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The Anatomy of a Perfect Major League Baseball Pitching Rotation

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The Anatomy of a Perfect Major League Baseball Pitching Rotation
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Gio Gonzalez is one of three aces on the Nationals, who just might have the majors' most-perfect rotation.

If a pitching rotation is like a sandwich, consider this the recipe.

Every sandwich has the same basic ingredients: The bread to keep things together on the ends, the meat in the middle and the cheese and mustard for a little kick on top.

If you're not sure which ingredient corresponds to the proper spot in a five-man, don't worry. Just make yourself a sandwich and dig in as we sink our teeth into cooking up the ideal approach and criteria needed to form the perfect rotation, spelled out below in bullet form.

Once the ingredients are clearly defined and the sandwich is prêt à manger, the next step is to suggest the major league teams that closely fit the formula.

We recently did the same for the perfect major league lineup (albeit with a different, non-food metaphor), in case you want to review.

 

The Perfect Rotation

No. 1 Starter: The Ace

  • Top-of-the-line fastball velocity
  • At least two above-average off-speed pitches, ideally a slider, a curveball and/or a changeup
  • Elite control and great command of all offerings
  • Ability to miss bats and generate ground balls
  • Durable and efficient to pitch deep into games and provide consistent innings
  • Almost never has a bad outing

James Shields has all the ingredients of an ideal No. 2.

No. 2 Starter: The Big-Game Guy

  • Above-average fastball velocity
  • At least two off-speed pitches, ideally one plus and one average to above-average
  • Great control and solid command of at least two offerings
  • Ability to miss bats or generate ground balls
  • Capable of regularly pitching seven-plus innings
  • In a perfect world, throws with the opposite arm as No. 1 starter
  • Only has an occasional bad outing

No. 3 Starter: The Pitcher

  • Average to above-average fastball velocity
  • Two off-speed pitches, one plus and one above-average
  • Great control and good command of all offerings
  • Ability to generate weak contact
  • Durable, reliable, consistent and knows hot to avoid disaster outings

No. 4 Starter: The Thrower

  • Elite fastball velocity
  • One above-average off-speed and put-away pitch but lacks reliable third pitch
  • Above-average control and average command of two primary offerings
  • Ability to miss bats
  • Prone to occasional disaster outing, but also twirls the occasional gem
  • If possible, brings balance to handedness among top-four spots (i.e., two RHP and two LHP)

No. 5 Starter: The Innings-Eater

  • Average to slightly above-average fastball velocity
  • Two average off-speed pitches
  • Average control and average command of all offerings
  • Knows how to avoid hitters' strengths and occasionally exploits weaknesses
  • Durable and provides quality starts more often than not

 

If Bronson Arroyo is your team's fifth starter, your rotation is about as good as it gets.

Now that the criteria has been laid out, which MLB teams come closest to fitting the model?

Unlike with the perfect lineup when we chose just one club, we're going to run down all of the five-man rotations that were at least considered, starting with the closest-to-perfect.  

 

Take Your Pick

Detroit Tigers

Justin Verlander (RHP), Anibal Sanchez (RHP), Doug Fister (RHP), Max Scherzer (RHP), Rick Porcello (RHP).  

Absolutely devastating top four. Has arguably the best pitcher in the game and the most underrated one sandwiching a pair of elite pitchability types who possess plenty of stuff themselves.

If only Porcello could be more reliable and less of a constant point of concern. Minor pock mark? No left-hander.

Watching this, one has to wonder why Max Scherzer doesn't get more attention. (Video courtesy of MLB's official YouTube channel)

 

Washington Nationals

Stephen Strasburg (RHP), Gio Gonzalez (LHP), Jordan Zimmermann (RHP), Ross Detwiler (LHP), Dan Haren (RHP).  

Just a dynamic top three, each of whom presents a different look from the next. A phenom flamethrower with a wicked repertoire, a fastball-curveball southpaw and a pitcher's pitcher coming into his own.

Detwiler's terrific start is promising, and Haren has picked it up lately. This may be the best group in baseball, especially with the ideal righty-lefty rhythm.

 

Oh-So-Close

Cincinnati Reds

Johnny Cueto (RHP), Mat Latos (RHP), Homer Bailey (RHP), Tony Cingrani (LHP), Bronson Arroyo (RHP)/Mike Leake (RHP).

Apologies to Cueto and Latos, but neither is a true No. 1—just elite No. 2's. Bailey has finally found it, so he fits well in the middle. The rookie Cingrani (the sole southpaw) has been too good to be true in his first three starts.

Arroyo? The consummate fifth starter. Possibly the deepest set of arms, as Leake could find himself on the outside looking in once Cueto is off the DL.

 

St. Louis Cardinals

Adam Wainwright (RHP), Shelby Miller (RHP), Jaime Garcia (LHP), Lance Lynn (RHP), Jake Westbrook (RHP). 

Doesn't get much better than Wainwright as a horse. Fellow veteran Westbrook, somehow currently leading the NL with a 1.07 ERA, is the quintessential No. 5.

The young arms in the middle, particularly hotshot rookie Miller, will determine whether or not this group could eventually overtake the Tigers or Nats.

It's hard to believe Shelby Miller is just a rookie, huh? (Video courtesy of MLB's official YouTube channel)

 

Honorable Mentions

Tampa Bay Rays

David Price (LHP), Matt Moore (LHP), Jeremy Hellickson (RHP), Alex Cobb (RHP), Roberto Hernandez (RHP). Had they not traded James Shields, an ideal No. 2 starter, they may have taken this. The No. 5 spot would have been a toss-up between Hellickson and Cobb.

 

Boston Red Sox

Jon Lester (LHP), Clay Buchholz (RHP), Ryan Dempster (RHP), Felix Doubront (LHP), John Lackey (RHP). This group actually fits the criteria rather well, except Lester is not a true No. 1 starter, and Lackey is no longer a reliable option.

 

Atlanta Braves

Tim Hudson (RHP), Kris Medlen (RHP), Paul Maholm (LHP), Mike Minor (LHP), Julio Teheran (RHP). Solid throughout, and a good mix of righties and lefties, but they lack a true No. 1 starter. Could be even better once Brandon Beachy (RHP) is back from Tommy John surgery.

Is Madison Bumgarner the real ace of the Giants? Right now, you betcha.

 

San Francisco Giants

Matt Cain (RHP), Madison Bumgarner (LHP), Tim Lincecum (RHP), Ryan Vogelsong (RHP), Barry Zito (LHP). The top three would have been good enough to put them in contention—if we're talking Lincecum from two years ago and Cain when he's right.

 

Philadelphia Phillies

Cole Hamels (LHP), Cliff Lee (LHP), Roy Halladay (RHP), Kyle Kendrick (RHP), John Lannan (LHP)/Jonathan Pettibone (RHP). Still a dynamic top three when Halladay is going well, but questions about Doc and the back end are too much to overcome.

 

New York Yankees

CC Sabathia (LHP), Hiroki Kuroda (RHP), Andy Pettitte (LHP), Phil Hughes (RHP), Ivan Nova (RHP)/David Phelps (RHP). The top three are just about spot-on, but they're all beyond their primes even though they remain productive at their advanced ages.

 

Arizona Diamondbacks

Ian Kennedy (RHP), Trevor Cahill (RHP), Wade Miley (LHP), Patrick Corbin (LHP), Brandon McCarthy (RHP). More deep than great, but they have a few top young arms (Tyler Skaggs, Archie Bradley) who may take care of that soon.

 

Disagree with the picks for baseball's closest-to-perfect rotations? Sound off in the comments or let me know on Twitter: @JayCat11

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