Fifth Starters Don’t Exist

We read a lot of scouting reports and hear people comment that a pitcher’s potential is that of a No. 5 starter. Teams spend millions of dollars and thousands of hours crunching data to build a successful five-man rotation, but it’s all in vain. The truth of the matter is that these mythical creatures don’t actually exist.

If we look back to the 2009 season, only two teams had five starters on their pitching staffs that made 24 or more starts: the Chicago Cubs and the Colorado Rockies.

  • All 30 teams had at least one pitcher make 24 or more starts.
  • Twenty-six teams had two pitchers make 24 or more starts.
  • Then the number drops to 22 teams that had three pitchers make 24 or more starts.
  • Then we hit a cliff. Only nine teams were able to rely on four pitchers to make 24 or more starts.

    This may not be the most scientific way to look at the situation, but it’s quick and dirty and gets the point across. Only about a third of the teams in Major League Baseball had four reliable starters. Less than 10% of teams could make a claim that they actually had a “No. 5 starter” last season. Sure, you could say that some of these teams had another “quality guy” earmarked for the No. 5 role but injuries created the gap. But we know injuries in the starting rotation are inevitable each season, so it makes sense to start planning for that likely scenario. San Diego, Washington, Seattle and Cleveland could not even claim to have a No. 2 starter. Each of those four organizations had just one starter that made more than 24 starts on the season.

    Every season, most of the teams in baseball scramble to fill holes in their starting rotations and most of the headaches come from trying to fill the gaping hole in the fifth spot in the rotation. In ’09, seven teams used 10 or more pitchers to fill the black holes in their starting rotations.

    Tomorrow, I will suggest a new approach that some teams might want to consider for their starting rotations.

    * * *

    For interest’s sake, here are some other articles discussing No. 5 starters:
    1. A classic by Jeff Sackman from December 2006
    2. R.J. Anderson touching on the subject at FanGraphs
    3. FanGrapher Matthew Carruth discussing the issue at Lookout Landing
    4. Chuck Brownson tying it all together at The Hardball Times

    I’m sure there are other interesting articles on the subject… and these were just the tip of the iceberg that I discovered.

  • Marc Hulet has been writing at FanGraphs since 2008. His work focuses on prospects and fantasy. Follow him on Twitter @marchulet.

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    14 years ago

    The “5th starter” label is almost as bad as “oh he’s the #3 starter so he’ll be facing #3 starters all year long” comments