(This article was originally posted as the major portion of an open discussion published during the off-season following the 2015 season, and re-posted in August, 2016 . It is almost word-for-word with the original discussion and the re-posted article which I have placed here in case you want to access them to view the comments.)
I know this could be viewed as a patently absurd statement. I don’t know if I agree or disagree with it. But I do know that the concepts of a starting pitcher hierarchy from an Ace or #1 pitcher down through a #5 pitcher are often used incorrectly here, on sports and baseball shows, in sports articles, and in sports blogs.
Since first encountering these terms, I have endeavored to understand them. I often blanch when I see them used incorrectly (as I understand them). And I have tried to share what I believe is the universal meaning of these terms as used by the scouting community.
Past attempts as a small paragraph within another post or within the comment thread of an article seem to have failed. So I will try again under the inflammatory title above, suggesting we don’t even have a #2 pitcher.
I spent several days researching this topic online. And then another couple days verifying that what I presented was a fair representation based on what various sources have stated. I visited Fangraphs, Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus, a couple websites dedicated to an organization’s affiliates, a website for HS baseball, and a couple college websites. Some were written 10 years ago, and some were written as recently as in the past 9 months. They try several different ways to explain the 20-80. Some are simple and direct, others are less simple but compelling. I’ll include all my sources at the end of the article.
In the following paragraphs, I will present only the facts that support my beliefs. Just kidding. I have no horse in this “race” other than to see that the terms are understood and used correctly. I am heartened that the BP article written in 2006 is remarkably similar in theory to the FanGraphs article written in September 2014.
First, as I implied in the first paragraph, the terms Ace and #1 are virtually interchangeable in the documents I’ve read. Broadcasters, beat writers, or the fan base of a team may refer to their team’s top pitcher as the ace of their staff, but that doesn’t mean he is a true #1 or ace as the terms are used in the baseball community. For instance, as we’ll see shortly, as good as Cole Hamels was for the Phillies, he was probably never a #1, even when he was the best pitcher on the staff.
Second, and this is implied in the above paragraph, there are not 30 #1 pitchers in baseball. The best pitcher on a team’s staff does not automatically mean that the pitcher will grade out as a #1 pitcher. Broadcasters, beat writers, or the fan base of a team may rank their pitchers 1 through 5, sometimes based on the order in which they are assigned starts. But, they would be mistaken to think that every team has a #1, a #2, a #3, etc; and they would be further mistaken to assume that there were by extension 30 #1 pitchers in the league, 30 #2s, 30 #3s, and so on. In fact, scouts and other baseball people who grade players tend to agree that at any given time there are about 8-12 #1 pitchers in the majors, around 20 #2s, and about 75 #3s. Since there only 150 starting pitcher slots available in the 30, five-man rotations, that would leave roughly 43-47 #4 and #5 pitchers in major league rotations.
In order to rank pitchers as #1, #2, etc. each rank has been assigned the attributes that define the rank as follows:
- #1 2 plus pitches, average 3rd pitch, plus-plus command, plus make-up
- #2 2 plus pitches, average 3rd pitch, average command, average make-up
- #3 1 plus pitch, 2 average pitches, average command, average make-up
- #4/#5 command of 2 ML pitches, average velo, consistent breaking ball, decent change-up
The attributes are clouded with terms like plus, plus-plus, and average. Baseball America defines these and other attributes as follows:
- 20 As bad as it gets for a big leaguer.
- 30 Poor, but not unplayable.
- 40 Below Average.
- 45 Major League average.
- 50 Average.
- 55 Above average.
- 60 Plus.
- 70 Plus-plus.
- 80 Top of the scale.
Baseball players are measured on several definable skills assigned to their position. For instance, starting pitchers are graded on their fastballs, secondary pitches, command, and make-up. Velocity is important but not the only thing considered when grading a fastball. command and movement are important, too. But, I’ll just focus on fastball velocity today:
Grade Avg. RHP Starter Avg. LHP Starter Reliever
- 80 97+ 96+ 98-99
- 70 96 95
- 65 95 94
- 60 94 93
- 55 93 92
- 50 91-92 90-91
- 45 90 89
- 40 88-89 87-88
- 30 86-87 85-86
- 20 85 or less 84 or less
The average velocity for a fastball is determined by the average within his range. The pitcher’s range is determined by where the majority of his fastballs are recorded. For example, in a very SSS, a pitcher throws 10 fastballs – 93, 92, 95, 94, 91, 98, 92, 92, 95, 93. This is where the terms “sit” and “touch” come into play. A scout would say the pitcher in the SSS sits 92-95 (discarding the outliers) and touches 98 (recognizing the high outlier). The average of the pitches in his range (where he “sits”) is 93.25, which would grade out to a 55 on the above chart for a RHP, 60 for a LHP.
I can remember being taught about the “bell curve” in grade school and high school. Without going into too much detail, here’s some information I found on the 20-80 scale (RedsMinorLeagues.com):
The scouting scale is from 20-80. There is speculation that when first instituted it was decided that 50 would be average in a 0-100 scale. There is further speculation that a scientific scale of three standard deviations above/below average would be employed. With 50 as average, three grades in each direction would be the normal distribution – 20, 30, 40 below average and 60, 70, 80 above.
Major League level baseball skills are distributed in a bell curve. Most players will be bunched near the center of the curve where average skills reside. Players with a skill level that is greater or worse than the average will fill out the curve until the extremes at each end are reached where the fewest players reside. A percentage representation would look as follows:
Grade Term Percentage of MLB Players with a Particular Skill
- 20 Poor 0.2%
- 30 Well Below Average 2.1%
- 40 Below Average 13.6%
- 50 Average 68.2%
- 60 Plus 13.6%
- 70 Plus-Plus 2.1%
- 80 Top End 0.2%
Now, you can see that most players graded on any skill are going to bunch in the middle of the curve, hence the bell allegory. Most teams use the half grades of 45 and 55 to spread the average players out. Some scouts go a step further to describe players in the middle of the range by describing the skill as “solid average” (between 50-55) or “fringy average” (between 45-50) This is just another tool to further differentiate among the large number of players in the middle of the curve.
A couple other concepts that come into play are control vs. command and make-up. All but one of the seven articles I read agreed on the meanings of control and command. The seventh, spent his time trying to dispute Curt Schilling who apparently agrees with the other six articles I read. Dude must not like Curt. Control is the ability to throw strikes, to throw the ball over the plate. Command is the ability to throw “quality strikes”, to hit the target consistently. When a pitcher with good control misses, a lot of balls are hit hard and put in play. A pitcher with good command makes fewer mistakes. His mistakes can be hit just as hard, but it doesn’t happen as often. A pitcher with good command will tend to miss more bats over a larger sample size than the pitcher with good control.
Make-up is a more subjective concept. A scout tries to gauge the type of person the player will become based on his opinion of the player’s surroundings grounding up. There’s no formula, so sabermatricians haven’t tried to grade this as far as I know.
The 20-80 scale used by scouts to describe a pitcher’s weapons also helps determine a pitcher’s overall rating. In 2015 Baseball America, for instance, described pitchers as follows:
Grade Role Example
- 75-80 #1 Starter Craig Kershaw
- 65-70 #2 Starter Coles Hamels
- 55-60 #3 Starter, Elite Closer Chris Tillman, Aroldis Chapman
- 50 #4 Starter, Elite Set-Up Reliever Mike Leake, Andrew Miller
- 45 #5 Starter, Set-Up Reliever Scott Feldman, Craig Stammen
- 40 Relief Specialist Randy Choate
Baseball America’s overall grade for prospects is slightly different from baseball’s OFP (Overall Future Potential) in that it attempts to numerically guage a prospect’s realistic ceiling while assigning the risk the organization assumes as the prospect progresses to the major leagues:
- Safe Has shown realistic ceiling, ready to contribute
- Low Likely to reach realistic ceiling, certain MLB career barring injury
- Medium Some work to reach MLB caliber skills, but fairly polished player
- High Most picks in 1st season, players w/projection left, injury history
- Extreme Teens in rookie ball, significant injury history, struggle w/key skill
And finally, a look at how all the above relates to the Phillies’ pitchers. I think if we look at the pitchers on the 40-man roster, we can eliminate all as #1 starters and most if not all as #2 starters.
The Phillies have 24 pitchers on their 40-man roster, 12 starters and 12 relievers. The relievers are Araujo, Cordero, Garcia, Gomez, Hernandez, Hinojosa, Hollands, Mariot, Murray, Neris, Ramos, and Stumpf.
Among the starting pitchers, only Velasquez throws an above league average fastball at 94.99 MPH.
The 12 SP on the roster are graded below. 2-S and 4-S are 2-seamer and 4-seamer. In 2015 the MLB average for a 4-S was 92.90 MPH, for a 2-S it was 92.30 MPH. The Pre-season info is from BA’s 2015 Prospect Handbook.
- Asher RHP, 4-S, 91.90, Pre-season: low 90s FB touching 95, low 80s SL and CH that flash AVG, BA Grade 50/Medium Risk, potential #4
- Biddle LHP, Pre-season: FB 91-93, SL in the low 80s, high 70s CH, mid 70s CB, needs consistency, BA Grade 50/Extreme Risk
- Buchanan RHP, 4-S, 89.81,
- Eickhoff RHP, 4-S, 91.37,
- Gonzalez RHP, 4-S, 89.54, Pre-season: 4 above average pitches, low 90s cutter, mid 80s CH, low 80s SLl, BA Grade 45/High Risk, projects as back end SP
- Harrison LHP, 2-S, 86.85, SSS injured
- Hellickson RHP, 4-S, 90.85,
- Morgan LHP, 4-S, 89.37,
- Morton RHP, 2-S, 92.34,
- Nola RHP, 4-S, 90.97, Pre-season: FB 93-95, SL that flattens, CH that used to be a Plus pitch, BA Grade 60/Medium Risk
- Oberholtzer LHP, 4-S, 88.85,
- Vasquez RHP, 4-S, 94.99, Pre-season: FB 92-95 T96, Plus CH, Below Average CB that projects to Solid Average, BA Grade 55/High Risk
Eight prospects are graded below. They were among the prospects listed in BA’s 2015 Prospect Handbook for the Phillies or their former teams.
- Appel RHP, Pre-season: FB 92-98 sits 94-95, mid 80s SL, CH, all 3 pitches show as Plus, lacks command BA Grade 60/Medium Risk
- Arano RHP, Pre-season: FB 88-92 T94, 11-to-5 CB 74-80, sinking mid 80s CH, BA Grade 45/High Risk, projects as back end SP
- M. Gonzalez RHP, Pre-season: FB 94-97 T higher, BA grade 45/High Risk (note: These FB numbers are deceiving. GCL batters made hard contact against him.)
- Imhof LHP, Pre-season: FB 86-92 T94, CB 75-80 w/strong break, CH low 80s, none are plus, all are average or approaching average, BA Grade 50/High Risk, projects as back end SP
- Kilome RHP, Pre-season: FB 89-92 T95, hard CB 78-80, low 80s CH, BA Grade 50/Extreme Risk, projects as mid rotation SP
- Pinto RHP, Pre-season: FB 93-95 T97, CH 80-82 projects as above average, a SL that could be average in future, low 90s 2-seamer, BA Grade 50/Extreme Risk
- Rodriguez LHP, Pre-season: FB 89-92, CH, and CB that are average at best, BA Grade 40/Mediumk Risk, may transition to RP
- Thompson RHP, Pre-season: FB 2-seamer/4-seamer 89-95, Plus SL that flashes 70 on the 20/80, average CH, average CB, BA Grade 60/Medium Risk, potential #2/3 SP
Among the starters, Velasquez appears to have the most promise. The development of his CB will determine whether he reaches a ceiling of a #2. Nola may have projected higher when his FB was 93-95, but after barely averaging 91 last season, his FB grades out as average for a RHP. He looks like a solid #3. The other 10 are threes or back end of the rotation guys.
Among the prospects, Appel looks like his command will determine where he slots in as a pitcher, although #3 is probably his floor and the most likely outcome. Thompson looks like a pitcher who could reach his #2 ceiling. Kilome and Pinto are both coming off good seasons. This coming season both should be entering the conversation regarding prospective major league starting pitchers as they move up to Lakewood and Reading respectively. Arano and Imhof will likely remain in the conversation for back end slots. Rodriguez continues a transition to the bullpen. And, Gonzalez probably just fades away when his contract is up.
So , were looking at a 2017 rotation that could include a couple blossoming #2s in Thompson and Vasquez, a couple of solid #3s in Nola and Appel, a lot of solid pitchers to fill out the rotation in the interim and in ’17, a couple of developing pitchers coming up in ’18 and/or ’19 in Pinto and Kilome, as well as some wild cards in the low minors I didn’t even mention here PLUS the 1/1 pick in the draft. Future’s looking bright.
- Baseball America Prospect Handbook 2015
- MLB.com player pages
- MiLB.com player pages