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54-46 What's My Number: Looking at Rotation Spots, and the Jays' Rotation, by tRA+

So with lots of focus on the battle for the Jays' rotation, I thought it'd make sense to look at what teams are actually getting from these different rotation spots and what the Jays might be able to expect. And what better way to introduce a number-centric post than with a classic song by the great Toots and the Maytals?

If you've never heard of tRA, it's discussed here.  The purpose is to get one metric that really tells us how good a pitcher is.  ERA is a good measure of a pitcher's past value but is way too dependent on context and chance to be a good predictor, and FIP and its variants only take strikeouts, walks, and home runs into account. tRA takes into account other things such as batted ball data - since not every batted ball has the same possibility of creating a run.  tRA+ is normalized for league average so that a 105 tRA+ is 5% better than the average pitcher. 

Anyway, here are the ranges for different spots in the rotation, based on the work from the good folks at Lookout Landing and Stat Corner:

119 and up: #1 Starter

107-118: #2 Starter

96-106: #3 Starter

87-95: #4 Starter

76 - 86: #5 Starter

Now, of course, these are for spots in the rotation over the full course of the season, not for individual starters who line up in those spots at the beginning of the year.  That is to say, pitchers get hurt a lot, and often their replacements are not as good as they are.  For a team like the Jays, though, with many rotation candidates and some minor-leaguers who could be ready to come in and do a nice job, that's not necessarily a bad thing.  

Last season, Doc put up a tRA+ of 134.  He also pitched almost 250 innings.  That's incredibly valuable in this type of analysis (and really, let's face it, any type of analysis) in that it is way above the threshold for what's considered a #1 pitcher and his innings actually would bleed over into the #2 slot.  While he might not replicate that performance in 2009, he's a good bet to throw at least 200 innings and to continue to be better than the average ace.  Slot one solved. 

In slot two, things get tricky.  Shaun Marcum and A.J. Burnett were both above-average #2 starters last season (actually, by tRA+, Burnett was right on the cusp of beng an ace), but they're both out of the picture for this season.  Jesse Litsch is projected to be the Jays #2 starter and he was no more than a solid #3 (103) by tRA+.  Since we know Litsch actually put up great numbers last season, tRA suggests that he is a regression candidate for 2009 in terms of results.  Litsch would have to raise his game a little to come within the #2 starter band - not an impossible feat considering he improved quite a bit last season and is now entering his third season as a starter.  I would also say that Doc is enough above average for the number 1 spot to balance out Litsch's presence in the number 2 spot, all other things considered equal. There was a time when I would've included the possibility that Dustin McGowan, another guy in the #2 starter band last season, would contribute to the Jays #2 spot this season, but that's now not looking likely.  I think we'd better leave him out of this part of the equation.

In the #3 spot, David Purcey had a 97 tRA+ last season.  That's in the band for number 3 starters, albeit on the low end.  However, I think it's reasonable to expect some improvement from Purcey this year - plus if you remove his spot starts and just look at when he was a regular member of the rotation, he immediately becomes a fine number 3. It's tough to predict what Purcey will do this season; however, this spring, he has been throwing strikes, and that will go a long way to his success in 2009.  Even if he replicates his performance from last season, we're in the ballpark.  So far, so good. 

Now for the really tricky part. Some combination of Matt Clement, Scott Richmond, Brad Mills, Casey Janssen, Dustin McGowan, Brett Cecil, Wade Miller, Shawn Hill (who the Jays are apparently ready to sign), Ricky Romero, and probably some others are going to need to fire some innings at a below-league-average but not completely terrible rate.  Looking at those numbers, this seems possible but it's hard to predict as it's looking likely that many different hurlers will get to try their hand.

For example, Scott Richmond had a 141 tRA+ last season in 5 starts.  Tiny sample size, I know, but there it is.  Can he be an average number 4 starter?  Looking at those numbers, it's tough to say he can't be.  Casey Janssen is still on track to pitch for the Jays as a starter this season, and Janssen had a 104 tRA+ as a starter in 2006 - actually, it would make him an above-average #3 starter.  That would be more than good enough for one of the two back-end spots in the rotation.  While it's true that Janssen is coming off major surgery, we should also point out that that was his first taste of the majors and that he was pitching through a back injury for a good part of that time. Dustin McGowan had a 108 tRA+ last season in what was a bit of a lost year.  I know we can't count on him coming back and pitching as well, but if he is able to do so, even for a few months after the all-star break, that will go a long way. 

Brad Mills and Brett Cecil look close to ready to contribute too - I'm personally not sold on Mills until he demonstrates he can pitch at a high level for at least half a season, but the Jays love him and there must be a reason for that.  Cecil would probably stack up as an above-average starter this season if given the chance, and it looks very likely that he will be pitching with the Jays for a significant portion of the season.  And Ricky Romero is still hanging around and could contribute. 

As for the reclamation projects, over the course of the season its not asking too much to think they can be as good as an average 5th starter.  The bar isn't very high, and the Jays have nothing invested in any of them so if they're not pitching well, the Jays won't hesitate to move them along.

Put it this way, for the 4th spot, the composite doesn't even have to be as good as Purcey was last season, and I think the Jays are a lot more comfortable with their options this year than they were in the middle of last season when they threw Purcey into the fire.  At the least, they have a lot more options to try.  For the 5th spot, the composite just needs to avoid abject disaster, and the Jays should be able to do between their mix of veterans who used to be good and young pitchers who might not be perfectly ready but have promise.

All in all, even with recent setbacks to Janssen and McGowan, I think it's reasonable to expect the Jays to have an average starting rotation.  That is, if Doc, Litsch, and Purcey stay healthy.  Doc is Doc and Litsch seems pretty durable to me (he pitched almost 200 innings between AAA and the Jays last season and was going deeper into games by the end).  Purcey could be an injury risk, given that he threw a lot more last season (182 innings) than ever before.  If he were to go down, particularly early in the season when Janssen, McGowan, and Cecil might not be ready to step in, our rotation could be exposed. 

One other factor that we haven't discussed is that tRA doesn't take into account the quality of a team's defense.  In the case of the Jays, it's a very good defense that isn't being taken into account, both at avoiding unearned runs (second-least errors in the AL last season) and, more importantly, converting batted balls into outs.  In fact, as we'll discuss soon, there's every chance that the Jays' defense could be even better this season.  The defense won't help the pitchers tRA numbers, but it will help limit runs scored such that you might expect that even if the Jays starters are slightly below average, as a group, in tRA, the defense will compensate and actually make the Jays' starters better than average at actually preventing runs.  That said, last season, Doc, Marcum, and Litsch overperformed their tRA, while Burnett, McGowan, and Purcey underperformed it. Litsch is an example of someone who could profit from this - while his numbers in isolation peg him as a number 3 starter, as a groundballer there's a possibility that the Jays' defense could help him get results in line with a good number two starter.  In fact, that's exactly what happened last season.

Of course we know that the Jays have to be better than merely average to reach their goal of making the playoffs, particularly in the AL East.  While they have many options who could provide average performances from the pitching mound in a starting role, only Doc looks prepared to give them the real above-average performance that teams need to make a playoff push.