For Once, Conventional Pitching Wisdom Actually Right

Rays land Damon ... and Manny
The fireman and organizational incentives

Originally, this article was going to be about comparing the projected starters for 2011 to some of our past rotations and general pitching staffs. This involved finding out who started, how many starts they made, and so on. I was then going to take the 2011 season projections for our current group of starters and compare them. Then I’d insert Millwood, Garcia, and Duchscherer to see how it changed. I’d probably slot in Lee and Pettitte just to make myself sad, too. With this in mind, I sat down in front of my computer and, like any baseball nerd, opened my Excel spreadsheets. I plugged in the numbers and took a sort of weird, futuristic glee in having my computer calculate stuff for me.

The more I went into this, the more I also realized that a successful pitching staff is almost stupidly formulaic. For once, it’s just like they say: healthy, good starting pitching wins ballgames. Wins championships, even.

In an ideal world, you have five guys who make thirty-something starts a piece, and they all go six to seven innings, and you have a bullpen with just the right combination of righties and lefties, a LOOGY or two, a longman, and a closer. But let’s be honest, that’s impossible. It’s never going to happen. Pitchers are going to get injured. They are going to suck. Sometimes, these things might be related (looking at you, Jeff Niemann!). Sometimes they’re not. Sometimes you need to pick up an innings-eater who is, at best, an okay pitcher, and sometimes a midseason trade is going to leave you struggling to figure out what you’re going to do with your rotation at all. An anonymous source tells me you can’t predict baseball.

The closest the Yankees ever got to this ideal pitching staff in the modern dynasty era was (no surprise here) 1998.

In 1998, Cone won 20 games and threw 200+ IP. The perfect game had not yet arrived. (AP Images/Elise Amendola)

It’s beating a dead horse to talk about how amazing the 1998 New York Yankees were, but on just the pitching side of things, they rocked it: the five starters (Pettitte, Wells, Cone, Irabu, and El Duque) started 142 games. 14 of the 20 games they didn’t pitch in were thrown Ramiro Mendoza, who had a 3.87 ERA in games he started. Mendoza threw an amazing 130 IP that year, including a complete game; three out of the five starters (Cone, Pettitte, and Wells) threw over 200 IP. Mo picked up 36 saves. The Yanks won 114 games and the World Series. It was a good year to be a Yankees fan.

In more recent history, the 2009 Yankees did pretty good on this formula too. Four starters threw 30+ games for an ERA in the rotation of 4.08. The 32 games that were not thrown by starters were picked up by five other guys – Mitre, Wang, Aceves, Gaudin, and Phil Hughes. They used these opportunities to show us why they weren’t starters themselves (or not yet starters, as the case may be), and why we needed healthy starting pitching. Aceves threw one game (4IP, 3ER), and Wang posting an amazingly terrible 11.38 ERA and a 2.176 WHIP in games where he started, giving up 6 homers. The best ERA between those five? Chad Gaudin. Gaudin posted a 4.76 ERA in six starts; Hughes had a 5.45 in seven. Funny that Gaudin spent the next year being thrown into what seemed like every September game to the great distaste of many Yankee fans, and Hughes was an All-Star starter.

That’s not to say the Yankees haven’t gotten this one wrong, too. The last thing you want is too many pitchers throwing starts. In 2008, 13 different pitchers started games. These were included but not limited to: a 2IP rain-delay started by Brian Bruney (who posted an ERA of 0.00 as a starter that year!), a start by Kei Igawa (3 IP, 6 ER) and 9 starts by Ian Kennedy, who posted an 8.35 ERA in the rotation. Only Pettitte and Mussina made over 25 starts that year; the next person down was Darrell Rasner, who made 20. Three different pitchers made between 10 and 15 starts. How can a team win when there’s no real consistency about who’s going to take the mound and how well they’re going to do? Needless to say, other teams capitalized on the Yanks’ disadvantage. Four out of the five 2008 Red Sox Starters made 25 starts or above: only Buchholz missed the cut with 16. Four out of the six 2008 World Series Champion Phillies starters made 25 starts or more, and their rotation started 158 games.

No surprises here: get a lot of production out of your starters and you’ll go far. But more than just production, you need the decent numbers, too. The 2010 Yankees, for example, used only 8 starters. Every man in the rotation hit 20 starts, and only Andy’s injury kept him from breaking 25 with the rest of them. Seems like after a few years we’ve finally figured out how to consistently put a guy on the mound in the Bronx: now if only we could find someone better than Sergio Mitre.

Rays land Damon ... and Manny
The fireman and organizational incentives
  • Bryan L

    I’d think its possible that Cashman & Co. might be hoping for Noesi or maybe even Brackman to tear up camp and hopefully fight for the 5th starter spot over Mitre, no?

    • The Big City of Dreams

      A lot of pressure to put on those two kids

  • Steve H

    I would love to be able to see the records of teams that had 4 pitchers make at least 30 starts (or 180 innings or so) in the past twenty years. The year the Rays finally broke through they got 153 starts out of their top 5 starters and had a 31. As bad as most #5 starters are (cough Mitre cough), it’s often the 6th, 7th, and 8th pitchers that can doom a season.

  • Richard Iurilli

    I had no idea that Ramiro Mendoza threw a complete game shutout in 1998. Just for fun, I decided to look it up on Baseball-Reference. Mendoza’s line: 9 IP, 5 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 2 K. The losing pitcher in that game? Eric Milton.

  • Steve H

    Ok, I finally found the play index for something similar. Teams since 1991 that had 5 guys go at least 180 innings were the following:

    2006 White Sox=90 Wins
    2005 Indians=93 wins
    2005 Cardinals=100 wins
    2004 A’s=91 wins
    2004 Cardinals=105 wins
    2003 Mariners=93 wins
    1993 Dodgers= 81 wins (with a pisspoor offense)

    Starting pitchers being healthy=success

    • Richard Iurilli

      I would sure the 2008 Rays would be on that list, but Kazmir only threw 152.1 IP in 27 starts.

      • Richard Iurilli

        Whoops, I should have read the earlier comment. My bad.

    • Mike Axisa

      Well, it’s not just necessarily health. It’s health AND being good. If a guy isn’t good, he won’t be left in the rotation long enough to throw 180 IP, regardless of how healthy he is.

      • Steve H

        Good point.

      • AndrewYF

        Unless his name rhymes with Pay-Day Shmurshmet and makes $16.5M a year.

      • oh hell

        Firm grasp of the obvious..well played

  • Brit

    You do know that Wang was bad because he was injured, right?

    • Steve H

      He was healthy enough to pitch though. It’s like saying Pedro Martinez wasn’t good in 2009 because he was old. He was still out there pitching, and the results still happened.

      • Tom

        Pedro knew he was old.
        Wang didn’t… or at least he didn’t tell anybody. The team had to send him to the doctor before they found tears in his arm, etc.

        • Steve H

          But that doesn’t change the results. He was awful, regardless of why.

          • Alex

            LOL I luv how people always forget how Chinmingwang was our ace for 3 years.

    • BigDavey88

      Is Wang still with the Nationals? Injured? I wonder if they’ve considered bringing him back to the rotation?

      That door has probably closed though.

      • Tom

        He’s with the Nats- they signed him to another 1 year deal.

        He was supposedly “filthy” in the fall instructional league (according to scouts via Heyman), and the Nats, Rangers, and a couple other teams had interest.

        He’s supposedly going to start pitching sometime this year, maybe May or June, I’ve heard.

        • BigDavey88

          Ahh, I see. Thanks for the info though. Hope he does well and gets back on track.

        • Andrew

          Nats GM Rizzo said that he’s coming to Spring Training in “prepare for the season” mode, instead of rehab mode. But I think all indications are he won’t crack the majors until May at the earliest.

          I honestly will only believe it when I see it in terms of him having his arm strength, velocity, movement back to the point where he can even try to approach his past success. But then again, in the NL it might be easier for him to bounce back than if he were still in the ALE.

          Always liked the Wanger though, so hopefully he’s not fully toasted.

  • MikeD

    Getting consistent starts, even if they’re slightly below league average, is easily one of the most under appreciated stats by all fans, including (especially including) the sabermetric crowd, which I’ve been a member of since the 1980s.

    Give me a 98 ERA+ pitcher who can crank out 32 starts and 205 innings for one of my five slots. I’ll take him over any high-ceiling guy who can’t take the mound with any consistency. (Are you listening, Josh Beckett fans?) I would have happily welcomed Jon Garland to the Yankees in 2011 becasue he starts more than thirty games every year and gives his team 200 innings. That not only means he’s giving his team a chance to win when he takes the mound, the innings he eats cascades across the entire pitching staff over the course of 162 games, helping other pitchers win games.

    This brings me to our favorite pitcher sitting on the bubble. Will he won’t play. Pettitte’s not a “league average” pitcher, as oddly some people refer to him. His career ERA+ is 117, and was 130 last year, 111 the year prior. Only once has his ERA+ ever not been above 100, and that was 2008 when he came in at 98, but meanwhile he still starting 32 games and pitched 210 innings. He should have been shut down for two weeks, but he still took the mound because he was the only pitcher we had left for the stretch. He also pitched in bad luck and was projected as one of the top likely “rebound” (I’m not sure from what) candidates for the following year. That season was the worst Andy could deliver and it was still good. I’d take it in 2011. Yet to try and minimize the prospect of his loss in 2011, many people (not here, although I’ve seen it here too) project him out as league average in 2011, and starting only 24 games and pitching 145-150 inning. B.S.

    He’s started 30+ games thirteen times, including six straight seasons prior. He’s led the league in games started three times, including once during his second tour with the Yankees. He’s as reliable as any pitcher in the game, and we saw what happened last year when he did go down with the groin injury. The Yankees weaker second half wasn’t just caused by Andy being away. AJ was scoring high on the suck scale the second half, and Vazquez fell apart, but that supports my point. Pettitte is taken for granted. He was supposed to be there to absorb innings while the bottom part of the rotation collapsed. He has been either the number two or number one pitcher (prior to CC) on the staff since his return, even though every year others are projected ahead of him as the number two, such as AJ. He doesn’t need to start 35 games and pitch 220 innings. Even a reduced Andy at 39 would have given us 30 starts at 190 quality innings.

    We haven’t replaced Andy. We haven’t had a replacement for him since he showed up in 1995. We didn’t have a replacement for him when he left after 2003 for the 2004, 2005 and 2006 seasons. We don’t have a replacement for him in 2011.

    He’s taken for granted. Josh Beckett has been called an “ace.” Only in the minds of Boston fans is that defensible. His best season is not better than Pettitte’s. His career ERA+ is 112 to Pettitte’s 117. He can’t take the mound with any consistency. He has three seasons of 200+ innings, and all the other ones he’s been between 120-170. Sucks for a man called an Ace. Even AJ game more innings last year. As I’ve told my Red Sox fan friends, if Beckett was on the Yankees with CC and Pettitte, Beckett would be fighting AJ for the title of #3 starter.

    Come back, Andy.

    • RuleroftheBones86


      AMEN! One of the best posts I have ever read here,folks.

      Thank You MikeD for that unforgettable defense and praise for the remarkable Andrew Eugene Petitte, #46. The man deserves a call from cooperstown someday in his near future, hoping it comes five years AFTER this final season. A truely great man, teammate and pitcher.

      Oh, and always love the passion behind fellow baseball fans over one of the most overrated pitchers of his generation, Mr. Beckett. Nothing makes me sadder than to witness so called experts preach so fraudulent praise over a pseudo “Ace” who in reality is a glossier version of AJ Burnett. And at least he takes his lumps when he stinks it up, unlike that hothead Beckett who gets awy pitching like crap and resting on his couple of worthwhile seasons.

      In my opinion, his absolute failure against us or any viable contender, will always keep the Bosox from intimidating anyone in October because their rotation is very vulnerable when only Lester really poses any threat. If Andy would return, I think our Bombers would certainly be better than Boston. We already have the better bullpen, lineup, closer, and ace. But it is our lack of depth in our back-end in particular that could prevent us from winning the Al East this season.

      Man, MikeD, your fantastic post motivated me to post this gigantic post, myself. Bravo, again Mike.

      • MikeD

        Thanks. Funny, I didn’t really set up to write a tribute to Andy Pettitte. I originally started a very quick note to agree with Hannah’s posting regarding conventional pitching wisdom, yet the very concept of having pitchers a team can count on to go out and start 30 games naturally led me to the man who has been the most skilled at that since his arrival: Andy Pettitte.

        We saw what happened after he was allowed to leave in 2003, and we saw what happened after he got injured in 2010. Even among Yankee fans who appreciate Pettitte (and that is pretty much all of Yankee-dom), there is still a lack of understanding of how important he’s been over the years. He’s never been viewed as the ace, because for short periods there have been others who might be better, such as CC now, or Cone back in the late 90s, but the true ace pitcher of the Yankees since 1995 has been Andy Pettitte.

        As of now, he’s not coming back next year (although I remain hopeful), and if he doesn’t, I don’t see any way the Brackman’s, Nova’s Warren’s, etc. will replace him. Longterm I’m sure there is answer(s) and help among that group, yet it’s highly unlikely any of them will pitch quality baseball for 16 seasons (and hopefully more) with 240 wins and a 117 ERA+.

        Pettitte’s not done unless he really does go off into retirement. Right now, the Yankees still need him, as they have needed him every year since 1995.