When you get right down to it, the two best teams in the National League on paper before the season began are the two teams that will meet for the right to go to the World Series in 2013. The Los Angeles Dodgers are set to face the St. Louis Cardinals after the Cards topped the Pittsburgh Pirates in Game 5 of the NLDS on Wednesday night.
But even more than just featuring two of the most storied franchises in baseball history, the 2013 National League Championship Series will boast two of the best pitching duos in the sport with Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke going toe-to-toe with Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha.
Unfortunately, due to Kershaw starting Game 4 of the Division Series and Wainwright being used to close out Pittsburgh in Game 5, we likely won't get a head-to-head matchup of Kershaw vs. Wainwright.
That doesn't mean there isn't plenty to talk about with these four pitchers. Kershaw and Wainwright are arguably the two best pitchers in the NL right now. The former certainly is the best pitcher in the National League, and Wainwright has a strong case as the No. 2 man behind him.
Greinke has the stuff and potential to be a top-10 NL pitcher when healthy, as he was in the second half. Wacha is just starting his career, but has shown substantial improvement from the time he was drafted in 2012 and took a no-hitter into the eighth inning of his first-ever playoff start.
Just based on that information, it certainly sounds like the Dodgers' duo would rank ahead of St. Louis' tandem. Is the gap really that wide, though?
Let's see what the numbers have to say about things.
Starting with some of the basic pitching stats, you can see that the Dodgers have a huge edge in innings pitched, ERA and strikeouts because Wacha didn't accrue enough service time in the regular season to offer a lot of value.
Wacha did make enough of a difference down the stretch, though, to convince Cardinals manager Mike Matheny to trust him in a playoff game against Pittsburgh with the team down 2-1 in the series and on the road for Game 4.
However, the most basic of statistics only tell part of the story.
Here is where we start to see the playing field even out a little bit. Kershaw still holds a substantial lead over everyone in ERA+ at 94 percent better than the league average starter, and his bWAR is nearly two full wins better than Wainwright.
However, when you look at FanGraphs' wins above replacement metric, Wainwright is much closer because this version relies more on factors the pitcher can control (built around FIP) instead of runs allowed adjusted for opponents, park and defense.
Even though we like to think of Kershaw as the most dominating pitcher in baseball, which he is, Wainwright actually had a strikeout-to-walk ratio that even blew him out of the water (6.26 to 4.46).
Fielding Independent Pitching is an important stat because it factors in everything a pitcher can control (strikeouts, walks, home runs). I do wonder if Kershaw's FIP is a little high because it rounds up every pitchers batting average on balls in play up or down to the league average to calculate the statistic.
Where Kershaw suffers is by having an abnormally low BABIP of .251 this season and .270 in his career. For the record, according to FanGraphs, the average BABIP in 2013 was .314. That costs Kershaw 63 points when calculating FIP, putting his number closer to Wainwright's than it probably should be.
Greinke and Wacha are much closer in overall performance this season than Kershaw and Wainwright, bringing the Cardinals' duo a little bit closer in this race for pitching supremacy heading into the NLCS.
One of the underrated elements of pitching is the stadium factor. Park factors should be taken into account when evaluating a player. A pitcher who posts an ERA of 3.30 while throwing a majority of his innings at Petco Park isn't nearly as impressive as a pitcher who posts a 3.50 ERA at Yankee Stadium.
Based on 2013 Park Factors, from FanGraphs, there were two NL West stadiums (Colorado and Arizona) that rated in the top three for offense this season. Kershaw started four games at those two stadiums, as did Greinke.
But Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco rated in the bottom four of park factors this season, with Kershaw and Greinke making a combined 38 starts in those parks this season.
On the flip side, Wainwright and Wacha pitched in a division where the worst park for hitting ranked 23rd and three of the top 13 stadiums for offense were in the NL Central.
That doesn't mean the Cardinals were always facing the best lineups, because the Cubs, Brewers and Pirates were among the worst hitting teams based on runs scored in baseball this season.
There is one more big stat that I like to see in order to evaluate the overall performance of a player, be it a hitter or pitcher: Win Probability Added.
If you are someone who believes that the clutch gene is an actual thing, WPA is the stat for you. It attempts to put in context the positive or negative effects a player has on the outcome of a game on a play-by-play basis.
Kershaw's dominance is noticeable in this stat because he added more than 1.5 wins to the Dodgers in games he was on the mound than the No. 2 pitcher in the NL, which just happened to be Greinke.
The point of all this is to say that with Greinke, Wainwright and Wacha so close in talent and performance, the great separator is Kershaw. He will likely start just two games in this series, so someone in the Ricky Nolasco and Hyun-Jin Ryu battery will have to steal a game in the NLCS to give him a shot at maximizing his value.
Upon first glance, just hearing the names Kershaw and Greinke would tell you that the Dodgers have a decided pitching edge over the Cardinals when the series starts. But the gap is not nearly as wide as you expect.
Note: All stats courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball Reference unless otherwise noted.
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