Spotlighting This Season’s Most- and Least-Improved Rotations

Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

In a winter that didn’t lack for shocking free agent moves — and even more shocking plot twists — the Rangers’ signing of Jacob deGrom was as eye-opening as any of them. After opting out despite two injury-shortened seasons, the 34-year-old righty left the Mets to sign a five-year, $185 million deal with the Rangers. The move was surprising not only because deGrom bolted from the team with which he’d spent his entire professional career, but also because he chose a club that won 68 games in 2022 over one that won 101.

The Rangers didn’t stop at adding deGrom when it came to addressing a rotation that was among the majors’ worst last year, ranking among the bottom seven in ERA, FIP, and WAR. In addition to retaining All-Star Martín Pérez and trading for Jake Odorizzi, they added both Nathan Eovaldi and Andrew Heaney via two-year free agent deals of $30 million and $20 million, respectively. Thanks to those additions plus holdovers Pérez and Jon Gray, Texas’ rotation ranks second in projected WAR via our Depth Charts, behind only the Yankees (who got some bad news on Thursday, as Carlos Rodón has suffered a mild forearm strain, cutting into the depth already compromised by Montas’ injury). The Rangers lead the majors when I compare the actual production of last year’s rotations to the projected production of this year’s units — though not without some caveats.

I’ll post the rankings and then highlight the teams at both extremes, but as with my two-part look at the weakest positions among contenders, a bit of bookkeeping is in order so as to counter the general tendency to overproject playing time. Based on the projections published on Wednesday, the 30 teams’ rotations were forecast to combine for 26,994 innings, a total not seen in the majors since 2017, and one that’s about 7% higher than starters actually threw last year; likewise, we’ve projected rotations to produce about 7% more WAR. Thus I’ve applied a 7% discount to our projections, which leaves the 30-team total within one win of last year’s actual total of 324 WAR. With that discount applied to the Change column below, here’s how the rankings shake out:

Rotation Production vs. Projections 2022-23
Team 2022 ERA 2022 FIP 2022 WAR 2023 ERA 2023 FIP 2023 WAR WAR Change
Rangers 4.63 4.42 5.8 3.76 3.59 15.5 8.6
Nationals 5.97 5.58 -1.1 4.62 4.52 7.8 8.4
Tigers 4.51 4.69 4.1 4.26 4.17 8.7 4.0
Athletics 4.69 4.59 3.5 4.11 4.15 8.0 3.9
Red Sox 4.49 4.19 8.6 4.17 3.89 12.3 2.8
Twins 4.11 4.18 8.2 4.03 3.93 11.4 2.4
Brewers 3.75 3.83 12.3 3.72 3.74 15.2 1.8
Yankees 3.51 3.69 13.7 3.56 3.50 16.7 1.8
Royals 4.76 4.58 5.7 4.49 4.35 8.0 1.7
Reds 4.97 4.71 7.7 4.52 4.44 9.7 1.3
Cubs 3.95 4.35 7.7 4.22 4.21 9.3 0.9
Mariners 3.75 4.06 9.7 3.78 3.92 11.3 0.8
Pirates 4.61 4.29 7.7 4.44 4.29 8.9 0.6
Diamondbacks 4.05 4.29 8.3 4.28 4.22 8.7 -0.2
Orioles 4.35 4.33 7.2 4.28 4.23 7.5 -0.2
Rays 3.45 3.52 12.9 3.56 3.59 13.3 -0.5
White Sox 3.89 3.96 12.0 4.11 4.08 11.7 -1.1
Padres 3.80 3.92 13.7 3.88 3.91 13.5 -1.1
Cardinals 3.92 3.96 10.5 3.87 4.08 9.9 -1.3
Mets 3.61 3.47 15.9 3.58 3.58 15.5 -1.5
Rockies 5.22 4.59 8.4 5.15 4.70 7.3 -1.6
Guardians 3.73 3.97 12.0 4.02 4.05 11.1 -1.7
Braves 3.72 3.58 15.1 3.68 3.66 14.2 -1.9
Blue Jays 3.98 3.72 14.0 3.92 3.93 12.8 -2.1
Marlins 3.70 3.84 12.5 3.98 3.94 11.1 -2.2
Angels 3.67 3.72 15.3 3.94 3.96 13.1 -3.1
Phillies 3.80 3.54 17.5 3.88 3.79 14.9 -3.6
Dodgers 2.75 3.59 16.0 3.85 3.90 13.0 -3.9
Giants 3.68 3.10 17.2 3.83 3.66 12.6 -5.5
Astros 2.95 3.41 19.4 3.85 3.94 12.0 -8.2
2022 data is actual performance, 2023 is projected via Depth Charts. For WAR Change, a 7% discount has been applied to keep leaguewide totals on same scale.

Along with this comes a general reminder about projections. Our Depth Charts utilize those of both Steamer and ZiPS, and like all such systems, they’re inherently conservative, with a significant amount of regression in the mix; the projections of unproven players, even top prospects, generally don’t jump off the page, and even elite performers take a hit because greatness is difficult to maintain. Case in point: last year, three pitchers topped 6.0 WAR and seven topped 5.0, but via our projections only deGrom and Corbin Burnes are forecast even to best 5.0. If you somehow think that doesn’t make sense, keep in mind that 2021’s two 7-WAR pitchers (Burnes and Zack Wheeler) finished with 4.6 and 4.3 in ’22, respectively, and that none of the five other 5-WAR pitchers from ’21 (Eovaldi, Walker Buehler, Max Scherzer, Gerrit Cole, and Julio Urías) reached that level in ’22. Pitching ain’t easy, and neither is figuring out how many innings everybody will throw, an element of the system that relies on our RosterResource team’s assessments and adjustments to the latest player and team news about injuries and personnel decisions.

With all of that in mind, we’ll start with a closer look at the six most improved rotations.

Rangers (+8.6 WAR, no. 2 ranking in Depth Charts)

This lofty projection hinges upon deGrom throwing 172 innings, which is more than he threw in 2021-22 combined (156.1), but echoing what I just noted above, where he actually produced 7.1 WAR in ’21-22, he’s only forecast to provide 5.5 in ’23. Eovaldi, Heaney (who had a tantalizing breakout thanks to a retooled arsenal), and Gray, who were respectively limited to 109.1 innings, 77.2 innings, and 127.1 innings while each making two trips to the injured list, will all have to stay comparatively healthy as well to reach their projections in the 2.3-2.5 WAR range. They’re penciled in for a combined 457 innings, about a 45% increase from last year. Beyond that, it will be interesting to see if Pérez can hold onto the gains that helped him become a first-time All-Star at age 31; he delivered 3.8 WAR but is forecast for just 1.8 WAR due to his previously ho-hum track record.

Nationals (+8.4 WAR, no. 28 ranking)

You already knew that last year’s 107-loss Nationals were awful, but did you know that the team’s rotation posted the lowest WAR (-1.1) of any AL or NL team since 1901? Neither did I until beginning this exercise. A soaring home run rate (1.87 per nine, the third-worst for any AL/NL rotation since 1901) and the NL’s highest walk rate (9.2%) played big parts in that negative WAR, as did the continuing fallout from the team’s 2019 championship run, with Stephen Strasburg throwing just 4.2 innings and Patrick Corbin getting lit for a 6.31 ERA (but with a much tidier 4.84 FIP) in 152.2 innings. I’d take the under on the 66 innings we’re hoping for from Strasburg, but the turnover to youngsters MacKenzie Gore and Cade Cavalli, the addition of Trevor Williams, and some positive regression for Josiah Gray (and perhaps even Corbin, who really can’t get any worse), should be worth something, even as they’re still a bottom-three rotation.

Tigers (+4.0 WAR, no. 24 ranking)

They may not get Tarik Skubal back until sometime in the second half due to flexor tendon surgery, which he underwent in mid-August of last season, but fuller campaigns from Eduardo Rodriguez (who was limited to 17 starts after leaving the team for over three months due to a marital issue) and Matt Manning (who made just 12 starts due to shoulder inflammation and biceps tendinitis) should help, as should the arrival of free agent Michael Lorenzen and the return of Matthew Boyd after a largely lost season with the Giants and Mariners as he recovered from his own flexor tendon surgery.

Athletics (+3.9 WAR, no. 26 ranking)

File this one under “They Couldn’t Possibly Be Worse, Right?” as the A’s ranked last in the AL with just 3.5 WAR last year. In what might be a six-man rotation, holdovers Paul Blackburn, James Kaprielian, and Ken Waldichuk will be joined by heat-throwing, 6-foot-6 righty Shintaro Fujinami, who has come over from Japan, righty Drew Rucinski, who spent the last four years in the KBO, and 6-foot-7 lefty Kyle Muller, who was part of the return for Sean Murphy. JP Sears, who like Waldichuk was acquired from the Yankees in the Frankie Montas trade, could be a factor as well.

Red Sox (+2.8 WAR, no. 13 ranking)

I covered this in greater detail on Wednesday, but with the departures of Eovaldi, Rich Hill, and Michael Wacha in free agency, and the return of Chris Sale from an injury-wracked season, Boston’s rotation will have a very different look. Corey Kluber is the big addition from outside, coming off his first fully healthy season since 2018 (164 innings, 3.0 WAR), and the hope is that he, Sale, James Paxton (who’s made just six starts in three years due to Tommy John surgery and other injuries) and Garrett Whitlock (who underwent season-ending hip surgery last September) can all stay healthy enough to approximate their previous form. With Paxton, Whitlock and sixth starter Brayan Bello already behind schedule due to recoveries from injuries new and old, their depth will be tested early, but this should be better than the unit that ranked ninth in the AL in WAR last year.

At the other end of the spectrum, here are the five rotations whose projections fall the shortest relative to their 2022 performance. While these teams did take a few hits in free agency, it’s worth noting that each one ranked among the majors’ top six in WAR, yet another reminder of the gravitational forces of regression.

Angels (–3.1 WAR, no. 9 ranking)

Honestly, this is one where you can probably roll your eyes and move on, as the Halos still project as a top-10 rotation, but the yellow flags are worth bearing in mind. The team added Tyler Anderson, who became a first-time All-Star after the Dodgers helped him revamp his changeup and limit hard contact en route to a career-best 4.0 WAR, and shed Lorenzen and Noah Syndergaard, who combined for just 2.2 WAR in 177.2 innings (the latter was traded to the Phillies at the deadline). Due to his modest track record, Anderson’s forecast calls for a drop to 1.9 WAR, with superhuman Shohei Ohtani falling from 5.6 to 4.3 (pitching WAR only), and Patrick Sandoval from 3.8 to 2.7. Maybe that will all happen but even so, this should be a pretty decent group.

Phillies (–3.6 WAR, no. 5 ranking)

Here’s another one that’s hard to get worked up about, in that the Phillies are forecast to drop from second overall (and first in the NL) in rotation WAR to fifth, but bear in mind that extra month of postseason baseball can take its toll. The Phillies did shed Zach Eflin, Kyle Gibson, and Syndergaard, who combined for 3.9 WAR across 53 starts, but countered that by adding Taijuan Walker, who matched his career high with 2.5 WAR in 29 starts for the Mets. Their fifth-starter battle between Bailey Falter and 19-year-old prospect Andrew Painter (no. 5 on our Top 100) is on hold due to tenderness in the phenom’s right elbow that we’ll hope is nothing serious. The biggest factor in the projected dip — and the one worth holding your breath over — is Aaron Nola (a major league-high 6.3 WAR in 2022, projected 4.6 WAR in 2023). He was anything but sharp in the final three postseason starts of a 230.2-inning season. Hmmmm.

Dodgers (–3.9 WAR, no. 10 ranking)

As with Heaney, the Dodgers helped Anderson find a new level of success, only to let him depart after one season, and in their cost-cutting offseason, their biggest investment was a two-year, $28 million deal for Syndergaard, who missed all of 2020 with Tommy John surgery, made a two-start cameo in ’21, and was only so-so last year upon returning with a more contact-centric approach. Beyond Urías and Clayton Kershaw, they’re banking on Tony Gonsolin holding on to last year’s improvements (and he’s already nursing an ankle sprain that will keep him off the Opening Day roster), Dustin May returning to form after a 2021 TJ and a shaky cameo last year, and somebody (or somebodies) from among the Ryan Pepiot/Michael Grove/Bobby Miller group of prospects stepping up when they need reinforcements. That’s a lot of question marks to go with the ones regarding their outfield and shortstop situations, hence the skepticism that spills over into our Playoff Odds, where they’re projected for “only” 88 wins with a 24.7% chance of winning the division they’ve taken nine times in the past 10 years.

Giants (–5.5 WAR, no. 12 ranking)

While the team as a whole regressed from 107 wins in 2021 to 81 last year, the rotation’s WAR rose from 16.6 to 17.2, third in the majors. They’ll be hard-pressed to improve upon that given the loss of Carlos Rodón to the Yankees, whose 6.2 WAR edged Justin Verlander’s 6.1 as the highest of any free agent hurler who switched jerseys. They signed Sean Manaea and Ross Stripling, who project for modest WARs of 1.9 and 1.4, respectively; the former is coming off a rough 1.1-WAR season with the Padres but began the spring by displaying a whopping six-tick velocity gain relative to last season after some winter work at Driveline, while the latter is coming off a career-high 3.1 WAR. Can the Giants help both capture top form à la Kevin Gausman and Anthony DeSclafani in 2021, and Rodón and Alex Cobb last year? We’re about to find out.

Astros (–8.2 WAR, no. 14 ranking)

In the accounting of these rotation changes, the big losers in deGrom’s departure weren’t the Mets, but the Astros. Coming off the best post-Tommy John surgery season of any pitcher over the age of 35 — indeed, a season that netted him his third Cy Young Award — Verlander declined a $25 million player option. Three days after deGrom left the Mets, Verlander effectively replaced him by signing a two-year, $86.7 million deal with the team. The Astros, who thanks in part to Verlander’s AL-best 6.1 WAR led the majors in the category, have chosen to bank upon their internal options to replace him, with rookie Hunter Brown joining holdovers Framber Valdez, Cristian Javier, Luis Garcia, José Urquidy and Lance McCullers Jr., the last of whom was limited to 47.2 innings last year due to a forearm strain and won’t be ready for Opening Day after suffering another strain this spring. On the regression front, note that Valdez and Javier, who combined for 7.5 WAR, are projected for just 5.6 in about 25 more innings.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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Joe Joemember
1 year ago

It does not surprise me that the Astros were the bottom of the list. Verlander pitched so well last season that I would have expected the Astros rotation to have a setback even if he returned. Before seeing projections, I would have guessed the Astros would drop about 6-7 WAR. That said, it surprises me that the Mariners are at -6.7.

1 year ago
Reply to  Joe Joe

Same here re the Mariners. And I guess it surprised Jay so much he skipped right over them!

Edit: Looking more closely, the 2022 WAR total for the Mariners in the chart looks like it’s simply incorrect. The Mariners rotation in 2022 had 9.7 WAR, not the 17.2 in the chart.

Last edited 1 year ago by Craftcj
1 year ago
Reply to  Craftcj

Yes the ERA difference is about a tenth of a run, and the FIP difference about 8 times that

1 year ago
Reply to  Joe Joe

The thing to keep in mind is that this is a comparison between 2022 ACTUAL stats vs 2023 projected stats. It’s less that the Astros rotation is worse so much as projections don’t think much of their 2022 seasons. Basically the entire pitching staff is expected to literally regress to average based on Fangraphs projections. That’s why the huge dropoff.