I got an interesting question today in the comments of my Steven Brault article, asking about the definition of number three and four starters. The question:

“One question I’ve wondered for awhile is the definition/ skills of the “#4, #3, etc” starter. I understand nothing is equal value across the board, but Dallas Kuechel for example has excellent control is athletic and has a great change up and deception, average fastball. Sounds like a #4 with the upside of a #3 right?
What’s the seperator for Brault to Keuchel? or #3 to a #1.”

I started thinking about a short answer, but really didn’t have one, other than pointing to my article from the start of the 2014 season, breaking down each rotation spot by ERA. And I didn’t want to just give stats as a reason in response to this question, so I turned to the scouting qualifications for each rotation spot, found each year in the Baseball America handbook.

One of my biggest pet peeves in baseball analysis is the lack of understanding of what a number four or number five starter actually is. That even extends in some cases to a number three, two, or one starter. There’s no official study here, but my perception is that the average fan is typically low by at least one rotation spot when evaluating a pitcher. A number four starter will be seen as a number five at best. A number five will be seen as a guy who doesn’t belong in the majors. I’ve even seen several comments saying Gerrit Cole isn’t a number one, when the numbers and the stuff say otherwise.

A lot of this comes from unrealistic expectations from each rotation spot, and the idea that all number ones pitch like Jake Arrieta in the second half, or that all back of the rotation starters on a contending team have a 3.50 ERA or better. I wanted to give a good, detailed breakdown of each rotation spot, not just to answer the question above, but also to have a reference for each spot.

I’ll be using a combination of the stats linked from the article above, along with the scouting qualifications from the most recent Baseball America Prospect Handbook. Note that I’m using ERA here, but the implication is that a guy will not only have an ERA in this range, but an xFIP to back it up.

Number 4-5 Starters

The Scouting: Baseball America groups these two together, while separating all of the other roles. The qualifications are:

  • Command of two major league pitches
  • Average velocity
  • Consistent breaking ball
  • Decent changeup

I put Brault in this category right now, and reading the descriptions, that’s fair. He’s got great command of his pitches and some deception that makes his stuff look harder. His velocity is around the average range (91-92), with the two-seamer sitting a bit below that range, and the four seam fastball starting to tick above that range. I’d say that both fastballs are major league pitches, although he’ll have to work on the slider and changeup to get them ready for the majors.

The Stats: I break the stats down by each individual spot. Here they are, individually.

Number 5 – Typical range is a 5.09+ ERA. Average of the top 15 rotations was 5.00. The best was 4.15.

Number 4 – Typical range is 4.19-5.09 ERA. Average of the top 15 rotations was 4.00. The best was 3.44.

We’re focusing on Brault in this example. His stuff matches a number 4-5 starter above, and I’d push him higher to a future strong number 4 starter, due to the command, movement, and deception that he has.

On a side note, I often mention that Jeff Locke and Charlie Morton are strong number four MLB starters, and this often draws criticism. These are the factors I use to make that determination. They’ve both combined for an ERA around the 4.00 range the last few years, with advanced metrics that back those numbers up. The dissatisfaction with them, I believe, is due to an unrealistic idea of what a number four starter actually is.

Number 3 Starter

The Scouting: Baseball America has the following breakdown:

  • One plus pitch
  • Two average pitches
  • Average Command
  • Average Makeup

Brault doesn’t have plus velocity at all. I don’t see his slider or changeup becoming plus offerings in the future. I think they could both fit the average role for the second qualification here. I also think his fastball combination, when considering the movement and the command, would be enough to check off that first category. Command is one of the qualifications, but I think his command and makeup are going to be better than average, making up for a lack in another area.

That’s the thing about these qualifications — they should be viewed as a guide and not a hard set of rules. You could get someone who doesn’t have a plus offering at all, but has really good command, makeup, and enough movement on his pitches that he could make up for the lack of a plus pitch with higher ratings in several other categories.

The Stats: The typical range for a number three starter is a 3.69-4.19 ERA. The average of the top 15 rotations was 3.53, and the best number was 3.01.

One thing I like about the stats is that it’s much cleaner. You don’t have to worry about how a player got there. If he consistently puts up these types of numbers, and the advanced metrics back it up, then you’ve got a number three starter. And if a pitcher is consistently putting up these types of numbers, there’s probably a reason for that which lines up somewhat with the list of qualifications above.

Do I think Brault could get to this point? Absolutely. The NL average was a 3.75 ERA, and it’s not too difficult to imagine him getting here. From the scouting standpoint, he could get there by improving his slider and changeup to at least average. As I said above, I don’t consider either of his fastballs to be plus offerings, but with the movement on the two-seam, and if he can consistently spot up the four seam with some increased velocity, I think he’s got a combo that makes up for the lack of a plus offering.

Number 2 Starter

The Scouting: Baseball America has the following breakdown:

  • Two plus pitches
  • Average third pitch
  • Average Command
  • Average Makeup

This is where I think we can leave Brault out of the discussion. As I mentioned above, I think he’ll have better than average command and makeup. And I think his slider and changeup could get to average quality, with his fastballs making up for the lack of a plus offering. I just don’t think he’s got the overall stuff to make up for the lack of two plus offerings.

That’s pretty important in terms of a number two starter. If you’ve got two plus pitches, that means you’d still have a dominant pitch if one of your plus pitches wasn’t on in a given night. And that’s something that’s absolutely common with every pitcher. The best ones remain consistently good because they have another dominant offering to fall back on when their best pitch inevitably fails in some outings.

I don’t think Brault has the stuff to qualify here. I will point out that Jameson Taillon (fastball, slurve) and Tyler Glasnow (fastball, curve) both fit here at the very least, as both have two plus offerings and the makings of an average third pitch with their changeups. They could also trend higher than this with better marks in command and makeup, which I’ll get to in the next group.

The Stats: The typical range for a number two starter is a 3.21-3.69 ERA. The average of the top 15 rotations was 3.27, and the best number was 2.69.

It would be a lot to expect someone like Brault to put up these types of numbers, and it’s absolutely okay if he falls short of this. Not every starter needs to be a number one or a number two, and there is definitely value in having number three or four starters, even if they tend to be under-valued by fans.

This is the category that Francisco Liriano has fit in the last three years. During that time, he’s combined for a 3.26 ERA, which is backed up by a 3.22 xFIP in that time. That puts him as a number two starter in a top rotation.

Number 1 Starter

The Scouting: Baseball America has the following breakdown:

  • Two plus pitches
  • Average third pitch
  • Plus-Plus Command
  • Plus Makeup

I mentioned above in the number three breakdown that these qualifications are just guides, and that a pitcher can get to this without checking off each point exactly. I mentioned Glasnow and Taillon above in the number two section. The difference between that and a number one is the upgrade in command and makeup. I think Glasnow and Taillon could both be number one starters in the future, but I don’t think either one will have plus-plus command (Taillon has the better shot here).

The thing is, they could both be above average in command and makeup, which puts them above the number two starter qualifications. I think their pitches could also be better than plus. In terms of velocity, a plus rating is typically in the 93-94 range. They both sit in the mid-90s, and can touch as high as 99 with their fastballs. Taillon added some great downhill movement on the pitch in the last year, and Glasnow has always had that, albeit with some big (but improving) control issues throughout his career.

Their breaking pitches are also plus offerings, and while there is some subjectivity involved in the evaluation of breaking stuff, the fact that they have some of the best breaking balls in the system and in baseball would put their pitches above plus if they command them well. Taillon is currently ahead of Glasnow in the command department here too, although Glasnow can improve if he can learn to throw his curve for strikes early in the count — a big focus for him in 2015.

The Stats: The typical range for a number one starter is a 3.21 ERA or better. The average of the top 15 rotations was 2.70, and the best number that year was 1.80.

Gerrit Cole made the jump into this range in 2015. He had a 2.60 ERA, and while the advanced metrics didn’t fully back that up, his 3.16 xFIP put him in the number one range. He also fits the scouting qualifications, with at least two plus offerings (fastball, slider), and an average third pitch (his two-seam and changeup would probably both be above average). For as much as his stuff moves, he’s got great command of the pitches, although he has been improving in this area throughout his career with the fastball (keeping it down) and the slider (throwing it for strikes low in the zone or getting hitters to chase).

Once again, the stats are a cleaner way to look at things, and this is what I mainly look at when envisioning a top of the rotation upside for Glasnow and Taillon. Obviously the stuff is a big factor here, and they wouldn’t be getting this type of consideration without their combination of plus offerings.

The original question asked about Keuchel, who I am very familiar with, as he was my breakout pitching pick in a few long-running keeper leagues this year. A big reason for that pick was because he generated some of the softest contact in the league, despite having stuff that would make you look over him as a top of the rotation guy at first glance. His fastball velocity would be about a 40 grade, but the movement on the pitch elevates it some. His off-speed stuff checks off the plus pitch qualifications, once again featuring a lot of movement. And he gets great grades in the command and makeup areas.

This is a rare situation where a guy doesn’t lead with a plus fastball, but has number one stuff all around. It’s difficult to do, because you need really strong secondary pitches, along with great makeup and some of the best command in the game. Keuchel has that. While he shares some similarities with Brault in terms of being athletic and not having the best fastball, the off-speed stuff for Keuchel is way ahead of Brault, which is what makes him a number one, and caps Brault off as a number three at best.

**Steven Brault Moving Beyond Relying on Control and Deception. My article on Brault today. I don’t want to come across as arrogant here, but you’re going to read a lot of articles about Brault this off-season that explain his success and how he has surprised without great stuff. We wrote that article many times throughout the season. Because of that, I wanted to take the next step and build on that coverage.

I could have written about Brault succeeding with his control and deception, but I would have just been repeating my articles from the first half of the season, or Sean’s articles from the second half. My goal when covering the AFL was to find out what players were doing different, and how they were continuing their improvements. In Brault’s case, there was a clear focus that moved the story beyond the “control and deception” idea. Overall, this continues the goal of providing information on prospects well before any other outlet has that same information. The same approach will be taken with the other AFL features, with some great information that was gathered to make this a successful trip.

**Trevor Williams Trade Was a Compensation Deal. This isn’t a surprise. I asked Neal Huntington about this after the trade, and he didn’t confirm, but didn’t deny it. And it explains why the deal was so lopsided, without having to elevate Richard Mitchell above non-prospect status, or assume that there’s something the Pirates missed with him that Benedict saw (the reality is Benedict probably never worked with him at all, since he wouldn’t be spending time coaching GCL relievers).

**AFL: Reese McGuire Reaches Base Four Times in Glendale Loss. My AFL coverage is finished, but the featured articles will continue throughout the next week.

**Winter Leagues: Adam Frazier Helps Team USA to Victory. I was disappointed I didn’t get to see Frazier in the AFL. I saw him last year and was really high on him, despite the lack of numbers in Bradenton. I didn’t get to see him in Altoona, but got great reports from Sean all year. He continues doing well, both in the AFL and with Team USA, and that’s good to see.

 

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115 COMMENTS

  1. Tim,
    It’s been a super busy time for me including just getting past the flu but I wanted to thank you for putting the explanation together in this article.
    I’m pretty good with math, but no sabremetric guy – a lifer baseball guy and I really struggled to put that question in my mind right and this really helped me clear it up.
    I mean as much as anyone can – as we all know player make huge strides up and down and as some have said – prospects lose it all or discover it and valuations change but for someone rating a player today – this helps me understand why your rating them that way.
    I guess in the future when you are trying to put a current label on a prospect I’ll look for those characteristics in the details as to why his ceiling (ultimately what I’m wondering) is what it is.
    Again, thanks for the detail.

  2. Great Topic and article Tim! I will quibble with your choice of ranges on the ERA estimates. If the Pirates want to compete in the playoffs every year the only range that is relevant for comparison is the average of the top 5 rotations in the NL since this years statistics confirmed again the timeless truth that pitching wins championships. The teams with the lowest team ERA generally had the best records. So if the Pirates want to be in the playoffs they need a playoff caliber rotation, which is a little better than what your article implies by referencing the average of the top 15 rotations.

    • And that is also what some organizations have been able to do: the Mets, Cardinals, and soon the Cubs (once they had some free agent to an ungodly large FA contract)…

      • All joking aside, though, it is really incredible to look at what the Mets have accomplished. I mean: DeGrom, Syndergaard, Harvey, Wheeler, and Matz…

        • Definitely. I had DeGrom as a sleeper, and was glad to see him break out for fantasy purposes. But I didn’t realize how good their rotation was until the playoffs, when every guy was hitting 98-99.

          That’s what you hope for from the Pirates group once everyone is up and performing.

          • That Mets rotation (if everyone could stay healthy) is just absolutely disgusting. Tim, I mentioned it earlier, but are there some good comps to be made between Syndergaard and Glasnow? They are different pitchers of course, with Syndergaard’s secondary stuff and control being better…but with some improvement to the change (even minor improvement/trust in it) and some improved consistency with command could we see Glasnow perform like Syndergaard upon his call-up?

        • Also worth remembering after you read the next “Pirates Awful Farm System” hot take.

          Matz and DeGrom were failed prospects by Pirate Media standards, until they weren’t. Which is to say, they were prospects.

      • The question that needs answered is pitching overpowering hitting at the core? I think one could surmise with the Mets and Cubs that more teams will have dominant pitching and hitting is a sinking ship. Long term.

  3. Just looked at this and found it really interesting to consider that Tyler Glasnow’s ratings on Fangraphs are eerily close to Noah Syndergaard’s. Glasnow: FB 65/70, CB 55/60, CH 45/50, Command 40/50, Future Value 60. Syndergaard’s FB 65/70, CB 50/55, CH 50/55, Command 45/50+, Future Value 60.

    It is the secondary stuff that is slightly better for Syndergaard and his better control that sets him apart, but if Glasnow was able to make those improvements, even over the offseason and first month/two of the season…look at what the potential would be added to the rotation in the second half. Essentially adding Noah Syndergaard (i understand that the correlation doesnt work like that etc, but just as an example).

  4. My view of rotation slots has always been to view it from a league average rate. From my admittedly primitive research compared to Tim I found that a #1 starter should be at least 15% better than league average (85 ERA-, FIP-, xFIP-). From that point it basically is a sliding scale of 10 points. Meaning #2: 85-95, #3: 95-105, #4: 105-115, #5: 115-125, replacement starter: 125+

    Obviously it never works out exactly like that but it has been consistently in that ballpark.

  5. Another excellent article explaining the tiered rotation designations:

    http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/scouting-explained-the-20-80-scouting-scale/

    “I’m presenting here are perfect, but it’s a good combination of the objective, research-based scales and the more subjective ones that scouts have traditionally used (but are slowly becoming more objective as front offices have stat guys tweak them)…
    Most scouts agree there are only ever 8-12 pitchers that could be called #1s or aces at any given time, but then there’s like 20 #2s and like 75 #3s. Many fans get tripped up by this term, thinking there are 30 of each type or that every team has exactly one version of each; that’s an understandable misunderstanding. Scouts see tiers of pitchers and call them #1, #2, #3 starters and this is one of those things you only fully understand when someone takes the time to explain to you what they mean.”

    • Great link – I was looking for this but you beat me to it…

      I Think Buc fans get hung up with the 30/30/30 assumption and are often afflicted with unreasonable expectations. I thought that they ended the season with a solid #1 [Happ] a borderline 1 [Cole – ended up the #12 starter in Fangraphs a solid # 2 [Liriano] and 3 [Burnett] and 2 #4s. Cole was clearly a #1 early in the year – but by the end of the season I thought he had slipped out of the elite group – not far – but no longer a top 10 starter…

      A good example of the unreasonable expectation thing is if you look at just NL starters for the full 2015 season you will find Locke at #43 and Morton at #56. Ian Kennedy who has had many Pirate fans lusting over for the last couple of years ranked #61 – and got a QO from San Diego. So when you scream about how bad Locke and Morton are – just be glad neither of them will cost the Bucs $15+M next year

  6. Also, not sure how you consider Morton and Locke “strong” 4-5 guys. Locke had an era in the mid 4’s and Morton was almost 5. Strong 4-5 guys would be Metz and Wheeler. Morton had a horrible year, his overall #’s are masked by his 5-0 start with a low era. Check out his #’s after the 5-0 start.

    • That was explained in the article.

      Also, any designation is in comparison to the entire league, and not the specific role on the team. Wheeler and Matz are strong number four starters for the Mets. But they’re not number four starters. They’re higher than this, but only pitching in the number four spot. This doesn’t mean that every other starter has to be as good as Wheeler to be considered a strong #4 starter.

      • I understand what you’re saying Tim, but I guess I would contend, then, that there are a lot of #3 starters pitching in the #4 and #5 starter spots in rotations in the NL and that THAT is the bar that is set against the Pirates and that the Pirates have to contend with.

        • But that’s what the study aims to show. If there are a lot of #3 starters in the #4-5 spots, then it would impact those numbers, and the average #4 starter would be expected to be better, along with the #4 starter from top teams.

          • But isn’t that the whole point? No matter how you want to designate the pitchers themselves, the elite teams in the NL have #3 quality starters in the 4th and 5th rotation spots and the Pirates have lesser talented players (actual 4th and 5th starters) in those spots. That certainly doesn’t create an ideal situation from which to compete with these said teams. Further, currently, we also have a gigantic hole in the #3 spot. Give me 2 more #3 quality type starters to slot into the #3 and #4 spots in the rotation and remove one of Locke or Morton and I guarantee you there are fewer complaints about the, then, #5 starter.

            • You’re using 2015 as a reference for this, and the Pirates won 98 games in 2015. I don’t think the rotation matchups play as big of a role as they’re made out to be. The Pirates don’t go up against the best NL teams every time out. And even if they do, pitching is only one aspect of the game.

              This might be a bigger impact in a playoff series. However, that’s another area where pitching is the only aspect. I thought the Mets had a better rotation than the Royals, and yet the Royals won the World Series.

              You want to have the best possible team, but you don’t need to match every single position value-for-value with other contending teams to have a contender.

              • But I guess my point is that the Pirates don’t really match up all that well at all with the other contending teams in terms of rotation. Yes, I get it, we won 98 games. I am not sure that the fact that we won 98 games means that this is a 98 win team (at least going forward) and I think it would take quite a bit of solid argumentation to convince me otherwise.

                If you look below I compared both the 2015 and Career numbers for the top 7 teams and who they had/will have in the 4th/5th spots in the rotations. The Pirates were 7th out of the 7 teams in terms of quality in the 4th and 5th spots. And I think that if I was to do the same thing for the 1 and 2 spots we would likely not stack up all that well there either.

                I think going forward this IS a real area of concern and should be something we focus on upgrading.

                • If it’s an area for concern, then how did they win 98 games with that area? I’m not just relying on 98 wins here. You’re saying that this is a concern, meaning they’ll have a big disadvantage over other teams because of this. So what’s your theory on why that didn’t happen in 2015?

                  • Well, they had a AJ Burnett throw 119.1 innings of baseball with a 2.11 ERA. Gerrit Cole threw 117.1 innings of 2.30 ERA. Frankie threw 114.2 innings of 2.98 ERA baseball. And Happ threw, what, 63.1 innings of 1.80 ERA baseball? So in, roughly, 1458 innings of baseball that are played in a year (not counting rain-shortened or extra inning games) the Pirates got ACE performances for 413+innings. That is the equivalent of 2 starters pitching like aces for 200 innings a year. When you add in their relievers you get almost half the innings of the year thrown at “ace-like” numbers…

                    Now, Mark Melancon threw 76.2 innings of 2.23 ERA ball and Tony Watson threw 75.1 innings of of 1.91 baseball. And Soria threw 25.2 innings of 2 ERA baseball…and Joe Blanton, what, 34 innings of 2 ERA baseball? SO out of the Pirates relievers they got another 210-212 innings of “ace” baseball? The Pirates had, arguably, the best bullpen in baseball in 2015 which helped a ton, maybe even more than a ton, to get to your 98 wins.

                    The point, though, is that out of all of the above (which got you to 98 wins) you only have–as we sit here–Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano, Mark Melancon, and Tony Watson coming back. That is a loss of 240+ innings of absurdly good pitching. And if you add in Melancon to those leaving (which is highly likely) you now lose almost 320 (or almost half) of your “ace” innings from 2015. That is a TON to replace.

                    2015 is over. We won 98 games and played 1 playoff game. That’s over. I am concerned about how we stack up in 2016…and if you’re of the belief that this is a 98 win team in 2016 then you really need to tell me what I’m missing. Gregory Polanco will improve. Hopefully we get Kang back and hitting like he showed us he could. That will improve the RF and 3B positions. I think SS will be better than Jordy was this past year and I think Marte and Cutch will be what they are. I think 1B will be replacement level again. But the pitching is the cause for concern.

                    (By the way, I acknowledge that the above is not complete analysis, but it was sufficient for what I was attempting).

  7. Speaking of starters…the Braves are making Julio Teheran available (love yo see what we could do with him and his stuff) and additionally are making the wizard Andrelton Simmons available…Likely for a kings ransom.

      • You say that, but would you really? His defense is incredible for sure…but with a wOBA of .292 for his career, and a career 84 wRC and a career .666 OPS…I am not sure that you really get all that much offensively from him. Jordy Mercer has similar (better) career offensive numbers…so you’re essentially getting Jordy Mercer’s bat with Simmons’ glove and paying 3 of your top 5 prospects for him…

        • Yeah, but his defense is historically good. In that, he makes up for the shortcomings of the 3B and 2B. With the Bucs groundball heavy staff, his defense alone is worth it. I don’t think he’d cost 3 of top 5. Maybe 3 of top 10 but not 3 of top 5. I’d pay 3 of top 5 for him and Freeman though.

          • And he’s only just turned 26 with elite contact skills and average raw power. There’s an average big league bat in there, and if it ever comes out, kid is a superstar.

            FWIW, 3 of top 5 is too strong in a system as good as the Prates.

            • Let me ask you this. If you were to trade the Braves Gregory Polanco, Jameson Taillon, Alen Hanson, and Stephen Tarpley…do you think you can pull off a Simmons and Freeman deal? (This is ALL just for fun…of course).

          • If you can get both him and Freeman then you trade 3 of the top 5 for sure. Both are still young, cost controlled and MLB proven.

    • I may or may not have done a quick look at the trade value for Simmons, for my own personal curiosity. And it may or may not have come out to $38 M at 3.0 WAR per year.

        • This does prompt, I think, an interesting discussion about Jordy Mercer. Defensively he obviously isn’t anywhere near Andrelton Simmons, but he still can be called a “good” major league shortstop defensively. The question is with his bat. But really is Jordy Mercer as bad as he was in 2015? I think you have to be very skeptical of that. In 2015 he had an ISO of .076 and a wRC of 68. Those numbers are significantly worse than even what he was putting up in the minors. I mean significantly worse. His worst ISO was .091 in first year at AA. His worst wRC 84 (unless you count his first 68 MLB plate appearances which is way too small of a sample) when he was back in A-ball in 2008. Jordy Mercer isn’t a great SS, but he’s still likely much better than he was this year.

          • Jordy is the definition of a second division starter. Peak performance, he’s an average big leaguer as we saw in 2014, but I don’t think you bank on any guy hitting their peak in a given year. Safe bet to be a 1-1.5 win player over 600 PA.

      • Which is the equivalent of Glasnow+Taillon+Bell+Locke or something like that right?

        Answer this question for me, Tim, is he worth what the cost would likely be? His offense is not so good.

          • Ok. So really that’s not so bad, right. You’d be talking about maybe some package like Hansen+Taillon+another prospect.

            • I think it would depend on a few things:

              1. How much would the market drive up the price? There aren’t many shortstops available, so the price I mentioned might be the minimum.
              2. Are you trading away guys that would help you in the future a lot more than upgrading from Mercer to Simmons? If they’re having to deal away multiple big-league ready guys, and then some, that might not be worth it.

              • Simmons is a 3 WAR player who, if he improves at all with the bat, might be a 3.5-4 WAR player consistently and is young and cost controlled. However you’d be moving on from Mercer (not a huge deal) who is likely a 1.5 WAR player when he doesnt have a career-worst hitting year. So you’re likely adding, at most, 2 WAR to your team each year and likely giving up at least that, if not more, in the trade. Doesn’t seem like the best idea, does it?

                • Adding two wins to a team as good as the Pirates is a big deal. Exponentially harder, and more valuable, to add 2 WAR to a 90 win club than a 70 win club.

                  Doesn’t necessarily mean it’s worth the cost for a team like the Pirates, but the impact would be very, very real.

                  • It is a big deal. But what about the other side? Let’s say the theoretical return is Taillon and Hanson. Taillon could possibly be an upgrade of 2 WAR over the guy he’ll replace (either Locke/Morton), and that doesn’t get into Hanson’s value.

                    It’s all about the opportunity cost. If they’re trading prospects who they don’t immediately need, it’s a different story. But if they’re trading guys who would otherwise be in their plans in the immediate future, then it might not make sense to deal if those prospects could provide the same increase in value.

                    • This is where I am at with it too. They would be gaining 2 WAR at SS but potentially losing more than that 2 WAR gain from other spots on the roster because they’d be trading (essentially) major league ready players. But I also understand why the Braves would want major league ready talent. I would rather see what happens with Simmons and then try to make a deal with a team like the Rangers for Profar or Odor…especially since Texas is another contending team who we might be able to convince to take major league players like Melancon as anchors of the deal.

                    • I wouldn’t be quick to completely eliminate Jordy’s value from the equation, though. He really should only be playing against LHP pitching in the first place, and I bet he’s still a 1 WAR utility guy in that role. Guy can hit lefties.

                    • NMR, with what was said about the cost for Simmons…and knowing that Texas “wont sell low” on Profar…doesn’t a trade for Profar still make more sense though? He doesn’t have a clear place with Texas, has risk because of the injury, but also is on the roster of another contender where you can send a player with some salary/ability whereas the Braves would only want cost-controlled prospects. I guess what I mean is that it might cost Taillon+Hanson+ to get Simmons but it might only cost (let’s say) Melancon+Hanson to get Profar (and you were essentially trading Melancon as it is).

                    • Exactly, although Taillon almost certainly will not be a two win improvement over Morton/Locke this year or next.

                      Depending on where you’re at on the win curve and what sort of prospects you have coming behind a guy like Taillon, giving up production 3-4 years down the road for an immediate upgrade could make sense.

                    • Possibly. But it would be scaled. Let’s say you get 2 extra wins now from Simmons. I think Taillon could get you 1 extra win each year in those next two years. Cole wasn’t his best in 2014, but had a 2.3 WAR. Locke’s highest WAR came this year, at 1.6. So one extra win for Taillon seems fitting.

                      Then there’s Hanson, but that gets in the murky situation of being a replacement for Walker, and not having that clear cut upgrade like Taillon/Locke. So it’s hard to tell the value here.

                      But if you look at Taillon as a 2-2.5 WAR player his first year and a half, and Hanson as the same, then it might not make sense to trade those two for an extra two win upgrade at one position. Not to mention you take on a lot of salary and deal away two very cheap options, which has its own impact on the future.

                    • Unless you had another pitcher (again depth being the key like the Mets have) who you think can come in and get you that 1 win over Locke/Morton. Then you added Simmons and still improved over Locke/Morton. THAT is what we dont have. First, our depth has been ravaged by injuries. And second, I am not sure how great that depth is to begin with. I think Taillon, Glasnow, and Kingham certainly could outperform Locke and Morton (even in Locke and Morton’s best years). With Kingham down and if you traded one of Glasnow/Taillon…I am not so sure about the guys behind them.

      • So they’re looking for a 5 WAR starting pitcher for a 3 WAR middle infielder? No thank you. The Mets would be crazy to do that, and wont…now trading someone like Matz or Wheeler+ would make more sense since they have the quality depth and would likely be losing similar overall value.

          • Haha! Yeah, well, you know me! Mr. Prospect Hoarder.

            Really though, as you know, I am not (at all) a prospect hoarder. I just don’t think we are in the same position as a team, like the Mets, who have the depth in the starting pitching (really really good starting pitching) to make a move like that. And while I want a better SS option, I just am not sure that I would be willing to give up the (potential) starting pitching improvements that we DO have to get that improvement at SS.

            • Remember that very often people don’t open up talks demanding what they actually expect to get. Atlanta knows in all likelihood they aren’t getting a big leaguer of that value, but Wheeler/Matz plus prospects? Sure.

              The Pirates don’t have that kind of starting pitching depth, but I do believe they are strong enough in the outfield that a sort-of challenge trade with Polanco bringing back a similar player at a weaker position (SS, 1B, SP) is a reasonable risk. I think the Pirates can make up most of the current production Polanco gives in the short term while filling the spot adequately or possibly even better in the long term with prospects in the pipleline already.

  8. Great information, as always, Tim. I will say that I think that while the grades might be one thing what a team realistically needs is another. You mention that Locke and Morton are #4s but I can’t see any way that they are #4s that this team can compete with. Why? Compare them to the Cards #4/5…or compare to the Cubs, after they sign a 2nd ace this offseason. And look at the pitching in our league…LA, Mets, and even Washington. I think it’s much more interesting to look at the numbers you posted for the too 15 rotations bc those are who we are actually competing against.

    • I think this is correct. The reason you hear analysts qualify position players as “first division” or “second division” starters is because there’s a difference in level of expected player quality between contenders and non-contenders.

      If you look at the slots in a rotation like positions on the field, you can see why in practice calling Morton or Locke a “strong” #4 is a bit disingenuous. Strong compared to the bottom feeding teams that aren’t actually running consistent starters out of the back end of the rotation, sure, but that’s not the kind of competition you should be measuring yourself against at this stage of the win curve.

      Tim’s correct to defend Morton and Locke against the extreme views of them not belonging on a big league roster or whatever, but calling them “strong” back end starters is a bit much for me.

      • I’m one of those who really really dislike Morton and Locke, as you know. I am not sure that I buy that they don’t belong in the majors…I just don’t think they belong in a contending rotation especially not a contending rotation in the NL.

        • “…especially not a contending rotation in the NL” that’s backed by an average offense, and *maybe* average defense.

          Supporting cast and level of competition really need factored when determining whether or not any player is sufficient on a given team.

          • Consider this (these were the 2015 playoff contenders):

            Cardinals=

            #4 Jaime Garcia, 2.43 ERA (3.31 career ERA)

            #5 Tyler Lyons, 3.75 ERA (4.27 career ERA)

            Pirates=

            #4 Jeff Locke, 4.49 ERA (career 4.16 ERA)

            #5 Charlie Morton, 4.81 ERA (career 4.54 ERA)

            Cubs= (this will change as Hendricks will be the #4/5 this coming year)

            #4 Jason Hammel, 3.74 ERA (4.49 career ERA)

            #5 Travis Wood, 3.84 ERA (4.08 career ERA)

            Kyle Hendricks, 3.95 ERA (3.49 career ERA)

            Dodgers=

            #4 Hyun Jin Ryu, career 3.17 ERA

            #5 Mike Bolsinger, 3.62 ERA (career 4.23 ERA)

            Mets=

            #4 Steven Matz, 2.27 ERA (post season ERA was 3.68 which was also more aligned with what we could/should expect from him xFIP and FIP)

            #5 Zach Wheeler or some other young pitcher

            #5A 2015 was Bartolo Colon, 4.16 ERA (career 3.97 ERA)

            Giants=

            #4 Chris Heston, 3.95 ERA (3.98 career ERA)

            #5 Jake Peavy, 3.58 ERA (3.53 career ERA)

            Nationals=

            #4 (2015) Doug Fister, 4.19 ERA (career 3.42 ERA)

            #5 Tanner Roark, 4.38 ERA (3.12 career ERA)

            Joe Ross will be in their rotation in 2016 and is a good young pitcher 3.64 ERA

            • The Pirates have, both with actual 2015 and with career numbers, the worst starting pitchers in the #4 and #5 spots of all the top 7 National League teams. And I didnt compare our top 2 to the top two of the other teams…but I am pretty sure we dont want to compare Cole and Liriano (as good as they have been for us) to the top 2 of the Mets, Dodgers, Cubs, Cardinals, or the Nationals…maybe the Giants.

            • Good post but as Tim points out its also a good idea to look at the xFIP behind these ERAs so let me add those so we get a better overall picture. I’ll use xFIP- since its more fair and adjusted for ballpark and the like.

              Cardinals
              #4: Michael Wacha, 100 xFIP-
              #5: Lance Lynn, 100 xFIP-

              Pirates
              #4: Charlie Morton, 100 xFIP-
              #5: Jeff Locke, 102 xFIP-

              Cubs
              #4: Jason Hammell, 90 xFIP-
              #5: Dan Haren, 120 xFIP-

              Mets
              #4: Bartolo Colon, 102 xFIP-
              #5: John Niese, 106 xFIP-

              Nationals
              #4: Jordan Zimmermann, 98 xFIP-
              #5: Doug Fister, 118 xFIP-

              Dodgers
              #4: Mike Bolsinger, 98 xFIP-
              #5: Carlos Frias, 109 xFIP-

              Giants
              #4: Jake Peavy, 115 xFIP-
              #5: Ryan Voglesong, 118 xFIP-

              Looking at this in regard of xFIP the Pirates are tied with the Cardinals for 4th in regards to 4th starters and have the 2nd best 5th starter. Not nearly as bad as the all ERA approach would indicate.

              For the record I used the 5 starters teams used for the most innings in 2015 and sorted them by xFIP- to get the rotation spots. So this is comparing performance directly.

              • Yeah, I understand what you did. I attempted something a little different by actually just looking at who the teams will have and did have in those spots. Ultimately, the important thing to do is actually look at who the Pirates have to compete against and compare them against their peers–contending NL teams.

      • For the record the defending World Series Champions would be one of those teams you wouldn’t want to compare the Pirates too.

        Guthrie their 5th starter had a 6.10 ERA and their 4th starter had a 4.35 ERA with an xFIP of 4.80.

        This is a good example of why it’s probably best to use baseball as a whole. You want to compare them against the teams they are competing with but exclude the big dog.

          • If this is to me I pointed out that you basically said the Kansas City Royals, the defending WS champs, are a team that should be excluded when looking at rotation spots and where the Pirates should be.

              • Even if they didn’t that is completely irrelevant. You look, even big picture, at the teams the Pirates have to compete against and our 4th and 5th starters aren’t very good.

                • But this isn’t an issue. It only becomes an issue once you get to the WS. You have to get there first. And to do that you have to go through the NL which, as I showed below, have much better rotations.

                • No, he was wasn’t *good enough* for the rotation that won the World Series, which is *exactly* what I’ve been saying. Contenders don’t settle for 5th starters like Guthrie. You’ve literally illustrated the point I’m making.

        • The teams they are competing against ARE the big dogs. To make it to the world series in the NL you have to go through the 7 teams I posted below all of whom have better 4th and 5th (and most better 1 and 2s) starters than the Pirates.

          The Royals won because of historically good contact and hitting.

    • Well then it’s a good thing we have two #2’s as defined in this article coming up to factor in to the competitive balance of this season.

      • Maybe. I mean we have to see how the two respond. I am, actually, a little worried that Glasnow has not had playoff success and seems like breaks down a little at the end of seasons (still young)…he needs to improve his changeup and control still. And Taillon, god, we need to see him pitch competitively before we assume he’ll be a May/June addition that will provide much help. I do agree that it will/would be nice to get the youth into the rotation finally…but that doesn’t diminish at all the point of my above post (or my below).

        • You’re worried about Glasnow’s minor league playoff success i.e., a 3-5 game sample size spanning over three seasons? Talk about irrational concerns…

          • No, its more how he finishes the season and goes into the playoffs. The last several years he has struggled to finish seasons (at least at his normally absurdly high level) and hasn’t ever thrown over 124 innings in a year. Yes, that is/should be a concern (especially if you think he’s going to be a major contributor next year–Noah Syndergaard threw 179.2 innings last year between AAA and MLB).

            • No, it shouldn’t. Like you said, he’s “still young” – he was playing in AAA this year as a 21 year old. Any concern is entirely premature.

              • I guess we will agree to disagree. I am very worried about Glasnow’s innings totals so far (really low) and his ability to throw 170 innings next year, which is really what you would have to think he could do if you are thinking he is going to first show he’s ready in the minors and then come up and make an impact, here, in the majors.

        • I see your point about Glasnow and Taillon. Who knows how they’ll compete at ML level, but their talent level suggests they will be better than Locke for sure and Morton when he’s not pitching vs Cincy.

          In fairness to NH, Morton had shown to be effective when healthy in the past. Not even going to try and defend keeping Locke in rotation. I guess they must’ve saw something those outside the organization didn’t.

    • Please show me the data – post losing Lackey and Lynn the Cards will be hard pressed to field five quality starters better than the the Bucs even if he Bucs 4 and 5 are Locke and Morton…

      Go to fan graphs and look at how the starters rated for 2015.
      Locke was in the 40s, Morton in the 50s – The much admired on this site and elsewhere Ian Kennedy is in the 60s – facts matter – and data drives facts for those who pay attention to this stuff

  9. I agree with Andrew that there are only 10 number one starters max in MLB. I have read that a #1 should be able to command 2 plus-plus offerings. Also, #1 starters are usually known from the time they are drafted, only in rare instances do they develop. Cliff Lee is an example of a player who developed into a #1. Scouts will say that there was almost no indication when he was in the minors that he would reach the level of success he had. It is more likely that a starter drafted with #1 potential settles into a #2 or #3 role, see Taillon.

    A good way to look at this is that #3 starters are really good and make $15-$17M per year on the free agent market. A team with five #3’s in the rotation will win a lot of games.

    I believe that Tim’s study might a little flawed. Pitching in the #1 slot of a rotation doesn’t make you a #1 starter, see Duke and Malholm.

    • The study is looking at every team’s number one starter, then seeing what the average team has for a number one. If a team has Duke or Maholm as a number one, then that team won’t have good results. But that would be an outlier in the overall league, and wouldn’t be reflected in the overall averages, especially when you start breaking things down into top 15 rotations and other categories that further remove the Duke/Maholm number one starters.

    • Same observation skews that back end numbers even more, in my opinion. True talent, long term 5+ ERA starters don’t exist in 2015. These are really your spot starters, up-and-down guys, emergency veterans.

  10. Cole does not have great command of his pitches. He throws heart and center all too often. He has good command but a propensity for killer mistakes.

    • The qualifier there was considering his movement. I don’t think I’ve seen a power pitcher with the movement that Cole has on his stuff. When he was coming up through the minors, it was always amusing seeing the pitchers who were charting confused about what he was throwing. These were professional pitchers, and they couldn’t tell Cole’s pitches because of the unnatural movement.

      That’s got to be difficult to command, and will probably lead to some mistakes. But I think you take those mistakes with the overall results, which result in a top of the rotation starter.

      • The one thing I want to see from Cole going forward has nothing to do with his arsenal. I want to see him better manage his emotions. He has the stuff to be the best of the best. But he has got to quit getting so amped up. Hopefully he learns that part before we have to trade him.

      • I’ll disagree in your last sentence, Tim. He is the pirates top of the rotation starter, but as you can tell from the Cubs game, he still has a lot of work to do to become that dominating ace. Despite having the movement in his pitches, he is just flat out hittable sometimes.

        There’s a reason why many in the business think he’s not an ace, it’s because he doesn’t always pass the eye test. Arrieta does, Greinke does, Kershaw does, and certainly Scherzer does. He’s a #1, but he’s no ace.

        • I think this is slightly skewed analysis though. The pitcher Greinke has become isn’t the pitcher he started out to be. Consider this: Greinke had started 71 games in the majors before he put up a single season with a 4+ WAR. He averaged 2 WAR over his first 3 seasons and then in his 4th season put up 4.2 WAR (and then there were some really rocky years after that, despite following up his 4.2 WAR season with an 8.6 WAR year).

          Coming into this season Cole had only started 41 major league games and put up 4.8 WAR (an average of 2.4 WAR per year). In his first 73 starts Cole has 10.2 WAR, which averages out to 3.4 WAR per year for his first 3 years. That is a full win and a half (basically) better than Greinke at the same points in their careers.

          (AND we could do similar analysis with Scherzer and Arrieta–both came into their dominance later in their careers).

        • I don’t know if I’d place too much on one playoff game.

          Two years ago you could have said the same stuff about Cueto giving up homers to Byrd and Martin.

          Kershaw and Price have both been hit in individual playoff games.

          It’s way too small a sample size to determine how good a pitcher is.

          • You’re correct, but it seemed to me that his tendency to throw middle-plate had been around throughout the season. Unfortunately, it caught up with him when it mattered most.

  11. Good overview, I’ll add that I’ve always read, from a scouting perspective there are only about 10 #1 pitchers, (give or take two or three), 20 #2s, then 70-80 number 3#s at anyone time in the league.

    There aren’t equal quintiles for each spot, thus I think some of those ERA numbers are a little too expansive for the top of the rotation pitchers.

    • I could see that, even with the stats.

      The stats show what the average number one starter on a team will do. There’s obviously an upper class in this group that stands way above the 3.21 ERA or better. There were 18 of them in 2015. Out of that group, 7 had an xFIP of 3.21 or greater (10, if you include guys who just missed by a few points).

      So clearly some guys over-performed, and probably wouldn’t be considered number one starters over the long-term.

      As for the combined 30 #1-2 starters, I don’t know if I agree on that from a numbers standpoint. I’d agree on it in terms of the scouting qualifications. I don’t think there are more than 30 guys with two plus pitches in the league at any given time, along with an average third pitch and average command and makeup. But as I noted, you don’t have to follow that exact script to get the results. Therefore, you could have more than 10 #1 starters, 20 #2 starters, and yet still have the 10/20 split in terms of tools.

      • Tim, how do scouts define a “plus” pitch? And what makes a pitch a “plus plus” pitch?

        I have a feeling it could be similar to the famous quote by a judge on how pornography is defined, “I can’t tell you what it is, but I know it when I see it.”

        • The easiest one to describe is the fastball. Plus velocity is 93-94. Plus-Plus is 95-96, and then 80 grade is 97 or higher. But you also want to see some movement with the pitch. You can have a 96 MPH fastball that’s flat and up in the zone, and it wouldn’t be a plus pitch. Likewise, you can have a 92 MPH pitch (Above Average velocity) with great movement that would allow the pitch to play up into plus territory.

          The breaking pitches are more subjective. There’s not really a blanket statement, since each breaking pitch is different. For example, if you say a guy throws a slider, that can mean many things. It could be a hard slider, closer to a cutter. It could be more of a slurve. Or it could be a traditional slider. Each one has different expectations for the break and movement.

          The curveball is the same way. You can get the harder curves (slurve, once again), or the slower, loopy curveball.

          In each case, a thing you’re looking for is the break on the pitch, and the timing of the break. Generally the later a pitch breaks, the better it is, since that will throw hitters off. But if the pitch doesn’t have much break to begin with, then the late break isn’t going to help much, since the hitter is already going to be in the neighborhood of where the ball will end up.

          If you’ve ever seen those breaking pitches where a guy dives out of the way, and then the ball cuts in for a called strike, that’s usually a plus offering. The batter sees it as a pitch that’s coming in at a different spot (his ribs) and then at the last second it breaks in a big way and drops in for a strike. On the same note, this could also cause a batter to chase a pitch out of the zone because it looked like a strike coming in.

          The curveball will be more vertical, leading to batters swinging over the pitch and driving the ball in the ground if they make contact. But if it breaks too early, they’ll be able to sit on it and crush it.

          For the changeup, you want to see some deception, with the pitch thrown from the same arm slot and arm speed as the fastball. This leads hitters to believe that a fastball is coming, and throws off their timing. You also want the pitch to have some movement, ideally cutting in toward opposite handed hitters. Otherwise it’s a slow, flat fastball. If it does cut in toward opposite handed guys, that gives you a weapon to avoid being a platoon reliever, or having the struggles that Charlie Morton has against lefties (just like Morton, you can still start, but you have to be really good against the same handed batters). Also, the same “late break” rules apply here. If you can get a guy thinking fastball with the arm speed, and then get him to think the pitch is going to end up in a different place, then you’ve got a good pitch that will probably fool a lot of batters.

          I hope this helps.

          • Very thorough explanation. Thanks for taking the time to go into detail.

            I once sat behind home plate when Blyleven was pitching and got to see his curve similar to how a batter experienced it. I knew it was special, but I had no idea why other than hitters struggled making contact because it had sharp downward movement.

  12. Thanks Tim, a good article to bring us all back to earth with expectations. The reality is that the Pirates are in a great position for the future and the 3 or 4 SP’s drafted & developed or received in trades have really solidified the outlook and depth with Brault being just one of those guys.

  13. Great article Tim. As I was reading this I was getting excited about the 2nd half of next season when Pirates could have an Ace and three #2’s to throw at the Cubs/Cards. Now if they’ll just stay healthy.

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