September 29, 2011
Painting the Black
Sizing Up the Playoff Rotations
Nate Silver spent the final week of September 2006 evaluating playoff rotations in a manner reflected in his other work across various fields. The analysis was intuitive, yet innovative and unrivaled. What Silver incorporated that basic playoff rotation analyses often exclude is uneven workloads. Playoff teams may designate four starters, but they shift parts around due to the sporadic schedule and threat of extinction; after all, if a loss makes elimination inevitable, logic dictates having the best man lead the final surge.
The usage numbers Silver presented then are now dated, but the ones provided below are not, thanks to intern Bradley Ankrom. These new percentages include every postseason series since 1995, classifying the starters’ roles by their order of appearance in the playoffs. That means the number ones are the pitchers who started the team’s first playoff game, the number twos are those who started the team’s second playoff game, and so on. Some may note that this methodology may be skewed by the new playoff schedule, although until proven otherwise it should still provide more context than other tactics.
#1 Starter 32 percent of playoff starts
After acquiring these percentages, evaluating the postseason rotations becomes a matter of multiplication, addition, and sorting. With numerous pitching metrics included on our site, limiting this analysis to one statistic would be bound to leave some of the audience’s metric of choice on the bench. Some may like earned run average because it inadvertently tells us something about the pitcher’s defense and park, while Fair Run Average tells us how well a pitcher pitched and FIP tells us about his component stats.
As for the projected order of the rotations, please bear with any post-publication changes. At this point, things are mostly fluid, with teams holding out on decisions, so these orders represent best guesses. With that out of the way, let’s get to the fun stuff:
The best: No matter your feelings on how the Yankees handle their prospects, everyone can agree that Kennedy was unlikely to succeed in New York. Since being traded to Arizona in a three-way trade back in winter 2009, Kennedy has matured into the pitcher the Yankees and prospect hounds thought he could become. Pitcher wins are what they are, but Kennedy did enter a select group of starters who earned 20-plus victories in a season for the Diamondbacks, including Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling, and Brandon Webb. The real value-telling metrics suggest that Kennedy pitched well, and he as well as the Arizona organization deserve credit for his turnaround.
The rest: Hudson is another pitcher who has prospered since being acquired through trade. His 100 percent quality start rate didn’t last throughout the 2011 season as it did during his 11 starts in 2010, but he showed durability by racking up the first 200-plus inning season of his professional career. Saunders is yet another product of the trade tree, and while he is the weakest of the bunch, he has outpitched his component-based metrics by generating more double plays than expected (43 since 2008, the most in the majors, and 13 more than runner-up Ricky Romero). Completing the transition from unheralded arriviste to one of the season’s best rookie performers, Collmenter did work in the bullpen and rotation alike and got his career off to strong start by not allowing an earned run over his first two major-league starts.
Trivia: The Brewers may have been born 28 years earlier, but the Diamondbacks have twice as many 20-plus pitcher win seasons in their franchise history (six).
The best: While Verlander’s attempt to win his 25th game of the season drew plenty of attention, that milestone would have tied him for only the fifth-best mark in franchise history. The Tigers record he came closest to breaking was Denny McLain’s rate of quality starts recorded in a single season. McLain set the record in 1968, as you may have suspected, when he had 35 quality starts in 41 tries (or 85.4 percent), whereas Verlander entered his Sunday start with a rate of 84.5 percent. Verlander went on to give up five runs but would have come oh so close to McLain had his start qualified as quality (85.3 percent).
The rest: Jim Leyland shuffled his rotation in order to start Scherzer at home in part because eight of the 11 games in which Scherzer allowed four or more runs came on the road—including his first start of the season, when he yielded four home runs to the Yankees. Detroit had to be hoping Fister could pitch like a good middle-of-the-rotation option, but he gave them frontline starter performances during his time in Motor City. Porcello has been around forever and still will make his first postseason appearance at a younger age than Verlander did in his first tournament start.
Trivia: Verlander, Scherzer, and Porcello combined to have more quality starts than the Orioles as a team.
The best: If finishing the season strong is a recipe for postseason success, then Gallardo is primed for a breakout October. Three of his five starts with double-digit strikeouts came over his final three appearances on the season. During that span, he fanned 36 batters and allowed 12 hits, four runs, and three walks. Gallardo also started the first game of the last postseason series the Brewers played in, but he found little success against the Phillies, as he walked five in four innings and allowed three runs.
The rest: Greinke managed to lower his earned run average from 4.50 entering August to 3.86 over his final 11 starts, and he did so despite giving up seven runs in one of those outings. You hope, just for Greinke’s sake, that he can make it through the postseason without incident so his personality can escape the blame for a bad outing. There is some thought that Marcum should start on the road whenever feasible, as his earned run average was 2.6 points higher at home than on the road during the regular season. The key reason for that discrepancy is that all four of his starts with multiple home runs allowed came at Miller Park. Wolf is the most experienced of the pack and should push Chris Narveson to the bullpen.
The best: Sabathia may find himself as the Cy Young choice of the iconoclasts because of his marginal advantage in FIP over Verlander despite trailing Verlander in other meaningful categories, but while Verlander should take home the hardware, it is worth noticing just how well the big man pitched. With his fifth straight 200-plus-inning campaign, Sabathia now has amassed more than 180 innings in each of his 11 major-league seasons, and yet recent postseason woes (a 4.80 ERA since 2006) will be the focus should he falter.
The rest: In three short years, Nova’s career arc has swung from returned Rule 5 pick to postseason starter. Garcia allowed multiple home runs in five games this season, and three came in September. Meanwhile, Colon transformed from a solid starter through the season’s first three months (13 appearances, 3.10 ERA, 646 OPS against), to a disaster from July onward (15 appearances, 4.91 ERA, 837 OPS against).
Trivia: Nova was 10 years old when Colon made his major-league debut.
The best: If not for a poor showing in late May when he allowed three home runs to the Nationals, Doc could have accomplished a feat unaccomplished since 1975 by finishing with more complete games than home runs allowed. Alas, Halladay finished with two more home runs allowed (10) than complete games (eight) and allowed Catfish Hunter fans to pop a cork. The closest a contemporary pitcher came was in 1998, when Kevin Brown spent a successful year in San Diego (seven complete games, eight home runs).
The rest: All of the high expectations transformed into well-earned encomiums for the fearsome foursome. As absurd as it sounds, Lee may have had the best season of his career, with a career-high in quality starts and Wins Above Replacement Player—yes, even better than in 2008, when he won the AL Cy Young award. Hamels continued down a path of consistency that often goes unnoticed, as his ERA+ finished between 133 and 142 for the fourth time in five seasons. There is a chance that Vance Worley and not Oswalt will be named the Phillies fourth starter, but for now, the assumption is the vet will get the spot.
Trivia: No National League team averaged more innings pitched per start than the Phillies.
The best: The Cardinals’ late charge left Carpenter as the season finale’s starter and will force someone else will take the hill in game one. Carpenter finished 2011 with a career-high in batters faced but managed just the third-highest innings total of his career because of an increased rate of hits allowed. Even so, Carpenter had the best Fair Run Average on the staff and should take the mound in game two or three, depending on how aggressive the Cardinals choose to be.
The rest: Garcia is the odds-on favorite to start in Carpenter’s place. His earned run average worsened after a strong debut season, but his component measures improved, and he went deeper into ballgames. After Garcia and Carpenter, the Cardinals have three right-handed options to sort through for the final two rotation slots. They could go with the surprising Lohse, the at-times-brilliant Jackson, or the occasionally ugly Jake Westbrook. Based on this season alone, Westbrook should be the odd man out, but Jackson’s stuff could play up out of the postseason bullpen.
Trivia: Jackson figures to break Craig Lefferts’ record for the most innings pitched by a West Germany-born player next season.
The best: Price started the season finale, so he gets relegated to the back of the pack barring an aggressive approach by the Rays. After suffering two defeats in the postseason last time around, there are some local murmurs about Price’s ability to pitch in big games. It’s mostly hogwash, as nobody questioned his fortitude in the 2008 playoffs or during a late-season stretch where he made four starts against the Yankees, Red Sox, Tigers, and Blue Jays. Not to mention that Price had a 3.03 earned run average in five September starts as the Rays attempted to vault back into contention.
The rest: The Rays rotation is the most difficult to piece together at this point. They could use Shields on short rest or could turn to Wade Davis or Jeff Niemann in game one, although neither is the ideal game one starter, and Niemann lasted just an inning in his previous start. The other option is to throw 22-year-old Matt Moore into the fire, but if Joe Maddon’s comparison of his role to David Price is legitimate, then expect Moore to spend the postseason as a high-leverage reliever. Davis has seen his stuff and component measures improve since returning from the disabled list (1.24 strikeout-to-walk ratio prior and 2.32 afterward). Shields led the league in complete games and went six or more innings in 31 of his 33 starts. The Rays defense is good, and Hellickson owes a decent chunk of his success to the flycatchers that roam Tropicana Field’s yard.
Trivia: Hellickson and Shields both forewent scholarships at Louisiana State University to sign with the Rays out of high school.
The best: Wilson became more economical in his second year in the rotation. Despite starting just one more game, he managed to complete 19 1/3 more innings pitched on just an additional 154 pitches. Not including his final start (a two-inning warm-up lap for the postseason), he lasted at least six innings in 28 of his 33 starts and went fewer than five innings just twice (once versus the Twins of all teams). If the Rangers cruise through the playoffs like last season, expect speculation and yearning (and maybe a little begging) from the major markets that could make a play for him in free agency—in other words, Wilson might play the Cliff Lee role.
The rest: Splitting Holland’s season into halves, he pitched better in the second half (16 starts, 98 innings pitched, 89 hits allowed, 88 strikeouts, 30 walks, 10 home runs allowed, 3.21 earned run average) than in the first half (16 starts, 100 innings pitched, 112 hits allowed, 74 strikeouts, 37 walks, 12 home runs allowed, 4.68 earned run average). Harrison had 66 percent of his starts deemed quality. Lewis’ second season back stateside did not go as well as his first, in part due to a spike in home runs allowed (14 more despite facing 27 fewer batters).
Trivia: Texas is just the sixth team to have five starters with 20-plus decisions and strikeout-to-walk ratios over two (the others: 2006 White Sox, 2005 Indians, 1998 Braves, 1988 Mets, and 1965 Giants).
The above standings are based on a points-per-rank system across the three metrics. Philadelphia finished with the best collective ERA, FRA, and FIP, so they received one point for each. Tampa Bay and Detroit fans should be encouraged by their finish, since their hurlers pitch in the tougher league. Texas could be in some trouble depending on whether their pitchers continue to perform as they did in the regular season, although they could expunge those fears with creative rest patterns. The rest of the teams are about as evenly matched as you would expect, which should lead to some exciting matchups throughout the postseason.
Special thanks once again to Bradley Ankrom for query wizardry and to Nate Silver for being ahead of the game s usual.