Ace in Point: The 10 Best Big-Game Pitchers In MLB's Pennant Races

Lewie PollisSenior Analyst IIIAugust 16, 2010

Ace In Point: The 10 Best Big-Game Pitchers In MLB's Pennant Races

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    "Who can I turn to to win this game?" It's a question managers have struggled with on the eve of a big matchup since the early days of professional baseball.

    It's not just a matter of who's the best pitcher—it's about clutch. Dubious though many claims about players' abilities to perform under pressure may be, it's ridiculous to deny that some pitchers are better at coming through when it counts.

    In this slideshow are the 10 pitchers currently involved in playoff races who, if I were rooting for their teams, I would most want to turn to for a big game—either during the regular season or beyond.

    The names on this list were chosen first by skill and second by demonstrated performance in the playoffs or high-pressure situations. An average pitcher with a couple good October starts to his name won't be found on this list, but a low ERA with no record of being clutch isn't enough to get to the top.

Honorable Mentions

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    Josh Beckett

    Plagued by injury problems and a 6.51 ERA, it's safe to say this has been a bad year for the Red Sox' former ace. But don't forget that Beckett was the hero of not one but two World Series champion teams.

    Tommy Hanson

    This youngster is new to the thrill of a pennant race, and there's no telling how he would do in October. But with apologies to Tim Hudson, he is the best pitcher on arguably the best pitching staff in the game.

    Tim Lincecum

    No one's complaining about an 11-6 record or a 3.41 ERA, but something is clearly wrong with the reigning NL Cy Young winner. Not many pitchers can go toe-to-toe with the Freak if he's on his game, but unfortunately that's a big "if."

No. 10: Mat Latos

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    The Padres have taken baseball by storm this year. Entering the season as unanimous favorites to fall to the cellar of the ultra-competitive NL West, the Padres have been in first place since June 16 and have been at least tied for the lead on all but four days since April 19th.

    The poster boy for this surprising success is Mat Latos. Raise your hand if you predicted before the season that, in August, he would rank anywhere seventh in the NL in wins (12) and fifth in the game in ERA (2.36)? That's what I thought.

    After struggling to adjust to the majors as a rookie last year, Latos has rediscovered the stuff that made him so lethal in the minors, striking out nearly a batter per inning (8.7 K/9) while cutting down significantly on the walks (2.7 BB/9).

    He's not the most dominant pitcher in the league, but he's one of the most consistent; he hasn't given up more than three runs or been removed before the sixth inning since April 26.

    He's thriving as the leader of a contender's staff at age 22—what more could you want from a big-game pitcher?

No. 9: Clay Buchholz

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    When you're the prized pitching prospect of the second-most recognizable franchise in the league, you're forced to get used to the spotlight.

    When your team's GM has repeatedly refused to trade you, even for the likes of Cliff Lee and Adrian Gonzalez, people expect a lot from you.

    And when you throw a no-hitter in your second career MLB start, you set the bar pretty high for yourself.

    Buchholz (13-5, 2.49) is in the midst of a career year, and judging by his solid performance in last year's ALDS, he can handle the pressure.

No. 8: Cole Hamels

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    Much was made of Cliff Lee's clutch performances in the 2009 playoffs, (he's got his own slide coming up later, so I won't spill ink on him here), and in the uproar, many people forgot about the other Phillies pitcher who carried the team to the 2008 pennant.

    Two Octobers ago, a spunky 24-year-old named Cole Hamels took the Brewers, Dodgers, and Rays by storm, going 4-0 with a pristine 1.80 ERA through five quality starts. For his efforts, he was named MVP of both the NLCS and the World Series, becoming the first player to win both honors in the same postseason since Livan Hernandez in 1997.

    So far, Hamels has looked far sharper than last year—his ERA (3.33) is down by nearly a full run from last year, and that's not just because his BABIP has mercifully returned to normal levels. He's now striking out batters at a 9.2 K/9 rate, thanks largely to the addition of a cutter and 2 mph increase in his fastball's velocity.

    Hamels had a rougher go of it in the 2009 playoffs, but his sheer domination in 2008 (plus his quality start in the 2007 NLDS) more than makes up for last year's follies.

No. 7: Francisco Liriano

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    There's no doubt that Francisco Liriano is the best pitcher no one is talking about.

    Left for dead after going 5-13 with a 5.80 ERA in 2009 (his first full season since coming back from Tommy John surgery), Liriano is back and is making good on his once-storied potential.

    His 3.26 ERA is nice, but it doesn't do him justice at all; he's second in the league with a 2.94 xFIP and 5.6 WAR. His 2.19 FIP is the best in all of baseball—he and Cliff Lee (2.30) are the only AL pitchers to come in under 3.00.

    He doesn't have much playoff experience (one relief appearance last year), so it's anyone's guess how he would do under pressure. Still, the first thing a big-game pitcher needs is "stuff," and Liriano has that in spades.

No. 6: Roy Oswalt

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    Roy Oswalt might not be the feared ace he once was, but there are few pitchers who can match his talent and reputation for clutch pitching.

    Oswalt has a 3.34 ERA to his name this year—his best since 2007. It's no fluke, either—he ranks in the NL's top 10 in xFIP (3.56), and his 3.35 FIP is his lowest since 2006.

    The reason? Simply put, Oswalt is missing bats. He's striking out hitters at a 8.1 K/9 clip, a number he hasn't reached since he was a rookie.

    Then, of course, there's his postseason resume. In eight playoff appearances, he's 4-0 with a 3.66 ERA. He was the NLCS MVP when the Astros advanced to the World Series in 2005.

No. 5: Jon Lester

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    The Red Sox have recently had some disappointing Octobers; after being humiliated by the Rays in 2008, they looked simply overmatched against the Angels in 2009.

    None of that is the fault of Jon Lester.

    Lester made his first postseason start in the 2007 World Series at and shut out the Rockies in the clinching game. Oh, by the way, he was 23.

    He's had only one real bad outing in five playoff games since, and as a result has a shiny 2.57 postseason ERA.

    Add to that the fact that Lester has taken the next step in 2010 (his 2.80 ERA ranks fifth in the AL), and he's a fantastic choice to take the mound for an important game.

No. 4: Adam Wainwright

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    Last year, Adam Wainwright was considered a favorite to win the NL Cy Young solely because of his 19 wins, despite his placing behind eventual winner Tim Lincecum and his teammate Chris Carpenter in every other major category.

    In 2010, Wainwright is putting on a show that every fan can appreciate.

    Wainwright leads all of baseball with his 1.99 ERA, and he comes in sixth and fourth in FIP and xFIP, respectively. And with 17 victories already to his name, he's also on pace to surpass his gaudy 2009 total.

    Facing Wainwright in any context is a scary thought, but especially so in the playoffs. In his lone October outing last year, he held the Dodgers to one run on three hits with seven strikeouts and just one walk in eight innings.

    Throw in his nine scoreless relief appearances during the Cards' 2006 championship run and his career postseason ERA comes out to 0.51. You read that correctly—zero point five one.

    Look out, Cincinnati.

No. 3: David Price

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    David Price had just 14 MLB innings under his belt when he walked to the mound with two outs in the ninth inning of Game One of the 2008 ALCS. It took him three pitches to retire Jacoby Ellsbury.

    The next night, Price entered the game with the go-ahead run on first in the 11th inning. Three batters later, it was over; Price would end up with the win.

    Then came Game Seven, when Price got the call in the eighth inning to preserve Tampa Bay's tenuous two-run lead. J.D. Drew was the go-ahead run at the plate.

    Price ended up with three strikeouts as he completed the four-out save. By the end of October, he had become a household name and had earned a 1.59 ERA.

    This year, he's been surrounded by whispers of a Cy Young. The AL All-Star starter has a sub-3.00 ERA and looks to threaten 20 wins.

    Now that's scary.

No. 2: Roy Halladay

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    Roy Halladay has never pitched in the postseason. Until this year, he'd never pitched in a pennant race.

    I don't care.

    Arguably the best pitcher in the game, Halladay hasn't been shaken by the move from the bottom-feeding Blue Jays to the pumped-up Phillies. In fact, he is enjoying the best season of his career.

    His 2.24 ERA is his best since his 14-inning stint as a rookie in 1998. His 8.2 K/9 rate and 2.64 FIP are both the best he's had since 2001, when he spent half the season reworking his windup in the minors.

    This is a man who excels under pressure. Allow me to cherry-pick a few interesting numbers:

    A 3.53 career ERA against +.500 teams. A 2.97 ERA at Yankee Stadium. A 2.36 ERA in September and October.

    I think those numbers speak for themselves.

No. 1: Jose Mesa

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    No, just kidding. Though as an Indians fan, I really don't find this funny...

No. 1: Cliff Lee

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    In my first MVP Baseball 2005 season, Cliff Lee was my World Series MVP. He went 4-1 with a 1.80 ERA through 45 postseason innings, shutting down the opposition when all my other pitchers (including Johan Santana and Carlos Zambrana) couldn't get it done.

    That would sound impressive if you slept through last year's playoffs, but anyone who watched the Phillies' World Series run knows that Lee actually was better in real life.

    In 40.1 innings, Lee went 4-0 with a scintillating 1.56 ERA. In those five games alone, he earned 1.46 WPA.

    Not that Lee has been saving himself for the playoffs. More impressive than his 2.57 ERA this year is his absolutely ridiculous 137:9 K:BB ratio. That's more than 15 strikeouts per walk—enough to absolutely annihilate Bret Saberhagen's single-season record (11.0).

    The most important thing a pitcher can do in the playoffs is stay in control. There's no one in the game who's better at that than Cliff Lee.

One Final Note

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    Before you call me a biased hack for excluding a certain two Yankees pitchers, I have explanations for both:

    CC Sabathia seems to have earned a reputation as a clutch pitcher after going 3-1 with a 1.98 ERA in five postseason starts last year. But let's not be too hasty—he went 1-3 with a 6.16 ERA in four playoff outings with the Indians and Brewers in 2007-8 without a single quality start.

    Andy Pettitte may be the most accomplished pitcher in playoff history, but he's far from the most reliable. He's seemingly found the fountain of youth this year (2.88 ERA), but FIP (3.95), xFIP (4.04), and tERA (4.09) all think his stellar performance is largely the result of luck. And despite his status as the Mr. October of the mound, after 249 postseason innings, his career playoff ERA (3.90) is actually worse than his regular-season mark (3.85).