Thursday, March 25, 2010

Why the Fifth Starter Matters

There have been a few articles in the sabermetric community recently on the non-existence of the 'fifth starter.'  The argument is basically that it is very rare for a rotation to include five starters make 25+ starts, so the classification of a full-time pitcher as a 'fifth starter' is a fallacy, since if he's truly full-time he'll be making the third or fourth amount of starts.

Marc Hulet of Fangraphs goes further, saying that since the fifth starter does not exist, the fifth start could be done by a committee of the bullpen long-man, a prospect, and a minor-league veteran.  This way a team can focus instead on getting four pitchers capable of starting 25+ games instead of worrying about the fifth.  Click through to the links of 'a' and 'few' in the opening paragraph for a longer argument from Hulet.

I agree, in large part, with the first paragraph in that there doesn't exist a full-time pitcher who is a 'fifth starter.'  I would go further, however, and deny the existence of second starters, third starters, and fourth starters.  The whole numbering concept is extremely subjective.  Jesse Litsch (pictured, goofy) was the fifth starter for the 07 and 08 Jays, but in another rotation he may have been the number three guy.  To classify him as a 'fifth starter' only makes sense in a context where there are four better starters who stay healthier than Jesse, which is an extremely subjective argument to make.  AJ Burnett, number two in the Yankees rotation, would be number one in the Blue Jays rotation, same argument.
It is Marc Hulet's arguments that I disagree with.  He made his points now, as coaches are solidifying their rotations for the beginning of the season, essentially saying that the selection for the fifth start is a waste of time and energy (sorry Brian Tallet, pic from AP) since no five starters are likely to spend the majority of the year in the rotation.  My contention is that five starters are not going to spend the majority of the year in the rotation, probably more like three or four, but the coaches don't get to decide which three or four this is.  Pitchers get injured all the time and just because Phil Hughes starts the year as the fifth starter in the Yankee rotation does not mean he won't end up as the third starter when AJ Burnett inevitably gets injured.  When a pitcher gets injured and can't make the majority of the starts in their pitching slot, it's not like the coaches can decide that it's the fifth starter who has to go on the DL.

I would rather the fifth spot in the rotation go to the fifth best starter available, out of spring training, rather than Hulet's suggested committee.  They get regular turns in the rotation, perhaps with the occasional skip due to an off day, and can move up in the rotation pecking order if one of the better pitchers comes down with an injury.  This way the starter is used to the workload and is not a long reliever or a prospect riding the shuttle up and down to triple-A, and so is in a better position to step in and make 25+ starts.

1 comment:

  1. If you had 4 outstandingly healthy starters they would AT MOST have 140 stats (34 each) - that leaves 20 starts - me - I'd like to have a 5th starter for those.

    I love Marc Hulet's stuff - but I think he's wrong about this.

    First time visitor - nice blog