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September 9, 2011

Prospectus Hit and Run

NL Post-Season Rotation Ramble

by Jay Jaffe

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With the matter of the playoff participants in both leagues largely settled, on Wednesday I examined the unsettled nature of the playoff rotations of the likely AL representatives. As I showed, each has a considerable amount of unfinished business with regards to identifying their front four, with injuries and matchup issues both playing a part, and there's relatively little separation between the four, at least according to a quick and dirty measure I nabbed from Nate Silver's back pages. By comparison, the NL teams have much less uncertainty as to who will be taking the ball, and much more certainty about whom the fairest of them all is, at least when it comes to post-season rotations.

This year, both series in each league will be on the same five-games-in-seven-days schedule, with off-days after the second and fourth games due to travel (apologies for forgetting that the schedule is now 2-2-1 instead of 2-3; there's only been one fifth Division Series game in the past five seasons). Thus it's possible, but hardly likely, that a team could bring back its Game One starter on three days' rest while still having its Game Two starter on four days' rest for a decisive fifth game.

Sure Things: Welcome to Flavor Country. Since snatching free agent Cliff Lee out from under the noses of the Yankees and Rangers this past winter, the Phillies have essentially made the regular season a formality preceding the deployment of the most stacked post-season rotation in memory. Whether righty Roy Halladay (2.49 ERA, 2.09 FIP) or lefty Lee (2.49 ERA, 2.61 FIP) gets the Game One nod, opponents face a formidable task. Thanks to the league's highest strikeout-to-walk ratio (7.5), lowest walk rate (1.2 per nine), and third-lowest homer rate (0.4 per nine), Halladay currently has the 13th-best FIP since 1950, and is 0.04 runs per nine away from cracking the top 10. Lee is also walking less than two hitters per nine, while boasting the rotation's highest strikeout rate (9.0 per nine). Unlike either of those two, Cole Hamels (2.63 ERA, 2.69 FIP) already has a World Series ring as staff ace; his peripherals match up quite well with Lee's, though he's striking out "only" 8.2 per nine. Hamels served a 15-day stint on the disabled list for shoulder inflammation in the second half of August; his two starts since returning have been typically strong, and they likely won't affect his status as the third starter here. While the team obviously has plenty of depth in their rotation, it's worth considering that Halladay has six career starts on short rest, with a 2.79 ERA and seven innings per start, though he hasn't made one since 2008.

In the Mix: With 10 career post-season starts and five top-five finishes in the Cy Young voting, Roy Oswalt (3.72 ERA, 3.42 FIP) has the résumé to merit a playoff start, but he's lost nine weeks to lower-back woes via two disabled list stints this year. His 6.1 strikeouts per nine are a career low, and manager Charlie Manuel has voiced concerns about his stamina and arm strength. Rookie Vance Worley (2.85 ERA, 3.23 FIP) presents a solid alternative. While he hasn't pitched as well as his 11-1 record suggests, his strikeout, walk, and homer rates are all quite good. The 23-year-old has already set a career high with 161 innings, but after throwing 158 last year, he's likely still got some headroom.

Long Shots: Despite the Phillies reaching the playoffs in each of the past four seasons, Kyle Kendrick (3.29 ERA, 4.67 FIP) hasn't been needed for post-season duty since 2007. Nor should he be, given his shortcomings with regards to missing bats and keeping the ball in the park. Halladay is a better bet to work on three days' rest than Kendrick is to get an October turn.

Sure Things: More than any other NL contender, the Braves have significant concerns about the condition of their rotation, as both Jair Jurrjens (2.96 ERA, 3.95 FIP) and Tommy Hanson (3.60 ERA, 3.64 FIP) are currently sidelined due to injury. That makes Tim Hudson (3.14 ERA, 3.51 FIP) the likely Game One starter. In his second full season since Tommy John surgery, the 36-year-old (!) has his best set of peripherals—and hence his lowest FIP—since 2007, and he's tied for seventh in the league with a 72 percent quality start rate. He's 15th among ERA qualifiers at 0.7 homers per nine, an important stat given potential first-round matchup Milwaukee's power (they're second in homers and slugging percentage). Interestingly enough, among his nine post-season starts, three are on three days' rest, dating back to his days in Oakland; he pitched well in defeat in one, was tagged in another, and left a third after one inning due to finger cramps.

In the Mix: Derek Lowe (4.65 ERA, 3.58 FIP) has been scorched for a .323 BABIP, and his 3.5 walks per nine are a whisker off his career high, but his strikeout and homer rates (6.6 and 0.6 per nine, respectively) are his best since his Dodger days. His extensive post-season résumé(23 appearances, 12 starts) makes him the likely Game Two starter, particularly if Jurrjens can't go. Jurrjens had a league-best 1.87 ERA at the break, but he's been rocked for a 5.88 ERA in seven second-half turns, only two of them quality starts; after serving a DL stint in the first half of August due to right knee soreness, he made just three starts before being advised not to throw off a mound for another two weeks, which doesn't leave much margin for error. Meanwhile, Hanson is attempting to rehab from a small tear in his rotator cuff; he hasn't pitched since August 6, and is scheduled to work off a mound this weekend, meaning that he's not likely to see much game activity before a decision is made. That leaves rookies Brandon Beachy (3.29 ERA, 3.36 FIP) and Mike Minor (4.32 ERA, 2.77 FIP) as likely candidates for starts. The former's 10.1 strikeouts per nine would rank second only to Greinke if he had enough innings to qualify (likewise, Hanson's 9.8 would be third), and his rate of 2.0 unintentional walks per nine is stellar as well. Of concern is his 131 innings, three shy of his career high, and his 4.05 pitches per plate appearance, third in the league among pitchers with at least 100 innings (Hanson, at 4.01, is fifth); he may not have a ton more innings left in the tank. Minor, who at 23 is a year younger than Beachy, just surpassed his innings high; he's at 167 1/3 and counting. The rotation's sole lefty has actually had more trouble with same-side hitters (.341/.378/.463) than opposite-side ones (.276/.338/.384) this season; that shouldn't be a huge issue if he's matched up against a righty-heavy team, though it probably rates as some concern that the Brewers chased him early in his lone start against them.

Long Shots: Blue-chip prospects Julio Teheran and Randall Delgado have just five major-league starts (one quality) between them, with the latter's 94-pitch outing on September 4 the first time either has gone above 90 at the big-league level. At 154 innings, the 21-year-old Delgado is seven shy of last year's high, while the 20-year-old Teheran is at 153 1/3, having just surpassed his. The absences of both Jurrjens and Hanson for at least the next couple of weeks figure to further those totals, and they're even less likely to be pushed too far than the more seasoned Beachy and Minor.

Sure Thing: The Brewers are as set as any team when it comes to identifying their front four starters, with Zack Greinke (3.93 ERA, 2.93 FIP) the de facto ace. Greinke got off to a rough start in Milwaukee after being acquired from the Royals in a December blockbuster; a fractured rib delayed his debut until May 4, and gopher problems (1.3 HR/9) and a lack of defensive support (.349 BABIP) kept his ERA at a hefty 5.45 through the first half despite stellar strikeout and walk rates (12.0 and 1.9 per nine, respectively). He's done a much better job of keeping the ball in the park during the second half (0.7 HR/9) while getting better defensive support (.294) even if his strikeout rate has fallen to "only" 8.8 per nine. Having never been anywhere near a playoff race before, it's surprising to find that Greinke has even one start on three days' rest, but that was the consequence of a late-season move from the bullpen to the rotation back in 2007; he went just three innings. Given the depth of Milwaukee's rotation, he's no threat to work on short rest this October.

In the Mix: The only real question is how manager Ron Roenicke will align his other three starters. Yovani Gallardo (3.71 ERA, 3.74 FIP) is the only starter who remains from the 2008 wild-card winners, and as the resident ace prior to Greinke's arrival, he may be a sentimental favorite to start game two in front of a home crowd. Like Greinke, Gallardo was knocked around early in the season; he posted a 6.10 ERA through his first seven starts due to control problems (3.7 BB/9, 1.8 K/BB). He found a groove on May 7, taking a no-hitter into the ninth inning against the Cardinals; including that start, he has posted a 3.03 ERA over his last 23 turns, with a 3.6 strikeout-to-walk ratio and nearly a whiff per inning. He's had trouble keeping the ball in the park all year; his 1.2 homers per nine is double last year's rate. On the other hand, Shaun Marcum (3.11 ERA, 3.44 FIP) has quietly been the rotation's most consistent member, with strong peripherals across the board; he hasn't had a single month with an ERA above 4.03, and he's been hell on righties (.181/.230/.301), although that's less relevant against likely first-round opponent Atlanta than it would be against Arizona. Randy Wolf (3.47 ERA, 4.28 FIP) is likely to be the lone lefty in the team's playoff rotation; he hasn't been as sharp as a Brewer as he was as a Dodger, with a strikeout rate that's fallen below 6.0 and a walk rate that's creeping toward 3.0. Worth noting: Greinke, Gallardo, Marcum, and Wolf all have quality start rates between 66 and 71 percent.

Long Shots: Barring an injury, lefty Chris Narveson (4.26 ERA, 3.81 FIP) is likely relegated to a bullpen role, but his ability to pitch multiple innings and to miss bats (7.3 K/9) should be a boon to that unit, particularly if another starter gets chased early.

Sure Things: As noted last week, the Diamondbacks boast an impressive one-two punch in Ian Kennedy (2.96 ERA, 3.47 FIP) and Daniel Hudson (3.53 ERA, 3.20 FIP), both of whom rank among the league's 10 most valuable hurlers this season. Kennedy has the stronger won-loss record (18-4, versus 15-9) as well as better defensive support (.271 BABIP, versus .305) and the lower ERA, so he gets called the ace, and he'll almost certainly get the ball in Game One of the Division Series, with Hudson following in Game Two. Relative to the former, the latter has a slightly lower strikeout rate, but better walk and homer rates, and hence the lower FIP. Both are equally durable, separated by exactly one out and 10 batters faced over the course of 29 starts. Neither has experience on three days' rest, so that won't be a factor here.

In the Mix: The only question about the remaining two starters is the order in which they'll be deployed, but the hunch here is that veteran southpaw Joe Saunders (3.93 ERA, 4.84 FIP), who has three starts’ worth of playoff experience, will precede rookie Josh Collmeter (3.10 ERA, 3.40 FIP). Saunders has a hefty home-run rate (1.3 per nine) and a meager strikeout rate (4.8 per nine); if not for a .276 BABIP, he'd be considered roadkill instead of a League-Average Innings Muncher. By contrast, Collmenter has much better peripherals across the board; his 1.6 walks per nine would officially rank second in the league only to Roy Halladay if he weren't 6 2/3 innings shy of qualifying for the ERA title.

Long Shots: The irony is that the one injured Diamondbacks starter is the guy who was acquired for the playoff push, Jason Marquis (4.43 ERA, FIP), who suffered a broken leg due to a batted ball in his third start for the Snakes. With no further health issues in their rotation, it's doubtful the Snakes have to dip lower, but it's unclear whom they'd call upon if they did. Rookie righty Wade Miley (3.52 ERA, 4.42 FIP) has just four starts under his belt and lefty Zach Duke (5.08 ERA, 3.97 FIP) has been battered for high BABIPs often enough that he can't blame it all on his defense (.329 career, .344 this year). Righty Micah Owings (3.21 ERA, 4.36 FIP) might be the most logical choice given his 2007 post-season experience dating; were he to start, manager Kirk Gibson could also deploy the lifetime .286/.313/.507 hitter as a pinch-hitter in the other games.

Years ago, Nate Silver used his newfangled QuikERA, weighted by an historically-based distribution of the 1-4 slots, to rank the playoff rotations. His research showed that number one starters take 31 percent of postseason starts, twos take 28 percent, with threes at 23 percent and fours at 18 perdent. 

Substituting FIP—an ERA estimator based upon home run, strikeout, unintentional walk and hit by pitch rates—for QERA and going by the most optimal assumptions regarding availability and ordering with regards to the above distribution, with no regard to opponent matchups or staff pecking orders (you'll understand why in a moment), here's how the four teams stack up:

Phillies (Halladay/Lee/Hamels/Worley): 2.58
Braves (Minor/Beachy/Hudson/Lowe): 3.19
Brewers (Greinke/Marcum/Gallardo/Wolf): 3.50
Diamondbacks (Hudson/Collmenter/Kennedy/Saunders): 3.61

As expected, the Phillies own a massive advantage over the rest of the league, and that's even with me gaming the formula in ways that these teams' managers wouldn't dream, such as starting Minor and Beachy in Games One and Two for the Braves, and holding Kennedy for Game Three for the Diamondbacks. By comparison, the "optimized" rotations of the four AL teams were separated by just 0.24 runs per nine.

Of course, any of those rankings is only as strong as the assumptions upon which they rest, not the least of which is that a single-season ERA estimator is the finest representation of pitcher quality; it ain't, particularly when one considers sample sizes and platoon issues. Here are the rankings according to rotation alignments that represent my best guesses based upon the factors outlined above, this time injecting a bit more optimism regarding pitcher health:

Phillies (Halladay/Lee/Hamels/Oswalt): 2.58
Brewers (Greinke/Gallardo/Marcum/Wolf): 3.52
Braves (Hudson/Lowe/Beachy/Hanson): 3.52
Diamondbacks (Kennedy/Hudson/Saunders /Collmenter): 3.70

Via this logic, the Phillies enjoy an even larger advantage, particularly due to the Braves' reshuffling; I assumed Hanson instead of Jurrjens due to the lower FIP, and bumped him to fourth by figuring that the opportunity to bypass him in a sweep is one that the Braves would seize; swapping in the latter in the same slot bumps them to 3.57, a negligible difference. It appears that there's relatively little separation between the three teams besides the Phillies, regardless of who takes the starts.

 I'll check back on the final arrangements for both leagues four weeks from now.  

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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