Fewer Arms Are Better in October

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Fewer Arms Are Better in October
Two or Three Solid Starters Are Often Quite Enough Once the Playoffs Begin
By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer

By Dave Sheinin

THE LIST: The Worst of 2008
Elsewhere on this page, you will find examples of greatness this season, both by teams and individuals. Here, though, we celebrate the awful, the underachieving and the just plain ugly, with the five worst performances of the year:

Who Has the Best Postseason Rotation?
Nothing guarantees success in October quite like dominant starting pitching, especially from a team’s top two starters, who, over the past three postseasons, have accounted for roughly 62 percent of teams’ innings pitched by starters. The Post’s Dave Sheinin came up with his own semi-scientific point system to rank the rotations of the teams that, entering the weekend, had clinched or were in contention for the playoffs.

The SHORT Answer: Red Sox and Cubs
AMERICAN LEAGUE 1 Red Sox Josh Beckett Jon Lester Daisuke Matsuzaka Tim Wakefield 2 Angels 3 Rays 4 White Sox 5 Twins NATIONAL LEAGUE 1 Cubs Ryan Dempster Carlos Zambrano Ted Lilly Rich Harden 2 Mets 3 Phillies 4 Brewers 5 Dodgers

Baseball’s regular season and postseason operate on two vastly different models when it comes to starting rotations. In the regular season, what is rewarded above all is durability and consistency, from the first spot in the rotation through the fifth, while the postseason tends to favor dominance in the first two or three spots. The best teams, obviously, are capable of both. A glance at this year’s playoff contenders — 10 teams had clinched or remained alive entering the weekend — shows just how important sustained health in the starting rotation is to a team’s fortunes. Those 10 teams managed, better than virtually all others, to keep their fiveman starting rotations healthy from April to September. Yes, this means luck almost certainly comes into play when it comes to deciding who gets in. Of our 10 remaining contenders, all but the Los Angeles Dodgers have gotten 25 or more starts out of each of their top four starting pitchers (or from all five, in the case of the Tampa Bay Rays), and by the end of the weekend all but the Minnesota Twins and Boston Red Sox will have gotten 30-plus starts from its top three. The Rays have needed only nine starts this season from pitchers other than their main five, fewest in the majors, while the Chicago White Sox have only needed 10 and the Los Angeles Angels 12. The Chicago Cubs and Milwaukee Brewers have needed 23 and 24, respectively, but both teams have been models of five-man stability since their midseason acquisitions of Rich Harden and CC Sabathia. “We’ve been fortunate,” Cubs Manager Lou Piniella said. “We’ve had injuries [to position players], but for the most part we’ve stayed healthy in our rotation, which is very important.” The Twins, Angels and Philadelphia Phillies have all used only seven starting pitchers all season, tied for the fewest in the majors. Contrast that with the misfortunes of teams like the New York Yankees (13 starting pitchers this season, with 43 starts coming from pitchers other than their top five), Cleveland Indians (13 starting pitchers, 44 starts from pitchers other than the top five) and Texas Rangers (15 starting pitchers, 52 starts from non-top-five starters) — and you can see what a difference a healthy starting rotation can make. But one of the fascinating things about the postseason is how fundamentally the game changes from that which has occurred over the preceding six months. Teams almost uniformly drop their fifth starter in October — thanks to extra days off — and even the fourth starter often becomes more of a complementary piece. What wins championships is sustained excellence from the top three starters, or sometimes only two. Last year, for example, Josh Beckett and Curt Schilling combined to pitch 54 postseason innings for the Red Sox, which represented 64 percent of the team’s total innings pitched by starters and 43 percent of its overall innings. And of course, in that ultimate example of how far a team can go on even two dominant starting pitchers, Schilling and Randy Johnson accounted for a combined 892⁄3 of the 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks’ 154 total innings pitched (58 percent) in the postseason, which ended with Arizona winning its first World Series. In sizing up this year’s postseason field, you could do a lot worse than basing your picks strictly on whose starting rotation is strongest at the top — which is why we are going with the Red Sox over the Cubs, whose No. 1 starters (Beckett and Ryan Dempster, respectively) we rank in the top half of the field, and whose No. 2 starters (Jon Lester and Carlos Zambrano) we rank as the best No. 2’s in each league. Not a bad story line for a World Series, either.

1. Seattle Mariners. Congratulations, fellas, on becoming the first team in history with a payroll of more than $100 million to lose 100 or more games. Enjoy the No. 1 overall draft pick, which you are on the verge of stealing from the Nationals with a 3-14 record since Sept. 11. Shameful. 2. Andruw Jones, Dodgers. After signing a two-year, $36.2 million contract this winter, Jones reported to camp overweight, made three trips to the disabled list and wound up batting .158 with three homers and 14 RBI. Bravo. 3. Detroit Tigers. We’ll let Jim Leyland, manager of this $135 million fiasco, sum it up: “I’m going to tell you the facts: I stink,” Leyland told reporters this week. “With the year we’ve had, I stink. But I can tell you one thing: I ain’t the Lone Ranger.” 4. Mark Reynolds, Diamondbacks. Reynolds, 25, is not a bad young player, but with a big league-record 201 strikeouts and 34 errors entering the weekend, he has a chance to become the first player in 43 years to lead the majors in both categories. 5. Felipe López, Nationals. F-Lop pouted when he lost the second base job, then straight-up quit on the Nats, forcing them to release him. The fact he has hit .361 since getting picked up by the Cardinals only makes his tank job in D.C. look worse.

Matsuzaka (18-2, 2.80) is the best of the No. 3 starters.
BY OTTO GREULE JR. — GETTY IMAGES BY CHRIS McGRATH — GETTY IMAGES

Harden is 5-1 with a 1.77 ERA since joining the Cubs in midseason.

The LONG Answer: How We Came Up with That
First, we assigned points to each of the contending teams’ four top starters, making educated guesses as to the makeup and alignment of each team’s postseason rotation. The rankings reflect not only pure ability, but also past postseason success, how well he has pitched down the stretch and how healthy he is presumed to be. 1 Our Points Player total
(pts. x 33)

Next, we multiplied each player’s points by the percentage of starters’ postseason innings each is likely to get. See this chart 2

Of all postseason innings pitched by starters the past three years ...
No. 1 starters No. 2 starters pitched 33 percent 29 percent No. 3 starters 24 percent No. 4 starters 13 percent

Other starters 1 percent Player total
(pts. x 29)

No. 1 Starters Johan Santana, Mets CC Sabathia, Brewers Josh Beckett, Red Sox Cole Hamels, Phillies Ryan Dempster, Cubs John Lackey, Angels Francisco Liriano, Twins James Shields, Rays Derek Lowe, Dodgers Mark Buehrle, White Sox

No. 2 Starters Jon Lester, Red Sox Ervin Santana, Angels Scott Kazmir, Rays Carlos Zambrano, Cubs Brett Myers, Phillies Gavin Floyd, White Sox Mike Pelfrey, Mets Ben Sheets, Brewers Hiroki Kuroda, Dodgers Scott Baker, Twins

No. 3 Starters D. Matsuzaka, Red Sox Joe Saunders, Angels Matt Garza, Rays Ted Lilly, Cubs Jamie Moyer, Phillies Kevin Slowey, Twins Oliver Pérez, Mets Jeff Suppan, Brewers Total 846 746 601 415 246

Player total
(pts. x 24)

No. 4 Starters Rich Harden, Cubs John Danks, White Sox Jered Weaver, Angels Edwin Jackson, Rays Pedro Martínez, Mets Tim Wakefield, Red Sox Joe Blanton, Phillies Dave Bush, Brewers Nick Blackburn, Twins

Player total
(pts. x 13)

10 9 8 7
6

330 297 264 231 198 165 132 99 66 33

290 261 232 203 174 145 116 87 58 29

240 216 192 144 96 72 48 24

130 117 104 78 65 52 39 26 13 Total 675 559 540 434 383

Chad Billingsley, Dodgers 168 Javier Vázquez, White Sox 120

Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers 91

5 4 3 2 1
3

Finally, we totaled the points of the first four starters for each team, and — voilá — our rankings of the best rotations for this postseason.

American League Red Sox Angels Rays Twins (Beckett, Lester, Matsuzaka, Wakefield) (Lackey, Santana, Saunders, Weaver) (Shields, Kazmir, Garza, Jackson) (Liriano, Baker, Slowey, Blackburn)

National League Cubs Mets Phillies Brewers Dodgers (Dempster, Zambrano, Lilly, Harden) (Santana, Pelfrey, Pérez, Martínez) (Hamels, Myers, Moyer, Blanton) (Sabathia, Sheets, Suppan, Bush) (Lowe, Kuroda, Billingsley, Kershaw)

White Sox (Buehrle, Floyd, Vázquez, Danks)

It’s Time to Calculate Who Will Receive the Hardware
Here at MLB Sunday, we like to think of ourselves as neutral parties in the fight between the traditionalists and the sabermetricians, able to see and appreciate both sides, much as the best front offices in baseball do. We are not slaves to VORP and all its complex statistical cousins. Nor are we dependent upon wins, saves and RBI — three enduring stats that are largely reliant on context and, thus, often misleading — to tell us who’s good and who isn’t. We do, however, take the “valuable” in most valuable player to be literal and use that word as a guide when handing out our MVP votes, as opposed to simply going with the best player, which is not the same thing. We also sometimes use the insight gained by our clubhouse access to break ties, as we did in naming Jimmy Rollins our National League MVP last year, despite David Wright’s better numbers. We note all of this as a means of introducing our 2008 award picks, as this was one of the more difficult seasons in recent memory in which to choose MVPs, Cy Youngs, and rookies and managers of the year. Strict adherents to either the traditionalist or the sabermetric approach are likely to be disappointed by at least one or two of these:
Traditional Pick Ryan Howard, Phillies. Leads the majors in homers and RBI; put up monster numbers down the stretch. Sabermetric Pick Albert Pujols, Cardinals. Leads the majors in VORP (value over replacement player) by a wide margin, as well as OPS (on-base plus slugging). Our Pick Manny Ramírez, Red Sox/Dodgers. Yes, he was exceedingly “valuable” for the Dodgers. But this pick also reflects our belief a player’s stats from one league should not be wiped clean when he gets traded between leagues. Fact is, Ramirez has not gone .393-17-53 this year (his stats in L.A. through Thursday); he has gone .330-37-121. And he helped not one, but two teams make the postseason. Lincecum. Without the constraints of defining “value,” we go with the guy who was flat-out the most dominant pitcher in the league, by nearly every measure except wins. And 17 wins, with an ERA that is more than a half-run better than Webb’s, is not too shabby either. Soto. Only thing we’ll add is that he has done all this while playing a premium position (catcher) and handling an excellent, veteran staff with aplomb. Lou Piniella, Cubs. The Cubs had improved by 11 games over last year through Thursday, and a big reason is Piniella’s in-roster moves (moving Ryan Dempster to the rotation, moving Mark DeRosa around the diamond, etc.). NL MVP

3 UP & 3 DOWN
L Dancing Announcers: Amateur video clip of Nats’ radio duo C. Slowes and D. Jaegler dancing in booth becomes Internet hit. Best part: Team’s seven listeners were none the wiser. L Shea Stadium: The other park in NYC says goodbye, with new Citi Field set to open in ’09. Fans encouraged to walk off with mementos, including L. Ayala or A. Heilman. L Baseball Insider: Post’s Web site launches new baseball blog. Key difference from Nationals Journal: We’re allowed to write about good teams. M Fan Appreciation Day: Nationals’ home finale Thursday night rained out, will not be replayed. For once, Nats Park ticket holders get their money’s worth. M Philly Phanatic: Phillies’ mascot causes stadium evacuation by leaving behind duct-taped hot dogs. Seeking detonation advice, team officials ring phone in Mets’ bullpen. M Clemens: Former star “heartbroken” by exclusion from Yankee Stadium farewell ceremonies. Simmer down, Rog, it’s not as if they invited Pettitte but not you. Oh, wait.

NL Cy Young

Brandon Webb, Diamondbacks. Twenty-two wins entering the weekend, five more than anyone else. Geovany Soto, Cubs. Entered the weekend leading all NL rookies in homers and RBI. Jerry Manuel, Mets. Took over for the fired Willie Randolph, revived a dead team and had it in contention entering the final weekend. Justin Morneau, Twins. Entered the weekend leading the league in RBI; hitting .358 with runners in scoring position. Cliff Lee, Indians. A 22-3 record, period. Edges out the Angels’ Francisco Rodriguez (62 saves). Evan Longoria, Rays. Most homers and RBI of any AL rookie. Joe Maddon, Rays. From the worst record in the majors in 2007 to a playoff spot in ’08. No contest.

Tim Lincecum, Giants. Lowest opponents’ OPS and highest VORP in the league.

NL Rookie

Soto. Also leads all NL rookies in VORP and OPS. Cecil Cooper, Astros. Houston entered the weekend having outperformed its “pythagorean” win-loss record (what their record should be based on runs scored and allowed) by eight games, contending until the final week. Milton Bradley, Rangers. Although he plays for a non-contender, still has highest OPS and OPS+ in the league. (OPS+ is an adjusted number that takes into account the park and league in which a player plays.) Lee. A temptation to go with Roy Halladay instead, but Lee still has the edge in ERA+ and VORP. Longoria. Tops in VORP, OPS, OPS+, etc.

NL Manager

AL MVP

Dustin Pedroia, Red Sox. His VORP ranks third in the league and he may win the batting title, but beyond that he also plays excellent second base and bats anywhere from leadoff to cleanup for a playoff team.

Lee. The best pitcher in the league by practically any measure.

AL Cy Young

Longoria. This one’s easy.

AL Rookie

AL Manager

Mike Scioscia, Angels. A whopping 13 games above their pythagorean win-loss record.

Maddon. Just barely over the Twins’ Ron Gardenhire, who has done more with less than any manager in the game.


				
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