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The importance of improvement from the M’s rotation

By Gary Hill

On Monday evening, Felix Hernandez will stride to the mound for his seventh opening day start. The Mariners’ ace has been the model of consistency, surpassing 30 starts and 200 innings for six straight years.

In 2013, Felix combined with fellow All-Star Hisashi Iwakuma to form a devastating one-two punch. The dynamic duo only yielded 134 earned runs in 424 innings for a sparkling 2.84 ERA. The remaining three spots in the rotation, however, did not fare nearly as well (5.24 ERA in 536 innings).

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Behind Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma, the rest of the Mariners’ 2013 rotation combined for a 5.24 ERA. (AP)

The Mariners’ rotation slipped to 20th overall in starter ERA (4.18) despite the Herculean efforts of Hernandez and Iwakuma. It should be noted that no team below 14th in starter ERA made the playoffs in 2013. In fact, here is the list of the top 11 teams in starter ERA in 2013:

1. Los Angeles Dodgers, 3.13 (Playoffs)
2. St. Louis Cardinals, 3.42 (Playoffs)
3. Cincinnati Reds, 3.43 (Playoffs)
4. Detroit Tigers, 3.44 (Playoffs)
5. Pittsburgh Pirates, 3.50 (Playoffs)
6. Atlanta Braves, 3.51 (Playoffs)
7. Washington Nationals, 3.60
8. New York Mets, 3.68
9. Oakland A’s, 3.72 (Playoffs)
10. Tampa Bay Rays, 3.81 (Playoffs)
11. Boston Red Sox, 3.84 (Playoffs)

The Mets and Nationals were the only teams in the top 11 in starter ERA that did not reach the postseason last year. The Cleveland Indians were the lone competitors to land in the playoffs outside of the top 11 (14th at 3.92 ERA).

The Boston Red Sox are an especially interesting case. In 2012, their rotation was torched for 754 earned runs in 1,443 innings (4.70 ERA), which was 27th in MLB. The Red Sox finished dead last in the American League East as they could only muster a 69-93 record. The following season the improved rotation slashed nearly an entire run from its combined ERA (3.84) as Boston rolled to 97 wins and the World Series title. By no means was starting pitching the only factor in the massive improvement from season to season, but it clearly played a fundamental role.

Here is the breakdown of how many playoff teams finished in the top 11 in several statistical categories.

Starting pitcher ERA: 9 of top 11 were playoff teams
• Bullpen ERA: 4 of top 11 were playoff teams
• Runs scored: 6 of top 11 were playoff teams
• Hits: 4 of top 11 were playoff teams
• Home runs: 6 of top 11 were playoff teams
• Batting average: 4 of top 11 were playoff teams
• On-base percentage: 8 of top 11 were playoff teams
• On-base plus slugging: 6 of top 11 were playoff teams

The obvious key for the Mariners to improve from 20th in team ERA is to dramatically improve the final three slots in the rotation. All Mariners starts outside of Felix and Iwakuma last season:

• Joe Saunders: 32 starts, 5.26 ERA
• Aaron Harang: 22 starts, 5.76 ERA
• Brandon Maurer: 14 starts, 6.20 ERA
• Erasmo Ramirez: 13 starts, 4.97 ERA
• Blake Beavan: 2 starts, 8.44 ERA
• Jeremy Bonderman: 7 starts, 4.93 ERA
• Hector Noesi: 1 start, 0.00 ERA
• James Paxton: 4 starts, 1.50 ERA
• Taijuan Walker: 3 starts, 3.60 ERA

The baton has been passed from the veteran back end of a year ago to a new generation of electric M’s arms. James Paxton, Taijuan Walker, Erasmo Ramirez, Brandon Maurer and Roenis Elias will be tasked with solidifying the final three rotation spots as the Mariners shoot for the exclusive top 11.