Starting to Win

Adding significant pieces to the 2012 starting rotation is atop the Royals' to-do list heading into this offseason. In the first of a series of articles, senior correspondent Matt Simpson takes a statistical approach to explore just how good Kansas City's starting rotation needs to be to reach the postseason.

As is the case with many metrics, benchmarking can be designed to tell you what you'd like to hear. Want to feel like Stephen Hawking? Benchmark your intelligence against the cast of the Jersey Shore. Want to feel good about your college football team's lackluster point spread? Benchmark it against the 1991 Prairie View A&M squad.

With a creative approach to building a peer group, we could produce comparisons that make you feel good about the Royals performance over the past several seasons. As much as I'd like you to enjoy a false sense of satisfaction after reading this article, I'm not going to do this. Royals fans have enough reasons to hope for the future, reasons with names like Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Johnny Giavotella, that there's no need to sugarcoat the recent past.

That being said, the Royals have a definite need for improvement in their starting rotation if they are to realize those hopes. Meaningful benchmarks use peer groups whose performance you aspire to match. The Royals' goal is to make the playoffs and so I've picked groups representing the Royals' two potential paths to the postseason: AL Wild Card and AL Central winners.

To allow for a simple analysis I pulled the collective Wins Above Replacement (WAR) value for all starting pitching performances by each American League team over the past eleven years. The below table presents the results:

Looking at these last eleven seasons, some items stand out:

  • Only one team has won the AL Central with a below-average starting rotation: the 2009 Twins. It is worth noting that these Twins finished the regular-season tied with the Tigers whose starters collectively posted an above-average WAR of 15.2. Since winning the division represents the Royals' most likely path to the postseason, only one AL Central team has won the Wild Card spot over the past 11 seasons. This drives home the importance of building a strong starting rotation.
  • Three AL Wild Card winners won with a below-average starting rotation: the 2007 Yankees, the 2010 Yankees, the 2011 Rays. These can largely be explained by strong offensive performances combined with the influence of negative outliers.

    The 2007 Yankees faced serious injury problems necessitating the use of interim starters, four of whom posted negative WAR values for their starts.

    The 2010 Yankee rotation was hampered by Javier Vazquez's -0.2 WAR over 26 starts and Dustin Moseley's -0.2 WAR over 9 starts. Despite their poor pitching, the Yankees potent office allowed them to still produce a combined 12-14 record.

    The 2011 Rays placed just below the AL median, simply removing Andy Sonnanstine's -0.8 WAR over the course of 4 starts move the Rays performance to above-average.

    These examples show that it is possible for offensive production to overcome a questionable back end of the rotation. It is not unreasonably optimistic to think that the Royals offensive production over the next few seasons will be strong enough to be competitive when combined with solid starters in the top three spots. That being said, as with winning the AL Central, the most likely path to the Wild Card involves an above-average starting rotation.

  • The 2008 and 2009 Royals are the only two squads to have posted above-average starting performances.

    While this highlights the profound difference a single-great pitcher such as Zack Greinke can make in a rotation, it is important to note that in 2008 Gil Meche and his 5.0 WAR was at least equally important (Greinke posted a 4.9 WAR).

    However, we can also see that a single-great pitcher is not likely to consistently produce a sufficient rotation absent contributions from his fellow starters. While Greinke's Cy Young winning 9.3 WAR in 2008 was enough to push the Royals well above the league average, his "regression" to a 5.1 WAR in 2010 quickly dropped the starting rotation back into a more familiar position.

    The effect of the Gil Meche signing over his first couple seasons wearing Royal blue provides a potential model for the team's free-agent approach this off-season. If they successfully emulate that model, however, let us hope that they've learned leaving a aging yet still solid starter out for 132 pitches might not be the best idea.

  • Knowing what the Royals should aim for to bring the spirit of '85 back to Kauffman, my next article in this series will examine what pieces Royals already have available.

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