Analysis

Just How Good Is This Phillies Rotation?

How do the Phils' starters compare to the rest? Mike Baumann tells us with a scientific formula. (Photo: Eric Gay, AP)

Anyone who knows baseball knows that the 2011 Phillies will have an outstanding starting rotation, with four top-quality starting pitchers. Of course, there are a number of hyperbolic statements being tossed around about the Phillies’ starting pitchers: comparisons to the mid-90s Braves and 1971 Orioles or the expectation that all other NL teams need not even bother trying to win the pennant for the next two years.

I’ve been interested in the title question of this post pretty much since the moment the Cliff Lee signing was announced. After all, the Giants have a great rotation themselves, and if they can stay healthy, the Red Sox can throw out five very good veteran starters too. There was a lingering doubt in my head as to whether the Phillies even had the best rotation in baseball this season, so I decided to put the assertion “the Phillies have the best starting rotation in the game” to the test. Explanation and results after the jump.

What I came up with is speculative, crude, and hardly scientific, but I’m a social science grad student, so I have some experience in making what is, essentially, guesswork look convincingly scientific. Because it’s impossible to tell what the rotations of all 30 MLB teams will look like, much less how those pitchers will perform, I needed approximations. For the rotations, I took the projected lineups from mlbdepthcharts.com to form a list of 150 starting pitchers, 5 per team. To measure the value of each pitcher, I used Tom Tango’s Marcel Forecasting System, a fairly simple method of predicting a player’s upcoming season statistics using his performance the past three years. So how do we rank these 150 starting pitchers, and by extension, the rotations they belong to?

Well, there are two things you want from your starting pitcher: to pitch a lot of innings, and to pitch them well. This leads to a scoring system for starting pitchers so simple I’m almost embarrassed to describe it here: I subtracted the pitcher’s projected ERA for 2011 from the replacement level ERA for a starting pitcher in 2010 (5.01 for AL pitchers, 4.84 for NL pitchers), then multiplied the difference by the number of innings Marcel predicted he would pitch in 2011. This results in the score we’re interested in, a number between 1.18 for the lowest-ranked starting pitcher (Carlos Silva) and 453.53 for the highest (Felix Hernandez). The sum of these for any one team’s five-man rotation is the team’s score. Like I said, simple.

Full results follow, but to kill the suspense, yes, the Phillies do have the best rotation, and by quite a large margin. Moreover, each of the Phillies’ five starting pitchers compares very well to his competitors in his rotation spot. But before we move on, a few disclaimers and qualifications:

  • This is admittedly a very crude model, based not only on imperfect stats, but on imperfect predictions of those stats. There’s an adage in social science: “All statistical models are wrong, but some are useful.” I hope that’s the case here.
  • The only thing we know for sure is that people other than those listed here will add value to their various teams as starting pitchers–this is a preliminary list 5 weeks before Opening Day, so these rotations will change
  • Marcel is, as projection systems go, pretty good, but it is obviously not perfect, and it has some idiosyncrasies. For instance, in 2010, 45 pitchers threw 200 or more innings in MLB, but for 2011, Marcel predicts that only four will do so. In 2010, 15 starting pitchers qualified for the ERA title with an ERA under 3.00, but Marcel predicts that only two will do so this year. This conservatism is, as Tom Tango says, a hedge against ineffectiveness and injury when predicting specific players’ performances, not necessarily a belief that exceptionally good (or bad) performances will not happen in 2011.
  • For the purposes of this discussion, a “No. 1 starter” is not necessarily the player with the highest score on his team, but the person listed first by MLB Depth Charts, and so on. For example, John Danks of the White Sox comes up as the best pitcher on his team by far, but is No. 3 on the depth chart, so he’s listed here as a No. 3 starter, not as Chicago’s ace. Livan Hernandez is listed as Washington’s No. 1 starter, but he’s ranked not only as the worst starter in the Nationals’ rotation, but the second-worst in MLB. You get the idea.
  • Finally, because four of the five Phillies pitchers are 30 or older, and Marcel regresses to the mean and accounts for aging, it’s possible that because of quirks of the projection system, that the Phillies are actually underrated here.

But anyway, here is the full ranking of the 150 projected major league starters as individuals, and here are the team rankings. (Both links are Excel spreadsheet downloads).

For those of you who don’t have the time or inclination to peruse the spreadsheets, I’ll give you the highlights here:

  • The Phillies have the best rotation score by, like, a lot. They scored more than 10 percent higher than the next-best team, the Dodgers. Rounding out the Top 10: the Giants, the Cardinals, the A’s, the Angels, the Mariners, the Red Sox, the Brewers, and the White Sox.
  • Roy Halladay is projected to be the second-best ace, Cliff Lee the third-best No. 2 (behind Adam Wainwright and Matt Cain), Roy Oswalt the third-best No. 3 (behind Danks and Tommy Hanson of the Braves), and Hamels the second-best No. 4 (behind Clay Buchholz of the Red Sox, which is a quirk of the rating system; Buchholz led the AL in ERA last year and is probably something more like Boston’s No. 2 starter). Joe Blanton ranks 11th among fifth starters, behind Barry Zito, Jon Garland, Dice-K, and a bunch of guys I’d put money on not finishing the season as their teams’ fifth starters.
  • Felix Hernandez is expected to have a huge year. He’s the No. 1 overall pitcher, with his score beating his closest competitor (Halladay) by a full standard deviation. No one is projected to throw more innings or have a lower ERA this season. And remember that No. 8 ranking I gave the Mariners’ rotation? His score accounts for 49.2 percent of that. No other Mariner ranks in the top 50. Halladay, by comparison, is 30.6 percent of the Phillies’ score, and Trevor Cahill, ace of the fifth-ranked A’s, is only 27.7 percent of his team’s score.
  • Poor Washington. They’re projected to have the worst rotation. All five of their starters are ranked in the bottom 20 for their rotation spots, and only John Lannan (96th overall) cracks the top 100 starting pitchers. All others are 134th or worse, including No. 1 starter Livan Hernandez and No. 2 starter Jason Marquis, both the worst in baseball for their rotation spots.
  • On the other side of the coin, the Cardinals are the only team with two top-10 pitchers: ace Chris Carpenter (7th overall) and No. 2 Adam Wainwright (3rd overall). No. 3 starter Jaime Garcia, coming off a strong rookie campaign, ranks 33rd.
  • Four Phillies starters crack the top 25 overall: Halladay (2nd), Lee (13th), Oswalt (20th), and Hamels (25th). No other team even has three in the top 25, and only the Giants, Cards, Angels, and Red Sox have two.
  • Dallas Braden ranks 26th, one spot behind Hamels. I have no idea why he’s so high, apart from a huge ballpark and a great defense behind him.
  • Top to bottom, the only rotation that can compete with the Phillies’ is, unsurprisingly, the Giants’. Not only are Tim Lincecum (5th overall) and Matt Cain (11th) more or less a wash with Halladay and Lee, Barry Zito (83rd) has a clear advantage over Blanton, and Jonathan Sanchez (42nd) and Madison Bumgarner (68th, but only because of a very low projection for innings pitched) are close enough to Oswalt and Hamels that, in a playoff series, the rotations could realistically be called a wash. Of course, in a playoff series, Zito/Blanton wouldn’t matter, and I’m getting ahead of myself anyway.
  • The Dodgers, Red Sox, Twins, and Giants don’t have a pitcher ranked outside the top 100. The Rays ought not to have, either, but Jeremy Hellickson is only projected to pitch 57 innings.
  • The Royals and Pirates, ranked 29th and 28th, respectively, don’t have a starting pitcher between them who ranks better than 101st (Ross Ohlendorf). The Royals’ top pitcher is 117th-ranked Bruce Chen. In short, the worst Phillies starter (Blanton) is ranked higher than the best Royals starter. Yikes.

But we’ve gotten a little far afield from the original question: is the Phillies’ rotation the best in MLB for 2011? This projection system certainly seems to think so.

Got questions or grievances? Leave them in the comments or ask me directly on Twitter @atomicruckus.

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