As the Reds plunge through yet another season of sorting out their starting pitching situation, I have found myself wondering: Precisely what are the criteria the club should use in evaluating candidates and assembling the pitching rotation that will lead the next contending Reds team?
Finding A Standard
Let’s begin by looking to the Reds most recent window of playoff contention. In 2012, the apex season of that Reds window, the Reds won the NL Central with 97 victories. The five members of the 2012 starting rotation started an incredible 161 of the team’s 162 regular season games completing 69.8% of the team’s cumulative innings pitched that season. Their ERA as a group was 3.62. There is no doubt this is a gold — or even platinum — standard.
Backing down the standard just a bit, in 2013, the Reds were a wildcard qualifier with 90 wins. In 2013, just eight Reds pitchers started games, compiling 68.8% of the team’s innings pitched during the season. The group ERA was 3.47. The only real difference between the 2012 and 2013 seasons was that it took a couple of more pitchers to get the same job done in 2013.
What do these numbers indicate about a contending starting rotation? A successful rotation requires stability. Ideally no more than six or seven pitchers should account for over 90% of the team starts throughout the season. The rotation members should regularly complete at least six innings per start and often pitch into or beyond the seventh inning to offset those days when they or another pitcher comes up short. As they complete these innings they need to have better than a league-average ERA.
Each successful individual must find a way to consistently create at least 18-21 outs per game while allowing no more than 3 earned runs. Over time, it doesn’t matter how a pitcher achieves these hallmarks, only that he does. Thus, a pitcher who works more efficiently with less outstanding raw stuff may emerge as a better rotation candidate than a pitcher who dazzles with raw stuff but is pitch inefficient and out of games early due to a high pitch count. Conversely a pitcher with superior stuff who lives on the edge of trouble but consistently creates the requisite number of outs per game within the allowable runs limit should not be shunned. The process of sorting over time should identify the best candidates.
A touchy issue that cannot be overlooked is durability. In the two years spotlighted above, 30+ start seasons were the norm. Thus short term durability is the ability to take the ball every 5th game throughout the season. Long term durability is the capability of a player to complete multiple seasons in the 30 games started range. Injuries happen and are nearly always not the player’s fault. However, the team must be aware of a player’s injury history as his career develops. Advances in sports medicine and science must be used to attempt to identify players at high risk for chronic or repetitive injury. The team must be willing to move on from candidates who are unable or reasonably indicated to be unable to maintain long term durability.
Finally, it is essential for a team to correctly sequence their starting rotation. The first role of sequencing is to assure that a starting rotation capable of contending is in place in concert with sufficient position player talent to provide necessary offensive and defensive support for the pitching. Secondly, a team must balance player affordability and years of team control across the rotation. Additionally, a team’s long-term planning should always account for probable departures and include a contingency for unavoidable long term injuries.
Where Things Stand
And now the fun part. Where are the Reds currently in the process of building a starting rotation which will sequence with position talent sufficient to contend and eventually succeed in the post season? The 2017 Reds position talent turned out to have been capable of contending for a wild card spot had it been paired with even league-average pitching; but, alas, it wasn’t. The 2018 position group currently appears to have regressed. But once Nick Senzel is added, this group is probably just an affordable tweak or two away from being in the same position or better than the 2017 team. Internally, additional substantial position help seems to be two to three seasons away. However in the absence of a major infusion of talent from outside the organization, the rotation faces an uphill road to be ready on a similar time line.
The only current Reds starter who clearly projects as being in the rotation beyond 2019 is Luis Castillo. Homer Bailey, should he remain viable, is under control through 2020, but the 2020 season would cost the Reds $25M against a $5M buyout option. Count Homer gone no later than the end of 2019. After three consecutive seasons being unable to make it through spring training healthy, Anthony DeSclafani should not be counted upon; additionally, his guaranteed team control ends with the 2020 season. Brandon Finnegan made it through a full season in the rotation once upon a time (31 starts in 2016), but still poses both health and performance questions. So we are left to watch the sorting process continue for yet another season in the uneasy knowledge that to date it has yielded just one clear keeper, Luis Castillo, versus a cadre of question marks and washouts.