Projecting playoff rotations: Oakland's OK, but the D is dominant

Jason O. Watson

As David Price gets ready for his opening act as a Detroit Tiger, it’s an opportune moment to admire the rotation that our team has assembled, and to assess its potential postseason prowess. My mission today is to predict the playoff performance of a starting rotation - for the Tigers, and for a handful of competitors. Rick Porcello has a low ERA this year, and Justin Verlander has a high one, but who should we expect to perform better moving forward? And what about a team like Oakland, which has several starters outperforming their long term numbers - should we expect that to continue into the postseason?

No one knows what will happen, of course (this is baseball, after all). But we can use statistical projections to form a "best guess" for the performance of each player. Here, I use ZIPS projections for the remainder of this season to forecast each pitcher’s success. These projections do change based on results as the season goes along, but they appear to place significant weight on multi-season trends, career numbers, and aging curves. I focus entirely on fielding-independent pitching (FIP), since it gets around issues of players being recently traded between teams with differing defensive qualities. After obtaining the predicted rest-of-2014 for each starter, I also calculate a weighted average of those FIPs based on a seven game playoff series in which the top three pitchers start twice and the fourth starter gets one game. Blah blah blah… OK, let’s get to the fun stuff.

Detroit Tigers

Pitcher 2014_FIP Career_FIP Predicted_FIP
Price 2.94 3.33 3.09
Scherzer 3.00 3.45 3.10
Sanchez 2.91 3.49 3.17
Verlander 4.00 3.44 3.40
Porcello 3.66 4.05 3.76
Weighted average for 7 game series 3.16

Indulging in a morsel of sweet hubris, the predicted success of the Tigers’ rotation is a glorious sight to behold. Price, Scherzer, and Sanchez are all projected at ace level. Verlander and Porcello make an interesting comparison: according to FIP, their performance this year has been less different than ERA would suggest, and the projections have Verlander as a better bet moving forward. If Verlander was used as the fourth starter (perhaps unlikely, but whatever), Detroit’s predicted rotation FIP for a seven game playoff series is a shiny 3.16.

Obviously these numbers don’t account for playoff-caliber competition, but they will suffice for comparing teams. The team that Detroit is most often compared against these days is Oakland. The A’s made a lot of noise in overhauling their rotation in July. But in our trade deadline open thread, I wondered aloud if most of their pitchers were overperforming and due for regression. Let’s see:

Oakland Athletics

Pitcher 2014_FIP Career_FIP Predicted_FIP
Lester 2.63 3.60 3.37
Gray 3.19 3.04 3.46
Kazmir 3.24 3.98 3.56
Samardzija 3.33 3.81 3.84
Hammel 3.75 4.26 4.35
Weighted average for 7 game series 3.52

The numbers are indeed kind to my theory. Sure, it’s possible that guys like Kazmir and Samardzija continue to leave past mediocrity behind and perform like near-aces, and maybe they really are much different pitchers now. ZIPS could be wrong, but it suggests that this scenario is less likely. Instead, it projects the A’s staff to perform a bit more like their historical records, plus it’s a bit skeptical of a young guy like Gray continuing to perform at ace level (that could happen, or he could wear down a bit). On the whole, ZIPS gives us a weighted average of 3.52 FIP for a 7 game series, a far cry from the Tigers’ 3.16 mark. In fact, even if Detroit had not traded for Price, its predicted FIP of 3.30 would still have an edge on the A’s. Was Dombrowski really one-upping Beane, or just rubbing it in? I won’t get too confident, since we may need that full rotation advantage to make up for other areas.

Over in the NL, the team that made the most noise in terms of trades for starters was St. Louis. Here’s what they’ve got:

St. Louis Cardinals

Pitcher 2014_FIP Career_FIP Predicted_FIP
Wainwright 2.75 3.13 2.89
Lynn 3.26 3.32 3.37
Lackey 3.57 3.88 3.89
Masterson 4.04 3.83 3.34
Wacha 3.05 3.00 3.46
Weighted average for 7 game series 3.38

ZIPS is optimistic about Masterson, cautious about Wacha (who will be coming back from injury as well). On the whole, their rotation clocks in at 3.38 for a 7 game series, roughly in between Detroit and Oakland.

But even without adding another starter at the trade deadline, it’s the Dodgers that give the Tigers a run for their money:

Los Angeles Dodgers

Pitcher 2014_FIP Career_FIP Predicted_FIP
Kershaw 1.71 2.77 2.38
Greinke 2.82 3.38 3.00
Ryu 2.80 3.07 3.61
Beckett 4.30 3.77 4.10
Haren 4.61 3.73 4.02
Weighted average for 7 game series 3.15

The method is cautious about Ryu’s young career, and FIP doesn’t believe Beckett’s apparent success this year. But the otherwordly performance of Kershaw pulls them just barely ahead of Detroit, at a predicted 3.154 ERA over a 7 game series. Not coincidentally, the Tigers and Dodgers are currently co-favorites in Vegas to win the World Series, at 4/1 odds.

In conclusion, while Oakland does have a good rotation, starting pitching projects to be a solid advantage for Detroit in a hypothetical matchup. If we do triumph over the AL competition though, we could encounter a more formidable pitching staff in the World Series. Chaos is king in the MLB playoffs, but I like our chances as much as anyone else’s.

This is a FanPost and does not necessarily reflect the views of the <em>Bless You Boys</em> writing staff.