Know your enemy: Potential opposing starting pitchers in the postseason

Last season the Yankees steamrolled the competition down the stretch. They went 9-1 versus the Red Sox in the second half, and picked up a key series win in Anaheim in late September. The victories heading into October were a statement. Forget whatever had happened earlier in the year, the Yankees were the team to beat heading into the playoffs.

This season is playing out differently. The Yankees remain the best team in baseball, but the Rays are hot on their heels, occasionally tying them for first place. This year’s Yankee team also has injury problems and pitching questions. Alex Rodriguez and Andy Pettitte are both on the DL. It is unclear if either will be 100% in time for the playoffs. Phil Hughes may or may not have an innings limit. A.J. Burnett and Javier Vazquez are complete enigmas. These kinds of questions didn’t linger over last season’s team. Every key player was healthy. The team had home field advantage throughout the playoffs along with three excellent starters ready to contribute to a deep October run.

The Yankees remain well-positioned to make a strong run in the postseason, especially if they get A-Rod and Andy back for the playoffs. But they aren’t the hands-down favorites they were last year. Elite pitching, junkballers and AAA pitchers facing the team for the first time have all at various times throughout this season been able to shut the offense down with far more regularity than we’d like. Last season the Yankees could survive a slumbering postseason offense for several innings with shutdown pitching of its own from CC Sabathia certainly, but also from A.J. Burnett and Andy Pettitte, both of whom are big question marks heading into this October.

These factors put a premium on pitching match-ups heading into the playoffs. Potentially having Cliff Lee or David Price neutralize CC Sabathia in a five- or seven-game series puts the focus on the rest of either team’s rotation. Let’s start with the Rays:
The Rays’ 1-2-3 is as good as any team’s in the Majors. Big Game James Shields is having a bit of a down year, but he still puts up innings and gives the Rays a solid chance to win every five days. David Price will finish in the top three in the Cy Young voting and Matt Garza is a consistent top performer. All three of these guys can pitch, and all three will be in the postseason rotation.

For a while the Rays had only used the above five starters this season. That incredible streak was broken up when both Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis went on the DL with shoulder issues. Both pitchers are due to come back soon, with all eyes on Niemann. Niemann has been the Rays’ second-best starter this season (although the difference between his ERA and FIP suggests that he’s gotten some help from his defense). Wade Davis figures to be the odd man out heading into October when teams begin using only four starters. A four-man rotation of Shields, Price, Garza and Niemann in front of the Rays’ offense is a recipe for postseason success.

The Yankees would counter Price with CC, but after that things are less clear. Hopefully Pettitte returns at full strength, and Phil Hughes is still starting for the team in October, giving the Yankees a solid one through three. If not, the Rays may have the upper hand in October, especially if the Yankee offense ends up going through one of its patented slumps.

Minnesota is beginning to pull away in the Central Division. Here’s the team’s rotation:

The way things are playing out this year I don’t think the Yankees will meet the Twins in the playoffs. If the postseason began today the Twins would be flying to Tampa, where I predict the Rays will make short work of them. Adding injury to insult, Kevin Slowey is on the DL (so is Justin Morneau, who’s quickly turning into a better version of Nick Johnson).

Francisco Liriano is the only pitcher in the Twins rotation that frightens me. He’s good, and his FIP suggests he could be better than his numbers. Carl Pavano continue to make Yankee fans everywhere hate him passionately, but as good as he’s been these past two years a potent offense can handle him in October. The Yankees or the Rays could provide that potent offense. The Twins only have two above-average pitchers, one of whom is beatable in a big game. Add to that Minnesota’s history in New York, and the Yankees are well-equipped to handle the Twins, if they can get past the Rays, which they won’t.

That leaves the Texas Rangers:
I’m listing 6 pitchers because I haven’t quite been able to figure out who the odd man out is in Texas. I thought it was Harden, but he’s scheduled to pitch this week. Regardless, the Rangers’ playoff rotation is obvious: Cliff Lee, C.J. Wilson, Colby Lewis and either Tommy Hunter or Scott Feldman, depending upon who is healthy (Hunter comes back from the DL this week). The 4th starter is a bit of a throw away, but one through three are solid, featuring an A1 Yankee-Killer in Lee.
The Rangers are currently seven games up on Oakland, but 2.5 games behind the Twins, meaning Cliff Lee will start against CC in the first game of the postseason if current trends continue. The good news is that Lee has been mortal for the Rangers. His ERA with Texas is 4.18, but his WHIP remains stellar at 1.028. Although he has a higher walk rate with the Rangers than he did with the Mariners, the real reason Lee hasn’t pitched as well with Texas is the long ball. Lee doesn’t give up many bombs, but after allowing only five in 103.1 innings of work with Seattle, he’s allowed eight in 71 innings with Texas. For his career Lee is a first half pitcher, so the trend may continue.
None of this makes me feel any better about the prospect of seeing Cliff Lee twice in a five-game series against the Rangers. The Yankees knocked him out of the game in their exciting comeback win in Texas recently, but he baffled the bombers in a complete game in the Bronx when he was with Seattle. At best the teams can be expected to split the two games that Lee and Sabathia start.
That shifts the focus to the Rangers’ other starters, who I haven’t seen pitch. The numbers on C.J. Wilson and Colby Lewis suggest they are quality starters. From the game he pitched against the Yankees already, I know that Wilson’s main problem is that he’s inefficient and doesn’t go long into games. This plays into the Yankees hands. I’m not sure about the rest of the staff, but I could easily see one of these pitchers shutting the Bombers down at least once.
Not long ago fans and analysts alike were suggesting that it would have been overkill for the Yankees to get Lee. Now, there are multiple question marks surrounding the team’s rotation, and the Yankees are on pace to face Lee in the ALDS. Two key storylines emerge from this down the stretch: What, if anything, does Andy Pettitte have left? And, how will the team manage Phil Hughes? The answers to those questions are the difference between the Yankees having a postseason pitching staff you can take to war and needing to rely on Home Run Javy and Burnett.

7 thoughts on “Know your enemy: Potential opposing starting pitchers in the postseason

  1. Let's not get ahead of ourselves now.

  2. Anonymous

    Why are you asking what Pettitte has left? He's had what 2 or 3 bad starts all year, yeah he's on the DL but asking what he has left when he's had the season that he's had is kind of silly. He had a bad start against the Rays in May and against the Dodgers, other than that he hasn't had a bad start possibly the game he was injured in was a bad start but it's hard to tell how he would of adjusted and Andy adjusts better than most pitchers.

  3. My choice of words was poor. It is unclear, even now, if Pettitte will be able to return to the rotation. Even if he does, my point was that he may not return at full effectiveness.

  4. It seems to me that winning the division is essential. That would position the Yanks against the Twins which would be a big time advantage.

  5. Winning the division is more essential because the Yankee hitters have a nasty home-road split. Right now I believe Minnesota is actually 1/2 a game up on Texas, so the division winner gets Cliff Lee as its prize.

  6. Pettitte is the biggest concern right now. If he can't come back and be effective, the Yankees are going to be in a tough situation. If he can't pitch at all, who will take his place? Vazquez? Nova? Mosely? Gaudin? I include Vazquez in there because i think the Yanks playoff rotation will be CC, Pettitte, AJ and Hughes – the Yanks are committed to AJ in a way they are not to Vazquez.However, if Andy is able, he'll be out there, like Anonymous said, adjusting his butt off. but first things first – Pettitte has to get back on the mound~jamieBTW: love it when people are Anonymous.

  7. The Yankees have caught the injury bug at the worst time. Both ARod and Pettitte have injuries that can take a very long, indeterminate amount of time to heal. I believe both will be back, but probably not at 100%. I want no part of Vazquez in the post season. He has been a huge disapointment and I would pencil the opposing team in for 6 runs after 4 innings if he starts a playoff game. To that end, perhaps it's naive, but I truly believe A.J. comes through. He seems to have that ability, despite all his inconsistencies.

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