This series was a lot of work, but it was also fun to go through each organization and look at some of the interesting projections that ZIPS has spit out for various starters. The projections listed below are a combination of rate stats projected by Dan Szymborski’s system combined with my estimation of innings pitched and then a calculation of WAR based on the combination of my quantity estimate and Dan’s projection of quality. These aren’t intended to be exact projections, which is why we’ve rounded to the nearest half win, but I think they’re probably going to fair pretty decently – I did do my best to ensure that the total IP and WAR projections lined up very closely with league totals from last year, and I tried to figure out the seven or eight most likely starters for each franchise – the depth chart information isn’t always crystal clear for every team, so I had to make some guesses, but I think the selections are reasonable in most cases.
There were definitely some surprises once I finished the calculations and sorted from top to bottom. If this a purely subjective exercise based on my opinion, some teams would move around a decent amount, but I’ve tried to make it clear where I think the ZIPS rate stats might be too high or too low on a specific group, or gave an explanation for the thinking behind the IP total. Besides the shocker in the top five, I’m pretty comfortable with most of these, and think they line up with general consensus pretty well. But, enough ramblings – on to the rankings.
15. Seattle Mariners
This is basically what you get when you have one of the very best pitchers in the game and then a collection of guys behind him that aren’t too awful. There’s nothing overly sexy about the pitch-to-contact guys that fill in the #2-#5 spots in the rotation, but they all throw enough strikes to be useful and Safeco helps keep them from being too home run prone. Even taking park factors into account, this rotation should be about average, though an injury to Felix would be devastating to the franchise.
14. St. Louis Cardinals
The same thing we just said about Washington applies here too – I could very well be low on the IP totals for Wainwright on Miller here, and shifting innings to those two would help the Cardinals quite a bit. The question for St. Louis is how they’ll manage the workloads for those two during the regular season while also trying to set themselves up for another playoff run. Are they willing to push those guys all year and then also ask them to pitch deep into October? Or will they need to skip some starts during the regular season in order to keep them available for postseason baseball? There are a lot of hard to predict variables here, and depending on how you think things could shake out, they could easily be higher than this by year’s end.
13. Florida Marlins
I’m starting to sound like a broken record, but just replace Strasburg/Wainwright with Josh Johnson and you have the Marlins situation. If he throws 200 innings, this rotation is amazing. If he throws 100, well, the replacements aren’t very good. And, before you object to this placement considering that Buehrle’s been beating his FIP for yeras, remember that this team also has Ricky Nolasco, so those two basically cancel out.
12. Boston Red Sox
Boston’s one of three teams (also CHW and TEX) where I manually adjusted a pitcher’s projection to account for a bullpen transition. It’s possible that I’m underselling Daniel Bard here, as others have made successful conversions into the rotation in recent years, but I’m not comfortable going forward with a projection built off bullpen performance. If he’s good, though, that’s a big boost for the Red Sox, who could then have an elite rotation. If he’s bad, their pile of depth isn’t very impressive, and the back-end of their rotation could be highly problematic.
11. Minnesota Twins
Meet the northern version of Tom Milone – ZIPS is in love with Liam Hendriks. In fact, a large part of this positive ranking of the Twins rotation is due to the strong work they’re expected to get from their #4 and #5 starters, and the crazy good projection for Hendriks is a big part of that. On a per-innings basis, it actually thinks he could be Scott Baker’s equal, and one of the better starters in the American League. I’ll say the same thing here that I said about Milone in the Oakland write-up – take the under. There’s not a ton of upside here, but there’s also not a lot of suck, so the Twins rotation is pretty likely to finish in the middle of the pack.
10. Los Angeles Dodgers
Ladies and Gentleman, Clayton Kerhsaw. He accounts for 40% of the rotation’s projected WAR by himself, and shows the value of having a legitimate ace at the helm. Billingsley is probably still a bit underrated, and gives the team a solid tandem up front, but then they get into the low velocity guys and things get worse in a hurry. I like Capuano and Lilly’s okay, but Harang is pretty meh and Eovaldi can only replace one of them.
9. Chicago White Sox
The White Sox #4 and #5 starters can stack up with anyone in the game, as they have five guys who project as league average or better. They simply lack a real ace, as Danks and Floyd are more good than great, so they lose some ground to the better rotations when comparing the top-end starters. Still, this is a good group of arms, especially if they can figure out how to keep Peavy healthy.
8. San Francisco Giants
The opposite of the White Sox, their top three stack up with any in the game, but it gets pretty ugly at the back end. ZIPS isn’t buying into Vogelsong’s revival, and you don’t need a fancy projection system to know that Barry Zito is bad. Eric Zurkamp is another soft-tosser that ZIPS likes more than scouts, and another guy where I’ll suggest that betting the under on the projection is a good idea. Still, Lincecum/Cain/Bumgarner make for an excellent trio, and should carry the Giants to run prevention success even if they have inferior teammates.
7. New York Yankees
Pineda gives the Yankees another projected All-Star caliber starter to pair with Sabathia, and then they have four guys behind those two who all project to be about league average or so. That depth provides them with insurance in case of injury or unexpected struggles, and should prevent any blow-ups from sinking their chances at contention. That said, they need Pineda to be good, because the non-CC options are all more likely to be solid, and don’t project as guys you want to give two playoff starts to if you don’t have to.
6. Texas Rangers
While some projection systems are proposing marriage to Yu Darvish, ZIPS sees him as more All-Star than Ace. Either that, or it ran out of irrational affection after Milone and Hendriks. So, Texas might not have the true frontline workhorse that headlines other rotations, but what they have is a ridiculous amount of depth. With Harrison, Holland, Lewis, Feliz, and Ogando, they’d have one of the game’s best rotations even without Darvish. Add him to the mix, and account for the usefulness of having a guy like Feldman around, and the Rangers shouldn’t have any problems finding a quality arm to take the hill each day in 2012.
5. Cleveland Indians
Wait, what? The Indians? The CLEVELAND Indians?
When I saw them at #5 after running the calculations, I was convinced there was an error in the ratings. I triple checked them. There isn’t. ZIPS loves the Indians rotation. It sees both Masterson and Jimenez as legitimate front-line starters, and then is wooed again by the soft-tossing strike throwers mold – this time, it’s Kevin Slowey and Josh Tomlin getting love for throwing 88 and over the plate. Toss in a still-useful Derek Lowe, and ZIPs seems a strong, deep rotation with two really good horses up front. I’ll take the under, personally, but there’s some validity to the reasoning, and the Indians rotation is probably underrated. Just maybe not this underrated.
4. Detroit Tigers
Talk about an interesting social experiment – what happens when you put a fantastic rotation in front of an ungodly defense? We’re about to find out, because Detroit has a really good collection of arms and will be supporting them with the worst defense we’ve seen in a long time. Verlander gets so many strikeouts that it probably won’t kill him, but it will be interesting to see if Fister and Porcello can live up to these projections given what they’ll be working with. The lack of an established fifth starter is seemingly a problem, but ZIPS likes both Turner and Oliver, and the Tigers can skip the #5 spot in order to minimize the issue.
3. Tampa Bay Rays
The Rays depth of quality hurlers is well documented – they’re basically Texas, just with better pitchers at the very front end. Price and Shields are both excellent, and there’s not a lot of falloff between #3 and #7 on the depth chart. Moore is the wild card here, as ZIPS isn’t as high on him as you might think after his late season dominance. If he’s great rather than good, than this might be the best rotation in the game. That they’re #3 without him needing to be dominant shows how scary this group is.
2. Philadelphia Phillies
The only surprise is that they’re not #1, but don’t blame The Big Three, who are better by themselves than half of the rotations in the game. The issue is at #5, where the team got a really nice performance from Worley last year, but is now going to have to piece together the last spot in the rotation with some combination of Blanton, Pineiro, and Kendrick. Losing Oswalt is going to hurt them, especially if Worley takes a step backwards. But, even with those issues, they’re still the second best rotation in the game, and the clear winner of best rotation in the National League.
1. Los Angeles Angels
Take the fourth best rotation in baseball from last year, add C.J. Wilson, and this is what you get – a true tour de force of starting pitchers. Weaver, Haren, and Wilson are all #1 starters on most teams, and Santana’s a pretty spectacular #4 starter. They’re not going to get much from their #5 starter, but their first four are just so good that it won’t matter too much. There’s a reason everyone’s on the Angels bandwagon this year, and while that Pujols guy has something to do with, so does this ridiculous rotation they’ve assembled.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.