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Red shift: Looking at the full spectrum of the Reds' starters

Thanks for the certainty, Einstein.
Thanks for the certainty, Einstein.

Starting pitching is due to go down as one of the main culprits for the disappointing season. Around these parts, we even have a three-word word short-hand for it. That is to say, a new three-word shorthand for it that departs from the timeworn F-T-P construction.

In the blogger utopia of the future, Dusty Baker walks into the press room after a bad outing from Neo-Homer Bailey, shrugs his shoulders, mugs and exclaims: "Unfortunately, the pitching!" We all share a good laugh and then give him his lineup and instructions for the next day.

But also unfortunately, the reality. Major league average starting pitching in 2011 has been good for a 4.25 ERA (and a 4.19 in the National League). That gives the Reds one starter who's off the charts (Johnny Cueto, ERA+ 210), one league average starter (Mike Leake, ERA+ 97) and one starter who might be league average, but whose innings count is probably still inconclusive (Dontrelle Willis, ERA+ 97). On its face, that's not altogether terrible, especially considering how good Cueto has been.

Here's how the Reds Top 7 pitchers by number of starts have fared this season:

Bronson Arroyo 153.1 75 4.33 5.57 5.28
Mike Leake 138.2 97 3.58 4.17 4.09
Johnny Cueto 128.1 210 3.84 3.45 1.89
Travis Wood 95.0 79 4.42 4.16 5.02
Homer Bailey 88.1 89 4.00 4.11 4.48
Edinson Volquez 85.0 67 4.19 5.34 5.93
Dontrelle Willis 45.2 97 3.73 3.66 4.14

The Reds perceived depth to start the season turned into a race to the bottom, with Wood, Arroyo and Volquez and Arroyo all pitching like fifth starters or worse. The starts weren't uniformly bad, but a lot of innings were being handed out to starters whose performance barely justified a rotation spot. Some of that was due to under-performance, pure and simple, and some of it was the early-season injuries to Cueto and Bailey.

Slightly less obvious is the fact that the Lower House of the Reds' rotation has been at least a little unlucky. FIP and SIERA disagree on where Bronson Arroyo "should" be, but Bailey, Wood and Volquez were probably victimized to some extent by batted ball luck. Cueto, on the other hand, may be benefiting from both good defense and good luck, but it's an open debate as to how hard he's been hit under his new pitching approach.

Where does that leave the Reds? I thought I'd take stock of the rotation depth after a season of lowered expectations. First, here's a rough grouping of ERAs for each rotation slot in the NL, based on the performance of starters with a minimum of  100 IP. The ERA cut-offs are arbitrary and of my own making, but hopefully they give a good indication of the quintiles and where Reds' starters stack up.

#1: 1.89 - 3.30

#2: 3.31-.3.75

#3: 3.76 - 4.30

#4: 4.31 - 4.90

#5: 4.90 - 5.50

Taking this as a rough guide, we can sketch out a rotational depth chart  for the Reds, adjusting for luck and ignoring innings pitched. To the extent to which this season's performance is predictive of next year, this gives a good indication of the distribution of talent in the rotation entering 2012. I introduced some more subjectivity and gut juice by looking at where the pitchers fell on the range for ERA, FIP and SIERA and assign them a "rating," which says how confident I am that they could perform at the level suggested by the rotation slot number:

Pitcher ERA slot FIP slot SIERA slot Composite Rating
Johnny Cueto #1 #2 #3 2.00 STRONG #2
Mike Leake #3 #3 #3 3.00 SOLID #3
Dontrelle Willis #3 #2 #2 2.33 SOLID #3
Homer Bailey #4 #3 #3 3.33 SOLID #4
Travis Wood #5 #3 #4 4.00 LOW #4
Bronson Arroyo #5 #6 #4 5.00 SOLID #5
Edinson Volquez #6 #5 #3 4.67 SOLID #5


Even if the methodology here is imprecise, I have two main conclusions that no one could possibly argue with throughout all time and space:

1. Poor innings distribution and bad luck played a bigger role in the poor performance of the rotation than we might admit

2. The Reds absolutely have to find a #1/#2 starter to complement Johnny Cueto, especially since his batted ball mastery might dramatically correct itself

The question remains how much of the talent that would fill those gaps is playing for other organizations right now.