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September 9, 2011
Prospectus Hit and Run
NL Post-Season Rotation Ramble
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.