A Taxonomy of Fifth Starters

Aaron Sanchez's command is key to his success as Toronto's fifth starter. (via Arturo Pardavila III & Howell Media Solutions)

Aaron Sanchez’s command is key to his success as Toronto’s fifth starter. (via Arturo Pardavila III & Howell Media Solutions)

The battle for the role of fifth starter is more or less woven into the fabric of spring training. It is a minor story line, all things considered, but a persistent one—often in play from the first day pitchers and catchers report right up until the last week before Opening Day.

The tradition is familiar, and while the names change each year, the rotating cast of characters is typically the same. There is the veteran, generously labeled experiencedand more honestly labeled decrepit. There is the upstart youth, perhaps unrefined but with some promise. There is the redemption candidate, giving it his all after an injury or a breakdown, an outside shot at revival wrapped up in a satisfying narrative. And, most of all, there is “…him?”, a name that faintly resonates from some years-old prospect list or moderately successful half-season as a swingman but means, ultimately, little.

For some of baseball’s deeper rotations, the competition is not quite so fierce and the cast of characters not so varied. The fifth starter is somewhat clear from the outset, someone who might qualify as a middle of the rotation man elsewhere. But for everyone else, this battle at the margins of the roster stretches on and sparks debate throughout the spring.

The reality, however, is not nearly as absolute as the spring story lines. The distinction between the man who wins the fifth starter spot and the last one who loses it is less meaningful than it’s ever been. The role of fifth starter has always been a somewhat fluid one—it is, after all, the slot that must be replaced when anyone else goes down—but it is becoming even more so. We often tend to speak of a rotation in fixed terms, as a static and self-contained entity, but pitching is complicated and health can be fickle, and the rotation changes over the course of the season to reflect that. As teams have begun carrying more pitchers, and as injuries have become more common, more players are being given the opportunity to start. The difference between the number of games started by the fifth man on the rotation’s depth chart and the sixth one is less pronounced than it once was, and it’s getting smaller.

In 2005, the average number of starts by a team’s fifth-most used pitcher was 18.7 and the average for the sixth-most used, 10.8. By 2015, these numbers had moved to 16.8 and 11.6.

Indefinite though the fifth starter’s role may be, it’s a starter nonetheless. The collection of pitchers that follows feels a bit like a collection of question marks, of has-beens and almosts and would-have-beens. But there are also a few maybes and might-bes, a few players who stand to offer something more than the fifth starter title might indicate.

The Veterans, Cast Adrift

This is the category belonging to faded glory, to shells of bygone success. Here we have the Yankees’ CC Sabathia, several years into a frustrating decline that has left him a far cry from the version of himself who won the Cy Young in 2007. With personal demons to deal with in addition to his velocity loss, it’s not unlikely that he’ll be replaced in the rotation by Ivan Nova at some point this year.

Here we have the Giants’ Matt Cain, the youngest of this bunch at 31, but so hampered by injuries that he is a shadow of his former workhorse self. After years of consistently effective performance that was just about as reliable as anything can be in the volatile world of pitching, his body has betrayed the sacrifices it took to get him there. The past two years have seen him sidelined with bone chips that have been present in his elbow for over a decade, an ankle bone spur, forearm flexor strains, and this winter, surgery to remove a cyst. It is a painful list that makes optimism difficult in the conversation around whether Cain regains something close to his old form.

Here we have the Pirates’ Ryan Vogelsong, in the twilight of a career that has included years in Japan, a rather unexpected revival in San Francisco and, most recently, being shuffled between the rotation and the bullpen. Back with Pittsburgh for the first time since returning stateside, the 38-year old hasn’t showed an ERA under 4 since 2012.

These, essentially, are the fifth starters who remind us that death is coming for us all.

The Kids

This group offers far more optimism and excitement than the last one. These are the youngsters, given the fifth starter spot with the hope that it will be but a stepping stone on the way to something greater. They’re not top prospects, but they have plenty to prove and enough talent at least to have been given the chance to try.

This is the Diamondbacks’ Robbie Ray, a 24-year-old lefty who posted 8.39 strikeouts-per-nine in his first full major league season last year, albeit accompanied by a concerningly high 3.45 walks-per-nine.

This is the Blue Jays’ Aaron Sanchez, who struggled in his showing as a starter last year, but showed promise as a reliever and beat out the aging Gavin Floyd this spring for the rotation’s fifth spot. His arsenal is fairly limited (he relies very heavily on his sinker and four-seam fastball, rarely using anything else) and last year’s failed attempt as a starter came with some concerning command issues, but 2015’s success out of the bullpen and a strong spring were enough to convince the Jays that round two of the Sanchez starter experiment is worth taking a chance.

This is the Phillies’ Vincent Velasquez, who showed a rather impressive arsenal as a swingman in his first year in the majors last year with Houston. Though there are some questions about the 23-year old’s control, he has a mid-90s fastball and a slider that showed flashes of high quality in 2015.

The All Scott Boras Contract Team
Spoiler: MIke Trout isn’t on it, but perhaps two Alex Rodriguezes make up for it.

Each of these pitchers has an upside beyond fifth starter, and while they might not get there in 2016, they stand to put on a far more exciting show than the previously discussed aging crew.

…Him?

Here are the wild cards. This is a group of pitchers whose names are vaguely familiar, who might have been earmarked for possible success at one point or might have had their own brief brush with major league achievement—or might simply be your garden-variety journeyman, shuffling from team to team and rotation to bullpen, notable chiefly for his transience rather than his skill.

This is the Angels’ Matt Shoemaker, who rose from undrafted free agent to Rookie of the Year runner-up to victim of rather predictable regression. Now, we’re right back where he started— who is this guy?

This is the Orioles’ Kevin Gausman, who has gone from a high-ceiling prospect to a frequently cited example of the questions behind Baltimore’s pitcher development in the four years since he was drafted. Gausman has spent the last few seasons going from rotation to bullpen and majors to Triple-A, but he’s still just 25 with an effective splitter and some encouraging signs of improvement last year.

This is Red Sox knuckleballer Steven Wright, who made his major league debut as a 28-year-old in 2013 and surprised last season with some work that exceeded expectations by being close to average.

This is the Dodgers’ Carlos Frias, who’s thought to be a far better fit for the bullpen and likely wouldn’t have come close to the 2016 rotation without the slew of injuries that have been the team’s spring. But the last few months have been a reminder that no matter how deep you build, injuries can always take their toll, and now it’s up to Frias and his underwhelming track record to hold down the fifth spot, at least for the time being.

These are perhaps the most fungible and forgettable of fifth starters—neither particularly young nor particularly old, likely with unremarkable pasts and blank futures, but with the chance to show on occasion a glimmer of what got them here in the first place.

The Cream of the Crop

Baseball’s best fifth starters do not necessarily come from its best rotations, but they do come from some of its deeper ones. Though none of the following pitchers project to be anything close to excellent, they all are likely to offer a level of consistency that is absent from the previously described fifth starters.

The Cardinals’ Mike Leake might have a contract that exceeds his talent, but as far as back-of-rotation guys go, he’s one of baseball’s more solid options. Though he’s coming off a disappointing second half with the Giants, the groundball pitcher has produced somewhere in the neighborhood of two wins for each of the past three years, and projections suggest he’ll be able to continue that in 2016.

The Astros’ Mike Fiers, meanwhile, offers something more than last year’s no hitter. Though his fastball is decidedly on the slow side, he’s consistently posted a strikeout-per-nine of about nine for the past several years.

And with the opportunity to be baseball’s best fifth starter is the Cubs’ Kyle Hendricks. Last season, his first full year in the majors, saw him increase his strikeouts while keeping walks fairly low, producing 3.4 WAR overall. The high amount of contact he allows is something of a cause for concern, but projections give him one of the brighter futures among fifth starters, with a ZiPS line of 2.6 WAR and a 3.63 FIP.

The Ageless, Glorious Wonder

This category has but one pitcher, and technically, perhaps, he could instead have qualified as a veteran cast adrift. But while there is some evidence for that statistically (he’s no longer the Cy Young winner that he was in 2005), there isn’t any aesthetically. To watch Sabathia or Cain in 2016 is to be somewhat depressed by the passage of time, to be teased by what they once were in watching what they have become. To watch this pitcher is to delight in the weird wonder of age, to marvel at his ability to do what he does at this point in time. Eventually, if all goes according to plan, Zack Wheeler will finish his recovery from Tommy John surfgery and claim this spot in the Mets’ rotation as his own. But for now, this spot is completely and uniquely Bartolo Colon’s.


Emma Baccellieri is the weekend writer at Deadspin and the curator of the FanGraphs Newsletter. She also contributes to Baseball Prospectus. Follow her on Twitter @emmabaccellieri.
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Erik
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Erik

I don’t think Gausman is really Baltimores fifth starter. Hammel probably is the Cubs number 5? Nice article to read though.

chaokang
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chaokang

If only the O’s could put someone as Gausman as fifth. Most likely, he will be their de facto ace during the season. Fifth starter for the O’s will most likely be one of Tyler Wilson, Mike Wright, and Vance Worley. The scary thing is that the fourth starter will also be one of those.

Gary
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Gary

Interesting article! At the end of the day, I feel a “fifth starter” usually really doesn’t remain the team’s fifth starter for long – they either move up in the rotation hierarchy (due to injury or better-than-expected performance) or are bumped out. Full seasons as a fifth starter, like Scott Elarton in 2005, are the real outlier.

Lanidrac
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Lanidrac

Did you miss the fact that Nicasio has beaten out Vogelsong to be the Pirates’ fifth starter?

Still, it’s a decently entertaining article, although I’d personally pick Leake over Hendrick as the best 5th starter in baseball.

Mike
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Mike

John Danks is another veteran cast adrift who’s even younger than Cain. He’s been eating innings with mediocre pitching for years now.

Brian
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Brian

Love the writing style. Fun read. Write for The Hardball Times more often! And go Blue Devils!