One thing that has always confused me since I have become an adult who can think for himself is the whole “this guy is a number X pitcher”. What does it all really mean? Well, that depends on who you ask doesn’t it? It means a lot of different things for different people. Some people will use wins. Some will use ERA. Some will use FIP or XFIP. Some will use SIERRA. Others will use the pure stuff of a pitcher. At the end of it all, we are left confused with what any of it actually means.

Every few years I go back and look at things and try to break down what each position in the rotation actually looks like instead of what fiction suggests it should look like. So, to get started we need to understand that we need to alter reality somewhat to make this happen. Baseball talent is not evenly distributed. Not every team will have a #1 or a #2 pitcher (as we Reds fans know all too well during the Jimbo years). In this excersize we will assume that everyone is freely available and teams would pick in order, the best pitcher available to fill out their rotation, meaning every team will have one pitcher among the best thirty, one pitcher among the guys from 31-60, one guy from the 61-90 range, one guy from the 91-120 range and one guy from the 121-150 range. That equally distributes the talent across baseball and gives us a true determination of a #1, #2, #3, #4 and #5 pitcher.

So now we get into what kind of things we want to look at to determine that talent. Right off of the bat, I would eliminate ERA. Why? Well, a 3.50 ERA in GABP is outstanding. While a 3.50 ERA in Petco isn’t really that good. On its own, ERA doesn’t tell us much information. However, I do believe that ERA is very important to a starting pitcher, but we must be able to give it context of where guys are pitching at in order for it to be evaluated properly. For that reason, I look at’s stat of ERA+. Basically, it looks at a pitchers ERA and adjusts it for each park that he pitched in that season (home and away). 100 is league average and the higher the number, the better. I am also a fan of FIP (fielding independent pitching), which is scaled in a way to resemble ERA and as such, the lower the number, the better.xFIP is very similar to FIP, but it attempts to normalize the rate at which a pitcher gives up home runs based on the number of fly balls that they allow. In my opinion it is probably a little more accurate than FIP, but I do believe that some pitchers can suppress their HR rates on fly balls more than others even when accounting for parks they play in. If you want more detailed information on FIP and xFIP, you can check out Fangraphs glossary page, but expect to do some reading.

What I did was go through and gather data on every pitcher with 100 innings in a season from 2010-2012 and came out with a total of 437 pitchers. That leaves us with an average of 145 pitchers per season, or nearly enough to complete a 1-5 person rotation for every team. What I am going to do below is break down what each position in the rotation looks like if we were to sort them by different numbers (ERA+, FIP and xFIP) while also including different stats in those rates. I will also provide some examples of players who fell into that range.

Here is the data

Sorting by Averages
Rank ERA+ ERA+ BB/9 K/9 K/BB IP Examples
#1 121-256 140 2.6 7.8 3.3 193 Clayton Kershaw, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, Jared Weaver
#2 102-121 112 2.6 7.1 2.9 182 Chad Billingsly, Dan Haren, Mark Buehrle, Tim Hudson
#3 94-106 100 2.9 6.9 2.5 176 Aaron Harang, Edwin Jackson, Jamie Garcia, Phil Hughes
#4 83-94 89 2.9 6.4 2.3 157 Brandon Morrow, James McDonald, Jeff Francis, Luke Hochevar
#5 58-83 76 3.4 6.5 2.0 148 Brian Duensing, Chris Volstad, Francisco Liriano, Jake Arrieta

Sorting by Averages
Rank FIP FIP BB/9 K/9 K/BB IP Examples
#1 2.20-3.46 3.12 2.5 8.3 3.6 195 Clayton Kershaw, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, David Price
#2 3.47-3.85 3.69 2.7 7.2 2.8 177 Brandon Morrow, Brian Duensing, Gio Gonzalez, Madison Bumgarner
#3 3.86-4.17 4.01 2.8 6.7 2.5 170 Bud Norris, Chris Capuano, Homer Bailey, Mark Buehrle
#4 4.17-4.62 4.37 3.0 6.5 2.2 165 Aaron Harang, Barry Zito, Francisco Liriano, Jeremy Hellickson
#5 4.63-6.55 5.00 3.2 5.8 1.9 150 AJ Burnett, Brad Bergesen, Freddy Garcia, Jake Arrieta

Sorting by Averages
Rank xFIP xFIP BB/9 K/9 K/BB IP Examples
#1 2.56-3.60 3.24 2.5 8.6 3.7 193 CC Sabathia, Clayton Kershaw, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels
#2 3.60-3.87 3.77 2.8 7.4 2.8 179 Brett Myers, Chad Billingsley,  Edwin Jackson, Homer Bailey
#3 3.87-4.15 4.03 2.9 6.8 2.5 169 Brian Duensing, CJ Wilson, Jake Westbrook, Johan Santana
#4 4.15-4.47 4.34 2.9 6.0 2.2 165 Aaron Harang, Bronson Arroyo, Freddy Garcia, James McDonald
#5 4.47-5.57 4.78 3.3 5.6 1.7 150 Barry Zito, Bruce Chen, Jake Arrieta, Randy Wolf

There are a few things that really stand out. First, there seems to be a rather large gap no matter how you look at it from a Number One to a Number Two. Mostly by simply looking at strikeouts and K/BB. It would seem that the first big identifier of a Number One starter is likely to be a high strikeout rate and a high K/BB rate. The average strikeout rate drops off at each step down. That makes plenty of sense. Strikeouts are nearly guaranteed outs. They leave fewer chances for “things to happen”. The next thing is that they also have the lowest walk rates and like the strikeout rates, they tend to get worse at each step down. There are exceptions to the rules, but generally speaking, the larger the difference you have in your strikeouts to walks, the better you are going to perform.

In the end, if you asked around between fans, managers, general managers and scouts, a lot of the examples listed above wouldn’t fit in the “ideal” spot that they fill. I believe this goes back to the history of baseball. Baseball is rich in history and the people love stats more than in any other sport. My belief is that the idea of “what a guy profiles as” goes back to when baseball had half as many teams. It is why scouts seem to think there are about 10 number ones (I will give them that there are probably 10 ACES, but that is an entirely different thing than a number one) and about 15 number twos. That doesn’t really work now, because there are 30 teams. But in 1950, that made sense. Since then, we have had announcers and writers tell us time and time again what scouts and front offices have said about what guys profile as and I think that those old ideas have simply just stuck. They unfortunately just aren’t based in the reality of todays game with the amount of teams there are and the distribution of the talent.

24 Responses

  1. wanderinredsfan

    Great stuff. With a little bit of tweaking (maybe adding a bit of discussion on the ‘perceived’ aces of baseball), I think you should consider submitting this to Fangraphs.

    For folks interested, here’s how your Cincy reds performed in 2012.

    pitcher: ERA+, FIP, xFIP

    Cueto: 152, 3.27, 3.65
    Latos: 122, 3.85, 3.79
    Bailey: 115, 3.97, 3.94
    Arroyo: 113, 4.08, 4.19
    Leake: 93, 4.42, 3.82

    Is it silly to expect three #1’s next season? How about no starter under a #3?

    • Kevin

      I think xFIP seems to group the first 4 guys the way I’d label their 2012 seasons. Cueto was a borderline #1, Latos was a #2 (but probably a #1 outside of April), Bailey was a solid #3 with signs of moving into #2 status soon. Arroyo was a servicable #4.

      But I don’t get what’s going on with Leake here. He’s a #2 last season according to xFIP (but #4 with the others). Is xFIP saying he was that unlucky last year?

      • Doug Gray

        xFIP is saying that he gave up more home runs on fly balls than league average.

  2. Jon Ryker

    Interesting work, Doug. Personally, I look at whip and IP….I need a guy that gives my setup guys the night off and gives me a good chance to win while doing it, if I’m gonna pay them #1 money. I don’t like FIP, because if I intentionally put a good defense on the field, why wouldn’t I want to use it, particularly if I can get more outs with fewer pitches, and therefore, more quality innings out of the same guy?

    • Billy

      Doug, this is a fantastic post! Jon is right about needing to know something about IP though. Where you fit in the rotation needs to be about quality and quantity. This covers the quality angle great. Putting the quantity in there would really round out the picture.

      • Doug Gray

        Well, generally speaking, guys giving up runs aren’t going to be given a lot of innings. But still, I did include innings with each group as well, and as expected, the fewer runs you are giving up, the more innings that group is pitching. There are obviously outliers in there (Kris Medlen in 2012 for example), but generally speaking, I think that the numbers across the board lay out a pretty good area for each “grouping”.

  3. Terry M

    MLB lost Weaver and Musial in the last couple of days. Musial used to kill the REDS every year. I don’t think people appreciate his stats…RIP

    • Randy in Chatt

      He was the one Cardinal I actually liked. Sounds like a gem of a guy. Awesome that he was a WWII vet in the Navy stationed in Hawaii like my dad was (after he was NL MVP in 1943…Musial, not my dad). Wonder if they ever met. Both gone now, I’ll never know.

    • The Duke

      I consider Stan the Man as a top 3 all time player, a pros pro.

  4. Kevin

    I like to look at (K/9 * K/BB) as it combines the two stats I always go to first with pitchers. Home runs are important too obviously, but I think that homers are also dependent on factors the pitcher can’t entirely control, so for a quick conclusion on a pitcher it’s K/9 and K/BB for me. And why not just simply multiply them to make it one number.

    So I wonder how that breaks down the #1-#5 categorization.

    Great, great work Doug. More articles like this please!

    • Jon Ryker

      But what about dominant sinkerball pitchers who pitch to contact, pile up lots of innings, win lost of games, and don’t strike a ton of guys out….Glavine and Maddux come to mind….

      • Doug Gray

        Maddux had one of the best K/BB rates of this generation, especially in his prime. So I am sure he would have done quite well there. Glavine was an outlier. Those happen from time to time, but you shouldn’t really expect other guys to be like him. It is kind of like how people think that every non-big velocity pitcher can be Maddux.

        No system is going to work for every single player, but as long as it works for most of them, it seems pretty good to me. With that said, I haven’t tested out this system mentioned above, though it wouldn’t be difficult to do. I am just not feeling like opening excel right now.

      • Kevin

        Just to put it the stats in perspective, Maddux in 1995, his most dominant year, had a 7.8 K/9 and a 7.87 K/BB (crazy!), let’s round the product to the nearest integer and call this his ACE score, which was 61. Kershaw’s 2011 Cy young season was a 33. Randy Johnson’s dominant 2001 was a 70. Glavine’s Cy Young season in 1998 was a mere 13.

        Not sure why Maddux didn’t also win the Cy that year, as he had a 33. Glavine had more wins, which he had no part in controlling, so he got 1st in voting and Maddux got 4th even though Maddux led the NL in shutouts, ERA, ERA+ and WHIP. Glavine led in only one category: the aforementioned wins. I think voters just got tired of giving it to Maddux at that point. Plus the well known bias in the Cy for wins over any other stat, which is just idiotic.

      • Ryan the Red

        A pitcher do have control if they win or not. Give up fewer runs than the opponent and viola`.

      • Kevin

        Also here’s the ACE score for the Reds 5 in 2012:

        Cueto 25
        Latos 23
        Bailey 24
        Arroyo 21
        Leake 15

        And some other NL notables:

        Aroldis Chapman 81

        NL Cy Young finishers:
        #1 Dickey 38
        #2 Kerhsaw 33
        #3 Gonzalez 25
        #4 Cueto 25
        #5 Kimbrel 138 (!)

        I think Kimbrel’s has got to be the all time highest for 50+ IP. Someone call STATS Inc and find out.

  5. hunr4redsoct

    Heard it from a very reliable source tonight that the Reds are still looking for a lefty for the pen and that if the search fails Cingrani may be considered. Also expect something on Rolen this week.

    • Doug Gray

      I still don’t get it. Even assuming that Chapman doesn’t start the year in the bullpen (which is an assumption I don’t like to make), where is the room coming from? I just can’t see the room for it without weakening the bullpen.

  6. hunr4redsoct

    I am with you Doug, I asked about just using Arredondo in loogy situations but it seems they are still going after a lefty.

  7. hunr4redsoct

    And while I haven’t seen it as official anywhere Ted Power will be back with Louisville

  8. Moses

    Hey Doug–a bit off topic, but your headline made me think about this: why don’t more managers/teams intentionally put their #1 pitchers against the other team’s #2, their #2 against a #3, and so on? Seems like it would give you a relative advantage 4 out of 5 days after sacrificing your #5 against the other team’s #1. I know that rotations don’t always line up so cleanly and that #1 vs #1 doesn’t happen all the time, but is this a case of ego trumping common sense?

    • Doug Gray

      After the first few weeks of the season it hardly ever lines up anyways. Plus, if things play out correctly, you can get more starts out of your best pitchers by going 1-5 rather than any other way, allowing you to skip your #5 guy a few times.

  9. Ryan the Red

    Agree with you here Doug. Put your best available pitcher out there and go with it.