What Happened to Toronto’s Starting Pitching?

sad ricky

Here we are, nearing the end of May of the 2013 season, and the Las Vegas World Series favourite is languishing in last place with a 22-30 record.  That’s right – Toronto has just 22 wins nearly one third of the way through the schedule.

Injuries and slow starts to several hitters have played a role in the failure so far, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure what the real problem has been for the Blue Jays: starting pitching.

Through the first 52 games of the year, Toronto has already used ten starting pitchers: R.A. Dickey, Brandon Morrow, Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, J.A. Happ, Ricky Romero, Aaron Laffey, Ramon Ortiz, Chad Jenkins, and Sean Nolin.  Today’s scheduled starter is Esmil Rogers, who will become the eleventh.  That is an average of one brand new starter every five games!

There are many reasons for that incredible number.  Josh Johnson and J.A. Happ are both on the disabled list.  Brandon Morrow was scratched a few times with a sore neck.  Ricky Romero was awful.  Sean Nolin was worse.  But there are bigger problems, in that Morrow, Dickey, and Buehrle have simply not been good.  Morrow was pegged for a breakout year, Dickey was supposed to anchor the rotation, and Buehrle was supposed to provide 200+ innings . None of that has happened thus far.

To get a better idea of just how bad Toronto’s starting pitching has been, take a look at this:

 2013 SP Ranks

Blue Jays starters are third worst in the majors in all four of those key stats.  To put it bluntly, they aren’t pitching deep into games, they are giving up a lot of runs and a lot of baserunners, and they haven’t been able to strike out many batters in comparison to the number of walks they’ve surrendered.  In short, it’s not good.  It’s worse than not good actually – it’s awful.

The most important stat on that chart just might be innings pitched.  The Jays starters have pitched the third fewest innings in the majors, which means, obviously, that the bullpen has had to pitch a lot.  Is it any wonder that Darren Oliver and Sergio Santos have gone on the DL, and Casey Janssen is hurting?

But there is a much bigger concern with Toronto’s starting pitching than 2013 performance.  The bigger issue is that the numbers have been bad in each of the past three seasons as well.

 2010-2012 SP Ranks

Except for 2010’s K/BB ratio, the Blue Jays starting staff has been ranked in the bottom half (or bottom third) in every category in each of the past three years.  So the problems we’re seeing in 2013 are definitely not new.

But why?  What happened?  Starting pitching used to be a Blue Jay strength.  Think of all the great pitchers that wore the uniform over the years: Dave Stieb, Jim Clancy, Jimmy Key, Juan Guzman, Pat Hentgen, Roger Clemens, Roy Halladay. 

Halladay was the last, truly great pitcher the Blue Jays had on their staff.  In fact, you can draw a definite line in the sand as to when the starting rotation started to tank:

2007-2009 SP Ranks

In the last three seasons that Halladay was here, the Jays were consistently good (2009 wasn’t a great year, but they still were a top-10 team in innings pitched).  The 2008 staff of Halladay, A.J. Burnett, Shaun Marcum, Jesse Litsch, and Dustin McGowan / David Purcey actually ranked as the best rotation in all of baseball. 

Take a look at the average MLB ranks WH and AH (With Halladay, and After Halladay):

With Halladay (’07 – ’09): ERA Rank – 10th, IP Rank – 4th, WHIP Rank – 9th, K/BB Rank – 8th

After Halladay (’10 – ’12): ERA Rank – 24th, IP Rank – 21st, WHIP Rank – 22nd, K/BB Rank – 23rd

What a difference.  Again – look at the innings pitched numbers.  With Halladay, the starters averaged just under 1,000 innings pitched per year.  After Doc left? Only 946, about 50 fewer innings. 

Obviously, the more innings a starting rotation throws, the better.  When a starter pitches longer, it generally means he is pitching well (it’s rare for a starter to pitch terribly and still go 8 innings) and it keeps the bullpen fresh.  But just who pitches those innings is even more important.  200 innings by a staff ace is more valuable than 40 innings apiece by five lesser pitchers.  

200 innings is often seen as a milestone in baseball.  If a pitcher crosses the 200 inning threshold, it usually means he averages over 6 IP per start.  How important is it to have pitchers who can reach that mark?  According to the following information, it’s very important.

Over the past three seasons (2010 – 2012, equivalent to the “After Halladay” years), the 200 inning mark has been reached 115 times: 31 in 2012, 39 in 2011, and 45 in 2010.  Nine times it has been done by a pitcher who was traded during the season, meaning he played for two different teams that year.  For the purposes of this study, those nine instances have been removed as the 200 IP didn’t all occur for one team.

The teams that the most 200 IP starters? That would be Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Tampa Bay.  All three of those teams had seven starters reach 200 IP, and coincidentally all three made the playoffs at least once in that time frame.  In fact, every team that had five starters reach the 200 IP threshold made the playoffs at least once, except for two outliers: the Angels and Mariners.  The other teams with at least five pitchers were Arizona, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, and Texas. 

On the opposite end of the spectrum, ten teams had two or fewer pitchers reach 200 IP from 2010 – 2012.  Of those ten, only three made the postseason (Baltimore, Minnesota, and Washington).  If you want to get technical, last season the Nationals had two pitchers just miss the mark, as Gio Gonzalez tossed 199.1 innings, and Jordan Zimmermann threw 195.2  The bottom line is, teams that lack a dependable, innings-eating starter tend to miss the playoffs more often than not.  At least they have in the past three years.

So how many pitchers did the Blue Jays have that qualified during this timeframe?  Just two – Ricky Romero did it in 2010 and 2011.  That’s it.

Sadly, this is not a recent occurrence in Toronto.  Looking back at the past 10 seasons, from 2003 to 2012, 56 different pitchers have started at least one game for the Blue Jays.  But a 200 IP season has only been accomplished 10 times:

– 5 by Roy Halladay (2003, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009)

– 2 by Romero (2010, 2011)

– 1 each by Josh Towers (2005), Gustavo Chacin (2005), and A.J. Burnett (2008).

That’s it.  Consider that Philadelphia, Tampa Bay, and San Francisco have reached the feat seven times in the past three years, and that the Reds had four pitchers reach 200 innings last season alone, and you have context. 

So what happened?  Roy Halladay was known for his extensive work ethic, training, and preparation.  A.J. Burnett said that Halladay had a positive effect on him when they were teammates, and it showed with Burnett’s 200 + IP season in ’08.  Is part of problem that the current staff doesn’t have anybody to emulate or look up to?  Perhaps.

Or are the Blue Jays as a franchise just not very good at developing pitchers?  Sports Illustrated published a story recently about the philosophy of the Tampa Bay Rays towards developing young pitchers.  The entire organization, from single-A to the majors, has a plan that is followed religiously.  The plan includes physical training, pitch selection (young pitchers are not to throw cutters), count philosophy (the third pitch of the at-bat is the most crucial, not the first), and more.  In the past few seasons the Rays have lost solid starters in Edwin Jackson, Scott Kazmir, Matt Garza, James Shields, and Wade Davis.  Yet this season, the Rays still have David Price, Matt Moore, Jeremy Hellickson, Alex Cobb, and Jake Odorizzi, with several other top talents on the way.

The Jays, on the other hand, have seen far too many prospects falter or stall recently: Kyle Drabek, Drew Hutchison, Dustin McGowan, Ricky Romero, Deck McGuire, and Joel Carreno come to mind.

All of that leads to one simple question, one that I don’t have an answer for.

Is it time for a complete overhaul of Toronto’s pitching development system?

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