Monday, January 27, 2014

How does the Brewers' 2014 rotation stack up to their best in recent memory?

     It's been a long time since I've endorsed a free agent signing by the Brewers, but I endorse the Garza signing.  It's made the rotation quite a bit deeper than it has been in a while and given me reason to be excited for the season.  This excitement and optimism has me wondering just how good things might be and naturally I began to think how this rotation compares to the best rotation the Brewers have had this century.  I am of course talking about the 2011 rotation.
     That rotation consisted of Zack Greinke, Yovani Gallardo, Shaun Marcum, Randy Wolf, and Chris Narveson.  Marco Estrada also filled in on occasion.  It's easy to look at the names in that rotation and dismiss the 2014 version as being anything but close.  Zack Greinke is worlds better than the best pitcher on the current roster.  But it's important to realize that we're not comparing potential.  We know what the 2011 rotation did.  So what we're really talking about is comparing the potential of the 2014 rotation with the actual performance of the 2011 rotation.
     The following are the results of that season:

Zack Greinke
171.2 IP
3.87 ERA
Yovani Gallardo
207.1 IP
3.52 ERA
Shaun Marcum
200.2 IP
3.54 ERA
Randy Wolf
212.1 IP
3.69 ERA
Chris Narveson
158.2 IP
4.45 ERA
Marco Estrada
41.1   IP
3.70 ERA

That's a very good rotation, but maybe the most impressive thing about it is the fact that it only used 6 different pitchers.  I have a hard time seeing that happen again, ever.  It's also impressive to see 3 pitchers eclipse the 200 innings mark.  If the 2011 rotation is clearly superior in any aspect it's there.  The two other things that jumped out at me was how good Randy Wolf was (compared to my memory) and how Zack Greinke was just okay(compared to my memory).
    If we rearrange the ERAs from best to worst (disregarding Estrada's) we're talking about a rotation of: 3.52, 3.54, 3.69, 3.87, and 4.45.  How close can the current rotation of Kyle Lohse, Matt Garza, Yovani Gallardo, Marco Estrada, and Wily Peralta come to emulating that?  The short and honest answer is "I don't know."  However that would be a pretty lousy place to leave this article so let's look at a couple ways to answer the question.  Here is the average of the last three seasons for each pitcher in the current rotation:

Kyle Lohse
199.1 IP
3.19 ERA
3.75 FIP
Matt Garza
152.1 IP
3.62 ERA
3.54 FIP
Yovani Gallardo
197.1 IP
3.77 ERA
3.80 FIP
Marco Estrada
119.2 IP
3.84 ERA
3.61 FIP
Wily Peralta
106    IP
4.11 ERA
4.07 FIP

     Peralta's data only covers the last two seasons since that is as long as he has been in the majors.  He pitched 183.1 innings in his first full season and there's no reason to believe can't pitch a similar number of innings in 2014.  Estrada was only a starter for about 2 and a half seasons but he still hasn't been able to pitch a full season for health related reasons.  Looking at the ERA and FIP it seems as though the current rotation's past performance isn't that far off from the actual results of the 2011 rotation.  Take a look:

2011 Rotation ERA
2014 3 yr AVG ERA
2014 3 yr AVG FIP

    It's important to recognize, however, that the 2014 rotation cannot be expected to cover as many innings as the 2011 rotation.  I think Gallardo and Lohse can get close to 200 again.  Peralta might end up somewhere between 180-200.  The problem is with Garza and Estrada who have both had injury issues the last two years.  Fortunately, the Brewers do have a number of depth options include Tyler Thornburg, Jimmy Nelson, Tom Gorzelanny, and Will Smith among others.  You'll notice there is a large gap between Lohse's ERA and FIP.  I believe that FIP tends to underrate low velocity, pitch to contact guys.  Another example of that is Randy Wolf's 2011 season.  While he had a 3.69 ERA, his FIP was 4.29.  The point being, I'm comfortable saying Lohse is a guy who can be counted on to consistently outperform his FIP (he's not just getting lucky).  The other thing I have to mention is Gallardo.  It's unfortunate, but he's shown some negative trends over the last few years and that suggests his best days might be behind him.  
     After taking a look at what the Brewers rotation has done in the past, I thought it would be interesting to see what they might be expected to do.  I chose to take a look at what the ZiPS projection system thinks they'll do in 2014.  Garza's signing came after FanGraphs released the Brewers ZiPS projections, but Dan Symborski tweeted his individual projection.  I like ZiPS more than other projection systems, but I take all of them with a grain of salt.  They're never 100% accurate, which is an unfair expectation to begin with, so keep that in mind.   

Kyle Lohse
Matt Garza
Yovani Gallardo
Marco Estrada
Wily Peralta

     It's striking how a big an issue ZiPS thinks innings are going to be for the Brewers.  However, I wouldn't be surprised to see Lohse and Peralta exceed their projected innings totals by 20+ innings.  If that's the case then the innings shouldn't be too far off from 2011.  While it seems to think Gallardo will bounce back a bit, it also expects Lohse to falter a bit.  I'm not sure what goes into ZiPS calculations, but I have to wonder if it's underrating Lohse in a similar way that FIP underrates him.  It seems to think Garza, Estrada, and Peralta are going to be similar to their 2013 versions.  Aside from the innings issue, the ZiPS evaluation of the Brewers rotation seems to be average or slightly below.  We'll have to hope for better.  
     Comparing the current rotation to the 2011 rotation is mostly just a fun thought experiment.  It doesn't really matter which we'll look back on as better.  But if there's any point in all this, it's that if the Brewers current rotation can come close to reproducing their actual performance over the last 3 seasons, they have a solid chance at emulating the production from the 2011 rotation.  That is to say, they have a chance to be an above average, if not world beating, rotation.  That would be quite the upgrade from the last two seasons when it was a decidedly below average rotation.  Pair that with what I think is an elite offense and there is reason to be hopeful.  I'm not suggesting they can win 96 games again.  The Central has changed quite a lot and is arguably the toughest division in baseball.  Winning the division should be considered out of reach, but if the rotation performs up to their potential I like their Wild Card chances.

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