Fifth Starters

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This article was Patrick Despain’s idea, but he graciously tasked me with producing it. His hypothesis was that fifth starters don’t contribute much to a team over the course of a season anyway, so should we really place much importance on who wins the job out of Spring Training? 
The Rangers have the first four spots of the rotation locked down. The fifth spot is still up for grabs. It was likely going to be occupied by Martin Perez until he got hurt and is out for the first part of the season. It will eventually be filled by Colby Lewis, assuming his rehab continues to go smoothly and a June 1 return date is achievable. Until then, the Rangers need a stopgap starter.

Now, because of the structure of the Rangers schedule in the first half of the year, this bridge 5th starter may only need to make a handful of starts before Lewis or Perez is healthy enough to return. I’m going to assume Lewis joins the club for the weekend homestand against Kansas City that begins May 31st. I’m also going to assume that the Rangers take advantage of the available option to use Yu Darvish, Matt Harrison, Derek Holland, and Alexi Ogando on the typical starter’s four days rest, even when off days would allow for an extra break. Based on those assumptions, a fifth starter would only need to make seven starts before May 31st. That is seven starts over the club’s first 54 games.

The competition for the fifth spot in the rotation is still open, with Robbie Ross, Justin Grimm, Michael Kirkman, Randy Wells, Nick Tepesch, and Derek Lowe all gunning for it (though Ron Washington has hamstrung Lowe in the race and ruled him out of the competition). The competition is still open because there isn’t one of these players that stands out as absolutely the best option. The projection system PECOTA would agree: 

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Those numbers aren’t very encouraging. However, the question we’re seeking to answer is “how much does it matter who the Rangers fifth starter is to start the season?”

The table below shows what the fifth starters at the beginning of the 2012 season did for each team. 

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The average fifth starter in 2012 made 18 starts, pitched 106 innings, and contributed a below average 93 ERA+ and 0.4 rWAR.

That list from 2012 has:

Pleasant surprises (Sanchez, Chen, Maholm, Vogelsong, Detwiler).
Innings eaters (Saunders, Westbrook, Leake, Millwood, Blanton, Lowe, Williams).
Injuries (Smyly, Feliz, Wieland).
Placeholders that got replaced (Niemann, Lilly, Duffy).
Terrible pitchers (Weiland, Narveson, Godfrey, Morton, Bard, Humber, Hendriks).

On the whole, it’s an unimpressive group of ragamuffins. With no exaggeration, there were seven names on this list that I would have failed on in a game of “Baseball player or folk rock band member” (a pastime of mine coming to a Barnes & Noble near you Christmas 2013).

Three of the top four names on this list wound up on playoff teams, and two of them on World Series teams. There is a temptation to correlate the performance of the fifth starter with overall season success. Indeed, that makes some logical sense (after all, if the average fifth starter produces 0.4 WAR and a team can get 2.0 WAR from that position that’s quite an edge, particularly if a team is advanced enough on thewin curve).

Chen was an important factor in the Orioles surprise run to a wild card, Sanchez gave Detroit a boost down the stretch and in the playoffs, and Vogelsong picked up the slack of Zito and Lincecum in the San Francisco rotation throughout the year. There were also a lot of other really good parts about Baltimore, Detroit, and San Francisco too. Having an above average fifth starter is certainly an edge, but was not the singular feature of these clubs that delivered their success, and does not guarantee a playoff berth.

Based on PECOTA projections, the candidates for the fifth starter job in Texas appear to be pretty much in line with league average for fifth starters (Scott Feldman had a 5.09 ERA last year for a 90 ERA+). For the first two months of the season, it’s not likely the Rangers will have an edge over the competition in the back of the rotation. However, once Lewis returns, if he is able to get back to 80% of his 2012 form, the Rangers rotation would very quickly look much healthier.

So is it worth it to worry about who the team’s fifth starter is? Not really. For starters, if there is a competition for the last spot in the rotation, it’s not likely whoever fills it will significantly outperform league average. As the old saying goes, if you have two fifth starters you have zero fifth starters. It’s also unlikely that the player that starts the year in the fifth spot in the order will not finish it there. In 2012, only 10 of the 30 fifth starters had full seasons as starting pitchers.

The battle over the final spot in the pitching rotation draws a fair share of attention and focus in the Spring. With a team that has few question marks, the pursuit of those needed answers can take high priority. In the end, how Adrian Beltre does or does not regress as the team’s third baseman will have a bigger impact on the result of the Rangers season than the fifth starter out of camp. But we know we have no influence over Beltre’s performance, or any of the already filled positions, so we seek to assert some level of control over the remaining variable, no matter how relatively insignificant of a variable it is.

Peter Ellwood is a Senior Staff Writer for Shutdown Inning. You can email him at Peter.Ellwood@shutdowninning.com or reach him on Twitter @FutureGM

Peter Ellwood

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