Starting Pitching Doesn’t Grow on Trees


There has been a thought process floating around in some baseball circles that the more innings a team can get from it’s starting rotation, the more likely the team will have success.

One school of thought has floated the number of 1,000 innings as a goal for a starting rotation. If a team’s starters can accumulate 1,000 innings during a season, the team will usually win.

Most teams won’t reach the mark. Per KC Royals writer Craig Brown, between 2003-2012 just 1 in 5 teams reached the mark. 34% of those teams reached the postseason. More importantly, those teams averaged 87.4 wins among them. Clearly, the more innings your rotation gives, the better your chance of contending.

In 2014, the World Series champion San Francisco Giants starting pitchers totaled 978 innings pitched. The Giants won 88 games in the regular season, finishing in 2nd place, 6 games behind Los Angeles. The Dodgers got 972.2 innings from their starters. In the NL East Division, among the Phillies rivals, the division-winning Washington Nationals had the best record in the entire National League, and totaled 1,019 innings from their starters.

The 2014 Phillies rotation, believe it or not, did indeed top the magic 1,000 mark. The Phils rotation members were able to go 1,014 innings for the team this season. That’s with Cliff Lee injured and only able to make 13 starts, contributing just 81.1 innings himself to the effort.

The Phils very nearly had 3 starting pitchers reach the 200 inning mark. They were led by A.J. Burnett at 213.2 and Cole Hamels at 204.2, while Kyle Kendrick fell just short at 199 innings pitched. And no, those starts were not mostly bad ones, if that’s what you are thinking.

The starting efforts by the Phillies rotation resulted in 56% as “Quality Starts”, meaning they lasted at least 6 innings and allowed no more than 3 earned runs. The league average was 52% of their teams starts. The bottom line? The Phillies losing record in 2014 was not due to their starting rotation, as much as fans might like to put a chunk of the blame there.

The Phillies losing record in 2014 was mostly due to their inability to hit effectively. The team was tied for just 23rd in Runs scored in all of baseball this year. The only playoff team even close to them were the Cardinals, with whom they were tied. But the Cards were 14th in Batting Average, 9th in On-Base Percentage. The Phils were all the way down at 24th in Avg, 25th in OBP among the 30 teams.

The Phillies bullpen was, in general, not a problem. In fact, by the end, when rookie Ken Giles became a regular, they were a strength. Closer Jonathan Papelbon registered 39 Saves with a 2.04 ERA in 66 games. His support group: Ken Giles (44 games/1.18 ERA), Jake Diekman (73 games/3.80 ERA), Antonio Bastardo (67 games/3.94 ERA), Justin DeFratus (54 games/2.39 ERA), and even Mike Adams (22 games/2.89 ERA) were mostly effective.

The point of all this is to illustrate that, if the Phillies truly want to improve for 2015, they need to improve their offensive consistency. The rotation and the bullpen were able to remain competitive, but the offense frequently let the arms down. But there may be a big problem looming.

The Phillies and A.J. Burnett have each turned down mutual options for a 2015 contract. Burnett has until tomorrow to accept or decline a player option for just over $12 million. Kyle Kendrick is a free agent, and not likely to return. Even Lee, who many fans seem to assume will return healthy, is no guarantee. At age 36, Lee left a July game with an elbow issue. He has not had surgery. There is absolutely no guarantee that he can give the Phils anything next year, let alone a full, healthy season.

There is no guarantee that Cliff Lee will pitch at all in 2015

(Photo Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports)

The problem there should become obvious. If the Phils don’t re-sign Kendrick, or sign someone just as productive, and if Burnett chooses to not return, they have lost more than 400 innings from their rotation. If Lee is not healthy enough to give more than the 81 innings he did in 2014, they may approach the need to replace almost 500 innings. Where will those come from?

The fact is that Innings Pitched by Major League Baseball-caliber starting pitchers do not grow on trees. As much as many Phillies fans might want to malign them, A.J. Burnett and Kyle Kendrick were just that in 2014. The 121 innings given by Roberto Hernandez will likely be replaced by Jerome Williams. But that’s just the 4th starter at best.

Young David Buchanan is likely to be expected to increase the 117.2 innings that he pitched over 20 starts in his rookie season this year. If he makes close to 30 starts in 2015, he will be expected to at least reach across the 150 IP mark. But that’s just a 30-40 inning bump next year, not nearly enough to make up for the losses.

The Phillies have a lot of questions to answer for 2015, and they are making some dangerous assumptions at this point. They assume a full, healthy season from Cole Hamels, and yet there has even been talk of trying to deal him for a large prospect package, if that is possible.

Without Burnett and Kendrick, something many Phils fans probably wish happens, the starting rotation could be a shambles in 2015. Phillies fans need to be careful what they wish for, they just might get it. If you thought things were bad in 2014 with them, they will likely be downright ugly in 2015 without them.

A.J. Burnett led the 2014 rotation with 213.2 innings pitched

(Photo Credit: Bob Stanton-USA TODAY Sports)

In no way am I arguing that A.J. Burnett and Kyle Kendrick are top quality starting pitchers at this point in their careers. But the simple fact is that both are healthy, experienced starting pitchers who go out and take their turn in the rotation, and usually are able to give the team valuable innings pitched that keep their team in the game more often than not.

Maybe Hamels stays and is a Cy Young contender. He is certainly capable of that type effort, if he stays. Maybe Cliff Lee comes back healthy, pitches a full season, at least enough to be a valued trade chip come June or July. Maybe Burnett accepts his option. Maybe Buchanan and Williams are more than we think. Maybe the club signs a free agent that is able to give them 200 innings.

That’s an awful lot of maybes for a team that was already a last place one this past season, and that already has an aging, struggling offense. It’s a lot easier at this stage of the off-season to envision a 2015 that is not only worse in the win-loss record, but harder and uglier to watch. Phillies fans need to keep a close eye on the formation of the 2015 starting rotation. Replacing A.J. Burnett and Kyle Kendrick will not be as easy as you might think.