It’s pretty clear at this point which teams are going to the playoffs. The Angels are only 3 1/3 games behind the Rangers, and their veteran pitching may hold up better in September, but the Rangers have the better offense and the better bullpen, so I feel confident anointing them division champs.
The old adage that pitching wins in the playoffs may be half-baked- teams that score six runs per game do pretty well in October too- but it held true last year, when the pitching-loaded Giants knocked off superior teams despite one of the game’s weakest offenses. Let’s take a look at the starting rotations of the eight likely playoff teams in terms of Season Score.
For the moment, I’ll assume that teams will set up their rotations from the highest Season Score to the lowest. Here’s a quick and dirty rotation strength formula based on expected postseason pitcher use:
#1 starter’s Season Score * 1.5, plus
#2 starter’s Season Score, plus
#3 starter’s Season Score, plus
#4 starter’s Season Score * .5
If a team has the luxury of lining up its starters optimally for each series (and all these teams should be able to do that for the Division Series), a #1 starter will pitch more games than anyone else. He may pitch two Divison Series games and will almost certainly start twice in any best-of-seven series. I’ll ignore #5 starters entirely, as only an injury or a Bronson-Arroyo-in-Game-Three-of-the-2004-ALCS-level meltdown would result in a team starting its fifth best pitcher in the playoffs. #4 starters tend to get some work in October, but they can be skipped in Division Series with days off and are rarely used more than once in any series.
Based on this formula (which isn’t perfect, but it really can’t be, since not every team will use its staff the same way), the eight likely playoff teams rank like this:
1. Phillies (Halladay, Hamels, Lee, Worley), 1742
2. Tigers (Verlander, Scherzer, Fister, Porcello), 1349
3. Red Sox (Beckett, Lester, Bedard, Lackey), 1144
4. Brewers (Marcum, Gallardo, Greinke, Wolf), 1105
5. Braves (Hudson, Hanson, Jurrjens, Beachy), 1085
6. Yankees (Sabathia, Garcia, Colon, Nova), 1041
7. Diamondbacks (Kennedy, Hudson, Collmenter, Marquis), 1018
8. Rangers (Wilson, Ogando, Lewis, Harrison), 1006
Season Score is an excellent metric for evaluating past performance, but like most countings stats, it doesn’t consider health, recent performance, or durability, all of which factor into the relative strengths of the eight postseason pitching staffs. Here’s a more subjective ranking with these factors considered (numbers in parenthesis are individual Season Scores):
You can’t argue with this one. Along with Clayton Kershaw, the Phillies have three of the four best pitchers in the National League in Halladay (481), Hamels (460), and Lee (455). Unless their #4 starter lines up against another team’s ace (which is possible), they will enter every game they play in the postseason with a pitching advantage. I chose Vance Worley and his 210 Season Score as the #4 starter, though it’s possible the Phillies will go with the more battle-tested (yet less healthy) Roy Oswalt (84) in that spot. It shouldn’t matter, as the Phillies will only lose a postseason series if someone else’s pitching shuts their bats down.
Zack Greinke’s 233 Season Score ranks just 22nd in the NL, but don’t be fooled- Greinke will be the best NL pitcher in the playoffs not wearing a Phillies uniform. He missed the first month of the season with an injury and has been hit-unlucky since his return (opponents have hit .309 against him on balls in play), but Greinke leads all starting pitchers with 10.75 strikeouts per nine innings, and his 2.45 xFIP, or expected Fielding Independent ERA is the best in baseball. The Brewers have the luxury of slotting Shaun Marcum (319), Yovani Gallardo (283), and lefty Randy Wolf (221) anywhere in the rotation and matching up well with anyone but Philadelphia.
3. Red Sox
Chosing between the Red Sox and Tigers is basically choosing between the AL’s best two-man rotation and the best one-man rotation. Justin Verlander accounts for 69% of the Tigers’ above score by himself, and he’ll have to carry his teammates if they plan to win in October. Verlander has been by far the best pitcher in baseball this year, as his 621 Season Score leads AL runner-up Jered Weaver by over 100 points. The Sox go two deep with Josh Beckett (428) and Jon Lester (325), each of whom is healthy now and has has postseason success in the past.
Each acquired its next best pitcher from Seattle at the trade deadline. Detroit got Doug Fister (270), who’s been good with the Tigers (2.97 ERA), but had much of his success in a pitcher’s park in Seattle. Similarly, Bedard has pitched well in Boston, but doesn’t have a Red Sox win to show for it and his health is always a concern.
The Tigers will round out their rotation with Max Scherzer (140), who’s been roughed up lately, and probably Rick Porcello (15), while Boston’s fourth starter will be John Lackey, who has pitched deeper into games lately, but brings by far the worst season score (-46) of anyone likely to make a playoff start.
In a best-of-five series, Verlander could pitch twice, making the Tigers formidable, but the Red Sox could get four starts from Beckett and Lester in a best-of-seven, and that’s enough to give them a slight edge here.
If the Tigers can be ranked fourth based on one guy, the Yankees probably shoudln’t be far behind. CC Sabathia (418) is no Verlander, but he’s a tested playoff ace who pitches deep into games and keeps the bullpen fresh. Oddly, with all the talk about the Yankees not having an obvious #2 starter, they’ll actually enter the playoffs with the deepest rotation in the AL. We don’t know how they’ll line them up, but if Freddy Garcia (191) is healthy, Bartolo Colon’s bionic arm (168) holds, up, and Ivan Nova (110) keeps pitching adequately and getting Lackey-esque run support, New York’s third and fourth starters, whoever they are, match up well with anyone in the AL. I haven’t even mentioned Phil Hughes (-21), who has some of the best stuff on the team but hasn’t put it together beyond an isolated quality start here and there. I suspect Hughes will knock Garcia, Colon, or Nova out of the playoff rotation, but it’s hard to guess which one.
A month ago, the Braves would have been a toss-up with the Brewers for the number two team on this list, but today I’m not sure they match up well with anyone Philly or Milwaukee will throw at them. Tim Hudson (316) has been their best pitcher, but is a low strikeout guy (6.4 per 9) who has struggled in past playoffs (one career playoff win). Tommy Hanson looks like the ace of the future, but is currently on the DL with a rotator cuff injury. Jair Jurrjens (242) has faded since his excellent, if low-BABiP-fueled, first half. Rookie Brandon Beachy (232) will be treading new ground in terms of innings pitched, and may not have much left in the tank in October. Derek Lowe (84) has postseason experience, but also has a strikeout/walk ratio less than two to one in 2011.
Factoring in the game’s best bullpen, the Braves entire pitching staff would probably rank in the top half of this list, but the guys who will start games for Atlanta in October won’t scare anyone.
Coming into this season, when I expected Arizona to finish last in the NL West, starting pitching was a primary reason. Ian Kennedy (386) has surprised, standing 17-4 with a 3.03 ERA, and Daniel Hudson (246) has arguably been even better, as his strikeout/walk ratio and homerun rate are better than Kennedy’s. Veteran Jason Marquis (39) may claim the third spot in the rotation, as rookie Josh Collmenter (173) may not have enough left in the tank to make multiple postseason starts. If the Diamondbacks want to win a postseason series, they’ll need to lead with their bats, which is not an easy proposition with an NLDS date with the Phillies likely.
The Rangers’ pitching depth is often cited as one of the reasons they’re a formidable playoff team, but I don’t buy it. After the excellent CJ Wilson (308), the team is young, and Alexi Ogando (240), Matt Harrison (175), and fifth starter Derek Holland (129) have all surpassed their career highs in innings pitched by the end of August. Holland may come into play because Colby Lewis (216) has given up an ugly 31 home runs, and pitching in Arlington, New York, or Boston against the Yankees or Red Sox won’t help him keep the ball in the park. This is a young team that has some experience and a lot of promise, but rotational depth may actually be the weakness that breaks them in October.
Here’s one last way to look at these teams’ rotations? Ranking starters based on Season Score, the toughest postseason matchups are as follows:
1. Tigers (Verlander)
2. Phillies (Halladay)
3. Red Sox (Beckett)
1. Phillies (Hamels)
2. Red Sox (Lester)
3. Brewers (Gallardo)
1. Phillies (Lee)
2. Braves (Jurrjens)
3. Brewers (Greinke)
1. Braves (Beachy)
2. Brewers (Wolf)
3. Phillies (Worley)
Winning in October takes a great mix of starting and relief pitching, hitting, baserunning, defense, and getting hot at the right time. But if you believe pitching wins championships, bet it all on the Phillies.