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Sports Columns

September 30, 2012

Thoma column: There's real value in being an average pitcher

Nobody wants to be average. But in the world of major league pitching, average is pretty darn good.

Or, at least, average performance combined with durability is. Woody Allen famously remarked that “Ninety percent of life is just showing up,” and in the pitching department, he’s probably right.

I went poking around in the 2012 stats for starting pitchers because earlier in the week I said in my blog that the Twins need to find two starting pitchers better than Scott Diamond.

This is not a particularly brilliant insight; every team would like to add two starting pitchers better than their current top gun. Detroit would love to have two pitchers better than Justin Verlander, not that there are such animals roaming the planet.

Diamond’s no Verlander; nobody’s going to throw a Cy Young vote his way. But he’s had a good season: 12-8, 3.54 in the majors, the lowest walk rate in the American League, 168 innings for the Twins and 34.6 more in Triple A.  How available are pitchers who can better that performance?

Well ... the major league ERA for in games started this year was 4.21 entering Sunday. The 91 men who qualified for the ERA title as of Sunday had a combined ERA of 3.87.

Startling insight there, right? The men who stick in the rotation have better ERAs. No kidding.

But think about this: 30 teams using five-man rotations mean there are 150 rotation berths. Only 91 are filled sufficiently to average an inning per team game — hardly a rigorous standard. Almost 40 percent of rotation slots are instable and subject to change.

In that light, average but durable has a lot of value.

By the ERA standard, the average rotation regular is C.J. Wilson and his 3.86 ERA. Average pitching, and it only costs the Angels about $50,000 an inning — this year. The price will escalate in future seasons.

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