Commentary

Rotation order lacks relevance

Updated: April 7, 2010, 4:19 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

60 Feet 6 Inches
"Boy, Zack Greinke is going to have a really tough time winning games this season. The Kansas City Royals have a bad offense and he's their staff ace, so that means he's going to be matched up with a lot of other aces."

Does that thought process sound familiar?

It's a piece of analysis I've heard spewed all too often in fantasy baseball, and it's simply untrue. OK, OK, to be fair, there is some truth to it. The Kansas City Royals do have a bad offense, so yes, for that reason alone Greinke might struggle to win games, or at least more than the 16 he won in 2009.

But the entire remainder of the statement is hogwash, and a complete waste of valuable brain cells that'd be better put to work processing WHIPs, command ratios, BABIPs, the relative strength of a pitcher's opposing offense, and at least six dozen other more important statistical categories for evaluating starting pitchers.

Folks, there's this inexplicable assumption that the label of "staff ace" carries loads of weight. Sure, in rare, rare instances it might have merit, such as Game 1 of the World Series, when, naturally, anyone would much prefer to hand the ball to CC Sabathia rather than A.J. Burnett. That's a short, critical series (to say the least), so it's only natural that you want your best pitcher working as often as possible. When you're talking about the regular season, however, and particularly the early weeks, the designation of "staff ace" can be entirely misleading.

Ultimately, managers pick a staff ace to work Opening Day, and he's immediately anointed by the baseball world as that team's "ace." Then, the day-to-day grind takes hold, and no two teams' rotations necessarily turn at the same speed. An "ace" might get hurt as early as the first trip through, such as Hiroki Kuroda did last year. An off day could just as likely mean the ace jumps ahead of the fifth starter as it does he gets an extra day's rest. Postponements can shuffle the order. Heck, just this week, Tim Lincecum battled Houston Astros ace Roy Oswalt on Monday, but when Lincecum's next turn comes around on Sunday, he'll be squaring off against Atlanta Braves fifth starter Kenshin Kawakami. Whoa, wait a minute … isn't he supposed to only face aces?

No, not really.

Turning the calendar back to 2009, and labeling each team's Opening Day starter its "staff ace," staff aces actually were matched up with other staff aces in only 19.9 percent (166 of 836) of their total starts all season. By comparison, those so-called "staff aces" made 29.5 percent of their starts (247 of 836) versus pitchers who weren't even in the Opening Day rotation. Sure, "staff aces" also made fewer starts versus Nos. 2, 3, 4 and 5 starters -- going by their order to begin the season -- with percentages of 15.1, 11.7, 12.6 and 11.2, respectively. But that slight difference could just as easily be explained by the fact that the pitchers who work first are generally the most talented on their staff, and therefore more likely to stick in rotations for longer and therefore get matched up with one another.

By the way, even if you opt to assign the label of "staff ace" to the pitcher who ranked highest on his team on our Player Rater, those top dogs still matched up with one another in only 19.0 percent (178 of 935) of their starts.

Doesn't sound at all like "rotation spot" is especially relevant, does it?

It's for that reason fantasy owners should target talent, not specific rotation spot. Think Vicente Padilla is the Los Angeles Dodgers' true ace, simply because he received an Opening Day assignment? Think again; he was hammered for seven runs on six hits in 4 1/3 innings Monday.

Speaking of rotation spots, let's take a quick stroll through some of those last-second decisions for the final few gigs up for grabs this spring. Remember, target talent, not simply the fact that these guys "might get matched up with other bad fifth starters." After all, more than a few fifth starters will hook up with aces on Saturday or Sunday, a group that includes Freddy Garcia (versus Scott Baker), Matt Harrison (Felix Hernandez) and Todd Wellemeyer (Derek Lowe).

Jaime Garcia, St. Louis Cardinals No. 5 starter: He's seemingly the pitcher manager Tony La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan wanted to win the competition, and giving the rookie a chance makes sense, even if his being only nine minor league appearances removed from Tommy John surgery makes him likely to have a strict innings cap later in the year. Garcia's biggest failing pre-surgery was faulty command from time to time, but he afforded opponents only five walks in 24 spring innings and has a pitching genius tutoring him. NL-only owners would be foolish not to roll the dice, and mixed leaguers might want to stash him, too. Would anyone be surprised if it turns out to be Garcia, not Brad Penny, who is Duncan's "Pitching Project of the Year" in 2010?

Wade Davis, Tampa Bay Rays No. 5 starter: For the second consecutive season, the Rays will be slotting one of their top pitching prospects into the No. 5 slot, and last year's pick, Jeff Niemann, enjoyed a heck of a season in the role. Interestingly enough, scouts have long felt that Davis' upside is greater than that of Niemann, so we'll see whether that means Davis can match or exceed Niemann's team-leading 13 wins of 2009. Being in the division he's in, Davis' ERA/WHIP potential might be somewhat capped, and it's worth pointing out that both the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees caused him problems in two of his six starts late last year, but outside of those he was nothing short of phenomenal. You might grab Davis even in a mixed league, bench him for all his Red Sox and Yankees starts yet still squeeze a good chunk of value out of him.

Gio Gonzalez, Oakland Athletics No. 5 starter: Speaking of pitchers with command problems, Gonzalez's have been even more severe: In spite of his former top-prospect status he has averaged 4.05 walks per nine during his minor league career, 5.49 in the majors. He snuck ahead of Trevor Cahill in this preseason battle, though, perhaps due more to a 2.96 spring ERA than the distressing 13 free passes he issued in 24 1/3 innings. Just 24, Gonzalez has plenty of time to get his career on track, but take a wait-and-see approach for now.

Mike Leake, Cincinnati Reds No. 5 starter: The first player to skip the minors and proceed directly to the major leagues since Xavier Nady in 2000, Leake beat out some hefty competition for the role in Aroldis Chapman, not to mention another worthy contender in Travis Wood. The No. 8 pick overall in June's draft, Leake might lack the pedigree of a Stephen Strasburg but was as polished a prospect as any selected last summer. His stuff might not be overwhelming or ace-worthy, but a career as a No. 2/3 starter is possible, and a five-pitch arsenal might make him a decent pick for a few hot spells his rookie year. Leake will need to perform to hold off a challenge from Chapman later in the year, but if you're in an NL-only or mixed league, he's well worth a speculative pickup.

Rodrigo Lopez, Arizona Diamondbacks No. 4 starter: A good example why spring stats are misleading, Lopez's 1.64 ERA might convince some NL-only owners that he's a comeback candidate. The truth, however, is that it's his command numbers (16 K's, 4 BBs, 22 IP) that showed promise, as the few times in his career that Lopez has been fantasy-worthy were when he possessed pinpoint control and continually worked ahead of hitters. Back in the National League, Lopez might occasionally please you on a matchups basis, but here's a good way to demonstrate his downside: He faces the Pittsburgh Pirates in his first start of 2010, and if he struggles then, any hope of matchups status might be gone.

Jamie Moyer, Philadelphia Phillies No. 5 starter: I still remember opening packs of 1987 Topps and getting this guy's rookie card, and back then it wasn't really in demand. OK, today it's not really in demand, either, though that might be as much a product of there being enough copies in existence for every fantasy baseball player on the planet to own one. Ultimately, just like how no one seems to want Moyer's rookie card, no fantasy owner seems to want Moyer. Why is that? The guy has 42 wins the past three seasons combined and a 3.30 road ERA the past two years combined, and he notched eight wins versus sub-.500 teams in 2009 alone. Can't NL-only owners find a little matchups appeal here?

Felipe Paulino, Astros No. 5 starter: He's a bit of a sleeper in the strikeouts category, having whiffed 93 batters in 97 2/3 innings, but everything else about Paulino cries out "big-time risk." The problem is that, while he possesses a high-90s fastball, his command of the pitch can waver from time to time, which helps explain the 20 home runs he served up last season. Still, Paulino is the kind of pitcher who might yet figure it out as he gains more experience. When examining him, ask yourself this: Are you comfortable with locking up an NL-only bench spot on a "lottery ticket," or do you prefer safer types you trust for matchups? If your answer to the former is "yes," Paulino is the guy for you.

C.J. Wilson, Texas Rangers No. 3 starter: He's the great unknown of the bunch, as Wilson has not started a game since 2006, and as a reliever at times he could range from really good (2.81 ERA in 2009) to really bad (6.02 in 2008). The Rangers were impressed with how he adapted to the role change during spring training, and his 3.24 ERA, eight walks and 22 strikeouts in 25 innings do hint that he could hold his own in the rotation. Wilson does have enough of an array of pitches to survive as a starter, and that he lowered his OPS allowed versus right-handers to a career-best .701 last season helps ease another key worry about him. Any Rangers pitcher lacking a track record will be littered with questions, but AL-only owners would be foolish not to take a chance stashing the lefty.

Four up

Francisco Liriano, Minnesota Twins: The greatest worry with Liriano at this point is his owners overinflating their expectations from him. It's tough not to; between winter ball and spring training he racked up 97 strikeouts compared to just 12 walks in 68 2/3 innings. Liriano does have that Cy Young-worthy talent when he's at his best, but in order to keep your expectations from getting out of control, don't forget that his ERA last season was a bloated 5.80.

Shaun Marcum, Toronto Blue Jays: So much for his needing a few big league starts to get back on track coming back from Tommy John surgery. Marcum carried a no-hitter into the seventh inning on Opening Day, in a game at hitter-friendly Rangers Ballpark at that. This is a pitcher only two years removed from a 3.39 ERA and 1.16 WHIP; there's loads of upside here.

Ricky Nolasco, Florida Marlins: Keeping in mind that a slow start was really what sidetracked his 2009, yet at the same time understanding how little value spring statistics possess, Nolasco's 21 K's compared to one walk this preseason do at least back up the notion that he's a huge bounce-back candidate in 2010. His 5.06 ERA last year might have been one of the most misleading numbers in decades, and it's possible he'll shave as many as two runs off the number this year.

Kevin Slowey, Twins: Between Liriano and Slowey, the Twins had two pitchers who exceeded every expectation this spring, and in Slowey's case, it was a welcome sight coming off surgery to insert two screws into his right wrist. He's a pitcher who relies on command to succeed, and it was as sharp as ever in March, meaning it's probably time to hop back on the Slowey bandwagon.

Four down

Aroldis Chapman, Reds: In a move that should be considered no surprise to anyone, the Reds demoted Chapman to Triple-A ball after back problems sidetracked him in the final days of spring training. That puts him only a phone call away from the Reds' rotation, yes, but don't think the team won't carefully consider his call-up date, knowing that his contract ensures him a hefty bonus depending upon how quickly he's promoted.

Scott Kazmir, Los Angeles Angels: He began the year on the disabled list with a shoulder injury, and while the Angels claim he might miss only one start, Kazmir's durability can't help but be called into question. It's the third straight year he has landed on the DL and his fifth stint in as many seasons, and even when healthy he has hardly been an efficient pitcher (5.80 career innings per start).

Bud Norris, Astros: Again with the spring numbers, but Norris' Grapefruit League statistics left a lot to be desired, a 10.00 ERA and five home runs surrendered in 18 innings. He might have the potential to help NL-only owners, but the Astros shouldn't be patient with him if that extends into May.

Carlos Zambrano, Chicago Cubs: Let's not crucify the guy for one bad outing, even if it came on Opening Day, but when it comes to Carlos Zambrano, any poor performance ends up under the microscope because of the disturbing downward trend in his career numbers, right at a time where most pitchers might experience their best years. Zambrano threw only 28 of 49 pitches for strikes, and per Inside Edge, threw first-pitch strikes only 46 percent of the time. He needs to vastly improve those numbers to have any hope of an impact year.

Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.

ALSO SEE