Numbers for the Numbered Starters

One of the more contrived areas of prospect analysis, in my opinion, is throwing a numbered starter grade on a pitching prospect. Scouts are the most consistent offenders of the trend: you’ll see a variation of “future no. 3 starter” in a lot of scouting reports. In a sense, it has become more philosophical — “a future ace” has non-contextual meaning, and so too does “middle of the rotation” or “back-end guy.”

I’ve advocated that we must think about prospects in terms of the WAR they will produce, and for pitchers, we must consider their potential strikeout, walk, home run and groundball rates (essentially, xFIP). Since the numbered starter grade has so much popularity behind it — I literally get “will X prospect be a #2 or #3” question every week in chats — it makes sense to put those designations in actual context, given the peripheral statistics we want to consider with prospects.

With that said, I will reinforce what Marc Hulet wrote earlier this year: essentially, the idea of a “#5 starter” doesn’t exist. Teams don’t use a #5 starter — they use a variety of replacement guys, generally — so if you’re projecting a prospect out as a #5 starter, you’re doing him a disservice. He’s either a reliever, a replacement-level player, or worse, a career minor leaguer. So, in this piece, we’ll be concerned with the 2010 statistical definitions of what #1-4 starters were. To get the appropriate number of players, I used 130 innings as a cut-off. This gave us 115 players, all of whom (except Brian Duensing) spent the vast majority of their season in the rotation.

Control (BB/9)

#1 Starter: 0.76 – 2.41 BB/9.
#2 Starter: 2.44 – 2.92 BB/9.
#3 Starter: 2.95 – 3.41 BB/9.
#4 Starter: 3.47 – 4.74 BB/9.

Cliff Lee was the king of command this year, with a walk rate almost 30% better than his next closest competitor, who just happened to be Roy Halladay. Guys like Shaun Marcum and Doug Fister took the next step this season by exhibiting ace-level command. It’s important to point out that BB/9 doesn’t always measure command, as a guy like Kevin Slowey can rank top five in the Majors in the category, but by missing on 21 pitches that ended up in the cheap seats, his xFIP was just 4.48. On the opposite side of the ledger was C.J. Wilson, who succeeds despite his proclivity for walks. He has success pitching consistently low in the zone, so he’s an example of a guy with command, but not control.

Swing-and-Miss Stuff (K/9)

#1 Starter: 10.95 – 7.86 K/9.
#2 Starter: 7.84 – 6.87 K/9.
#3 Starter: 6.86 – 5.44 K/9.
#4 Starter: 5.43 – 3.80 K/9.

What Cliff Lee was to the walk column, Brandon Morrow is to the strikeout column. While his control leaves something to be desired, Morrow’s raw stuff is off the charts. He was one of 13 starters this year that struck out one batter per inning. Since this happens so often in the minor leagues, I think we might forget just how rare it is for a pitcher to accomplish it at the highest level. Minor league strikeout kings like Wade Davis aren’t necessarily strikeout artists in the bigs. Without strikeouts, it’s a tough path to success: Carl Pavano had the most success with a terrible K/9, but his command had to reach career-best levels to achieve it.

Movement (GB%)

#1 Starter: 64.1 – 49.6 GB%.
#2 Starter: 49.4 – 44.9 GB%.
#3 Starter: 44.7 – 39.8 GB%.
#4 Starter: 39.5 – 28.3 GB%.

Movement isn’t quite described by GB%, but I think it does a fairly good job: good movement leads to weak hits, which keep the ball in the park. Tim Hudson was the only person this season to eclipse 60%, and he did it in a big way. The power of ground balls is maybe best exhibited with Ricky Romero, who was drowning in the minor leagues, looking like a bust, as a flyball pitcher in 2006 and 2007. Then, the former first rounder reinvented himself, and started focusing on ground balls. Success soon followed, and this season, he was one of 31 players to reach four wins above replacement. Staying east, Daisuke Matsuzaka‘s inability to record groundball outs has been one of the largest factors in his failure to live up to the hype in Boston.

Overall Rate Value (xFIP)

#1 Starter: 2.92 – 3.80 xFIP.
#2 Starter: 3.81 – 4.18 xFIP.
#3 Starter: 4.19 – 4.51 xFIP.
#4 Starter: 4.56 – 5.62 xFIP.

Now, these numbers are a little misleading — you wouldn’t call negative WAR guys like Javier Vazquez or Scott Kazmir “Number Four Starters.” Not in terms of how they’ve performed this season. While the scale falls off at the end, I think it does a good job at the beginning: I struggle to argue with calling anyone that had a 3.80 xFIP or better this season an “ace”. I laughed when I saw Trevor Cahill and Bud Norris back to back in the xFIP column — it’s a perfect description that there isn’t one way to succeed as a pitcher in the big leagues. Some pitchers, like Josh Johnson of the Marlins, can succeed in all three of the columns above. But whether it’s standing out in one category (Pavano), or consistency across all three (Randy Wells), there are a lot of paths to the same destination.

These numbers aren’t hard-and-fast cut-offs for discerning whether we’re going to call John Lamb a future number one starter, or a future number two. They are useful numbers for us to store mentally to put the distinctions that others insist on using into context. And, they serve as a nice tribute to the aces of 2010: Roy Halladay, Francisco Liriano, Adam Wainwright, Josh Johnson, Tim Lincecum, Cliff Lee, Felix Hernandez, Jon Lester, Mat Latos, Yovani Gallardo, Cole Hamels, Roy Oswalt, Jered Weaver, Ricky Nolasco, Hiroki Kuroda, Brandon Morrow, Derek Lowe, Dan Haren, Wandy Rodriguez, Justin Verlander, James Shields, Ubaldo Jimenez, Jaime Garcia, Jhoulys Chacin, Ricky Romero, Zack Greinke, C.C. Sabathia, Clayton Kershaw.

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I don’t really see the labeling of someone as a “#x starter” as something that needs upheaval.

Bryan Smith
Bryan Smith

And I realize that it will never be thrown away. It has its place in baseball, and in scouting reports, and always will. So, rather than continue to moan about it, I decided to add some literal context to it.