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Springtime Storylines: Do the Tampa Bay Rays have the best rotation in baseball?

Apr 3, 2012, 9:14 AM EDT

Matt Moore Getty Images

Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2012 season. Up next: The Tampa Bay Rays.

The Big Question: Do the Rays have the best rotation in baseball?

The Phillies and the Giants certainly have something to say about it, but the Rays have a great claim to the title.  And even if they don’t fit your definition of “best,” it’s hard to argue that they’re not the deepest.

Last year the Rays had the best ERA in the American League, and they had to face the two best offenses in baseball — the Yankees and the Red Sox — a lot. This year, with the addition of Matt Moore, they’re likely better. Add in David Price, James Shields and Jeremy Hellickson, it’s hard to find a better 1-4 than the ones the Rays have. As for the fifth spot, they’ll go with Jeff Niemann, but if he doesn’t work they could use Wade Davis, who would make most teams’ rotations.

But the depth doesn’t end there. As Jonah Keri put it recently, “The Rays’ second five: Wade Davis, Chris Archer, and the three Alexes, Cobb, Torres, and Colome … could very well be better than the Orioles’ actual rotation.”

The point here is that the Rays never seem to run out of arms.  And if for some reason the bats are lacking, they have all of the pitching depth in the world from which to deal.  And that’s the stuff that makes a team that can’t compete on the balance sheet into one that has competed and will continue to compete in the toughest division of baseball for the foreseeable future.

So what else is going on?

  • To go with that pitching is the game’s best defense. I think that a lot of people who never seem to think the Rays can compete and then act shocked that they do are discounting just how much being able to pick it helps a team. How many games do you watch a year where it all turns on one big inning and that big inning happened because of an inning-extending error? I see a few from every team. And then the Rays go and make the playoffs by a single game. This is not an accident.
  • Kyle Farnsworth surprised us all by being a fairly reliable closer last season. How much confidence should we have that he’ll continue that? Maybe he can — at times it looked like he actually learned to pitch instead of throw last year — but if this team has a potential weakness, it could be the pen.
  • Pitching and defense is nice, but not enough, and the Rays had a pretty power-deficient lineup last season. Out goes Johnny Damon and Casey Kotchman, in comes Carlos Pena and Luke Scott. Both have struggled quite a bit this spring, but if they’re their usual selves, the lineup is gonna have more thump. Not sure it’s better, however.
  • Evan Longoria had a slight down year last year in terms of OPS and average, thanks in part to some injuries. But he hit 20 homers with a .907 OPS in the second half last year and is having a great spring. It’s weird to talk about an established star having a breakout year, but part of me smells an MVP campaign in the offing.

So how are they gonna do?

They always find a way, don’t they?  If Pena and Scott have decent years, this could be a special team. If they don’t, they can still be quite good thanks to that rotation.  They should be in it all year, and with the added wild card this season, they have to be considered strong playoff contenders, even in that stacked AL East.

  1. Norm B - Apr 3, 2012 at 9:44 AM

    Yes.

  2. jeremysgordon - Apr 3, 2012 at 9:46 AM

    If you’re going to throw in Pena and Scott, you might as well mention that the Rays will be getting a full season from Desmond Jennings (instead of trying to be cheap and keep him on the farm).

    • spol85 - Apr 3, 2012 at 1:20 PM

      Funny how everyone forgets that Pena was run out of town a couple of years ago for batting under .200 and striking out 150+ times. Criticized for not providing protection for Longo and failing in key situations. Both the Cubs and Rays have let him walk the past 2 seasons. Pena has had 1 “decent” season his entire career. He has always hit home runs but has not hit over .250 since 2007.

      I know he is a gold glove caliber fielder but the fact that he is on his 8th different team in 11 seasons. The last 4 organizations have let him walk without getting any compensation. That says a lot about what the league GMs think of him.

      • Kevin S. - Apr 3, 2012 at 5:52 PM

        He wasn’t run out of town, the Rays simply weren’t going to shell out $10 million for him in a year they didn’t really expect to be competing. And I count one excellent, one very good and two decent years for him in the past five. What are you using, batting average?

  3. southpaw2k - Apr 3, 2012 at 9:49 AM

    “As Jonah Keri put it recently, ‘The Rays’ second five: Wade Davis, Chris Archer, and the three Alexes, Cobb, Torres, and Colome … could very well be better than the Orioles’ actual rotation.'”

    I don’t know if I should shake my head in disgust at the Orioles or join the Rays’ bandwagon after reading this.

  4. etchedchaos - Apr 3, 2012 at 10:11 AM

    Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Vance Worley pisses all over the Rays foursome. It’s not even a contest, going by WAR from ’11 Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee alone have more WAR than the Rays foursome combined and that’s with me giving Matt Moore a reasonable 3.5 WAR for his first full season.

    No matter how good you think the Rays rotation is, the Phils have a historically good rotation that harkens back to ’69. Coming 2nd, 3rd and 5th in the Cy Young voting says everything about how good the Phils are and I’m sorry but no amount of pitching depth can make the Rays ‘better’.

    • Kevin S. - Apr 3, 2012 at 11:29 AM

      You misspelled Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, CJ Wilson and Ervin Santana. Four top forty starters makes the best rotation in baseball.

      • etchedchaos - Apr 3, 2012 at 11:44 AM

        Four top 40 eh?

        Try 3 top 10 and a top 50 to round it off. Oh and if that’s not enough the Phillies top 3 came 2nd, 3rd and 5th in the Cy Young voting.

      • Kevin S. - Apr 3, 2012 at 1:05 PM

        You comparing the Phillies’ CYA finishes only looks at the NL pool. Basically, I think the top threes are roughly equal, and Ervin Santana (name 39 better SP than him, btw) easily tops Vance Worley.

      • etchedchaos - Apr 3, 2012 at 1:13 PM

        You want me to name 39 pitchers better than Ervin yes? Right, let’s look at Pitching WAR for 2011, seems a good objective barometer of ability. 42 pitchers had more WAR than Santana last season, so thats my list.

        As for only choosing the NL pool, well in the AL pool your big 3 were 2nd, 6th and 7th. So comparatively Phils come out on top, they also come out on top for total WAR, also for ERA, FIP, xFIP, K/BB. But take comfort in the Angels being #2.

    • sasquash20 - Apr 3, 2012 at 11:38 AM

      Phillies and the Angels have the best starting rotation. I would take the Phillies 1st, but not by much.

  5. etchedchaos - Apr 3, 2012 at 10:19 AM

    Oh and watch Hellickson this season he’s going to regress bigtime. He had a .220 BABIP last season and coupled with him being an extreme FB pitcher and a K/9 of 5.5 his ERa is going to jump. Especially as his FIP is over 1.5 runs higher than his ERA, that’s not sustainable.

    • paperlions - Apr 3, 2012 at 10:36 AM

      This….I agree with. To get the same results he did last year he is going to have to K a lot more guys. One thing not to forget though, is that the Rays have the best defense in the majors, they are better at turning batted balls into outs than any other team….so he may not regress as much as you would expect if he was pitching for any other team.

    • Ben - Apr 3, 2012 at 10:41 AM

      All of what you say is true, but he also had a SwStrk% that indicates a much higher strikeout rate than he posted, which might offset some of the regression in other areas.

    • spudchukar - Apr 3, 2012 at 10:57 AM

      When will you learn that BABIP is an awful stat. Even die hard Sabermetric devotees are turning against it. Now enlightened critics are using metrics that recognize the BABIP always needs caveats, such as comparative historical analysis, and re-adjusted data gathering tweeks.

      And while FIP info can shed some light it is also laden with issues. If ERA was tweeked a little, it would be a much more indicative stat, and even as it is it still is much more reliable than either of the newer measurements.

      • paperlions - Apr 3, 2012 at 11:04 AM

        ERA is more “reliable” how? It is certainly not as predictive of future pitching performance as any version of FIP.

        It certainly is not better at estimating a pitcher’s contributions to run prevention. RA would be a better stat…giving the pitcher credit for good defense and then ignoring runs scored as a result of crappy defense makes ERA a dumb metric.

      • churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Apr 3, 2012 at 11:23 AM

        When will you learn that BABIP is an awful stat

        Why is it an awful stat? It’s exactly what it says it is, batting average on balls in play. Are you refuting that isn’t true? Or are you refuting it’s predictive value? Because the stat does the former, people do the latter based on the stat. So if it’s the latter, that doesn’t make the stat “awful”.

        If ERA was tweeked a little, it would be a much more indicative stat

        ERA is awful six ways from sunday. It’s not predictive, and it relies on far too many factors outside the pitchers control.

      • Kevin S. - Apr 3, 2012 at 11:34 AM

        It’s true that “BABIP will always regress to the .290s” is the wrong mentality to have. Certain types of pitchers have shown the ability to sustain somewhat lower career BABIPs (.270s and .280s), and a defense like the Rays have will lower any starter’s baseline. But a .220 BABIP is completely unsustainable, and it will regress. Whether it regresses to .260 or .290 is the question, not whether it will stay at .220. Nobody maintains that level.

      • etchedchaos - Apr 3, 2012 at 11:37 AM

        Right, I’ll ignore the absurdly low BABIP (which was not replicated by any of the other Rays starters btw) because clearly you’re just going to ignore it’s impact. Instead let’s look at everything else (yes including FIP).

        ERA: 2.95
        FIP: 4.44
        xFIP: 4.72
        GB%: 35%
        K/9: 5.57
        BB/9: 3.43
        K/BB: 1.63
        tERA: 4.49
        SIERA: 4.78
        WAR: 1.4

        Have you noticed the glaring anomaly in this list yet? That’s right his ERA, everything else about his performance last season points towards him being an ok starter who might churn up a few innings as a serviceable #4 or #5. But instead he has an ERA that leads people to think he was a good starter last season, which is highly inaccurate.

        Even if we ignore all the FIP’s, WAR’s and SIERA’s, his K/9 and K/BB are indicative of an ok starter, not a particularly good one.

      • Jonny 5 - Apr 3, 2012 at 1:09 PM

        His LOB % says he’s in for regression also. Which also effects ERA.

        Spuds, You seem to think people use BABIP as a rule of thumb when evaluating players. I think it’s a valuable tool to see if a pitcher had better than or less than average luck on balls in play. Across the board when you see a pitcher has “lucky” BABIP their ERA is typically better than normal, and the opposite is true when they have “unlucky” BABIP. It just helps to give a better idea of how a pitcher did in addition to their ERA. BABIP is just another tool to use. And contrary to your feelings it really does reflect in ERA. Look at any pitcher with more than a few years under their belt and you’ll see a trend in regards to BABIP and ERA.

  6. churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Apr 3, 2012 at 11:25 AM

    As to the question posed, I’d still take the Phillies rotation over the Rays because the Rays rotation relies heavily on Moore [unknown] and Shields continuing his breakout season from last year (career bests in HR/9, IP, BABIP, LOB%).

    So take the knowns (Phillies) over the Rays.

    • spudchukar - Apr 3, 2012 at 12:23 PM

      Worley-unknown. Blanton known, unfortunately for him. And what is known about Moore is that all the PERIFs indication suggest he will be very good if not great.

      ERA does not need to be tweeked as much as BABIP as an indicator of success. And year in and year out it is still the best representative of performance. Much like Total Bases is nearly as meaningful as OBS+. Sometimes numbers can misconstrue as much as they can assist. As Billy Beane so poignantly indicated, Sabermetrics doesn’t work in the playoffs.

      Give me the Rays 5 over the Pheelies 5 anytime. This is not to dismiss the likes of Halladay, Lee, or Hamels (although he needs at least 2 more years like 2011 before he can be discussed in the elite class). What I am sure of is this, the Phillies Big 2 are as good as they are going to get, it is only downhill from here. When it is hard to say, but still inevitable, while the Rays starters have upsides that we can only imagine.

      I too, have doubts in regards to Shields. Replicating last year will be tough.

      PL, of all people you should be aware of the shortcomings of BABIP and FIP. The St. Louis Cardinals won the World Series primarily because of one factor. That is their success on Strike One. This is the stat that should be championed, but due to its inherent complexity, it is difficult to measure. The Cardinals both understand its importance, and teach and play to the understanding of it. No other stat compares in importance, no other stat is as indicative success, and the team that is most successful on Strike One will most often wave championship banners.

      The Rays also teach, preach, and exercise this philosophy, but due to their youth, their execution isn’t always what it should be. It allows them to compete with the more storied franchises.

      One last point. Kyle Lohse. The player that BABIP and FIP wish did not exist.

      • etchedchaos - Apr 3, 2012 at 12:59 PM

        You mean the same Kyle Lohse with a .302 career BABIP, a career ERA of 4.64, FIP of 4.44 and xFIP of 4.51. All of which destroys your example.

      • Jonny 5 - Apr 3, 2012 at 1:15 PM

        “Give me the Rays 5 over the Pheelies 5 anytime. This is not to dismiss the likes of Halladay, Lee, or Hamels (although he needs at least 2 more years like 2011 before he can be discussed in the elite class). ”

        LMAO!! This just shows how much you hold against the Phillies. How many of these elite Rays pitchers have more time under their belt than Hamels does? Hamels hasn’t proven to be elite yet, but the Rays pitchers with less time under their belts have. Interesting.

      • churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Apr 3, 2012 at 2:50 PM

        ERA does not need to be tweeked as much as BABIP as an indicator of success. And year in and year out it is still the best representative of performance. Much like Total Bases is nearly as meaningful as OBS+. Sometimes numbers can misconstrue as much as they can assist. As Billy Beane so poignantly indicated, Sabermetrics doesn’t work in the playoffs.

        Pulling this nugget out first. This is where the problem is. BABIP isn’t an indicator of future success. There are too many unknowns involved to make it a predicator, mainly how much control a pitcher has over it. There is nothing inherently wrong with BABIP. [bolding for emphasis]it’s people who use BABIP as a predicative value that are wrong

        To make an absurd example, I like to invest in the stock market based off the phases of the moon. I’m doing terribly; however, that doesn’t mean the phases are wrong in and of themselves. It’s how I’m using them that’s wrong.

        Worley-unknown. Blanton known, unfortunately for him. And what is known about Moore is that all the PERIFs indication suggest he will be very good if not great.

        How are they unknowns? Joe Blanton has 1200+ IP in the majors, and Worley has 144. I’m not saying they are going to be elite, I’m saying we know what Blanton will do, and Worley we’ve seen what he can do. We have 0 idea what Moore will do.

        However, match up the pitchers one by one. Who do you take?
        Halladay – Price
        Lee – Shields
        Hamels – Moore
        Worley – Hellickson
        Blanton – Niemann

        For me, the last two are pushes, maybe slight edge to the Rays. However, the first three are clearly all Phillies. That gives the Phils the advantage does it not?

        PL, of all people you should be aware of the shortcomings of BABIP and FIP. The St. Louis Cardinals won the World Series primarily because of one factor. That is their success on Strike One. This is the stat that should be championed, but due to its inherent complexity, it is difficult to measure. The Cardinals both understand its importance, and teach and play to the understanding of it. No other stat compares in importance, no other stat is as indicative success, and the team that is most successful on Strike One will most often wave championship banners.

        http://xkcd.com/285/

  7. spol85 - Apr 3, 2012 at 12:23 PM

    Lets not forget, James Shields had a great season in 2011 but he was just awful in 2009 and 2010. His ERA dropped from 5.18 to 2.82 from ’10 to ’11. Expecting him to repeat his 2011 season is asking too much. Its safe to assume his ERA ends up somewhere in between. Lets say 3.50 that makes their “ace” a far cry from Halladay, Weaver or Lincecum.

  8. spudchukar - Apr 3, 2012 at 1:33 PM

    The Dogma is palpable. The same “box” that Sabermetric analysis was invented to escape, is now the “box” which is suffocating your logic. Some times you don’t need MORE numbers but better perspective and creative inspection.

    When I read “Unsustainable”, I cannot help but echo the question Inigo Montoya asked of Vizzini. Much like inconceivable, “I do not think that word means what you think it means.”

    • etchedchaos - Apr 3, 2012 at 1:42 PM

      So now that the numbers aren’t supporting your agenda you’re now saying it’s not the numbers but how you view them that’s the problem? Seems to me, no matter what fallacy we disprove you’ll just move the goalposts to keep throwing out your flawed logic.

      Just to prove my use of the word unsustainable. Over the last 5 seasons the lowest BABIP for that time is a .238 over 70 games by Chris Young, a definate outlier. The next lowest is .260 over 150 games by Ted Lilly. So, Hellickson’s BABIP is unsustainable, now we wait and see how far it regresses.

  9. spudchukar - Apr 3, 2012 at 1:52 PM

    Unsustainable insinuates luck. Rather than question the metrics when an anomaly arises, champions of Sabermetric analysis want to dismiss outliers as good or bad fortune. When a hitter gets 500 plus ABs or a pitchers hurls 200 innings, luck should be the last place to look for answers. Health, and Weather are greater influences than luck. An effective scientific approach does not make excuses, but challenges conventional thought. Currently, sabermetrics isn’t viewed as a tool to help better understand the complexities of Baseball, but a doctrine that cannot dignify criticism.

    • paperlions - Apr 3, 2012 at 2:32 PM

      You are using the wrong word. Even over 500 ABs or 200 innings CHANCE can have a huge effect on outcomes in baseball, round ball, round bat, lots of room for random variation.

      The difference between a .250 hitter and a .300 hitter over 500 ABs is only 25 hits….there is plenty of room within the model of baseball for a hitter whose underlying skill level is that of a .250 hitter to have a season where he hits .300. The results of balls in play in baseball are probabilistic outcomes, not deterministic ones.

      Similarly, the difference over 200 innings between a pitcher with a 3.00 ERA and one with a 4.00 ERA is 22 runs. A little bad luck in the order of events (hits bunched together in one inning versus hits that are scattered throughout the game) can and regularly does cause that much variation in seasonal ERAs.

      • churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Apr 3, 2012 at 2:52 PM

        Or absurdities like Ivan Nova last year when he never gave up a HR with a man on base. All were solo shots.

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