As the baseball season progresses into the dog days of August, it becomes difficult to avoid looking ahead to the playoffs. To be sure, this is risky business. Any number of things could intervene to prevent the leading teams from reaching the postseason, like catastrophic injuries or unforeseen hot streaks from teams only on the fringes of contention. Yet, statistically speaking the race for the 4 spots in the American League playoffs appears to be a six horse race, seven if you want to be nice and include Boston. As of this morning, Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA-adjusted Postseason Odds looked like this:
Yankees – 57% AL East odds; 38% Wild Card odds, 95% playoff odds.
Rays – 41% AL East odds, 51% Wild Card odds, 93% playoff odds.
Red Sox – 1.6% AL East odds, 8.7% Wild Card odds, 10.3% playoffs odds.
White Sox – 60% AL Central odds. Twins – 40% AL Central odds.
Rangers – 99% AL West odds.
So, with a solid two months to go in the American League, things appear pretty settled. In all likelihood the AL East and the Wild Card belongs to the Yankees and the Rays. The Red Sox have an outside shot, but it’s very unlikely. The AL Central will be won by either the White Sox or the Twins, and the Rangers look certain to win the AL West.
Inspired by a post at The Hardball Times looking at the leaders in kwERA, which is essentially FIP without the home runs, I started playing with the advanced peripheral statistics for each pitching staff. Which staff looks the best now? Which team has the most formidable pitcher? What you will see in the chart below is a ranking of 31 pitchers from all six contenders, Red Sox included. Each pitcher’s ERA, FIP, xFIP, kwERA, K/9, BB/9 and K/BB ratio is listed and then scored on a 1-31 ranking, 1 being the best and 31 being the worst. For example, Cliff Lee has a 2.51 ERA, which is the lowest in the group. As a result, Lee gets a 1 in the ERA component. Nick Blackburn has the worst ERA, so he gets a 31. When it came to K/9 and K/BB ratio, I simply inverted the scale so that the highest K/9 and K/BB score received a 1, and the lowest score received a 31. I’ve also included IP, by way of reference. The final column on the right is Composite Score. The lower the score, the better.
There are several ways to evaluate this chart. Every category is assigned a particular color (ERA is yellow, FIP is blue, etc) and if a particular player’s box is colored, this means that he is in the top 5 of all pitchers in that category. Thus, Lee, Lester, Price, Pettitte and Buchholz’s ERAs are all colored yellow. If a player’s box is colored, it means he’s in the top 5 for that category.
One of the more interesting aspects of this chart is the way the more advanced statistics cluster together. It’s no surprise that the xFIP and kwERA scores come in close together, since they both “eliminate” the home run rate in their own unique way. But it is interesting to actually see xFIP/kwERA cluster more closely with FIP and K/9 rather than ERA. In the same vein, it’s notable that the Composite Score seems to correlate more with the advanced statistics than just simple ERA. In other words, if you attempted to create a list of the best starters on contending teams and used ERA as your sole guide, you would come up with a very different list. This isn’t to say that ERA isn’t useful. Clay Buchholz could have such a low ERA despite relatively poor scores in advanced metrics because he’s gotten great defense when he pitches and could get the same in the playoffs. This Composite Score metric is by no means exhaustive; there are dozens of ways to evaluate the skill of a pitcher. SIERA would be an interesting statistic to include next time around. But this method does attempt to bring to light the relative skill of starters on contending teams in a few very important areas.
Another fascinating thing this chart brings out is the skill of Colby Lewis. If prompted, what percentage of non-Ranger fans would list Colby Lewis as one of the best pitchers on a contending team in 2010? 5 percent? 3 percent? Regardless, After spending time in Japan, Lewis has reinvented himself and vaulted into elite company. The first thing that often comes to mind when thinking about the Rangers is their offense, and rightfully so. But in Lee and Lewis the Rangers have a very good 1-2 punch, making them a formidable ALDS opponent.
This brings up an interesting question, then. In all probability the Yankees will face either the Rangers, White Sox or Twins in the ALDS. Of those, which pitching staff is the most formidable? The Rangers have Lee and Lewis, both top 5 pitchers by this metric, with Hunter and Wilson on the back-end and Harden as an option. The White Sox have a nice duo in Danks and Floyd, perhaps the best tandem baseball, with Buehrle and Garcia rounding out their 4. The Twins have the pitcher with the best Composite Score in Francisco Liriano. Their three other pitchers all rank in the top 5 of BB/9, and are solid options. Which would be the best to face in a short series? When you factor in offense, does that change?
Personally, I’m not overly frightened by any of the three. If I had to choose one team to face, I would pick the White Sox. The Rangers have Cliff Lee, and I don’t ever want to see him on an opposing mound again. I’m also not wild about the idea of Vazquez taking the hill in Game 3 in Arlington against that home run-heavy lineup. The Twins have a dominant ace in Francisco Liriano, who clearly has the ability to shut down offenses entirely. Additionally, if the Twins get Morneau back their offense becomes respectable. But the White Sox offense is relatively subpar, and while Danks and Floyd are superb pitchers I believe the Yankees could handle them. But I think the Yankees could handle just about anyone.
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