Who’s Number One?
Checking out the staff aces
By Adam Hoff
The Major League Baseball postseason is just a few weeks away. Every year this happens; all the focus is on the NFL in early September and the next thing you know, the postseason is staring you in the face. 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 the vitally important wild card rounds. (If you don’t think the Wild Card round is indeed “vitally important,” I would like to remind you that a Wild Card team has won the World Series each of the past three seasons.)
In a short, five game, first round series, the ace of the staff plays an enormous role because of the opportunity to make either 40% or 50% of the starts for his team, depending on whether it goes 4 or 5 games. In the days of the three-man playoff rotation, a #1 starter could dominate a seven game series by pitching three times (43% of the starts). Now that nearly every team uses at least four starters in a long series, the #1 starter typically gets the same number of starts as everyone else. All of this means that the first round is the series most likely to be dominated by a single 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.
Chicago White Sox (likely Central winner). One of the question marks swirling around the Sox is that their rotation might not be the type that can slam the door in the playoffs. In fact, the makeup of their starters looks a lot like the four guys St. Louis marched out in the playoffs last year. Needless to say, Chicago doesn’t have an offense anything like the Cardinals, so this could be a problem. Jose Contreras has been throwing well lately, but has proven to be wildly unpredictable in the postseason. El Duque throws about 12 miles per hour these days. Jon Garland has 17 wins and nice ratios (3.51/1.17) but has only struck out 94 hitters in 192 innings. If you’ve been paying attention the last few years, you have to make people miss. It’s the reason that the Twins could never beat the Yankees (Radke and Silva had like four K’s combined in their starts last year). In fact, people are so worried about the rotation that they are talking about rookie Brandon McCarthy possibly taking the ball in the playoffs.
All of these issues will be very difficult to overcome in an ALCS. Unfortunately for the Sox, they likely won’t get the chance to worry about it, as ace Mark Buehrle probably isn’t enough to carry the day in Round One. Buehrle is one of the more underrated pitchers in baseball with a 15-7 record and 3.13 ERA, but he’s been getting beat up lately, allowing five or more runs in six of his last 10 starts. I just can’t see him going pitch-for-pitch with a team like the A’s or keeping the score down against a squad like the Yankees.
Boston Red Sox (likely East winner). As bad as Curt Schilling has been most of this season, he’s still the guy for Boston. David Wells has been decent, Matt Clement has his moments, and Tim Wakefield is a wild card when the weather gets cold and the wind starts whipping that knuckleball around, but let’s face it, the Red Sox are only going as far as Schilling can take them. It’s hard to forecast how this one will turn out. On one hand, Schilling is the guy that can’t seem to uncork a real fastball anymore and that is sporting that gruesome 6.28 ERA this season. On the other hand, it’s Curt Schilling, a postseason hero multiple times over and the guy that pitched eight innings of five-hit ball against the Yanks just last Saturday.
Now for the AL West teams …
Oakland Athletics. Last year I thought the A’s had tons of depth but no stud to grab the ball and dominate a Game One. Zito was horrible in ’04 and Mulder and Hudson were both struggling down the stretch. Alas, they never made the playoffs so it wasn’t an issue. However, this year, things are kind of the opposite. Other than Zito and my boy (and fellow Pepperdine alum) Danny Haren, the A’s don’t really have that many healthy pitchers that I’d feel comfortable starting in a playoff game. However, what they lack in quality depth they make up for in dominance. Not only is Zito far better than he was last year, Haren is also a guy that can shut somebody down in a tight ballgame (see: his shutout the other night in a huge game against the Indians). Plus, they might have one of the best #1 guys in the league in Rich Harden. After being up-and-down a year ago Harden has developed into one of the most dominant starts in the game, employing multiple out pitches and throwing up near three digits even in the late innings. He’s posted a 2.63 ERA, and a 1.07 WHIP, he strikes out almost a batter an inning, and he wins two-thirds of his decisions. But (and this is a huge but), the guy can’t stay healthy. He’s only logged 123 innings this season and is currently on the shelf with another ailment of some sort. If he comes back to full strength down the stretch, the A’s should make the playoffs and cruise through the Wild Card round. If he doesn’t, they don’t. I really think it is as simple as that.
Anaheim Angels. Last year things were looking so grim with the Angels starting staff that Kelvin Escobar was the best I could offer up as a #1 starter. Yikes. This year the Angels feature multiple pitchers throwing well enough to make a claim as the ace of the staff, including Cy Young candidate Bartolo Colon. After a horrendous 2004 season in which Colon appeared to age 17 years in six months, the big fireballer has rounded back into shape (pun totally intended). He still doesn’t strike guys out like he used to but with a 19-6 record and solid ratios of 3.23 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, and .247 average against, he’s a legit guy to head up a staff. However, I have a sleeper pick here and its not Washburn, Byrd, or Santana. That’s right, as the ace of the Angels staff I am tabbing John Lackey. He’s 12-5 with a 3.30 ERA, which is nice, but more importantly, he has 180 K’s in 185 innings and has allowed only 9 home runs. Those are huge stats when projecting postseason success. Making people miss and keeping the ball in the park are enormous keys to producing quality starts in the playoffs. For that reason, I’ve got Lackey as the Angels’ best option for two huge starts in a Wild Card series. The only problem is that unless Mike Scioscia sees it the same way or shortens his staff (giving Lackey the ball in games two and five), Anaheim might not get two starts out of their best pitcher.
And finally, the possible Wild Card teams …
Cleveland Indians. This team is absolutely on fire right now. The offense is crushing the ball, the young players are growing up before our very eyes, and the pitching staff is pumping out some nice gems. However, is there a true ace on this staff? C.C. Sabathia probably should be the guy, but his numbers are average. Jake Westbrook has won 8 of his last 10 decisions but has actually seen his ERA go up .08 over that time period, further proof that the Indians are getting it done with the sticks. Kevin Millwood has the best ERA on the team at 3.11. Cliff Ellis leads the way in wins at 16 and WHIP at 1.23. Does any of that scream “ace” to you? It will probably come down to which pitcher has the hot hand going into the playoffs (provided they make it) and which guy manager Eric Wedge has the most confidence in. My guess is that Sabathia will be the choice. He has won 7 of his last 8 starts and lowered his ERA a full run during that stretch. In 22 innings over his past three starts he has allowed only 11 hits, 2 runs, and has fanned 24 hitters. Those are the kind of numbers the Tribe will need to advance.
New York Yankees. Despite his shortcomings this season, the Yanks have an ace in the hole in Randy Johnson. No matter how old he is or hittable he looks at times, nobody wants to face the Big Unit in a playoff game. Not only that, but he brought out the big guns the other day to shut the Red Sox down on one hit. I’m not at all sure that the Yanks will even reach the playoffs thanks to the rest of their sketchy rotation, but if they get there, they’ve got the right guy to pitch them back into the ALCS.
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. Oakland A’s – Rich Harden. It seems crazy to put anyone ahead of Johnson and Schilling, but lets be honest, the old guys are wearing down. And despite the fact that Harden is just as much of an injury concern as the vets, he seems more likely to have two strong starts in the same series. The A’s just need to get there this year. If they do, I think they finally have the guy to pitch them into the ALCS.
2. New York Yankees – Randy Johnson. This is the one guy in the American League that is capable of throwing up a 18 IP, 0 ER, 22 K type of line in a divisional series. However, he has been too inconsistent to put him ahead of Harden.
3. Boston Red Sox – Curt Schilling. I’d rather have Lackey on my fantasy team for the next three weeks, but once the dark, cold postseason nights roll in, I’ll stick with the living legend.
4. Anaheim Angels – John Lackey. Love the K’s and the low HR totals. He is the wild card of the group and could easily bust out with a six or seven win postseason if things go right.
5. Chicago White Sox – Mark Buehrle. The White Sox could be in some trouble.
6. Cleveland Indians – C.C. Sabathia. This is only one way of measuring things, so all is not lost for the Indians. They will score much higher on the “which team has a young centerfielder that is quietly having an incredible first full season and promises to be one of the game’s biggest stars?” test.
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.