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, and still a few weeks left before playoffs begin, I have ranked the top 5 National League playoff contending teams solely on pitching to give a better understanding of this yearâ€™s playoff picture.
1.Â Â Â Â Philadelphia Phillies
You obviously didnâ€™t need to begin reading this article to learn that the Phillies have the best pitching staff in baseball this year. Some even go so far as to say that their starting rotation is the best they have ever seen. Regardless of what peoplesâ€™ opinions are, the numbers donâ€™t lie.
Philadelphia pitching ranks 1st in team ERA at 3.03, 1st in WHIP at 1.17, and 1st in Quality Starts with 97. The core of their starting rotation includes Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, and Cole Hamels, all three of which are expected to win on any given day. They each boast an ERA under 2.61, a WHIP under 1.06, at least 7.9 strikeouts per 9, and instill confidence in their team every time they take the mound.
With a starting rotation like the Phillies have, who needs a bullpen? In what little work has been required of them, the bullpen has not disappointed. Ryan Madson has stepped up as their closer this year, and anchors the phenomenal bullpen with a 2.68 ERA and 30 saves. Madson is set up by Antonio Bastardo who has an ERA under 2.00 and strikes out almost 11 batters per 9. Brad Lidge has also been pitching well recently, and has an ERA of 1.35. The bullpen is the icing on the cake for the Phillies, and is a big reason why this team is going to win the World Series this year.
2.Â Â Â Â Atlanta Braves
This ranking might surprise a few because of the drop off in starting pitching from Philadelphia to Atlanta. Unlike how the Phillies were ranked number one by their veteran starters, the Braves really earn their spot with their young, unbelievable bullpen.
As a team pitching staff, Atlanta impresses by ranking 3rd in ERA at 3.42, 3rd in BAA at 3.29, and 5th in WHIP at 1.24. The starting rotation relies heavily on veteran Tim Hudson and young gun Brandon Beachy while they await Jair Jurrjens return. Jurrjens knee has caused him to miss starts in September, but he is expected to be ready for the playoffs. All three starters have ERAs under 3.33, translating to lots of wins for their team.
The bullpen for the braves is what truly makes them a pitching juggernaut. The success of Eric O’Flaherty and Jonny Venters in the set-up and late relief roles is combined with the skills of the biggest star, closer Craig Kimbrel, in a bullpen that scares even the best lineups. All three have appeared in at least 70 games this year.
Oâ€™Flaherty matches his 1.10 WHIP with a 1.10 ERA through over 65 innings of work, and Venters does it all with 6 wins, 5 saves, 31 holds, and a 1.56 ERA through his 80 innings of work this season. Overshadowing both of them however, is the play of the breakout Craig Kimbrel. He owns the rookie record for saves in a season with 43 already, he strikes out a ridiculous 14.77 batters per 9 IP, has a WHIP of 1.00, and a 1.78 ERA. They are all healthy, they are all young, and they are all a reason you might as well consider your offense done for the day after the 6th inning when you play Atlanta.
3.Â Â Â Â Milwaukee Brewers
Milwaukee gets the third spot because of their depth and veterans. A strong starting rotation boosted by the unexpected production out of Randy Wolf is complimented by the bullpen that has recently welcomed former Mets Closer Francisco Rodriguez.
The team ranks 8th in ERA, 4th in WHIP, and 3rd in Quality Starts. Those quality starts come from the deep rotation of Yovani Gallardo, Randy Wolf, Shaun Marcum, and former Cy Young winner Zack Greinke.Â All four have at least 17 Quality starts each, an ERA under 4.00, and give the team a chance to win consistently.
The bullpen is carried by veterans LaTroy Hawkins, Takashi Saito, and the newly added Francisco Rodriguez. All three have an ERA under 2.67, and have been effectively setting up their incredible closer, John Axford. Axford and his recognizable mustache have been striking out almost 11 batters per 9 IP on their way to 42 saves and a 2.16 ERA this season.
This staffâ€™s consistency and experience make them a serious contender in this yearâ€™s playoffs.
Arizona comes in fourth here at a significant distance behind Milwaukee. Whereas the first three teams ranked on this list could be classified as â€œgreatâ€ when it comes to pitching, itâ€™s hard to give the Diamondbacks much better than â€œgoodâ€ or â€œslightly above average.â€
The team ranks 14th in ERA at 3.88, 13th in WHIP at 1.30, and 19th in BAA with a .258. Arizona has relied on its offense to win games, and the average pitching has kept them in enough to make them a serious playoff contender.
One player on this pitching staff who is not average, however, is starting pitcher Ian Kennedy. He leads the rotation with 19 wins, a 1.11WHIP, and a 2.90 ERA. Joining the Cy Young candidate in the rotation are Josh Collmenter, Daniel Hudson, and Joe Saunders. All have pitched well with ERAs under 4.00, and all are on pace for double digit wins with Hudson already at 16.
J.J. Putz is the Ian Kennedy of the bullpen this season. He has re-emerged as a dominant reliever, has a WHIP under 1.00, an ERA under 2.50, and an impressive 38 saves. Setting him up in the pen are Bryan Shaw, David Hernandez, Micah Owings, Joe Paterson, and the newly acquired Brad Ziegler. All are pitching admirably with ERAs under 3.40
5.Â Â Â Â St. Louis Cardinals
The preseason loss of Adam Wainwright drastically hurt the Cardinals pitching staff and is probably the biggest reason why St. Louis isnâ€™t likely to make the playoffs this season. While they are still very much in the hunt, I donâ€™t predict that they will be able to overtake the Braves for the National League wildcard spot.
The Redbirdsâ€™ pitchers have performed well enough this season to earn them second place in the NL Central, and potentially a 90 win season. Unfortunately, they werenâ€™t very impressive and ranked 19th in Quality Starts with 75, 16th in WHIP at 1.31, and 22nd in BAA with .263.
Jake Westbrook had a rough season, posting a 4.61 ERA through 30 starts. Even though Chris Carpenter is coming off a shutout his last time out, he doesnâ€™t seem to be what he used to be and put up only a 9-9 record thus far with a 3.75 ERA in 30 starts. Jaime Garcia cooled off after a hot start to the season and shows a 3.68 ERA at this point. Kyle Lohse leads the team in wins at only 13. The good news is that newly acquired Edwin Jackson seems to be doing well in his new environment and has 7 of his 9 starts with STL as Quality Starts.
The bullpen in St. Louis has been constantly evolving throughout the season as eight players have at least one save this year. Jason Motte and the young Eduardo Sanchez have been bright spots for the staff, as both have ERAs under 1.90. Fernando Salas has spent the most time at closer with 23 Saves, and shows a WHIP of 0.95 and an ERA of 2.41. The Cardinals will need to rely on their bullpen and offense to win games if they do manage to make the 2011 playoffs.
As history has shown, pitching will obviously play a vital role in determining who emerges victorious in the National League next 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. Check back soon for a ranking of the top 5 American League pitching staffs.