One of the things that frustrates me a lot about people who talk and write about baseball is when they begin to label a pitcher as a number. Things like “He’ll never be a number two starter,” annoy the crap out of me. The reason I say this is because as far as I know, and i’ve read the rules for 2007, Major League Baseball doesn’t have numbers for various starting pitchers. This is something that has been made up and as a result has skewed our impressions of various starting pitchers around the league. It’s caused us to devalue what precious little pitching talent the league has to begin with. Recently, I read a couple of articles that tried to define what the various rotation spots should look like. This was an attempt to remove our blinders and give us a clearer picture of what our rotation should produce from each slot. As you may have guessed, they come from The Hardball Times. On a quick side note, if you’re not reading THT, then shame on you. Plug them into the RSS reader you use and lose yourself in their wonderful baseball knowledge and research.

Here was some of Jeff Slackman’s findings.

After going through that procedure for all thirty MLB teams, we can make some generalizations. To start with, here are the averages for each rotation position:

Lg      #1      #2      #3      #4      #5
MLB     3.60    4.14    4.58    5.10    6.24
AL      3.70    4.24    4.58    5.09    6.22
NL      3.51    4.04    4.57    5.11    6.26

What immediately jumps out at me is how high the #4 and #5 ERAs are. If there’s one thing most people agree on when they talk about rotation spots, it’s that a guy with an ERA over 5.00 ought to be your #5 starter. As it turns out, fewer than half of major league teams could claim an ERA under 5.00 from their #4 spot.

In fact, only three teams in baseball got an ERA under 5.00 from their #5 spot: the Tigers (4.48), the White Sox (4.99), and the Padres (4.91). And if we adjusted for park, the Padres would sneak over 5.00. Only two other teams–the Giants (5.18) and the A’s (5.16) are under 5.50 from that position. Given the enormous difference between the best teams and the league averages, it’s all the more apparent just how valuable rotation depth can be.

To address the issue I raised at the outset, we can use these averages to come up with rough dividing lines between rotation spots. Armed with this data, you can take any pitcher’s ERA and eyeball where they would fit in to the average team’s starting corps. For instance, in the table below, if a pitcher is between 3.87 and 4.36, he is, on average, a #2 starter.

Spot    MLB     AL      NL

In other words, an AL pitcher who managed an ERA under 4.00 over 32 starts very likely qualifies as an ace. To take a few examples: Jason Schmidt is the “average” ace; a fringey #1 guy is Dontrelle Willis; an average #2 starter is Matt Cain, and the protoypical #4 is Luke Hudson. The rotation that was closest to major league norms was Milwaukee’s.

For those who are interested, here are last year’s complete results for all 30 major league teams:

Team    #1      #2      #3      #4      #5
ARI     3.10    4.20    4.60    4.90    6.39
ATL     3.49    3.98    4.76    4.95    6.88
BAL     3.76    4.72    4.94    5.71    8.45
BOS     3.84    4.54    4.92    5.15    6.95
CHA     4.28    4.52    4.54    4.85    4.99
CHN     3.33    4.25    5.02    5.78    7.40
CIN     3.30    3.72    4.60    5.27    6.34
CLE     3.27    3.99    4.33    4.72    5.63
COL     3.78    4.15    4.24    5.45    6.00
DET     3.64    3.84    3.85    4.07    4.48
FLA     2.96    3.65    3.99    4.58    6.56
HOU     2.55    3.26    4.20    5.26    5.92
KC      4.96    5.49    5.70    6.05    7.32
LAA     2.97    3.58    3.91    4.42    5.68
LAN     3.52    3.76    4.34    4.65    5.75
MIL     3.86    4.11    4.50    4.88    6.21
MIN     2.47    3.41    4.32    5.84    6.51
NYA     3.52    3.63    4.34    4.93    6.44
NYN     3.72    3.97    4.41    5.02    6.55
OAK     3.83    4.10    4.58    4.87    5.16
PHI     3.91    4.12    4.82    5.38    6.92
PIT     3.99    4.59    4.75    5.17    6.30
SD      3.41    3.64    3.78    4.22    4.91
SEA     4.22    4.49    4.52    4.67    6.03
SF      3.59    4.18    4.72    4.95    5.18
STL     3.09    4.12    5.10    5.68    6.59
TB      3.39    4.47    4.95    5.32    6.85
TEX     4.41    4.51    4.78    5.63    6.21
TOR     3.19    4.11    4.49    5.06    6.44
WAS     4.64    4.96    5.27    5.58    6.23

What I draw from this is a couple of things.

1. Not everyone has an Ace, as they are very slim pickings
2. It’s time to rethink what we consider a # 1 starter, a # 2 starter, and so on. (A number 1 doesn’t mean an Ace)

I’m in the process of crunching some historical pitching numbers of my own. I’ll have more results for you soon. In the meantime, enjoy this.

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Joe Aiello is the founder of View From the Bleachers and one of the lead writers as well as host of VFTB Radio. Growing up in Chicago, he fondly remembers attending games in the bleachers before that was the popular thing to do. Currently Joe resides in North Carolina with his wife and three kids. Connect with Joe via Twitter / Facebook / E-mail