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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?

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