Thursday, January 12, 2012

1st to 5th, They All Matter

Paul Maholm, Jake Westbrook, Chris Narveson, and Barry Zito.  What do all of these seemingly random names have in common?  They would all be considered the 5th starters for their respective teams heading into in the 2012 season.  This begs another question: Why should we care about these back end of the rotation starters.  These are players relegated to mediocrity, seldom spoken of, and often forgotten.  Here lies the rub (no I'm not a Shakespeare major, but who wouldn't use the word rub).  Each of these pitchers will start just as many games as their number one counterparts.  In other words, Barry Zito, pending injury, will start in about 33 games, the same number as ace Tim Lincecum. 

All general managers need 5 starting pitchers and although the better ones come first, each starter has the same potential to influence their team.  Since 3 of the names mentioned above call the NL Central home let's focus on the middle division of the senior circuit.  As a refresher, the teams, for now, include the World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals, the 2012 NL Central winning Milwaukee Brewers, the Chicago Cubs, Pittsburgh Pirates, and Houston Astros. 

2012 Team Player Age Season WAR FIP K/9 HR/FB GB%
Cubs Maholm 29 7th 2.1 3.78 5.38 7.50% 49.90%
Cardinals Westbrook 34 11th 1.1 4.25 5.11 11.40% 59.30%
Astros Happ 29 4th 0.3 4.69 7.71 10.20% 33.00%
Brewers Narveson 30 4th 1.5 4.06 7.01 9.60% 42.30%
Pirates Bedard 32 8th 2.4 3.64 8.7 10.20% 42.00%
Reds Mike Leake 24 2nd 1.5 4.22 6.33 13.90% 47.70%

The above chart shows a few important statistics and other information concerning these players' 2011 seasons.  In looking for patterns we can rule out experience because although all are veterans, some much more than others.  Their ages all seem similar with Jake Westbrook the outlier at age 34.  Other than age, these pitchers all display an interesting characteristic of 5th starters (at least in the NL central).  That is that none of these players would be considered strikeout pitchers.  In fact, 2 out of 5 are ground ball pitchers, namely Westrbook and Maholm.  Eric Bedard's 8.7 K/9 shows a pitcher who still gets a good mix of swings-and-misses as well as called strikes.  Interestingly, but not necessarily connected, Bedard also garnered the highest WAR last season. 

So, it seems as though in this division the Cubs, who are rebuilding, and the Pirates, who look to improve upon 2011 but most likely won't win the division in 2012, have the best 5th starters.  Either the Cardinals or Reds will win the 2012 NL Central, and neither of their 5th starters could muster more than 1.5 WAR last season.  In addition, both Jake Westbrook and Mike Leake have FIP numbers over 4, which is above the league average.  FIP, or fielding independent pitching, is a good indicator of future performance but not for evaluating a single season.  One explanation for this disparity could be that both the Reds and Cardinals rely more heavily on their top-tier starters and care less about the back end of the rotation.  Another explanation could be that these teams rely more on their offenses, thus they place less importance on pitching due to their offenses' ability to neutralize a mediocre pitcher.  Both the Cardinals and Reds have dynamic offenses, something none of the other NL Central teams have, thus I would say this is the reason. 

The Cubs recently signed Maholm to a 1-year contract worth about $4.25 million.  This is not a considerably high price to pay for a ground ball pitcher who provides more than 2.0 WAR from the left side.  Why then did a contending team not pick up the under-the-radar Maholm?  Your guess is as good as mine, but since this is my blog my guess is all that matters.  My guess is that the Reds are banking on he young Leake to improve this season, and Leake, still under his rookie contract, comes at a much lower price than Maholm.  The Cardinals, who saved lots of money not signing Albert Pujols, probably should have considered Maholm.  I understand that Jake Westbrook is under contract, but Maholm is the better pitcher.  If it only costs them $4.25 million to sign Maholm for one year then as a theoretical Cardinals GM I would eat the cost of Westbrook's salary for this season, stick him in the bullpen, and sign Maholm.  He will most likely make between 25 and 32 starts this season and with the division race looking slim, even a small advantage like this could push the scale towards St. Louis. 

Finally, let's consider another idea.  Who is the best 5th starter in Major League Baseball?  I like using WAR because it is a statistic that denotes value.  According to WAR statistics, Rangers RHP Alexei Ogando is the best 5th starter in MLB.  His 3.6 WAR in 2011 is equivalent to Jaime Garcia, Gavin Floyd, and Derek Holland.  Even Phillies rookie Vance Worley(2.5) captured a higher WAR than Maholm.  The problem lies that both Ogando and Worley could be considered 4th or 5th starters on their respective teams, but in fairness because I have been using's depth charts as references I must stay consistent. 

Often times fifth starters are young pitchers getting their first chance in the big leagues, and others are fading old timers, once good, but now banished to the great hall of the pedestrian.  In the end I think there should be a quest, especially amongst contending teams, to find the best fifth starter.  All 5 guys in every rotation start almost the same number of games, and each game means just as much as the next.  Thus, why not try to get the best man for each slot.  Paul Maholm may have signed with the Cubs, and kudos to GM Jed Hoyer for stealing him from the many contenders who should have signed him.  As usual, Hoyer and the rest of the Theo Epstein bunch remain ahead of the curve, but the main message is that each player on a team matters, so choose wisely and always attempt to make the right choice.


  1. Nice article, I like the concept on focusing on the fifth starter because he is so often ignored. A few minor pet peeves with the article. I disagree with your assertion that the fifth starter will start as many games as the first starter if both are healthy. Hypothetically that would be true, but the fifth starter is the guy who is always passed over when teams have days off, or are trying to adjust their roster for an important series. They are the first person given the boot so that the better pitcher can be put on the mound more often. Also I felt if you are going to talk about who is the best fifth starter, you need to gauge it on who you think will be best next year and not the previous year.

  2. You're right the other thing is 4th and 5th caliber starters usually don't pitch as many innings overall as top tier guys. That's due to them not being good enough to stay in as long and managers not having as much confidence in them. I considered many of these factors and thought that hypothetically going into any given game you have to assume that your starter can and will go the distance, but i know that isn't incredibly realistic, it's more for statistical clarity. Thanks for your thoughts, and for posting on the blog.