With one weekend left in the regular season, there are some important things still at stake. In the American League wild-card race, for example, the Rangers are still alive, one back of the Indians and two back of the Rays. The Pirates and the Reds will go head-to-head, basically to decide who gets home field in next week’s likely one-game playoff. And the Braves and Cardinals will figure out who finishes with the National League’s best record. They’re not about to play one another, but they’re each about to play three games, and the team with the best record will face the not-Dodgers in the NLDS.
And that would be nice, since the Dodgers have gone 61-26 since they started 30-42. Right now, the Braves and the Cardinals have the same record. The Braves, also, hold the tiebreaker, having won the season series against St. Louis, so at this point we’re looking at Braves vs. wild card and Cardinals vs. Dodgers. But it’s not set in stone, so, clearly, the teams have something left to play for as they prepare for October. No team would ever admit it’s afraid of another team, but the Dodgers don’t look like a favorable draw.
I’m not going to tell you how long I spent futzing around with math. I didn’t really get anywhere. Baseball is complicated, and the playoffs don’t work like the regular season. In my head, the idea of this post contained a lot more numbers, but the actual post is going to be mostly words. One thing I think we can accept is that the Dodgers look better than the Pirates and the Reds. Those are the three potential NLDS opponents for the Braves and Cardinals, and the Dodgers lead the NL in second-half WAR, by a good margin. Also, they have that record. We can’t justifiably ignore the previous record, from when they were struggling, but important parts of the team have changed since, so we more heavily weight what’s recent. There’s an argument that the Dodgers are the NL’s best team.
But there is another thing I think we can accept: the Pirates and the Reds are good. The Pirates are just behind the Dodgers in the NL in second-half WAR. The Reds are in the upper third, and they recently got Johnny Cueto back. It’s very easy to focus on one thing come playoff time, so it’s easy to focus on how the Dodgers tore up baseball there for a stretch. Hard stretch to forget. But what matters to the Braves and Cardinals isn’t that the Dodgers are really good — what matters is the difference between the Dodgers and another opponent. The Reds and Pirates are solid ballclubs. Even if the Dodgers were a juggernaut, which they’re not, they’d be stoppable, so worry about the Dodgers is more of a talking point than an actual point.
There is one thing in particular about the Dodgers that makes them terrifying, though. And that’s the idea that they could throw Clayton Kershaw two times in a five-game series. Kershaw is baseball’s best starting pitcher, and if you give him those two wins, which doesn’t take much of a leap, then in the other three games the Dodgers would need to go just 1-2 to advance. Nobody wants to face Kershaw once. Certainly no one wants to face Kershaw twice, in a week. But this, too, can be analyzed, beyond just pointing out that Kershaw’s going to run away with the Cy Young.
Face the Pirates and you could see A.J. Burnett twice. Burnett is sitting on a 75 FIP-. Face the Reds and you could see Homer Bailey twice. Bailey is sitting on an 83 FIP-. There’s also the matter of who the Braves and Cardinals might throw. The Cardinals might oppose Kershaw twice with Adam Wainwright twice. The Braves haven’t figured out their rotation, but it’s not like they’re missing quality arms.
In Kershaw starts this year, the Dodgers allowed 2.64 runs per nine innings. Overall, the Dodgers averaged 4.05 runs scored per nine innings, which would give them a hypothetical Kershaw-specific 0.677 Pythagorean winning percentage. In Wainwright starts this year, the Cardinals allowed 3.04 runs per nine innings. Overall, the Cardinals averaged 4.85 runs scored per nine innings, which would give them a hypothetical Wainwright-specific 0.700 Pythagorean winning percentage. This is just being used as an example, but it’s easy to focus on the identity of the opposing pitcher. There’s more to the game than that, including your own starting pitcher. It doesn’t begin and end with Clayton Kershaw, and one is reminded of last year’s World Series, in which Justin Verlander lost to Barry Zito.
Here’s maybe the simplest way to say Kershaw’s far from unbeatable: this year, in his starts, the Dodgers went 18-14. The numbers should be better than that, and they were last year and the year before, but while Kershaw would give the Dodgers the pitching advantage over anyone in a game, it’s all a matter of percentages. The starting pitcher moves the needle less than it feels like he should.
Kershaw is outstanding because he’s so much better than an ordinary pitcher. In the playoffs, there are fewer ordinary players, such that playoff-ordinary is better than season-ordinary. Everybody has to go through good teams and good players, and Kershaw is just another step up. He’s better than Burnett, and he’s better than Bailey, but he’s better by a somewhat small margin, so losses are by no means guaranteed.
Here’s an incomplete selection of potentially relevant numbers. Team records in postseason starts by ace-level pitchers:
- Justin Verlander: 7-5
- Roger Clemens: 17-17
- C.C. Sabathia: 12-6
- Cliff Lee: 8-3
- Greg Maddux: 13-17
- Randy Johnson: 6-10
- Pedro Martinez: 6-8
- Kevin Brown: 8-5
- Curt Schilling: 14-5
- John Smoltz: 17-10
- Cole Hamels: 9-4
- Tom Glavine: 18-17
I could’ve looked up more, but I don’t think it would change much. Those are some of the best starters in recent baseball history, all with plenty of October experience. In their combined playoff starts, their teams have gone 135-107, good for a .558 winning percentage that equates to a 90-72 record over a regular season. The pitchers have won more than they’ve lost, but they haven’t won like they have in the regular season, because everybody’s better in the playoffs. It’s an advantage to have the best pitcher, but it’s not an enormous one.
Which is to say, Clayton Kershaw can be defeated. The most likely outcome is that, if Kershaw were to start two games in the NLDS, the Dodgers would win one and lose one. Of course, the Braves and Cardinals would prefer to skip this entirely. Probably, it would be easier to beat the Pirates. Probably, it would be easier to beat the Reds. It just wouldn’t be that much easier, so it’s not like there’s room for many strong opinions.
The Cardinals might have a stronger preference. They’ve been one of the worst teams at hitting left-handed pitchers, and the Dodgers could have three lefty starts in a five-game series, with Kershaw and Hyun-Jin Ryu. The Pirates would be scheduled for one lefty start, presuming Francisco Liriano starts the one-game playoff. The Reds would be scheduled for zero. So the Cardinals could have more to gain by finishing clear of the Braves. But a very similar Cardinals team abused lefties in 2012. Single-season platoon splits don’t always reflect true talents, so, again, this probably wouldn’t be the deciding factor. There would be no single deciding factor.
Where we’ve gotten with all this: the Dodgers are probably a tougher playoff opponent than the Pirates and the Reds. The difference is real, but presumably not massive. Nobody wants to face Clayton Kershaw twice in a best-of-five series. The recent history of aces in the playoffs, however, shows that they lose, pretty often, because everybody in the playoffs is good. The Cardinals might have a particular interest in skipping a lefty-heavy series, but then, they might not. This weekend, it will be determined whether the Dodgers will face the Braves or the Cardinals. Plenty will subsequently be written about how the Dodgers look terrific behind their Cy Young #1. That’s going to be true. The other teams are going to look terrific, too.
Print This Post