The Sixth Starter: I See Dead Arms

If you have attempted the Herculean task of projecting players yourself, whether here at the site, or in your own massive excel-based laboratory, you have no doubt run into the brick wall that is playing time. Most of the gurus of baseball projections will happily tell you that projecting playing time is the biggest challenge in the whole process. The rest will tell you the same thing; they just won’t do it happily. Between injuries, competition for jobs, managerial preferences, and poor performances, it is extremely difficult to estimate how much a player will actually play. That tends to make projecting everything else a little more difficult too.

Pitchers are naturally the most complicated players to project playing time for. There are a number of different roles that pitchers can be placed in and that greatly shape their innings totals. The difference between a middle reliever and a fifth starter is likely to be over one hundred innings, but in many cases the same player could end up in either role. This issue is extremely relevant for the 2012 Boston Red Sox, as their likely fourth starter, Daniel Bard, is making the transition from setup man to starter and at least one candidate for the rotation, Felix Doubront, who is just 24, has yet to total 150 innings in a season at any level. For this reason, the competition for the final starting spot is more practically a competition for the fifth and sixth starters’ roles and even beyond.

Consider last season’s unquestionable number one pitching staff, the Philadelphia Phillies. This team had three top starters who all threw over 200 innings. Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay tossed 233 and 232 respectively and Cole Hamels threw 216. All three answered the bell 32 times for the NL East Champions. Behind them, they got a reasonable contribution from fourth starter Roy Oswalt and rookie Vance Worley. Oswalt made 23 starts for 139 innings and Worley made 21 for 131 innings. In total, there five starters threw 951 innings, just short of an average of six innings per game for 162. Yet, even the Phillies, with their top three pitchers all making 30+ starts and their back end starters topping 20 each, needed 15 starts and 83 innings from Kyle Kendrick and 8 starts and 38 innings from Joe Blanton.

In the American League, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim got extremely similar production from their nearly ideal rotation. Top starters Jared Weaver, Dan Haren, and Ervin Santana all threw over 200 innings, making over 30 starts each. Back end starters Joel Pinero and Tyler Chatwood each top 20 starts and 130 innings. This left six starts for Jerome Williams, three for both Matt Palmer and Garrett Richards and one for Scott Kazmir.

Last season, only the Texas Rangers and the Milwaukee Brewers managed to give less than 10 starts to players outside their five man rotation. This is just one season and results are not tremendously predictive, but it does show that even in the best case scenario, it is wise to look beyond the fifth starter. While we think of the modern rotation as being five men deep, it is probably more accurate to say that it is a five man cycle, with three or four core members and two to four players covering the final slot.

This is important for Boston because at the back end of the rotation we will have Daniel Bard, who could be an excellent pitcher for a number four starter, but is highly unlikely to top 200 innings or to make 30 starts. Three projections at Fangraphs have Bard projected as a starter and only the fans projections have him pitching more than 160 innings. Should Bard be healthy and effective enough to average 6 innings per start, we could assume that he will make between 22-27 starts in 2012. That will leave between 5-10 starts for a sixth starting pitcher.

Similarly, if Felix Doubront should make the rotation, a best case scenario of 170 innings and 22-27 starts would seems fairly logical. Doubront is still young enough for his body to be developing and concerns about the workload to limit his innings. He is also coming off a season where he struggled with injuries and pitched just 87 innings as a result. Fully healthy and productive, Doubront taking over the final rotation spot still means 5-10 starts going to another starter.

Should the fifth starter role go to Aaron Cook (who will not be ready for opening day) or Vicente Padilla (who has a strained hamstring at the moment), it is even harder to estimate what those pitchers could be capable of, innings wise. Both had been fairly durable before the last few seasons saw them lose a great deal or time to injuries. Both pitchers could also have a difficult time remaining effective enough to warrant 30 starts. Estimating their playing time is next to impossible. A best case scenario for either one would be 30 plus starts, but in reality 20-25 is probably a safer bet if one of these two pitchers does make the rotation out of the gate.

The one player who truly seems capable of pitching near 200 innings and performing above average is Alfredo Aceves. Pitching over 100 innings in a dual starter/reliever capacity for the Red Sox last season, Aceves showed great versatility. Ironically, it is that versatility that may keep him out of the rotation, at least early in the year. Aceves gives Boston a player who can be effective and pitch important innings out of the bullpen and also slide into the rotation to cover that occasional spot start. With the limits we can reasonably project onto Bard and Doubront, Aceves could actually start close to 15 games and pitch over 100 innings in that capacity, while also throwing 50-60 innings as a reliever. It is doubtful that any other pitcher could offer that kind of flexibility for Bobby Valentine.

Because of all of this uncertainty, Ben Cherington and his team have done a very wise thing in amassing a number of players, like Padilla and Cook who can be optioned to the minors and then recalled when the time comes for another arm to pick up several starts. Having to carry players like Doubront (who is out of options) on the 25 man roster limits the team’s ability to maximize the bullpen’s effectiveness and still have players ready to start when needed. Should he struggle as a starter, Doubront can only be banished to the bullpen, where as Cook and Padilla can be sent down.

Earlier this week, Cee wrote about creative ways for Boston to get the best out of the starting rotation. Bobby Valentine will need to think creatively about the structure of the rotation because even the best case scenario will mean finding a way to mix in seven or eight guys.

Personally, I think, at this point, Alfredo Aceves is man who should begin the year as the fifth starter. With Andrew Miller a major question mark, both health and effectiveness-wise, having Doubront begin the season in the bullpen helps limit his innings and gives Boston a lefty reliever while Rich Hill makes his way back and Franklin Morales deals with his shoulder issues. Aceves can move back to the bullpen later in the season, while still occasionally starting to spell Daniel Bard.

Regardless of who begins the year in the final rotation spot, the team needs contributions from nearly every pitcher still in line for the job. The 2012 Boston Red Sox are definitely counting on more than just five players to give them the best possible rotation this year.

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