What Should You Expect From Each Rotation Spot?

Exactly four years ago yesterday, Jeff Sackmann wrote an article in the Hardball Times taking a look at what should be expected from each rotation spot.  I had read Sackmann’s article before, but stumbled on to it again last week when I was looking for information on the actual results for #1-5 starters.  I was looking for that information, because like Sackmann at the time, I felt that people tend to overestimate how good a pitcher should be.

Owens has the upside of a #2-3 starter.

Two weeks ago I gave a preview of the Pirates Prospects 2011 Prospect Guide, putting up the scouting report of Rudy Owens.  In the report I mentioned that Owens has the upside of a #2-3 starter, which drew some questions.  Some of those questions surrounded my credibility making such a statement.  All I can say to that is that I’ve seen Owens over half a dozen times in the last two years, I’ve talked to scouts, coaches, and players about him (both in the Pirates’ organization and outside of the organization), and I’ve even talked to Owens himself about what he’s been working on, some of which has made it on to the site, and some of which has not.

But this article isn’t about my evaluation skills.  It also isn’t about whether Owens has #2-3 upside (key word being upside, in that this is his max potential), mostly because I don’t think that’s the issue here.  When I say Owens could be a #2-3 starter, I get the feeling that the people saying he’s a #4-5 starter have an inflated view of what a #4-5 starter actually is.

Jeff Sackmann studied the 2006 season to find the results for each spot in the rotation, using the following method:

For the purposes of this article, it’s necessary to define exactly what a #1 starter (or #2, or #3) is. To keep things as simple as possible, I used ERA as a measure of pitching ability. I also figured that each rotation spot accounts for 32 starts. On many teams, the #1 guy isn’t the same for the whole season. For example, let’s look at the 2006 Twins. Here are all of the pitchers who made more than one start for Minnesota last year:

Starter GS      ERA
Liriano 16      2.16
Santana 34      2.77
Bonser  18      4.22
Radke   28      4.32
Garza   9       5.76
Silva   31      5.94
Baker   16      6.37
Lohse   8       7.07

By ERA, Francisco Liriano was the best of these guys, but he only made 16 starts. So, he made half of the “#1 starter” starts. Since Johan Santana is next in line, I assigned 16 of his starts to round out a composite #1 starter. Thus, the Twins #1 starter was half Santana, half Liriano. Santana’s remaining 18 starts were assigned to the composite #2 starter.

Intuitively speaking, that distribution is a reflection of the fact that, while Liriano was in the rotation, Santana was #2. When Liriano was in the bullpen or on the disabled list, Santana was #1.

Sackmann discovered that the rotation spots broke down as follows:

Lg      #1      #2      #3      #4      #5
MLB     3.60    4.14    4.58    5.10    6.24
AL      3.70    4.24    4.58    5.09    6.22
NL      3.51    4.04    4.57    5.11    6.26

Yesterday I had a poll, asking for your expectations for each rotation spot.  The results were much higher than Sackmann’s research of the 2006 season:

#1 - 36.15% of voters picked a 3.10 ERA as the expectations for a #1 starter. 67.64% had a #1 starter as either a 2.84 and 3.10 ERA.

#2 – 44.69% of voters picked a 3.61 ERA as the expectations for a #2 starter.  74.07% had a #2 starter as either a 3.30 and a 3.61 ERA.

#3 – 58.15% of voters picked a 4.15 ERA as the expectations for a #3 starter.  87.86% had a #3 starter as either a 3.73 and a 4.15 ERA.

#4 – 40.06% of voters picked a 4.40 ERA as the expectations for a #4 starter.  70.19% had a #4 starter as either a 4.40 and a 4.60 ERA.

#5 – 44.16% of voters picked a 4.75 ERA as the expectations for a #5 starter.  73.71% had a #5 starter as either a 4.75 and a 5.00 ERA.

Those results are drastically different than what Sackmann came up with.  However, before I even ran the poll, I did some research on the 2010 results, as I felt the 2006 results were outdated.  The results from yesterday aren’t totally unreasonable, despite the big differences between those results and Sackmann’s numbers.  The reason for that is that the pitching numbers were better in 2010 compared to 2006.  Some of that could be due to the amount of young, talented starters that have emerged the last few years, although I think a bigger role comes with the end of the steroid era.

I studied the 2010 rotations from every team, using the same approach that Sackmann used above.  The only difference was that I gave 33 starts to the #1-2 spots, since 32 starts for each spot equals 160 games.  Here are the results, by rotation spot:

#1 Starter

MLB Average: 3.10

MLB Median: 3.09

AL Average: 3.24

NL Average: 2.99

MLB Best/Worst: 2.08 / 4.17

Average of the Top 15 Rotations: 2.84

Average of the Bottom 15 Rotations: 3.37

MLB Range of the 11-20 Ranked Rotations: 2.88 – 3.35

The results from the number one spot are much higher than they were in 2006.  That shouldn’t be a surprise, as 2010 was a great year for pitchers, with 18 qualified starters coming in with an ERA lower than the 3.10 league average.  The poll results from yesterday picked this as the most popular choice (and looking at these results, you can see where I got the choices from), although a big majority had a 3.10 ERA or higher as the expectations.

#2 Starter

MLB Average: 3.61

MLB Median: 3.58

AL Average: 3.71

NL Average: 3.53

MLB Best/Worst: 2.71 / 4.69

Average of the Top 15 Rotations: 3.31

Average of the Bottom 15 Rotations: 3.91

MLB Range of the 11-20 Ranked Rotations: 3.42 – 3.72

The number two spot looks very similar to the number one spot from the 2006 results.  Prior to this research, when I thought of a #2 starter, I was thinking in the 3.90 range, which is a little better than what Sackmann had in his 2006 research.  The poll results also nailed this one, although just like the number one starter, the majority of the votes had a 3.61 ERA or higher.

#3 Starter

MLB Average: 4.15

MLB Median: 4.12

AL Average: 4.28

NL Average: 4.03

MLB Best/Worst: 3.22 / 5.19

Average of the Top 15 Rotations: 3.73

Average of the Bottom 15 Rotations: 4.56

MLB Range of the 11-20 Ranked Rotations: 3.86 – 4.42

Just like the number two starter results, the number three starter looks similar to the #2 starters in 2006.  It’s almost like a better pitcher was added to each rotation, and everyone else moved down a spot.  Once again, the poll results picked this result, and once again, the majority of the expectations were better than a 4.15 ERA.

#4 Starter

MLB Average: 4.62

MLB Median: 4.57

AL Average: 4.76

NL Average: 4.49

MLB Best/Worst: 3.51 / 6.05

Average of the Top 15 Rotations: 4.20

Average of the Bottom 15 Rotations: 5.03

MLB Range of the 11-20 Ranked Rotations: 4.38 – 4.78

This is where things get interesting.  The majority of votes had a 4.40 ERA as the expectations for this spot.  Also, 97% of voters picked a 4.60 ERA or better, with two thirds of the overall voters picking better than a 4.40 ERA.  Again, this is similar to the 2006 results for the number three spot in the rotation, continuing the trend of the expectations moving down one spot.

#5 Starter

MLB Average: 5.69

MLB Median: 5.69

AL Average: 5.68

NL Average: 5.70

MLB Best/Worst: 4.56 / 7.16

Average of the Top 15 Rotations: 5.41

Average of the Bottom 15 Rotations: 5.97

MLB Range of the 11-20 Ranked Rotations: 5.37 – 5.96

The results here are where the expectations get too high.  The popular vote had the expectations for a #5 starter at a 4.75 ERA.  Almost 90% of the votes had a #5 starter with a 5.00 ERA or better.  The average of the top 15 rotations was a 5.41 ERA.  Only four teams in the majors had better than a 5.00 ERA: Oakland (4.56), San Francisco (4.70), the Cubs (4.71), and the Phillies (4.83).  That is similar to the results from the 2006 poll, although overall the number five starters improved, just like every other rotation spot has over the last four years.

Dividing Lines

Sackmann also had dividing lines in his research, where he basically took the mid-point between each rotation spot to give a better idea of the range for each rotation spot.  This can also be accomplished by getting the average of all of the pitchers for each spot (for example, the mid-point for the #1/2 starters is the average of all of the #1 and #2 pitchers).  The dividing lines for 2010:

#1/#2 – 3.36 ERA

#2/#3 – 3.88 ERA

#3/#4 – 4.38 ERA

#4/#5 – 5.15 ERA

That breaks down to the following ranges:

#1 – 3.36 ERA or better

#2 – 3.36 – 3.88 ERA

#3 – 3.88 – 4.38 ERA

#4 – 4.38 – 5.15 ERA

#5 – 5.15 ERA or worse

This research explains a few common phrases.  For example, Kevin Correia has been described as a #2 starter on the Pirates, and a #4 starter on a contender.  Looking at the information above, the average ERA for a #2 starter on a bottom 15 rotation is 3.91.  The average ERA for a #4 starter on a top 15 rotation is 4.20.  Correia had a 3.91 ERA in 2009, and in each of the last two years he has been around a 4.20 xFIP.

It also helps explain what people mean when they say a player has the upside of a #2-3 starter, such as my estimate with Owens.  The tendency when these evaluations are thrown out are to take the highest number and run with it.  I’ll say Owens has the upside of a #2-3 starter, and most people will look at the above and think I’m saying “Owens could have a 3.36 ERA”.  What I’m saying is that Owens could be in the 3.36 – 4.38 ERA range, which is the range of the #2-3 starters.  Specifically with Owens, I don’t think he will be as high as a 3.36 ERA, but I do think he could break a 4.00 ERA, and I definitely think he’ll be better than a 4.38 ERA.

Finally, we often see comments that the Pirates have nothing but potential #4-5 starters in the farm system, outside of guys like Jameson Taillon who have top of the rotation upside.  Based on the poll results, people feel that a #4 starter is a 4.40 ERA pitcher, while a #5 starter is a 4.75 ERA pitcher.  Chances are when you see a discussion about a player, and someone says he’s a #4-5 starter, they’re overestimating how good a #4-5 starter should be, and actually referring to a #3-4 starter.

Tomorrow I’ll take a look at the Pirates and their rotation as it currently sits, as well as some of the prospects who could arrive in 2011, to see what exactly the Pirates have to work with in 2011.

Tim Williams

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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  • Anonymous

    Tim
    Thanks for the research, especially the part about why a pitcher can be a #2 or #4.
    I sometimes find myself grouping pitchers by talent, for example I might use the franchise pitcher label and don’t use 1-5 numbers. Rudy Owens might be #3 or #4, but after he pitches for a while and does well, I will probably think of him as a quality starter and won’t care if he is #3 or #4.
    Duke simply left my mind, after last year I had no number for him, I just wanted him to seek his lifes work elsewhere even though he was a good guy.

    Here are some of my groupings.
    #1. Money pitcher, (Guy I want to pitch the big game, regardless of his ERA)
    I also like this type of hitter.
    #2. Franchise pitcher, (Guy that carries very low league ERA)
    #3. Ace pitcher, (Guy that can pitch against anyone and win)
    #4. Dependable starter, (Guy that has a chance to win every time out, but is not quite as good a pitcher as an ace)
    #5. Stopper, (Guy that ends losing streaks)
    #6. Work Horse, (Guy that can stay in a game with a lot of pitches)
    #7. Innings eater, (Guy that can pitch often)
    #9. Bad pitcher, (Pitcher like Duke, still keeps job, but is not dependable)

    When you talk about a guy like Owens, after he pitches for a while, if he pitches well, good or bad results, I will probably put a label on him. If he pitches bad, I won’t have to worry about it, he will be gone.

    So far for 2011, IMO the best starting staff in baseball has to be the Phillies.

  • Anonymous

    Agreed thanks for the research Tim very informative. People definitely under value quality pitchers by always comparing them too Hallady, Lee, CC, etc.. The fact is theres only a handful of guys like that around the league and the rest of the 1s,2s,and 3s are much closer than anyone realizes.
    I equate a lot of this to blind ignorance as too what the rest of the league is doing mixed with some hometown ownership bashing.
    For the top 4 spots my votes were pretty right on but I was a little surprised to see the 5th so high. I wouldve thought right around 5.00 not less but not way over either. Guess teams like the Pirates trotting Charlie Morton and his 8 era or whateveer can really juice that up.
    Good work Tim I just wish we could get the Pirate bashing masses to check your site openmindedly on a daily basis.

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

      I don’t think this is limited to just Pirates fans. I think it’s a league wide issue. A big problem is the super rotations, such as the Phillies, and more commonly, the Yankees.

      In these cases you’ve got competitive, big spending teams who have top of the rotation pitchers, but go after additional aces to serve as their #2-4 guys. For example, the Phillies had Cole Hamels, who would easily be the ace for a lot of teams. Then they added Roy Halladay. After that they traded for Roy Oswalt. Then they signed Cliff Lee (who they added before adding Halladay). Same goes for the Yankees. Every year they’re after the best pitcher on the market.

      Not that either of these approaches are bad, but they’re not the norm, and not obtainable for teams like the Pirates, or most teams in baseball. The problem is that because a few of the big market teams have taken this approach, it’s expected to be the norm for every team, and baseball’s economics just don’t allow that.

      • Anonymous

        I believe which number a starter is(such as being a #1 starter) should be based on only comptitive teams. Less competitive teams sometimes throw out trash in the rotations which is why the ERAs are so high for these spots. Rudy Owens could be a #2 or 3 on a team like the Pirates for sure, but what about on the Giants or even on the Rangers? He wouldn’t because they have better players. Averages like these are good to have because they show how good pitchers are compared to the rest of the league, but they aren’t very good when actually classifying pitchers because being the best pitcher on bad team doesn’t mean much. A guy with a 4.55 ERA could be the best pitcher on our team or our #1 starter, but they might now even have a rotation spot on a good one. Them being our #1 brings down the average for #1 guys. Owens definitly has the chance to be a sub 4 ERA guy, but that wouldn’t make him a #2 starter.

        • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

          “Rudy Owens could be a #2 or 3 on a team like the Pirates for sure, but what about on the Giants or even on the Rangers?”

          The point of the article is to point out the league wide averages for all of the rotation spots. Let’s just say that Owens is a 3.90 ERA pitcher. That would have been #2 for the Pirates last year, #4 for the Rangers, and #5 for the Giants. But those rankings are based on the talent that surrounds Owens. He doesn’t improve because he’s the best player on a weak team, and he’s not potentially weaker if he’s the worst pitcher on a great pitching staff.

          As the numbers show, on average, a #2-3 starter can be anywhere between a 3.36 and a 4.38 ERA. If a team is getting those numbers from multiple starters, then it means they have multiple #2-3 starters in their rotation. No one would say that Cole Hamels is a #4, yet that is the role he plays on the Phillies. Likewise, Ross Ohlendorf has pitched like a #3 starter the last two years, but has been a #1-2 on the Pirates. That doesn’t make him a #1-2 starter, just like Hamels isn’t a #4 starter.

          As for Owens, if he’s between a 3.36 and 4.38 ERA, then he will be a #2-3 starter, regardless of what team he pitches for.

          • Anonymous

            I understand, but my point was that the average is brought down because of teams like us having such terrible pitching staffs. Don’t get me wrong, I like what you have done, but a good team won’t have a guy like Owens as their number 2. To compete you NEED pitching staff that can compete with the likes of the Phillies and Giants. That is why taking out the 5 or so worst pitching staffs would probably give a better example of what a #1 or #5 guy is. The bad pitching staffs have multiple guys like Charlie Morton(maybe noth THAT bad)sucking up the place and bringing down the average. It would be very interesting to see this done without the 5 or so worst teams included because it would give us a better idea of what we would need from our guys iin order to compete with those top teams in terms on pitching. Of course we could just overload our lineup with guys like McCutchen, Alvarez, Walker, Tabata, Sanchez, and Rendon and still compete with an even below average rotation.

            • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

              That was why I separated the top 15 and bottom 15 rotations, to give an idea of the above average and below average numbers.

              However, for the average numbers, you have to include all teams. If you were to take out the teams like the Pirates, Orioles, and Royals, who didn’t get #1 results from their #1 spot, then you would also have to take out teams like the Phillies, who got ridiculously high numbers from their number one spot. If you only remove outliers from one side, then you’re definitely going to see the average move toward the other side, since you’re favoring that side.

              Also, having one of the best pitching staffs doesn’t necessarily mean you will compete. Seattle had a top 15 rotation, and obviously didn’t compete in 2010. Texas had the 19th ranked rotation, and made it to the World Series. The Yankees had the 22nd ranked rotation. Park factors might play a role there, although I feel that the offenses played a bigger role. Texas and New York had very strong offenses, and could afford a below-average rotation. Seattle didn’t have the offense, which didn’t help their rotation. As you indicate, offense definitely has to be considered. However, no amount of offense can help a rotation like the Pirates had in 2010, and they don’t have an offense like the Rangers or Yankees, so they’ve got a lot of improving to do in that area.

              • Anonymous

                I understand that removing the outlirs will bring sway the results to one side. That is exactly what I want to see. A good pitching staff is needed unless we have an insane offense like the Yankees or Rangers. We obviously need help in both areas as well as on the defensive side(which wil also improve our pitching). I like that yu seperated the bottom 15 and top 15, but what I am saying is taking it a step further. In normal mathematical situations taking one extreme out and not the other would be harmful to the results and would not give us the full picture. This is not a normal mathematical situation. This is baseball. Owens will be a shot in the arm to our pitching staff whenever he makes it. So will Bryan Morris, Jeff Locke, Justin Wilson, and anyone else similar to each of these pitchers. My question for you is will we be competitive with a rotation filled with guys who may sport ERA’s that make them mostly #3 or #4 starters on the average team? Unless we become an offensive powerhouse(like we have a chance to be) I highly doubt it. So taking out the bottom five teams will show what would be necessary to be competitive. Another way to do this would be to take out the ten worst pitchers in baseball from the average. Both of these would give a better example of the kind of pitching staff required to be a successful team. BTW, good job with this. I’m not trying to be difficult, I just believe people are becoming a bit too optimistic about certain guys and I don’t want them to wallow in disappointment when the guys they believe will be #3 starters don’t make us playoff contenders. Also, it is very hard to characterize what # a starter is and this is probably one of the best looks at what caliber a pitcher is.

      • Anonymous

        i understand that people look at Phillies SF(though mostly homegrown) Yankees teams like that and think their rotation can be the same. It either takes gobs of $ or years of damn near perfect drafting/signing/trading to get a super rotation.

        I just hate all the Correia bashing because hes not Cliff Lee when hes an obvious proven upgrade to what was formerly here. Apples to oranges.

        so this years speculative Roto
        J McDonald
        K Correia
        J Francis :) or some other guy that should turn into prospects
        R Ohlendorf
        C Morton/Olsen

        Taking Maholm(or whoever) from your 1(2010) to the 3-4 could be a huge improvemnet IMO

  • http://twitter.com/McEffect Jon Anderson

    Fantastic work.

  • BlueBomber72

    If the Pirates want to stay in the chase for the postseason, then I think they do need to improve the team. The other contenders are looking to improve, and the Pirates are giving too many AB’s to Presley, McGehee, and others. Choo would be a nice addition. The question is how good do the Pirates think Marte will be? If they think he’s a future allstar, then they shouldn’t trade him. If they think he’s going to be an average player, then they should make the deal. It’s a question of player evaluation. I’d like to see them get Choo and Victorino.

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

      Didn’t they already improve the team? They dealt for Wandy, and called up Marte.

      • BlueBomber72

        Rodriguez plugged a hole in the rotation. They still haven’t done anything to improve the offense. Not sure if Marte is an improvement at this point. Choo would be for sure. He’s a better hitter then everyone on our team excpet McCutchen. If it were me I’d add another another bat. I would want to win now.

  • Dave Parker’s Unfiltered Camel

    There’s no way they should trade Marte, especially after only four games in the big leagues. They need an outfielder that can provide some offense AND put Jone at 1B. This way they improve the outfield defense. They also improve the offense by putting McGehee on the bench. They can even use an occasional platoon with Marte until he gets his sea legs. Just watching Marte run to a fly ball and you realize that he has the potential to be special. His talent is a level above Presley and Tabata.

  • http://www.facebook.com/steven.miller.1217 Steven Miller

    The Pirates have the second easiest second-half schedule in the MLB. Say, as a “bad” scenario in that kind of schedule, the Bucs stumble from here on out and go .500. In that case, they’ll still have 88 or 89 wins and could still snag a playoff spot. A trade just doesn’t seem “necessary” enough to give up a player that Baseball America says is now a top 50 prospect in the MLB.

  • buccotime57

    I still think marte is the answer…i think marte will continue to improve as the season progresses…hit at least .270 with some pop….do you think marte has been extra cautious at the plate it seems like he wants to swing but is holding back…

  • http://twitter.com/jlease717 John Lease

    Pirates need more starting pitching, or need to stick Correia back in the rotation. McDonald needs some time off to clear his head, if that is all it is. Might be hiding an injury, seems to me.

  • Lee Young

    I believe there’s an option in Choo’s contract for 2014? I thought I read that somewhere.

    However, I’d rather have Victorino or someone of his ilk to replace Presley. I had hopes for Alex, but he appears to be 4th OFer matl, unfortunately.