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Are the Tigers making a mistake by not having added rotation depth?

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It's a fair question, asked not just by MLB Trade Rumors' Ben Nicholson-Smith most recently at FanGraphs. The Tigers made the decision not to keep Armando Galarraga around, and they did not find enough common ground with Jeremy Bonderman or want to bring him back on a minor league deal. That means, Detroit has two frontline starters, a third starter coming off a bad season, one with just a single MLB start under his belt, and one who missed most of last season due to injury. If anything happens to their effectiveness or health, what happens?

Nicholson-Smith wrote:

When you consider that most teams rely on ten starters over the course of a season and realize that [Andrew] Oliver, who struggled in the majors, [Charles] Furbush, who has spent one season above Class A and [Duane] Below, who hasn’t reached Triple-A, are the Tigers’ next line of defense, it’s apparent that Detroit doesn’t have much depth behind its potentially formidable front five.

*snip*

All rotations are susceptible to injuries and poor performance, and the 2011 Tigers are no exception. They will undoubtedly have alternatives if they need them, since pitching will be available this summer, as it always is. The difference in Detroit: Dombrowski moved what little MLB pitching depth he had out of the organization while rival GMs added starters in anticipation of the 162-game schedule.

The problem I have with the question is that it seems weighted against how the Tigers created their team and it leaves out a rather large amount of information.

Glancing at 2010 figures, one or our regular readers, MomoTigers, wrote a nice FanPost after exploring the typical number of starts from pitchers outside the "top five" a team needs, sorting it out by where a team finished in the standings. The Google Documents spreadsheet of the results can be found here.

A quick chart of the important stuff:

Place Average % of non-rotational Starts
First 12.96%
Second 14.81%
Third 15.43%
Fourth 20.88%
Fifth

22.35%

The average team requires 17.43% of its starts to come from outside the rotation. But as you can see, a pretty good graph could be drawn based on these stats that shows the more non-rotational starts a team has, the worse it is likely to do. (The Tigers were an unfortunate exception in 2010, requiring just 11% of their starts to come from outside the rotation while finishing in third). There are two possible reasons that our statistics worked out so cleanly.

The first is that a team who has substantial injuries in its rotation is probably going to rely on worse pitchers to fill in the spots. Let's face it, if Justin Verlander or Max Scherzer miss more than a handful of starts between them, the Tigers are not going to win the division. It is a big dropoff between those top-tier pitchers and any starter who is unable to make the rotation to begin the year. In that case, rotational depth really doesn't matter all that much.

The second reason is that ineffective pitchers are not likely to continue to the year in the rotation. Teams that begin the year with more ineffective pitchers are going to need to get more starts from elsewhere. So it's no surprise to see the Nationals and Pirates among the teams that needed the most non-rotation starts last year, while the Phillies and Giants were among the teams that needed the least. Again, how does this apply to the Tigers? Depending on the analyst, most agree Detroit's starting pitching potential ranges from above average to among the best in the league. Personally, I think it settles in at No. 2 in the division and the upper third of the AL. Detroit's rotation actually appears to be as good as it has been at any point since 2007.

And of course, we have a third question that I'm not even sure how to account for: trades. A team in contention might trade for a starter near the deadline, while teams out of contention might trade away a starter. Should have happen, each uses more non-rotational pitchers in an issue not even related to depth.

A fourth issue is that due to weather or other reasons, teams are sometimes forced to play a double header. When this happens, at least in Detroit's case, this usually involves calling up a minor leaguer for a spot start. Again, a pitcher is added to the number of starters used but it doesn't necessarily affect how the team does for the year. (That's one reason I prefer momotigers' decision to use non-rotational starts rather than total starters used).

Does that mean Detroit doesn't need rotational depth? Of course not.. Must this rotational depth come from pitchers with experience barely surviving in the back of MLB rotations? I don't see why it must.

For instance, Andrew Oliver is quickly discounted for having a poor showing when dipping his toe in the big leagues in 2010. So? Obviously, you'd like to let him continue to develop in the minor leagues for another season. But if he must come up to make a few starts is that worse than an aging veteran? He's one of the team's top prospects and Baseball America ranked him in the top 100 overall. Why disqualify him? Is he that much worse than Jeremy Bonderman (8-10, 5.53 ERA)? Armando Galarraga (4-9, 4.49 ERA)? Right now, Bonderman doesn't even have a job, big leagues or minor leagues.

Ultimately, I don't find that the Tigers need to stockpile replacement arms in the minor leagues to feel secure. Much more important will be Justin Verlander starting faster in April, Max Scherzer quickly figuring out why his mechanics are out of whack if they become so, and Rick Porcello making the step up from middle-of-the-rotation starter to moving closer to fulfilling all that potential he carries in that arm and brain of his. Truly, those will be much bigger factors in deciding the division than if a replacement starter with MLB experience is hanging around Toledo.