Orioles analysis: How does the starting rotation stack up, slot-by-slot, against the rest of the AL East?

Rob Carr

Seemingly every evaluation of a pitcher includes an assessment of whether he's an "ace", or maybe he's more of a "true #2" or a "back-end 4/5 guy". Each such evaluation is fodder for fans of teams to talk about who is being disrespected among their guys and who is being overrated among the other guys, especially a particular rival team's guys.

All of this is a bunch of hypothetical theorizing. No team gets to construct its rotation by considering what ephemeral qualities make a #1 starter as opposed to a #4 starter. Through the draft, free agent signings, trades, and waiver wire pickups, pitchers are acquired and developed. It's the executive's job to juggle to make sure the best five pitchers are starting games at a given time.

Injuries and ineffectiveness make it a constant struggle. Orioles fans know this better than most, having seen 13 different pitchers start games this season. How those starters are ranked doesn't matter. Are those five guys collectively pitching better than most of the rotations of other teams? They don't even have to match up exactly, because best pitcher vs. best pitcher matchups aren't guaranteed. The Opening Day (#1) starter could end up sucking, as has been the case for the O's the past two seasons.

In the end, the best pitcher on a team is the one who pitches the best. The #2 pitches second-best, and so on. Considering this, how do the Orioles compare on a slot-by-slot basis against the rest of the tough American League East?

For the purposes of this comparison, I'm counting the five pitchers who have thrown the most innings as starters for each team. Due to the ever-shifting nature of baseball rosters, they may not be the five pitchers starting for the rest of the season, but this is the story of the season so far.

The #1-#5 designations have been made on the basis of ERA. This is purely about results. Some pitchers may have been lucky and some may have been unlucky. They may regress. Some may pitch in hitters' parks. Who is ranked where could change by season's end. This is a snapshot of this moment in time.

THE BEST OF THE EAST (#1)

Player Team IP ERA K/9 BB/9 HR/9
Wei-Yin Chen Orioles 54.1 2.82 5.13 2.48 0.50
Clay Buchholz Red Sox 84.1 1.71 8.64 3.09 0.21
Hiroki Kuroda Yankees 118.2 2.65 6.37 1.82 0.91
Alex Cobb Rays 83.2 3.01 8.18 2.47 0.97
Esmil Rogers Blue Jays 44 3.27 7.16 2.86 0.82

I find some immediate regret for my methodology, because the pattern here, except for Kuroda, is that each team's "best" starter seems to be one who hasn't thrown as many innings to experience regression. Buchholz, in particular, stands out. No starter is 1.71 ERA over a full season good. That just doesn't happen. He is on the disabled list. So is Cobb. Chen spent time there.

Chen compares favorably enough, but his strikeout rate is the lowest, and if that doesn't increase, he's probably due for an increase in his ERA. The Yankees get the edge here.

THE FIRST LOSERS (#2)

Player Team IP ERA K/9 BB/9 HR/9
Miguel Gonzalez Orioles 101 3.48 6.77 3.03 1.25
John Lackey Red Sox 100.1 2.78 8.34 2.06 1.26
CC Sabathia Yankees 137 4.07 7.69 1.97 1.38
Matt Moore Rays 107.1 3.44 9.06 4.61 0.67
R.A. Dickey Blue Jays 128.2 4.69 6.44 3.29 1.40

In an interesting coincidence, if you rank these second-best starters by their ERA, they line up the same as do their teams in the standings. Would you take Lackey over any of the rest of these guys for the rest of the season? He is having a heck of a year, but his FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) is 3.83, meaning he could be due to regress. Gonzalez has that warning flag as well. Even the "struggling" #2 starters are at least doing the job of eating innings for their teams.

I wonder what it would be like if the Orioles had a starter like Moore who could strike out over a batter per inning, maybe without quite as many walks. The Red Sox come out on top here.

THE CHARMERS (#3)

Player Team IP ERA K/9 BB/9 HR/9
Chris Tillman Orioles 111.2 3.95 7.17 3.30 1.61
Felix Doubront Red Sox 93.2 3.56 8.55 3.94 0.77
Andy Pettitte Yankees 98.1 4.39 6.50 2.47 0.82
David Price Rays 80 3.94 7.54 1.58 1.01
Mark Buehrle Blue Jays 116 4.89 5.97 2.33 1.24

That's Chris Tillman, All-Star and 11-game winner, to you. In terms of his ERA, he looks fine enough in this company, but he gives up home runs like they're going out of style, so it is hard to count on him to be some kind of staff ace. On the other hand, as a middle-of-the-rotation guy... well, he doesn't look so bad next to these others. Never mind that 4.95 FIP.

The Red Sox come out on top once again, and that's why they're leading the division.

NOTHING CLEVER TO SAY ABOUT (#4)

Player Team IP ERA K/9 BB/9 HR/9
Jason Hammel Orioles 111.2 5.24 6.29 2.98 1.53
Ryan Dempster Red Sox 110.1 4.24 8.48 4.08 1.63
Phil Hughes Yankees 102.1 4.57 7.74 2.29 1.58
Jeremy Hellickson Rays 117.2 4.67 7.42 1.99 1.15
Josh Johnson Blue Jays 66.1 5.16 9.09 3.12 1.36

Here is where the Orioles start to really fall behind the rest of the division, especially the other three contending teams. Hammel was such a strength for the team last year, and now he is the fourth-best starter, allowing significantly more runs than even other fourth-best starters. He does not look to be in for a dose of regression in his favor, with a 5.08 FIP not representing much improvement.

The good news is that none of these fourth-best guys are better than Tillman, the Orioles' third-best guy. Of course, one bad start can change that in a hurry, even at this point in the season.

PLEASE DRINK (THE FIFTHS) RESPONSIBLY

Player Team IP ERA K/9 BB/9 HR/9
Freddy Garcia Orioles 52 5.88 4.15 2.08 2.77
Jon Lester Red Sox 125.2 4.58 7.38 3.22 1.07
David Phelps Yankees 65.2 4.93 7.26 3.29 0.82
Roberto Hernandez Rays 108.1 4.90 6.98 2.08 1.50
Brandon Morrow Blue Jays 54.1 5.63 6.96 2.98 1.99

Garcia is not starting games for the Orioles any more, but every pitcher that started games that wasn't listed (other than Zach Britton) has an ERA about as bad or worse. It'll probably be Scott Feldman bringing up the rear, and he should probably be better than this.

One thing that stands out is that the Yankees, Rays, and Red Sox have all had five starters that started at least twelve games. Only seven pitchers have made starts for the Yankees, with the two extras - Ivan Nova and Vidal Nuno - both having a lower ERA than Phelps. For the Rays, Chris Archer has made nine starts and has a 2.96 ERA.

Another trend that is apparent is that the O's starters lag behind in strikeout rate significantly. Every Red Sox starter has a higher K/9 than the O's starter with the best (Tillman).

Is there hope for improvement here? Well... not really. Gonzalez is good, but he's probably not any better than his current results. Tillman is already "lucky" and is probably not much better than his current results. Chen's not bad, but is probably worse than his current results, though he's the one pitcher who might increase the strikeout rate. Hammel is not having a good year.

If they decide they've had enough of Hammel, perhaps Britton will get some more chances. A 4.76 ERA isn't good, but it is still noticeably better than Hammel's performance. An improving Kevin Gausman could take that spot.

However, for the most part, the rotation is what it is, and it's not a good rotation compared to the other contenders. If the offense flags, they may shoulder the blame if the Orioles fall out of the race, but this is the real problem area for the team, and despite Dan Duquette's attempts to stack depth again this year, there's not much help in sight.

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