The Tampa Bay Rays clinched a spot in the American League playoffs last night, ending a bitter drought. It isn’t over yet — there are 18-month-olds who have never seen a Rays pennant winner (that is what a certain left-handed ace should be embarrassed about), but it is an essential step. Ahem.
Although the Rays have done a good job of run-prevention overall (and much credit here must go to their excellent fielders), questions remain about their starting pitching heading into the playoffs. As in previous posts about the Twins’ and Rangers’ playoff rotations, in addition to listing certain 2010 stats for each pitcher, I will also refer to CHONE’s updated pitcher projections (both CHONE’s neutralized component “nERA” as well as FIP derived from the stat lines) to get a sense for each pitcher’s “true talent.” There is still some ambiguity as to exactly who will be in the playoff rotation (Niemann/Davis) and what order they will go in (Shields/Garza), and I’m not claiming to know for sure, so take the “ordering” with a grain of salt; that’s not the focus of the post. And keep in mind this is just about the starting rotation compared with other playoff teams, not an evaluation of the team as a whole. Starting pitching is important, but it isn’t the whole story.
1) David Price CHONE 4.02 nERA , 4.16 FIP
2010: 4.4 WAR, 3.44 FIP, 4.01 xFIP, 3.32 tERA, 2.73 ERA
In 2010, Price has shown signs of being the ace the Rays need. His strikeout rate has been excellent and he has cut down on the walks from 2009. Still, he isn’t as good as his ERA, and his xFIP likely indicates good fortune on fly balls. His CHONE “true talent” projection might irk some, but one can’t simply focus on the current season while ignoring prior performance. Price is a tremendous young pitcher, but just as a closer look at his numbers shows that he shouldn’t win the Cy Young award, they also show that it would be premature to say that he’s one of the top aces in the playoffs. Nonetheless, he gives the Rays a good chance to win every time he takes the mound, no matter who the opponent.
2) James Shields CHONE 4.09 nERA , 4.06 FIP
2010: 2.3 WAR, 4.27 FIP, 3.69 xFIP, 4.45 tERA, 5.04 ERA
Who had the better game: Pitcher A, who pitched six innings, struck out seven, walked two, and got 10 ground balls, six fly balls, and two liners; or Pitcher B, who pitched 6.2 innings, struck out three, walked three, and got seven ground balls, 11 fly balls, and three liners? It has to be Pitcher A, right? Both games were this past Sunday, and Pitcher A got the loss after giving up 5 earned runs, while Pitcher B got the all-important win and gave up no runs. Pitcher A is James Shields, and Pitcher B is Bruce Chen. That pretty much sums up Shields’ season.
Yes, his ERA is terrible, but Shields leads all qualified pitchers in HR/FB ratio. In other words, Shields is probably having more than his share of bad luck (witness his career rate of 11.8%), and he’s only 40th among the same group in FB% — below David Price, which explains why Shields’ xFIP is better than Price’s. Shield’s walk rate is up, but it is still excellent at 2.22 per 9 IP, and his K rate has jumped to 8.44 per 9 IP. Despite his batted-ball profile being about the same as usual, he has by far the highest BABIP of his career. This isn’t to say that Shields is a great pitcher (read this for a deeper look into a possible cause of his home run problems this season), but both this season’s peripherals and CHONE’s projection indicate that he’s probably a very good #2.
3) Matt Garza CHONE 4.23 nERA , 4.28 FIP
2010: 1.7 WAR, 4.53 FIP, 4.56 xFIP, 4.67 tERA, 3.92 ERA
The rich man’s Armando Galarraga! It’s a joke, but there is an element of truth to it, as his no-hitter masks a mediocre season. It isn’t clear whether Garza or Shields will pitch second in the rotation, but I think Shields is the better pitcher. Garza has the better ERA, but Shields has the better FIP, xFIP, and tERA this season. Garza’s HR/FB rate doesn’t indicate he has had bad luck, and he isn’t much of a groundballer. He doesn’t give up many walks, but his K rate this season is unexceptional after being over eight per nine innings last season. Garza is a decent pitcher, but he should not be expected to dominate.
4) Jeff Niemann CHONE 4.42 nERA , 4.56 FIP
2010: 1.0 WAR, 4.75 FIP, 4.41 xFIP, 4.51 tERA, 4.49 ERA
Niemann has been battling shoulder trouble, and it isn’t clear yet whether he or Wade Davis will be the Rays fourth starter. Whatever the reason, Niemann has taken a step back this season after a good 2009. His K rate improved, but is still below average. In 2009, he primarily succeeded by not giving up home runs and walks; and while, like Shields, his home run problems this season are at least partly a random fluctuation, his walk rate going up combined with unexceptional strikeout and groundball skills doesn’t make up for it very much. Still, if he’s healthy, he’s certainly a better #4 option than the likes of Nick Blackburn and Tommy Hunter, and arguably even A.J. Burnett at this point.
5) Wade Davis CHONE 4.85 nERA , 4.97 FIP
2010: 0.9 WAR, 4.83 FIP, 4.86 xFIP, 4.61 tERA, 4.14 ERA
Davis probably disappointed a good chunk of Rays fans with his first full season in the majors. Whether or not those expectations were realistic is a question for another time. Davis generated neither gaudy strikeout nor groundball numbers this season, and his walk rate this season has been average-ish. While his numbers taken together put him in the same category with the aforementioned Hunter and Blackburn, I think his superior strikeout ability and youth puts him a small step ahead of them at the moment (and a larger one for the future). The Rays probably don’t want to depend on Davis in the playoffs, but that could be said of every other team and their #4 starter, and if Niemann is ready to go, they won’t have to, anyway.
Most teams in baseball would love to have the Rays’ rotation (or their entire team, for that matter), but it doesn’t stand out as much in the playoff field. The Rays’ starters aren’t “severely outclassed” or anything like it, but the rotation isn’t a particular strength relative to the other teams. Of the AL playoff teams, the Rays’ rotation is probably the least likely to carry them through the playoffs if their offense has trouble producing or if the bullpen falters. They do have a bit more depth than the other teams. The main difference is that Price isn’t obviously that one dominating pitcher like Cliff Lee, Francisco Liriano, or (at least in the past) CC Sabathia. But (pardon the cliché) anything can happen in one game, especially when a young star-in-the-making combines an outstanding group of fielders.