The Change — Fifth Starter Extravaganza

Yesterday, a trio of fifth starters were announced. They are all worthy of different levels of excitement, but Vincent Velasquez, Aaron Sanchez, and Nate Karns all won jobs, and now we’re all scrambling to re-rank them based on this new information. Here’s the thing, though — don’t move them very far.

The announcement is nice, because it’s like the closer’s role. You either have the fifth starter’s spot, or you don’t, and if you don’t, the innings are hard to find. But you might be surprised how little those announcements may have meant.

The fifth-most prolific starter on all 30 teams last year averaged 97 innings. That’s better than the 66 innings the sixth slot got, but it’s probably less than we are faithcasting for Velasquez and Sanchez and Karns right now. Of course, they can now pitch all year and end up as something better than the fifth-best starters on their teams, but if they truly are their teams’ fifth-best, they’re going to be lucky to amass much more than 100 innings this year.

For Velasquez, innings might have been an issue anyway. He only threw 88 innings last year, and 124.2 in 2013, his longest season. I’ve seen a loose 20% increase thrown around by teams, and 20% more than last year would be 106 innings. 20% more than his biggest season would be 150. As much as we love double Vs, we had to put our projection in between those two numbers, especially given what we know about fifth starters.

The Phillies will keep his innings down by skipping the fifth starter’s spot, giving him a long break around All Star week, and then perhaps putting him back in the bullpen as a stretch guy late in the season. That’s a shame, given he has the most even arsenal of this group. He’s only thrown 70 or 80 changeups, but by whiff rate (11%, average is around 13%) and movement, it looks like it can be an average pitch.

Put that up against a 94 mph rising fastball and a power curve (top 20 among starters in velocity), and you’ve got an arsenal. He has 16 strikeouts in 14 innings this spring, and a litany of great strikeout rates behind him in the minor leagues.

Nate Karns is right there with him, and it’s hard to really parse the two. Like Velasquez, Karns starts with good fastball velocity and a high-velocity curve. Karns made a lot of strides with his changeup over the course of last year and ended the year with a 16% whiff rate on that changeup, and better than average movement. You’d put him ahead of Velasquez easily, except that he’s 28 to the Phils’ 23 and has a longer history of having trouble piling up innings — he’s never topped 157.1 in a season.

But with the Mariners trying to put some wins together, and James Paxton looking like he’s in need of really finding something, this could be a decent innings year for Karns. Give him the floor, and Velasquez the ceiling.

Does Aaron Sanchez get a tier of his own? He’s ahead of guys like Shane Greene — who might only get the job until Daniel Norris returns from his back issue — and the veterans like C.C. Sabathia and Ricky Nolasco, who both may have one foot in baseball’s grave. Sanchez is still on the way up, at least.

The narrative on Sanchez is that he doesn’t have a change. But, for his career, even in just 99 thrown, the change has the highest whiff rate of his pitches. By movement, it’s got above average fade and drop, although it’s only one more inch fade than his sinker, so it’s not amazing. It only goes six miles per hour slower than his sinker, so that might be the problem, but it doesn’t even have a terrible strike percentage. 19 strikeouts in 20 innings make him a close third and keep him in the best tier of new fifth starters.

Adam Conley looks like he’s got the fifth job, since Justin Nicolino was sent down. I’d move him up ahead of Sanchez into the Karns/Velasquez grouping because he’s up to averaging 94 mph this spring from 91 last year, the kind of velocity we always thought he could have, and he has the best park and league combination of the group. The move up is one part because he’s holding this new velocity and one part that he seems to have the job in Florida. He’s got a great changeup and we’ll have to see how the slider does.

Lower down on the totem pole of new fifth starters are pitchers where the talent is a little more debatable, but the opportunity is now there.

Let’s give Kris Medlen the title of Best Veteran New Fifth Starter. Sabathia’s velocity is gone and never coming back — he’s sitting 87 this spring, soooooo — and Ricky Nolasco is Ricky Nolasco at this point. Medlen’s projections aren’t great, but it was his first season back after a second Tommy John and a full year out of baseball. He’s in front of the only team to be projected as a positive defensively at every position, and his velocity has been up at 92 this spring.

Because he’s a veteran, and his upside isn’t the same as our first trio, I wouldn’t push Medlen much past 80th in the rankings if I did them today. The first group is clustered around 73-76. These next two are still well into the 100s.

Because, though I love the movement numbers from Kendall Graveman’s pitches, and did trade Tyler Naquin for him in AL-LABR because I need pitching (a fact that will probably only hurt more as the season progresses, given the injuries in that outfield and Naquin’s spring play), the pitcher just hasn’t been able to corral that movement for good outcomes yet. He’s got elite-level sink on the changeup, tons of horizontal movement on the curve, and good ball rates on all of his pitches… and yet only the cutter has plus whiff rates, and too much of his repertoire seems to be focused on getting ground balls. He’s a deep leaguer.

And yes, it looks like Robbie Ray is happening in Arizona. He’s sitting 93.9 in spring, which is amazing for a lefty. His slider got really good results last year. His changeup still sucks, moving less than his sinker and lacking a great velocity differential. I remain a poo-pooer on Ray.

Steven Wright (knuckleballer) and A.J. Griffin (homeritis in a homer-happy park, plus injuries) have too many questions to make them great pickups right now. And remember how few innings you are likely to get out of Juan Nicasio, Nick Tropeano, or Cody Anderson should they get picked up as fifth starters later this spring.

About 100, most likely. So add ’em, stash ’em, but don’t spend on ’em.





With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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Mario Mendoza
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Mario Mendoza

Like you said in the podcast, that’s the 5th starter “retrospectively” who threw 97 ip on average. As you pointed out, what these guys have here is opportunity in the rotation. Injuries and inferior play from rotation-mates can bump them up. Rookies like VV will be limited no matter what, but I can see Conley and Karns perhaps being #3 or #4 on their staff by season’s end.