Balanced vs Front Loaded Rotation: Which is Better?

Balanced vs Front Loaded Rotation: Which is Better?

I’m going to try and simplify the analysis in the coming set of articles. Using odd Sabermetrical stats can be useful when looking at certain sets of data – such as comparing players of different eras– but for the most part they just add a level of confusion. I certainly subscribe to the KISS principle in day-to-day life, so it’s time to start practing it here. Now that my little rant is over, let’s take care of business!

Recently, one of the esteemed co-columnists at the Mop Up Duty (Early), wrote an article on the Toronto Blue Jays off-season pitching needs. I’m not going to speak for him, so here is a little quote from the comments section of his article:

“… the article is proposing a balanced approach, riding Doc’s coattails, much like Minnesota rode Liriano’s pre-ASG and Santana post-ASG, all you need from the rest of your staff is to play average ball.”

(That reminds me, we’re getting a ton of visitors but few comments. Make your voice heard! If you think we’re on to something, let us know. If you think we’re full of crap, kindly let us know.)

Ok, so the basic assumption is this; Let Doc be Doc, have AJ produce an average AJ type year and have the rest of staff hover around .500.

Let’s look into this. We all know that Halladay is one of the best, and certainly the most under-rated pitcher in all of baseball. He should have a strong thirty or so starts like he does every year. Well, this theory is nothing new to the Blue Jays.

In the past 11 seasons, a Blue Jays pitcher has one the Cy Young award four times. Yet, in each of these seasons the Jays haven’t made the playoffs. What gives? Here’s a table that shows the record of the Cy Young award winner, the overall record of the top three starters on that seasons staff, and the combined record of the rest of the staff’s pitchers.

Year – Pitcher Record Team Record Top 3 Record Rest of Staff Record
1996 – Hentgen 20-10 74-88 44-35 30-53
1997 – Clemens 21-7 76-86 45-31 31-55
1998 – Clemens 20-6 88-74 42-26 42-48
2003 – Halladay 22-7 86-76 47-31 39-45

Ouch. I think it’s pretty easy to see the pattern here. While the top three average a winning percentage 59%, the rest of the staff has an average record of 41%! Not good, not good at all.

What does this prove? I’m not really sure. It’s certainly open to interpretation. I guess one thing that it does prove is that expecting a .500 record out of your back end starters and your bullpen is a lot to ask. The above examples support a staff that is “front-loaded”, ie made up of a few good pitchers at the top of the rotation and a number of average – below average pitchers behind them.

Now I’m sure there are better examples out there when thinking of balanced staffs, but I’m going to use teams that had a better record than the Jays in 2006. These teams made an effort to build a starting staff of at least four solid pitchers, plus a few prospects that had the chance of producing if called upon. (Just a note, I realize that a Bullpen has a large factor in a team’s Win-Loss record, and if anything, these examples are a call for a strong, balanced bullpen as well.)The first table is the combined record of the top three at the end of the season. This stat includes the year-end top three starters, including pitchers such as Wang and Verlander, etc.

Year – Team Ace Record Team Record Top 3 Record Rest of Staff Record
2006 – Tigers 17-8 95-67 48 – 25 47 – 42
2006 – White Sox 18-7 90-72 47 – 29 43-43
2006- Oakland A’s 16-10 93-69 41-35 52-34
2006- Yankees 19-6 97-65 51-24 46-41
2006- Twins 19-6 96-66 43- 18 53-48
2006 Angels 16-8 89 – 73 40-33 49-40
2006 – Jays 16-5 87-75 41-26 46-49

Here’s a table of these records using opening day pitching depth charts to determine the top three starters. This will obviously not include pitchers like Verlander, Liriano, etc, as they were not in their respective team’s top three at the beginning of the season.

Year – Team Ace Record Team Record Top 3 Record Rest of Staff Record
2006 – Tigers 17-8 95-67 44 – 29 51 – 38
2006 – White Sox 18-7 90-72 42 – 31 48-41
2006- Oakland A’s 16-10 93-69 43-31 50-38
2006 Yankees 17-11 97-65 43-25 54-39
2006 Twins 19-6 96-66 42-30 54-36
2006 Angels 13-11 89 – 73 27- 35 62-38
2006 Jays 16-5 87-75 35 – 17 52-58

As you can see, the winning percentage of the rest of a staff category increases when you look in the second table (ie Tigers 51-38 with pitchers other than the season opening top three, vs 47-42 record when adjusted for the season ending top three). This is expected of winning teams, as you hope to have some question marks step up and produce (ie Verlander). But not so fast… for some reason the Jays percentage is actually lower at the end of the season than it is at the start!

Again, these stats are open to interpretation, but I can start to see the evidence mounting. The Blue Jays have front loaded in recent history. The other teams in this example took a more balanced approach. And it didn’t always require a bunch of money either. The Yankees and Tigers had two young, farm sytems players step up (Wang & Verlander). The A’s received production from a player that was still a prospect when aquired in a trade (Haren). Now can the Jays honestly believe that Marcum or McGowan are going to have this kind of impact? I certainly don’t think so. Is a free agent arm going to solve this problem. Maybe, but maybe not.

Looking at the data, I think the answer is a balanced staff. The question is, how does this get accomplished? Discuss…

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  • Early

    I think the key here is having guys that can pitch in the ML, not Minor Leaguer after Minor Leaguers as fill in for fallen starters, Boston had the same problem as Toronto but Boston didn’t have a super stud outfront. Now, Minnesota had only 3 starters start more than 20 games, like the Jays and they got average support from little knowns like Boof Bonzer, Scott Baker, Carlos Silva, Matt Garza, Kyle Lohse, hardly all-stars but had a super solid pen with the closer going 7-0. They still depended on the ace of the staff to lead them but did they were not supported with a cast of clowns ala Jays in late 1990s. The 2006 Twins were 9-12 before Santana won a game, Liriano was 1-0 at that point. Those two went 30-6 the rest of the way, the rest of the staff went a more human 57-48 (including Nathan, Reyes, Rincon a combined 15-1). So apart from late inning heroics by the Twins and a solid bullpen, they were able to piggyback to the Wild Card. The Jays don’t have the bullpen the Twins do but I beleive they can complement thier stud pitcher with a balance between a readily available mid-rotation vet, one cheap prospect and a tweaked bullpen.

  • I don’t think you can put the season into chunks here, like the 9-12. Teams streak, what if they went 11 – 3 at the start? It’s a 162 game season. “So apart from late inning heroics by the Twins and a solid bullpen,” well, you can’t predict late inning heroics, but the solid bullpen is planned and accounted for.

    I also think that your math disproves your point. Even a “more human” 57-48 record works out to 88 wins in a season, which is spectacular when you consider it doesn’t include a staff’s top 2. The Jays would have a 76.5 win season without their top 3, using the same criteria.

    That’s the deal, these teams put themselves into a position to whether a storm if a top end starter went down.

    Bonzer+Baker+Garza (highly considered prospects) >>>> Marcum, McGowan, Janseen, etc.

    That’s not by accident either. Injuries are a part of baseball, and depth will pull you through.

  • One thing I forgot, you said;

    “I think the key here is having guys that can pitch in the ML, not Minor Leaguer after Minor Leaguers as fill in for fallen starters,”

    Last season, Garza, Baker, Liriano, Bonzer were all minor leaguers. In-fact, all but Liriano spent time in the minors in 2006.

  • Early

    I know those Twins are top prospects, much better than Marcum, McGowan etc. but they are all still prospects. The Twins prospect trio, Barker, Bonzer, Garza combined for a 15-20 record in 43 starts and an ERA in the neigbourhood of 4.75, mid you, only Baker was in the opening day rotation and was replaced by Liriano. The Jays four replacement starters of Marcum, Janssen, Taubenheim and McGowan, none of which were in the opening day rotation went 11-21 in 51 starts with an ERA around 5.25. The Twins were 9 games better than the Jays but these numbers are not uncomparable, while their prospects are better, the Twins situation after their top 2 or 3 starters seems, to me, to be a question mark. The Twins, like the Jays did not get much help from their replacement starters. They benefitted from a superior bullpen and their studs were more studlier even though they, like the Jays, had their best pitchers hurt.

  • I get your overall point. But you can’t leave out Liriano, as he was not even in the rotation at the start of the year. The Twins had 4 pitching prospects, 1 of them hit big (Liriano), 1 medium (Bonzer was $$ down the stretch), and two busts. Again, they put themselves in the position to succeed based upon their depth. The Angels had Weaver & Saunders step up; Wang, and Verlander did also. All of these players were considered top end prospects, and the Jays group is far from this level.

    I also think that, with the strength of their pen, the Twins could live with the 4.50 type ERA pitchers filling in. The Jays, on the other hand cannot, because their bullpen is not nearly as effective. I’m sure that if there was some way to run the data, you’d find far more ensured losses in the Jays pen then in the Twins.

  • Early

    I agree wholeheartedly with this. I was trying my best to turn a blind eye to the bullpen situation of all clubs, which of course, isn’t a realistic approach. I was, as I can assume you were, looking at the front 5 of the Jays and ignoring the holes in the bullpen. A’s, Twins and in the NL Padres and Mets had such strong bullpens that their front 5 didn’t need to be super studs and many times could be super mediocre or super crippled and still go to the playoffs. I think that we agree on the approach the Jays should take to making a rotation for next year. But, I like the idea of having a balanced staff, after, taking into consideration the gaudy stats an Ace like Halladay or Santana will put up. I am not sure, but are you a proponent of the A’s or Padres staff where all pitchers are equal, ie 13-10 records with 4.00 ERA?

  • Records can sometimes be deceiving. Both of those teams have an ACE (Zito, Peavy), some solid 2’s (Haren, Young) and a nice mix of solid starting pitchers behind them. I do like that kind of staff, but it can’t be created overnight. I know that I’m starting to sound like a broken record here, but most of the pitchers on those two staffs are draft picks or prospect trades. The amount of talent that both teams have aquired through these avenues has helped to provide their depth.

  • Early

    Doc is a draft pick too.

  • Not under JP’s watch.

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