Starting Pitching Will Be Just One of Many Factors That Will Determine AL East

Starting Pitching Will Be Just One of Many Factors That Will Determine AL East Pitching. It's no secret that really, what baseball always comes down to is pitching. If you don't have pitching, you don't have much. That much is understood.

Yet Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci discovered an interesting corollary this week between two simple numbers — starts from the original rotation and wins.

The story, essentially, says that whichever team gets the most starts from its rotation (that is, the five men who make up the rotation at the beginning of the season) will be the team that wins more often. Seems simple, enough. The numbers used to explain this theory are those of the Red Sox and Yankees. In five of the last seven seasons, whichever team got more starts from its rotation has won more games.

So, Verducci argues, the Yankees will win the American League East in 2010, because the Yanks' five-man core is more reliable than that of the Red Sox. He points out the fact that CC Sabathia, Javier Vazquez and Andy Pettitte rank in the top 10 of innings pitched by starters over the past five seasons, while noting that John Lackey, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Clay Buchholz have either struggled to stay healthy or have yet to pitch a full season.

In theory, Verducci's argument seems fair, but it overlooks far too many details to really hold much weight.

First, consider the Red Sox' situation. The team — as has been well-documented all winter long — has six capable starters, with Tim Wakefield and Matsuzaka looking to fill the role of fifth starter. One of those men will not be in the Opening Day rotation, but both will be asked to make double-digit starts this year. Considering that Wakefield will turn 44 in August and that Matsuzaka will almost assuredly need some time off over the course of the year, the Red Sox aren't hurt in the least to split some of those starts between the two. If anything, it might be a luxury, especially when the fifth spot of the Yankees' rotation is brought into focus.

The Yankees have Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain, Sergio Mitre, Chad Gaudin and Alfredo Aceves battling it out in spring training for the fifth spot in the rotation. Of that group, only Gaudin has come close to hitting the 200-inning mark in a season, when he pitched 199 1/3 innings for Oakland in 2007. In doing so, he posted a 4.42 ERA and an 11-13 record.

In some ways, the Yankees are in a similar position to the Red Sox, but for very different reasons. The young duo of Hughes and Chamberlain has provided the Yankees with a boost in the bullpen at various times over the past three seasons, but it's yet to provide the team with a reliable starter. Chamberlain made steps forward last year, but his 4.75 ERA doesn't inspire tremendous confidence in the Bronx just yet. The Yankees want innings from their starters, yes, but the quality of those innings cannot be overlooked.

Another quirk in the "most starts equal most wins" argument comes when looking at the 2004 season. That year, Curt Schilling joined the Red Sox, as the team ran with its most reliable rotation of the decade. Schilling made 32 starts, pitching 226 2/3 innings, while Pedro Martinez made 33 starts and threw 217 innings. Behind the two aces, Derek Lowe made 33 starts, Tim Wakefield had 30 and Bronson Arroyo made 29. The only other pitchers to make starts were Byung-Hyun Kim (3), Abe Alvarez (1) and Pedro Astacio (1). Yet despite that steady contribution from the rotation, the Red Sox finished three games behind the Yankees, who had just one starter make 30 or more starts in Vazquez, and even then, he had a 4.91 ERA. The Yanks' rotation wasn't exactly a mess, but it didn't compare with the Red Sox' in terms of innings pitched. That still didn't stop the Yankees from winning the division and very nearly sweeping the Red Sox out of the ALCS. Of course, the Red Sox rallied — cue the Dave Roberts video — but it wasn't because of the number of starts made by the rotation.

There's also the 2007 season to examine. The Red Sox' rotation was hardly a cohesive unit, with 68 starts split among Schilling (24), Julian Tavarez (23), Jon Lester (11), Kason Gabbard (7) and Clay Buchholz (3). That group filled out the last two spots of the rotation. The Yankees, admittedly, were a bit more scattered, with the likes of Tyler Clippard, Darrell Rasner and Matt DeSalvo starting six games apiece. Still, the Red Sox, despite getting 35 more starts out of their original five starters, only mustered two more wins than the Yankees. Was the reason for those two victories really the number of starts?

No. Like anything, looking at the number of starts from the top five pitchers is just one of a million ways to analyze success. It overlooks much too much, with perhaps the biggest factor being the quality of innings. Pitching wins, but it has to be good pitching, and it has to be complemented by a complete team. The Yankees may still win the East — and another World Series, for that matter — but it's going to come down to a lot more than one simple number.

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