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How Important is the Fifth Starter?

The very last role up for grabs for the Phillies entering this spring is that of the fifth starting pitcher, a job whose candidates include Jamie Moyer, Kyle Kendrick and Jose Contreras, among others. With speculation abounding and personal choices varying, it seems there is no clear-cut favorite for the job as camp opens this week in Clearwater.

Just how valuable and vital is the fifth starter, though? Does the fate of the 2010 season rest solely on the decision between Moyer and Kendrick, between Contreras and Andrew Carpenter? Let’s take a look at some history, and value the contributions of the fifth starter on the decade’s last three championship teams.

2009 New York Yankees
Fifth Starters: Chad Gaudin, Sergio Mitre, Chien-Ming Wang
Combined Totals: 35 G, 24 GS; 6-9, 6.63 ERA, 0.4 WAR
Team Record in Starts: 21-22

A big key to the Yankees’ success last year, beyond having an outstanding roster, was the health of their staff. Their top four starters – CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Andy Pettitte and Joba Chamberlain – all made at least 31 starts. Having consistent quality toe the rubber goes a long way toward a championship, lineup notwithstanding.

Wang, despite his unseemly 9.64 ERA, actually managed to contribute 0.1 WAR to the total. Combining injury with a homer-friendly ballpark and a whole lot of hits allowed, Wang had the perfect storm of pitching imperfection come together over his head. The Yankees went 4-8 in games he appeared in, including 3-6 in his nine starts. Just goes to show how far a good lineup can take you: it can save even the most disastrous outings. It can’t save a team all the time, though, as evidenced by the team’s overall record in fifth starter starts.

2008 Philadelphia Phillies
Fifth Starter: Adam Eaton
Totals: 21 G, 19 GS; 4-8, 5.80 ERA, 0.4 WAR
Team Record in Starts: 8-11

Adam Eaton was the only true fifth starter on the champion Phils team two seasons ago, as Kyle Kendrick amassed 30 starts and J.A. Happ had just four. Eaton contributed very few positive things during his time in Philadelphia, sadly, and 2008 didn’t exactly serve as some sort of foil for that. Heck, he didn’t even make the playoff roster as the Phils won the Series, and was promptly booed upon receiving his ring in April 2009. I’m sure he loved his time here.

I remember going to a game in the summer of 2008, with Eaton pitching against Randy Johnson and the Diamondbacks. Oh, this wasn’t just any game. It was Eaton’s final start and arguably his worst as a member of the Phillies. It was capped off with a Johnson double, smoked into the left field corner during an eight-run fourth inning. It was horrifying, but I couldn’t stop laughing. At least I got to see R.J. Swindle come in relief and lob a few 55 MPH eephuses (eephi?). Little victories.

Anyway, the moral of the story is that Eaton was pretty terrible. I guess that’s all I needed to say.

2007 Boston Red Sox
Fifth starters: Jon Lester, Julian Tavarez
Combined Totals: 46 G, 34 GS; 11-11, 4.96 ERA, 2.2 WAR
Team Record in Starts:  19-15

Lester is by far the better half of this duo. The Sox went 9-2 in his starts in 2007, and though he struggled with his control for a fair portion of his starts, the team averaged more than six runs per 27 outs in his outings. Again, a good lineup goes a long way. Bats aside, this wasn’t a bad 11-start stretch for a rookie, and he served as a nice left-handed complement to Tavarez.

I could go on with the rest of the decade’s teams, but I think you get the point. The next two teams, the Cardinals in ’06 and the White Sox in ’05, had five fifth starters combine to provide just 2.1 WAR, and their teams went 45-51 in their starts as they posted a cumulative ERA near five.

So, really, what does most of this mean? Well, in simple terms, you can see that teams can win in spite of their fifth starters. The bottom of the rotation is not meant to provide ace-quality numbers, nor should even mid-rotation production be expected. Whether Moyer or Kendrick eventually emerges as the winner of this glamorous competition is almost irrelevant, as a replacement-level pitcher is really all that’s needed, if history is any indication.

The Phillies have talent at their other four rotation spots and an improved, though hardly dominant, bullpen, not to mention an offense that’s considered by many to be the class of the National League. The onus, arguably, falls lightest on the designated fifth starter. Anything above replacement level that comes from that spot is a bonus.

To that end, it would seem more beneficial for the Phillies to put Kendrick in the rotation. True, Moyer is owed a fair bit of money, and $8 million or so is a lot of money to pay an aging long reliever, but money should not dictate a club’s moves. Kendrick showed signs of improvement at the end of last season, and at 25, he still has room for progression.

What do you think? Am I selling the spot short? Would you prefer Moyer, Kendrick or another candidate take the final rotation slot?

48 Comments

48 Comments

  1. Paul Boye

    February 22, 2010 at 6:29 pm

    Just as a postscript, the starters I went with for the Cards were Anthony Reyes, Jeff Weaver and Sidney Ponson, while the White Sox #5s were Orlando Hernandez and Brandon McCarthy.

  2. Publius

    February 22, 2010 at 6:30 pm

    The Phillies need to address a huge opportunity: Livan Hernandez is still available. The dude has won double digit games every year since 2000 (until last year, but he won 9 with the Nats…imagine how many W’s he would have had with our lineup!)

    Hernandez is a proven winner and can easily add 10+ more wins for the Phils for a cheap price. Yeah his “peripheral stats” are ugly, but Bill Smith put it best by saying: “I’ll take the (10) wins. Who do you want, a guy who’s 10-15 with a 2.80 ERA or a guy who’s 16-8 with a 7.00 ERA? I’ll take the 16-8.”

    Go get him Rube.

  3. WFC010

    February 22, 2010 at 6:33 pm

    What I would do is this:

    put Moyer in the Bullpen, and let the “improved” Kendrick get a chance as the 5th starter

    Jose Contreras is a bullpen guy all the way, and I DO NOT want to see him starting even as the 5th starter.

  4. Paul Boye

    February 22, 2010 at 6:47 pm

    Yeah, I probably should’ve added quotes to “improved” by Kendrick’s name. Hard to judge by a 26-inning sample, especially when it’s still not all that impressive.

  5. Nunzio Scholeri

    February 22, 2010 at 7:02 pm

    Maybe I’m a bit of a sentimentalist, but if he shows good form in spring training I think Moyer deserves some time as the 5th starter. If he doesn’t work out then yes, we have good backup options, and Kendrick does have moments when he looks pretty good, but I just feel better with Moyer out there. Publius’s point about wins applies just as well to Moyer – say whatever you want about the man, but he had more wins than Cole Hamels did last year. Certainly any time Cole pitched I was almost afraid to watch, just waiting for him to fall apart, and Moyer never made me feel quite that afraid.

    I’m not saying Moyer should replace Cole – that’s ridiculous. I’m just saying that it seems like fans have extremely selective memories, and are only remembering the bad games Moyer had last year, and ignoring the good games and also ignoring the better 2008 season. I don’t know if it’s because his slow pitches don’t inspire as much instinctive confidence or what, but he doesn’t seem to get any credit when he does good work. The main weakness I see in Moyer is that he’s not likely to give as many innings as a younger guy, which places more weight on our rickety bullpen.

    However, I think his rather impressive work after losing his spot in the rotation last year shows what he can do when he feels he has something to prove. And right now he does have something to prove. I think he can pleasantly surprise people, and I hope he gets the chance to do so.

  6. George

    February 22, 2010 at 7:11 pm

    The problem that occurs with fifth starters is that sometimes one of the other rotation members hits the DL and number five is suddenly number four. That’s why teams make deadline trades, or acquire unsigned vets like Martinez.

    I’m not sure who would be best for the Phils. Kendrick will be good if his secondary pitches have improved. Moyer will be okay if he’s healthy. Both pitchers have had good seasons in the recent past, but I’d still rather not have to rely on both.

    Hernandez hasn’t been signed for a reason. He’s gone downhill steadily. He’s old. The Nats, who actually have a decent offense, and play in a pitcher’s park, no longer wanted him, in spite of his wins.

  7. WFC010

    February 22, 2010 at 7:43 pm

    I would definitely pick Moyer as a starter over Contreras any day of the week!

    Not even much of a Contreras fan as a Bullpen guy either, but at least he has some usefulness there.

  8. The Dipsy

    February 22, 2010 at 8:19 pm

    Send them to Spring training and let the best man win!

    The Dipsy

  9. Greg V.

    February 22, 2010 at 8:43 pm

    5th starters for the most part are mediocre pitchers. The trick is to have one that is better than the rest. I don’t mind Moyer or Kendrick in that spot. Over the past few years they were both being trotted out in the wrong spot in rotation. Moyer often the number 3 and Kendrick as high as number 2.

  10. derekcarstairs

    February 22, 2010 at 8:49 pm

    The fifth starter is of no importance in the playoffs, but, since he’ll get 25-30 starts, he can be important in the regular season. Team wins anywhere in the rotation are of equal value until the team clinches its playoff position.

    If you look at all 30 teams, you are in very good shape if your No. 5 has an ERA under 5. If you can get decent performances from your No. 5, it also helps alleviate some of the pressure on the bullpen.

    I think the No. 5 starter ranks in importance behind the 8 every-day regulars, the four starters ahead of him, the closer and the 7th and 8th inning guys in the bullpen. I would rank him ahead of the guys on the bench and the other four guys in the bullpen. In a perfect world, I would allocate the team’s payroll accordingly.

  11. derekcarstairs

    February 22, 2010 at 8:55 pm

    I should add that the No. 5 spot is also a good spot for young pitchers from within the system who show promise and are inexpensive.

  12. Brooks

    February 22, 2010 at 9:18 pm

    If the 5th starter is a combo or duet – fine. If the Phils can get over 10 victories from the combo, even better..
    Who are the candidates that we know of, so far?
    Moyer
    Kendrick
    Contreras
    here goes:
    Carpenter
    Mathiason

  13. Matt

    February 22, 2010 at 10:43 pm

    Didn’t Dubee already say that the 5th starters spot is Moyers? And I’d like to see Kendrick back in there again if Moyer struggles or gets injured. He’s deserved it, give him a shot.

  14. Eem

    February 22, 2010 at 11:56 pm

    I would say there’s a better chance the Phils talk Carlton out of retirement to be the fifth starter than stretching out Mathieson again. Matheison is a short reliever for (hopefully) the long run. Not a chance they let than time bomb of an elbow throw to many pitches.

    And speaking of Lefty, if the Phils did talk him out of retirement, I’d bet he’d outperform Livan Hernandez.

  15. deebo

    February 23, 2010 at 12:12 am

    the 5th spot IS important because every team has one and a winning team gets production from that slot. honestly, they face another #5 half of the time and either a 4th or 1st the rest of the time because of rainouts and regularly scheduled days off. if your 5th can get 13 wins, you’re well on your way to going 100-62. when the 5th goes 10-14, you wind up fighting to reach 90 wins that last week.

    moyer (and i love him and was sympathetic when he got dissed last year) may have to be moved to the long reliever, once a week guy because of the contract he signed last off-season. that 6.5M hangs around RAJ’s neck like the albatross that cost us dj carrasco and kiko calero in this year’s bullpen.

  16. Paul Boye

    February 23, 2010 at 1:00 am

    Yes, Mathieson’s career is already in enough jeopardy without being stretched into a starter again. His starting days are over.

  17. Brooks

    February 23, 2010 at 5:44 am

    The only reference I have to Scott Mathieson’s progress is a 1/29 report that he is looking for a chance and feeling good about 2010.

  18. bfo_33

    February 23, 2010 at 6:56 am

    The fifth starter is rarely one guy (all the examples above, except for the WFC08 had at least 2 guys filling that role). The primary role is to keep the bullpen out of the game as long as possible, while keeping the game somewhat close. Going 6, giving up 4 or 5 is perfectly acceptable, should get you 10 wins out of the role with the Phils. Give Moyer the title out of respect, but split it between Moyer and Kendrick, pending the line up (Mets are now right handed heavy, start Kendrick, whereas the Marlins can’t consistently hit Moyer). Both guys can start and relieve, so you aren’t wasting a bullpen spot.

  19. George

    February 23, 2010 at 9:07 am

    Fifth starters are usually a committee because one of them sucks so badly, he gets replaced. There is a problem with alternating the same two or three pitchers, and that is because with irregular starts, the layoff between can cause a pitcher to lose his sharpness and location. An extra day’s rest is fine, but an extra five days’ rest can be a disaster. There’s not a team around who prefers to split the fifth starter role. They all pick one guy and continue with that one guy until he proves to be a liability. Too many times that pitcher doess; thus the appearance of multiple starters.

  20. Dan

    February 23, 2010 at 9:32 am

    I think the fifth starter is important. No one is expecting Moyer or Kendrick to be Halladay or Hamels. What matters is what’s the difference between Moyer and Kendrick. If Kendrick can win two, three or four more games during the season than Moyer (or vice versa), then that’s huge. It’s the difference between 90 – 72 and 94 – 68. Two, three or four games could be the difference in home field advantage, winning the division, or even making the playoffs.

  21. Manny

    February 23, 2010 at 10:32 am

    The season is long enough. If they both do a decent job in Spring Training, I wanna see Moyer pitch first… then when/if he starts to suck, you let Kendrick pitch (like they did with Happ and Chan Ho… Frankly, that worked out really well in 09, despite that most of us really wanted Happ to win the 5th starter job from the beginning… Just imagine Happ’s innings count by the end of the year had they let him start from Day 1… they would’ve either had to shut him down by late August or risk having him go through a “dead arm” year in 2010).

    Hell, if Contreras is good in Spring Training, let him get a few starts too.

  22. Don M

    February 23, 2010 at 10:33 am

    yea, just like last year . . . I want WHOEVER wins

    which is why I couldn’t understand last year why people were bitching that they signed Park.. and people were pissed about Happ, Carrasco, Kendrick, etc. .

    Send them into camp battling for a job. . get the competitive nature going early so that whoever wins the job is more than ready to start the season

  23. Chuck

    February 23, 2010 at 10:35 am

    The Braves are gonna be good this year…I’ve already said that you can expect at least 85 wins from them….BUT…let’s say they catch fire and win 90 (not unreasonable)….

    Then the 90-72 record you mention for the Phils…or even the 94-68….then things get interesting..

    So the 5th starter IS very important…and I’d love it if that spot could secure at least 10 wins.

    Ruben has said that the spot is Moyer’s to lose…that’s fair….but Kendrick and the rest will get their shot at it. And that’s fair.

    Like Dipsy says, “Send them to Spring Training and let the best man win.”

  24. Don M

    February 23, 2010 at 10:35 am

    After talking sh!t on him the past three years . . . . I think Kendrick (now working with Halladay) will be very much improved this year.

    Moyer in the long-relief/ spot-starter role will work well for everyone . .

    He doesn’t have it in him to give you 7 innings ever, which wears down your bullpen whenever he starts . .

    but the guys running this show know what they’re doing, they’ll make the right decision

  25. Chuck

    February 23, 2010 at 11:25 am

    No doubt, Kendrick is motivated…I actually hope he gets the role…and Moyer in long relief, like you said, will be just fine.

  26. shag beta sigma delta

    February 23, 2010 at 12:14 pm

    Some of you are saying 10-12 wins from the fifth starter is good enough, and I agree, hasn’t Moyer won at least 12 games the last three years? So if he wins the 5th spot and wins 10-12 games and loses a little gas going into August or September, you rest him up and let the merry go round begin, just like last year. You had 12 wins from Moyer, at least 1 win from Carpenter and Bastardo, Lopez had 2 wins I think, so there is 16 wins from the #5 spot. That will be just fine for me

  27. The Original Chuck P

    February 23, 2010 at 12:17 pm

    If this is our biggest concern heading into Spring Training, we should feel pretty good about our chances, eh?

  28. WFC010

    February 23, 2010 at 1:04 pm

    We need all 5 rotation spots to be as good and productive as they can be, and I wouldn’t get too cocky about us making the Post-Season just yet. What I DO like however is how pretty much every single player on the team seems highly motivated to win, and many of them (Hamels, and even Kendrick to name just a few) are training harder than ever to be in top form this year, and hopefully have their most productive seasons to date.

  29. WFC010

    February 23, 2010 at 1:07 pm

    And part of me would almost rather have Hamels win a Cy Young this year over Halladay(who would be the runner up!), if only to hopefully silence his critics for good.

  30. The Original Chuck P

    February 23, 2010 at 1:09 pm

    Braves… 85 wins.. that’s a stretch.

    Their lineup has many holes… namely, Prado, Glaus, Diaz, Heyward and Chipper (who spends more time on the DL than he does on the field).

    Their pitching is going to take a hit with the loss of Vazquez. Jurrjens is good but this is the first season that he is thrown into that “ace” role and who knows how he’ll respond. Behind him, you’ve got Derek Lowe who is wayyyyyy overrated, Tommy Hanson who is unproven… he looked really good in 2009 but I’m not ready to annoint him anything… Tim “Might as well call me Kate” Hudson hasn’t pitched a full season EVER and Ken Kawakami.

    Does that scare you, really?

  31. psujoe

    February 23, 2010 at 1:14 pm

    Any results on Jurjens MRI?

  32. Bob in Bucks

    February 23, 2010 at 1:21 pm

    I like rotating the young pitchers through the fifth spot. Phils have been lucky with the new kids in their first year (doesn’t usually translate into a second year). Remember Bruce Chen’s first half year? Kendrick? Probably even Happ (I don’t expect a sub 3.00 ERA this year). I would like to see Bastardo, Carpenter, Mathieson all get a few starts. Seems when they are new to the league they are most effective.

  33. maverick

    February 23, 2010 at 1:28 pm

    I have a fastball that tops out around 72-74mph. with a nasty change up in the 50’s. I would like to compete for the 5th starter spot..

  34. Don M

    February 23, 2010 at 1:45 pm

    Braves scare the SH!T out of me this year

    Is their lineup as good as ours, no..

    But top-to-bottom, I think their rotation is better . .

    I think we’ll win the NL EAST, but I think the Braves are the NL Wild Card this year

  35. NJ

    February 23, 2010 at 2:35 pm

    Braves are scarier than any team in the majors going forward. Say what you will about the young guys with the Rangers, Rays, Giants etc but the Braves are stacked with elite young guys and if they get a manager who can bring on those young guys like Cox did all those years ago… Boy would that be scary.

  36. Chuck

    February 23, 2010 at 2:54 pm

    85 wins is the MINIMUM for the Braves this year. The rotation has some question marks…but so does every rotation out there. But it’s well rounded and has TONS of potential.

    While the lineup has holes…I don’t think it will be awful either. They will score some runs and ,who knows, if Chipper stays healthy (doubt it, though) that could be a factor. McCann is a stud and a real threat.

    I’m not scared to the point of quivering…but…..

  37. Bonezy

    February 23, 2010 at 2:59 pm

    On a side note. The Pils just agreed to a deal with BRAD WILKERSON! It also said that it was believed that he was Retired last april.. I have no idea why they would want him, but so much for J- DYE idea.

  38. Matt Kwasiborski

    February 23, 2010 at 3:00 pm

    This is my suggestion if Kendrick can’t cut it. He isn’t bullpen worthy if he cannot win it. So, let’s say he does not and Moyer wins out. Since Moyer is about 87 years old and Pedro is 65. Sign Pedro and rotate Moyer and Pedro in there this way: One start, Pedro gets the ball and goes 4-5 innings. Then Moyer relieves him and goes the distance. Then switch it to where Moyer gets the start, goes long enough to get the win and Pedro finishes it out. This will also allow the Phils to rest the bullpen too.

    It is unorthodox but I think it is realistic.

  39. PhxPhilly

    February 23, 2010 at 3:02 pm

    5th Starter is important due to the injury factor. Ideally you would have 5 solid starters and a young ace waiting to get the call in the minors. Then you’d like to have whatever minor league vets or avg guys you can for spot starts when needed.

    If the Top2 go down for a month your rotation is Blanton, Happ, Moyer, Kendrick, and Carpenter. That is downright scary since all buy Blanton are inconsistent and nowhere near ace quality. (This scenario is where Drabek or Carrasco would be useful in the minors because they project to #2’s, IF (BIG IF) everything goes right.)

    Braves have young pitchers with higher projections than Happ so for everyone who thinks Happ can be a solid #3, you’d have to think Jurrjens and Hanson can be #2’s with an upside of Hamels. Lowe is like Blanton. Kawakami has to be as good as Moyer/Kendrick. Hudson is an unknown while Halladay is awesome. If Hudson pitches like an ace their staff will be better than the Phillies.
    The Braves lineup has lots of potential and question marks but some young studs that could change the landscape quickly. I’d target them for 85 to 90 wins and on the heels of the Phillies.

  40. Don M

    February 23, 2010 at 3:06 pm

    Braves won 86 games last year . . . . with almost NO OFFENSE, and a long stretch without their best player, Catcher- Brian McCann. .

    Add a full year with MClouth.. Melky Cabrera.. Matt Diaz . . . . with a chance that baseball’s #1 Prospect takes over for one of them whenever he’s ready

    the health of Hudson is a concern. . .

    Lowe is better than he pitched last year, and might only be their #3 this year, meaning that he should have some better run support, not always being matched up against the Santana’s, Josh Johnson’s, and Roy Halladay’s …..

    far from a great team, the Braves are one of the best . . .Ranked #10 in USA TODAY’s Power Poll . . . seems about right to me as a starting place for them

  41. George

    February 23, 2010 at 3:33 pm

    There are two problems with alternating Moyer and Martinez. The first is that Martinez is not on the team, and would cost too much to sign. The second is that by filling the fifth spot with two pitchers means a six-man rotation. That immediately removes another arm from the bullpen, making it weaker.

    A lesser issue might be that if Moyer stumbles in the first or second, Martinez, used to pitching only 4-5 innings, won’t be able to complete the game and the now smaller bullpen would still need to be used.

    The Braves won 86 games last year, but one of their best pitchers is now with the Yanks. The lineup is full of injury risks. If they are healthy, they will be very good. That’s a BIG if, though.

  42. Chuck

    February 23, 2010 at 3:34 pm

    McCann last year in 138 games (488 ABs)…. .281 avg/ 21 hr/ 94 rbi…

    Matt Diaz….125 Games (371 ABs)…. .313/ 13/ 58

    Nate McClouth….129 games (507ABs)…. .256/20/70

    Melky Cabrera….154 games (485 ABs)…. .274/13/68

    Not the ’27 Yankees…but these numbers aren’t bad at all. Look for McCann, if healthy all year, to explode….McLouth will have a full year as an advantage….Diaz can only get better with more at-bats….and Melky is Melky…not the scariest guy around, but more than able to hold his own.

  43. maverick

    February 23, 2010 at 4:13 pm

    my buddy is a huge Braves fan and is predicting a 90 win season

  44. Don M

    February 23, 2010 at 4:22 pm

    How many wins difference is Vazquez last year vs. Hudson this year??

    Combine that with a more experience Hanson . . .

    I think Lowe will have a better year this year, .. Jurrjens could be legit #2

    every team has questions and injury concerncs
    If I had to rank the NL Teams . . . Braves are a top one

    I think we all agree the GOOD teams are Phillies, Braves, Cardinals, Cubs, Dodgers, Giants, Rockies . . . with the Marlins, Mets, Astros, Reds . . . a chance to play spoiler

  45. Don M

    February 23, 2010 at 4:28 pm

    I think the Braves lost their last 7 games last season . . .and still finished with 86 wins ?

    before that they won a ton in a row, but this is a team that with more experience, should be a little less streaky, and a lot more dangerous

  46. a polar bear

    February 23, 2010 at 8:45 pm

    Do not want Contreras starting. I honestly think he’s better served pitching in one and two inning spurts (i.e., out of the bullpen). HIs numbers last year were superior in the first 25 pitches of outings (and his “pop” was greater once a reliever in Colorado).

  47. Sherry W

    February 24, 2010 at 12:38 pm

    Moyer did well on long rest before he got hurt. I say put him in as long as he’s healthy. He isn’t an ace, but frankly Kendrick hasn’t proven to be overly impressive yet either. Moyer I know there will be some hits, but I also know the man can place the ball and shake the best batters up. Kendrick, who knows what he will do.

    Give the kid some starts and see and give him some experience, but let Moyer have #5.

  48. Zach L

    February 24, 2010 at 6:03 pm

    The Eaton start you referred to was actually a game in july of 08. I just watched the 4th inning on mlb.tv. What a joke…

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