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September 7, 2011

Prospectus Hit and Run

AL Post-Season Rotation Ramble

by Jay Jaffe

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When Josh Beckett hobbled off the mound with an ankle sprain during the fourth inning of Monday's start, he added an unwelcome layer of suspense to Boston's championship aspirations. Not that the Sox are in danger of missing the playoffs without him; their chance of bonus baseball stood at 99.7 percent even after losing extra innings. For all of the team's strengths, including its formidable offense and late-game bullpen, Beckett's sprain—which will cost him at least one start—spotlights the unsettled nature of the Red Sox’ October rotation.

They're not the only contender still awash in such question marks. While the post-season picture is largely settled—as of Tuesday, our Playoff Odds showed eight teams at 88 percent or higher, and just three others with something large enough to view with the naked eye, topped by the Angels at 11.5 percent. Yet there's plenty of unfinished business beyond the likely Game One starters. Today I'll explore the issues facing AL teams, and later this week, I'll turn to the NL. I'll also borrow a page from an old Nate Silver piece for a quick-and-dirty measure of how these possible alignments stack up.

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, the latter despite the fact that the teams won't be changing venues. Thus it's possible, but not terribly 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.

Red Sox
Sure Things: Even assuming Beckett (2.49 ERA, 3.35 FIP) is hale and hearty come October, Jon Lester (3.05 ERA, 3.82 FIP) is the only other starter about whom the Sox can feel completely confident right now. While neither is in this year's Cy Young discussion, both are top-shelf starters who whiff more than 8.0 hitters per nine. Both already have World Series rings from helping the Sox win it all in 2007, and both have limited experience on three days' rest; Becket threw a five-hit shutout on short rest to wrap up the 2003 World Series, but hasn't tried again since 2004, while Lester did it once in April 2008, and was hit hard.

In the Mix: Beyond that pair, the dropoff is steep; the eight other starters Boston has used this year have managed quality starts just 36 percent of the time while compiling a 5.10 ERA and just 6.0 strikeouts per nine. Clay Buchholz (3.48 ERA, 4.37 FIP) hasn't pitched since June 16 due to a stress fracture in his back, and is still in the long-toss phase of his rehab. At this point, it's questionable as to whether he'll be built up enough to start a game, let alone return to form. John Lackey (6.11 ERA, 4.83 FIP) has plenty of post-season experience, but he's been dreadful this season, getting smoked by lefty hitters at a .332/.390/.505 clip and delivering just eight quality starts in 24 turns. Deadline acquisition Eric Bedard (3.50 ERA, 3.56 FIP) has averaged just 5.3 innings per turn since arriving from Seattle, and has already thrown more innings than in any season since 2007; he'll skip his next turn due to stiffness in his left knee, having already missed a month this summer due to a sprain. Venerable knuckleballer Tim Wakefield (4.95 ERA, 4.85 FIP) isn't nearly as effective as he used to be; his 1.4 homers per nine are his high since 2004, and righties are hitting .285/.328/.515 against him, a problem given the righty-heavy balance of likely first-round opponents Detroit and Texas. Andrew Miller (5.27 ERA, 5.09 FIP) is walking 5.8 hitters per nine and has just three quality starts out of 11.

Longshot: It's possible the Sox might work Alfredo Aceves (2.87 ERA, 4.06 FIP) back into the mix if Beckett's ability to return is compromised. He's enjoyed a strong rebounded after losing all of 2010 and his spot on the Yankees due to injury, but he has just four starts, none since June 21, and lasted more than five innings just once. Moving him back to the rotation would deprive the team of an effective multi-inning reliever, but if it's gotta be done, it's gotta be done.

Yankees
Sure Thing: CC Sabathia (2.97 ERA, 2.79 FIP) is in the midst of another outstanding season; in fact, his strikeout, walk, and homer rates are by far his best during his three years in pinstripes. His ability to pitch on three days' rest is a critical advantage that the Yankees have already used to win one world championship; in all, he's made three post-season turns on short rest, two of them good, one (2008 with the Brewers) bad, the latter following three straight turns on short rest to carry Milwaukee to the playoffs for the first time since 1982.

In the Mix: With Andy Pettitte having taken his Game Two prowess and gone home, the question is less who the Yankees throw behind the big man than in what order. The Yankees are unbeaten in Ivan Nova's last 12 turns, but with a 3.89 ERA and a 4.03 FIP, the 24-year-old righty is hardly as invincible as that stat makes him appear; indeed, he's been blessed with the league's best run support (6.6 per game) en route to a gaudy 15-4 won-loss record. What is true is that the development of Nova's slider has been a big factor in his emergence; during that span he's whiffed 6.4 per nine with a 2.7 strikeout-to-walk ratio, compared to 4.4 strikeouts and a 1.1 ratio prior. Bartolo Colon (3.72 ERA, 3.82 FIP) and Freddy Garcia (3.50 ERA, 3.87 FIP) have written a pair of unlikely comeback tales, but there's concern as to how much either will have in the tank come October. The former hasn't thrown this many innings since 2005, and has shown signs of wear, surrendering a 4.46 ERA and 1.3 homers per nine while making four quality starts in 12 since his June stint on the disabled list, compared to a 3.10 ERA and a homer per nine in 13 appearances and 10 starts (seven quality) prior. The latter was riding a 10-start streak without having allowed a homer—nine of them in which he'd allowed three runs or fewer—when a cut finger sent him to the disabled list; since then, he's served up three homers in two starts, including two on Monday, when he was tagged for a season-high seven runs in 2 2/3 innings.

Longshots: Barring injury or excessive fatigue in one of the aforementioned trio, the likelihood of either Phil Hughes (6.75 ERA, 4.70 FIP) or A.J. Burnett (5.25 ERA, 4.85 FIP) making a post-season turn is slim, even given their previous experience; both have struggled with mechanics, lost velocity, and an inability to keep the ball in the park, creating no end of controversy in the Bronx about which one should be exiled to the bullpen. At last, they'll both get the honor.

Tigers
Sure Things: Justin Verlander (2.34 ERA, 2.91 FIP) has been nothing less than the league's most valuable pitcher; he's en route to the Cy Young award and could draw MVP consideration. As a rookie in 2006, he received his share of playoff experience, but he's never pitched on three days' rest in either the regular or postseason. The dropoff between him and the rest of the Tigers' rotation isn't as sharp as you may think. Deadline acquisition Doug Fister (3.17 ERA, 3.16 FIP) is the obvious Game Two starter, at least among those smart enough to look beyond his 7-13 won-loss record, which is a product of having the league's worst run support (2.8 per game). Though not overpowering, Fister struck out a career-high 13 against Cleveland on Monday; he's whiffing 5.9 per nine while ranking in the league's top five for both homer and walk rates (0.5 and 1.7 per nine, respectively). Max Scherzer (4.28 ERA, 4.14 FIP) has been something of a disappointment this year, with a strikeout rate that's fallen by at least 0.7 per nine for the third straight season (down to 7.7) and a gaudy homer rate (1.3 per nine) for a pitcher who spends half his time in a pitcher-friendly park. To be fair, his 3.0 strikeout-to-walk ratio is his best since his 56-inning rookie campaign.

In the Mix: It's the fourth spot where things get considerably shakier. Rick Porcello (5.01 ERA, 4.15 FIP) has been victimized by a .327 BABIP, but them's the breaks when you're striking out just 5.3 per nine. He's been hit for a homer per nine as well, despite a solid ground-ball tendency and the advantages of Comerica residency. Of bigger concern, particularly with regards to a first-round matchup against either the Yankees or Red Sox, is that lefty hitters have wailed the tar out of him (.337/.383/.520); they've beaten Scherzer soundly as well (.283/.347/.504). That's one advantage that Brad Penny (5.13 ERA, 4.99 FIP) has; despite the league's lowest strikeout rate (3.7 per nine), his .256/.328/.412 against lefties is stellar by comparison.

Longshot: It's a stretch to imagine lone lefty option Phil Coke (4.54 ERA, 3.53 FIP) returning to the rotation for the first time since June 29, but he has smothered lefties at a .201/.280/.261 clip.

Rangers
Sure Thing: Unlike last year, when they had Cliff Lee to lean upon, this year's Rangers lack a true ace, though C.J. Wilson (3.33 ERA, 3.39 FIP) is a very good pitcher, a lefty who strikes out 8.1 per nine and does a very good job of keeping the ball in the park despite one of the league's most hitter-friendly environments. Given that this is just his second season in the rotation, he has no experience at going on short rest, and if the Rangers didn't push Lee to do so last year, they absolutely won't with Wilson.

In the Mix: As for the rest of the unit, they have options galore. Fellow lefty Derek Holland (4.13 ERA, 3.88 FIP) would seem to be a lock, particularly against a lefty-heavy first-round opponent; he's held lefty hitters to a .234/.286/.304 line this season. Righty Colby Lewis (4.32 ERA, 4.77 FIP) has failed to live up to last year's strong showing; his 1.6 HR/9 is the worst mark among AL qualifiers. On the other hand, after getting rocked for a 6.95 ERA through his first four turns of the year, he has pitched to a 3.94 mark since, and at one point reeled off 15 quality starts out of 20. Assuming he shakes out of his recent mini-tailspin (two disaster starts out of three), he figures to start in October. That would leave righty Alexi Ogando (3.66 ERA, 3.78 FIP) and lefty Matt Harrison (3.50 ERA, 3.64 FIP), both of whom have outpitched Lewis over the course of the full season, competing for the fourth spot. The former, who emerged as a bullpen asset last year, just had his turn skipped after being roughed up for a 7.14 ERA in six August starts, three of them disasterpieces in which he failed to last five innings. Go back further, to the point when he was 7-0 with a 2.10 ERA, and since then he's put up a 5.45 ERA. Just as ominously, he has been rocked for seven homers in 12 innings by the Red Sox and Yankees. Meanwhile, Harrison, who came into the year having compiled a lifetime 5.39 ERA, has enjoyed a breakout season. He just emerged from a break of his own to throw seven strong innings against the Red Sox this past weekend. With four of his five starts against the AL East beasts rather strong, he's the more logical choice to round out the rotation.

Longshot: Righty Scott Feldman (3.67 ERA, 4.34 FIP) has just 27 innings and two starts under his belt since returning from microfracture surgery. He's never been one to miss many bats (5.0 K/9), and may not get a chance to make his case unless Ogando remains in the bullpen for a longer period of time.

FIPpery
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 post-season starts, twos take 28 percent, with threes at 23 percent and fours at 18 percent. 

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 no regard to opponent, here's how the four teams would stack up:

Tigers (Verlander/Fister/Scherzer/Porcello): 3.49
Yankees (Sabathia/Colon/Garcia/Nova): 3.55
Rangers (Wilson/Harrison/Ogando/Holland): 3.64
Red Sox (Beckett/Bedard/Lester/Buchholz): 3.73

The quartet is evenly spaced, bunched inside a quarter of a run difference, with the Tigers surprisingly leading the pack courtesy of Mr. Fister, who alas is reaching the postseason two years too late for Chip Caray's taste. Those rankings are only as strong as the assumptions upon which they rest, however, 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 the platoon issues that come into play. Accounting for rotation alignments that represent my best guesses based upon the factors outlined above, in particular, consciousness of first-round lefty/righty matchup issues and a bit of pessimism regarding injuries/rest:

Yankees (Sabathia/Nova/Garcia/Colon): 3.57
Tigers (Verlander/Fister/Scherzer/Penny): 3.64
Red Sox (Beckett/Lester/Bedard/Lackey): 3.81
Rangers (Wilson/Holland/Lewis/Harrison): 3.89

If the retreads still have enough air in their tires, the Yankees have a slight edge here, but the Tigers still appear to have a more formidable rotation than most give them credit for, even with Penny subbing in for Porcello due to matchup issues. The Rangers, with the potential to throw three lefties at either the Yankees or Red Sox, may be slightly shortchanged here. There's still not a lot of separation top to bottom, and of course, all of these situations are rather fluid. I'll check in on the NL later this week, and check back on the final arrangements for both leagues four weeks from now.

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

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