Starting point: stability
Schilling's right: The durable rotation has the edge
Posted: Tuesday January 22, 2008 12:50PM; Updated: Tuesday January 22, 2008 1:37PM
Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling last March correctly predicted, in theory, the winner of the American League East when he said, "The rotation that makes the most starts wins the division. It's that simple." Boston's projected five-man rotation made 140 starts, tops in the division; the Red Sox won the division. The Yankees' season-opening rotation made 105 starts.
In 2006 it was New York that won the battle over Boston for most starts by its top five starters, 125-107 -- and also won the division.
The Schilling Theory got me thinking that its applications go beyond the Boston-New York rivalry. As players are better trained than ever before and as front offices make better use of available information than ever before, the difference between going home or to the playoffs may rest more on rotation stability than any other factor -- which means pennant races might well be decided by the happenstance of injury. In other words, you can pour enormous resources and planning into team building and yet you're left to the mercy of when the alarm clocks that are ulnar collateral nerves or rotator cuffs decide to go off.
In coming weeks I'll get to what this means for the 2008 Red Sox and Yankees -- and the seven most at-risk young starters in baseball -- but let's just say for now that New York would be much better off in the short run, though not as certainly in the long run, to trade for Twins ace Johan Santana before spring training. The Yankees can build years of success around young starting pitchers Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy, but just not this year without some risk. The Yankees know they can't push any of those starters to 200 innings this year -- not at their ages and not given the risky leap in workload it would require. And remember, the Yankees' mission is to get to the World Series, which requires a seventh month of starts for three young pitchers who aren't ready for even six full months yet.
Without Santana, New York must plan for rotation instability in 2008. It can be done, but the odds begin to work against a team the more second-tier starters it has to plug in. ("Second tier" is not a blanket evaluation of talent -- sometimes a replacement is better than the original -- but a marker of stability.) Indeed, rotation stability has been one big reason why Boston has been winning the titles that used to belong to New York. This chart (above, right) offers a quick look at the number of starters used by AL East teams from 2004 through '07.
The Yankees have needed 10 more starting pitchers over the past four seasons than Boston and are well outside the range of every other team in the division. That's only part of the story, though. Look at the starts needed from second-tier pitchers -- that is, all starts made by everyone other than the five most-used starters each year:
Here the difference in rotation stability is even more apparent. Over the past four seasons the Yankees have handed the ball to second-tier starting pitchers 60 more times than did Boston. The Red Sox have done a better job identifying reliable starting pitchers and, by a combination of luck and design, keeping them healthy.
O.K., so what? How important is that? The Yankees were 23-18 in those 41 second-tier starts last season. And every team needs depth, right? After all, the average team uses 10 starting pitchers per year. But each of the past six world champions have been below that average, while the Yankees have been worse than average every year since their last World Series appearance, in 2003, when they needed only nine. (Since then New York has used 12, 14, 12 and 14 starters. It's the equivalent of a golfer having to scramble often to save par; it can be done, but with a higher degree of difficulty.)