Clawing above Replacement Level: The Starting Rotation


Jun 21, 2013; San Francisco, CA, USA; Miami Marlins infielder Logan Marrison (5) rounds third base after hitting a home run against the San Francisco Giants in the first inning at AT

The Marlins 2013 season up to this point can be described as a journey to Above Replacement level. The Marlins in April and May were rendered to barely replacement level, fielding a ragtag lineup at every position, in the outfield, the infield and I want to focus on today the starting rotation. The salary dump that resulted in the top three starters in our 2012 rotation being traded was only the beginning of the Marlins problems, while it is true that Marlins depended on JJ, Buehrle and Anibal in 2012 and in the years before. It was also true that Marlins had loads of confidence in the the Major League ready arms they had received via trade in 2012, Nathan Eovaldi, Jacob Turner and Henderson Alvarez but that didn’t go according to plan either. Turner after his trade to Miami was in a time of transition and had to be sent to the minor leagues to work on becoming more of a pitcher, instead of only a thrower. While Eovaldi and Alvarez came out of spring training with sore shoulders that landed them on the disabled list. The net effect of this was to put pressure to start guys that hadn’t done it like Tom Koehler (who took over for a flailing Wade LeBlanc), done it successfully at the Major League level for Alex Sanabia and in Kevin Slowey‘s case to ressurect his career and to hope that April start wasn’t only a fluke. I want to briefly go through Sanabia’s, Slowey’s, LeBlanc’s and Koehler’s seasons and what they did and what the return of Turner, Eovaldi and Alvarez will likely mean for the team in the long term.

Not surprisingly the best starting rotation in the National League so far this season belongs to the St Louis Cardinals, the Washington Nationals are in eighth place ranked by WAR and the Marlins are twelfth and the San Diego Padres are the worst having a below replacement level starting rotation.

St Louis Cardinals461.17.762.286.72.912.969.7
Washington Nationals435.17.262.3211.13.493.815.4
Miami Marlins416.26.852.7411.14.14.183

It is plain to see that the Marlins rotation hasn’t been so bad this year thanks to contributions by Ricky Nolasco and the truly impressive Cuban rookie sensation Jose Fernandez. Those two pitchers have proved their worth to team and are nominally our 1-2 starters at the moment. What is more interesting t look into other pitchers to see how their performances have dragged the rest of the rotation down.

Let’s start with the worst, keeping in mind that the concept of replacement level is a guy that can be called up from AAA and perform unimpressively for the Major League club, Alex Sanabia proved he was not that. His sabermetric line is to say the least disconcerting if not downright worrying.

Alex Sanabia55.15.0412.44.070.3115.85153-0.6

Sanabia’s was the twelfth highest FIP-, fifteenth highest BAA and the fifth lowest WAR among all National League starting pitchers. Sanabia was one of the biggest factors to the Marlins slow start. Coupling a team that was struggling to score runs with a pitchers that was struggling to prevent runs from scoring was a truly deadly combination. Sanabia’s injury and Turner’s return to rotation will definitely be a net positive in the future.

Next, I want to discuss two guys in tandem for the contributions they have made to team in the these first few months of the season Wade LeBlanc and his replacement Tom Koehler, who have been the definition of replacement level both pitchers in 84 combined IP have a 0.0 WAR perfectly replacement level. Koehler and LeBlanc are the kinds of pitchers that can hang around the Major Leagues a long time as a long reliever, spot starter, AAA middle of the rotation kind of starting pitching and they performed to that level this year.

Wade LeBlanc35.16.3715.23.060.3135.031320.0
Tom Koehler.48.24.9913.62.40.2804.681220.0

One assumes that Henderson Alvarez once he is healthy will replace Koehler in the rotation Fangraphs’ Steamer predicts that Alvarez will have a 5.26/2.53 KK/B and 3.99 FIP and will net 1.3 WAR. Alvarez’ development and how he fits into the rotation will be one of the most interesting themes for the 2013 Marlins going forward and hopefully he can show that he is major league ready and not just a forever unrealized prospect.

The last guy that has just lost his job more likely than not is Kevin Slowey but not April wildly performing against expectations Kevin Slowey, fully regressed to the mean borderline starter Kevin Slowey. May is predictably a mid-point in his regression thus not as interesting so let us look at April and June Kevin Slowey in perspective.

Slowey April37.26.936.81.430.2660.2273.18830.7
Slowey June9.18.6821.11.930.3570.3797.66201-0.3

Keep in mind June stats exclude his massive gem in relief during the 20 inning game in New York. But that is a very stark difference it is hard to believe that is the same pitcher. But our esteemed leader Ehsan always says, he regressed to the mean. That’s clearly obvious by the nearly fourfold increase in HR/FB rate from April to June and the triple digit increases in BAA and BABIP. If Slowey had remained the April Kevin Slowey the entire season he could have been our third best starter. But he regressed and as Nate Eovaldi returns to the rotation he can be a serviceable replacement for Slowey even if he struggles.

Replacement level is a very abstract concept to wrap your mind around but the above sketch makes it plainly obvious. The difference between the Marlins emergency starter, Kevin Slowey’s April to Alex Sanabia’s season a difference of 1.3 WAR and how Koehler and LeBlanc continue to been entirely at replacement level. But what is even more stark is to think that if Turner was available and both Alvarez and Eovaldi were healthy to start the year at what level could the Marlins rotation be? how much better of a team would they be right now? But most importantly how much better they will be in the next few months and the next few years.