The 5th Wheel: Ranking Baseball's End-of-the-Rotation Starters
If you're a fifth starter on a Major League Baseball team, you are easy to forget. You pitch every fifth game, just like your four counterparts. You give your team as much chance to win as they do, so why do fans cringe as they take their seats when realizing it's your day to start?
"Who the heck is Nelson Figueroa?" you scornfully whine to the fan in the next seat as an unfamiliar name flashes on the scoreboard, then disappears before you could investigate further.
“He must be the opera singer who sang the anthem,” the guy replies, nonchalant yet confident with his answer. “It was lovely,” he continues sarcastically. "Voice of an angel, too bad you missed it.”
Moments later, baffled, the two of you watch Figueroa take the mound.
As a kid I used to watch the A’s at the Oakland Coliseum. In 1989, the year they won the World Series, their spectacular pitching rotation was comprised of Dave Stewart, Mike Moore, Bob Welch and Storm Davis. Each had at least 17 wins that season.
The fifth starter was Curt Young, a far-from-dazzling southpaw who won just five games that year. Showing up at the stadium to see Young pitch was like going to the zoo and finding out the lion exhibit was closed for remodeling and in the great beast’s place was a disheveled warthog.
I was always so disappointed when he pitched the games I attended, and, therefore, I ended up hating the poor guy.
Ultimately, a fifth starter’s job is to simply keep the train rolling and make it a smooth transition to the top of the rotation. Curt Young did just that, and he certainly didn’t deserve besmirching from me.
Fans pay the same price to watch the ace as they do to watch the anti-ace, and as much of a let down as it is, both have the same opportunity to win the game.
So who are today’s top hurlers rounding out Major League Baseball pitching rotations?
Here's a list of some who have either shown consistency (close to a .500 winning percentage), which is ideal for a fifth starter, or are on the rise, perhaps just temporarily grazing in the fifth spot as they move up the chart.
10. Brandon Beachy, Atlanta Braves
Beating out projected fifth starter and fellow Atlanta prospect Mike Minor, Beachy has shown great promise this year, striking out 24 batters in four starts.
He rose through Atlanta’s farm system in only three seasons and expectations are high for the Kokomo product.
Born in Kokomo and his last name is Beachy? Pretty cool coincidence, eh? Not so fast: Beachy hails from Kokomo, Indiana.
If Minor does oust him at some point, pull up that “Find and Replace” tool and replace every "Beachy” you see with "Minor," but lose the cheesy Indiana/beach joke.
9. Jon Garland, Los Angeles Dodgers
Garland’s first start this year was about as pretty as Jonathan Broxton dressed up like a woman, but the veteran right-hander has previously shown he can hold down a spot in any major-league pitching rotation.
He owns a career 131-115 mark and he has logged close to 200 innings in each of the last nine seasons. You couldn’t ask for much more from your fifth starter: an innings eater and a guy who gives you a chance to win each fifth day.
Nothing flashy here, but neither was your buddy’s station wagon. It still got you and your friends to and from school every day.
8. Jeremy Hellickson, Tampa Bay Rays
Hellickson appears poised to blossom into an elite pitcher.
He has dominated every level of the minors, and he has turned enough heads to earn this year’s second-overall prospect rating by Major League Baseball.
He hasn’t shown much brilliance yet in 2011, but he has baseball prognosticators drooling all over their morning box scores, so don’t expect the mediocrity to last long.
7. Michael Pineda, Seattle Mariners
Ranked 13th on the prospects list by Major League Baseball, Pineda brings his 6'5" frame and high 90s heater to the Pacific Northwest. At only 22, he seems like a promising addition to the M’s rotation.
And being that he is an exciting fifth-starter option, he can mature and hone his craft on the highest level without upsetting Mariners fans who just missed seeing King Felix by one game.
6. Joe Blanton, Philadelphia Phillies
Blanton has gotten off to a rocky start this season. Hitters are batting a healthy .378 against him thus far, but when you have the likes of Halladay, Oswalt, Hamels and Lee leading the charge, all this career fifth starter needs to do is simply get his team to the next day.
Blanton owns a 72-61 career mark, and once he settles in, he should have no problem holding down the fifth spot.
5. Kyle McClellan, St. Louis Cardinals
After a solid few years in the St. Louis bullpen, McClellan finally got his call when ace Adam Wainwright went down with a season-ending arm injury this spring.
He’s shined in his first three starts despite not starting more than 10 games in a season since 2004 for Single-A Peoria. That season he went 4-12 with an ERA of 5.34.
Not quite numbers that land you fifth on a top-10 list, unless you’re compiling a list of players least likely to land on a major league roster. But with McClellan’s success in the pen along with his great start, things are looking up for the local Missouri native.
4. Scott Baker, Minnesota Twins
Baker is everything you want in a fifth starter. A .500-plus career winning percentage, a sub-4.50 ERA, and close to 200 innings per year.
Sure, you aren’t going to see many blogs about him, ESPN specials or stores selling out of his jersey, but he simply gets the job done. He’s gone 28-22 over the last three seasons and has helped Minnesota clinch playoff berths in each of the last two seasons.
3. Aaron Harang, San Diego Padres
Anytime a former No. 1 starter is holding up the rear of your rotation it means you either have a stellar staff or you have a former Cincinnati Reds ace trying to work his way back up the ladder to stardom.
Harang was among the league leaders in strikeouts in the prime of his tenure in Cincinnati, but he hasn’t had a winning season since 2007. On the wrong side of 32, he appeared to be on his way out of the league, but he has successfully resurfaced within the cozy pitching confines of Petco Park.
He is already 3-0 on the season and looks like an entirely different pitcher.
2. Gavin Floyd, Chicago White Sox
Floyd never did develop into an elite major leaguer as predicted, but the former fourth-overall pick has developed into a decent pitcher.
He currently is holding down the fourth slot in the rotation, but once Jake Peavy returns from injury, Floyd will most likely slide down a position. He won 17 games for Chicago in 2008 and, despite flirting around the .500 level for winning percentage since, his strikeout totals have increased.
He’s not going to put any extra fans in the seats, but he is going to give you a shot at a win each time out.
Floyd has started at least 31 games and has hovered around a 4.00 ERA in each of the last three seasons. All very solid. This won’t win you any spelling bees, but for what it’s worth, consistency is spelled F-L-O-Y-D.
1. Madison Bumgarner, San Francisco Giants
Bumgarner hasn’t started 2011 like he finished 2010, but, heck, he was barely old enough to drink the champagne at the World Series party last fall, so he gets an early-season pass.
An instrumental piece in the Giants' title, Bumgarner went 2-0 with a minuscule 2.18 ERA, and won Game 4 on the road. He rounds out what is arguably the best starting rotation in baseball, with very little drop-off from the fifth spot.
So, are all these lovable rotation finishers the best of the worst, or simply the worst of the best?
None of these guys are going to sell out stadiums, single-handedly bring home championships or appear on the “Late Show,” but each one gives their team a legitimate shot to win games.
It is a long season and the fifth starter can start up to 30 games a year, so unless you're the 1906 Chicago Cubs or 2001 Seattle Mariners, teams that won 116 games, I’m pretty sure you can benefit from the extra potential wins these guys bring.