Tuesday March 16th, 2010

Forget Boston's fancy run-prevention metrics, forget how the Yankees might deploy their left fielders and center fielders, how much damage David Ortiz can still do, whether New York is too old, whether Boston is too old, who has the better bullpen... forget all of the hair-splitting analysis wasted over whether Boston or New York is the better team.

It really is this simple: the team that gets the most starts out of its planned five-man rotation will be the better team. That's right, both teams can spend $350 million combined on players, assign squadrons of number crunchers to analyze the life out of the game, hold staff meetings late into the night to worry about what Triple-A middle reliever might be needed around August, and the battle will be won simply by which team's top five starters take the ball most often. All that architectural planning and scheming and it all comes down to crossing your fingers when it comes to how well five pitching arms hold up.

I know this to be true because Curt Schilling told me years ago. His theory was that the Red Sox and Yankees are so evenly matched that the team that gets the most starts out of its top five starters will be the better team. It's amazing how right he has been.

Last year, for instance, the Yankees' top five starters made 139 starts to Boston's 121. New York won eight more games and the World Series. Indeed, so freakish was the run of good luck by the Yankees with their starters that they had four starters make at least 31 starts -- for the first time in the history of the franchise.

But that's just one year. Let's look at the past seven years, the era in which Boston and New York essentially have been near-equal rivals, and examine the correlation between which team got the most starts from its top five and which team had the most wins.

Schilling has been right four straight years. Only once in the past seven years did the team with more starts have fewer wins, but even that occasion needs an explanation. It happened in 2004, when the Red Sox -- who got an incredible 157 starts from five starters -- may have had three fewer regular season wins than New York but beat the Yankees in the ALCS and won the World Series.

So determining who is better this year, the Red Sox or Yankees, becomes a very simple exercise: just forecast which team will get more starts out of its top five starters. And when you do that, the answer becomes obvious: the Yankees will be the better team.

Look at Boston's rotation. After Josh Beckett and Jon Lester, who are reliable, the Red Sox have John Lackey, who has missed 15 starts the past two years, Daisuke Matsuzaka, whose innings have decreased two straight years and already came up with a stiff neck in spring training, and Clay Buchholz, who has yet to throw 100 innings in a big league season.

New York's rotation is far more reliable. It features three of the nine most durable starters in baseball over the past five years as measured by innings: CC Sabathia (first), Javier Vazquez (eighth) and Andy Pettitte (ninth). A.J. Burnett ranks 24th after back-to-back 200-inning seasons. The fifth spot remains an open competition among Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes, Chad Gaudin, Sergio Mitre and Alfredo Aceves.

When you line up the 2009 workloads of the top four starters for each team, the New York quartet covered 28 more starts and 200 more innings than the Boston group, a huge gap in reliability. The more reliable rotation means more starts, and more starts means more wins.

Schilling's theory made me think about whether it held up outside the New York-Boston rivalry. So I looked at the number of starts in 2009 by the top five starters of each team. (I defined the top five starters as the planned rotation at the start of the season. For instance, Brandon Webb was one of Arizona's top starters, though he broke down after one start.)

Here are the leaders:

1. San Francisco, 144

2. Milwaukee, 142

3. Yankees, 139

4. St. Louis, 137

5. Tampa Bay, 133

6. Atlanta, 130

And here are the trailers:

25. Kansas City, 88

26. Washington, 83

27. Texas, 79

28. Cleveland, 76

29. San Diego, 69

30. Baltimore, 66

Here's what jumps out: all of the leaders but one (the Brewers) had winning records and all of the trailers but one (the Rangers) had losing records.

The median number of starts from teams' top five starters was 120. Of the 14 teams above the median, 11 had winning records. Of the 14 below the median, 10 had losing records.

Here are some more nuggets to chew on when it comes to the correlation between durable starters and winning:

• Over the past five years, 60 teams have had three starters make at least 30 starts, or 40 percent of all teams. But such teams with at least three durable starters made up 80 percent of the World Series teams (8 of 10).

• Only 15 teams over the past five years were lucky enough to have four starters take the ball 30 times, including those 2009 Yankees. Of those 15 teams, 12 had winning records and 10 went to the playoffs.

Don Cooper of the White Sox is one of the most underrated pitching coaches in baseball. His staffs are consistently durable. Over the past five years his pitchers have made 30 starts 20 times, an extraordinary record. The Yankees and Red Sox, for instance, during that span are tied -- what else did you expect? -- with 13 times one of their pitchers made 30 starts.

• Wonder why teams stay down? Over the past five years the teams with the fewest times a pitcher made 30 starts are the Royals and Rangers (7), followed by the Padres, Blue Jays and Orioles (8). Combined playoff games won by those five teams over the past five years: one.

It's a simple correlation but it makes a lot of sense. Walk into any camp today and ask the general manager if he would sign up right now for a season in which his top five starters make all of their starts. Chances are they would take that deal in a heartbeat.

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