2011 MLB Playoffs: Brewers vs. D Backs NLDS Game 4 Starters' Similarities

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2011 MLB Playoffs: Brewers vs. D Backs NLDS Game 4 Starters' Similarities
David Banks/Getty Images

Tonight, the Arizona Diamondbacks will fight to take the National League Division Series back to Milwaukee, following a dominating 8-1 route against the Brew Crew at Chase Field on Tuesday night. The Brewers—who beat the Diamondbacks on Saturday and Sunday at Miller Park—have different aspirations.

Perhaps the most interesting tidbit is the comparison between the Brewers' scheduled starter, Randy Wolf, and the Diamondbacks scheduled starter, Joe Saunders.

Both gentlemen are southpaws who feature a fastball in the high 80s to low 90s, though Saunders throws his more often (64 percent of the time—something the fastball-happy Brewers should keep in mind). Saunders second-most often used pitch is his change-up, whereas Randy Wolf likes to go to his breaking pitches (roughly 38 percent of the time, split about evenly between slider and curveball). But, it's the results that those pitches garner that is most interesting:

Each pitcher made 33 starts, with Wolf recording exactly one out more than his counterpart. They sport identical 3.69 ERA’s. They both pitch heavily to contact, allowing roughly the same number of hits (Wolf: 214, Saunders: 210) and walks (Wolf: 66, Saunders: 65). Neither pitcher racked up an especially high number of strikeouts, though Wolf had just over one more strikeout per nine innings.

 

On the face, both Wolf and Saunders appear to be solid, above-average, inning-eating hurlers—which is exactly what division winners expect out of their fourth starters. Digging deeper, we find that another thing that these two pitchers share is that, according to peripheral statistics (based on line drive rates, GB/FO ratio, strikeouts), neither pitcher should be as good as they’ve been this season. And indeed, both gentlemen have had better seasons than their career norms.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Joe Saunders limped to the finish line, surrendering 5 runs on 9 hits in his last start against the Dodgers

Saunders has an xFIP (expected fielding-independent percentage) of 4.38, while Wolf comes in at 4.47. While their ERA’s are just above average (and their WHIP’s are roughly average), these xFIP values rank 45th and 47th among the 50 National League qualifiers.

Anecdotally, Wolf did seem to benefit from some lucky breaks. An example of this is his very best start (on paper) of the year—August 15 against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Miller Park. Wolf went eight innings, and gave up zero runs while throwing just 101 pitches.

Looks pretty great right? Except that Wolf was bailed out by his (generally, rather poor) defense.

In the second inning of that game, Wolf had surrendered two base runners without recording an out before giving up an absolute smash to James Loney. Brewers second baseman Josh Wilson snagged the would-be base-hit and led off a double play—which turned into a triple play when Prince Fielder gunned down a greedy Matt Kemp who was trying to go from second to home on the play. Over the next two innings, Wolf would receive defensive help from center fielder Jerry Hairston Jr., who provided an outfield assist at the plate and a spectacular catch-double play on what should have been a gap-double.

This is just one start, but it stands to reason that Wolf should have given up as many as five runs in those three innings and been relieved, but ended up getting eight scoreless frames (which, by itself was the difference of a 3.69 ERA and a 4.00 ERA).

Does this mean anything for tonight? Probably not; it’s just a single game after all, and regression is a long-term tool. If Joe Saunders pitches a complete game shutout and brings the series back to Milwaukee, he doesn’t prove anything any more than he would by getting shelled. Fans of both teams should be aware that neither of these gentlemen were as good as they appeared in 2011, and might not repeat their raw numbers in 2012—but, beyond that, it’s just fun to look at the eerie similarities between two pitchers in a high-stakes game.  

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