Last night, while Jeff Niemann was doing his interpretive reenactment of the Hindenburg, many of us in Raysland were starting to feel tiny bit of panic. No, not panic concerning the Red Sox - panic about our pitching staff and the playoffs. As the saying goes, pitching wins championships; although it's a cliche, it's generally true - teams with good pitching staffs tend to do well in the playoffs. The cooler weather of October suppresses offense, stinging the hands and keeping balls from traveling quite so far.
Up until two weeks ago, starting pitching was the least of the Rays' concerns. David Price and Matt Garza were as dominant as ever; James Shields had put a couple good starts together; Jeremy Hellickson had dominated while filling in; and Wade Davis and Jeff Niemann were coming back from the disabled list. Since then, Niemann has been awful (23 runs in 10 innings pitched) and Shields had a bad start, and now people are starting to freak. Where once there was stability, now there's uncertainty. The depth has disappeared, the strength vanished. From all reports, the Rays' rotation is crumbling to shreds.
When things seem bleakest, the most prudent course is to take a step back and regain some perspective. Should we be worried about the Rays' rotation? No, but we might want to adjust our expectations.
If you want to worry about the Rays' rotation, don't fixate on Jeff Niemann. All pitchers go through rough spells, just like all hitters go through slumps, and it just happens that this patch has been particularly bad. His recent problems seem to be stemming from a lack of command and a lack of stamina, both of which are classic problems for pitchers returning from the disabled list. Unless he's still injured - and with Hellickson around, there's no way the Rays let Niemann pitch if his arm is still bothering him - there's no reason to be concered; these issues are ones that smooth out with time. Maybe the Rays rushed Niemann back from the disabled list, but by the time the playoffs open, Niemann should be back in classic Nyquil form.
If you insist upon worrying about the rotation, though, there is this: the Rays don't have as good a rotation as most people assume. We get billed as one of the "best young rotations in the majors" and that's easy to believe when you look at our staff's ERA and win totals. David Price has16 wins and a 2.92 ERA. Matt Garza is rocking the 3.46 ERA and has 14 wins. Jeff Niemann has a 3.97 ERA (before last night) and heck, even Wade Davis has 11 wins and a 4.39 ERA. These guys look well above-average.
When you dig beyond ERA and wins, you find that it's not so rosy: with the exception of David Price, the rest of the Rays' rotation has pitched around league-average. Don't believe me?
*Green represents better than league-average, blue is approximately league-average, red is worse than league-average.
**For questions regarding the above statistics, please read this.
Price is an ace no matter what statistic you look at, but things get confusing once you begin looking at the other pitchers. Garza looks more like a league-average starter when you look at all of his statistics compiled together, and Niemann looks about the same, maybe a little worse. Shields has a homerun problem that inflates his FIP and makes his xFIP look shiny, but his tERA isn't convinced either; he still looks like a league-average pitcher this season. And then Wade Davis...well, he's our fifth starter. And he's young. (More on Davis later today.)
"Average" is not synonymous with "bad", though. When you compare the Rays' rotation with other playoff teams, they hold up well. According to FanGraphs, the Rays' rotation is the 19th best in baseball this season, contributing 98.1 runs of value. The Rangers are right behind the Rays at 20th (96.1 runs), the Yankees are ranked 24th (77.2 runs), and the Twins are the best, placing fifth (137.7 runs).
The point of this post is not to make people worried or anxious about our rotation: having four starters that are all league-average or better is an impressive feat and it will serve the Rays well come the post-season. The Rays are getting more value from their rotation than the Yankees are this season, while spending $55M less. Just keep your expectations in check over the remainder of the season: this is not a team with three aces, but one ace (David Price) and three more average to above-average pitchers.