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January 22, 2008 at 10:45 AM

M’s should eat innings

One aspect of the pitching and defense talk that has dominated the M’s off-season so far is still being overlooked. I hear all types of speculation about what the ERA of respective Mariners starting pitchers should be and that’s all fine and good. But for me, the biggest problem in 2007 wasn’t the number of runs allowed averaged by each starter over the course of nine innings. It was how close those starters came — or in this case, didn’t come — to actually going the full nine frames. Follow? Starters weren’t staying in games long enough. The bullpen had to work too many innings, regardless of whether a starter managed not to inflate his ERA totals.
At first glance, there are some very encouraging signs in this department for the Mariners. The first is that Seattle will be the only American League team to head into 2008 with its top four starting pitchers having thrown at least 190 innings in 2007. But total innings counts don’t tell the full story and the Mariners could still use some help when it comes to keeping the bullpen in the bullpen.


First off, let’s look at the top four Mariners starters and their innings totals from 2007:
Felix Hernandez — 190 1/3
Miguel Batista — 193
Jarrod Washburn — 193 2/3
Carlos Silva — 202
Now, innings totals don’t mean everything. And the 190 innings figure, I’ll admit, is somewhat arbitrary. But it’s also darned close to the 200 innings mark that usually constitutes the sign of a good, durable pitcher. It’s worth noting, again, that not one pitching staff in the AL last year had four guys throw 190 innings or more. Now remember, this stat doesn’t tell you how deep into games a starter went and whether it will be enough. Remember, a six-inning pitcher can make 34 starts a year and throw over 200 innings. If the M’s got nothing but six-inning starts and forced the bullpen to work three innings, six nights per week, all six months of the year, the team would be in big trouble.
But the innings totals do give us a fair indication of how much of the workload is being absorbed by the best starters on a club.
For instance, Seattle starters threw a combined 928 2/3 innings last year. But because of injuries and non-performance by Jeff Weaver and Horacio Ramirez, the team was forced to call on replacement starters like Cha Seung Baek, Ryan Feierabend and others. The fact that the replacements were every bit as good at times as the guys they replaced tells you just how bad things were for Seattle’s rotation last year. The point is, all of the above produced below-average numbers.
One of the keys to success for a winning team is to get the best guys (hopefully producing the average or above-average numbers) tossing as many innings as possible.
So, let’s assume you need somebody to throw those 928 2/3 innings this year. Would you rather it be one of the four projected starters on opening day doing the bulk of it, or an emergency Class AAA call-up? The four guys we’ve mentioned would log 779 of those innings if they maintain their numbers from last year. Now, remember, that’s only four guys. There is still a fifth starter yet to be named. By my numbers, that fifth guy would now have to log 149 2/3 innings to reach the 928 2/3 from last year. Now, that 149 2/3 frames won’t be easy for a young guy like Feierabend, Ryan Rowland-Smith, or a project like R.A. Dickey, or last year’s incumbent starter, Ramirez. But if they reach it, that’s the entire 2007 innings total absorbed by your top five guys. That’s important.
Throw Erik Bedard into that mix? Well, the five starters should be able to pick up all of the 2007 season’s innings and more. And remember, those of you arguing for a slight regression by Washburn, Batista or Silva, also have to allow that Hernandez might improve and vault over 200 innings this year.
Bottom line? The starting rotation as now constituted is in pretty good shape to pick up more innings than in 2007, when statistically below-average pitchers did a substantial part of the workload.
Does this mean everything? Unfortunately for the M’s, no. It still doesn’t address the need for starters to go deeper into games than five or six innings a night.
Let’s look at how many starts of seven or more innings were thrown by the three incumbent starters from last season, Hernandez, Batista, Washburn.
Hernandez — 12
Washburn — 8
Batista — 6
Now, let’s look at the newest addition:
Silva — 12
So, already, the M’s have added a guy who went as deep into games as Seattle’s top pitcher from last season. The ability to go at least seven innings is the definition of a top-flight starter because it allows your bullpen to employ only its best relievers in a game, in their proper order. For me, this is the biggest thing that Silva brings to the table here in Seattle.
What about Bedard? He threw 14 games of at least seven innings. More than any current Mariners starter. And that was in a season that ended on Aug. 26.
Anyway, the point of this was to get us talking about stuff other than ERA and total runs allowed. An improved rotation, one that goes deeper and keeps replacement starters out of there, should have a ripple effect on the bullpen that’s tough to quantify. But obviously, it will help. Should be helped with the guys the M’s already have. Could get a lot better after another move or two.
By the way, the last AL team to have four guys throw at least 190 innings, also had a fifth starter do it as well. That would be the 2006 Chicago White Sox, who won 90 games. That club actually had four guys throw 200 or more innings and a fifth toss 196. Chicago also had four guys throw 190 or more (actually more than 200 for each of those four) in 2005, the year the White Sox won the World Series.
So, what does all this tell us? Well, the 2006 White Sox didn’t win their division, so innings totals aren’t everything. Not everything, but if 90+ wins are what it takes to make the post-season, I think we can all agree that four or five guys capable of getting to the 190 mark and beyond is a good place to start. Better than last year, anyway. How much better remains to be seen.
Note (3:18 p.m.): I’d originally given the M’s starters credit for throwing more innings than they actually did. My math was off. I’ve since adjusted the totals. It actually makes the case more than the original numbers did.

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