A great deal of attention has been paid this spring to the open slots in the New York Yankees pitching rotation.
The failure to sign Cliff Lee as a free agent and the retirement of Andy Pettitte are thought by some to leave glaring holes in the Yankee ranks.
The Yankees have three established pitchers at the top of the rotation in C. C. Sabathia, Phil Hughes and A.J. Burnett.
Sabathia is the ace, a pitcher who can be counted on to go out every fifth day and pitch spectacularly most of the time. He finished with 21 wins last year against only seven losses.
Hughes, though still young, is durable and dependable. He notched 18 wins in his first full season as a starter in 2010.
Burnett is always a concern, as he is Forest Gump’s proverbial box of chocolates: You never know what you’re gonna get.
After those three, the competition has been wide open for the other two starting jobs. Ivan Nova, Sergio Mitre, Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia have all been given a chance to start in the back end of the rotation.
And some young kids named Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances have had Yankee fans salivating with the idea that these baby arms might be just what the Bombers need.
It might be a good idea to analyze just how important the fourth and fifth starter positions are in baseball, and to the Yankees in particular.
This analysis includes a look at all major league teams in 2010. The Top Three starters on each team were excluded and the remaining pitchers who made a significant number of starts for each team were considered in terms of wins and losses.
In the American League, the pitchers who saw regular work at the back end of rotations garnered 261 wins against 291 losses—that is a winning percentage of .473.
If that were the winning percentage for a team over a 162 game season, that team would win just short of 77 games.
In the National League, back end guys got 277 wins against 334 losses. The winning percentage is .453, which would translate to 73 wins if the percentage held for the entire staff.
So, let us analyze the playoff teams.
The Giants won the World Series, of course. Through their regular season, the back end of their rotation had 23 wins and 20 losses. That is a winning percentage of .535 or 87 wins if it were true of their entire staff.
The Rangers lost in the World Series. Their back end had 25 wins and 20 losses for a winning percentage of .555 or 90 wins if applied as though the entire staff performed at this rate.
The Yankees lost to the Rangers, but had a better record in the 4-5 slots in the rotation. Javy Vazquez and Andy Pettitte combined for a record of 21-13, which is a .617 percentage—better than the staff as a whole and would have meant 100 wins.
The Rays won the AL East and had a back end record of 24-18 or .571 percentage, worth 92 wins if the staff average had been the same.
The Twins had a 23-18 average, almost identical to the Rays in percentage and projected wins.
Let's get back to the NL.
The Braves had a much worse performance at 14-18 for a percentage of just .437, which would have given them only 70 wins if the other pitchers had not been much better.
The Phillies were 25-16 for a .609 percentage or 98 wins.
The Reds were 15-14, so they were just barely over .500, which would have been 84 wins.
For a little bit of fun, and to give Yankee fans a look at what the fourth and fifth starters have meant to the Yankee teams from 1996 through 2009, let’s look at the World Series champs for that period and how well their back end of the rotation did.
In 2009, Joba Chamberlain started 32 games and was 9-6 with a 4.75 ERA; Sergio Mitre started nine games and went 3-3 with a 6.79 ERA; Chien-Ming Wang started nine games and was 1-6 with a 9.64 ERA; Chad Gaudin started six games and was 2-0 with a 3.43 ERA.
So, for the most recent Yankee champions, the back end of the rotation was 15-15.
In 2000, David Cone, Denny Neagle and Ramiro Mendoza filled out the back of the rotation for the Bombers. They combined for a record of just 18-25.
In 1999, Roger Clemens and Hideki Irabu started 62 games and combined for a 25-17 record. No one would think of Clemens as a fourth or fifth starter, but he had fewer starts that year than any other regular.
In 1998, Irabu and Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez started 47 games and had a combined record of 25-13, on perhaps the greatest team in major league history.
In 1996, David Cone, Dwight Gooden and Ramiro Mendoza were a combined 22-14.
So, what does the analysis show?
To this writer, who did the research, there is no conclusion.
The results are really all over the board.
Last year, some good teams had better winning percentages with the back end than with their top starters. In the Yankees case, that is primarily because AJ Burnett was so horrible.
No one who is a Yankee fan would want Javy Vazquez back.
It was Andy Pettitte who had the great winning percentage that elevated the Yankees' starters last season.
In some winning seasons, Yankee 4-5 starters have been very good. In other years, they are less than mediocre. The same is true for other teams.
Ivan Nova has looked very good this spring, including a no-hitter over the Orioles for six innings on Wednesday. Garcia, Colon and Mitre have certainly shown they are all at least serviceable.
But for the Yankees to win, they cannot depend on any of these guys. If Sabathia and Hughes don’t match, or come close to last year's numbers, there has to be a pick up somewhere.
Perhaps Burnett gets his head on straight and shows what a guy with great stuff can really do.
Perhaps, Jeter, A-Rod and Tex all bounce back to have years far superior to last season and the offense makes up for weakness in the starting rotation.
Perhaps, the bullpen, with the addition of Soriano and Feliciano and the maturation of Robertson, reduces the pressure on starters to win.
At least for now, although it is intriguing, the fourth and fifth starters don’t necessarily mean very much to a major league team.