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Pitching wins championships

Who says it? Everybody says it. Your local sportswriter. The guy on TV. Your dad. Your mom even knows the phrase. Pitching wins championships!

Obviously the Orioles are not winning championships, and while there is a laundry list of things you can blame that on, pitching is right up there on the list. They haven't had a starting staff worth a damn in almost a decade, and they have not been worth a damn in almost a decade. It's no coincidence. Of course, they usually can't hit much either, but apples and oranges baby. That doesn't really apply here. When in Rome.

I figure right now, the AL has six, maybe seven teams contending, and the NL has nine. In the AL, you have the Tigers, Yankees, A's, Twins, White Sox, Red Sox and Angels, and the Red Sox are the ones that have the toughest hill to climb, for many reasons. In the NL it's the Mets, Cardinals, Dodgers, Padres, Giants, Phillies, Marlins, and even the crappy Reds and Astros, because who knows with their mess of a wild card race?

As an aside, this is one of the seasons (on the NL side, at least) that an old fart could point to and remember the great days of two divisions and two playoff teams per league, and in my day, yada yada, because every one of those wild card contenders has some serious problems when you try to call them a good ballclub. But look at the AL. That's a nice little wild card race this season, and usually is. I'm still all for the wild card.

But anyway, pitching, it wins championships. Let's take a gander at the pitching for the AL contenders, and what their potential playoff rotations would/could/should/might be.

Yankees
Mike Mussina
13-6, 3.72

Randy Johnson
16-10, 4.76

Chien-Ming Wang
16-5, 3.69

After that, you have Jaret Wright (9-7, 4.62) and Cory Lidle (11-9, 4.46 overall, and 3-2, 3.38 for the Yankees).

Here's a question: Say you're the manager... well, no, let's stop there. Say you're George Steinbrenner and you're in charge of what the Yankees do in every facet of the game, right? Do YOU put Randy Johnson in the playoff rotation? He has honestly been the worst of all of them. There's the fact that he's Randy Johnson, and he has that going for him, but he has been inconsistent as all hell this year. I think you have to see if he can gut-check it and come up big in the postseason instead of relying on either Wright or Lidle, but if you want the three best pitchers, you might have to go with Mussina, Wang and Lidle. What a crazy ass world this is.

Wang has had a really good season, and Mussina has had his best in years. Do you go with four? Mussina, Wang, Johnson and Lidle?

Red Sox
Curt Schilling
14-7, 4.13

Josh Beckett
14-10, 5.11

Tim Wakefield?
7-8, 4.14

Wakefield could be back in the upcoming series we have against Boston, and if they made a run with their faith and magic and general nausea-inducing mess, that would be huge, because without Wakefield you're talking a Schilling who is running out of gas right now, a crappy Josh Beckett, and then one or two of Kason Gabbard, Julian Tavarez, Kyle Snyder, Lenny DiNardo and freaking Kevin Jarvis. I also want to note how highly it speaks of the worth of Jason Johnson when he's not pitching a lot of his games in Kramerica Park when a team would rather give Kevin Jarvis a whirl than let Johnson continue to inflict his special brand of pain upon them any further. Jarvis hasn't had a good season since...well, OK, Jarvis has never had a good season, and he's been trying for 12 years.

The Red Sox have phenomenally awful pitching for a contending team. It's unreal how much they've been carried by Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz (and to a lesser extent Youkilis and Lowell). The fact that Toronto couldn't get their shit together well enough to push Boston into third place says something about the Jays, too.

Tigers
Justin Verlander
15-7, 3.27

Kenny Rogers
15-6, 3.91

Nate Robertson
12-11, 3.93

Jeremy Bonderman
11-7, 4.02

I don't know if Detroit will go three- or four-man for their playoff rotation, or if Maroth (5-2, 3.96) will get in there despite having not pitched since May and just coming off the DL. I'd have to assume Maroth is probably out, and that they'll go for a four-man rotation. Rogers has been on fire, Verlander has emerged as a young ace, and Robertson and Bonderman are both very serviceable. But the Tigers are not the lock they once were. They're now just five games up on Minnesota and five and a half on Chicago. If their pitching held, they'd have a shot, but I don't think they have the hitting to go deep.

White Sox
Jose Contreras
12-7, 4.09

Jon Garland
16-4, 4.37

Mark Buehrle
12-11, 4.71

Javier Vazquez
11-9, 4.80

Freddy Garcia
13-9, 5.10

There are five of them, and none of them are all that good. Luckily the White Sox can kill the ball. And I tried to tell you people about Joe Crede, the same as I tried to tell you people about Mike Lowell. I am a prognosticator of third basemen, unless they are Melvin Mora.

I figure Garcia gets dropped and Ozzie goes with four, since none of them are lights out or even all that reliable. Remember when Contreras was going to win the Cy Young, morons on PTI? Ha ha ha, bless your soul. I like Ozzie and the White Sox remain fun to watch, but man alive they are not the team that won the World Series last year.

Twins
Johan Santana
17-5, 2.84

Brad Radke
12-9, 4.46

Francisco Liriano?
12-3, 2.19

The Twins might be the most dangerous team in the AL. For one, they have Santana, who is the only true shutdown starter left in the playoff race. Then they have Liriano, who is still up in the air. Plus Radke is hurting now, and you never know with shoulder injuries. Radke thinks he'll be OK and Liriano is schedule to be back soon, so they should be OK.

But imagine the Twins without those two. You're talking Santana and a massive dropoff to two or three of Carlos Silva (8-13, 6.30), Boof Bonser (4-5, 4.83, although Boof has been throwing pretty well lately), Matt Garza (1-4, 5.88 but enough stuff to be a wild card if pushed into the role), and Scott Baker (4-7, 6.55). It's not the same team without at least one of those guys healthy. Then again, if Liriano manages to get back and pitch well, they could even live without Radke. The Diamondbacks won a World Series on the backs of Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, with Miguel Batista as the third man. Shit, Greg Swindell was on that team. The Twins could survive, but it'd be a lot harder.

Athletics
Barry Zito
15-9, 3.79

Dan Haren
12-11, 3.88

Joe Blanton
15-10, 4.66

Esteban Loaiza
9-7, 4.58

If the A's are going to win a championship, it'll damn sure be because of pitching, because the only AL teams they've scored more runs than this season have been Tampa Bay, Seattle and Kansas City (from worst to "best" in that order). Esteban has been great since the All-Star break, going 6-2 with a 3.10 ERA, compared to a 3-5 record and 6.43 ERA before. Zito and Haren are the anchors here, and they're capable and match up well with any of the rest of the 1-2 starters in the AL except for Santana and Liriano, who have no equal.

Angels
Jered Weaver
10-2, 2.16

John Lackey
11-9, 3.54

Kelvim Escobar
10-12, 3.61

Ervin Santana
14-7, 4.53

LA of A is trailing Oakland still, tied with Boston and a ways back in the wild card race, and they've been playing well. This is also a team that, should they manage to get there, will have a chance thanks to their starting pitching. Even if Colon were healthy, I have my doubts he'd be better than any of these guys. Weaver has been phenomenal, Escobar and Lackey have been completely unheralded (for Lackey, that's two years straight), and Santana isn't going to kill them. Outside of Minnesota, there isn't a more formidable front three than the one the Angels have.

So, anyway, if starting pitching wins championships, I'm ranking the AL contenders like this:

  1. Minnesota
  2. Los Angeles
  3. Detroit
  4. Oakland
  5. New York
  6. Chicago
  7. Boston
New York is the team with the lowest magic number right now, at 15. Oakland and Detroit are both at 18, but they're going to be chased, and hard. Chicago and Minnesota are most likely going to battle for the wild card if the Tigers can keep themselves up in the AL Central race.

Let's eliminate Boston, because they're all but done barring some sort of Christmas miracle. The Angels will need to play their asses off and probably get some help from the A's as well. If we take out Los Angeles, too, you're looking at Minnesota, Detroit, Oakland, New York and Chicago.

Minnesota's best rotation seriously trumps everyone else's just on the strength of Santana and Liriano, but the rest are pretty close. Verlander is on implosion watch, basically, and Kenny Rogers could stop being a killer any day now. Oakland has Zito and Haren. The Yankees have an old Mussina and Wang, then God knows what happens with Johnson or the others. Chicago is mediocre top-to-bottom.

If pitching does win championships, the Twins likely have by far the best shot at winning the AL so long as Liriano is close to 100%. But they might not even get into the playoffs, at which point you're left with Detroit, Oakland, New York and Chicago, with Detroit/Oakland and New York/Chicago first round matchups, pairing off the two best and worst of the rotations. So one of New York or Chicago would be making the ALCS, and with the bangers they have in their lineups, they'll have a chance. Detroit and Oakland do not have those lineups, and the more the season wears on, the more chinks are exposed in the Tiger armor, when they looked like a juggernaut early on this season.

But then look at 2005. The White Sox steamrolled the AL for months, nearly collapsed late when Cleveland gave them a run for their money, and then made the playoffs and took everyone down with relative ease, although that was probably the tightest four-game sweep of a World Series you'll ever see.

Pitching might win championships a lot of the time, but these aren't really very good rotations for the most part, and the two best have a very good shot at being left out of the equation. If it comes down to Detroit, Oakland, Chicago and New York, I'm inclined to take one of the teams that can put big runs on the board. But if the Twins get there, Santana and Liriano could roll, and they'll hope that Morneau, Mauer and Cuddyer can give them enough offense to provide tough, close wins.

Despite our boys not being anywhere close, I'm really excited for both the remainder of the AL playoff race and the AL playoffs once they get here. It's an intriguing mix of teams with a lot of different possible outcomes. I could see any one of those seven teams getting hot and winning the World Series. You don't get that every year.

I'd talk about the NL, too, but I might as well be talking about the International League in comparison.