As has been written ad nauseum both before and during the season, the Milwaukee Brewers went all-in for 2011, particular with respect to upgrading their pitching rotation. The Brewers have won a divisional title for the first time since 1982 and are going to the playoffs for the first time since 2008, so it worked. In 2010, the Brewers starters compiled 7.7 WAR, the third-worst in baseball. In 2011, the remade rotation accumulated 12.7 WAR, which only put them in the middle of the pack, but five wins is a nice improvement. How does the rotation stack up against the others in the playoffs?
For each pitcher, I list some of his 2011 stats, then his Oliver 2011 projected “true talent” ERA (as of the September 26 update) to do some of the regression and application of past performance for us. Take it all as you will: I put that stuff in there for ease of access; one can always look at the player pages for more.
Zack Greinke, 2011: 3.7 WAR, 3.86 ERA, 3.01 FIP, 2.55 xFIP
Oliver projected ERA: 3.38
During the off season, some “experts” opined that Greinke, who had “only” put up a five win season in 2010 after his monstrous, nine win Cy Young campaign in 2009, was merely “good,” not “great” (a sentiment coincidentally adopted on by a substantial segment of Royals fans on December 20, 2010). A look at his ERA this season seemingly confirms that judgment. After Greinke injured his ribs playing basketball prior the 2011 seaon, costing him his first few starts, there were rumblings that it was this sort of lack of “judgment” and “leadership” confirmed the trade in the minds of some Kansas City officials.
After his start on July 3, Greinke’s ERA stood at 5.66. Now it is down to 3.86. In an eerie-but-obvious case of two-way regression, his xFIP has actually been on the rise. Greinke has only slightly underperformed his FIP for his career, and he has never had good defenses behind him (I’ll bet he was thrilled that Yuniesky Betancourt joined him in Milwaukee). He currently leads all qualified starters in xFIP and strikeouts per nine innings. Perhaps he has not pitched “to the score” well enough, and maybe he should have aimed his batted balls towards center field, the only place where the Brewers have plus defense.
Another way of looking at it: Greinke is still one of the best pitchers in baseball, and if he isn’t quite as good as guys like Halladay and Lee, he is very close. He does not pitch as deep into the game as Halladay or Lee, but he his dominant while in the game — not many relievers have a strikeout rate over 10, and Greinke only walks a bit over 2 batters per nine innings. Greinke can potentially shut down any team the Brewers are likely to face, and gives them a strong chance to win against any other pitcher in the playoffs.
As for Kansas City, they were in a position where they had to trade Greinke, and they didn’t necessarily get “ripped off.” Still, homers (the same people who built up the image of “Saint Zack” during 2009) will have to keep repeating the hilarious “he quit on us in 2010″ mantra and hope that Jake Odorizzi fulfills his promise, as a poor man’s Brendan Ryan, a guy who couldn’t take a job from Melky Cabrera or Jeff Francoeur, and a reliever who might never see the majors again is not the kind of return one expects when trading of one the best pitchers in baseball.
Yovani Gallardo, 2011: 3.1 WAR, 3.52 ERA, 3.59 FIP, 3.18 xFIP
Oliver projected ERA: 3.68
At least one person I talked to before the season thought that Gallardo was better than Greinke. Well, that was and is clearly wrong, but Gallardo is an excellent pitcher. His 2010 FIP and xFIP pointed to some “bad luck,” and in 2011 his fortunes reversed in that regard. While he has not struck batters out with quite the frequency of past seasons, solving his past problems with walks this season has made up for it. Gallardo is not an ace in a number two’s clothing like, e.g., Cliff Lee, but he’s far from being a paper tiger.
Shaun Marcum, 2011: 2.7 WAR, 3.54 ERA, 3.73 FIP, 3.88 xFIP
Oliver projected ERA: 3.39
So, the Royals got the pu-pu platter (as Bill Simmons would say — see, there is honor on the internet!) for one of the best pitchers in baseball, and the Blue Jays got Shaun Marcum for Brett Lawrie? Lawrie wasn’t as highly regarded prior to the 2011 season as he is now after his small-sample explosion into the majors, but uh, wow. That isn’t to knock Marcum, though, and given the Brewers’ and Jays’ respective situations, both are probably happy with the outcome.
As for Marcum himself, I’ve always enjoyed watching him pitch. I remember watching Marcum and Mark Buehrle (I can’t wait until he retires so I can quit trying to spell his name) have an extended duel at the then-Skydome during which neither hit 90 on the radar gun. Prior to the season, someone expressed a concern that given Marcum’s reliance on his excellent changeup (and his reverse platoon split in 2010), he might not be quite as good as expected in the NL Central, where many of the best opposing hitters would be righties. That hasn’t been the case. Marcum might be a guy who has gone from being underrated to being overrated. Ihae even heard some people say he has “ace-type” numbers. Uh, no. He is a good number two pitcher, and he has been helped out by switching to the National League. That is not to say Marcum is not good — he is, and when your third starter would make a good number two, it is a sign of a strong rotation. Marcum manages his fly ball tendency well, and has better-than-average walk and strikeout rates. Any team in baseball would be happy to have Marcum in their rotation, and the Brewers surely are.
Randy Wolf, 2011: 1.3 WAR, 3.61 ERA, 4.30 FIP, 4.43 xFIP,
Oliver projected ERA: 4.14
When I first learned that Randy Wolf (a pretty funny name, if you are 13 years old and British) was getting the playoff starting nod over Chris Narveson (do people really call him the “Narv-Dog?” If so, I’m not sure if that is the worst or best nickname ever.), I was unimpressed. But after an exchange of messages with Jack Moore, I think it’s a decent move (so blame Jack if Wolf gets rocked). Wolf’s ERA has been better than his FIP for the past few seasons, so he may have that skill. He also typically pitches much deeper into games than Narveson, thus preserving the bullpen. While Wolf doesn’t strike as many hitters out as Narveson, he does have better control. From the other side of things, Narveson himself profiles better as a reliever (due to higher strikeouts and higher walks) than Wolf, thus deepening the Brewer’s bullpen. Wolf is not a machine, but he isn’t a pathetic number four starter in Tommy Hunter/Nick Blackburn mode, either. Teams have done much worse with their fourth starters in the playoffs (see previous sentence).
Two last semi-relevant notes:
1) Personally, my most anticipated potential National League playoff pitching match up is Roy Halladay-Zack Greinke. There is no way it could live up to my expectations. I have probably jinxed it as it is. I look forward to the reading the news that Greinke has left the Brewers prior to his first playoff start raise dental floss in Montana.
2) While it would be a disaster from the standpoint of Major League Baseball’s higher-ups, people without a rooting interest in the playoffs have to be hoping for Tigers versus Brewers, right? In my view, the teams have earned it.