The starting rotation

It is often said that the Pirates lack a “true ace” starting pitcher, someone that can be counted on to shut down an opponent every time out. This is true; they do not have a true number one. However, a team can do pretty well if it employs several middle of the rotation starters. So where do the Pirates’ starters fit?

Matthew at Lookout Landing analyzed the rotation slots last year, based on tRA+. These findings include all starting pitchers in 2007-2008, not just the top five starters from each team. This accounts for injuries, which affects virtually every rotation during the course of a season. Matthew makes it clearer:

TO BE PERFECTLY CLEAR: By this definition, a #5 starter is probably not what most people term a #5 starter. I assume that when most people talk about a #5 starter, they talk about some mythical rotation that almost never misses a start and this person being the worst pitcher on it. For the most part, those rotations do not happen. A #5 as defined below represents the combined worst starters to have actually pitched. In my opinion, this is the more useful definition, because this way, having health is properly weighted and you get a notion for the level of scarcity that exists.

By traditional measures, a 90 tRA+ pitcher is terrible, a #5 or so. But a 90 tRA+ pitcher that stays healthy enough to log 180 innings is valuable because he keeps you from having to turn to those replacement 80 tRA+ pitchers for spot starts and that’s what I want to be apparent here.

That point will be important to remember as we move forward. Here are the numbers that Matthew comes up with:

#1 Starter: 118 tRA+ and above

#2 Starter: 106 – 118 tRA+

#3 Starter: 95 – 106 tRA+

#4 Starter: 86 – 95 tRA+

#5 Starter: 86 tRA+ and below

Here are the Pirate starters, along with each pitcher’s 2009 tRA with the Pirates. Keep in mind that there are small sample sizes with many of these pitchers. I included each pitcher’s innings total, to make any sample size issues apparent. (Note: tRA+ and IP stats do not include any innings pitched in relief.)

Pitcher tRA+ IP
Paul Maholm 107 194.2
Zach Duke 104 213
Charlie Morton 104 97
Ross Ohlendorf 99 176.2
Jeff Karstens 97 66.1
Daniel McCutchen 90 36.1
Virgil Vasquez 71 34
Kevin Hart 66 53.1

And in graphical form.

2009 starting pitchers, tRA+

Maholm barely makes the cut as a number two starter. Duke, Morton, Ohlendorf and Karstens all rate as number threes. McCutchen comes in as an average number four pitcher, while Vasquez and Hart fell well down in the number five range.

If the Pirates were able to use only their top five or six pitchers, they would be sitting pretty. Unfortunately, that is unrealistic. A team generally needs at least eight starters to get through an entire season, due to injury, poor performance, etc. As you can see in the graph, there is a fairly sizable drop-off between McCutchen and Hart. This is where the Pirates need to improve. Having seven or eight starters in the average range would leave the team in a good position.

Many people think the Pirates need an ace to put them over the top. I’m not so sure. If Hart and Brad Lincoln can develop into average pitchers, that will potentially leave the team with eight #3 or better starters. The Bucs can definitely compete in that situation.

All stats courtesy of StatCorner.