Wednesday, May 7, 2014

On 30 start pitchers

The great Joe Posnanski this week grappled with this question: Do great managers keep their starting rotations healthy, or do healthy starting rotations make managers great?

It's a chicken or the egg question. There's no question: Teams that can keep their top starters going all season tend to do well, and teams that have to cycle numerous arms through the rotation tend not to do well.

The standard Posnanski sets up -- four pitchers making 30 or more starts in a season -- is debatable as a standard for keeping pitchers healthy. His position: Managers keep their jobs by winning games and, especially, championships. They don't get credit because pitcher Z was a rotation fixture for five years.

There's a lot in this piece for me to chew on. Tony LaRussa, for example, had a heavy number of seasons with four (or more) 30-start guys, more than anybody else since 1960. But there was a lot of turnover in those rotations.

I am relatively certain of this: Were I an up-and-coming starter, a potential star -- Alex Meyer, for example -- I would be wary of LaRussa. LaRussa's long and successful managerial history featured relatively few young pitchers who lasted  On the other hand, LaRussa (and his longtime pitching coach Dave Duncan) was exactly what Kyle Lohse needed. Be it in Chicago, Oakland or St. Louis, LaRussa and Duncan specialized in turning around veterans who washed out elsewhere.

Was LaRussa just lucky that he put together so many rotations that held together for full seasons? I've been inclined to hold it against him that so few rookie pitchers laid the foundation for real careers under LaRussa -- but I also think he deserves credit for being able to identify four pitchers who could get him through a season, and for getting them through the season. And often they would be four guys who hadn't done much at their previous job.

So I incline to the first side of the question. LaRussa had so many durable rotations because he (and, again, Duncan and others in the organization) a knack for picking the right guys, and a willingness to discard them when that time came.

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I checked Ron Gardenhire's career by the four starters/30 starts yardstick. He has had one such season, 2004 (Johan Santana, Brad Radke, Lohse and Carlos Silva).

Two things struck me about that season as I looked at the Baseball Reference page:


  • It is probably the only season in which Gardenhire did much skipping of the fifth starter. Santana, Radke and Lohse each made 34 starts, Silva 33; in a straight five-man rotation, nobody would get more than 33 starts, and only two would get that many. 
  • Seth Greisinger got nine starts in the first half of the season before being bounced in favor of Terry Mulholland (15 starts).  

Seth Greisinger? I remember Mulholland. I vaguely remember Greisinger as a spring training invitee or something, but I would have said he didn't make the team. That he got nine starts has been purged from my memory bank.

He was, in a sense, the first of a string of "disposable starters" -- followed in future seasons by the likes of Sidney Ponson, Ramon Ortiz and Livan Hernandez. But the other three all had had some good seasons in the past. Greisinger was a former first-round pick (sixth overall) who'd gotten hurt before establishing himself, and he never did pan out.

A big part of what the Twins sought to do this offseason was bring in some 30-start, 200-inning guys. I'm going to assume that Mike Pelfrey isn't going to make 30 starts. Obviously, it's too soon to say that Ricky Nolasco or Phil Hughes (or Kevin Correia or Kyle Gibson) will. But that's the goal.

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