Amid the hubristic, breathless celebration of the Phillies' "best ever" starting rotation, many Phillies fans and baseball media people have demonstrated a limitless capacity for thinking of uncreative and unclever nicknames for the four best members of the rotation. Unfortunately, where they excel at uncreative and unclever nomenclature, they fail miserably in their understanding of how pitching rotations actually function.
Take yesterday's truly uncomfortable-to-watch press conference, (rightly) featuring all five members of the rotation, for example. When the beat writers in attendance weren't trying to simply ignore (subconsciously or otherwise) Joe Blanton's presence on the panel outright, they were attempting with not-so-subtle douchiness to make him feel insecure about his inclusion in a group that every baseball fan in the country has spent the past three months excluding him from. However, one question from the presser stands out to me in particular:
Q. You’re number three and then some in rotations, now you’re number five. What kind of advantage will that give you going against the other team’s number five the way you pitched in the past?
The presumption is that a starter's position in his rotation alone influences his performance. Blanton's answer, in turn, reveals that he has a better grip than his inquisitor on how pitching rotations work:
JOE BLANTON: I don’t know that it will really give an advantage going into the other five. I’m really kind of facing the lineup. Hopefully, the other lineup falls asleep and thinks they have to face these four guys and I’ll just kind of slip right in. But, no, it’s great to be a part of it.
Even quite decent writers, it appears, are not immune to this fallacy. In an otherwise fine article by SI's Ken Rosenthal, in which he submitted his preseason pick of Cole Hamels for the NL Cy Young award, he too rehearsed this faulty premise:
He opened last season as the Phillies’ No. 2 starter behind Halladay. Dropping down to No. 4 might work to his benefit — the Phils’ offense, in theory, should produce greater run support against lesser pitching. But Hamels, like the more senior members of the Phillies’ rotation, is shutting out all such noise.
And I'm quite glad he is shutting out all such noise, because that's all it is--noise. Despite it being a pretty simple concept, I thought it would be worthwhile to set the record straight on why a pitchers spot in the rotation is largely immaterial. Three key points are worth noting:
A. Starting pitchers rarely match up against their counterparts from the opposing team.
Rainouts, off days, and injuries mean that by as early as the second week of the season, number ones are facing number fives, number twos are facing number fours, and so on. For instance, in 33 starts last season, Roy Halladay faced the opposing team's purported number one starter just nine times. In other words, a pitcher's position in the rotation has little appreciable effect on which member of the opposition's rotation he will face.
B. Pitchers pitch to batters.
Unless the offensive abilities of pitchers increase significantly according to their position in the starting rotation, which slot in the opponent's rotation a pitcher is matched up against has no impact on his own statistics. As such, Blanton's response above is an apt one: pitchers focus on the batters they have to retire, not the guy who is pitching for the other team. Additionally, the batters a number five and a number one pitcher face are usually the same. Yes, a pitcher's win total--which is dependent on his run support, which is dependent on the quality of the opposing pitching--may be effected by the pitchers he faces. As we know wins not to be a particularly useful stat for determining how well a pitcher has performed, of course, this should be irrelevant to everyone but the most crotchety of Cy Young and Hall of Fame voters. If Cole Hamels wins the Cy Young Award in 2011, it will only have to do with his spot in the rotation insofar as wins are still a stat valued disproportionately by voters and insofar as pitching out of a spot lower in the rotation actually boosts one's wins.
C. What is a "number five starter" anyways?
As a shorthand method for quickly ranking the relative abilities of the members of a given rotation, the first through fifth starter designation is useful. Managers often don't abide by a neat best-to-worst pitching rotation, though. It is not uncommon to see a manager designate a veteran pitcher his opening day starter (and thus, number one starter) while better, more talented pitchers fill lower slots. So what sense does it make to say that a pitcher will benefit from facing the opposing team's number four starter if the number four starter could be just as good or better than the number two starter? In short, there is an inconsistency between the actual value of the first through fifth construct and its practical application. The problem is that people begin to treat a pitcher's position in the rotation (as determined by the manager) as the ultimate statement on his ability (i.e. "His numbers look good, but he's just a fourth starter"). Instead, we should let statistics that actually evaluate a pitcher's ability be the ultimate statement on his ability. Maybe it is our species's obsession with taxonomy that has led us to view a first and a fifth starter as somehow fundamentally different things, I don't know.
Finally, worrying about matching pitchers up based on their slots in the rotation is silly because over the course of a 162 game season, things tend to even out. As the stakes of the games go up towards the end of the season and in the small sample size crapshoot that his the playoffs, it becomes prudent to shift the rotation around to ensure a better chance of victory. But this is almost always done based on a pitcher's actual performance and skill, not on some arbitrary designation like "first starter" or "fifth starter."