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Should we just forget the search for a fifth starter?

Mar 23, 2010, 8:58 AM EDT

A lot of time has been spent trying to figure out who should be the fifth starter in New York, but if it were up to FanGraph’s Marc Hulet, we wouldn’t even be making the effort:

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.

Hulet has a better idea: rather than pick one guy to be the fifth man in the rotation, make it a committee affair, filling that fifth slot with a veteran long reliever who could make 8-10 starts, a young pitching prospect who can make 8-10 starts and split the season between the minors and the big club and fill the remainder of the starts with minor league veterans and organizational soldiers.

I like the thinking — don’t anoint anyone “fifth starter” and, rather, use that slot as a proving ground of sorts — but it just seems impractical for anyone but a rebuilding team.  The first time the young prospect gets a go and has a nice outing everyone will be clamoring for him to keep the job. The first time the swingman gets shelled everyone will wonder why a career long relief guy is starting games.

Hulet’s idea is a nice way to optimize resources and give multiple guys looks, but it overlooks the fact that managers get cameras and tape recorders shoved in their faces every single night and are expected to explain themselves. That’s stressful and distracting even if the skipper has the backing of the front office. Upshot: neat idea, but I think it’s ultimately unworkable.

  1. Joey B - Mar 23, 2010 at 9:37 AM

    This idea has been advanced for years, but in conjunction with the need for a #6 SP. The idea of not having a #5 suffers on several points.
    * When you get an injury to the 1-4, you wind up with 40% of your starts coming from your long guy and a minor leaguer.
    * Even with teams with real money, like the RS and NYY, you don’t always have a minor leaguer available. Bowden and Tazawa might make decent pitchers some day, but they were clearly overmatched last year.
    * If you start a good prospect, you run the risk of starting his clock a year early. Had the SFG been able to delay Lincecum’s arrival just another month or two, they’d have saved ~ $10M.
    IMHO, you’re better off signing two #5 guys and relegating one to the BP. With very few exceptions, you’ll get 20 starts out of your #6.

  2. palehose67 - Mar 23, 2010 at 9:38 AM

    While I certainly understand that the 5th starter spot is difficult to fill for most any team and getting even average production from your fifth starter constitutes tremendous success, doesn’t that also highlight the huge advantage a team can have if it actually finds a solid fifth guy who can not only limit runs but also eat up innings (with the corresponding benefits of a rested bullpen)? Having such a pitcher is certainly a luxury, and frankly not enough good pitchers exist to make it happen. I’m a White Sox fan, and I would be thrilled if Freddy Garcia could give the Sox 180 innings this year and pitch slightly above major league average. That, of course, probably won’t happen, and the fifth spot will be filled adequately as described above. Just because sufficient pitching talent doesn’t exist for every team to have a solid fifth starter doesn’t mean that filling it by committee is the best strategy. The best strategy would seem to be to find one of the very few guys who can do it.

  3. Wooden U. Lykteneau - Mar 23, 2010 at 9:47 AM

    This is actually neither new nor radical. Davey Johnson, for example, deftly worked Rick Aguilera between long relief and starting while alternating between Bruce Berenyi and Rick Anderson in 1986. Decades before that teams would carry “Sunday starters” who basically threw twice a week, once as a starter, once as a reliever. Hulett is arguing for a hybrid of these two ideas.
    Of the two, I think Johnson’s idea is more tenable. Every team has a young guy that they’re not quite sure of, or who they want to baby (*cough, Joba, cough*) and there are plenty of veterans that might actually be more effective pitching three times a week to fewer batters.
    I think the idea of managers not being able to face the music is a cop-out. Almost every team will call up a player from AA or AAA for one night at some point in the season, then send him right back down. I’d like to know just how much more effective that strategy really is.

  4. YX - Mar 23, 2010 at 10:32 AM

    The problem is that the fifth starter you looking for is not the same as the fifth starter you get. Quite frequently they end up as your fourth or even third starter, and if you didn’t bother get one you might end up in deep water.

  5. Yank Fan Dave - Mar 23, 2010 at 10:43 AM

    Let’s keep it simple: the 5 best available pitchers are your rotation. If one of those becomes unavailable, the 6th place guy gets a promotion. Why give a start to your 6th (or 7th) best pitcher when a better option is available?

  6. YANKEES1996 - Mar 23, 2010 at 10:55 AM

    I actually like the idea and it is workable, there really is no team that has a definitive fifth starter, they are almost always aging veterans or young guys getting experience. If I was managing a team I would look to the younger guys first, there is almost always a guy to go to. The manager working his rotation like this to be honest is no different than Joe Girardi going through the post season last year with three starters. The status quo has always been to have five quality starters but according to Hulet there is only two teams that remain with that plan. It is a different way to handle the rotation therefore it is going to shake up the normal way of thinking, but what is wrong with that?

  7. Rays fan - Mar 23, 2010 at 11:10 AM

    Just resurrect the Milwaukee Braves Spahn/Sain/prayer for rain rotation. That’ll solve everything.

  8. jeff - Mar 23, 2010 at 12:01 PM

    You are all losers get a job

  9. R - Mar 23, 2010 at 12:56 PM

    Overspecialization. I agree with “Rays fan”. Spot pitchers, those with control and movement usually outlast the fireballers.

  10. Moses Green - Mar 23, 2010 at 1:13 PM

    Bad idea. Every team is doing the same thing – trying to identify the five best starters they can, and then order the reserves. Just because only 2 teams got 24 starts out of 5 starters is no reason to reinvent the wheel. That is simply a function of the attrition of pitching arms in the marathon of baseball. Also attrited – Xavier Nady and Jesus Flores, it’s not just pitchers.

  11. GimmeSomeSteel - Mar 23, 2010 at 1:13 PM

    “Spahn, Sain, and pray for rain” was in 1948 for the BOSTON Braves.

  12. Rays fan - Mar 23, 2010 at 3:52 PM

    I, of course, was just kidding.
    The poem I alluded to however (in order to correct myself) was for the Boston Braves; it was published in 1948 in the Boston Herald, before they moved to milwaukee–my bad on that.
    The poem quoted:
    “First we’ll use Spahn, then we’ll use Sain, Then an off day, followed by rain. Back will come Spahn, followed by Sain, And followed, we hope, by two days of rain.”
    Re-captcha: “the godzilla”….THAT’s who we need on the mound!!

  13. Old Gator - Mar 24, 2010 at 1:18 PM

    Give up the search for a fifth starter?
    You’ll be suggesting that we give up the search for the first even integer of Pi next.

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