"Momentum is only as good as the next day's starter."
The late Earl Weaver is often attributed with this quote -- though, like most good baseball stories, no one knows its true origin -- and it becomes even more relevant come playoff time. Both the Tigers and A's fielded excellent starting pitching rotations this season, a big reason why they are set to face one another in the American League Division Series for the second year in a row on Friday.
Yeah, they're pretty good
Third in strikeouts. Second in strikeout rate. Second in xFIP*. Ninth in Fangraphs WAR. These are where the 2013 Tigers' rotation ranks not among the MLB's best for this season, but among the MLB's best rotations of all-time. When you need to go back to 1871 to find some fair comparisons to your team's starting staff, it's easy to get excited about their chances in a short series.
Max Scherzer is the odds-on favorite to win the Cy Young award this year, but many are convinced he's not even the best starter on his own team. Anibal Sanchez won the league's ERA title this year, earning every dollar of that contract extension he signed prior to the year with a 14-8 record, 2.57 ERA, and 2.39 FIP. Sanchez also provided a pair of the most dominant performances we have seen in baseball this year, striking out 17 Atlanta Braves hitters in April and nearly tossing a no-hitter against the Minnesota Twins in May. He missed a month with a shoulder issue, which likely cost him a shot at his first Cy Young award.
Meanwhile, Scherzer "only" blew away the American League with 240 strikeouts in 214 1/3 innings. He also had the lowest OPS allowed and lowest WHIP in the league, a big reason why he finished the year with a Cy-worthy 2.90 ERA. Sure, he got some run support along the way -- a big reason why he finished the year with a 21-3 record -- but there's no way around it: Scherzer took his game to another level in 2013.
We're five paragraphs into a piece about the Tigers' starting rotation and I'm just now getting around to Justin Verlander. He had an off year by his standards, and his 3.46 ERA was "only" 16th in the American League among qualified starters. However, he was fourth in the AL with 5.2 fWAR -- third on the team, mind you -- and he topped 200 strikeouts for the fifth year in a row. This, coupled with a 2.27 ERA and 4.80 strikeout-to-walk ratio in September, gives the Tigers a whale of a "third starter" for the postseason.
Thanks to Verlander's excellent September, Doug Fister has become the black sheep of the Tigers' playoff rotation. Still, Fister put together his third consecutive strong second half for the Tigers, putting up a 3.18 ERA after the All-Star Break. His 1.39 WHIP in 13 starts is a bit concerning, but Fister's strong finish -- a 3.00 ERA and 3.35 FIP in September -- gives the Tigers yet another weapon in a short series.
*xFIP has only been tracked since 2001.
Don't sleep on the A's
The Oakland Athletics will be sporting a formidable rotation of their own. They ranked second in the American League with a 3.72 ERA this year, and their 3.30 home ERA was the best in the league. While their starting staff won't be set in stone until later this week -- some have hinted that Bob Melvin will provide some insight into his starters later this afternoon -- we know that the A's will have a staff capable of keeping their offense within striking distance in any game.
The A's, like the Tigers, sport a righty-heavy rotation. Lefthander Tommy Milone will likely be the only southpaw starter in this series. The others aren't set in stone yet, but right-handers Bartolo Colon and Jarrod Parker are safe bets to start the first couple games of the series. Right-hander A.J. Griffin started 32 games this year, but some are wondering whether rookie righty Sonny Gray will get the nod after a spectacular second half.
Colon is a 40 year old who throws a low 90s fastball over 85% of the time, but somehow turned this simple approach into an 18-6 record and 2.65 ERA in 30 starts. He finished the regular season by winning his last four starts, allowing just three runs in 26 total innings. Even more surprising: Colon averaged 6 1/3 innings per start this year but only threw 100+ pitches in eight of 30 outings, including three complete games.
Many expected Jarrod Parker to take off after going toe-to-toe with Justin Verlander twice during last year's division series, but the 24 year old regressed, allowing a 3.97 ERA and 4.40 FIP in 197 innings. He cut his walk rate slightly, but allowed 25 home runs after giving up just 11 in 181 1/3 innings last year. Parker sputtered down the stretch with a 6.41 ERA and 1.39 WHIP in September.
Milone had the highest ERA among A's pitchers with at least 10 starts this season. However, the fact that his ERA was 4.14 -- not bad, considering the league average was 3.91 -- says more about the quality of the rotation than it does about Milone himself. He increased his strikeout rate by nearly a full batter per nine innings this year, but his walk rate jumped by a fair margin, leaving him with a 4.30 FIP. His home run rate was a bit high at 1.44 dingers per nine innings, but Milone had the fourth highest fly ball rate in the AL among pitchers with at least 150 innings pitched. He only started two games and made four total appearances in September though, so he's not a lock for the rotation.
If I were to make a prediction about the A's rotation, I'd wager that Sonny Gray gets a start over A.J. Griffin, and it happens in Game 2 at home. Gray was spectacular at the O.Co Coliseum this year, allowing a 1.99 ERA and 2.73 ERA in six home starts. He also posted a 0.934 WHIP and 4.75 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Overall, Gray's numbers are still very good. He was 5-3 with a 2.67 ERA in 10 starts, the second-best ERA on the staff in the second half (behind Colon).
Griffin pitched well at times, with 11 outings of two or fewer runs allowed. However, he was also extremely homer prone. He allowed a league-high 36 homers on the year and had 12 starts with two or more dingers allowed. Still, he may earn the nod over Milone or Gray thanks to a 3.19 ERA and 3.11 FIP in September.
The bottom line
Oakland's starters have put up some good numbers this year, but this Tigers staff is simply on another level. They're among the best groups of starters to ever take the mound, and their worst starter -- a former first round pick who would be starting in just about every other playoff rotation in baseball -- will not be in the picture.