Starters and Standings: Is Less Really More?

Would more innings pitched by Marco Estrada in 2012 have any real effect on the final win/loss record for the Brewers?

EDITOR'S NOTE: Today once again I'm excited to welcome another new contributor to the fold here at BCB. etothesecondpower has been writing at fellow SB Nation site Fish Stripes, and we're excited to have him join us here. - KL

Last season was a great one for the Brewers. Winning the division was a terrific achievement that was the result of a combination of factors. Talent, of course, is at the top of the list. Luck and health also play a part, especially true for a team like the Brewers, who cannot rely on huge payrolls to support their bid for a division title.

Much of the talk about the NL Central prior to the beginning of the 2011 season was the loss of Adam Wainwright and what it would mean to the Cardinals and their season. Even without their ace for the entire season they managed to get through the year by using 10 starters.

After taking some time to recover from the playoff loss to the Cards I was able to take a somewhat objective and rational look back at the season that was for the Crew. One thing that really stood out was the fact the the team only needed to use six starters throughout the marathon regular season. Not only did the Brewers have a talented group of position players their starting rotation, with the exception of the early season absence of Zach Greinke, remained intact for the majority of the year. This was a good thing too because the rotation, like the starting line-up, was a talented bunch. Talent can only get a team so far. If the injury bug bites all the talent in the world doesn't do any good sitting on the bench.

Because the team only needed six starters I assumed that was a major reason for the team's success. I was interested in looking around the league to see how the seemingly miraculous Brewers rotation stood up.

2011 Division Standings

Number of Starters

NL East

Philadelphia Phillies (102-60)

7

Atlanta Braves (89-73)

8

Washington Nationals (80-81)

11

New York Mets (77-85)

9

Florida Marlins (72-90)

11

NL Central

Milwaukee Brewers (96-66)

6

St. Louis Cardinals (90-72)

9

Cincinnati Reds (79-83)

10

Chicago Cubs (72-90)

10

Pittsburgh Pirates (71-91)

10

Houston Astros (56-106)

9

NL West

Arizona Diamondbacks (94-68)

11

San Francisco Giants (86-76)

8

Los Angeles Dodgers (82-80)

9

Colorado Rockies (73-89)

13

San Diego Padres (71-91)

8

AL East

New York Yankees (97-65)

9

Tampa Bay Rays (91-69)

8

Boston Red Sox (90-72)

10

Toronto Blue Jays (81-81)

12

Baltimore Orioles (69-93)

12

AL Central

Detroit Tigers (95-67)

10

Cleveland Indians (80-82)

10

Chicago White Sox (79-83)

8

Kansas City Royals (71-91)

11

Minnesota Twins (63-99)

9

AL West

Texas Rangers (96-66)

7

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (86-76)

9

Oakland A's (74-88)

10

Seattle Mariners (67- 95)

8

It turns out that there is no relationship between a teams success and the number of starters used. Yes, the Brewers (6), Phillies (7), and Rangers (7) used among the fewest starters and all won their respective divisions in 2011. The D'backs and Tigers each won their division using 10 starters and the Yankees won the AL East using nine, which was one more than the Rays' eight.

Admittedly one season of data is not enough to draw reliable conclusions. Over a longer period of time does the number of starters used relate positively to the chances of a team winning their division? In order to find out lets look at the same data sets for 2001-2010.

Looking at this much larger sample size there is still no real relationship between the number of starters used by a team and their divisional standing at years' end. So, if the number of starters used by a team in a given season has no positive affect on the teams final record, we need to look elsewhere to see how pitching does affect a given teams win-loss record. What proves to be important is actually pretty apparent: the quality of pitching depth. Just how important is depth and how much impact can extra starters have on a team? How important is health to a team's rotation?

Looking again at last season here is a team-by-team break down of the players who toed the rubber at least once for their respective teams in 2011. Starters are ranked by innings pitched.

As we can see there are a few different reasons that can account for the variation abong starters used by each team, some forced and some by choice. Injury is obviously a major reason to use a replacement starter. How healty a team stays over the course of a season can really put a damper on any given team, regardless of the team’s talent level.

While the A’s may not be the most talented of teams their loss of Brett Anderson and Dallas Braden, while not ace level starters, nonetheless are guys who have had above average production, have forced the team to give starts to younger, unproven guys, such as Grahm Godfrey, Tyson Ross, and Josh Outman.

The Marlins are also an example of what losing a starter can mean to the team. In their case their ace, Josh Johnson, made only 9 starts last season. Not only did they lose their frontline stopper, someone who would have been valuable to stopping the team’s terrible June slide. Instead of being able to trot Johnson, a legitimate ace when healthy, out every fifth day the Marlins were forced to use a mish-mash of guys, including a veritable who’s who of replacements. I’ve actually heard of a couple of them, Brad Hand and Clay Hensley. However the Marlins rotational mess alsu included Alex Sanabia, Brian Sanches, Jay Buente, and Elih Villanueva. With a rotation that got 27 starts out of a combination of that group it’s no wonder why they finished 72-90 and in last place in the NL East.

What does this mean for the Brewers? While another season like 2011 would be greatly appreciated it has to be said the Brewers’ rotation was not without its share of injuries. Zach Greinke missed five early season starts thanks to his foray into becoming a two sport star. After his return in early May the only other injury to a Brewers starter was Chris Narevson with his clubhouse arts and craft accident.

In light of these injuries, both non-playing related, the Brewers could have had the rare achievement of getting through an entire season using only their top five starters, a feat which has only occured once since 2001 by the 2003 Seattle Mariners. So, with any luck, a repeat season of healthy starters could be a real possiblilty again in 2012… or with the other kind of luck the Brewers could be the 2011 version of the Colorado Rockies who were forced to use 13 starters through injury, trades, and seeing what the young guys have at the end of the year.

But would it even matter? After spending 1,200 words, hours of research, and formatting several tables after having accidently deleted them, I have been forced to cede that the number of starters used does not have any discernable affect on a team’s final win/loss record.

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