The Good, the Bad, and the Cheap: The Cost Efficiency of 162 Starts

In today’s game, teams break Spring Training camp with 162 games ahead of them and plan for a five-man rotation to cover all the starts in those games. Of course, teams know there will be injuries, trades, and demotions because of ineffectiveness, and possibly an occasional double header to make up rainouts, so that original five-man rotation is not going to cover those 162 starts. In other words, stuff will happen.

Let’s look at how both leagues did in terms of total starts by the five pitchers who had the most starts on their team. Note these numbers are not necessarily by spot in the rotation, just total starts. For instance C.C. Sabathia was the Indians’ No. 1 one starter, but he had only 28 starts, fourth on his team.

           #1     #2     #3     #4      #5     SUM     DIFF 
AL AVG.    32.3   30.7   27.4   22.1    17.9   130.4   31.6
NL AVG.    33.3   31.4   26.0   19.6    16.4   126.7   35.3

In fact, on average, teams from both leagues averaged 11 different pitchers to make those 162 starts (here is a full breakdown). We see that the difference between the top five’s number of starts and the full 162-game season is about the equivalent of another rotation spot for the average team. Let’s look at the outliers (for a full list of all teams, click here):

            #1     #2     #3     #4      #5     SUM     DIFF 
CHA         33     32     32     32      30     159      3
COL         32     32     32     31      27     154      8

TBR         25     24     21     16      16     102     60
KCR         29     21     20     15      12      97     65

The White Sox covered almost all their starts with their original five starters. That wasn’t necessarily a good thing when we look at their starters’ overall performance, especially with Brandon McCarthy waiting for his chance. Meanwhile, the Devil Rays’ and Royals’ rotations were a dysfunctional mess in terms of stability, and their performances mirrored that. The Royals were last in the AL in starters’ ERA (5.85), while the Devil Rays were 10th in the AL with a 4.96 ERA.

Let’s look at how teams did in 2006 in terms of payroll efficiency with their starters. I am using Net Win Shares Value, created by Dave Studeman. To paraphrase Dave’s definition, Net Win Shares Value essentially estimates the “expected” production from a player based on how he was signed (as a free agent, arbitration-eligible or not eligible for arbitration) and how much he was paid, then compares that to how he actually did. The difference is multiplied by the average amount teams paid for each Win Share Above Bench last year. If the number is positive, the player was a relatively good deal for the team; if not, not.

The 2007 THT Annual lists most of the players’ Net WS Value, so one perk of purchasing the book is access to all the players’ info. The following list includes all pitchers classified as starters (it doesn’t include bullpen guys who made spot starts):

AL     NET WS Value (in millions)   NL     NET WS Value 
DET    24.9                         SFG    16.5
OAK    16.9                         ARI    16.2
TBR    15.9                         COL    14.3
LAA    13.0                         FLA    14.2
TOR    11.8                         CIN    12.5
MIN     6.9                         SDP    11.3
TEX     3.4                         MIL     7.9
CLE     2.9                         PIT     6.6
CHA     -.1                         LAN     4.5
BOS    -2.5                         STL    -2.3
NYA    -4.1                         ATL    -4.8
SEA    -5.7                         NYN    -5.7
KCR    -7.4                         PHI    -5.8
BAL    -8.4                         HOU    -8.7
                                    CHN   -10.6
                                    WAS   -14.0

The Detroit Tigers had the most cost-efficient rotation by a considerable margin because not only did their starters pitch well, but most were signed to inexpensive contracts.

             Net WS Value      GS
Verlander    8,003,000         30
Robertson    6,281,000         32
Bonderman    4,636,000         34
Rogers       3,282,000         33
Miner        1,378,000         16
Ledezma      1,362,000          7
Maroth        -145,000          9

Miner and Ledezma earned value in the pen also, so not all their positive Net WS Value came from starting. Roman Colon also made a start, but overall, the Tigers’ rotation was stable in terms of who was starting while being cost effective. Let’s now look at a team that was the opposite of the Tigers, the New York Yankees:

              Net WS Value      GS
Wang          9,689,000         33
Karstens      1,399,000          6 
Rasner          824,000          3
Wright       -1,184,000         27
Ponson       -1,807,000          3
Mussina      -2,590,000         32
Chacon       -3,930,000         11
Johnson      -6,481,000         33

Despite having one of the best values in baseball in Chien-Ming Wang, the Yankees were 11th in the AL in terms of payroll value for their starters, and that is not even including the $9 million they paid Carl Pavano to heal slowly. Mike Mussina had a solid season, but the Yankees were paying him so much that it was not cost effective. The Yankees received 125 starts from Wang, Johnson, Mussina, and Wright, but used eight other pitchers to make the remaining 37 starts, some with some rather inefficient results.

The Chicago White Sox were very stable in terms of who started their games. Unfortunately for the White Sox, they didn’t receive a very efficient return from all their starters:

             Net WS Value      GS
Contreras    2,644,000         30
Garcia       2,342,000         33
Garland        838,000         32
Vazquez     -1,582,000         33
Buehrle     -4,212,000         32

The White Sox had no starter who truly shined, even though management was writing some large checks. A more efficient team was the Oakland A’s:

             Net WS Value      GS
Haren        7,062,000         34
Blanton      4,332,000         31
Saarloos     2,096,000         16
Zito         1,087,000         34
Harden       1,101,000          9
Loaiza         988,000         26
Windsor       -585,000          3

Because Harden was not receiving a large salary, his injury did not hurt the A’s financially, unlike Mark Mulder of St. Louis, who had a -$9.9 million Net WS Value. Oakland general manager Billy Beane’s market philosophy allows him to get a high yield on the money the A’s pay their starters.

Let’s now look at the disaster known as Washington Nationals:

              Net WS Value      GS
Perez           909,000          3
Patterson       482,000          8
Hill            301,000          6
O'Connor         19,000         20 
Day            -302,000          5
Traber         -882,000          8
Armas        -1,444,000         30
Hernandez    -1,884,000         24
Drese        -1,893,000          2
Bergmann     -2,324,000          6
Astacio      -2,838,000         17
Ortiz        -4,068,000         33

The Nats’ rotation, which was not exactly constructed to last, was ravaged by injuries and ineffectiveness. Ramon Ortiz started the most games, which means the Nats had a replacement-level pitcher start 33 games. The Nats had 14 different pitchers start games, and none were effective. If this type of wreck occurred on a freeway, traffic would be shut down for two days while the carnage was cleared and the body bags counted.

In general, home-grown, inexpensive talent is the best route to building a cost-efficient rotation. Throwing good money after bad in hopes something sticks is the worst way to go. There is nothing novel in these premises. Teams that can develop their own pitchers have a huge financial advantage over those that build a rotation primarily through free agency or trading for established, expensive starters. That does not mean a team can’t be successful with inefficient spending; the St. Louis Cardinals were not efficient, but defeated the most efficient team, the Tigers, in the World Series.

I’ll wrap this up by showing the 10 most-efficient and least-efficient starters in terms of salary value:

Retroactive Review: Ace
Looking back at some of Justin Verlander's most interesting moments.
Best          NET WS Value         Worst        Net WS Value
Webb          11,412,000           Pineiro      -10,015,000
Liriano       10,376,000           Mulder        -9,910,000
Arroyo        10,068,000           Od. Perez     -8,447,000           
Wang           9,689,000           B. Colon      -8,310,000
Carpenter      9,561,000           Russ Ortiz    -8,219,000
Je. Weaver     9,277,000           Chen          -8,001,000
Capuano        8,229,000           Park          -7,496,000
Verlander      8,003,000           Marquis       -7,347,000          
Bedard         7,902,000           Ra. Johnson   -6,481,000 
Haren          7,590,000           Towers        -6,121,000

References & Resources
Resources: The Hardball Times 2007 Annual and BaseballReference

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