No team in baseball has gone through starting pitching depth as quickly as the Toronto Blue Jays.
When Chien-Ming Wang delivers his first pitch at U.S. Cellular Field Tuesday night he’ll become the 12th pitcher to start a game for the 2013 Blue Jays, who will become the first MLB team to use 12 starters. It’s a reflection of both injury issues and poor results.
Though 99 games remain on the schedule, the Blue Jays are already set to match their season total of starters used during the 2011 and 2012 seasons. Even in 2011-12, when the Blue Jays faced injuries and had suspect pitching depth, they only needed 12 starters to get through the season.
In fact, the Blue Jays haven’t used more than 12 starters in more than a decade. The last time they needed that many starters was in 2002, when current Blue Jays pitching coach Pete Walker was among the 13 starters used by managers Buck Martinez and Carlos Tosca
(Roy Halladay, Esteban Loaiza, Chris Carpenter, Luke Prokopec, Brandon Lyon and Mark Hendrickson were among the other noteworthy Blue Jays pitchers to start for that 2002 team).
QUANTITY NOT QUALITY: The quantity of starting pitchers used isn’t a problem in itself. Using lots of starters doesn’t necessarily spell failure, just as relying on limited starters doesn’t always lead to success.
The St. Louis Cardinals have the best rotation in baseball -- their combined rotation ERA is 2.73! -- but they are tied for the National League lead with nine starters used. The Houston Astros, on the other hand, have used just seven starters, yet their rotation has a 5.03 ERA.
The problem for the Blue Jays has been twofold. The first tier of starters struggled badly and the replacement pitchers have been worse.
The shortcomings of the Blue Jays’ opening day rotation have been well-documented, so there’s no need to review them extensively. In brief, three of the five starters have required disabled list stints and none of the pitchers has an ERA below 4.91.
The Blue Jays’ replacement starters have been far worse. Ricky Romero, Aaron Laffey, Sean Nolin, Ramon Ortiz, Esmil Rogers and Chad Jenkins have combined to start 13 games -- more than 20 per cent of the team's total.
That group of six starters has combined for a 5.94 ERA with 61 hits allowed in 47 innings. They have walked more batters than they have struck out (26 walks, 23 strikeouts) with only Jenkins and Rogers pitching effectively.
Any time a team uses 12 starters, it’s using pitchers who weren’t particularly close to making the opening day rotation. A handful of organizations have enough depth to withstand considerable pitching injuries, but it’s not a realistic goal in many places outside of St. Louis, Tampa Bay and perhaps Texas.
When the season began, Jenkins was on the minor-league disabled list, Romero was re-working his delivery in extended spring training, Laffey was with the New York Mets, Nolin was at double-A, Ortiz and Wang were at triple-A and Rogers was in the Blue Jays' bullpen. The Blue Jays have reached for starting pitchers in search of reliable options.
WHAT TO EXPECT FROM WANG: All of that said, it’s not hard to see why the Blue Jays turned to Wang. The right-hander has a history of success at the MLB level, having won 19 games for the New York Yankees twice.
“He’s got experience,” manager John Gibbons said Saturday. “They say he’s throwing the ball pretty good. He’s been up here and he’s been successful. I don’t think his stuff’s what it used to be, but we still think he’s pretty good. Any more than that I couldn’t tell you.”
At his best Wang generates ground ball after ground ball while limiting walks and home runs and absorbing innings. Even at the age of 33, he seems capable of keeping the ball on the ground and avoiding walks.
The Blue Jays made a minimal commitment to Wang, who must earn each start he makes while earning a base salary of $500,000. General manager Alex Anthopoulos explained on Sunday that he prefers Wang to Jenkins for now.
“Very similar styles: average fastball velocity, sinkers, ground-ball guys, secondary stuff isn’t strong, but they both throw strikes and they both get a lot of ground balls,” Anthopoulos said. “Wang, even at the minor-league level, has had a lot more success than Chad has. And then you look at obviously what he’s done in his career and his experience. And even currently, what he’s done. His ground balls in the minor leagues have been outstanding.”
Starting Wang allows the Blue Jays to keep Jenkins in the organization, and the way the season has gone so far, it won't be a surprise if he gets another shot at starting.