|As with the regular season, the 2014 MLB postseason is likely to hinge on pitching
When pitching began to dominate Major League Baseball in the late-1960’s, the game responded with a number of concrete moves designed to change the game and bring back offense. When hitting began to dominate Major League baseball in the late-1990’s, the game responded by finally addressing the PED issue. Now, runs are down about 1 per game, and batting averages are down about 20 points since 2000.
Baseball has ebbed and flowed over it’s century and a half existence, alternating “dead ball” eras with “live ball” eras, allowing hurlers their day, and then propping up batters for a bit. In the last few years, there has been a steady decline in offense and a rise in pitching influence. Now here in the 2014 postseason, as in the regular season, it is likely to be the best pitching that wins it.
Which playoff team is best positioned for a deep October run this time around? Here are some thoughts, with a nod to an old Clint Eastwood spaghetti western, on which pitching staffs will give their club the best chance at lifting a World Series trophy at the end of the month.
Owners of not only the best pitching staff in all of baseball, but also the deepest, Washington sits at the very top of the Fangraphs Pitching WAR rankings. The Nats had five (5) starters with double-digit Wins totals this season, and in the post-season will send out perhaps the best front four in Jordan Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg, Doug Fister, and Gio Gonzalez. They have two experienced closers, each of whom registered double-digits in Saves. The bullpen features not only those two right-handed closers in Drew Storen and Rafael Soriano, but a trio of left-handers as well in Matt Thornton, Jerry Blevins, and Ross Detwiler. The righty relief core of Tyler Clippard, Craig Stammen, and the under-appreciated Aaron Barrett will be supplemented in post-season by the usual 5th/6th starters, Tanner Roark and Blake Treinen. This team isn’t really just “good” on the mound, they are elite. This group has the best chance, the most options, to get their team all the way through to the Promised Land.
The best pitching staff that the American League has to offer, Detroit is 3rd in Fangraphs Pitching WAR, and one of only a couple that could matchup well with Washington in a World Series. Four (4) starters won in double-digits: Max Scherzer, David Price, Justin Verlander, and Rick Porcello. A fifth would have were it not for injury, and that pitcher, Anibal Sanchez, may give them a strong bullpen option in post-season play. They have a bunch of lefty options out of the pen with Phil Coke, Ian Kroll, Blaine Hardy and Kyle Lobstein. They have veteran righty options in Evan Reed, Joba Chamberlain, and Al Alburquerque. But it all may hinge on the effectiveness of closer Joe Nathan. One of the best in the business for the last decade, Nathan had a poor season overall. But in September, the veteran registered 7 Saves and 1 Win across 10 appearances, with just a single blown Save opportunity. His last three appearances were all “clean” – and that is the kind of consistency this club needs for him to carry over into October.
Kansas City Royals
It has been well-publicized that KC is back in the post-season for the first time in nearly three decades. That return was largely predicated on pitching and defense. The Royals have the best ‘D’ in baseball to help out a staff that doesn’t really need much help to begin with. The Fangraphs 5th-ranked WAR staff had four (4) starters with double-digit Wins totals, and a fifth just miss out in Danny Duffy. He will likely give them a strong southpaw option out of the bullpen in post-season. The front four of ‘Big Game’ James Shields, Yordano Ventura, Jeremy Guthrie, and Jason Vargas all logged over 180 IP this season. In addition to Duffy, they have Bruce Chen as another lefty with starting experience who could help in the pen. That bullpen is baseball’s best and deepest. Righties Kelvin Herrera, Aaron Crow, and perhaps the best non-closer in the game in Wade Davis, and lefties Tim Collins, Scott Downs, and young Brandon Finnegan join Duffy and Chen as options to setup elite closer Greg Holland.
The big additions during the season of Jon Lester, Jeff Samardzija, and to a lesser extent Jason Hammel to the rotation joining Scott Kazmir, Sonny Gray and Jesse Chavez took a weakness and turned it into an Oakland strength. This post-season was the reason that the now 8th-rated Fangraphs Pitching WAR club made those moves. Hammel and Chavez become righty bullpen options now. The Lester-Gray-Samardzija-Kazmir front four give the A’s strong matchups every time out. Lefties Tommy Milone and Drew Pomeranz have starter experience, and at least one could be a key if Eric O’Flaherty continues with recent physical troubles. Chavez and Hammel join Luke Gregerson, Ryan Cook, and Dan Otero in an embarrassment of righty bullpen riches. They all setup one of the game’s best, most under-appreciated closers in Sean Doolittle. All this pitching depth only helps either Kansas City or Oakland, as they meet in the AL Wildcard. The winner will move into an ALDS with a pitching staff superior to the team they will meet, a division champ that is the next club on the list below.
Los Angeles Angels
It didn’t hurt them one bit in the regular season. On the contrary, the loss of young frontline starters Garrett Richards and Tyler Skaggs seemed to galvanize the Angels. But despite their excellence and the late, strong burst, the Halos were just 12th in MLB at Fangraphs in Pitching WAR. In Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson, the Angels have a pair of veterans who are capable of matching up with anyone, but also are capable of the odd blowup start as well. Matt Shoemaker has been excellent down the stretch, but is trying to battle back from a rib cage injury in time to help. Hector Santiago, a lefty, has been the 4th starter, with Cory Rasmus stretched out from the pen for a handful of short emergency starts down the stretch. I said at mid-season that the Angels needed to add not one, but a couple of proven starters if they wanted to win this season. They proved me wrong in the regular season, but I believe that I will be proven correct now in post-season. The Angels simply do not have enough, or good enough, starting pitching to win this thing. Huston Street is an elite closer. He is setup by strong righties in Ernesto Frieri, Jason Grilli, Fernando Salas, Mike Morin, Kevin Jepsen, and Joe Smith. The main, possibly only, lefty out of the pen is Wade Leblanc.
Closer Huston Street was a key Halos pickup
Los Angeles Dodgers
Whaaat? Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Dan Haren, Kenley Jansen bad? No, of course not. But there is a reason that the Dodgers ranked just 13th in MLB in Pitching WAR at Fangraphs. Beyond their elite guys, there are tons of injuries and under-performers. If Hyun-Jin Ryu is healthy, a big “if” since he has been battling a shoulder issue for a while now, then LA has a 4th strong SP option. They absolutely must win on days that Kershaw and Greinke pitch. Losses on any of those days could be devastating. The bullpen has experienced arms in righties Jamey Wright, Chris Perez, Brian Wilson, and Roberto Hernandez, the latter of whom may be called on to start a game or two if Ryu cannot go. The lefties out of the pen are likely to be J.P. Howell and some combo of Paco Rodriguez and Scott Elbert. Most of the bullpen options have been inconsistent, to say the least. That bullpen could prove an Achilles’ Heel…or the vets could get their acts together and turn a weakness into a difference-making strength. That is probably what will be needed if they want to go all the way.
Ranked one spot below the Dodgers at Fangraphs Pitching WAR, the O’s pitching has been masterfully handled by manager Buck Showalter and pitching coach Dave Wallace. Rookie Kevin Gausman and perennially injured Miguel Gonzalez emerged in the 2nd half to give a major boost to the rotation, bumping veteran Ubaldo Jimenez to the pen. Gausman is likely to join Jimenez in the post-season bullpen, with Gonzalez joining Chris Tillman, Wei-Yin Chen, and Bud Norris in the rotation. They have all pitched well at times and struggled at times. It’s hard to imagine them all suddenly turning it on together. Even if they don’t, Buck goes to the pen and trots out righties Darren O’Day, Tommy Hunter, and Ryan Webb or the impressive lefty trio of Andrew Miller, T.J. McFarland, and Brian Matusz to get him to young closer Zach Britton. If the rotation guys don’t absolutely blow up, the Orioles always have a chance, as their regular season record demonstrates.
Saint Louis Cardinals
The rotation is led by one of the best in the business, Adam Wainwright, and the other options are all talented in John Lackey, Lance Lynn, Shelby Miller, and Michael Wacha. The bullpen has a big strikeout guy in closer Trevor Rosenthal, but he also is wild at times. He is setup by a strong righty trio of Pat Neshek, Seth Maness, and Carlos Martinez with the experienced Jason Motte around as well. Lefty options include Randy Choate, Sam Freeman, and Kevin Seigrist. The Cards staff ranks just 18th in Fangraphs Pitching WAR, and a great deal of that is the inconsistency shown by almost everyone except Wainwright and Neshek. They could really use Wacha returning to his magical post-season performance level of a year ago.
San Francisco Giants
Hard to believe that a San Fran playoff team pitching staff is being called “ugly”, but they are here. Much as with the Cardinals, the Giants rotation is led by one of the best in Madison Bumgarner. The season-ending injury to Matt Cain and continued deterioration of Tim Lincecum were off-set by the solid free agent signing of Tim Hudson and the trade acquisition of Jake Peavy. Hudson and Peavy are proven veterans with post-season experience that could be invaluable this October. The Bumgarner-Peavy-Hudson troika should be joined by Yusmeiro Petit, with both Lincecum and Ryan Vogelsong heading to the pen, joining Jean Machi and J.C. Gutierrez as righty options. Javy Lopez and Jeremy Affeldt give the GMen a pair of veteran lefties in the pen. Santiago Casilla has supplanted Sergio Romo as the closer, but both are capable veterans who have shown they can shut the door at the back end of that bullpen. Despite pitching half their games in a pitcher’s haven, the San Fran staff was near the bottom, 28th overall of 30 MLB teams, in Fangraphs Pitching WAR. Aside from Bumgarner, they don’t overpower people. That should open up more opportunities for opposition hitters than most of the other staffs they will faceoff against in post-season play.
Only the Mets kept the Giants and the 29th-ranked Pirates from the bottom of Fangraphs Pitching WAR rankings. The individual pieces don’t look all that bad. Gerrit Cole was an exciting 2nd year starter who is one of the game’s rising star pitchers. Veterans Edinson Volquez and Francisco Liriano pitched well. Vance Worley and Jeff Locke were solid, if unspectacular, 4th and 5th starter options. Mark Melancon emerged as a solid closer, and he is setup by spectacular righty rookie John Holdzcomb, righties Jared Hughes, John Axford, Jeanmar Gomez, Stolmy Pimentel, and Brandon Cumpton, and lefties Justin Wilson and Tony Watson. Overall, the group tends towards inconsistency, walking too many while striking out too few, and giving up too many longballs. Like the Giants, they have enough talent to put it all together. But to do so against stronger, deeper, more consistent, proven staffs over the next month is asking a lot. The Bucs and GMen should enjoy the NL Wildcard Game, since the winner has to face Washington, and likely won’t last too long.