I found it fitting that, since I just completed a discussion on the entire starting staff of the 2011 Florida Marlins, we discuss the first of ten questions posed as the most important questions heading into the 2011 season for the Marlins. These questions were initially posted by Joe Frisaro of MLB.com, and I’ll be providing my thoughts on each of them as they relate to the season preview.
The first question of the day: Is the rotation solid enough to seriously challenge in the tough National League East?
We previewed the starting rotation and handed out Wins Above Replacement (WAR) projections for each of the men involved. The five starting pitchers combined for 895 innings and 14.8 WAR according to my mishmash of projections. Most of the time, however, starting pitchers will typically throw around 950 innings worth of work. Who else figures to throw innings for the Marlins to replace the missed starts by Anibal Sanchez and Chris Volstad? The next players in line for starts are Sean West and Alex Sanabia, but neither player projects to be worth much in the majors according to PECOTA and other systems, so it may be safe to represent them as adding no additional value over replacement level. As a result, our projection has the Marlins hitting just about 15 WAR for their starters. But how does that compare with previous Marlins seasons and with potential playoff teams?
Regression to the Mean
What I find particularly interesting is that, despite the improvement of the rotation with the addition of Vazquez, the Marlins rotation appears to be of similar quality to last season’s team according to FanGraphs. According fWAR (FanGraphs’s version of WAR, the Marlins picked up 15.6 WAR last season from their starters despite not having a competent fifth starter for a good chunk of the season and losing two fifths of the rotation for all of September. Part of this seeming discrepancy is due to the way FanGraphs calculates their WAR; fWAR uses Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) for their ERA component in WAR, which may be misleading as it strips more than just defense from the pitching equation. This benefited someone like Ricky Nolasco, who had a good deal of bad luck attributed to his name last season, along with making NatE. Robertson look significantly better than he probably deserved to look. In this season’s projections, I assumed all projections that were released for pitchers were independent of their defensive environment, so these projections I showed during the preview series are intended as defense-independent predictions of ERA.
Another aspect of that change, something that is a bit more concrete than how to “correctly” strip defense away from pitching (no one knows for sure yet, just that it needs to be done), is the simple fact that last season’s 15 or so WAR was not a reflection of the rotation’s true talent. Josh Johnson and Sanchez were likely pitching over their heads while Nolasco was likely underperforming slightly, and when those guys regress to the mean, it should not surprise us that the totals yield numbers similar to the 2010 season. For example, by projecting Sanchez at 150 IP and an ERA closer to 4.00 in 2011, I stripped a good two wins from Sanchez’s 2010 season total. It is perfectly reasonable to expect Sanchez to regress given his fluky home run rate and prior injury history, so this sort of loss should be expected.
Good enough for a playoff team?
So the 15.0 WAR total appears mostly legitimate. How will such a value appear come playoff time? Using Fangraphs’s fWAR as a basis, I looked at all playoff teams since 2000 and all teams since 2000 that had at least 15.0 WAR from their starters. From 2000 to 2010, 88 teams have made the postseason, and 39 of those teams have posted 15 or more fWAR from their starting pitching staff, including the 2003 World Series champion Florida Marlins. That means that 44.3 percent of playoff teams since 2000 had about 15 WAR from their starters. Also, 83 teams have recorded 15 or more WAR from their starters since 2000, and 39 of those teams made the playoffs, a rate of 47.0 percent. So it seems that getting that sort of performance from your starters may put you in the playoffs about 45 percent of the time based on this crude analysis.
Of course, getting performance from a starting staff is still just one part of a greater game. How many more wins would the Marlins need from the rest of the team to secure a spot in the big dance? If you figure that a replacement level team using the projection system’s definition of replacement level is a 48-win squad, the Marlins’ starting staff alone puts the team at 63 wins. PECOTA’s Depth Charts currently have the best non-division winner in the National League winning 87 games. In order to get to that mark, the Marlins would need 24 more wins from their position players and bullpen. I usually use the safe route of needing 90 wins to make the playoffs; in that case, the Marlins would need 27 more wins from those two parties in order to make the postseason. Can they do it? Well, I gave the projections for the position players already, but we’ll look at the overall picture as we review the remainder of the team in the next few days. It is a tall order, but the rotation should be able to help in that respect.