leagues, but each has experienced setbacks at the major-league level. Chamberlain, saddled with the unfortunate (and inaccurate) perception that he is more valuable as a reliever, must battle the “B-Jobbers” in addition to Hughes. Hughes, on the other hand, is likely subject to an innings limit and was also effective as a reliever last year (his 3.84 WXRL ranked 14th in the majors last year). This sounds like a perfect battle between worthy adversaries, doesn’t it?

The world champs aren’t the only ones having trouble identifying their fifth starter. The NL champion Phillies, too, do not yet have a clear fifth starter. The primary battle is between the 47-year-old [sic] Jamie Moyer (4.65 SIERA last year) and the newly hirsute Kyle Kendrick (3.34 ERA at Triple-A in ’09). This one’s got built-in archetypes, as the aged veteran attempts to return from multiple off-season surgeries to battle the uneven youngster one last time.

Perhaps slightly less compelling is the battle in Bradenton, Florida. Pirates pitchers Daniel McCutchen (4.94 SIERA in 36 1/3 major-league innings) and Kevin Hart (5.19 SIERA in 81 innings) match up in a battle of young but not particularly promising arms. Though a recent AP report gives Hart the edge in the battle, Raise The Jolly Roger thinks McCutchen is the clear choice. Will the Pirates, who traded for Hart from the Cubs last year, forego a chance to look smart?

Is This Going to be on the Exam?

A more basic question we could ask about all of these battles is whether the ostensible winner will end up pitching more than the loser. Put slightly differently, what difference is there between the pitcher who pitches the fifth-most starts on a team and the pitcher who pitches the sixth-most starts? After all, most teams don’t even need a fifth starter until a few weeks into the season, and use every opportunity they get to skip the weakest link. On the other hand, pitcher injuries are all too frequent. Combined with trades, injuries mean that there is a good bit of rotation in the, er, staff. Of course, you want numbers, and who am I to get off on being withholding?

I ranked each team’s pitchers by games started in 2009. I then took the fifth- and sixth-ranked pitchers on this score and subtracted the number of starts for the sixth man from the number of starts for the fifth man. No team’s sixth starter started fewer than six games (Brad Penny and Ryan Sadowski for the Giants both did). No team’s fifth starter started more than 26 games (Rich Harden of the Cubs). On average, fifth starters took the ball just over 16 times, while sixth starters averaged just less than 12 starts. That’s a very small margin given the importance attached to spring battles. Here’s the full list:

Team      5th Man     5 GS  6th Man       6 GS  Delta
Braves    T. Hanson    21   T. Hudson      7      14
Dodgers   E. Stults    10   V. Padilla     7       3
                             J. Weaver     7
Giants    R. Johnson   17   B. Penny       6      11
                             R. Sadowski   6
Cardinals Wellemeyer   21   M. Boggs       9      12
Cubs      R. Harden    26   S. Marshall    9      17
Mariners  J. Vargas    14   I. Snell      12       2
White Sox C. Richard   14   B. Colon      12       2
Phillies  C. Lee       12   B. Myers      10       2
Tigers    J. Washburn   8   D. Willis      7       1
D'backs   Y. Petit     17   B. Buckner    13       4
Angels    M. Palmer    13   S. O'Sullivan 10       3
Yankees   S. Mitre      9   C. Wang        9       0
Reds      H. Bailey    11   J. Lehr       11       0
Rays      Sonnanstine  22   S. Kazmir     20       2
Marlins   A. Sanchez   16   A. Miller     14       2
Pirates   I. Snell     15   J. Karstens   13       2
Rangers   V. Padilla   18   B. McCarthy   17       1
Red Sox   C. Buchholz  16   D. Matsuzaka  12       4
Indians   C. Pavano    21   A. Laffey     19       2
Blue Jays B. Cecil     17   Rzepczynski   11       6
Royals    K. Davies    22   B. Chen        9      13
                             S. Ponson     9
Athletics G. Gonzalez  17   J. Outman     12       5
           V. Mazzaro  17
Mets      J. Maine     15   O. Perez      14       1
Padres    C. Young     14   J. Peavy      13       1
           T. Stauffer 14
Astros    F. Paulino   17   R. Ortiz      13       4
Twins     K. Slowey    16   C. Pavano     12       4
Nationals G. Mock      15   ---           --       0
           S. Martis   15
           J. Martin   15
Orioles   R. Hill      13   K. Uehara     12       1
                            C. Tillman    12
Brewers   D. Bush      21   M. Burns       8      13

One thought you might have is that better teams tend to have less turnover in their rotation. But a quick regression of the delta term against team wins revealed a very low correlation (r-squared = .005). More significant, however, was the correlation between team-wide starters’ ERA (r-squared = .14). This suggests that perhaps some of the explanation for why a fifth starter might get more starts than the sixth starter is due to the overall quality of the team’s starters. However, the low correlation also points out the essential randomness of the baseball season. The excellent Braves (3.52 starters’ ERA in ’09) got just seven starts from their No. 6 (Hudson), but the nearly as good Dodgers (3.52) got just three more starts from their No. 5 than from their No. 6. At the other end of the spectrum, the poor Brewers squeezed a 5.37 ERA out of their starters and yet their fifth starter (Dave Bush) took the ball 21 times.

Question of the Day

Certainly, there are better ways of measuring which is the fifth and which is the sixth starter than mere games started. But does this simple method show that, over the course of the season, even the guys who lose out on the fifth starter’s job can still expect to start at least 7-10 games per year? Is there a psychic significance to making the rotation out of spring training I am overlooking? How about an economic difference?