"Fifth Starter"? Filling the "Lack O' Lackey" gap? Not to worry...


Citizens of Red Sox Nation: stop! Stop all the ‘gnashing of hands’ and ‘wringing of teeth’  over the elusive, “Fifth Starter,” because:

1. Finding a single pitcher to equal, or better, last season’s Fifth Starter                      will not be very difficult, at all.

2. Finding a crew of pitchers to equal, or better, last season’s Fifth Starter                  will not be very difficult, at all.
3. John Lackey.

No, we are not singling out one pitcher here and saying: “If it wasn’t for John Lackey, the Sox would have gone to the World Series.” We are saying that he was a typical example of the Fifth Starter model, a pitcher who is the baseball equivalent of a Vice President: conventions say you must have one, but he [or she] is an add-on with low expectations and, when you must put them in the game, you expect below average performance. [Ford, Coolidge, Arthur, Fillmore, Tyler]

In baseball the Fifth Starter could be:

• One of a mélange of unknowns, has-beens, or never-will-be types.” [Buster Olney]
• Typically a pitcher with an ERA between 4.76 and 5.76, 15-28% below replacement level.
• Too frequently a guy with a negative WAR rating. [READ: worse than a minor leaguer]
• Way over-paid for the little he adds to the team stats. [READ: Roy Oswalt]
• An aging, or rehabbing, former starter. [READ: Dice K]

Sadly, John Lackey meets all of the above criteria. [Caveat: We will never know how much his injuries impacted his performance in 2011.]

160 innings, 6.41 ERA, 1.93 WHIP, -1.2 WAR [Wins compared to replacement pitcher]
28 GS, 24 results: 12-12.

The point here is not how this particular pitcher performed as a Fifth Starter; the point is that–with the bar set so low–he cannot be that difficult to replace.

A cursory review of the comparative stats would indicate that many of the Spring training candidates could equal, or better, the Lackey stats.

But, maybe seeking one pitcher to make 24-28 starts and eat up 180-200 innings as the Fifth Starter is chimera chasing, or trying to catch a phantasm with a butterfly net;

maybe we should be considering a “bullpen by committee” solution, where a “conspiracy of starters” [DEF: 2 or more pitchers] would get the job done.

That brilliant concept was presented by Marc Hulet of Fangraphs in “A New Approach to the Fifth Starter.”

“There is really is no point in wasting time and resources trying to enter the season with five starters earmarked for 25+ starts. No. 5 starters, in the traditional sense, just don’t exist. The best bet is to focus on securing four starters that can make 24 starts or more. In the fifth spot in the rotation, a three-man job-share could then be developed and it would break down like this:

1. A long reliever who would serve as the seventh arm in the ‘pen and be expected to make eight to 10 starts on the year. Ideally, this would be a proven veteran who could stick at the MLB level all season.

2. A pitching prospect that projects to be a fringe No. 3 or 4 with two or three minor league options remaining. He would be introduced to the Majors in this low-pressure role over the next two to three seasons before officially (hopefully) graduating to the role of a reliable third or fourth starter. In this role, the pitcher would need to make about 10 starts at the MLB level each season.

3. A minor league “veteran” pitcher (somewhere in the 25-30 year old range) who has been unable to stick in the Majors – and still has at least one minor league option left – and can be relied on to make at least five starts on the season.” [March 22, 2010, http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/?p=17990]

Thinking in terms of long relievers, pitching prospects, major league veterans, and minor league “veteran” pitchers, such a list of options might include:

NON-ROSTER: Justin Germano, Will Inman, Doug Mathis, Ross Ohlendorf, Vicente Padilla, Tony Pena Jr. Carlos Silva, Chorye Spoone, Justin Thomas, Alex Wilson, Scott Atchison , Jesse Carlson , Aaron Cook, Brandon Duckworth.

40-MAN ROSTER: Alfredo Aceves, Clayton Mortensen, Stolmy Pimentel, Junichi Tazawa, Drake Britton, Chris Carpenter, Rich Hill

[NOTE: Matt Albers, Andrew Miller, Franklin Morales, Michael Bowden, Felix Doubront are currently on 40-man protected roster, but If any of them fails to make the Opening Day roster, the Red Sox will have to expose each to waivers and risk losing him.]

Front runners for the Fifth Starter(s) role are: Alfredo Aceves, Vicente Padilla, Aaron Cook, and Carlos Silva with Alex Wilson as the potential sleeper candidate. Of the “out of options five,” Albers and Morales are a lock to be in the pen on Opening Day and, with lefties Miller and Doubront making the roster, Bowden is likely the odd-man-out.

The one-man Fifth Starter might be one of three RHPs: Alfredo Aceves, Vicente Padilla, Aaron Cook, and Carlos Silva. But, if Valentine were to try the “conspiracy of starters” of method; he might need to put a LHP in the mix, say, Doubront or Miller, or go with a pair of RHPs and LHPs; thus creating the mathematical quirk where 4 equals a Fifth.

To match the 12 wins that Lackey posted in 160 innings, Valentine could mix and match from the pitchers who make the Opening Day roster, or even call up a pitcher, who was on a hot streak, from the minor leagues for spot starts.

If we assume he needs a minimum of 6 innings per start, it will take about 27 starts, in addition to the starts by the Front Four in the rotation, to cover the Lack O’Lackey. If Valentine gets lucky, he may get his 12 Ws and less than 12 Ls from his “Fifth Starter” slot.

As of today the odds favor Alfredo Aceves to be in the 5 hole in the rotation with Daniel Bard in the 4 slot and Lester, Beckett and Buchholz in the win, place, and show positions.

Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine said that he was not troubled by the uncertainty involved with the last two positions in the rotation.

“I would just think that history is a great teacher, and recent history showed me that the team that won our division last year had no fourth and fifth starter coming into Spring Training,” Valentine said.

So, fellow citizen of Red Sox Nation, take a deep, cleansing breath, and move the Fifth Starter issue in the Worry File behind RF, SS, and Carl Crawford.

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Tags: 40-man Roster Aaron Cook Alex Wilson Bobby Valentine Brandon Duckworth Bull Pen By Committee Carl Crawford Chorye Spoone Chris Carpenter Citizens Clayton Mortensen Dice-K Doug Mathis Drake Britton Fifth Starter Inman Jesse Carlson John Lackey Junichi Tazawa Justin Germano Justin Thomas Minor League Opening Day Options Protected Red Sox Nation Rich Hill Ross Ohlendorf Roy Oswalt Scott Atchison Stolmy Pimentel Tony Pena Jr. Carlos Silva Vicente Padilla Waivers

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