The Most Cost-Effective Rotations in Baseball

Even with almost unlimited resources, assembling a good rotation can be a difficult task. The best rotation in Major League Baseball this season is expected to be the Washington Nationals. The Nationals signed Max Scherzer to a huge free agent contract. The franchise drafted Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmerman and both players have missed seasons due to Tommy John surgery. They traded prospects to get Gio Gonzalez and Doug Fister. The Nationals have put together an incredible rotation, but it took a lot of money and prospects to create and the result will be fleeting. Zimmerman and Fister are pending free agents with Strasburg just a year behind them.

Moving pieces around to create a rotation was not easy for the Nationals, and for those with considerably less resources, a cost-effective rotation that looks good on the field is a difficult proposition. There are a few ways to measure the effectiveness of a rotation. The way that matters most is the play on the field. In that regard, the Nationals are the best in baseball with the Los Angeles Dodgers coming in second. The graph below uses the data taken from the FanGraphs Depth Charts for starting pitching.

fangraphs_depth_charts_rotation_war (1)

The Nationals have a decent edge over the Dodgers, Cleveland Indians, and Detroit Tigers. The Diamondbacks and the Phillies lag behind. The New York Mets, Texas Rangers, Philadelphia Phillies, and Toronto Blue Jays have all taken tumbles recently due to injuries from expected contributors in Zack Wheeler, Yu Darvish, Cliff Lee, and Marcus Stroman, respectively.

As the winter signings of Jon Lester and Max Scherzer showed, good starting pitching is expensive to buy on the free agent market. However, teams are not forced into the most expensive markets for pitching if they can develop it on their own. As discussed in yesterday’s post breaking down team payrolls, franchises spend wide-ranging amounts on starting pitching. We can combine the pay and the performance to see how well teams manage the money they allocate to pitching.

From yesterday, here is the payroll information for every team’s starting rotation (Information collected from Cots at Baseball Prospectus).

2015_rotation_payroll_by_team (1)
The Dodgers and the Nationals have the best rotations in baseball, but they are paying for it. The same is true for the Tigers and the New York Yankees. The San Francisco Giants look to be paying a lot for their rotation, although it is not clear how much they can expect out of it. Dividing the payrolls by the number of projected wins can start to tell the story of cost-effectiveness.


In determining cost-effectiveness, cheaper is better. The Indians are getting the most bang for their buck with a projected win coming in at less than one million dollars. The next half-dozen teams are well-known for their frugal spending habits. However, simply because a team is not spending much for a win, that does not automatically equate to smart spending. If a team does not spend very much money per win, that bodes well for the team, but if the team is not actually spending to accumulate a decent amount of those wins, the apparently smart spending does not do a whole lot for the team. While they are in different stratospheres in terms of spending, the Dodgers and Tigers would not want to trade rotations with the Tampa Bay Rays and Houston Astros simply because they look to be spending money wisely.

The Phillies spending habits have been well-chronicled and the injury to Cliff Lee hurts the team so discussing them further does little to help any analysis. The Giants are an interesting case. They should have a solid, but not great rotation this season with Madison Bumgarner, Matt Cain, Jake Peavy, Tim Hudson, and Ryan Vogelsong. Aside from Bumgarner, every pitcher in their rotation is a veteran with over six years of service time. Peavy, Hudson, and Vogelsong all signed free agent contracts with the Giants, and Cain signed a large extension that covers his current free agent years. With almost the entire rotation bought on the free agent market, they had to spend a lot of money to get their wins.

Looking at the cost per win is one way to determine cost-effectiveness, but it lacks in providing the context of overall value. Looking at surplus value can show how much of a benefit a team receives from spending its money wisely. Comparing how much a team’s rotation cost to how much an equally effective rotation would have cost on the free agent market is a better measure to combine frugality with performance. The graph below shows the cost of the rotation in green and the surplus value the team receives in orange. The combination of the two shows how much every team’s rotation is worth on the free agent market. Teams are listed from most surplus value to least surplus value.

2015_mlb_rotation_surplus_value (1)

I put a border around the cost to highlight the last two teams on the graph. The border actually goes around the surplus value area for the Giants and Phillies because those two teams were the only teams to have a negative number. The orange in their bar is eating up some of the green salary.

We would expect most, if not all teams to run some sort of a surplus as most teams have multiple pitchers making the minimum or still in arbitration which depresses their salaries and increases the surplus. The Nationals pay a lot for their pitching staff, but with just Max Scherzer from the free agent market, the team still receives a large surplus.

The above chart tells less about how good teams are at spending, and more about how good (and lucky) teams have been at developing young pitching. It is hard to find bargains in free agency, and if teams can produce cheap players within their organization it can be incredibly valuable. Cleveland is currently the best example of having good, young pitching, but the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals also have a good deal of young pitching expected to contribute this season. Building a rotation is not easy, and successes in the past can quickly evaporate as players move on or become ineffective. Both the Nationals and Indians have developed cost-effective, high-producing rotations, but sustaining their current success could prove difficult.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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8 years ago

It’ll be the Tribe by a landslide. And they might just have the best rotation period.

8 years ago
Reply to  CrazyPants