Most Reds fans believe that our rotation is the strength of the team. Largely, I agree with this. Yet, how does the Reds starting rotation compare to the rotation of other teams in the National League? In order to see where our starters line up against the rest of the league, I downloaded the fangraphs 2014 starting pitcher data and sorted by team. I then ranked teams by fWAR (see here for short reminder of fangraphs WAR vs bbRef WAR).

Before we get into the rankings, here are two interesting aspects 2014 NL pitching data:

1. No team has used only five starters. Only three teams (Giants, Brewers, Cubs) have used six starters. Two teams have used ten different starting pitchers (Padres, Marlins); the leader in this category, the Rockies, used twelve. For reference, the Reds have sent seven different arms out to the hill to start a game (if you are having trouble remembering who our seventh was, Jeff Francis pitched one game for us this season).

Earlier in the year, I wrote about the injury rate for starting pitchers. On average, injuries force teams to field seven starters. From this data, that number might be a bit low. It is unclear if this is just random variation in the number of starters used (keep in mind, small sample size) or if it is linked to the rise in TJ surgeries.

2. When you get that deep into a system, the seventh or eight starters tend to get bombed. If you sum the negative WAR (anti-WAR?) accumulated by these pitchers, it can be a substantial drag on the staff as a whole.

For example, the Padres have three pitchers below zero, accounting for -0.9 WAR (although most of this is driven by Eric Stults having sixteen starts and accumulating -0.6 WAR).

The Pirates have the same problem: two starters (Edinson Volquez – remember him? The guy we trade Josh Hamilton for? How’s Josh doing, anyways? And Wandy Rodriguez). These two have combined for 21 starts and -0.9 WAR. If the Pirates’ rotation is throwing anchor, these two are the weight.

The Phillies have two pitchers below the zero mark (Jonathan Pettibone, 2 starts; Roberto Hernandez, 14 starts). These two have hit it off to a mark of -0.5 WAR.

The Brew Crew are weighed down by Marco Estrada (-0.7 WAR through 16 starts). Everyone else is positive.

Guess which team has the most anti-WAR this year from their starting staff? The Dodgers, who clock in at -1.2 WAR from only 8 starts (Stephen Fife, 1 start -0.3; Paul Maholm, 7 starts, -0.9).

The all positive club: The Nationals seventh starter (Taylor Jordan, 5 starts) is still positive (albeit, modestly at 0.1); the Cubs and Braves have also notched positive wins above replacement from every pitcher to start a game this year.

The Reds have one starter in the negative WAR-club: Tony Cingrani. The rock star is at -0.2 WAR this year (to see what is going wrong with Tony, check out my article from last week).

Here are the rankings: total rotation WAR, the top WAR pitcher, and how much WAR that pitcher has added to the total.

Team WAR Top WAR-ior WAR
Rockies 2.1 Jordan Lyles 1
D’backs 2.6 Brandon McCarthy 0.8
Pirates 2.8 Charlie Morton 1
Mets 3.8 Zack Wheeler 1.3
Brewers 3.9 Kyle Lohse 1.5
Giants 4.4 Madison Bumgarner 2.1
Padres 4.4 Ian Kennedy 1.9
Phillies 4.6 Cole Hamels 2
Reds 4.8 Johnny Cueto 2.6
Dodgers 5.4 Clayton Kershaw 2.8
Marlins 5.4 Henderson Alvarez 1.9
Cardinals 6.8 Adam Wainwright 2.8
Braves 6.9 Aaron Harang 1.7
Nationals 7.8 Stephen Strasburg 2.4
Cubs 8.6 Jeff Samardzija 2.3

There is a pretty clear pattern here: the teams at the top have an ace (welcome back to the club, Aaron Harang) or three (hello, DC). The Braves might be the outlier here without a 2-WAR pitcher, but they roll three deep at the top or their rotation (Harang, 1.7; Teheran 1.7; Santana, who has 2 fewer starts than the others, 1.3).

The Cubs also have three excellent pitchers this year (Samardzija, 2.3; Hammel 2; Arrieta, 2) while Travis Wood and Edwin Jackson have each picked up a WAR.

The Nationals have put up an impressive trio with Strasburg (2.4), Zimmermann (2.3) and Roark (1.4).

If you are thinking about rotation depth, here is a comparison between the total starting rotation WAR and how much their top three starters contribute:

Team WAR Top Three
Rockies 2.1 2
D’backs 2.6 2.1
Pirates 2.8 2.3
Mets 3.8 3.6
Brewers 3.9 3.7
Giants 4.4 4.1
Padres 4.4 4.2
Phillies 4.6 4.4
Reds 4.8 4.2
Dodgers 5.4 5.9
Marlins 5.4 5.4
Cardinals 6.8 6.2
Braves 6.9 4.7
Nationals 7.8 6.1
Cubs 8.6 6.3

A big gap between these two numbers demonstrates a deep pitching staff. The Braves, Nationals, and Cubs are all receiving significant contributions from the bottom of their rotation, while the Dodgers are giving back some value. The Reds (+0.6) are ahead of most teams in the middle.

Yet the general trend is clear: if you are leaning on your fourth or fifth starters, the WAR is probably already over.

Some concluding thoughts:

1. There are a lot of caveats behind these numbers. Injuries, small sample sizes, and formula biases (there are significant differences between fangraphs WAR and bbRef) will shift these numbers. Given how close these numbers are, it might be better to think about three groups (the bottom tier, below 4.0 total WAR; middle tier: Giants, Padres, Phillies, Reds; and the top tier).

2. Yes, the Reds are in the middle of the pack, but keep in mind that fangraphs uses FIP. FIP is not impressed with Simon and has, in the past, underestimated Cueto. Due to this, you can take solace in the fact that the Reds rotation has probably pitched better than this list gives them credit for. Yet, given that FIP is a better predictor of future performance than ERA, there is reason for concern.

3. Concern should not be confused with panic because we get Mat Latos back. He was our best pitcher last year. Had he pitched the first half, the Reds would squarely be in the top tier.

4. The Cubs might not be terrible forever. Their starting rotation is the top in the NL through the first half, but it is hard to say if this is a long-term trend. Samardzija is having a career year, Arrieta is a rookie, and Jason Hammel is having his best year since 2009. Travis Wood and Edwin Jackson are basically performing as expected. If you are bleeding Cubbie blue, then you say this is a group coming into their prime (the oldest, Hammel, is 31). Yet in the game of baseball, regression can be mean.

If the Cubs do turn into a contender, the NL Central is going to be a packed party.

5. Perhaps the biggest takeaway: having aces is important. After looking at how much value teams derive from their top pitchers, the Reds need to give significant thought to resigning Cueto and Latos.

Aces are important, its hard to find 2.0 WAR pitchers…[insert obligatory Chapman-to-the-rotation comment here].

I guess we can dream on.

4 Responses

  1. ToddAlmighty

    It tries to tell me that up to this point, Bailey has been more valuable to the Reds than Simon. That theory then becomes automatically wrong.

  2. Baltimorechop

    If someone made a pitching war with linear weighting of batters’ outcomes vs a pitcher I would be super interested in seeing it. As it stands, fip based war I consider useless; run based war seems to say something worth looking at.

    • Baltimorechop

      To addd slightly: fWar says hits against don’t matter. What if batting war ignored hits? Because, they are luck/Babip/fixed rate. Would anyone even consider that?

      Shouldn’t fWar for hitters also be k/bb/hr only? Hits are a product of % and defense, no?

    • Baltimorechop

      That also seems to Imply a good pitcher has no impact on the Babip of a hitter he faces. No way he impacts gb vs fb, or produces more iffb than normal. Which i don’t think can be proven at all.