20 March 2013

A Closer Look at the Fifth-Starter Battle

The Orioles' fifth-rotation spot battle seems to be a three-horse race between Jake Arrieta, Brian Matusz, and Zach Britton. Steve Johnson has an outside shot to win, while Tommy Hunter is slated for a relief role and Jair Jurrjens is a long shot and likely on his way to the minors soon. (Todd Redmond was recently optioned to Triple-A Norfolk.)

The only name above that is out of minor league options is Hunter. Still, Buck Showalter and the Orioles have been intrigued by recent Rule 5 pickup T.J. McFarland, but in order to keep him on the roster, they may have to trade or release Hunter. And understandably, Hunter wants to stay.

The four rotation locks seem to be Jason Hammel, Wei-Yin Chen, Chris Tillman (who's also out of options), and Miguel Gonzalez. Hammel and Chen are pretty good bets to have decent seasons, although it's difficult to feel overly confident about either Tillman or Gonzalez. Tillman was outstanding in 86 innings last year, but there's no guarantee the 24-year-old produces in a similar fashion in 2013 while taking over an expanded role. And Gonzalez, 28, had never pitched in the majors before last season, when he burst onto the scene and gave the Orioles 105.1 innings and a 3.25 ERA. Like Tillman, Gonzalez will have to prove that he's up to the task again and can hold on to his spot in the rotation.

Between Gonzalez, Arrieta, Matusz, Britton, Johnson, and Jurrjens, the Orioles have six back-of-the-rotation types between the ages of 25 and 28. Even if neither pitcher is a particularly great option, that's not bad to have, especially since they all can be stashed at Norfolk if needed. For what it's worth, Hammel is 30 and Chen is only 27, so the Orioles' starting options are all relatively young. (The Yankees' rotation, for example, has two starters over the age of 37: Andy Pettitte (40) and Hiroki Kuroda (38). At some point, one, or both, of those guys is going to break down.)

I guess I never really noticed it before -- other than their general lack of success in the big leagues -- but Arrieta and Matusz aren't all that different. Take a look at their overall MLB numbers (small sample size alert):


Matusz strikes out a half batter more per nine innings and is a little better at not giving up walks. However, Arrieta gets more groundballs (44.0% to 35.5%) and is better at keeping the ball in the ballpark (1.24 HR/9 to 1.42 HR/9). Even their split stats are similar:

Arrieta vs. RH: 157.2 IP, .297 wOBA
Arrieta vs. LH: 176.2 IP, .373 wOBA

Matusz vs. LH: 94.0 IP, .286 wOBA
Matusz vs. RH: 274.0 IP, .376 wOBA

Both pitchers are much better at getting same-handed batters out (which Matusz demonstrated so effectively in last season's dominant bullpen stint).

But Zach Britton, in fewer innings, has been better than both Arrieta and Matusz. Take a look:


Again, small sample size. Britton is aided by a strong groundball rate (54.9%), but his strikeout and walk rates need to rise and fall, respectively. I think Arrieta and Matusz hold a slim advantage over Britton, but maybe they shouldn't.


In the end, I'm not sure it matters much initially who wins the battle for the fifth spot. All three deserve another chance to start in the majors at some point (along with Johnson and probably Jurrjens), and they'll likely receive that opportunity because of another pitcher's injury or ineffectiveness. It's important to remember that spring training stats don't really matter (remember Jake Fox?), and hopefully the names above can navigate through the seemingly endless amount of spring games while remaining injury free.

Unfortunately for Matusz, though, I wouldn't be surprised if his fantastic relief work from last season is eventually used against him if he gets off to a slow start in the rotation. If he has a couple of rocky outings, it'll be much easier to simply use him out of the bullpen, since he's proven (in a limited amount of innings) that he can excel in that role. An effective Matusz out of the bullpen is valuable, but it's not nearly as valuable as a decent starter version of Matusz that pitches more innings.


Liam said...

Arrieta and Matusz may have similar overall stats but Matusz' are heavily influenced by 2011, when he was historically ineffective for a number of reasons which no longer seem to apply. Arrieta hasn't really shown much progress, while matusz was at least effective as a reliever and has had a strong spring. Britton's struggles seem related to his shoulder, which may or may not be totally behind him. Johnson's stuff might not be as good as the others, but he has as least shown improvement in the minors and succeeded at the major league level.

Why is Arrietta still seen as a frontrunner when all he hasn't shown any real consistency or produced an era under 5 at any level since 2010? I think he has the highest ceiling but, like Jerrjens, is a perfect candidate to be put in AAA until he can be consistently effective.

Matt Kremnitzer said...

I wouldn't really have a problem with Arrieta, Matusz, or Britton winning the job as the fifth starter. Or Johnson, I guess. Really, it doesn't mean a whole lot if they aren't effective in their first few outings. Arrieta pitched better last season than his ERA indicated -- I think he was unlucky BABIP-wise while posting better strikeout and walk rates.

Based on his spring numbers, Matusz seems like the current front-runner, or at least it's very close. But I wouldn't be surprised by any choice, really.

Andy said...

Johnson has been the most consistent in my mind. Matusz being a lefty would be huge if he became consistent. I think that is what Buck is looking for... consistency, consistency, consistency.