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Dissecting the Nationals Rotation

For anyone out there not following the rise of the Nationals, Washington has some decent starting pitching. This was not always the case.  Last January, I took the 2010 Nats starting pitchers and turned them into a theoretical rotation which looked like this:

#1 Starter #2 Starter #3 Starter #4 Starter #5 Starter
3.36 ERA 4.01 ERA 4.77 ERA 5.15 ERA 6.02 ERA

That #1 starter was half pre-injury Stephen Strasburg and half vintage Livan Hernandez. Post-injury Jordan Zimmermann slotted in at #3, and recovering Jason Marquis anchored the bottom of the #5 slot. Things were not pretty, but there was hope, and some of that hope was realized in 2011:

#1 Starter #2 Starter #3 Starter #4 Starter #5 Starter
2.71 ERA 3.52 ERA 3.83 ERA 4.03 ERA 4.59 ERA

This year, post-injury Strasburg, Ross Detwiler and Jordan Zimmermann put together a solid #1 slot for the Nats, and the numbers for the rotation should be even better next year across the line. Take the current rotation, cut the worst pitchers, add a free agent, and stir. Now think about it.  If you are a Nats fan, it should give you warm, fuzzy feelings.  Lots more after the break.

Here is this year’s full table, showing which pitcher made which starting slot based on ERA:

GS ERA #1 #2 #3 #4 #5
Brad Peacock 2 0.75 2
Stephen Strasburg 5 1.50 5
Ross Detwiler 10 3.00 10
Jordan Zimmermann 26 3.18 15 11
John Lannan 33 3.70 21 12
Tom Milone 5 3.81 5
Jason Marquis 20 3.95 15 5
Tom Gorzelanny 15 4.03 15
Chien-Ming Wang 11 4.04 11
Livan Hernandez 29 4.47

1 28
Yunesky Maya 5 5.23 5

ERA 2.71 3.52 3.83 4.03 4.59

Both Detwiler (#2 slot in 2010) and Zimmermann (#3 slot in 2010) moved up in the rotation from last year. Lannan and Marquis also both improved on 2010, and new-comer Chien-Ming Wang slotted in at #4 coming off rehab. The #5 slot went all Cuban this year, and faces cuts.

Looking forward, the first positive takeaway is that the players who are not going to return all come from the bottom of that list.  Of the #4/#5 starters, only Wang and Maya are likely to return. Wang, of course, is expected to pitch better in 2012 than he did in 2011, with his rehab out of the way.  Maya is not expected to improve, but may get his five starts like he does every year for the sake of tradition. (Yes, Gorzelanny will be back, but not as a starter.  And yes, Rizzo should eat Maya’s contract sooner than later.)

This is the same strategy the Nats employed last year, when they ditched every #4/#5 starter except for Jason Marquis and Maya.  The gains may be more incremental in 2012, but they will hopefully still be substantial.

While the bottom of the rotation gets trimmed, the top of the rotation is expected to grow, with a full season of Strasburg hopefully pushing Zimmermann into the #2 slot and Lannan down to compete with Wang for the #3 slot.

Who gets the #5 job next year?  If nobody new is signed, it may fall to Detwiler (a #1 this year), but reportedly Rizzo is working hard to make sure that that doesn’t happen.

If Mark Buehrle is signed, he would be competing for that #3 slot (3.59 ERA in 2011, 3.83 lifetime). So would Roy Oswalt (3.69 ERA in 2011, 3.21 lifetime) or Edwin Jackson (3.58 ERA in 2011, 4.46 lifetime). C.J. Wilson (2.94 ERA in 2011, 3.60 lifetime) would try to compete for one of the top two slots, and Yu Darvish looks like he would fit well somewhere in the #1 to #4 slot range.

The Rotation in xFIP

Now I am going to go over the same ground again using xFIP instead of ERA. To refresh your memories, xFIP attempts to measure only the parts of the game that a pitcher can control (strikeouts, walks, HBPs and HRs) and put them in an ERA-like scale.  It tries to get rid of factors like fielding and luck, and overall correlates well with future ERA.  It is not perfect though.  For example, extreme groundball pitchers like Lannan often look worse than they are using this metric.

Back to the numbers, here is the 2010 rotation using xFIP:

#1 Starter #2 Starter #3 Starter #4 Starter #5 Starter
3.24 xFIP 4.36 xFIP 4.59 xFIP 4.82 xFIP 5.34 xFIP

The 2010 rotation has Craig Stammen with Strasburg in the #1 slot, Lannan and Livo holding down the middle, and Ross Detwiler down in the #5 slot.

And here is the 2011 rotation:

#1 Starter #2 Starter #3 Starter #4 Starter #5 Starter
3.57 xFIP 3.99 xFIP 4.15 xFIP 4.25 xFIP 4.47 xFIP

When the #5 starters of 2011 outperform the #3 starters of 2010 in both ERA and xFIP, it is a very good sign for the team.

Here, then, is the full table for the 2011 rotation by xFIP:

GS xFIP #1 #2 #3 #4 #5
Stephen Strasburg 5 2.43 5
Jordan Zimmermann 26 3.78 26
Jason Marquis 20 3.96 1 19
Tom Gorzelanny 15 4.03 13 2
Ross Detwiler 10 4.08 10
Chien-Ming Wang 11 4.17 11
John Lannan 33 4.24 9 24
Livan Hernandez 29 4.28 8 21
Yunesky Maya 5 4.44 5
Tom Milone 5 4.59 5
Brad Peacock 2 6.27 2
ERA 3.57 3.99 4.15 4.25 4.47

Strasburg rocks.  Back in 2010, in limited action, Strasburg led the majors in xFIP by a starting pitcher. This year, he was beaten by a rookie named Matt Moore who only threw five innings (and who loses the xFIP title if you count his postseason performance).  This is hype worth believing.

Ranked by xFIP, Detwiler drops to the #3 slot, allowing Zimmermann and Marquis slide up to #1 and #2 respectively.  Lannan also drops a slot compared to ERA. Gorzelanny, a #4 starter by ERA, slots in at #2, but it is unlikely to buy him a starting spot in 2011.  His stats here include his time in the bullpen, where he pitched much better than he ever did as a starter.  The #5 slot maintains its Cuban flavor, but makes room for rookies Milone and Peacock.

I should probably talk a little more about the mysterious Brad Peacock and his small sample size problem. He tops the ERA list, but is a mere footnote in the xFIP list. He does have plenty of potential, but it is probably best to think of him fitting in somewhere between those two extremes. These numbers are a curse of SSS, though some players like Strasburg and Maya are consistent year after year even with SSS. I will try to address this disparity in a bit, but first here is a look at the free agents and how they would theoretically slot in using xFIP.

Buehrle (4.14 xFIP in 2011, 4.22 lifetime) would slide in ahead of Lannan this time, and with Gorzelanny and Marquis out of the picture the #3 slot is open for the taking (if Detwiler isn’t pitching). Oswalt (3.95 xFIP in 2011, 3.58 lifetime) slots in at #2, and could put pressure on Zimmermann there. Edwin Jackson (3.73 xFIP in 2011, 4.38 lifetime) would similarly be in the running for that #2 or #3 slot.

C.J. Wilson (3.41 xFIP in 2011, 3.79 lifetime) would come in ready to push Jordan Zimmermann to the #3 slot. Yu Darvish is still a wildcard, but for some reason I feel obligated to mention him despite my inability to predict his future production.

It looks like Rizzo is determined to make Lannan the #5 pitcher in the rotation as soon as possible. This could leave the Nats with a 3.70 ERA and a 4.24 xFIP out of the #5 slot.  Cue the warm, fuzzy feelings if you’re a Nats fan.

The State of the Rotation

I am going to finish up today by averaging the two tables above. It should provide a nice quick way to rank the pitchers’ performances in 2011.  Did Ross Detwiler  pitch like a #1 slot pitcher (ERA) or a #3 slot pitcher (xFIP)? I will average the two, and call him a #2 slot pitcher within the context of the 2011 Nats pitching staff.

Slot #
Stephen Strasburg 1
Jordan Zimmermann 1.2
Ross Detwiler 2
Jason Marquis 2.6
Tom Gorzelanny 3
John Lannan 3
Brad Peacock 3
Chien-Ming Wang 3.5
Tom Milone 4
Livan Hernandez 4.9
Yunesky Maya 5

All this information will hopefully be useful to anyone trying to build the Nats rotation of the future. To improve in 2012, this rotation needs two pitchers coming back from injuries to pitch a lot and pitch well.  The hole in the rotation left by Marquis and Gorzelanny represents 35 games of solid pitching. If both Strasburg and Zimmermann stay healthy all season, that hole will be filled.  If Chien-Ming Wang stays healthy, he will fill the hole left by Livo.

That gives the Nationals two top tier pitchers and two mid tier pitchers. The last slot will either be filled via a free agent or be filled from within. The free agent options are mostly mid tier options, though most of these options that have the potential to outperform their present competition. C.J. Wilson with his big price tag is a top tier option (with possibly Yu Darvish), that has the potential to greatly deepen the rotation.

The options within the system are Ross Detwiler, Brad Peacock and Tommy Milone. All have promise but come with little certainty.  Detwiler showed up his critics with ten solid starts, but it was a breakout year for him. Can he do it again? Peacock has the most promise, but he is no Strasburg and will probably get more seasoning at AAA.  Milone showed the ability to compete at the major league level, but did not blow anyone away. Until Rizzo shows his hand and decides whether or not to buy in the free agent market, nobody will know how much confidence the organization places in these young arms.

Thinking About the Future

Here are some things to consider when thinking about the future of this rotation:

Strasburg is under team control through 2015.
Zimmermann is under team control through 2015.
Lannan is under team control through 2013.
Wang is signed through 2012.
Detwiler is under team control through 2015.

The team is going to continue to replace its worst pitchers over the next few years. Does it make sense to sign another short term contract with an aging mid-level pitcher?

In contrast, how would the addition of a top-tier pitcher make the Nats rotation look for the next half decade?

If the Nats expect to be contending within a few years, when is the best time to find out which of the young guys have the stuff to be part of that future? Do you test them in 2011, or wait until an injury opens a spot?

Will someone like Peacock be ready to take Lannan’s spot in 2014, or Wang’s spot in 2013, or even that last spot in 2012 if no free agent is signed?

My personal take is that it does not make sense for the Nationals to sign anyone who is not top tier (Wilson, Darvish) this offseason.  I could understand, though, if Rizzo decides to put together the best rotation money can reasonably buy to make the Nationals look more like contenders this year even if it blocks a young arm or two.

The Nationals rotation has a way to go before it is ready to go toe to toe with what the Phillies trot out every day, but it is certainly ready to start competing seriously for wins in 2012.