Yesterday, the nation got to watch Francisco Liriano go up against Johnny Cueto. Come Thursday, Adam Wainwright and Clayton Kershaw are going to pitch, albeit not opposite each other. This is the playoffs, meaning the teams left are good, which means the players left are good, which means the pitchers left are good. There are going to be some incredible potential pitchers’ duels, and some of those are going to work out as actual pitchers’ duels. But Wednesday brings us a special one, even if the majority of baseball fans don’t know a thing about the guys taking the hill. As the Rays and Indians fight in the American League wild-card playoff, they’ll be throwing two of the league’s better and more unknown starters.
The Indians are turning to Danny Salazar, who’s far from a household name. Those who know him, at least, understand his sex appeal. The Rays, meanwhile, are turning to Alex Cobb, and there are people in Cobb’s own home who might not recognize him. Cobb certainly doesn’t have Salazar’s eye-popping stuff, but what the two do have in common are eye-popping numbers — numbers that put them in elite company. Numbers that make this a showdown to anticipate.
Statistically, they’re easy to figure out. Cobb gets strikeouts and grounders while limiting walks. Salazar doesn’t get the grounders, but he gets more strikeouts, to offset. They’re good at the things pitchers need to be good at, and you can see this in any of the meaningful metrics. I’m a total sucker for xFIP- — park-adjusted xFIP — and while I understand the limitations, it might be the best predictor we’ve got. We find Cobb at 76. We find Salazar at 70.
Salazar’s only started 10 times, but let’s consider starters this year with at least 50 innings pitched. By this metric, Cobb’s tied for ninth, while Salazar’s tied for second. In Cobb’s neighborhood, we find Kershaw and Sonny Gray and Chris Sale and A.J. Burnett. In Salazar’s neighborhood, we find Felix Hernandez and Matt Harvey. Salazar, somehow, managed to contend with Yu Darvish‘s strikeout rate.
Let’s pull back. We’ve got xFIP- going back to 2002 — and going back to 2002, splitting seasons for starters with at least 50 innings, we get a pool of 2,137 arms. Of those, 142 posted an xFIP- under 80, or less than 7%. Those 142 averaged a 73 xFIP-, a 73 FIP- and a 73 ERA-. While this metric averages maybe too many things out, it also allows us to capture many of the best pitchers in baseball, so we’re left with the distinct possibility that Cobb and Salazar are two of the best pitchers in baseball.
So where does this rank among potential 2013 playoff pitcher’s duels? Hastily, let’s order by combined xFIP-, since that’s been the number of choice:
- Danny Salazar vs. Anibal Sanchez, 144
- Danny Salazar vs. Adam Wainwright, 144
- Danny Salazar vs. Alex Cobb, 146
- Danny Salazar vs. Sonny Gray, 146
- Danny Salazar vs. Clayton Kershaw, 146
- Danny Salazar vs. A.J. Burnett, 147
- and so on
Of course, for the sake of accuracy, this probably underrates Kershaw, because again, there are things that xFIP- just misses. But the broader point is that it doesn’t get much better than Salazar and Cobb, even if it doesn’t feel like that ought to be the case. There would be better matchups, but a lot of those pitchers are no longer pitching.
For guys who generate such similar end results, Salazar and Cobb follow extremely different processes. Here’s the Danny Salazar game plan:
OK, but what else does he-
Are you sure there isn’t-
Salazar throws one of the game’s hardest fastballs, as a starter. He knows it and he loves it, and for him, the heater is a swing-and-miss pitch. He uses it to work up in the zone, and the fastball accounted for half of Salazar’s strikeouts on the season. The other stuff is pretty good, but the fastball is special.
Cobb’s a wee bit trickier:
I didn’t realize I’d be picking on Miguel Cabrera in this post. Cobb doesn’t gun it up there with his heat, and he throws his fastball not even half the time, mixing in plenty of splitters and curveballs. He stays more down in the zone, and the fastball accounted for 30% of Cobb’s strikeouts on the season. A lot of his improvement has been credited to a better curve, but the splitter is the real weapon. Torii Hunter has compared Cobb to Bugs Bunny, and Bugs Bunny was a cartoon character who pitched cartoonishly. Against Salazar, it’s hard to just catch up. Against Cobb, it’s more about the mix and the movement.
Cobb doesn’t have a big platoon split. Salazar doesn’t look like he’ll have a big platoon split. Salazar’s going to be facing more righties than Cobb, but Cobb is better equipped to deal with lefties, so that could more or less balance out. The big key might be the pitch counts: Cobb has made 13 starts this season of at least 100 pitches. Salazar’s done that once, and since then, he hasn’t topped 89. Salazar is gifted, but a thing about being gifted like Salazar is that pitch counts can climb in a hurry, meaning the Indians could have to go to their bullpen in, say, the sixth.
And then everything gets figured out. As long as Major League Baseball allows for wild-card-specific rosters, teams are going to load up on relievers. And as long as teams load up on relievers, the smart move is going to be being aggressive to get to them. There are always going to be opportunities to play matchups, and it’s seldom going to be a good idea to let a starter pitch too long with so many fresh arms available. Joe Maddon should manage the hell out of his bullpen once Cobb is finished. Terry Francona should manage the hell out of his bullpen once Salazar is finished. There’s no telling how those guys are going to pitch, and this game could ultimately turn on anything. As much as the Rays are probably better than the Indians, the Indians have Salazar and home field, which leaves the game a virtual coin flip.
But it’s a coin flip beginning with Salazar and Cobb. Few things in baseball appear more compelling ahead of time than a pitcher’s duel, and while a lot of people out there don’t know anything about these guys, they should soon. In different ways, they might well be developing into aces, and the playoffs might not give us a better statistical showdown. The ingredients are in place for one hell of an entree.
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