The Blue Jays Rotation: Another Non-Crisis?


The loss of Marcus Stroman has increased the speculation about the Blue Jays’ 4th and 5th rotation slots.  The frontrunners appear to be Daniel Norris and Aaron Sanchez, with Marco Estrada not far behind and Johan Santana lurking as a potential dark horse.

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Each of these players comes with question marks.  One area of significant concern is innings pitched.  Sanchez pitched 133 innings in 2014, the last 33 as a reliever.  Norris pitched 129, and Estrada’s 150 innings (which included 43 out of the bullpen) were a career high.  Santana, of course, has not pitched in the major leagues since 2012 and has not pitched more than 150 innings since 2010.  So even if two of this group are good enough to hold down the 4


and 5


rotation spots, will they be durable enough to provide the necessary innings?

This begs the question:  just how many innings should a major league team expect from their late-rotation starters?

The following chart shows the average number of innings pitched by the top 5 starting pitchers (ranked by innings pitched) for all mlb teams in 2014 and for the ten teams that made the 2014 mlb playoffs.

The Jays are in an unusually strong position in that their first two starters, Mark Buehrle and R.A. Dickey, each have a history of pitching more than 200 innings per year.   Drew Hutchison, the Jays’ third starter, was no slouch either in 2014, with 184 IP in his first year back from Tommy John surgery.

Some observations:

The average mlb team only got 236 innings from their 4th and 5th starters (ranked by IP). Even the playoff teams – which you would expect to have stronger-than-average rotations – only got just over 250 IP from those two rotation slots.  So even if Sanchez and Norris could only match the 262 combined innings they pitched in 2014, it should be more than enough.

Feb 25, 2015; Dunedin, FL, USA; Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher R.A. Dickey (43) throws a bullpen session during spring training at

Bobby Mattick

Training Center. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The average team pitched 1,453 innings in 2014. Of that, 966 came from starters and 487 from relievers.  If the average top-5 IP  is 788 (from the chart above) it follows that the average team got 178 innings of starting pitching from pitchers other than their top 5.  Even the average playoff team had to find 133 innings from secondary starters.   So while it would be wonderful to get  180+ innings each out of the Jays’ 4th and 5th starters and get the full 966 innings from the top 5 pitchers, it is likely highly unrealistic … and unnecessary.

The correlation coefficient between total innings pitched from the top 5 starters and fWAR from the total starting pitching staff is negative 0.13. That means, at least in 2014, that high top-5 IP did not translate into top fWAR pitching staffs.

Of the 10 playoff teams, only four (the Royals, Nationals, Dodgers and Tigers) ranked in the top 10 in the regular season in IP from their top 5 starters. Of these 10 playoff teams, 8 had fewer innings than the Jays’ 874 (which ranked 5th in the majors).  So a high top-5 IP does not appear to be a prerequisite for regular season success.

If Sanchez and Norris pitched the same innings in 2015 as they did in 2014 – 133 and 129 respectively – and the top three pitchers pitched the same 601 innings that they did in 2014, the Jays would have 863 total innings from their top 5 starters. That would have ranked them 5th highest in 2014, just behind the Reds’ 900 and ahead of the Brewers’ 858.  So the Jays should not be hurting for SP IP.

Feb 25, 2015; Dunedin, FL, USA; Toronto Blue Jays pitcher

Jeff Francis

(35) throws a bullpen session as he works out during spring training at Bobby Mattick Training Center. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

From Jays’ perspective, even with the 863 innings estimated above, they will still need 100 or more additional starter innings.  These could come from spot starts by Estrada (perhaps in low-homer parks like Fenway or Nationals Park), a healthy or semi-healthy Santana, Jeff Francis as swingman, or even a few Todd Redmond + bullpen games. So the Jays are not lacking for options.

The Jays’ rotation “crisis” is more than a bit overblown. The average mlb 4th and 5th starters had a fWAR less than 1.0 in 2014.  Even with growing pains, Norris and Sanchez should be able to produce at that level.  Estrada has far exceeded that target in 3 of his last 4 years, and in his last healthy year with the Mets Santana pitched to a 1.3 fWAR in only 113 innings.  Even Jeff Francis would meet that criterion if he pitched to the same 4.18 FIP that he did in 2014 (I note that Steamer projects Francis for a 3.78 FIP and 3.57 ERA in 2015!).

The bottom line?  If the Jays can get 120 decent innings out of each of their 4th and 5th starters, they should be in good shape.  With Sanchez / Norris / Estrada / Santana as options, that should be a realistic target … barring future sneezes, sprinklers and stumbles, of course!

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