Frank, you ignorant slut.
I kid, I kid (plus I love vintage SNL) – Frank’s only crime was starting a discussion on our last podcast about where Doug Fister fit into the Nationals rotation and then talk of what a great “number four” he’d be ensued. There’s my problem – Doug Fister is not a “four”. He may very well pitch fourth in the 2014 version of the Washington Nationals rotation, but he’s a helluva lot better than a “number four”. So what makes a “number one” a number one and and “number two” a number two and so on and so forth? It’s all about how good a guy is and it has absolutely nothing to do with his teammates or what day he pitches on. The numbers we call pitchers are only about how good there are, or at least they should be.
John Sickels of Baseball America gives a great breakdown for what scouts mean when they talk about a prospect’s ceiling when they say he could be Three or what-have-you here. The definitions obviously will never exactly match up, but the big takeaway is that the definition of a starter is all about quality, not sequence. I then took a quick look at the leaderboard for starting pitchers over at Fangraphs over the last two years. Using WAR for pitchers can be misleading for some guys, but I like in this instance for a number of reasons. It uses FIP instead of xFIP meaning that it uses actual home run rates instead of normalizing them and it puts an emphasis on innings pitched, thus it’s a good measure of the production a pitcher brought to his team. My hope when I began looking into this was that clear tiers of pitchers be obvious. The first thing that jumped out at me was that only 71 starting pitchers pitched enough innings (an inning per team’s games played) to qualify for postseason awards – around 350 innings. Considering that there are 150 rotation slots, the fact that over half were filled by relative part timers is enlightening. So then I took at look at just last season and again, only 79 guys qualified. So I dropped the innings limit to 300 for 2 years and 150 for 1 year – the basic minimum for a contributing starting pitcher. That search netted 79 pitchers over 2 years and 91 last year. The last guy on the list each time I do one seems to end up around 0.4 WAR, so this seems to be the floor for full time starters. Finally, I’m just going to look at last year and I also want to see who the top 150 starting pitchers were, so I’m going to reduce the minimum innings down to 80 so that 151 guys pop up. The last guy on the list is old friend, Jason Marquis, with a less than impressive -1.6 WAR* and 117-2/3rds innings pitched.
Game Off: *Marquis is exactly the type of pitcher WAR “hates”. His ERA was 1.50 points lower than his FIP because FIP emphasizes things pitcher control like strikeouts and walks, although I’ll let Frank explain all that in the upcoming WAR series (he’s not really an ignorant slut after all, quite the contrary). Marquis is terrible at those things but he has an above average LOB% and a below average BABIP against. P2K people like me are fine using WAR because we believe putting the ball in play more leads to more unearned runs which hurt the team – strikeouts limit the chances for bad things to happen, thus they are awesome. P2C people argue that WAR does not adequately give credit for things like holding runners or producing weak contact which leads to consistently low BABIPs against and they are right to point these things out. WAR hurts P2C guys but P2C guys play with fire so let’s agree to disagree and just say Jason Marquis is not a great pitcher, although he may not be the worst qualifying pitcher in the league – as WAR suggests. Okay, Game On:
The top guy was Clayton Kershaw with 6.5 WAR and 236 innings pitched. I think we safely say WAR got it right this time. Here is the breakdown for the number of pitchers by round numbers of WAR:
6 pitchers with 6.0 WAR or greater
4 pitchers between 5.0 and 5.9 WAR
11 pitchers between 4.0 and 4.9 WAR
20 pitchers between 3.0 and 3.9 WAR
25 pitchers between 2.0 and 2.9 WAR
50 pitchers between 1.0 and 1.9 WAR
24 pitchers between 0.0 and 0.9 WAR
6 pitchers below -0.1 WAR
The median pitcher is just under 2.0 WAR and per John Sickels definition, “A guy to soak up innings, but who isn’t as good or consistent or durable as a solid Three,” is a No. 4 pitcher so let’s use 2.0 WAR as our ceiling for a Four. The lowest WAR of a qualified pitcher is Edinson Volquez’s 0.4 WAR. It’s not surprising that all of the replacement level or below pitchers failed to qualify since they’re, well, replaceable. You’ve got to be good enough to stay on the field, which is the basic function of a Four, and not much else. So let’s say that everyone between 0.4 and 2.0 WAR is a Four and everyone below 0.4 WAR is a Five. To be a No. 3, you’ve got to pitch a lot but also provide above average quality, which starts at about 2.0 WAR. There are 41 pitchers with over 3.0 WAR, but only 28 over 3.5, and since we’re dealing with tiers, let’s bump up our ceiling for Three’s up to 3.5. Twos are borderline aces – guys that either have everything it takes to be a One but lack consistency or are just a tick below the best talent-wise. These guys start on Opening Days, they pitch big games and can often be confused for Ones. But Ones are also called Aces because they’re stars. There are only a handful of them at a time and not everybody has one – not even close. The Nats don’t have one, not yet at least. All the guys over 6.0 WAR are definite Ones, and perhaps the guys over 5.0 are too. The guys between 5 and 6 WAR are named Verlander, Lee, Sale and Darvish, respectively. And since only 6 pitchers have put 10.0 WAR or more over the last two years, I think 5.0 WAR a season is great benchmark for an Ace, aka a One, although true Aces are able to put up big numbers year in and year out.
Let’s update our breakdown of last year’s pitchers, now with our tiers:
Ones (5.0 WAR and up) – 10 pitchers from Clayton Kershaw to Yu Darvish
Twos (4.9 – 3.5 WAR) – 18 pitchers from Derek Holland to Jordan Zimmermann
Threes (3.4 – 2.0 WAR) – 29 pitchers from Mike Minor to RA Dickey
Fours (1.9 – 0.4 WAR) – 65 pitchers from Henderson Alvarez to Roberto Hernandez
Fives (0.3 WAR and below) – everybody else
Now let’s look at the Nationals rotation. Below is a list of the top seven Nats pitchers with their WAR from last year followed by their average WAR over the last two years.
Fister, 4.6 WAR (4.05)
Zimmermann, 3.6 WAR (2.95)
Strasburg, 3.3 WAR (3.65)
Gonzalez, 3.1 WAR (4.05)
Roark, 1.4 WAR (1.4)
Detwiler, 0.9 WAR (1.25)
Jordan, 0.7 WAR (0.7)
Last year new-comer, Doug Fister, had a better season than any Nat. In fact, he’s tied with Gio in WAR over the last two years (8.1) and leads over three years (13.3 to Gio’s 11.4). I told you Fister wasn’t a Four. He’s a solid Two, and has been over the last three years. The other Nats pitchers have been up and down but you can see that Zimmermann, Strasburg and Gio have all oscillated between No. 2 and 3 status – with Gio pitching like an Ace in 2012 by putting up 5.1 WAR. Strasburg just missed our cutoff for Twos last year due to the time he missed on the DL but of everyone on the team, he’s the one that best matches Sickel’s definition of a One because he has three plus pitches. He needs to improve on his consistency and command before he makes the step forward. His 2.6 BB/9 over the last two years is only ahead of only Gio of the seven guys on listed above. Zimmermann is borderline No. 2, but unlike Stras, his skill-set is not as highly valued so the argument could be made that he’s a bit better than a 3.0 WAR pitcher. If we go back three years on him, he averages 3.4 WAR so he’s definitely close to being a Two by any definition. So the Nats have four guys that could be Twos before getting to the last spot in their rotation. This is the kind of staff the Nats envisioned for 2012 when they added Edwin Jackson to what seemed like a full rotation. The Nats starters tallied 16.7 WAR that season, making them the 3rd best rotation in baseball. That total dropped to 13.4 in 2013, 8th best. The drop can’t all be blamed on Dan Haren either. He was only -0.7 WAR worse than Jackson the year before. The big drop off came from the top two as Gio and Strasburg accounted for 9.2 WAR in ‘12 but only 6.3 WAR in ‘13. Good is not great, and good was not good enough for the playoffs last year. Much has been (rightfully) made of the bench’s problems, but the starting rotation holds it’s share of the blame if we’re looking for units that did not match the previous year’s production. You can’t expect Gio and Stas to carry the load every year though, which is why Rizzo went out and brought in Fister. Adding Fister gives the Nats another top-of-the-rotation (a One or a Two) pitcher to share the load. In addition to solidifying another rotation spot, Fister leaves only one spot for a league average pitcher (for now). If you take the two year averages of the top four pitchers and then assume whoever fills in the last spot can at least match Haren’s 1.5 WAR, the Nats are looking at over 16 WAR for the rotation, which puts them back in the neighborhood of the 2012 staff.
But why stop there? The last rotation spot is one of the few open jobs for the Nats, in addition to a bulllpen spot a couple of bench roles. But that rotation spot can make a far greater impact than the seventh man in the ‘pen or the last man on the bench. The Nats have plenty of guys capable of filling that slot and even surpassing Haren’s 2013 production – lead by Detwiler – but filling the spot and excelling in the spot are two different things. The rotation Fister just left accumulated 25.3 WAR last year – over 9 WAR better than the 2nd place Rangers and almost double that of the Nats(!). Put simply, the best rotation in baseball was almost twice as good as the Nats. For a team whose strength is supposed to be the starting pitching, that’s not good enough.
There are still a couple of options that would represent a clear upgrade over the in-house candidates (who are all Fours or Fives) for the final spot. AJ Burnett was thought to be considering between the Pirates and retirement, but rumors of him flirting with the Orioles surfaced last week. If he is indeed exploring other teams (and not just using them to negotiate a better deal with Pittsburgh), the Nats should try to lure him to Southeast. He would be more expensive than Jackson or Haren were, but he’s been a lot better pitcher recently. Since moving back to the NL, Burnett has gone back to being a groundball pitcher. He topped 56.5% for his groundball rate both seasons in Pittsburgh after never breaking 50% with the Yankees. His 4.0 WAR last year also topped everyone on the Nats staff. Homer Bailey would also be great trade target if the Reds don’t think they can extend him. He increased his velocity while maintaining his walk rate and was thus able to increase his strikeout rate. He also pitched over 200 innings for the 2nd straight year on his way to posting a career best 3.7 WAR – again, better than any Nat. Finally, the world should find out soon if Masahiro Tanaka will be posted this year. Scouts project him as Two or Three, which would be around 3-4 WAR a season. Signing him to a 5 or 6 year deal would ensure another top arm will be part of the rotation for years to come and gives the team options when negotiating long-term deals with Zimmermann and/or Fister. Natstradamus predicted Tanaka will be similar to Zimmermann on our last podcast, so that’s good enough for me. He’d be, by far, the most expensive but he’s young, durable, and would probably pay for himself with new marketing opportunities alone. I argued in my last post that the Nats can afford to add another $20M a year for the next few years and still stay under the luxury tax. Couple that with the new report that Major League Baseball made over $8 billion – yes billion – last year, money should be no object for a contending team.
I fully expect one, hopefully two, Nationals starting pitchers to surpass 3.5 WAR next year, but adding a fifth guy capable of reaching that mark certainly increases the odds, while leaving no room for a league average pitcher. It would also push Detwiler to the bullpen where he would replace somebody worse, thus strengthening both units. The window for Winning-It-All won’t be open long and going all-in on yet another starting pitcher would improve the team far more than all the other potential roster moves combined. Just because a team has five rotation spots doesn’t mean they should fill them for Fours and Fives. Stocking a rotation full of Twos and Threes is the way to win pennants and it’s the way to win in the postseason. “You can never have enough pitching” is a baseball axiom for a reason – it’s as true today as it ever was.
With only a few open spots left on the 2014 Washington Nationals, the final (not fifth) starter is the only place where a big upgrade is possible. The Nats might have the best rotation already, but there’s always room for improvement as long as a rotation spot is up for grabs. Don’t get me wrong – I hope the Nats fill every remaining roster spot with the best player they can find. I just hope they don’t consider the final rotation spot already filled.