That a team needs a strong front end of the rotation to succeed in the playoffs is a hoary and cherished bit of conventional wisdom. Recent October rotations loaded with talent like Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson of the 2001 Diamondbacks, Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine of the 1990s Braves, and the hydra-headed Oakland aces of the aughts all variously stand out as examples or counterexamples of this principle.

The thing about conventional wisdom is that ad nauseum repeating of said wisdom isn’t tantamount to demonstrable truth. If you’re reading BP, you probably know this. So as the 2004 postseason looms, it’s worth examining this particular baseball NOUN in further depth.

To classify teams as having a “strong” or “weak” front of the rotation, I’m using Keith Woolner’s freshly refurbished Support Neutral Lineup-Adjusted Value Added (SNLVA) reports going back through 1995. I’ve chosen 1995 as the cutoff so we can examine teams through the prism of the current three-round playoff format. As for the taxonomy, teams are “strong” if they have at least two starters among the season-ending top 30 in SNLVA wins above replacement. Here’s a list those “strong” teams and their top two starters (with SNLVA rank in parentheses):

Team                Top Two Starters by SNLVA

'95 Braves          G. Maddux (1), T. Glavine (13)
'95 Dodgers         H. Nomo (5), I. Valdez (16)
'95 Red Sox         T. Wakefield (6), E. Hanson (23)
'95 Indians         D. Martinez (7), O. Hershiser (26)
'95 Yankees         J. McDowell (20), A. Pettitte (28)
'96 Braves          J. Smoltz (7), G. Maddux (9)
'96 Cardinals       A. Benes (26), T. Stottlemyre (30)
'96 Dodgers         H. Nomo (16), P. Astacio (19)
'96 Indians         C. Nagy (5), Hershiser (28)
'97 Braves          G. Maddux (2), T. Glavine (9)
'97 Giants          S. Estes (25), Rueter (30)
'97 Marlins         K. Brown (6), A. Fernandez (27)
'97 Orioles         M. Mussina (8), J. Key (16)
'97 Mariners        R. Johnson (4), J. Fassero (22)
'97 Yankees         A. Pettitte (7), D. Cone (11)
'98 Braves          G. Maddux (2), T. Glavine (4)
'98 Padres          K. Brown (3), A. Ashby (18)
'98 Yankees         D. Wells (8), D. Cone (10)
'98 Red Sox         P. Martinez (5), B. Saberhagen (26)
'99 Braves          K. Millwood (5), J. Smoltz (11)
'99 Astros          M. Hampton (3), J. Lima (16)
'99 Diamondbacks    R. Johnson (2), O. Daal (14)
'99 Yankees         D. Cone (10), O. Hernandez (13)
'99 Indians         B. Colon (12), D. Burba (25)
'99 Red Sox         P. Martinez (1), B. Saberhagen (20)
'00 Braves          G. Maddux (4), T. Glavine (7)
'00 Cardinals       D. Kile (21), R. Ankiel (28)
'00 Mets            A. Leiter (14), M. Hampton (15)
'00 Yankees         R. Clemens (11), A. Pettitte (19)
'00 Mariners        A. Sele (24), P. Abbott (26)
'01 Diamondbacks    R. Johnson (1), C. Schilling (2)
'01 Braves          G. Maddux (15), J. Burkett (19)
'01 Cardinals       D. Kile (8), M. Morris (11)
'01 Yankees         M. Mussina (4), R. Clemens (22)
'01 Mariners        F. Garcia (6), J. Moyer (10)
'01 A's             M. Mulder (5), B. Zito (12)
'02 Braves          G. Maddux (10), T. Glavine (13)
'02 Diamondbacks    R. Johnson (1), C. Schilling (9)
'02 A's             B. Zito (3), T. Hudson (5)
'02 Angels          J. Washburn (8), R. Ortiz (18)
'03 Cubs            M. Prior (6), K. Wood (9)
'03 Yankees         M. Mussina (7), R. Clemens (15)
'03 A's             T. Hudson (1), B. Zito (10)

Conversely, teams are “weak” if they have one or no pitchers in the final regular-season top 30. Only playoff teams since 1995 have been included in the study.

Anyhow, here’s how these teams fared in the post-season:

               Post-Season Record      Win%
Strong              205-179            .534
Weak                 91-117            .438

As you can see, it’s a notable advantage in recent postseasons to have a strong front of the rotation, which nicely coheres to accepted wisdom. Strong-rotation teams have a winning percentage roughly ten points better than weak-rotation teams. Other notes on the data:

  • From 1995 through 2003, 72 teams made the postseason. Of those 72 teams, 43 had “strong” rotations (59.7%) and 29 had “weak” rotations (40.3%)

  • Only 13 of the 72 playoff teams (18.1%) had no starter among the top 30 in SNLVA above replacement. Call them “super weak”

  • Teams with “super weak” rotations (again, those without a single pitcher in the top 30 SNLVA above replacement rankings for that particular season) have gone 28-47 in post-season play, which comes to a winning percentage of .373. Remove the “super weak” from the calculus, and teams with one starter in the top 30 post a 63-70 record in the post-season, which constitutes a .474 winning percentage and is still notably lower than the “strong” group
  • In the nine seasons studied, only two teams (the ’96 Yankees and ’03 Marlins) won the World Series despite having “weak” rotation fronts. The only “super weak” team to make the World Series was the ’97 Indians, and the only other “super weak” teams to win a postseason series were the ’99 Mets and the ’02 Twins

  • “Weak” teams have faced off against “strong” teams in 37 postseason series since 1995, and the strong teams have won 24 of those encounters (64.9%).

Mostly because of sample-size concerns, I’m not going to pass this off as the definitive, authoritative word on the matter, but a contemporary trend is fairly evident.

In light of that trend, it’s worth exploring if different kinds of starting pitchers fare differently in the post-season. That is, does a “command guy” like Maddux have more or less success than a “dominator” like Johnson? Does a “ball-in-play” pitcher like Glavine meet a different fate than a Pedro Martinez type?

To delve a little deeper, I’ve separated the “strong” teams into two classes: playoff “failures” that were eliminated in the Division Series and playoff “successes” that made it to the World Series. This obviously excludes those teams that lost in the NLCS or ALCS, but we’ll get to them later.

Below, I’ll present the cumulative regular-season pitching stats for the two groups of teams (using only their top two starters as determined by SNLVA). Then we’ll see what conclusions we can divine from the numbers:

                    R/G    K/9    BB/9     K/BB     HR/9
"Success Teams"    3.51    7.8     2.5      3.1      0.8
"Failure Teams"    3.51    7.5     2.7      2.8      0.8

As you’d expect from pitchers ranked highly by SNLVA, the runs-per-game numbers are both impressive and similar. However, we do find some variance among peripheral measures. Those teams that succeeded in the postseason saw their frontline starters, in the regular season, put up better walk and strikeout numbers, both crystallized by the advantage in strikeout-to-walk ratio. It’s not a staggering difference, but it does perhaps indicate that pitchers with more impressive command ratios tend to perform better in October.

Let’s look at those same numbers, except this time we’ll break down the study populations by playoff outcome:

                    R/G    K/9    BB/9     K/BB     HR/9
Won WS             3.53    7.9     2.7      3.0      0.9
Lost WS            3.48    7.6     2.3      3.4      0.7
Lost LCS           3.36    7.5     2.5      3.0      0.8
Lost DS            3.58    7.4     2.8      2.7      0.8

There’s not much difference among the aces of teams that advance past the first round, but those teams that falter in the Division Series seem to be at a statistical disadvantage. Remember, these are all teams with at least two pitchers in the top 30 of that season’s SNLVA rankings, so there really can only be so much variance in the numbers.

All this raises questions about the postseason at hand. Here’s how each team’s top two starters compare in terms of SNLVA above Replacement:

Team                Top Two Starters by SNLVA

Angels              K. Escobar (13), J. Lackey (38)
Astros              R. Clemens (5), R. Oswalt (26)
Braves              J. Wright (28), R. Ortiz (33)
Cardinals           C. Carpenter (31), J. Marquis (41)
Dodgers             O. Perez (20), J. Weaver (34)
Red Sox             C. Schilling (2), P. Martinez (8)
Twins               J. Santana (1), B. Radke (3)
Yankees             J. Vazquez (45), O. Hernandez (47)

Some observations on the frontline starters on this year’s playoff teams:

  • This is the second consecutive year in which just three postseason teams have at least two starters in the top 30, the only two times that’s happened since 1995.

  • The good news for the Yankees: Orlando Hernandez‘s comparatively low ranking is mostly a function of innings. His SNLVA/Game is actually just shy of Schilling’s. The bad news for the Yankees: They play the Twins in the first round, who have two of the top three starters in baseball this season.

  • While Chris Carpenter is the Cardinals’ top-ranked starter, he won’t pitch in the NLDS because of a nerve problem. Next on the Cardinal SNLVA queue is Jeff Suppan, who ranks 60th. Woody Williams, who will start Game One against the Dodgers, ranks a measly 65th.

  • For the second straight season, Atlanta goes into the post-season without two starters in the top 30.

From these data, it does indeed appear that in recent seasons teams with potent rotation fronts not only have an edge in making the postseason, but also in thriving in the wilder shores October. That’s a welcome bit of news for Astros, Red Sox and Twins fans this time around.

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