Which rotation member is the best breakout candidate?


We know that Josh Johnson and Ricky Nolasco will get their innings and perform as well as can be expected. Barring any injuries (and the concerns aren’t too bad, as BP’s Will Carroll has both Nolasco and Johnson as “yellow” in his proprietary injury system), those guys should be excellent for us and bring in eight to nine wins between them, a luxury few teams can say they have.

The question will be how many more wins the remaining three starters in the rotation may be able to provide. Among Anibal Sanchez, Chris Volstad, and Clay Hensley, the team would really like to see a two-win season. Let’s take a look at the projection systems and see what they expect.

Anibal Sanchez4.664.374.604.54
Chris Volstad4.734.624.464.60
Clay Hensley4.794.965.214.99
Rick VandenHurk4.664.254.364.42

I included Rick VandenHurk because he’ll likely be the first guy out of the minors to start for the Fish in case of injury. Among the plethora of below average projections lie a few interesting positives:

– Most of the projection systems have good things to say about Volstad’s regression back to normal home run rates. Of the three listed there, I think ZiPS’ 4.62 FIP is the most reasonable of the bunch, though none stand out as terribly pessimistic.

– All of the systems like VandenHurk, with ZiPS and PECOTA expecting very good things. With those FIP, he would easily be our third best starter, which makes you wonder why the team plans on starting him in Triple-A rather than as the fifth starter.

Looking at the straight averages, you can see that Volstad and Sanchez are ranked very closely, with Sanchez having the slight upside edge based on these three projections. I share that opinion, as I believe that Sanchez is the best pitcher of the four mentioned here. If I had to choose one guy to outperform his average projected FIP, I would put my bets on Sanchez. His superior strikeout rates are promising, and the only major question is his walk rate. The same could be said of VandenHurk, but Hurk’s scary splits combined with his already optimistic projections have me more comfortable pushing on his average FIP.

But perhaps the best question to ask is not really “Who is most likely to outperform their projected FIP?” but rather “Who is most likely to do so and pitch a full season?” Of the four pitchers, only one came close to 160 innings in a season (Volstad last year). At 160 innings, a 2 WAR season would require a pitcher to have a FIP around 4.20. At 180 innings, it would involve a pitcher with a 4,32 FIP. Which of these pitchers is most likely to put up that kind of combination of a season?

Sadly, you would probably have to put your money on Volstad. He seems the most durable of the four pitchers, and his main barrier to reaching a 4.30 FIP is the home run. Take a look at the projection by PECOTA. PECOTA thinks he’ll allow 15 homers in 127 innings. If that number falls to just 13 home runs (0.9 HR/9 rather than 1.06), you get a 4.26 FIP. Given that Volstad has made his reputation as a prospect on preventing home runs and inducing ground balls, I have his chances at improving in that regard as better than the chances that the others can solve their own issues and stay healthy enough to accumulate 160+ innings. Sanchez is a tremendous injury risk, as he has not pitched more than 100 innings since his rookie year, and VandenHurk’s similar home run issues are a part of his massive fly ball rates.

This isn’t to say that Volstad will be the guy who improves the most. I don’t think any Marlin starter among these four will get to 2 WAR this season. But I do believe Volstad is the best bet thanks to his durability. The question then becomes whether that is a good sign for this team.