The constant offseason preoccupation for the Reds is, as our deposed leader “Chairman” Chad Dotson says, “hashbrown get the pitching.” (I am still feeling out ways to make fun of Doug, settle on something soon.) There are – as is widely acknowledged – a variety of ways to approach it, with some even suggesting that the Reds should move away form the traditional model and try openers and tandem pitchers or any variety of other options. The changing role of starting pitching in baseball got me wondering how feasible these ideas were, so I went looking at numbers.

(Note, I tend to view pitchers in groups of 30 or so, since there are 30 teams, so, for instance, the 30 best pitchers are all, in theory, number one starters.)

According to FanGraphs 334 pitchers started at least one game last year. That means, that the average major league team used 11 starting pitchers last year. The Reds used 10 – so they were about average by that one measure. Now, obviously, those 11 pitchers didn’t all carry the same workload. If we look at the 15th and 16th pitchers in each group of 30, we get a ballpark for how many innings each team needed from starters 1-11 (I am ranking pitchers only by innings pitched right now, not by WAR or ERA or any other qualitative stat).

  1. 195 IP
  2. 170
  3. 150
  4. 120
  5. 95
  6. 60
  7. 34
  8. 22
  9. 13
  10. 6
  11. 2

Now, those are some interesting numbers. It’s clear, for instance, that starters 8 or 9 through 11 are of the emergency/failed injury return/not ready yet variety. For the Reds, these innings were taken by Brandon Finnegan, Michael Lorenzen, and Robert Stephenson.

Further, while the Reds lack a 195 inning pitcher, their innings are otherwise distributed fairly normally when we look at the top seven pitchers by IP.

Luis Castillo – 169.2
Sal Romano – 145.2*
Matt Harvey – 128
Tyler Mahle – 112
Anthony DeSclafani – 115
Homer Bailey – 106.1
Cody Reed – 43
*some innings in relief

So, in terms of workload distribution, the Reds are not that far off the rest of the league. It is probably not a surprise to anyone that quality was the overall issue, but it’s important to establish that most teams used starters at more or less the same rate as the Reds.

Now here’s where it gets interesting. According to FanGraphs, starting pitchers generated 329 WAR last season (almost exactly 1 WAR for every one of the 334 pitchers who made a start). However, 43% of that total (141 WAR) was generated by the top-30 pitchers in terms of WAR. That is a HUGE number. And, as you might guess, most (but not all) of those pitchers were near the top of the league in innings pitched. Further, if we use 100 IP as a cutoff, there were about 75 starting pitchers (depending on if you use ERA, FIP, or xFIP) who gave their teams average or better performances (I’m using starter averages here – so relievers are excluded from the sample). That’s about 1.5 pitchers per team.

The Reds had no starters with 100 IP at or above league average in ERA or FIP. They did, however, have three (Castillo, Harvey, and Disco) who were above average according to xFIP, which normalizes HR rate (a valid thing to do for pitchers in GABP, but also a clear indicator that the Reds should go after ground ball pitchers). It is important to note that, despite his struggles, Castillo just missed the cutoff for ERA and FIP, meaning we can feel confident that he really was an “average” pitcher last year.

I’m now going to slide to a slightly different standard. Given the numbers we’ve looked at, it seems reasonable to assume that every major league team needs at least six players capable of handling a significant number of innings as a starting pitcher. Setting the threshold at 50 innings pitched as a starter gives us 179 pitchers, which is just about exactly right.

In that group of 179 pitchers, Luis Castillo ranks 75th in WAR. meaning he was – literally – the exact middle-of-the-road number three starter (aside: Mike Leake – who everyone always calls a 4-5 is really a 2-3 if we look at how starting pitcher value is actually distributed)..

What this has been a long way of saying is this: The Reds NEED an ace. Further, they probably need and ace who is in the top-15 rather than the top-30, but they simply have to have a pitcher in that top group. The top pitcher in terms of innings for each team takes about 22 percent of the workload, but the top pitcher in terms of WAR gets about 43 percent of the value among the starting staff. That is HUGE and it is the place where the Reds are most lacking.

And so, piggybacking off what Steve wrote the other day (ownership can and should spend), I would like to present a plan:

  1. Sign Dallas Keuchel. He is the perfect pitcher for GABP, a clear number one and, given that Corbin just set the market, he should be affordable for the Reds.
  2. Trade for or sign a Mike Leake-type pitcher. I mention Leake because We’re familiar with him and he’s likely undervalued and thus available without decimating the farm system.

That’s it. But it gives you a rotation like this:

Keuchel
Leake
Castillo
Disco
Mahle
Reed/Lorenzen/Romano

Is that a great rotation? No, it’s not. It is a very solid rotation, though and, with an offense that should be comfortably in the top-half of the league, it should be good enough to make the Reds generally competitive and one of those teams that could quickly become a contender if “the young guys figure it out.”

But the Reds absolutely cannot think that mid-rotation pitchers will get the job done because there is such a sharp drop in quality from the first group. In the modern game, the rotation is much more fluid overall, but the top starter on your team is VERY important and there are few players capable of filling that role. You can fudge and experiment at the bottom of your rotation, but not the top. If your team doesn’t have a high-end starter, it becomes very hard to compete.