My last post introduced a Tableau data viz with which to evaluate how teams look going into 2015 and focused on position players. This post takes a closer look at starting pitchers and closers.
The data and graphics below are based on 2015 rosters but 2014 performance. Obviously, projections would be ideal but since we're only in possession of Steamer at this point and the innings estimates and top end performance is limited due to the nature of projections. This post gives you an idea of how newly formed rotations stack up based on last season's numbers, so view it appropriately.
This screen grab shows the projected rotations for the teams going into 2015 as identified by mlb.com depth charts and their cumulative 2014 FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement (fWAR) (link to data viz -- go to Team tab) :
Going to the data viz and scrolling over individual data points shows more information, and pitchers in red are new acquisitions during the offseason. If you view the data viz, do it on the biggest screen you can get your hands on.
A threshold of around 15 fWAR denotes a team with an elite starting rotation, and there are a number of surprises. In addition to established rotations like the Dodgers, Nationals and Tigers, now staffs such as the Cubs and White Sox begin to emerge, since both had made significant acquisitions this offseason -- Jon Lester and Jason Hammel for the Cubs, Jeff Samardzija for the Sox. The Twins also sneak in because of the excellent season Phil Hughes had, so he'll be one to watch especially closely.
The Dodgers show just how dominant they are when you consider that the chart only shows four pitchers, since their fifth starter isn't settled. Conversely, the Diamondbacks really do have five pitchers listed, with a cumulative 2014 fWAR of around four. For their sake, we can certainly hope that 2014 production doesn't translate into 2015 performance.
Just because pitching appears to be on the upswing does not guarantee teams with good pitching are automatically guaranteed to have success. The Cubs of 2013 and 2014 had decent starting pitching, so-so bullpens and enough offensive woes that their starting pitching couldn't overcome an inability to produce runs. Jeff Samardzija had 23 quality starts in 2014, with seven wins to show for it. Further south, Jose Quintana had 21 quality starts but improved in the win category -- he made it to nine.
Both the Cubs and White Sox demonstrated that decent starting pitching can only go so far. The White Sox and Twins might prove this again in 2015, almost a certainly for the Twins since their offense isn't quite there yet, and Torii Hunter isn't the player to push them over the hump to respectability. The White Sox appear to have made improvements -- as of now, they could potentially win 85-87 games, and anything is possible then. Having three very solid pitchers at the top of their rotation has to be coupled with improved offensive output for them to move forward.
These are the closers (link to data viz -- go to Position tab):
The fad of the high-priced closer appears to be coming to an end. It started with Mariano Rivera and was perpetuated by the misguided notion that the amount of money expended on an asset would determine production. While closers like Billy Wagner and Trevor Hoffman might have justified this thinking (and this stretches the definition of "might" about as far as it can go), it seems to have run its course. There were four relief pitchers who made $10 million or more in 2014 -- Brian Wilson, Jim Johnson, Rafael Soriano and Jonathan Papelbon. Johnson was a bust with two teams with a sparkling 136 FIP- (Uff da!, as my Scandinavian forefathers would say), Wilson was just released by the Dodgers, Papelbon had an okay year for an awful Phillies team and Soriano had such a great year with the Nationals he was granted free agency.
Closers like Craig Kimbrel, Aroldis Chapman and Greg Holland show there is value in a pitcher who can shut down games, but think about it for a second -- the way closers are used, they don't really dictate success as much as tie the ribbon on the already-wrapped package. This is not to diminish their ability, merely an observation that they're not necessarily the cause of success as much as the well-paid beneficiaries. Kimbrel has big money coming through 2017 with a team option for 2018, and Holland might not be that far behind. We'll find out soon enough in his arbitration hearing.
Aroldis Chapman is the interesting case. He threw 395 pitches over one hundred miles and hour, more than forty-two percent of his pitches. The next most -- Kelvin Herrera, with 57. The Reds seem unsure as to whether they want to pay big money to him, since a closer is a luxury on an average team, and the Reds might be heading in that direction. They've traded Mat Latos and Alfredo Simon, unusual moves for a team looking to contend in 2015, and they're dangling Chapman in trade talks to see what they could get in return. As a Cubs fan, I have one suggestion as to where he could go.
These charts aren't the final word, particularly when Max Scherzer is still seeking his next home, and they certainly don't reflect the shuffling that will occur at the bottom of the rotations as young talent supplants less-effective veterans. They help identify where teams are with regard to their opponents and helps identify where further additions are necessary. No one disputes the Giants and Royals have excellent pitching staffs, but going into the 2014 postseason they certainly weren't considered dominant, and yet they played in the World Series. Pitching is extremely fickle, and even great pitching won't necessarily translate directly into postseason success, but it rarely hurts.
All data from FanGraphs
Scott Lindholm lives in Davenport, IA. Follow him on Twitter @ScottLindholm.