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September 24, 2009

Fab Fours

Picking the Best Playoff Rotations

by Christina Kahrl

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Using Support-Neutral Winning Percentage to describe which team's starters have done the most to produce victory for their teams makes ranking the best playoff rotations a relatively straightforward exercise. Here are rotations ranked by unit-wide performances on the year, using the expected 2009 playoff teams, and ranked by SNWP and SNLVAR, which adjusts for lineup variations and value-added over replacement level.


Team        SNWP    SNLVAR
Cardinals   .535     22.5
Dodgers     .534     22.5
Rockies     .515     19.8
Phillies    .511     19.5
Tigers      .511     18.4
Red Sox     .503     17.7
Angels      .499     15.8
Yankees     .492     15.5
Twins       .492     14.8

However, the postseason's a very different animal from the full season's marathon; depth gets you to October, but in theory sheer quality-or the convenient, random great game from an Anthony Reyes or a Jeff Weaver-propels you to a title. In the post-season fifth starters go to the bullpen, so whomever the club's four likely picks wind up being for their playoff rotations, that quartet winds up being the men who matter. Then there's the question of whether or not the Rockies will have the benefit of Aaron Cook, for example; if injury knocks him out of action for the post-season, are the Rockies anywhere as good as the full-season numbers suggest? Keeping all of that in mind, let's simplify things by looking just at the combined SNWP mark for the probable front fours of each of these nine teams:


Team        SNWP   The Front Four
Cardinals   .575   Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright, Joel Pineiro, Kyle Lohse
Tigers      .562   Justin Verlander, Edwin Jackson, Rick Porcello, Jarrod Washburn
Red Sox     .561   Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, Tim Wakefield
Phillies    .558   Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, Joe Blanton, Pedro Martinez
Dodgers     .545   Randy Wolf, Clayton Kershaw, Chad Billingsley, Hiroki Kuroda
Rockies     .527   Ubaldo Jimenez, Jason Marquis, Aaron Cook, Jorge De La Rosa
Angels      .524   John Lackey, Jered Weaver, Scott Kazmir, Joe Saunders
Yankees     .520   CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Andy Pettitte, Joba Chamberlain
Twins       .514   Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn, Carl Pavano, Brian Duensing

Essentially, that just tells us what we already sort of expected-the Cardinals are the class of the field, the Tigers, Red Sox, and Phillies make a tightly grouped second tier, and the Angels, Rockies, and Yankees are all roughly equal. Admittedly, this exercise credits fourth starters overmuch-they'll only ever start one game in any post-season series, after all. However, that said, some notes about some of the teams, and to explain some of the selections and identify the impact of alternates:

  • Tigers: Whether or not Jarrod Washburn's knee holds up actually ends up mattering very little, if only because a healthy Nate Robertson has been as effetive in his September spin in the rotation as Washburn has been on the entire year.

  • Red Sox: Substituting Dice-K for Wakefield without any adjustments for the value of a now-healthy Daisuke Matsuzaka would cut Boston's front-four SNWP to .527, which is a bit extreme, but Matsuzaka was that bad. It seems safer to assume that he can be about as effective as Wakefield if he has to start in the knuckleballer's place.

  • Phillies: It's a big assumption that Pedro might start instead of J.A. Happ, but workload concerns and Happ's recently being worn down contributed to the idea that Charlie Manuel rolls the dice and plugs in the famous person in the rookie's place. If Happ's starting instead of Pedro, the Phillies' front four SNWP jumps up to .577, or just as good as the Cardinals'.

  • Dodgers: While Chad Billingsley (.502) and Hiroki Kuroda (.519) were the pitchers I ran with, swapping in Jon Garland (.502) and/or Vicente Padilla (.507) doesn't materially change their ranking. While the Dodgers have depth, their hopes truly rest on the left arms of Randy Wolf (.561) and Clayton Kershaw (.597).

  • Rockies: If Cook isn't healthy enough to answer the post-season bell, swapping in Jason Hammel or Jose Contreras only takes the Rockies down to a .521 SNWP.

  • Angels: The real wild card here is if Scott Kazmir continues to dominate as an Angel; his .725 SNWP in four turns is ridiculously good, and he's been a much better pitcher since coming off of the DL at the end of June. With nine quality starts in his last 10, he's gotten hot at the right time.

  • Yankees: While Joba Chamberlain's miserable .456 SNWP drags them down, the ugly non-secret is that Andy Pettitte and A.J. Burnett have been barely better than mediocre, posting SNWP marks of .519 and .518 respectively.

  • Twins: Here, I simply cut 200 points off of Brian Duensing's sparkling .715 mark in his seven spins through the rotation, because that seemed like a realistic approximation of what he'd be worth on a full season, and if the Twins catch the Tigers, looking at their as one that would be the weakest in the postseason doesn't seem very extraordinary.

The takeaway? The Cardinals are the obvious class of the league, but the Phillies deserve to rank right with them when you consider that they'll get to start a series with Cliff Lee and could elect to start Happ instead of Martinez or Joe Blanton. The Tigers and Red Sox are the class of the American League's crop, but if Kazmir stays hot, he'd give the Halos a group almost as tough.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

17 comments have been left for this article.

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