If the regular season ended today, the Major League Baseball playoffs would feature the following teams:
The New York Yankees, Chicago White Sox, Texas Rangers, Tampa Bay Rays and Baltimore Orioles in the American League; and Washington, Cincinnati, Los Angeles, Atlanta and Pittsburgh in the National League.
If you believe that pitching breeds success in baseball, you will find it is no coincidence that seven of those aforementioned teams are among the top 10 pitching staffs in the majors. Only the White Sox, Rangers and Orioles are not included in the group. Five of the teams – Washington, Los Angeles, Tampa Bay, Cincinnati and Atlanta – are part of the game’s top 10 rotations according to current stats.
There is no guaranteed recipe for winning a World Series once a team reaches the playoffs. The last two World Series champions – St. Louis and San Francisco – demonstrated that. Also, a team that has outstanding pitching but little offense is typically not conducive to going all the way in October. If so, Tampa Bay would have a couple World Series banners showcased at Tropicana Field. Yet, in many cases, strong pitching can shut down potent lineups in the post-season, especially if a team is well-stocked with top of the rotation arms.
Here are four rotations that no opposing lineup looks forward to facing – in April, the dog days of summer or the pressure of October lights:
If Washington’s top five arms remain healthy and the team makes the playoffs next season, it will be a special treat for fans who savor exceptional pitching in October. This year, Nationals are heading for its first post-season berth. They have the best record in the majors at 72-44, helped by a MLB-leading starting rotation ERA of 3.22. Yet Washington fans will not likely see the team’s complete rotation in October.
According to multiple media reports, including The Sporting News, fireballing phenom Stephen Strasburg will but shut down for the year once he reaches around 180 innings. Currently, the 24-year-old right-hander who is in his first season back after Tommy John surgery is 13-5 with a 2.90 ERA, a 1.12 WHIP and 166 strikeouts in 133.1 innings.
Citing an unidentified source from an article on MLB.com, The Sporting News added that Strasburg will not pitch in the postseason once he is shut down.
If the Nationals stick to this plan, that will undoubtedly impact the team’s chances for a World Series title. They will still be formidable, though, with the 26-year-old left-hander Gonzalez (15-6, 3.29 ERA) and National League Cy Young Award contender Zimmermann (9-6, 2.35 ERA). Jackson (7-7, 3.74 ERA) and Detwiler (6-5, 3.18) are solid back of the rotation arms.
If only the anemic Rays lineup could muster consistent run support, then the American League’s best starting rotation statistically with a 3.50 ERA would have more wins. Tampa Bay is 28th in the majors with a .235 team average, better than only Oakland’s .232 and Seattle’s .231. When your OPS is .690 like the Rays, you are not going to generate much production. The Rays are 21st in the majors with 475 runs, but their starters sure can pitch.
Price, who was second to Seattle’s Felix Hernandez in 2010 American League Cy Young Award voting, is a Cy Young Award contender again this season with a 15-4 record and a 2.50 ERA and 1.12 WHIP. Jered Weaver of the Angels is the frontrunner with a 15-2 record, 2.22 ERA and 0.92 WHIP, but he has a more potent lineup to support him.
Regardless of how many runs Tampa Bay scores, opposing lineups are having trouble reaching Price in 2012, as his .225 batting average against suggests. If the Rays could start him three times in a seven-game post-season series, they would have an advantage.
Though 30-year-old right-hander James Shields has been inconsistent this year and is 10-7 with a 4.02 ERA in 24 starts, he has allowed just three runs in 24 innings during this last three outings.
Jeremy Hellickson, the 2011 American League Rookie of the Year, and hard-throwing left-hander Matt Moore give Tampa Bay top of the rotation caliber options at the No. 3 and No. 4 spots. When Jeff Niemann landed on the disabled list earlier this season, the Rays turned to 24-year-old righty Alex Cobb, who has been respectable with a 7-8 record and a 4.08 ERA in 15 starts.
The A’s don’t have a clear-cut ace like Tampa Bay does with Price and Detroit does with Justin Verlander, but they are talented depth, and they are second in the American League with a 3.84 starters’ ERA.
Overall stats show that the Dodgers, Cardinals, Giants and Reds have a better starters’ ERA than the A’s, and Bob Melvin’s team does have the benefit of pitching 81 games in a spacious home ballpark, still Oakland’s rotation seems to respond against the high-powered American League lineups.
Like Tampa Bay, Oakland has trouble scoring runs. The A’s are second to last in the majors with a .232 average and 24th overall and next to last in the AL in runs with 464. Also, like Tampa Bay, Oakland’s starting rotation minimizes the damage. A’s starters have surrendered the least amount of runs in the AL at 313. Tampa Bay is second at 315.
Ravaged with injuries, the A’s rotation was bolstered with the recent return of right-hander Brandon McCarthy, who is 6-3 with a 2.68 ERA in 13 starts, including a no-decision on August 10 against the White Sox when he permitted three runs and six hits in six innings during his first outing since June 19.
The revitalized Bartolo Colon (9-5, 3.55 ERA in 23 starts) and two rookies – Tommy Milone (9-9, 3.91 ERA in 22 starts) and right-handed phenom Jarrod Parker (7-6, 3.55 ERA in 19 starts) – have given the A’s a lift since they have been without left-handers Brett Anderson and Dallas Braden this season.
The 24-year-old Anderson last appeared in a game on June 5, 2011 before undergoing Tommy John surgery. According to MLB.com, he will make one more rehab start and then rejoin the A’s rotation, which will be tough to face if the team secures a wild card berth.
San Francisco and Los Angeles are deadlocked atop the National League West at 63-53. The Dodgers have the second best starters’ ERA in baseball at 3.41, but it is the Giants that have a more formidable rotation for the regular season and October.
Bumgarner and Cain are guys who can take over a game. Vogelsong (10-6, 2.72 ERA in 22 starts) is a National League Cy Young Award candidate, and though Lincecum is struggling this season (6-12, 5.35 ERA, 1.47 WHIP in 24 starts), he is capable of overpowering an opposing lineup, too.
Dodgers left-hander Clayton Kershaw is arguably the best starter on either staff, but behind him Los Angeles has Chad Billingsley, Chris Capuano, Aaron Harang and Joe Blanton. That is not exactly a rebirth of Koufax and Drysdale.
With Bumgarner, Cain and the surprising Vogelsong and either either Lincecum or Zito, the Giants can compose a post-season rotation that is capable of shutting down opposing lineups. Beyond Kershaw, the Dodgers remaining choices don’t inspire a lot of October confidence.