2011 MLB Playoff Predictions: Power Ranking the Playoff Teams by Pitching Staff
Justin Verlander is the best pitcher in the American League playoffs, but the Detroit Tigers are far from the best pitching team. It may well be that, in ranking all the playoff hurlers, every team has three pitchers behind Verlander, but ahead of either Doug Fister or Jose Valverde. That kind of imbalance will not serve the Tigers well in their ALDS match-up with the New York Yankees.
It's a funny thing to think about, but depth is both critical and useless in a playoff pitching staff. On occasion, you will fall behind early and need to employ a quick hook to stay in a game, at which point you might need four or more innings from a demoted starting pitcher. At the same time, though, ideally, your top three starters and top two relievers will throw somewhere in the neighborhood of 85 percent of your total postseason innings.
Understanding, then, that every staff is different, and therefore differently prepared for playoff baseball, here are power rankings of the eight teams still left in the hunt for the World Series, based on their useful pitchers.
8. Arizona Diamondbacks
A cogent case could be made that Daniel Hudson is actually better than Ian Kennedy, despite Kennedy's 21 wins and ace standing in the Arizona rotation. Both are fine pitchers, but in the playoffs, Arizona really looks short-handed.
Even if Kennedy or Hudson beats superior foes Yovani Gallardo and Shaun Marcum, the Diamondbacks still have to face Zack Greinke in Game 3, sending Joe Saunders to the mound, and Josh Collmenter would match up with Randy Wolf in Game 4. That smells like three losses for Arizona.
Their bullpen is strong, but not deep, and if Saunders or Collmenter gets knocked out early, Kirk Gibson does not have a true asset in long relief, or even a decent bridge to David Hernandez and J.J. Putz.
7. St. Louis Cardinals
Chris Carpenter's clutch shutout over the Astros Wednesday helped vault St. Louis into the playoffs, but as a result of needing him that day, St. Louis cannot return to Carpenter until Game 3.
In typical Tony La Russa fashion, the team also will let its second-best starter (Jaime Garcia) rot until a possible Game 4 with the Phillies. Kyle Lohse and Edwin Jackson figure to get the first two starts of the series, where it feels like Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee will each have the edge. St. Louis has an eclectic, specialized bullpen well-suited to both postseason baseball and La Russa's managerial style, but the unit lacks talent.
6. Justin—I Mean, Detroit Tigers
No team in baseball history has owed so high a percentage of its total pitching value to one pitcher. The Tigers have gotten great starts from Doug Fister since he came over from Seattle in July, but consider the following list:
- Cleveland (four)
- Tampa Bay
- Kansas City (two)
Those were Fister's opponents during his stretch run. Of those teams, only two had something resembling a solid lineup during August and September. Fister did well against the Rangers, allowing only three runs (two earned) in seven innings, but he also struck out not one single batter. Against Baltimore, the other good lineup, Fister gave up eight runs (six earned) in 5.2 innings. All that is a long way to say: The Yankees are going to clobber Doug Fister.
Meanwhile, the Detroit bullpen may be one of the great overrated units in the league. Jose Valverde's perfect season in terms of save percentage has clouded many observers' judgment enough that they fail to note his crummy walk rate, command ratios and general peripheral numbers. He will blow a save sometime during this series, if indeed he is even handed a lead.
5. New York Yankees
CC Sabathia is a true ace and a fantastic workhorse to ride into the playoffs, even if he does stand an unnerving chance of losing one or both of his starts based on Verlander's dominance. Beyond Sabathia, though, the playoff rotation is a scary, ugly crew.
Ivan Nova might be good, but his strikeout-to-walk ratio starts with a one, so he can hardly be counted on. Freddy Garcia and either A.J. Burnett or Bartolo Colon figure to get starts at some point. That's not good.
What is good is the Yankee bullpen. It's not just Mariano Rivera, either: David Robertson has had one of the best relief seasons in baseball this year, and Rafael Soriano recovered nicely from a bad start and injury problems.
4. Tampa Bay Rays
Matt Moore will start Game 1 of the ALDS for the Rays. How wild is that? Moore, an utter phenom with future ace potential, gets the ball more because of the Rays' predicament than anything else, but he represents a significant advantage for the Rays: They are deeper than abstract art.
James Shields will follow Moore in Game 2, so Joe Maddon can confidently employ a quick hook if Moore gets into trouble. Going into the bullpen, Jeff Niemann and/or Wade Davis will be available all series, as it looks like David Price and Jeremy Hellickson would get the nods in Games 3 and 4. That's a lot of talented starting pitcher, and it makes no mention of Kyle Farnsworth, Joel Peralta, Jake McGee and Cesar Ramos, true relievers who helped the Rays make their late-season charge.
3. Milwaukee Brewers
Bold this ranking might be, but the Brewers are vastly underrated on the mound. Gallardo, Marcum and Greinke comprise a starting pitcher trio topped only by that of the Phillies, and honestly, none of the three is over-matched by their prospective opponent. Randy Wolf is the second-best fourth starter in the tournament, too, though the gap between he and Roy Oswalt might be more substantial.
Milwaukee's bullpen is built for postseason play, too. John Axford was quietly excellent—not good or great but excellent—this season, and GM Doug Melvin took what has turned out to be a great risk by trading for Francisco Rodriguez in July. Add to that the great work of Takashi Saito, the lefty help the relief corps will get from demoted fifth starter Chris Narveson and the perfect long-relief candidate in Marco Estrada, and you have a team built to succeed in October.
2. Texas Rangers
C.J. Wilson will get the ball in Game 1 for Texas as they take on the Rays. That selection was obvious. Beyond that, though, the Rangers had a bevy of good options for Games 2, 3 and 4. They settled on Derek Holland, Colby Lewis and Matt Harrison, meaning Alexi Ogando will return to the bullpen from whence he came, at least for the balance of the Rangers' run.
Manager Ron Washington clearly selected these starters based on their potential to dominate opponents, as Holland is an inconsistent but sometimes electric lefty and Lewis can be untouchable when his slider is working. The Rangers can afford to keep Ogando stretched out for emergency long work, because their bullpen is already stacked with talent at the back end. Neftali Feliz, Mike Adams and Koji Uehara lend Washington some great flexibility.
1. Philadelphia Phillies
Philly's bullpen has become a bit of a question mark lately, but you know what really helps if your bullpen is faltering? Having two starters at the front of the rotation who will probably complete 60 percent of their combined starts in October, and who will toss seven or eight innings in the other contests.
Ryan Madson has not suddenly struggled, and since he might be the only reliever the St. Louis Cardinals even face, the bullpen's weaknesses are not a huge deal.