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January 23, 2008 at 10:37 AM

Quality, not quantity, still key

Funny how just a few hours after I posted yesterday about the Mariners needing better innings totals in 2008 that Sports Illustrated writer Tom Verducci should tackle the same subject — albeit from a different tack. Verducci attempts to define the durability of a starting rotation by basing it on the number of starts made by the top five guys in a team’s rotation. He leans heavily on advice from none other than Boston Red Sox starter Curt Schilling, who says there’s an easy way to predict the AL East winner each year.
“The rotation that makes the most starts wins the division,” Schilling says. “It’s that simple.”
Well, not really. At least, not outside the AL East. Not in the AL West last season, that’s for sure. And if I can find an exception to the rule that quickly, then maybe sheer volume of starts, as we hinted at yesterday with volume of innings totals, is not enough.

Let’s look at the number of starts made by the top five starters for each AL West team last season. Guess which team leads the pack?
Mariners — 141
Angels — 135
Rangers — 118
A’s — 103
So, those of you who bet the M’s to win the division are obviously enjoying a nice off-season packed in luxurious surroundings purchased with your victory cash, since practically no one in or outside of this city felt Seattle had a chance? Wait, what’s that? The Mariners did not win the division? How could that be? Was Schilling actually wrong about something?
Well, the M’s don’t play in the AL East, so I guess Schilling is still batting 1.000 at being right.
But the theory Verducci was espousing, one we strongly suggested yesterday, is that the team that avoids using its so-called “second-tier” starters the most will ultimately come out on top. The problem this theory runs into, as we found when looking at innings totals, is that the quality of the starts being made is just as important — even more important — as the quantity.
The Mariners only had to use their so-called “second tier” starters — Ryan Feierabend and Cha Seung Baek — some 21 times last season. Seattle’s biggest problem was that it ultimately had a pair of “second tier” starters in its Opening Day rotation. As we mentioned yesterday, there was little or no difference between starters Jeff Weaver and Horacio Ramirez and the “second tier” guys who ultimately replaced them in the rotation for prolonged periods.
Now, that would be great if Weaver and Ramirez were any good to begin with. Trouble is, they were really bad. So, the fact there was little difference once they left means some very bad pitchers were replaced by relatively bad arms. A big uh-oh for M’s fans there.
So, the fact Seattle managed more starts out of its top-five really didn’t matter much. It did matter to the Angels, who received above-average work out of its projected top-three pitchers and then slightly above-average work out of fifth starter Joe Saunders. The fact that Ervin Santana bottomed out, as did Bartolo Colon when he came off the DL, was mitigated by the fine work done by Saunders as a replacement.
Santana made 26 mostly terrible starts and singlehandedly helped keep the Mariners close to the Angels in the playoff race until September.
Colon was largely ineffective in his 18 starts after coming off the DL. Had Saunders — only in the rotation because Colon began the year shelved — been equally ineffective during the 18 starts he made, the M’s might have been on to something. But Saunders provided a slightly better than league average ERA+ of 103 on his season. Los Angeles received a comparable performance out of Dustin Moseley during his nine emergency starts made.
In other words, the slight advantage Seattle held in number of starts by its top five was negated by the poor performances of two of those starters and the better-than-expected efforts from the “second tier” Angels group.
What does this mean? Well, I’d say that if you’re going to look for durability in a starting staff, I’d stick with innings totals over starts made as a measuring device. Once again, these totals are not a guarantee of quality — which will ultimately determine the true value of the quantity. But if we’re going to look for a quantitative measurement, I’d say innings are preferable. The better pitchers are usually the ones, as one reader commented yesterday, who are allowed to stay in the games longer. Meaning at least five or six innings. The closer they get to 200 innings in a year, the easier it is to assume they offer at least decent, league average quality. You can’t tell that by examining the number of starts made. Ramirez and Weaver each made more starts than Saunders did for the Angels.
Unfortunately, they stank in most of them and the Mariners ultimately collapsed because of it.



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