Who’s Number One?
Checking out the staff aces
By Adam Hoff
The Major League Baseball postseason is just a few weeks away. Does anyone realize this? With all the focus on the NFL lately, the playoffs have sort of crept up on us. And while there are still races left undecided, it’s time to start looking ahead to the potential matchups that await us in October. Not only that, but it is time to take a glance at the #1 starting pitchers that will inevitably play a huge part in determining the outcomes of these wild card rounds.
In a short, five game, first round series, the ace of the staff plays an enormous role. In the days of the three-man playoff rotation, a #1 starter could dominate a seven game series by pitching three times. Now that nearly every team uses at least four starters in a series, the #1 starter doesn’t usually get any more starts than anyone else. All of this means that the first round is the series most likely to be dominated by a singular ace starter. So, who’s got the Ace of Spades? We’ll rank the teams based on their best starter, looking at the American League today and the National League next week.
Minnesota Twins. It’s not hard to find the ace of this staff. Johan “Supernatural” Santana has been as good as any pitcher I’ve ever seen over the past four months. His numbers for the season (19-6, 2.62 ERA, .92 WHIP, .195 BAA, and 254 strikeouts in 217 innings) are amazing enough, but you have to consider the fact that his first two months were a total wash. Recovering from offseason elbow surgery, Santana struggled with his delivery and started out with an ERA over 5.50 and a WHIP on the wrong side of 1.50. Suddenly, the pain went away and he rediscovered his fluid motion and the rest is history. Over the past four months, Santana has given the Twins 157 innings of pure magic. His ERA over that span is 1.49. His record is 17-3. He has struck out 200 batters and allowed only 79 hits. His WHIP is a disgusting .69. He’s throwing his fastball 95 mph, his curve ball 85, and his changeup 75 ... and all with the exact same arm speed and delivery. He’s making people look positively stupid. Honestly, I’ve never seen anything like it. Only Pedro in 2000 and Maddux in the strike-shortened 1994 season have brought it like this in my lifetime.
I could write about Santana every day and never grow tired of the subject. Needless to say, I think that the man I simply call “Oye Como Va” could give the Twins a huge edge in a first round series. Mark it down: Johan wins Game One, Minnesota finds a way to get a second win in the next three games, and then he comes back to win Game Five. Who will their upset victim be? Well, that should come down to the wire. Currently the Twins and the A’s are percentage points apart in the standings. If Oakland finishes ahead of the Twinkies, you will see Minnesota going to New York and Santana doing his Black Magic in Yankee Stadium. However if the Twins can sneak past the A’s (or the Angels and Rangers, I suppose), they will host the Red Sox. Nothing against the AL West teams, but if I’m the Sox or Yanks, I hope to avoid Johan and his Twins in Round One.
New York Yankees. Who in the world is the ace of this staff? Well, it’s certainly not Kevin Brown. After pulling a Mike Tyson’s Punchout on the dugout wall, Brown’s done. You can rule out John Leiber, because he sucks. (Although he’s been decent as of late). Javy Vasquez has been a huge disappointment. That pretty much leaves El Duque and Moose. Two guys that were both deemed “done” at some point in the past year. Hernandez has come back from the dead to serve as the de facto ace of the Yankees staff over the past few months, going 8-1 with a 2.87 ERA. He seems to be the popular choice to take the ball in Game One for the Yanks. However, Mike Mussina is coming on strong. After being awful for most of the season, Moose has been sick in September. He’s 3-1 with a 1.20 ERA, .84 WHIP, and 33 K’s in 30 innings.
Despite all the question marks regarding the Yankees rotation, they appear to have two guys who are clicking, which assures them of three quality starts. And with Mussina finding the touch down the stretch, they’ll be tough to beat.
Boston Red Sox. As good and tough and symbolic as Pedro is, you’ve got to go with Curt Schilling. He’s 20-6 with a 3.28 ERA and 1.07 WHIP and he’s been even better in September with a 3-0 record, 2.61 ERA, and .74 WHIP. Plus, he’s one of the best big game pitchers in the game. He wants the ball, he wants to be part of the Red Sox quest for a title, and he wants to win worse than anything. You could do a lot worse, that’s for sure.
Now for all the AL West teams ...
Oakland Athletics. Here’s the thing about the A’s; they’ve got plenty of quality pitchers but no Curt Schilling. Seriously, take a look at these guys. Barry Zito is brutal. Rich Harden is inconsistent (although he’s about a year away from being a beast). Mark Redman is pretty average. That leaves Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson. At first glance, these two guys appear to be among the best starters in the American League. I’ve got to tell you, it might not be so. Mulder has a nice 17-6 record, but that can largely be attributed to his league-leading run support. His 4.25 ERA and 1.70 K/BB ratio certainly aren’t scaring anybody. Plus, his ERA marks for the past three months have gone 5.11, 5.14, and a gruesome 8.22 in September. Mulder is shaky at best for a Game One nod and it’s hard to believe he was actually being considered a Cy Young candidate a few weeks ago.
Hudson offers more hope. He’s been rocked in back-to-back starts and has a nasty 6.23 ERA in September, but he’s consistent and keeps his team in games. On the other hand, he has a pretty awful track record in October. From throwing errors to wild pitches to bar fights, Hudson has been anything but reliable when it counts.
Anaheim Angels. The A’s have been brutal lately, but the Angels haven’t been able to capitalize on their good fortune, losing two straight to the lowly Mariners. However, there is still time. And if they can get some help and reach the playoffs, they might have a surprise ace up the proverbial sleeve. I’m not a huge fan of the Angels rotation, primarily because I think that Washburn, Lackey, Ortiz, and Sele are all horrible. And despite pitching better as of late, Bartolo Colon still doesn’t have that big fastball that he needs in order to dominate. However, Kelvin Escobar gives them some hope. After being up and down for the first four months of the season, he’s been consistently outstanding over the past seven weeks. In the months of August and September he’s only 5-3, but he has a 2.47 ERA, .214 BAA, and 64 K’s in 62 innings. He’s hardly the stuff of legends, but at least the Angels have somebody pitching halfway decent.
Texas Rangers. I’ll tell you this: I’d love to see the Rangers battle back into the playoffs. I’m sick of the A’s choking and I don’t like the Mickey Hatcher “hack-hack-hack” approach of the Angels (and I’m still bitter about the whole Rally Monkey/lucky WS win in 2002). So give me Texas and their young studs like Michael Young, Hank Blalock, and Mark “Second Half of the Season AL MVP” Teixeira. However, who do you give the ball to? I guess it’s gotta be Kenny Rogers for his 17-8 record. Yikes.
How does the AL shake out? Well, based purely on the “best #1 starter approach” I rank the American League teams in the following order, starting with the team that is most likely to win a five-game series on the arm of their ace and finishing with the team least likely to pull it off.
1. Boston Red Sox -- Curt Schilling has the edge over Santana because his offense is better and he’s been there before. There’s nobody I’d rather give the ball to in all of baseball.
2. Minnesota Twins -- They could be in trouble in a seven-game series, but Johan gives them a great shot at taking their opening round showdown. What a shame it would be if the Twins and Sox must meet in round one.
3. New York Yankees -- I give Mussina and the Yanks the edge over Hudson and the A’s because the two pitchers are headed in opposite directions. Not only that, Mussina strikes out far more batters than Huddy and that’s always an advantage. It keeps freaky things from happening. Even if New York makes a mistake and goes with El Duque, I still rank them higher.
4. Anaheim Angels -- Call me crazy, but I’m down on the A’s right now. I’d rather have the red hot Escobar throwing than any of Oakland’s vaunted pitchers. (Also, see above in regard to K’s.)
5. Oakland A’s -- They need to get their crap figured out.
6. Texas Rangers -- Any list that is based on pitching is going to have Texas near the bottom.
Adam Hoff is a columnist for WhatifSports.com and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers of America. He can be reached at email@example.com or by WIS sitemail at adamo112.