Starting Rotations

Back in December, when Cliff Lee unexpectedly signed with the Philadelphia Phillies, the blog-o-sphere was ready to crown the club with the title of “Best Rotation in Baseball.”  And why not?  They sported three Cy Young Awards, one World Series MVP, and seventeen combined All-Star appearances between their Big 4 of Lee, Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, and Cole Hamels.

But there were reasons to question the coronation.  After all, the San Francisco Giants had just ridden an incredible two-month stretch of pitching to win the World Series, and sported a fearsome foursome of their own anchored around ace Tim Lincecum.  The Texas Rangers, too, had made it to the World Series featuring some impressive pitching, and their division-mates the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim were building an imposing rotation for themselves in Southern California.  After Oswalt went down with an injury early in the season, the title for best rotation in the majors seemed to be up for grabs.  Well here we are, roughly 140 games into the 2011 season.  How do the rotations stack up?

Due to the injury, the Phillies have only been able to get 21 starts and 125 1/3 innings out of Oswalt so far this year.  Luckily for them, rookie Vance Worley has stepped up for them big time.  In 19 starts and 113 innings pitched, Worley has a 2.95 ERA to go along with a 3.06 FIP and a 3.58 xFIP.  That works out to a 2.6 fWAR and a 2.6 rWAR,* fantastic numbers for a 4th starter.  But it’s the big 3 that really carry this rotation.  Halladay, Hamels, and Lee have combined for 19.6 fWAR and 19.1 rWAR in 638 1/3 innings, easily the highest in the league in either statistic.

*Quick explanation of the stats I’ll be using in this post: FIP stands for Fielding Independent Pitching, and is based on the discovery in 2000 by researcher Voros McCracken that a pitcher has very little influence over the ball after it has been hit.  FIP measures only the outcomes a pitcher can control: strikeouts, walks, and home runs allowed. xFIP then normalizes the home-run rate to a league average rate, based on the fact that pitchers tend not to be able to control the rate of home runs allowed per fly ball.  fWAR is Fangraphs’ version of Wins Above Replacement, and it is based on FIP.  rWAR is Baseball-Reference’s version, and is based on Runs Allowed.

Last season, the Giants’ rode some spectacular pitching to a division title on the last day of the season, and that same pitching won them the World Series a month later.  In the month of September (including 3 regular season games in October) the starters managed a 2.36 ERA.  Only the Phillies managed a mark within a half a run in that time span.  The top three of Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, and Jonathan Sanchez, sparked by the promotion of Madison Bumgarner in June, carried a mediocre offense to the sport’s highest peak.  This year, however, Sanchez has struggled.  He’s walking a batter more per 9 innings, he’s striking out fewer per nine, and his ERA is more than a run higher than it was last year.

Luckily for the Giants, Bumgarner has stepped up to fill the role of number three starter.  What he’s done this year, in his age-21 season is nothing short of special.  I’m piggy-backing on a post over at Bay City Ball, but I went to baseball-reference and entered these parameters into the play index:

Since 1961, spanning careers up to the player’s age-21 season, with IP>250 and BB/9<2.25, sorted by adjusted ERA+.

Those parameters spit out six names.  All six are players that got to the majors early, showed exceptional command, and five out of the six posted and ERA+ greater than 115.  Those five are: Mark Fidrych, Bret Saberhagen, Dave Rozema, Bert Blyleven, and Madison Bumgarner.  Not bad company, by any stretch of the imagination.

The Giants’ rotation has also been bolstered by the surprising renaissance of Ryan Vogelsong, rescued from the land of Broken Former Top Pitching Prospects.  He has come out of nowhere to become arguably the best 4th starter in baseball.  In 163 innings, he’s put up a 2.76 ERA, a 3.73 FIP, and a 3.87 xFIP, contributing 2.3 fWAR and 3.0 rWAR.

The third team in what is essentially a three team race for top rotation in the big leagues is the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, led by the best1-2 punch in baseball (according to baseball-reference) Jered Weaver and Dan Haren.  Despite a recent mini-slump, Weaver’s been amongst the best starters in the American League all season.  He’s got an 2.40 ERA, to go along with a 3.09 FIP and a 3.37 xFIP.  The large discrepancy between his xFIP and his ERA can be explained by his microscopic 5.7 HR/FB%, which is miles below the league average of roughly 10%.  His rotation mate Dan Haren is having an exceptional year as well, with a slash line of 3.08/2.88/3.26 (ERA/FIP/xFIP) and marks of 6.1 fWAR and 4.2 rWAR.  Haren is having his best season since at least 2008, and is on pace to set career lows in FIP and BB/9.

Ervin Santana has been an excellent number three starter as well, posting WAR totals of 3.5 (Fangraphs) and 3.2 (BB-Ref), but the rotation trails off significantly from there.  Tyler Chatwood has been a league-average 4th starter; not bad by any means, but you’d like better if you want to be considered the league’s best rotation.  And Joel Pinero has been a disaster in the number 5 hole, recently getting demoted from the rotation after putting up a 5.31 ERA in 103 innings.

There are two other rotations that deserve a look before deciding which rotation takes the title of best in the majors.  The Yankees have gotten some surprising support from some unexpected sources this season.  C.C. Sabathia has, of course, been a beast; he’s third in the majors in innings pitched and is second in fWAR (for pitchers).  He’s got a slash line of 2.93/2.79/2.98 (ERA/FIP/xFIP).  A.J. Burnett and Ivan Nova have been exactly as advertised: solid middle-of-the-rotation innings-eaters with pedestrian statistics.  Burnett has put up 1.4 fWAR and 0.7 rWAR so far this season; Nova, 2.2 and 2.9, respectively.  But the two big surprises have been offseason acquisitions clearly marked by the rest of the league as “has-beens.”  Freddy Garcia, age 34, put up thoroughly uninspiring numbers in Chicago last year before being picked up by the pitching-starved Yanks, and he’s been more than adequate.  He’s been good for a 3.67 ERA that’s backed up by a 4.02 FIP and a 4.29 xFIP.  All told, he’s been worth 2.1 fWAR and 2.9 rWAR.  The secret to his success has been cutting his HR/9 rate in half and bumping his K/9 rate up by nearly a whole batter.

But the real surprise, maybe the biggest in the league this season, has been the re-emergence of Bartolo Colon as a legitimate major league pitcher.  He didn’t even pitch last season after putting up terrible numbers for the White Sox in 2009.  But this season he’s done everything better.  He strikes out two and half more batters per nine, he’s walking fewer, and he’s cut his home run rate in half.  In 140 2/3 innings, he’s put up a 3.52 ERA to go along with a 3.79 FIP and a 3.49 xFIP, good for 2.5 fWAR and 2.9 rWAR.  By any measure, he’s been by far the best fifth starter in the majors this season, and one imagines that he’ll be getting ball instead of Burnett come playoff time.

The only other rotation in the majors in the conversation for the best in the league has been the Texas Rangers.  They’ve been very consistent all season, but they don’t have the stand-out stars the other rotations have.  C.J. Wilson leads the team in both fWAR and rWAR with 5.3 and 4.8, respectively.  The biggest disappointment has probably been Colby Lewis, who has a 1.6 fWAR but a very respectable 2.2 rWAR.  The whole rotation has ERAs between 3.01 and 4.29, and FIPs between 3.22 and 4.68.

Quick note: there were two other rotations that I briefly considered; the Seattle Mariners and the Chicago White Sox.  I ended up not considering them since they both just traded away key pieces of their rotations: Seattle traded their number two starter Doug Fister and the White Sox traded number three starter Edwin Jackson.

Anyway, after considering those five rotations it becomes pretty obvious which one is the best: the Philadelphia Phillies.  Their top 3 are all in the conversation for the best pitcher in the league, and number four starter Vance Worley might be the rookie of the year.  It’s hard to compete with that kind of production.  Their starters have accrued 5.4 more WAR than any other rotation, essentially equal to the production of, say, Felix Hernandez.  They’ve been better than any other rotation in the league, even if you added King Felix.  Pretty special stuff.  After that, though, ranking them becomes a bit more difficult.

Here’s where you have to take all the stats in context and make a decision for yourself.  Personally, I would rank them Phillies, Giants, Angels, Rangers, Yankees, but it’s a matter up for debate.  No matter who you believe has the best rotation in the majors, there’s no doubt that these five teams have some superior pitching that they’ll look towards to carry them into October.

All stats in this post are as of Friday, September 16th.

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