Thursday, September 17, 2015

Ranking the Starting Pitching 1-2 Punch for NL Playoffs

Baseball is ridiculous. If you were creating a sport today and you proposed a format that mimicked that currently used by MLB--an incredibly long season, a completely different set of rules for the last 15% of that season and then a one month end-of-the-season tournament to crown the World Champion--people would laugh you out of the room. But like it or not, with baseball as popular as it's ever been, this current structure is here to stay. (Although the September roster expansion is likely to change when the current CBA expires.)

The playoffs are now less than three weeks away. The American League is a stew of uncertainty with the Astros collapsing down the stretch, but the NL meal was fully cooked about a week ago, all five participants comfortably locked into the postseason. Playoff baseball is different. Five-man rotations go out the window and one pitcher, Madison Bumgarner last year, can almost single-armedly carry a team to a title.

So let's look at the NL starting pitchers and rank them by the 1-2 punch they bring at the front of the rotation:

1.) Los Angeles Dodgers: Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke

The top spot isn't open for discussion.

Kershaw's the best pitcher on the planet and he's put together a five-year stretch that surpasses the best of Pedro, The Big Unit or The Professor. His 2011-15 run is right there with Koufax from 1962-66. He was the NL Cy Young and MVP winner last year and his numbers this year are in-line if not better. The only dent on Kershaw's resume, and it's now a fairly big one, is his lack of playoff success. In eight career post-season starts he's only gone seven innings one time and he's lost his last four. In two starts in the 2014 tourney he pitched 12.2 innings and gave up 11 runs. I'd still take him over anyone else to start Game 1.

Zack Greinke is having a record-setting season of his own and is probably the front-runner for the NL Cy Young. He's numbers are on par with this Cy Young-winning 2009 and his 1.61 ERA would be the third-lowest since they lowered the mound in '68 (Gooden 1.53 in '85 and Maddux 1.56 in '94). Greinke's been very good in his four post-season starts with LA after getting roughed-up in the 2011 playoffs with the Brewers.

2.) Chicago Cubs: Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester

You just read how good Kershaw and Greinke have been, but since mid-June Arrieta's been the best pitcher in the game. In his last 17 starts, the Cubs are 15-2, he has a 1.01 ERA and batters are hitting .162/.214/.229. In 125 innings he's walked 25, struck out 120 and given up 2 home runs. Good luck. 

Arrieta has never pitched in the post-season. Jon Lester has. And he's been very good. In three World Series starts, he's 3-0 giving up 12 hits and 1 run in 21 innings. But his most-recent playoff memory isn't as good. With it all on-the-line in the one-game, dice-roll wild card playoff last year, he couldn't get the A's over the hump with a 7-3 lead going into the eighth. Lester's been a bit uneven this season, but has been his best of late. In his last two starts, against the Cards and Pirates, he went 16 innings giving up 2 runs on 7 hits, 2 walks with 16 strikeouts. The Cubs signed him for just this reason. We'll see if Arrieta gives him a chance to show his post-season mettle.

3.) New York Mets: Jacob deGrom and Matt Harvey

Now the debate begins.

deGrom burst onto the scene last year winning the NL Rookie of the Year and he's been better this year. If you were ranking the 10 pitchers on this list it would probably be a toss-up as to whether you would put deGrom or Gerrit Cole fourth. deGrom definitely has the better wingman, so the Mets slide into third.

Matt Harvey. It's all been said.

4.) Pittsburgh Pirates: Gerrit Cole and ...

The two teams with the best records in baseball are fourth and fifth. As mentioned, Gerrit Cole is the fourth or fifth best starter on this list which is why the Pirates get the nod here. The question is who do the Pirates start in Game 2, if there is one. At the All-Star break that was a hard question because both Francisco Liriano and A.J. Burnett were lights-out. Since then Liriano, one of the most difficult pitchers in the game to hit when he's right, has been erratic issuing 4.5 BB/9 and A.J.'s been on the DL.

Could the answer be behind door number 3? Most scoffed at Neal Huntington's last-second acquisition of J.A. Happ at the deadline. After one start I questioned whether it should be his last. Since that first outing, Happ's made seven starts. In 41.2 innings he's given up 32 hits, 7 walks and struck out 44. His 1.30 ERA and .540 OPS-against aren't exactly Arrietan, but they're pretty damn good. Pirates fans didn't warm to Edinson Volquez getting the ball last year in a one-game playoff and Happ isn't going to get it in that situation this year. But could he be next in line? I still think it's Liriano, but it's a conversation few foresaw six weeks ago.

5.) St. Louis Cardinals: Staff

Which two of these four pitchers would you choose today just looking that the numbers? Heck, he's pitched fewer innings, but you could probably throw Jamie Garcia into the mix too. Carlos Martinez is the guy most-likely to go to the bullpen having made 16 playoff relief appearances over the past two Octobers. That leaves Michael Wacha, John Lackey and Lance Lynn. Lynn was the presumptive staff ace with the loss of Adam Wainwright in April, but he's only thrown 28.2 innings in his last six starts and given up 20 runs, 16 earned. In the two starts against the Pirates and Cubs, one of whom will be the Cards first round opponent, he didn't get out of the first against Pittsburgh and only went 2.1 against Chicago. Both games were at Busch.

That leaves Wacha and Lackey. Wacha was a stud in the 2013 postseason until getting torched in Game 6 of the World Series. He's been excellent this season. The Cards have been watching his innings and he's likely a 6-inning pitcher in the post-season. But that's what most guys should be. The 36-year old Lackey is having a typical-Lackey season. He's a veteran of the post-season battles and won a World Series Game 7 in 2002. If you think experience matters, Lackey's your guy.

Conclusion: Having the best-record in baseball only guarantees a team one thing. They won't play in a wild card game. So it looks like the Cardinals will avoid that. That sets up Gerrit Cole against Jake Arrieta in Pittsburgh on October 7 for the right to play the Cardinals. But, hey, maybe that's a better option than having to play the Dodgers or Mets in a five-game series.

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