Comparing the A.L. East starting rotations - part 2

Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

Who is the top rotation in the A.L. East? You probably already know, but read about it anyway.

Hopefully you read about part one of this series earlier today. If not, take a look. I'll wait.

OK? So let's jump right in to the top three starting rotations in the American League East.

3. New York Yankees:

This is a rotation with big upside and big risk. First off, their supposed #1 starter, CC Sabathia, has shown an alarming sign - loss of velocity. On his second start of spring training vs. the Nationals, his fastball stayed around 85~87 mph and topped out at 88 mph. For someone who was averaging at 92.3 mph as recently as 2012, that is pretty discouraging. In 2013, he averaged 91.1 mph with his fastball and it came with subpar result: he ended up with worst full season of his 13-year career. While his K/9 (7.46) and BB/9 (2.77) were around the career average, he allowed more home runs (1.19 HR/9, the previous high was 0.99 HR/9 in 2012), which resulted in 2nd-worst-FIP of career (4.10. His worst is 4.22 from his rookie 2001 season). Because there is a correlation between Sabathia's diminished stuff and the amount of hard-hit balls, the news of his even lower velocity cannot be good. We may see some velocity increase later in the season and CC may try to change his strategy. He could turn around and re-invent himself as a finesse pitcher like 2008 Mike Mussina (20-9, 3.37ERA with 4.9 fWAR and 86.4mph avg. fastball) but it may involve pain to learn how to pitch around lesser stuff.

Hiroki Kuroda is less of a headache but there are concerns. As a 6-year major leaguer, he accumulated 19.1 fWAR, which is around 3.2 fWAR per year, which is a nice #2-starter-type production. In 2013, he carried the Yankee rotation by eating 200+ innings, showing good command (1.92 BB/9) while keeping the ball in the park (it's not easy to put up 0.89 HR/9 while being a right-hander pitching in Yankee Stadium). However, he is 39-years old and he seemed gassed out towards the end of the season, going 0-6 with 6.56 ERA in his last 8 starts. Based on his 3.7 fWAR in 2012 and 3.8 last year, you could expect another year of 3.0's fWAR (or mid-high-2.0's, which is still nice for Yankees) unless if his skillset falls off the face of the earth.

Masahiro Tanaka, who follows behind Kuroda in the rotation, is set to pitch in his first ML season after destroying NPB for last few years - his ERA for last three full season are 1.27, 1.87 and 1.27. After having scouted Tanaka extensively, Yankees signed him for 7-year $155 million, which will buy him a lot of (insert stereotypical Japanese item here). So far in the Spring Training, the words on Tanaka are very positive. However, we won't know how he will settle in as a ML pitcher until he actually gets some regular season action. ZiPS projection is very optimistic on him, giving him a 5.1 WAR, a value equivalent to Chris Sale and Cliff Lee's from 2013. Steamer, on the other hand, gives him a 3.5 WAR, which is still solid #1~2 starter type production. Signs point that Tanaka will be a very productive starting pitcher in ML but the veil has got to come off before we get to conclusions. As you may know, historically, there have been ML acquisitions of Japanese pitchers that went very well (Hisashi Iwakuma, Yu Darvish, Kaz Sasaki, etc.) and not as well (Hideki Irabu, Kei Igawa, Tsuyoshi Wada, etc.).

Ivan Nova is another starter with an unsure upside. He was a rotation enigma coming off a mixed 2012 season in which he increased his K-rate (8.08 K/9) but got hit harder (16.6% HR/FB and 4.60 FIP). In 2013, from mid-June till the season's end, he was a pitcher that Yankees front office envisioned him to be - 7-5, 2.70 ERA in 116.2 IP and the major factor on improvement was being less homer-prone, reducing HR/9 from 1.48 to 0.58 while his groundball % went up by 8.3%. Is he going to continue that trend of being a groundball-inducing solid starter? We'll see. Because he was never all that highly-regarded as a prospect, there have been more doubts.

There definitely is a 5th spot competition going on in the ST for the Yanks. The main three candidates seem to be David Phelps, Michael Pineda and Vidal Nuno. Phelps has been bouncing in and out of the rotation. He's not the kind that will come at you with explosive stuff but he's done a decent job at getting hitters out - probably the "low ceiling high floor" of the three. Michael Pineda, however, who is looking to get his first ML regular season action after his dominating 2011 season, has a big ceiling but hasn't pitched for two full years in Majors. After starting against the Orioles on Thursday, his ST line so far is 4.2 IP, 4H, 0R/ER, 1BB and 8 K, which is nice and shiny. His fastball is still stuck at 89~92mph range (the same as before he suffered torn labrum in ST of 2012), but the Yankees are happy that he's getting live action and doing well in it.

Nuno is a finesse lefty (remember the Nate McClouth walk-off homer versus the Yanks on May 22 last season? Nuno served up that pitch) who definitely does not overpower hitters but mixes pitches to get hitters out. He dominated the AAA (1.44 ERA in 25.0IP with 10.80 K/9 and 0.70 BB/9) before getting to the majors and he was doing decently before a lower half injury shelved him for rest of the season. The Yankees will give more looks on him at the rotation or use him as a LOOGY - but I don't know if he will be the clear winner of the 5th starter slot.

Verdict:

A lot of question marks: Will Sabathia be good again or implode even more? Will Kuroda's age catch up to him? Is Tanaka a Darvish or an Irabu? Is Nova's ‘13 second-half fluke? Who is the fifth starter? This staff has a lot of upsides and risks. Yankee fans need to invest on voodoo dolls (or lucky rabbit's foot) for the rotation to lead the team not to repeat the mediocre 2013.

2. Boston Red Sox:

The reigning World Champs have a lot to feel good about their rotation - for good reasons too. Jon Lester has been the consistent staff #1 since 2008. 2012 was a bit of a hiccup with an outlier-like 4.82 ERA, but he rebounded well in 2013 with a strong 15-8, 213.1IP, 3.75 ERA/3.59 FIP line. Looking more into his numbers, his K-rate and walk rate only made marginal improvements from 2012, but his home run rate improved - 1.10 to 0.80. He was also stranding more runners in 2013 with 73.7% LOB, which is closer to his career average of 74.6% than his 2012 number, 67.6%. For now, it's very safe to say that the ever-reliable Lester is back.

John Lackey was a much bigger comeback story of 2013. Lackey's name became synonymous with joke in 2011 after putting up an abominable 6.41 ERA in 160.0 IP (and being one of the pitchers subject to the entire "chicken and beer" saga, etc.). However, he came back in a big way last year - his 7.65 K/9 is well above his career 7.09 rate, he demonstrated much-improved command (1.90 BB/9 after 3.15 BB/9 in 2011), resulting in a solid 3.2 fWAR. He was looking like the pitcher that the Sox paid big money to acquire. Last year, Lackey mixed slider much more than he did before - opting to throw the pitch 30.0% of the time as opposed to 12.1%. Looks like it's a part of a formula that worked well for him - last year, Lackey induced ao 9.8% swinging strike rate, his highest since 2005, when he posted up a great 5.6 fWAR. He's gone through hard times, but he put himself as a solid anchor of the rotation.

Clay Buchholz did not play for a good chunk of ‘13, but when he did, he was unreal. For one, he put up 1.74 ERA as a starter - his peripherals are not as flashy but still pretty good (2.78 FIP, 3.41 xFIP). Something that worked hugely in favor of Buchholz was his sublime 0.33 HR/9 rate, helped by an almost unsustainable 4.5% HR/FB rate. It's not unreasonable to expect a low home run rate from Buchholz because he's a groundball pitcher who flirts with 50.0% GB rate every year, but we'll see if there will be regression. This article in Fangraphs suggests that his strikeout rate rose but most of the gains came from looking K's, which "do not have the sustainability of swinging strikeouts." You can look to see if his strikeout rate will regress back a bit but because of his skills to induce weak contact (that and he is in prime time of his career at age 29), he has a lot of upside. The main problem with Buchholz is that he pretty much has never had a full healthy season in ML - 189.1 IP in 2012 is the career high.

If Buchholz outperformed his peripherals, Jake Peavy pretty much pitched to his in 2013. His ERA is just a bit higher than his FIP and xFIP (4.17/3.96/4.03) but there aren't significant differences. There's a bit of a negative sign to Peavy - his home run rate has been sneaking up for last three years (7.6% -> 9.7% -> 10.1 %) and his groundball tendencies have gone as low as 32.7%, which is not necessarily a good news for a pitcher in hitter-friendly Fenway. Both Steamer and ZiPS expect his home run rates to go down a bit, resulting in more or less better result (ZiPS give him 3.2 WAR as opposed to 2.4 fWAR he earned in ‘13). Even if he pretty much repeats his 2013 result, he would still be a very serviceable #3~4 type.

Taking the #5 is likely Felix Doubront, who pitched to a 2.8 fWAR and 4.32 ERA/3.78 FIP in 162.1 IP. Which is quite nice (especially considering that 2.8 fWAR would fit in as the #2~3 type in many other rotations). Doubront's 2013 featured lowered K rate (9.34 -> 7.71) with more or less the same walk rate, but also a much improved home run rate (1.34 -> 0.72). He pretty much went from being homer-prone to keeping the ball in the park well. He traded his strikeout skills for weak contact skills - his line drive % fell from 23.4% to 19.9% and his groundball % rose from 43.7% to 45.6%. Based overall result, it seems to be a worthy investment. He's also young (turned 26 in October) and consider that he suffered a below-average strand rate (69.9%) - few more adjustments and we could be looking at a better pitcher, who is potentially Sox's 5th starter. Also, don't forget their latest SP addition, Chris Capuano, who could be a solid spot-starting arm.

Verdict:

There's a lot of talent in the rotation and they could help a lot to potentially deliver them another division title (well, with their explosive offense, that is). It's not as much future upside as Ray's rotation, but no Major League GM should be upset for having one like Bosox's. Just make sure someone like Capuano is ready to cover for Buchholz if the righty gets injured again.

1. Tampa Bay Rays:

The Tampa Bay Rays become one of the envies for their starting rotation even without having everything go right in 2013. For instance, David Price had a slow start for the first two months of the season (1-4, 5.24 ERA in 55.0IP), Jeremy Hellickson had his career-worst season ERA wise (136 ERA-) and Alex Cobb missed 2 months worth of action after taking a liner to the head in June 15 versus the Royals. Despite those mishaps, Rays rotation ranked 9th in ERA in ML and 11th in FIP, while being in AL East. Their #1 starter, David Price, even on his "down year", recorded a 4.4 fWAR while showing his great command (1.30 BB/9) and the ability to keep the ball in the park (0.77 HR/9). If there's a cause for concern, his overall fastball velocity dropped (95.5 mph -> 93.5 mph) but he recovered some after being back from disabled list in July so that is a relief for Rays fans and fantasy owners. As far as starters go, David Price is one of the top-tier choices.

For naked eyes, Matt Moore had a very fine season in his second full-season in ML (17-4, 3.29 ERA). Looking more into the peripherals, there are things that are left to be desired. While he is quite good at striking out ML hitters (8.56 K/9), he needs to walk less hitters (4.55 BB/9), and he's not much of a groundball pitchers either (39.4 % groundball rate). While his above-average 87 ERA- doesn't reflect his average 105 FIP-, he is still a very attractive young pitcher: a hard-throwing young lefty that keeps the ball in park with top-prospect pedigree and one of the best ML starting debuts in recent memory. Both Steamer and ZiPS project him to post a 2.0 or higher WAR (around that range), and I don't disagree. Rays should be, and are, very happy to have Moore as part of their future plans.

Another pitcher that they treasure is the RHP Alex Cobb, another one of their homegrown SP talent. While he doesn't have the stuff to overpower hitters, he gets the job done. His pitch mix data indicates that he started to use his curveball more (16.1% in 2011, 19.1% in 2012 and 23.6% in ‘13). His curveball did not bring a superb value (only 1.0 runs saved last year), but I'm guessing it mixed up pitches more to his advantage against the hitters. A lot of things have been trending well for Cobb - K rate (6.32 -> 7.00 -> 8.41 in last three years), walk rate (3.59 in 2011, 2.83 in 2013) and he's been able to stay off being homer-prone (0.82 HR/FB last year) while inducing grounders (55.8% GB). Unless if he gets derailed by injuries, he's on his way to be a solid #1~2 type starter in any rotation for his career with many desirable qualities.

Chris Archer left his impression in the Rays rotation with a great rookie season. He started the season as one of the team's top prospects in AAA. While he was striking hitters out in Durham, he didn't have the best control (4.14 BB/9). But once he got to Majors, the walk rate cut down significantly to 2.66, which seems to be the big contributor to his successful first ML campaign. What clicked? Did he get a good coaching after being promoted? Is it a fluke? So far in the Spring Training, (SSS alert!) he's gone 5.1 IP without walking anyone and press has been raving his "precise command and control". Well, isn't that welcome news for Rays fans. Both Steamer and ZiPS expect Archer's walk rate to regress back (both projecting 1.5 WAR), but only time will tell if Archer will keep it up or not. Even if he regresses back, not a lot of fans should be complaining about 3.72ERA/3.99FIP in 152.1IP that ZiPS is projecting for Archer in 2014.

With Hellickson sidelined with elbow injury at least until late-May, former first-rounder Jake Odorizzi is the favorite to take the fifth spot. Odorizzi was originally picked by the Brewers but was traded to Royals as a part of the package that sent Greinke to the Brew Crew. In December 2012, Odorizzi was part of the package of the trade that sent James Shields to the Royals. Odorizzi doesn't seem like a guy who gets by with pure stuff, but he seems to have a reasonable command (2.90 BB/9 in AAA last year). The challenge for Odorizzi in the Majors will be keeping the balls in the park as a flyball pitcher. Lucky for him, Tropicana has been rated to be pitcher-friendly.

When Hellickson returns, the former AL ROY will look to rebound from his worst ERA season. If you look at his peripherals, his strikeout rate is actually his career-high (6.98), his walk rate is his career low (2.59) and his home run rate (1.24) is not as high as 2012 (1.27) when he recorded a 3.10 ERA. What happened? He suddenly was not able to strand the runners. He went from a very high 82.2% runners LOB to quite low 66.7%. What happened? Some suggest pure luck. Personally, I feel like a sudden drop-off from one extreme to another involves more than just luck. In the article, one of the commenters suggested his mechanics to be a cause. "The increased usage of the slide step pitching from the stretch messed him up, leading him to elevate pitches. He was the same guy with bases empty, but awful when working from the stretch." Something to think about. %LOB is a curious stat to think about.

Verdict:

The youth and skills of pitchers like Price, Moore, Cobb, Archer and even Odorizzi have the pitching aficionados drooling for this season - it's a testament to their farm development. Not all of them may showcase their best asset this year, but barring any major injuries, it should be a fun rotation to follow. Also, if Hellickson figures out what he's doing wrong with runners left on base, that's just adding more to the treasure island.

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