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Quality Control: the 2005 Phillies rotation

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For a team so often blasted for their lack of consistency, the 2005 Phillies were remarkably same-ish in their results from month to month. After April, when the team stumbled out of the gate, the Phils won 15 games in each of the next three months, ran that total all the way up to 16 in August, then won 15 more in September (plus their two games in October). Though it certainly felt like a roller-coaster ride, in a macro sense the Phils played at a remarkably steady level through the last 85 percent or so of the season.

One reason for this, largely overlooked, was the performance of the starting rotation. In the aggregate, the Phils' starting pitchers were middle-of-the-pack or slightly better; their 63 wins and 4.20 ERA were 5th and 9th respectively in the NL. But a closer look reveals that while all six of the Phils' primary starting pitchers in 2005 had sustained stretches of excellence, the almost complete lack of overlap among those stretches largely explains why, with the one exception of that 12-1 homestand in late spring, the team had no prolonged periods of dominance last season.

The chart below sets this out month by month.

I use the measure of "quality starts" to track the individual and collective performance of the Phils' starting pitchers over the course of the 2005 season. The general definition of a quality start is simple: at least six innings pitched, three or fewer earned runs allowed. This isn't a perfect measure of performance, but at the least, a QS almost always shows that the starter gave his team a good chance to win the game.

For individual pitchers, I think it's a better guide to how good a starter was over the course of a month than a won-loss record, or even an ERA; the former, of course, is too dependent on offense and relief pitching, and the latter is too easily distorted by one bad start. If Vicente Padilla had four quality starts in five games started over a month, but got bombed in the fifth, his ERA for that month is going to look a lot worse than his performance over those five starts.

For each month, I've listed each pitcher's total number of starts, followed by his number of quality starts. Where appropriate, there's a third category, of starts that were on track to be quality but in which the pitcher was lifted  before completing six full innings.

Pitcher Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep/Oct 2005
Lidle (13-11, 4.53) 4/1/1 6/4/1 6/3 6/2 4/1 5/2 31/13/2
Lieber (17-13, 4.20) 5/4 6/2 6/1 6/3 5/4 7/6 35/20
Myers (13-8, 3.72) 5/3/1 6/5 5/3 6/5/1 6/ 2 6/3 34/21/2
Padilla (9-12, 4.71) 3/0 4/1 4/0/1 5/4 6/5 5/2 27/12/1
Tejeda (4-3, 3.57) n/a n/a 4/1/2 4/2 5/3 n/a 13/6/2
Wolf (6-4, 4.39) 5/2 6/5 2/2 n/a na/ n/a 13/9
Floyd (1-2, 10.04) 2/1 n/a n/a n/a n/a 2/1 4/2
Brito (1-2, 3.68) n/a n/a n/a n/a 1/0/1 4/1 5/1/1
Total 24/11/2 28/17/1 27/10/3 27/16/1 27/15 29/16 162/84/8
Overall W/L 10-14 15-13 15-12 15-12 16-11 17-12 88-74

The full-season numbers for Brito, Floyd, and Tejeda include their work as relievers.

Before breaking this down any further, let's consider when each of these guys did their best work:

  • After winning despite a shaky outing in the season opener, Jon Lieber ran off six straight quality starts in April and May. He also closed the season on a tear, with 10 quality starts in his last 12. In between, not so much.

  • Brett Myers also started the year very strongly: through mid-June he had 11 quality starts plus one 5.2 IP, 0 ER outing in 14 starts. After a late-June hiccup, he turned it on again in July with five QS and a near-QS in six starts. But Myers dropped off considerably over the last two months.

  • Cory Lidle did his best work in May and early June, then slumped for about two and a half months before recovering in September.

  • The recently traded Vicente Padilla was almost a guaranteed loss for his first 12 starts, and seemed to be courting a demotion or even outright release when July began. Then he ran off nine straight quality starts--the longest such streak of any Phillie starter in 2005--before fading again down the stretch.

  • At the time he got hurt, Randy Wolf might have been the Phils' best pitcher. He'd just turned in a 4-1 May with 5 QS in 6 starts, then two more in two June starts. For the season, Wolf had the highest QS percentage on the team: 9/13, or 69 percent.

  • But Robinson Tejeda, who effectively replaced Wolf in the rotation, was almost as good, at least for awhile. In his 13 starts--all bunched in June, July, and August, Tejeda turned in 6 QS and two more scoreless outings of 5+ IP. As Padilla was just turning it around and Lieber and Lidle were both scuffling, the rookie probably saved the season.

If the Phils' 2005 rotation performance proves anything, it's that one baseball cliche--"good pitching is contagious"--should be tossed in the ash heap. Very early on, Lieber, Myers and Lidle were all solid; Wolf was bad, and Padilla was abysmal. Just as Wolf improved, Lieber went into the tank. He and Lidle slumped through the summer, but Padilla's turnaround, Tejeda's emergence and Myers' continued strong work kept the team in the race. Just as the two veterans righted themselves for the stretch run, Myers declined, Tejeda wore out, and Padilla gave back some of his summer gains.

Looking ahead, the Phillies have to hope for Myers to sustain and build upon his breakout season; for Lieber to keep his mechanics intact; for Lidle to stay healthy; and for two of Tejeda, Gavin Floyd and Ryan Madson, who now seems almost certain to replace Padilla as the #4 starter, to emerge. It's not a terrible sequence of bets. But maybe what they need most is for all the starters just to get hot at once, taking some pressure off a shaky-looking bullpen.