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Catching K-Mac Fever

Despite Tony La Russa's insistence last week that there was still a competition in camp for the final St. Louis rotation spot, Kyle McClellan appears to have graduated from "frontrunner" status for the final rotation slot to winner of the said slot. Last week, Lance Lynn had a lackluster outing while McClellan pitched 4 innings while allowing 3 hits and a run against the Braves. DanUp has written some excellent posts on McClellan, most recently on Friday when he looked at how other groundballing relievers saw their GB/FB ratio affected by the move to starting. Yesterday, Azruvatar gave us "Three Reasons McClellan Will Be Sufficient." K-Mac Fever is sweeping across the nation and it has infected me as well, albeit somewhat differently. You see, K-Mac Fever is ever-evolving and affects each and every one of us differently.

The Post-Dispatch also caught K-Mac Fever--perhaps at the virtual water cooler--asking its distinguished panel "What must McClellan do in No. 5 role to be a success?" Answering this largely depends on what one defines "success" to be out of the fifth starter slot. Is it to replace Adam Wainwright, or, is it to be a good fifth starter? These are two very different propositions. McClellan will be hard-pressed to replace Wainwright. All but a handful of pitchers in the game of baseball would fall short in such an endeavor. Obviously, "replacing Wainwright" puts us at one end of the expectations spectrum, a fantastical end of the rainbow with prancing unicorns, bacon, sunflower seeds, good defensive shortstops, and National League Pennants. The other is something tied more to the realm of the realistic, where No. 5 starters are not really all that effective and a club is happy to still be in the game when turning the ball over to its 40 year-old "long man" out of the 'pen in the sixth inning.

In reading the water cooler discussion regarding what "success" for McClellan might look like, I thought it was telling that many of the distinguished Round Two panelists focused in on the number of starts and total innings pitched for K-Mac. The consensus seems to be that the Cardinals need something approaching the 175 IP Braden Looper provided the club when he transitioned from bullpenner to starter in 2007. Reading some of the responses--specifically from Joe Strauss from the Post-Dispatch--reminded me of a years-old piece over at The Hardball Times. And I wanted to add some of its findings to the expectations game for the once-and-future fifth starter.

In the "Round Two" discussion, Joe Strauss states:

Six innings per start, a sub-4.00 ERA and anything better than a .500 record would be a very solid season as a No. 5 starter. I’m certain McClellan has set a higher standard for himself. But given the typical demographic of fifth starter’s within the NL, the aforementioned numbers represent a solid season. Should McClellan make 30 starts and carry 180 innings, it would have to be considered a remarkable transfer from the bullpen to a contender’s rotation.

I have no idea how many pitching "wins" and/or "losses" for which a typical fifth starter is arbitrarily given credit, so I am not going to dwell on such an arbitrary gauge of performance. I want to focus in on the "sub-4.00 ERA" aspect of Strauss's comment and his assertion that "given the typical demographic of fifth starter's [sic] within the NL, the aforementioned numbers represent a solid season." 

Jeff Stackman put together a very nice piece for The Hardball Times after the 2006 season titled, "How Good Is Your #4 Starter?" I remember Stackman's article to this day because I have always found the labeling of a pitcher, whether it be a prospect's ceiling or a free agent, to be nebulous. The differing perceptions regarding such labels were last most clear to me when the VEB community was discussing their hopes for Jaime Garcia heading last season. Stackman explains:

When pundits talk about a free-agent pitcher, they often refer to him as a "#3 starter" or, say, a "#4 starter for a contender." It's common enough usage that most baseball fans know what that means, or at least know what the pundits are getting at.

Of course, this usage is extremely imprecise: one man's #2 is another man's #4, and there's no clear way to settle the debate.

Stackman compiled ERA data based on the premise that clubs get an average of 32 starts per season from each rotation spot. He then came up with these averages for the 2006 season:*

Lg      #1      #2      #3      #4      #5
MLB    3.60    4.14    4.58    5.10    6.24
AL      3.70    4.24    4.58    5.09    6.22
NL      3.51    4.04    4.57    5.11    6.26


*I would like to take this moment to note that Stackman provides the ERA by rotation slot for each MLB club in 2006. The World Champion St. Louis Cardinals had an ERA over 5.00 from each of its No. 3, 4, and 5 rotation spots.

As I quote Stackman above, "one man's #2 is another man's #4, and there's no clear way to settle the debate." Or, to put it another way. What is "very solid" for a No. 5 starter in the eyes of Joe Strauss--180 IP with a sub-4.00 ERA--is actually rather solid for a No. 2 starter or a No. 3 starter in terms of production, according to Stackman's 2006 averages.* And this is something that I think we all need to remind ourselves of as we head into this season. 

*2006 was not the "Year of the Pitcher," as was 2010, so I think we could perhaps expect something a bit better if we had, say, a five-year average for these numbers. Unfortunately, we do not. I still feel comfortable with this data being reliable enough on which to base expectations in 2011.

For McClellan to be an acceptable No. 5 starter, the bar is rather low. However, the circumstances that have thrust McClellan into the role of starter this season necessitate something more than clearing that low bar. To help make up for the loss of Wainwright's elite pitching once every five days, the Cardinals will need something approaching what would be about average for a No. 2 or No. 3 starter from not just McClellan, but also Kyle Lohse and Jake Westbrook. And, even if the Cardinals are fortunate enough to receive such performances, they will also likely need a return to form with the bat from Skip Schumaker, Ryan Theriot, Yadier Molina, and Lance Berkman in order to win the division.