Nationals Arm Race

"… the reason you win or lose is darn near always the same – pitching.” — Earl Weaver

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Rotation Reviews of your 2014 Playoff Teams

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Will the Nats be staring down Kershaw in the playoffs? Photo via wiki.

Will the Nats be staring down Kershaw in the playoffs? Photo via wiki.

Here we are.  After a crazy trade deadline in July, and an August and September that featured the division leaders (in most cases) solidifying their positions and extending their leads, the playoffs are upon us.

Lets take a look at the rotations of the playoff teams (despite the fact that the four Wild Card teams are just one-man pitching staffs until they win the play-in game).  Who lines up best?  For each team i’ve tried to line the pitchers up one through five, with the 5th guy being the one headed to the bullpen.

(Quick useful links: AL full standings on b-r.com, NL full standings, and post season schedule at MLB.com).

Trade deadline 2014 acquisitions highlighted in blue.  Pre-season acquisitions highlighted in Green for context.

NL Division Champs:

  • Washington: Strasburg, Gonzalez, Zimmerman, Fister, Roark (yes this is how I think it will shake out despite Roark’s great season-long performance; we posted on this separately)
  • St. Louis: Wainwright, Lynn, Wacha, Miller, Lackey (Masterson to the bullpen when Wacha came back)
  • Los Angeles: Kershaw, Greinke, Ryu, Haren, Hernandez, Wright (Beckett hurt, done for year, Ryu coming back, should be ok for playoffs so I’ve inserted him as the #3.  Maholm, Billingsley, Fife hurt all year).

Just look at what the Dodgers have tried to do to keep their rotation afloat in terms of player acquisition over the past couple of years.  I’d like to have their budget.  They will have no less than eleven capable, MLB-experienced starters once they’re all healthy.  Yes Kershaw is unbeatable, but as pointed out earlier this year, they are basically a .500 team otherwise.  Their 4th and 5th starters have been below replacement for much of the past month but they’re getting back Ryu right in time for the playoffs.   St. Louis’ rotation looks just as strong as it has been for the past few years; Wainwright quietly has 20 wins and a 2.38 ERA on the season.  Lynn has been great.  Only Miller has struggled but still has a league-average ERA+.

It is hard not to look at the Nationals’ rotation and claim they’re the deepest one-through-four, despite Gonzalez’s struggles.   I’d take our #4 (Fister) over anyone else’s #4, I think our #3 matches up just as favorably to anyone els’es #3, and Strasburg has a 1.34 ERA in September as the #1.

NL Wild Card:

  • Pittsburgh: Liriano, Cole, Locke, Volquez, Worley (Morton dinged up late Sept, made way for Cole).
  • San Francisco: Bumgarner, Hudson, Petit, Vogelsong, Peavy (Lincecum to bullpen for Petit, Cain out all year)

The NL WC pitching match-up will be Bumgarner-Liriano.  Both teams manipulated their rotations at season’s end to preserve their aces for the coin-flip game.  We’ll do a separate prediction piece.

NL Also-Rans;

  • Atlanta:  Teheran, Minor, Santana, Harang, Wood (Beachy, Floyd, Medlen out all year)
  • Milwaukee: Lohse, Garza, Gallardo, Peralta, Fiers (Nelson and Estrada to bullpen)

The Braves fell so far, so badly in September that they were nearly surpassed by the lowly NY Mets for 2nd place in the NL East.  That’s crazy.  But they still remain here as an also-ran because they were in the wild card race until mid-September.  I still think it is crazy what they were able to accomplish given the starting pitcher injuries they suffered in spring training and don’t quite understand why Frank Wren was fired.  If you want to fire him for his crummy FA contracts so be it; but the man engineered a team that made the playoffs three of the past five years.  Harsh treatment if you ask me.  Insider comments seem to think that Wren lost an internal power-struggle involving Fredi Gonzalez.


And here’s what we’re looking at in the AL:

AL Division Champs:

  • Baltimore: Tillman, Norris, Chen, Gonzalez, Gausman (Jimenez demoted to BP)
  • Detroit: Scherzer, Verlander, Sanchez, Price, Porcello
  • Los Angeles: Weaver, Wilson, Shoemaker, Santiago, Rasmus, LeBlanc (Richards injured, Skaggs hurt)

It is hard to look at these rotations and comprehend where these teams currently stand:

  • How is Baltimore leading the AL East by 12 games?  None of these guys are a league-wide “Ace.”
  • How is Detroit not pulling away from the AL Central with this collection of arms?  Of course, you could ask this question of Detroit over and again the past few years; with a stacked lineup and stacked rotation they have just barely won their (usually) weak division year after year.
  • How does Los Angeles have the best record in the majors with a non-drafted FA and a waiver claim in their Sept rotation?  Would you favor this rotation over Detroit’s?

I guess it doesn’t matter; these teams have bashed their way to their titles and should continue to hit in the post-season.  Apparently the O’s aren’t going to go with Gausman in their playoff rotation despite his good seasonal numbers.  It may be a case of veteran manager going with the veterans, as Gausman’s numbers are pretty much in line with most of the rest of the Baltimore rotation.  The injury to Richards really hurts the Angels: Weaver may be close to an Ace but Wilson showed he is hittable in the post-season and lord knows what will happen when LA has to throw their #3 and #4 choices.

AL Wild Cards:

  • Kansas City: Shields, Duffy, Ventura, Guthrie, Vargas
  • Oakland: Grey, Samardzija, Lester, Hammel, Kazmir

AL Wild Card looks like a knock-out match-up of Shields and Lester; the A’s burned Grey yesterday to get the win that put them in the playoffs.  Oakland has to be kicking themselves; how did they go from (easily) the best team in the majors for the first half to struggling to hang onto the WC spot?   On paper replacing 3/5ths of the rotation (out with Chavez, Milone, Pomeranz and Straily, in with Samardzija, Lester and Hammel) sounded like a great idea … but to me the team’s chemistry was clearly un-balanced.  At least they held on to the spot and avoiding a one-game play-in against Felix Hernandez.

AL Also-Rans:

  • Seattle: Hernandez, Walker, Iwakuma, Paxton, Young (Elias out for year)
  • New York: McCarthy, Greene, Kuroda, Capuano, Pineda (with Tanaka finally coming back at season’s end.  Nova and Sabathia gone all year with injuries).

All Seattle needed to do was *get* to the wild card game … and they’d have great odds of advancing behind ace Hernandez.  But struggled to the finish line.  Meanwhile Cleveland and New York would have been mentioned here a week ago, but both squads just ran out of time to make comebacks.  I’ll give NY credit: they played 7 games better than their pythagorean record with huge chunks of their rotation gone for the season and depending on guys who’s names I had to look up.

Coming soon; a review of the WC matchups with predictions.

 

Written by Todd Boss

September 29th, 2014 at 8:58 am

My 2012 End-of-Season award Predictions

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Mike Trout is a shoe-in for Rookie of the Year. Will he add AL MVP as well? Photo Gary Vasquez/US Presswire via espn.com

I’ve had a good string of predicting MLB’s major Post season awards in this space.  In 2010 I went 8 for 8.  In 2011 I again went 8-8 in predicting MLB’s awards, though I missed on predicting the unofficial Sporting News Executive and Comeback Player of the year.   I don’t have much confidence in going 8-for-8 this year though; the AL MVP seems way too close to predict, and I have no idea how the Cy Young awards will go.

[Editor Note: I write this in phases over the course of the season, and finalized it in early October.  After I wrote this piece some of the awards have already been announced; Sporting News announced Comeback Players of the Year last week.  I’ll put up another post talking about my guesses and which awards I got right and wrong in another article once all awards are announced in November.]

Here’s a sampling of major baseball writers’ and their predictions that I could find ahead of my publishing this article: Tom Verducci, Ken Rosenthal, Bob Nightengale, Jonah Keri, and Jayson Stark.  Here’s the Fangraphs.com staff picks, heavily statistically weighted as you’d expect.  As you will see, even the national writers are all over the road with their predictions.  Here’s HardballTalk’s Matthew Pouliot‘s theoreticall ballot, with some contrarian picks.  Seamheads’ Andrew Martin has the typical sabre-slanted ballot.

Before reading on to my predictions on 2012′s winners, a statement to prevent arguments in the comments section.  These are my guesses as to who will WIN the awards, not necessarily who DESERVES them.  Invariably there’s a player who plays on a non-playoff or losing team but puts up fantastic numbers (Matt Kemp for the 2011 Dodgers, perhaps Mike Trout this year) who a number of loud pundits say “should” win the MVP.  Well, the fact of the matter is that the current voter base absolutely takes into account the circumstances behind a player’s production, and places more value on batters who are in a pennant race.  As do I.  The MVP isn’t the “Best Overall Batter Award,” which would end a lot of these arguments (since, the Cy Young essentially is exactly the “Best Overall Pitcher Award” and thus is easier to predict); its the “Most Valuable Player” award, and I agree with many who believe that a guy hitting .370 for a last place team isn’t nearly as “valuable” as the guy who hits .320 and leads a team deep into a playoff race.  It is what it is; if we want to change it perhaps the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA, whose awards these are) needs to add a category or clarify their requirements.

Secondly, when considering the Cy Young, invariably there’s one pitcher who puts up comparable numbers to another, but one plays in a weaker division so the same Sabr-focused pundits make their holier-than-thou proclamations about how the voter base failed in their picks.  And their points are valid.  But this is a prediction piece, not an opinion piece, and the fact of the matter is that current voters are still mostly old-school and put value on things like “Wins” and “ERA,” stats that most Sabr-nerds think are useless in evaluating a pitcher.

So keeping those two points in mind, Here’s my predictions for 2012:

  • AL MVP: Miguel Cabrera.  Despite the massive amount of internet baseball material devoted to talking about how great a season Mike Trout has had (mostly looking at his WAR values historically), I still see the voter base placing emphasis on three major points:
    • Cabrera plays for a playoff team, Trout does not.   The fact that the Angels will finish with a better record than the Tigers, or that the Angels clearly played in a harder division?  Immaterial to the old-school voter base.
    • Cabrara won the Triple Crown.  And most Triple Crown winners throughout history also won the MVP.  The fact that the triple crown is based on 3 relatively flawed statistics?  Irrelevant to the narrative of the achievement itself.  It remains an incredibly difficult achievement to accomplish in modern baseball’s era of specialized hitters (Ichiro for batting, Adam Dunn for homers) to hit for both average and power in the way that Cabrera consistently does.  (Rob Neyer posted thoughts about this topic, quoting random people on the internet with various takes).
    • Cabrera had a monster finish, Trout did not.  Cabrera’s OPS in the run-in months was over 1.000 each of July, August and September.  Trout peaked in July but was merely above average in the closing months.   Your finish matters (as we’ll see in the NL Rookie of the Year race discussed later on).

    Opinions like USA Today’s Bob Nightengale‘s exemplify the bulk of the voter base right now.  A few years ago the writers were smart enough to award Felix Hernandez a Cy Young with nearly a .500 record by recognizing more of the advanced metrics in play, but the Cy Young’s definition is a lot more specific than that of the MVP.

    This is nothing against Trout; the Angels were 6-14 when he got called up and finished 89-73.  That’s an 83-59 record with him, a .584 winning percentage that equates to 95 wins, which would have won the AL West.  Trout was the undeniable MVP for me nearly all season.  You hate to say it, but when the Angels faltered so did Trout’s MVP candidacy.

    The rest of the ballot?  Adrian Beltre and Robinson Cano get some typical “best player on best teams” votes.  I’d give Josh Reddick some top-5 votes too.

  • AL Cy Young: David Price, by virtue of his 20 wins and league leading ERA, will squeak out the win over last year’s winner Justin Verlander. The statistical crowd will point out that Verlander was just as dominant in 2012 as he was in 2011 (when he unanimously won), and that his significantly higher innings total and lead in Pitcher WAR should get him the award.   However, as with the AL MVP you have to take into account the voter base.   Price won 20 games, that he pitches in a tougher division, that he beat out Verlander for the ERA title.  Plus, and I hate to say it, but Price is the “sexy pick,” the guy who hasn’t won before.  Verlander is the known guy and sometimes you see voters being excited to vote for the new guy.  Its kind of like the Oscars; sometimes an actor wins for a performance that wasn’t the best as a way to “give it to the new guy.”  Certainly this contributed to Clayton Kershaw‘s victory in 2011 and we may see similar behaviors again.  There might even be an east coast voter bias in play.  Jered Weaver, Chris Sale, Jake Peavy, and Felix Hernandez all get some top-5 votes, possibly finishing in that order behind Price and Verlander.
  • AL Rookie of the Year: Mike Trout, in what should be an unanimous vote. He could (if the MVP vote goes the way many thinks it should) become only the 3rd player ever to win both the MVP and the RoY in the same year (Fred Lynn and Ichiro Suzuki being the others).  In the conversation: Yu Darvish (who certainly did not have a BAD year, but drifted mid-season), Yoenis Cespedes (who would win it in most years), Matt Moore (my preseason guess; I’m still shocked he displayed virtually none of the dominance of the 2011 post-season during his 2012 season), Will Middlebrooks (who made Kevin Youklis expendible within just a couple of months of arrival), and amazingly Tommy Milone (who was nearly unhittable in his home stadium and continued his performance from the Nats in the end of 2011).  A couple other names in the conversation: Scott Diamond and Jarrod Parker.
  • AL Mgr: Buck Showalter should get this this award for taking a team that should be a .500 ballclub based on pythagorean record and put them in the playoffs for the first time in a decade.  I also think he wins because of east coast bias, since certainly what Bob Melvin and the Oakland A’s pulled off is nothing short of fantastic.  Robin Ventura may have gotten some votes had the White Sox held on, but may be the 3rd place finisher.
  • (Unofficial “award”): AL GM: I almost hate to say it, but Billy Beane. The A’s were supposed to be awful this year, having traded away most of their starting rotation (as explained further in this Aug 2012 post here) and let most of their hitters walk.  Instead they acquire a couple of good pieces from Washington, sign the exciting Cespedes to go with a few bottom-barrel FAs, and overcame a 13-game deficit to win the powerhouse AL West.  A great story.
  • (Unofficial “award”): AL Comeback Player of the Year: It has to be Adam Dunn, right?  How do you go from the lowest qualifying average in history to career highs in homers and not get votes.  Jake Peavy may get some votes after two injury plagued seasons, but he was pretty decent last year and isn’t exactly coming out of nowhere like Ryan Vogelsong did last year.

Now for the National League:

  • NL MVP: Buster Posey‘s strong finish, combined with his team’s playoff run and his playing catcher gives him the nod over his competition here.  For much of the season I thought this award was Andrew McCutchen‘s to lose, but his fade and Pittsburg’s relative collapse from their division-leading mid-season costs him the MVP.  The rest of the ballot? Ryan Braun may be putting up MVP-esque numbers but the fall out from his off-season testing snafu will cost him votes (both in this race and for the rest of his career unfortunately). Johnny Molina getting some press too, for many of the same reasons as Posey.  Joey Votto probably lost too much time to be really considered, but remains arguably the best hitter in the league.
  • NL Cy Young:  R.A. Dickey was the mid-season choice, was challenged late but his 20th win combined with his fantastic ERA for a knuckleballer makes him the winner.  Amazingly, Dickey has pitched most of the season with a torn abdominal muscle, making his season accomplishments even more impressive.   Johnny Cueto makes a great case, leading the playoff-contending Reds, but he slightly sputtered down the stretch.  Clayton Kershaw quietly had a fantastic year, leading the league in ERA, but as we saw with David Price above, I think the voters like to vote for the new guy.  Kershaw got his Cy Young last year; this year is Dickey’s time.  Other names in the top-5 mix: Matt Cain, Cole Hamels, Gio Gonzalez and perhaps even Jordan Zimmermann (who got some mid-season attention by virtue of his excellent July).  I have a hard time giving the award to a reliever, but the numbers Aroldis Chapman and Craig Kimbrel are putting in as the closers of Cincinnati and Atlanta respectively may be enough to at least appear in the top-5.  Lastly, the odd case of Kris Medlen; his WAR puts him in the top 10 despite only having 12 starts.  Is this enough to give him some votes?  Maybe some 5th place votes here and there.  But look out in 2013.
  • NL Rookie of the Year: Bryce Harper, who won his 2nd rookie of the month in September, finished incredibly strong and took advantage of late-season fades from his two biggest competitors to win this award.  The National media buzz on Harper/Trout was never greater than during the season’s last month, and while games in April count the same as in September, the lasting impression is made by he who finishes strongest.   Wade Miley has a great case but I think falls short.  Cincinnati’s Todd Frazier has had a great season and was beating Harper’s numbers across the board, but he sat once Scott Rolen came back and faded down the stretch.   Milwaukee’s Norichika Aoki has had a nice season at age 30, coming over from Japan.  I don’t think guys like this (or Darvish, or Ichiro Suzuki for that matter) should qualify as “rookies” but rules are rules.  Anthony Rizzo, Wilin Rosario, Matt Carpenter, and Mike Fiers also put up good rookie numbers and may get some 5th place votes.
  • NL Mgr: Davey Johnson.  Nobody had the Nats winning nearly 100 games.  Had the Pirates not collapsed perhaps we’d be talking about Clint Hurdle. Don Mattingly had somewhat of a transitionary team playing great early, but the mid-season influx of high-priced talent, and their subsequent collapse costs him any support.
  • (unofficial award) NL GM: Mike Rizzo, pulling off the Gio Gonzalez trade, signing Jackson in a deal immediately lauded as a great move and quickly putting together a team that looks to be 15-20 games improved over 2011.  We thought they’d be in the mid-80s in wins; who thought they could be pressing for 100??
  • (Unofficial “award”): NL Comeback Player of the Year: Buster Posey.  He went from a season-ending injury to an MVP season.  In other years Adam LaRoche may get some looks here, but not in the face of what Posey has been doing for San Francisco.  Lastly I had Johan Santana on a short list for this award until he was lost for the season in the aftermath of his 134 pitch no-hitter on June 1st.  At at point he was 3-2 but with a 2.38 ERA.  He finished the season 6-9 with a 4.85 ERA and was shut down on August 17th.  Are we sure that no-hitter was worth it?