WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 4: Stephen Strasburg #37 of the Washington Nationals seems to enjoy being really good at pitching. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
The Phillies had the best starting pitching in baseball last year. The Orioles had the worst. Every baseball fan wants to know what it takes to put together a great rotation these days. What does it take, and how good does a pitcher have to be to find a job in the major leagues?
Below is a table showing the ERA and xFIP of every starting rotation in the majors by starting slot. How I came up with these numbers can be seen here. The actual pitchers that make up a slot often differ between the ERA and xFIP columns, and every reader is free to choose which stat to put his or her faith in. Below the table, I will take a look at the best and worst of the rotations in both leagues, before examining how the Nationals rotation compared to the rest of the league in 2011 and how it may expect to compete in 2012.
To ensure that everyone knows how to recognize a good pitcher, here is a picture of Stephen Strasburg, baseball’s best starting pitcher over the past two seasons by some measures (FIP and xFIP, min. 6 IP).
|Chi White Sox||3.52||3.76||4.14||4.36||5.10||3.53||3.68||3.77||3.85||4.12|
Bolded numbers show league leaders. Order of teams reflects final regular season standings. Each starting slot represents 32 games, except for the #5 starter's slot, which represents 34 games (33 games for Dodgers & Nats). For the 2010 xFIP numbers for the NL, click here.
The Good, the Bad and the Orioles
As expected, the Philadelphia Phillies compare well to the rest of the National League. While their #1 starters (Halladay in ERA, Lee in xFIP) were eclipsed by Kershaw and Greinke respectively, the Phillies rotation is by far the deepest in the majors. It is worth noting that Zach Greinke was tops in the league by xFIP, but only a #4 starter on his team by ERA.
The NL East and NL West both had a lot of good pitching last year, with a good number of very deep rotations. As usual, the NL Central didn’t seem to bother with pitching really well. Worst #1 slot in the league – the
Over on the American League side, no single rotation dominated. The Tampa Bay Rays had a strong middle of the rotation, but
The biggest surprise over in the
The Nationals and the Future of their Rotation
The Nationals #1 starter slot put up a gaudy 2.71 ERA, tied with the Giants for 4th in the NL. That’s impressive, but on the other hand the Nats #1 starters by xFIP ranked 13th in the NL with 3.57 xFIP. Was the Nationals rotation in 2011 good, or not? In terms of ERA, every pitching slot in the Nationals rotation was league average or better. In terms of xFIP, every slot except the #5 slot was decidedly below average.
Since the Nationals have not changed the rotation so far this offseason, how much hope for improvement is there really in 2012?
Stephen Strasburg, the hope of the Nationals. If he stays healthy in 2012, he could make the Nats #1 slot one of the best in the league. His career ERA of 2.54 and his career xFIP of 2.14 are terrific. A healthy Strasburg should be able to put up a solid 25 starts before he hits his innings limit in 2012, which could be enough to really shake up this rotation for the better.
Jordan Zimmermann put up a 3.18 ERA and a 3.78 xFIP as he anchored the rotation in 2011, his first season back from Tommy John surgery. If he can repeat that in 2012, much less improve on it, he could make the Nats #2 slot one of the best in the NL.
John Lannan put up the best numbers of his four year career in 2011. His 3.70 ERA was good enough to make the #3 slot in the Nationals rotation. Considering that his career xFIP is 0.45 higher than his career ERA, it is not surprising that he slotted in as a #4 starter on the xFIP side. If Lannan can outperform his xFIP again in 2012, he may be able to produce another sub 4.00 ERA season and contribute to a strong and deep rotation.
Chien-Ming Wang is another Nationals pitcher returning from injury. In 11 starts coming off rehab, he put up a 4.04 ERA and a 4.17 xFIP. If he can improve on those numbers in 2012 and stay healthy, he could make the middle of the Nats rotation better than ever.
Until further notice, the last slot in the Nationals rotation belongs to Ross Detwiler. Detwiler may have enjoyed a bit of luck last year, as he put up a 3.00 ERA in 10 starts, while posting an xFIP of 4.08. What is encouraging is that his career xFIP prior to 2011 had been much closer to 5 than 4, so there is every indication that he really did make some real improvements last year. No one knows what to expect when Ross Detwiler takes the mound in 2012, but if he can sustain anything close to the production he showed last fall, it could be the start of something beautiful.
Whatever happens, the Nationals rotation will have to continue to defy expectations to win. Two of their pitchers are coming back from injury. Only one of their pitchers has an xFIP that would be comfortable showing its face in the top half of a winning rotation. For all those reservations, the Nats rotation was pretty decent in 2011, and promises to be even better in 2012.
Free Agents and Trade Targets
With C.J. Wilson and Mark Buehrle off the market, the opportunities for the Nats to improve their rotation via free agency have certainly thinned. The big names left now are pitchers like Yu Darvish and Roy Oswalt. The one is young Japanese pitcher who potentially could out-produce Zimmermann. The other is an old veteran whose best days are behind him. For all his years, Oswalt would almost certainly still slide into the Nats rotation in the #3 slot, ahead of Lannan and Wang. Yu Darvish has a very high ceiling, but since he has never faced major league batters, it is impossible to predict exactly how effective he would be, or how he would affect the Nationals rotation. Sources predict, however, that he would likely be better than Lannan in any case, and young to boot.
One potential candidate that the Nationals have been linked to in the trade market is
If the Nationals add another quality pitcher to their staff, it would open the door to trading away one of their younger arms, perhaps Lannan or Detwiler. John Lannan would, by ERA, have been welcomed by no less than six NL teams last year as their #2 starter, and would be welcome as a back of the rotation innings eater on any number of teams. Detwiler is more of an unknown quantity, but for many teams he would be a low-risk gamble with a lot of upside for their rotation. The Nationals also control Tom Gorzelanny, who was relegated to the bullpen during the 2011 season, but prefers to start. With an ERA and xFIP of 4.03 in 2011, Gorzelanny could have value as a starter to a number of teams.
The Low Down
Every one of the starting pitchers the Nationals have or are targeting for their rotation has the ability to produce an ERA below 4.00. If the Nationals manage to do that, they will pull off something only the Phillies managed this year. The 2012 Nationals rotation may never be able to put up the gaudy numbers the Phillies do, but they should certainly be able to be competitive day in and day out. If they do that, this team has a real chance to be a winning team.
• All data was originally acquired via fangraphs.com, but has since been tortured and squeezed through formulas for the benefit of the viewing public.