Braves find needed innings-eaters
At the beginning of the offseason the Atlanta Braves set out to improve the starting rotation. It didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that was the biggest problem last season and a main reason the team won only 72 games.
Twelve months ago we all believed the 2008 Braves rotation would have John Smoltz, Tim Hudson, Tom Glavine, Mike Hampton, and Jair Jurrjens as the top five. But at the end of the season, only Hampton and Jurrjens would be left standing.
The Braves had a problem with the starters eating innings, which caused havoc for an overworked bullpen that was really spent by the All Star Break. The injuries to Smoltz, Glavine, and Hudson caused the troubles, and with all three question marks for this season replacements had to be brought in to help.
General Manager Frank Wren went after Jake Peavy, but he got Javier Vazquez. He then went after A.J. Burnett, but he got Derek Lowe. And while Peavy and Burnett might have been ‘sexier' additions, a closer look shows Vazquez and Lowe may be exactly what the Braves need.
First, to explain how serious the problem was, let's look back at the 2008 rotation. The top four starting pitchers in the Braves rotation in innings pitched were Jurrjens (188.1), Hudson (141.0), Jorge Campillo (137.0), and Jo Jo Reyes (110.1). They combined for only 100 starts and 576.2 innings pitched.
Now let's look at some other teams from 2008 and how many innings pitched their top four starters combined for:
790.1 – Angels
788.1 – Blue Jays
774.1 – Rays
769.0 – Mets
768.1 – Phillies
766.2 – Cubs
733.1 – Red Sox
716.0 – Brewers
697.1 – Dodgers
And again, the Braves top four starters in 2008 combined for only 576.2 innings, which outlines much of the problem of the season.
Let's now compare that number to what the Braves teams did in the 1990s with their top four starters, when the rotation was the best in the game:
1991: 916.1 innings pitched
So the Braves obviously want to get back to what they were doing in the 1990s. While that may be impossible since there were three future Hall of Famers in that group, it's still realistic to get back between 750 and 800 innings per season for their top four starting pitchers.
To do that, the Braves will turn to Lowe and Vazquez to lead the way. Lowe has averaged 208 innings pitched for the last seven seasons, while Vazquez has averaged 215 innings pitched for the last nine seasons.
Let's see how those two stack up with the other top innings-eaters around baseball:
1) Jamie Moyer – has averaged 206 innings over the past 12 seasons
2) Jeff Suppan – has averaged 201 innings over the past 10 seasons
3) Javier Vazquez – has averaged 215 innings over the past 9 seasons
4) Mark Buerhle – has averaged 224 innings over the past 8 seasons
5) Barry Zito – has averaged 214 innings over the past 8 seasons
6) Tim Hudson – has averaged 209 innings over the past 8 seasons
7) C.C. Sabathia – has averaged 207 innings over the past 8 seasons
8) Roy Oswalt – has averaged 211 innings over the past 7 seasons
9) Roy Halladay – has averaged 210 innings over the past 7 seasons
10) Derek Lowe – has averaged 208 innings over the past 7 seasons
Obviously Hudson's appearance on this list will end with him missing most of the 2009 season. But in Lowe and Vazquez the Braves will have two of the top ten innings-eaters in the game join the rotation this season.
If Lowe and Vazquez do what they've done in the past, or average what they've averaged in the past, the Braves rotation will be much improved. But that's only part of the equation. The Braves will need significant innings from the middle of the rotation, with Jair Jurrjens and Kenshin Kawakami in those roles.
The last time the Braves had three starting pitchers with 200-plus innings was 2001, which was the last time the franchise got to the National League Championship Series. Jurrjens would have hit the mark last season if not for his ankle sprain in June and the Braves decision to slow him down after the team was well out of the race late in the season.
The Braves believe Jurrjens can give the team close to 200 innings. The key may be for Jurrjens and Kawakami to provide at least 30 starts apiece, which could accomplish the goal of having the top four starting pitchers in the rotation provide 750 to 800 innings pitched.
It's easy in this statistical environment to focus on new and different numbers to track the importance and effectiveness of starting pitchers. But for the Atlanta Braves, after the last three seasons struggling rotations, innings pitched has clearly become more critical than ever. And with the additions of Derek Lowe and Javier Vazquez, they have a good chance to have an improved top of the rotation that will provide significant innings in 2009.
Bill Shanks hosts The Braves Show Talk Show, The Atlanta Baseball Show on 680 the Fan in Atlanta, and The Bill Shanks Show on SportsRadio 105.5 the Fan in Macon. He is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team. You can email Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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