Rotation implications at the start of the season

Today Manager Don Wakamatsu revealed that the starting five will be as follows:

  1. Felix Hernandez RHP
  2. Ian Snell RHP
  3. Ryan Rowland-Smith LHP
  4. Doug Fister RHP
  5. Jason Vargas LHP

What this does is essentially make it a lefty-righty rotation, with the exception of the 1-2.  Obviously, Felix is Felix, so it doesn’t really matter who he’s facing on opening day, but while I at first I thought this was the best alignment with Lee out, I’m starting to question 2-5 a little bit. Now, the difference in how it is set up is likely negligible, but the team needs any minor edge it can get with Cliff Lee likely out until late April or early May at the earliest.

While there’s no doubt that the second most talented arm behind Felix in this rotation is Ian Snell, I find the move a bit curious, since his first start will be against Oakland’s #2 starter Dallas Braden (who ran an impressive 3.73 FIP in 2009) and his second start will be against the powerful offense of the Texas Rangers. Snell’s biggest problem is the fact that despite being a major league pitcher, no one has ever told him what a strike zone is.

Oakland has a collection of patient hitters, and Texas is looking like they may be an offensive juggernaut this year, so it seems almost as if you’re setting up Snell to fail by slotting him #2. Maybe Wak and the Mariners see something I don’t, and believe the fact that he hasn’t walked many batters in spring will carry over, but I’m skeptical. I believe the talent is there, but I need more than a good spring training to think that Snell has taken that step forward.

Ryan Rowland-Smith I have no problem with being #3 in the rotation. The biggest benefit here is we get to see him start the home opener, where before I would’ve expected it to be Snell so Lee and Rowland-Smith, both low-velocity lefties, wouldn’t be pitching back-to-back days.

Fister would normally be fine in the #4 slot, but I think simply because of Snell’s command issues and Oakland’s patience, I believe that Fister fits better in the #2 spot. Fister had a very impressive 2.21 BB/9 in 2009, and that would force Oakland to put Fister’s offerings in play. Being that there isn’t really a super impressive bat in the Oakland lineup, I’d feel comfortable with Fister throwing a bunch of strikes and letting the M’s stellar defense clean up the balls he puts in play. So, as of this point in the post, if I had my way, the rotation would start out as Felix/Fister/Rowland-Smith.

I’d put Jason Vargas in the #4 spot, because while he is also a low-velocity lefty, his style of pitching is based more off of the change-up, whereas Rowland-Smith’s best pitch is the curve ball. Vargas turned in an excellent 2.36 BB/9 in 2009, leading me to once again believe that he’d have the best success pitching to contact against the A’s. His home run problem shouldn’t come up against a team with no power bats in the cavern of Oakland, so Vargas seems like a perfect fit to get his first start of the season in Oakland.

This would leave Snell pitching against Texas anyway, but I think when facing Texas, the difference between Snell and Vargas pitching is very small. Both are likely to get lit up in that ballpark against that offense. Vargas simply gives you a better chance to win against Oakland, and with Lee out, you need to give yourself every advantage you can. That’s not to say that Snell can’t beat Oakland, but I’d give Vargas better odds. When your second ace is out and you need to come out of the gate quickly, maximizing the talent on the roster seems key.

While Wakamatsu’s rotation isn’t terrible, I think that if just slightly juggled, it would be better suited to helping the team come out of the gate strong. Wak’s rotation may only cost us a game, but at the end of the season, that might look awfully costly.

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  • Sean

    My hope is that Wak and Adair have seen something in the match-ups that makes some sense out of this rotation. I’m not going to do all the research into the match-ups to confirm this, but I’m confident that the team has thought all of this through.

    I agree with the Fister as #2 logic, because we might as well not waste our most talented pitchers after Felix (Snell and RRS) on a superior opposing starter. To open the season I think Snell and Hyphen are the only ones that project better than a #5, so to match them up against 4 and 5 starters might be more advantageous than matching them up with equally or more talented pitchers at the top of our competitors’ rotation.

    I would like the following: Felix, Vargas, Fister, Rowland-Smith, Snell. In May we (hopefully) replace Vargas and Fister with Lee and Bedard.

    What do you think of this? Using RRS and Snell later in the rotation for better match-ups, and gambling on Fister and Vargas being competitive for the first month. Does this make sense? Or is it more logical to run out our best starters against their best starters? I think 2-5 for Texas and Oakland is better than our 2-5, would you agree?

    Also: I would love to have someone explain the logic of alternating arms (RLRLR). I know you don’t want the other team to see the same style pitcher, or similar arm angles, in back-to-back games. Doesn’t this go beyond handedness though? When Randy Johnson and Jamie Moyer pitched back-to-back, I don’t think anyone worried about pitching two lefties in consecutive starts, since they are such different pitchers.

  • Brett Miller

    Against Oakland, I figure it makes sense to run out pitch-to-contact guys, so I agree that RRS and Snell should be used later in the rotation, even if it is for different reasons.

    Honestly, I think RRLRL is overrated, even though that’s how the M’s are starting the season. I think that’s all conventional wisdom, and has little to do with what will actually happen on the field. I just think that’s kind of why Wak chose the rotation. He put his second best RH starter #2, which conventionally makes sense, but against a patient team like Oakland, I don’t think it does. That’s the jist of my argument.

    I would also say that until Lee is back, Tex and Oak’s 2-5 is better than ours, but not significantly. RRS is good, Snell is ok, and Fister is good against the weak offenses he will face in April. Call it a gut feeling, but I think Vargas is a bit better than he’s looked, even if FIP and xFIP don’t back it up. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see…

    Interesting questions you bring up though…I hadn’t really considered them before my post. I’ll probably offer another response to you tomorrow morning too, when I’ve slept on it.

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