For as long as I can remember, fans and experts have found ways to simplify player classification. For position players, we have some simple phrases like “superstar,” “all-star,” “starter,” “role player,” etc. Keith Law will tell you if he’s a guy or a GUY. I won’t even get into the borderline pornographic descriptions that Jason Parks has introduced.
The common vernacular regarding starting pitchers is simple and universal; five starters in the rotation, so a starter gets classified on a scale of 1-5. A number 1 is typically regarded as an ‘ace’. The difference between pitching and hitting, though, is that often the scale moves. What constitutes a number 2 for a pitcher is different today versus ten years ago.
It’s true that the scale moves for hitters too, but it’s far more noticeable. Think of it this way: if you follow the Cubs but don’t watch a ton of other teams, you still see the majority of the first-basemen in Major League Baseball play over the course of a season. Depending on rotation turns, you may not see every teams’ number 2 starter.
It’s also worth mentioning that, while a team generally won’t have two or three first-basemen, third-basemen, or shortstops worth ranking at their position, some teams do have multiple number 1 starters, number 2 starters, and so forth. So while Zack Grienke may be the Dodgers number 2 or 3 starter, he’s truly a number 1.
Have I confused you with numbers and classifications yet? No? Good, try to stay with me. I toiled over how I could sort starting pitchers to create a clear vision on what kind of external stats we could pin to a starting pitcher to make his classification more clear. Do I use ERA? It’s an imperfect stat, but it’s still commonly regarded among fans and many experts and commentators.
What about FIP and xFIP? Am I going too far over some heads with these? After looking at how the pitchers sort using each stat, I determined that FIP is probably the best and most accurate stat for sorting starters. If you need a reminder how FIP works, Fangraphs lays it out here.
Now that we’ve covered that, I set the minimum at 80 innings pitched as a starter this season, which generally meant at least 13 games started. I broke up my lists into groups of 30 to represent 30 teams in baseball, and the idea that there can only be enough number 1’s to have one for each team. I found some interesting information to put forward, at least in regards to the 2014 season.
Number 1 starter:
FIP under 3.15
Top 5: Clayton Kershaw, Jake Arrieta, Corey Kluber, Chris Sale, Felix Hernandez
Notables: Anibal Sanchez, Max Scherzer, Madison Bumgarner, David Price, Adam Wainwright, Zack Grienke, Masahiro Tanaka, and Yu Darvish
Number 2 starter:
FIP ranging from 3.16-3.63
Top 5: Lance Lynn, Hisashi Iwakuma, Tyson Ross, Gio Gonzalez, and Collin McHugh
Notables: Ervin Santana, Jeff Samardzija, Sonny Gray, Tim Hudson, Matt Garza, and Rick Porcello
Number 3 starter:
FIP ranging from 3.64-4.07
Top 5: Mike Leake, Jesse Chavez, Aaron Harang, Kyle Gibson, and Jarred Cosart
Notables: Yordano Ventura, James Shields, Jason Vargas, Danny Duffy, Justin Verlander, Yovani Gallardo, and Homer Bailey
Number 4 starter:
FIP ranging from 4.08-4.40
Top 5: Wei-Yin Chen, Jason Hammel, Wade Miley, Clay Buchholz, and Bud Norris
Notables: Tim Lincecum, Scott Feldman, Jered Weaver, Bronson Arroyo, Travis Wood, and Edwin Jackson (LOL)
Number 5 starter:
FIP of 4.41 and up
Top 5: Alfredo Simon, R.A. Dickey, Kevin Correia, Jeremy Guthrie, and Justin Masterson
Notables: Ricky Nolasco, Kyle Kendrick, Shelby Miller, Hector Noesi, Scott Carroll, and John Danks
It’s not a perfect measurement, obviously. FIP doesn’t take into account pitchers that still strike out enough guys, don’t walk too many guys, but somehow still get hit hard all the time. For instance, the way that Edwin Jackson continued to get pounded every time out but is still has a better FIP than Alfredo Simon. The difference is in the BABIP: Jackson’s is .352, Simon’s is .256.
But outside of that, I did find some interesting stuff. How about the fact the the Royals are leading their division (as of this moment, anyway) with a rotation of four number 3 starters and a number 4? Or the White Sox being among the bottom third in baseball with two number 1 starters, not to mention possibly the best offensive player in baseball this season?
Obviously, there are other factors for both of those situations. But the Royals are an interesting note, a testament to the fact that having starting pitching that keeps you in most games and a shutdown bullpen can be good enough. For the Royals, it’s essentially a six-inning game. God help you if you get to the seventh inning trailing against them with Herrera, Davis, and Holland on the way.
How do you think teams in the National League feel about facing off against the Dodgers, who could line up an NLDS with three number 1 starters in Kershaw, Grienke, and Hyun-jin Ryu? Not an appealing thought for a team like the Cardinals, who carry a solid number 1-2 punch in Wainwright and Lynn, but an uncertain rotation after that. Not to mention an offense that is average at best and dead last in the NL in home runs.
Concerning the Cubs, Arrieta is a number 1, Wood and Jackson are number 4s, and had they enough innings to meet the minimum, Kyle Hendricks would be a number 2 and Tsuyoshi Wada a number 3. If they were to repeat performances in 2015, the Cubs would have a fairly balanced rotation. If they’re able to sign or acquire another ace such as Jon Lester or Max Scherzer, you’d feel really good about where they are.
So again, the rankings are imperfect because they’re based on a single stat that sort of lumps together important peripheral stuff like K’s and walks and projects it similarly to ERA. However, without getting super complicated by using several stats and compiling multiple lists, this looks like the best breakdown available. Maybe if I did such research for a living, I’d be compelled to do further study.
But I think it’s a solid start at defining spots in the starting rotation.