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March 14, 2014

Pebble Hunting

Sounding the Depths of Each Team's Rotation

by Sam Miller

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The problem is, people get hurt. People get hurt, you’re going to expose your lack of depth. There just is no depth. There is no number six. If Joe Blanton pitches an inning this year it will be just a catastrophe for the Angels and I don’t knowShoemaker? Is that number six? Even in my ideal world I’m trying to figure out who is number six. Matt Welch, author of the Angels chapter in this year’s annual, on Effectively Wild.

Every fan thinks his team’s closer is especially shaky, every fan thinks his team’s shortstop should win a Gold Glove, and every fan worries about his team’s starting pitching depth. The last one is with good reason: Since 2000, only 34 teams—about 1.2 per league per year—have had five pitchers make 25 or more starts each in a season. (Of those 34, about 62 percent made the playoffs.) Which means that, as shaky as your favorite team’s fifth starter is, you are overwhelmingly likely to see an extended appearance by the even-shakier sixth starter. And, as Eno Sarris wrote this week, 65 percent of teams will have two starters injured at the same time, which means you and the even-shakier seventh starter are going to be getting acquainted with each other.

The Braves have already seen this happen—fortunately (?) for them, it happened just in time to sign Ervin Santana. What happens for each team if two of its starters get injured in the first week of the season and the sixth and seventh starters are suddenly put into play? An assessment of 30 teams’ sixth and seventh starters, categorized by level of personal tribulation suffered by Frank Grimes:

Methodology: Using BP’s depth charts, and adjusting in only a couple cases to reflect current realities, I identified two pitchers most likely to be called upon in case of injury to current rotation member. Pro-rated each pitcher’s WARP over 165 innings; summed, sorted.

Grimes’ College Diploma Nearly Stolen By a Bird pitching depth
A’s (Tommy Milone, Drew Pomeranz; 2.9 WARP)
Mets (Noah Syndergaard, Rafael Montero; 2.7 WARP)
Orioles (Zach Britton, Kevin Gausman; 2.0 WARP)
Braves (Freddy Garcia, Gavin Floyd; 3.1 WARP)
Blue Jays (Drew Hutchison, Todd Redmond; 1.8 WARP)

The A’s have two starters in reserve whom PECOTA projects to be considerably more valuable than the Angels’ no. 3, 4, and 5 starters. PECOTA is cautious with Gausman, but it’s not unreasonable to speculate that he could be their best pitcher this year; it’s not inconceivable that any injury to the starting staff could, in a very simple way of doing the arithmetic, actually improve them. Given the bad news they’ve received this month, the Braves’ depth will likely be stretched beyond Garcia and Floyd, and Floyd likely won’t be available until May. However, they start with starting depth a position of strength. As with the A’s and Orioles, an injury or two (if not three) would be more inconvenience than tragedy.

Grimes Impregnates Prostitute pitching depth
Cardinals (Jaime Garcia, Carlos Martinez; 1.8 WARP)
Cubs (James McDonald, Carlos Villanueva; 1.7 WARP)
Brewers (Will Smith, Tyler Thornburg; 1.7 WARP)
Royals (Danny Duffy, Wade Davis; 1.5 WARP)

In none of these cases is the season obituary likely to lead with “Everything went downhill after injuries hit the starting rotation.” All the teams could count on reasonable, major-league quality pitching. But each would consider it a heavy inconvenience to lean on this depth, partly because the switches would cannibalize the relief corps and/or move pitchers from a role in which they have excelled into a role in which they have struggled or are unproven. Still, something good could come of it.

Grimes Injured In Silo Explosion As Teenager pitching depth
Yankees (Michael Pineda, Adam Warren; 3.8 WARP)
Mariners (Scott Baker, Blake Beavan; 1.4 WARP)
Dodgers (Chad Billingsley, Paul Maholm; 1.2 WARP)
Rangers (Colby Lewis, Joe Saunders; 0.9 WARP)

A collection of credible names, but also a collection of the sort of pitchers for whom a team goes out and acquires starting pitching depth. In other words: “Oh no! Our no. 3 starter got injured. Good thing we have Chad BillingsOhno! Our no. 3 replacement starter got injured.” The injury risk is baked into the PECOTA projections, though, and all of these teams can at least say that on paper they have starting pitching depth, so long as the need arises on a day that the depth itself is capable of arising.

Grimes Abandoned By Family at Young Age; Never Gets Proper Education pitching depth
Indians (Trevor Bauer, Josh Tomlin; 1.2 WARP)
Diamondbacks (Archie Bradley, Randall Delgado; 1.0 WARP)
Pirates (Wandy Rodriguez, Jameson Taillon; 0.8 WARP)
Rays (Alex Colome, Jake Odorizzi; 0.6 WARP)
Padres (Casey Kelly, Robbie Erlin; 0.4 WARP)

Sure, they all have replacements ready who project to be a bit better than replacement level. But a) in a lot of cases, the club would prefer the pitcher have more time to incubate at lower levels, and b) who really knows what Taillon or Bradley would do. Like Gausman, each could be the best pitcher on his staff or could get punched around, demoted, innings-limited, or operated on. There might not be any more desirable property in the game than a young ace or no. 2. A young no. 6 is scary, and complicated.

Grimes Unfairly Blamed For Destroying Wall During Act of Heroism pitching depth
Rockies (Jordan Lyles, Franklin Morales; 1.1 WARP)
Reds (Jeff Francis, David Holmberg; 0.7 WARP)
Red Sox (Chris Capuano, Brandon Workman; 0.5 WARP)

Each team made a move that creates at least the appearance of pitching depth. Each team will likely get a few quality starts out of its reserves. But there are no heroes here, just the sort of pitchers who, when October comes, get left off the roster, moved to the bullpen, or skipped so that the ace can start again on short rest.

Grimes’ Son Arrested While Trying to Avenge Him pitching depth
Giants (Yusmeiro Petit, Mike Kickham; 0.0 WARP)
Chicago White Sox (Dylan Axelrod, Andre Rienzo; 0.0 WARP)
Washington Nationals (Tanner Roark, Taylor Jordan; 0.0 WARP)
Houston Astros (Jerome Williams, Lucas Harrell; -0.6 WARP)
Minnesota Twins (Scott Diamond, Vance Worley; -0.7 WARP)

Hey, just because replacement level makes sense as a broad concept doesn’t mean that there is literally always a pitcher available who can pitch at replacement level. With the exception of Jerome Williams, these are all pitchers who were hanging around the team at the end of last season and were just lively enough to stay on a depth chart. These are pitchers who, in a lot of cases, won’t be the sixth or seventh starters come summer, once a prospect or minor-league signing has pitched well enough in the high minors to merit the first shot at a spot start. These are pitchers who, in a lot of cases, are as likely to make five starts this year for any of the other four teams as they are for the team with which they’re currently listed.

Grimes Dead of Electrocution pitching depth
Angels (Joe Blanton, Matt Shoemaker; -0.8 WARP)
Tigers (Jose Alvarez, Kyle Lobstein; -1.2 WARP)
Phillies (Jonathan Pettibone, Ethan Martin; -1.4 WARP)
Marlins (Brad Hand, Tom Koehler; -1.7 WARP)

And here we have the teams that could very easily lose a division (or, in the Marlins’ case, get the first overall pick in next year’s draft) if injuries require two starters to make 25 starts apiece. The reason I started this piece, though, was really to see whether starting pitching depth is just an illusion, whether in fact all 30 teams have something like a disaster awaiting them this year. The answer is no. I’d take Oakland’s six and seven in game four of a playoff series without too much cringing. But the gap is fairly small between even the best and the worst: Around five wins over the course of an entire season, covering two rotation spots, with nearly all teams and all no. 6 and no. 7 starters hanging around replacement level (for intuitive reasons). The teams at the upper end generally have plenty of question marks about their depth: Injury histories, youth, or the amount of damage it would do to remove these pitchers from the bullpen. Injuries won’t damage all teams’ pitching staffs equally this year, then, but they will, most likely, damage all teams’ pitching staffs.

Notes: Pitching depth charts are, of course, fluid, and while we did our best to identify numbers six and seven, the teams themselves don’t necessarily even know who those pitchers are right now. Further, depth doesn’t stop at seven. So we acknowledge the limitations here.

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

Related Content:  Starting Pitching,  Pitching Depth

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