As baseball fans, we have all almost surely heard the old adage, â€œPitching Wins Championships.â€ Itâ€™s a theory that has been around almost as long as the game itself, and has held enough validity to withstand the tests of time as many experts still swear by it today. A quick look back to last yearâ€™s World Series helps to drive the point home, as the San Francisco Giants gave up a total of five runs in the last four games of the series on their way to becoming world champions.
With this theory in mind, I have ranked the top American League playoff contending teams solely on pitching to give a better understanding of this yearâ€™s playoff picture:
1. Tampa Bay Rays
Of the American League playoff teams, Tampa stands out clearly as being the best overall pitching staff. The Rays run to the playoffs was one that will go in the history books, and they hope to build on that momentum as they make a run for the World Series once again. The young arms on this team are just hitting their prime, and are going to be exciting to watch throughout the postseason. The staff came up clutch against the Yankees in the last series of the regular season, a series matchup many would like to see again in the postseason.
Tampa pitching ranks 7th in team ERA at 3.58, 3rd in Quality Starts with 98, and ranks second behind only Philadelphia in WHIP at 1.22 and BAA at .234.The core of their starting rotation includes James Shields, Jeremy Hellickson, and David Price. Shields has pitched an astonishing 249.1 innings this season, while keeping his ERA at 2.82 and his WHIP at 1.04. Although David Price has not lived up to his expectations of repeating last yearâ€™s excellence, he has still managed a very successful season striking out 8.78 batters per 9 innings, and keeping his ERA under 3.40. Hellickson finally emerged this year as the pitcher Rays fans had been waiting for, as he put up an impressive season by pitching 189.0 innings, and posting a low 2.95 ERA.
Kyle Farnsworth has proven that they Rays were smart in taking a chance on him after bouncing around from team to team over the past decade, and he has emerged as a legitimate closer in 2011. He has always thrown fireballs that make even Randy Johnson blink twice when reading the radar gun, but his location and control had always been in question. In 2011, his walk-to-strikeout ratio improved to nearly 5 to 1, he kept his hits down by only allowing a WHIP of 0.97, and he kept his ERA under 3.00. He is a reliable option to close games, and will be used frequently.
The rest of the Tampa bullpen is also solid, but most of the buzz this postseason will be around rookie sensation Matt Moore who made his MLB debut this month. He already has 15 strikeouts in only 9.1 innings pitched, and seems to be well on his way to superstardom in the next few years.
2.Â Â Â Â Texas Rangers
This ranking should not come as a surprise to many seeing as one of historyâ€™s greatest pitchers, Nolan Ryan, is the team President and CEO. This pitching staff has a great blend of consistent starting pitching and experienced, shutdown relievers. The midseason addition of top-notch setup man Mike Adams helped to propel the Rangers over the Angels down the stretch to win the AL West.
As a team pitching staff, Texas impresses by ranking 5th in Quality Starts with 97, 5th in WHIP at 1.24, and 6th in BAA at .244. The starting rotation is anchored by the excellent play of C.J. Wilson. The southpaw has been on fire this season, throwing 3 complete games, one of which was his first career shutout. He started 34 games, throwing 223 innings and striking out over 200 batters on his way to 16 wins.
Wilson is accompanied by perhaps the most consistent starting five in baseball this season. Matt Harrison, Alexi Ogando, Derek Holland, and Colby Lewis have all started at least 29 games each this season, and have only not accounted for a total of 5 starts for the Rangers. Each member of this entourage has at least 17 Quality Starts, and only Colby Lewis has an ERA over 3.95. This consistency from the starting pitchers gives the great lineup a chance to win day in and day out, and the bullpen frequently enjoys coming into games with leads.
The Texas bullpen is loaded with experience, and is locked down by the young (although sometimes wild) Neftali Feliz. Familiar names like Mike Adams, Darren Oliver, Mark Lowe, Arthur Rhodes, and Tommy Hunter have been relevant in the game for years, and they back the consistent starting pitching with some of their old tricks. Over half these names in this bullpen are collecting social security, but they also all have on ERA under 3.00. Combine the depth of this pitching staff with the constant contact hitting of the offense, and you have a serious contender to make the World Series for the second year in a row.
3.Â Â Â Â New York Yankees
After a pretty significant drop off in overall team pitching, the Yankees rank next on the list. Outside of the always fascinating C.C. Sabathia, the starting rotation lacks anything to really get excited about. Luckily for New York however, the bullpen has stepped up this season and rivals Atlanta as perhaps the best in baseball.
The bright spot here is that the team ranks 10th in ERA at 3.70, but much of that is accredited to the relievers. The staff as a whole ranks in the bottom half of baseball in Quality Starts, WHIP, and BAA. Sabathia put the team on his back and put up yet another Cy Young candidate season. He finishes the regular season one win short of 20, and put up an ERA of 3.00 to compliment his 230 strikeouts. Ivan Nova put up a pretty record of 16-4 thanks to the power packed lineup cleaning up his messes, but was not as bad as the rest of the pitching staff as he was the only other starter to keep his ERA under 4.00. Luckily for the Yankees starting staff, they are still the Yankees, and are surrounded by one hell of a team as their best record in the American League demonstrates.
Mariano Rivera. He broke the All-time career saves record this season with 44, and had a fairly Rivera-esque ERA of only 1.91. Need I say more about the Yankee bullpen?
Actually the answer is yes.
David Robertson, Luis Ayala, and Corey Wade.
Who? Only the rest of the secret to the Yanksâ€™ bullpen. Wade threw 39.0IP, Ayala threw 55.0IP, Robertson threw 66.2IP, and all three put up ERAs lower than the 1.91 ofÂ â€œThe Sandmanâ€ himself. Robertson even managed to average 13.50 strikeouts per 9 while racking up 34 holds giving Rivera his shot at history. It would not be fair to talk about only these four guys in the bullpen however, since Joba Chamberlain and Boone Logan have a combined 100 appearances in 2011. While not putting up the sub-atomic ERAs of the other four, they only managed to keep their ERA at 2.83 apiece.
That makes 6 different relievers all with ERAs under 2.90 in this lethal bullpen. Good luck to any team that falls behind New York in the next couple weeks.
4.Â Â Â Â Detroit Verlanders
The Detroit Tigers have the undisputed Cy Young Award winner of 2011. Justin Verlander has put up a season for the record books, and has put himself into contention for the American League MVP Award. The trophy case in this guyâ€™s house is going to get crowded very soon. On top of having baseballâ€™s best starting pitcher in 2011, they have arguably the best closer this year as well in Jose Valverde. Unfortunately for Detroit however, these guys do not have much of a supporting cast.
The team ranks 18th in ERA at 4.03, 17th in WHIP at 1.32, and 17th in BAA with a .257. Verlander keeps most of these numbers in check for the whole team. I keep talking about how great he is, so in case you have been living under a rock for the last 4 months, he is why. 24 Wins, 28 Quality Starts, 251.0 Innings Pitched, 250 Strikeouts, 0.92 WHIP, and a 2.40 ERA as the cherry on top of the loaded sundae. Oh yeah, canâ€™t forget the sprinkles, 4 Complete Games, 2 of which are Shutouts. This guy is good, real good.
Doug Fister has played great since coming to the Detroit rotation as well, posting season totals of a 1.06 WHIP and a 2.83 ERA, while only managing 11 Wins. The next three starters in the rotation cannot even manage to keep their fat ERAs under 4.30, and also all have a WHIP of 1.35 or higher. I will not even mention their names under the same heading as Verlander, since he is the only one you will hear about this fall anyway.
The bullpen is a similar story in being very top heavy. Jose Valverde leads not only the team, but all of baseball in saves this season with 48 heading into post season play. He has pitched a total of 71.1 innings with a WHIP of 1.19 and an ERA of 2.27. His bizarre rituals before taking the mound seem comical to some, but this 33 year old veteranâ€™s superstitions have kept him from blowing a single save all season. Thatâ€™s right, a perfect 48/48. Whoâ€™s laughing now?
Like Verlander, Valverde has only one legitimate battery mate in the bullpen, and that man is Al Albuquerque. Al has not given up a homerun in any of his 42.1 innings pitched this year, and has struck out an average of 14.03 batters per 9 innings pitched while boasting a sub 2.00 ERA. Joaquin Benoit has been steady out of the set up position, and has kept his ERA under 3.00 while grabbing 29 Holds for Valverde.
The strength of the few stars on this pitching staff was enough for over 90 wins in 2011, but I am still not convinced that this team has what it takes to bring a championship home to Detroit.
As history has shown, pitching will obviously play a vital role in determining who emerges victorious in the American League this month. These teams have all pitched well to get to this point, but only one will make it to represent the league in the World Series.