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Thoughts on the Rotation

or people really overrate what an average rotation looks like

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

A quick shorthand fans like to use to describe the ability of a starting pitcher is to estimate in what order they would be in an “ideal” rotation. A #1 starter or a 4th starter for example. It’s not really a statement based on stats, just on feeling, for the most part. It doesn’t help that people have different definitions of what an ideal rotation is. Some people actually intend for it to be compared to an average rotation, some will compare it to your average playoff team as the barometer, and some are somewhere in between.

Something weird happened to me yesterday, where I was just bombarded with what people thought of the Cardinals’ rotation and it used the above way to describe the rotation. I happened to be driving in a car where radio was the only option and chose sports radio and I also weirdly saw it on Twitter a few times. Maybe not the best sources for analytical takes, but nonetheless fans sure overrate how good starting rotations are apparently!

I heard that the Cardinals have five 5th starters, that the Cardinals have two #3s and three #5s and that they were being generous. Look I don’t know if the pitching park of Busch Stadium has spoiled us, or good rotations most of the Mozeliak era have spoiled us, but I can assure you guys are waaaay overrating how good most rotations are.

Let’s look at 2022. I’ll make things really easy. You can fit whatever definition you have of each rotation spot, and we’ll see what a #1, a #2, etc. really looks like. How am I going to do this? Simply look at the WAR of how pitchers ranked at the end of the year. Let’s do playoff team, average team, lowest benchmark. Average is exactly dead in the middle, so for example an average #1 starter is 15th, #2 is 45th. Lowest is 30th, then 60th.

#1 starter (playoff team): 5.7 fWAR to 6.3 fWAR

#1 starter (average): 4.2 fWAR

#1 starter (lowest): 3.5 fWAR

Breaking news: the Cardinals don’t have a #1 starter under any definition. This is not a surprise. Not even the optimistic among us Cardinals fans think they have a #1 starter. Let’s move on. For a playoff team, I’m simply going to pick the 20 to 25th highest fWAR because while I know a few teams are going to do better than that, I think most Cardinals fans would accept two pitchers in the top 25 in a hot second as playoff-worthy.

#2 starter (playoff): 3.7 to 4

#2 starter (average) 2.9 fWAR

#2 starter (lowest): 2.3

Here is where I imagine we hit our first disagreement, at least for the talk radio among you: Jordan Montgomery is a #2 starter. If one has a playoff bound team and that team is somewhat dependent on great pitching, yeah he’s not an ideal #2 starter. For a team that is going to lean heavily on offense, he’s probably fine. His ERA is inflated but his FIP of 4.02 is 0.9 fWAR, which if he makes 30 starts, he’ll have 2.7 fWAR. He’s projected for 2.9 fWAR. His past couple seasons are 2.7 and 3.3 fWAR. He’s unmistakably a #2 starter. He has the current performance (ERA blip causing the disagreement presumably), the projection, the history.

We’ll go 30-35th for the playoff rotation

#3 starter (playoff): 3.2-3.5 fWAR

#3 starter (average): 1.8 fWAR

#3 starter (lowest): 1.4 fWAR

By the way, I specifically removed the qualified aspect of these rankings and set a minimum of 50 innings pitched. But because I imagine that’s going to be a gripe, let’s try both FIP and ERA. I’m going to stick with just the average ranking on this one.

#1 starter: 2.92 FIP/2.66 ERA

#2 starter: 3.46 FIP/3.20 ERA

#3 starter: 3.87 FIP/3.71 ERA (Wainwright actually!)

You might be thinking: oh yeah we do actually suck, except there are a couple problems with using these numbers. First, while removing the innings qualifier for WAR makes sense, a pitcher who only threw 50 innings having a better ERA than a pitcher who threw 150 just doesn’t make him a better pitcher automatically. We don’t know why he only threw 50 innings and we don’t know that he’s as good as those 50 innings made him seem.

Perhaps most importantly... offense is up this year. The average wOBA is .318, which is up from .310 last year. The 15th best team ERA last year was 3.87. The 15th best team ERA this year is... 4.17. Like offense is up a lot! But you’ll notice that the average 3rd starter had the same exact ERA as the average team ERA. Because your average #3 starter is... average. If you think a pitcher is average, they are a #3 starter.

That’s the other thing that I think is impacting people’s opinion of the rotation. They aren’t properly taking into account that offense is way up this year. The pitching has undoubtedly been bad, but it’s not been as bad as people are making it out to be. Miles Mikolas is on pace for a 1.5 fWAR season even with his slow start and I expect him to pitch better going forward, so I would consider him a #3 starter.

For example, last year Mikolas had a 3.87 ERA. That’s dead average. By WAR, he ranked as a #2 starter. So he was basically a #3 starter who became a #2 through innings. Worst case this year, I would say Mikolas is a #4 starter who will become a #3 through innings. You can take your pick who a #4 starter is. Whoever of Adam Wainwright, Steven Matz, Jack Flaherty, and Matthew Liberatore you’re highest on. I think two of them will probably end the year as #4 or better starters personally, maybe even a #3.

Do I wish they had better starting pitchers? Of course. But in reality, the hyperbole about how bad the rotation is is starting to annoy me. Claims that one pitcher isn’t going to make a difference. Yes it will! The Cardinals, based on the pitchers they have with the histories they have, are essentially missing only a #1 pitcher. That’s it. I expect Montgomery to pitch like a #2, Mikolas like a #3 or maybe Flaherty will, someone else will pitch like a #4 and someone else will pitch like a #5. And believe me, I am not going out on a limb, the bar for a #4 starter is not very high. A true 5th starter is not a whole lot better than replacement level.

Cause the thing is that this offense is very, very good, so the Cardinals don’t actually need to have three top 30 pitchers. It’s not going to make playoff games super relaxing, but the construction of this team is really just missing a #1 starter. So no, the Cardinals do not have five #5 starters.

Pump the Brakes on Liberatore

So..... this might be backup quarterback syndrome, but people are way way overrating what Liberatore is right now. And it pains me to say this as someone who was high on Liberatore going into the season, having to defend him against people who thought we couldn’t count on him. But some people think he’s our best starter now? Come on guys. Don’t put that on him.

Why am I pointing this out? I do want him to start MLB games because I do want to see what he has, but I don’t think him getting one MLB start is as egregious as people are making it out to be. Like he’s probably pretty much the same as the other guys we have, more or less. And since I made a whole article about how the rotation isn’t as bad as you think because people overrate the average rotation, this isn’t meant as a knock. He also has higher variance, so it makes sense he should start over more established MLB vets. There’s always the chance he’s suddenly an ace.

But expecting it is just asking to be disappointed and I feel like the next step after that is turning on Liberatore. Don’t fall into that trap. He’s probably not the savior of the rotation, he’s probably average. And it’ll be a great thing if he is average in fact.