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October 20, 2010

Playoff Prospectus

Wednesday LCS Pitching Matchups

by Matt Swartz

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NLCS Game Four: Phillies at Giants
Joe Blanton: 4.82 ERA, 4.01 SIERA
Blanton gets his first start of the 2010 postseason, and at first glance, he would appear to be a liability for the Phillies after struggling to get his ERA below 5.00 all season. However, with a 4.01 SIERA, Blanton gives the Phillies one of the best fourth starters in baseball to carry them in Game Four. His 2009 SIERA was even stronger at 3.92. The story that people tell about Blanton is that he is a mediocre, hittable pitcher, but that was before he increased his strikeout rate. In 2008, he had punched out only 11.3 percent of batters when the Athletics traded him to the Phillie then he increase that to 16.1 after moving to the National League. However, Blanton also walked more batters as a 2008 Phillie as well. In 2009, Blanton suddenly began punching hitters out—19.5 percent struck out against him, the best rate in his career. In 2010, he did not fall back much, continuing to strike out 17.6 percent of hitters faced. Unfortunately, Blanton had already allowed a lot of hits, and also struggled early when returning from an oblique injury, so he spent the rest of 2010 trying to bring down his ERA. However, the reality told by SIERA is pretty clear—the control pitcher from the A’s has become a well-rounded pitcher with the Phillies who can also strike hitters out. He even lowered his walk rate in 2010 as well, from 7.1 in 2009 to just 4.8. The Giants will have an easier opponent in Game Four than any other game in this series, but seeing Blanton as a soft spot would be a mistake. This pitching matchup is not decisive either way, and the Giants could be in for a surprise from Kentucky Joe.

Madison Bumgarner: 3.00 ERA, 3.88 SIERA
Bumgarner’s post-season debut was a strong one, as he allowed just two runs in six innings, struck out five, and walked only one. The Giants gave him the three runs he needed and the bullpen sealed the deal en route to an NLDS-clinching win in Atlanta. Bumgarner’s biggest strength is that he avoids walks and that limits the damage, but he has a tougher lineup to face this time around. The Phillies will hit the ball hard, and if Bumgarner is not careful, he could be vulnerable to a crooked number. Bumgarner struck out 30 lefties in 125 plate appearances this season, which bodes well for facing the Phillies’ best hitters. However, as I noted on Sunday, the rest of the Phillies’ lineup actually gives them an advantage against lefties, and he will need to be careful not to give away hits to righties if he is to provide the Giants an important Game Four win.

From the NLDS: Bumgarner, the highly touted prospect, appeared to be the Giants’ fifth starter heading into spring training, but he struggled with his fastball velocity and did not make the team. However, the Giants gave him his shot in late June and he did not disappoint over 18 starts. His velocity is back, helping him strike out a respectable 18.2 percent of hitters in 2010. He was also very good at limiting walks in his rookie season, issuing them to only 5.5 percent of batters. Bumgarner also generated a 46 percent ground ball rate, which is about average as well. The key to Bumgarner’s success in 2010 was his control, but he also had some luck go his way. He had a similar rate on home runs per fly ball that other Giants’ starters had, and his overall BABIP was actually a high .314 despite the Giants’ overall team BABIP of .286. However, Bumgarner allowed just a .253 BABIP with runners in scoring position and a .269 BABIP with runners on base overall. Thus, despite a modest WHIP of 1.31, his baserunners were frequently stranded. The ability to induce a weaker BABIP with runners on base is not something that pitchers tend to consistently repeat. While some pitchers are better at dodging home runs with men on and better at pitching to contact with the bases empty, the results do not tend to carry over to BABIP. Bumgarner is certainly beatable, despite his low ERA. He is not going to issue walks often, so the [Phillies] will need to make solid contact when they get a pitch to hit.

ALCS Game Five: Rangers at Yankees
C.J. Wilson: 3.35 ERA, 4.18 SIERA
Wilson pitched the Rangers to a win in Game Two of the ALDS against the Rays, and thought he had given them a clutch Game One victory in the ALCS against the Yankees when he started the eighth inning by allowing a couple of hits wih a 5-1 lead. The Rangers’ bullpen coughed up the game after he exited. It was not a flashy start, as Wilson walked two and struck out four, but it should have been enough for the win. Wilson’s weakness is his walk rate, and in walking only two batters in each of his two playoff starts, he has kept the Rangers in the game. The Yankees draw plenty of walks, so Wilson will have to continue to be careful to avoid bases on balls if the Rangers are to pull this one out in Yankee Stadium.

From the ALDS: Wilson appeared to transition from relieving to starting relatively well season, though his strikeout rate actually fell by 30 percent, which is more than the approximately 17 percent that the average pitcher sees when going from the rotation (according to Tom Tango’s oft-cited “Rule of 17”). Wilson’s walk rate in 2010 was 11.0 percent, just a little bit higher than last year’s 9.9 percent, explaining why his SIERA was so high despite his still solid 20.0 percent strikeout rate. However, Wilson allowed only a .267 BABIP and 6.1 percent home runs per outfield fly ball, masking some of the difficulties that he had in his transition. Wilson is definitely good at getting left-handed hitters out, but his .204 BABIP against them in 2010 led to a .144/.224/.176 slash line that exaggerates his skill level. Even so, his 3.8 K/BB ratio against them is certainly elite and the [Yankees’] lefties will likely struggle against him.

CC Sabathia: 3.18 ERA, 3.75 SIERA
Sabathia was the hero of the Yankees’ title run in 2009, throwing 36 1/3 innings in five post-season starts and walking only nine hitters as he ate inning after inning. In 2010, Sabathia has already walked seven hitters in just 10 innings of work during his first pair of starts. Fortunately for Sabathia and the Yankees, their mighty lineup has bailed him out both times. In a crucial Game Five for the Yankees, Sabathia will try to resemble the hero of 2009 without relying on a late-inning crooked number from the Yankees’ bats again. As I explained in the reprinted summary of his 2010 season below, the difference between Sabathia now and his superior performance in recent years is primarily his walk rate. If he can throw strikes and go deep in the game, the Yankees will have a far better chance this afternoon.

 From the ALDS: Sabathia put up a 3.25 SIERA in 2007 and 3.05 in 2008, but has fallen slightly to 3.70 and 3.75 in his first two years with the Yankees. His walk rate has increased from 3.8 percent in 2007 to 5.8 percent in 2008 to 7.1 in percent in 2009, and finally to 7.6 percent in 2010. Meanwhile, his strikeout rate has fallen to 20.3 percent this year, down from a high point of 24.5 percent in 2008. Some of this is the competition—the hitters that he faces in the AL East are much better on average than the hitters he faced in the AL Central or NL Central. The rest is quite possibly Sabathia regressing to the mean. Now, Sabathia’s 3.75 SIERA is still great, especially for the AL East, and he does have a tendency to beat his SIERA—this is his third year in a row of doing so by at least 0.33 points. While he is not the best pitcher in the playoffs this year, his endurance and ability to pitch three games in a seven-game series may be enough to help him get more batters out than other pitchers with lower SIERAs.  

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

Related Content:  Madison Bumgarner

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