Do The Braves' Starting Pitchers Need To Go Deeper Into Games?

Big Red, like the rest of his rotation mates, has yet to get an out in the 6th inning.

Going into the season, I was a bit worried about the Braves' starting pitching. Not their quality--I'd rate them as among the more talented rotations in baseball--but their durability. Especially with Tim Hudson out to start the year, I was afraid that the starters wouldn't go deep enough into games, thus placing an undue strain on the bullpen (and the offense).

Sure enough, so far in 2012, the Braves' starters have pitched reasonably well (though their ERA is a bit high thanks to a couple unfortunate innings in Mike Minor's start). However, they've averaged only 4.9 innings per start, easily the lowest in MLB. This hasn't been the biggest factor in the team's lackluster start, but it certainly hasn't helped.

In fact, through 6 games, no Braves starter has gone beyond 5 innings pitched in a game (though Tommy Hanson pitched into the 6th on Opening Day without recording an out). Every other MLB team has had at least two outings of more than 5 IP, and 19 of the 30 teams have had at least 4 such starts.

Amazingly, the Braves will have a chance tomorrow night to match the all-time record for the longest streak to begin a season without a start of more than 5 innings:

While this is certainly not a desirable record, you can see that it is not a death knell for a team's season. Several teams on the list--notably, the 1995* World Champion Braves--finished with excellent records. The key is to have the season-opening trend not continue throughout the year.

* In case you were wondering, yes, there's a reason that there are so many teams from 1995 on the list. Because of the strike, Spring Training was abbreviated that year, meaning that most starters were not able to shoulder their normal workloads at the start of the season.

I'm sure you believe me about the dangers of having starters consistently have short outings. Let's drive the point home, though. Here are the 13 teams since 2000 to have at least 70 starts of 5 IP or less:

Notice anything? All of those teams except one (the 2000 Red Sox, who went 85-77) had losing records, and several of them lost 100 games. It's very hard to win if you aren't getting more than 5 innings from your starters most days.

So, is the performance of the 2012 Braves rotation a fluke or something that is likely to continue? Well, we know that Tim Hudson will be back in a couple weeks, and that will undoubtedly help. But what should we expect from the rest of the rotation?

I looked at all pitchers who have made at least 15 starts since the start of the 2011 season--151 in all, or about 5 per team. I then ranked them by the percentage of starts that lasted more than 5 innings. Once Hudson returns, I'm assuming Randall Delgado will return to the minors; here are how the Braves' other 5 starters fared by this measure:

  • Hudson, 88% of starts > 5 IP (27th)
  • Jair Jurrjens, 88% (31st)
  • Brandon Beachy, 77% (72nd)
  • Tommy Hanson, 75% (82nd)
  • Mike Minor, 63% (136th)

The overall league average was 74%; the average for the top 151 pitchers in the sample was 78%.

From the looks of this, it seems like the Braves will be in decent shape once Hudson returns. Hudson and Jurrjens rank well, though they are not in the elite innings-eater category. Beachy and Hanson are about average, but they really should rank higher given their overall talent.

Minor is the only one of these 5 who ranks poorly by this measure, as 6 of his 16 starts have been 5 IP or less. Like Beachy and Hanson, by talent alone, you would expect him to rank higher. The three of them are old enough now and have been in MLB long enough that it's time for them to start accruing higher innings totals. They're all good pitchers, but they will be that much more valuable if they can pitch into the 7th inning more often.

By the way, only 1 of Randall Delgado's 8 starts has been longer than 5 innings (though only 1 has been less than 5 innings). That's the worst rate in baseball among pitchers with at least 6 starts since 2011. Though he at least has an excuse, as he's one of the youngest starters in baseball and those were the first 8 starts of his career. I'd give him a year or two before expecting him to go 6 innings on a regular basis.

To sum up, while we are waiting for Hudson to return from the DL, we'll probably have to wait through a few more short outings. However, we should start seeing some better results soon; these pitchers aren't particularly good at going deep into games, but they should be able to average at least 5 and a half innings per start, or a bit below the league average.

The Braves have 156 games left. If we assume that Hanson, Jurrjens, and Beachy start 30 games each, Minor and Hudson start 25 games each, and Delgado (or Julio Teheran) starts the remaining 16, we'd expect something like this based on recent performance:

  • Hanson: 22 starts of more than 5 IP, out of 30
  • Jurrjens: 26/30
  • Beachy: 23/30
  • Hudson: 22/25
  • Minor: 16/25
  • Delgado/Teheran: 3/16

Add that all up and we've got 112 starts of more than 5 IP. For a full season, counting the 6 games already in the books, that'd work out to a 69% rate of going beyond 5 innings. That's below average, but not catastrophic. Obviously, this is just guesswork; the Braves could easily do better if players improve or if Hudson makes more starts and the rookies make fewer. But it's hard to envision a scenario in which the Braves' rotation finishes among the league leaders in innings pitched per start.

Whether it's a matter of finishing batters off more quickly, limiting walks, or just building stamina to throw more pitches, I'd like to see the Braves' starters--especially Hanson, Beachy, and Minor--go deeper into games as the year goes on. This isn't the largest cause of concern for the team, but it is something to keep an eye on. It could be the difference between a tired bullpen and a rested one down the stretch, or the difference between playing and staying home in October.

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