Drawing Conclusions from the Tigers' Post-Season Run - Is Starting Pitching Over Rated?

Starting Pitching has long been the most valuable commodity in Major League Baseball.  Looking back on many of the great teams of the past 2 years, what stands out are the starting pitchers.  We remember the great Braves teams of 90’s because of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz.  The Yankees of the late 90’s and early 2000’s had (at various points) Roger Clemens, Mike Mussina and Andy Pettitte.  I wonder though, if maybe we are not seeing a shift away from that.  Perhaps we are now OVERvaluing starting pitching – at least from an analysis perspective.

Maybe its not so much the starting pitching, but the flexibility of the entire pitching staff that really gives the teams an advantage in the playoffs.

All of the post-season qualifying teams had a few starters who had above average seasons.  Most had several with ERAs below 4.00  While they each had a guy or two that was clearly their worst SP, he did serve a purpose in the regular season – to eat innings (Tigers fans – think Brad Penny).  Three teams had two or more starting pitchers with an ERA below 3 – Detroit with Justin Verlander and Doug Fister, Tampa Bay with James Shields and Jeremy Hellickson,  and Philadelphia with Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay AND Cole Hamels (does anyone wonder why they were the favorite in the NL).  Generally speaking, when looking at post-season matchups, the pundits (whomever they may be) choose their winners based on the starting rotations.  As they say – “pitching wins championships”.  As the matchups became define, maybe people were looking for a duel in the ALCS between Detroit and Tampa Bay, with the eventual winner facing off against the Phillies.  However, if you notice, none of the aforementioned teams are currently playing.

While I still believe that pitching does, in fact, still win championships, I think it might be the overlooked areas that are indeed the most impactful.  If you look the teams the Tigers faced in the postseason, the Yankees and Rangers, they never encountered a dominate performance by a starter.  In Game 1, they scored 3 runs off of C.C. Sabathia and Ivan Nova, and in Game 2, they scored 4 off of Freddy Garcia.  Game 3 saw them scored 4 off of Sabathia and Game 4, while only scoring 1 off of A.J. Burnett, they did work 4 walks and 4 hits out of him in only 5.2 innings.  In game 5 they scored 2 off of Nova in 2 innings.  This means that in the ALDS they scored a total of  14 runs in 26.2 innings off of the starting pitchers.  Off of the Yankee relievers, they only managed 3 runs in 17.1 innings.  In the ALDS against the Rangers, the trend continued.  The Tigers scored 21 runs in 28.2 innings against the Rangers starting pitchers, against the bullpen, they managed only 3 runs in 27.1 innings.  The Tigers did pretty well against both starting rotations but were essentially shut down by the bullpens of of the Yankees and Rangers.

The Tigers bullpen was decent, but could not match the firepower the of the Yankees or Rangers in several games.  Game 1 saw the Yankees beat the Tigers because of the bullpen (or to be more clear, a horrid non-sliding slider by Al Alburquerque) and Game 4 saw the Tigers bullpen give up 6 runs.  In the ALDS the Tigers bullpen was even worse.  Ryan Perry gave up a Grand Slam in the 11th Inning in Game 2, Jose Valverde (who was good most of the post-season) gave up ANOTHER 11th inning Grand Slam in Game 4, and we will not even discuss the massacre that was Game 6.  Jose Valverde and Joaquin Benoit were oft-used out of the pen, pitching in almost every close game.  It was clear that Jim Leyland felt they were essentially the only arms he could trust.  The Tigers were at a clear disadvantage in the game of bullpens when they could only call upon 2 guys while the Rangers or Yankees could go to 3, 4, or even 5 men.  I am not faulting Leyland for his pen usage, as the stats reflect that Benoit and Valverde were really the only reliable arms the Tigers could count on in the 7th, 8th, and 9th innings (or beyond).

While we all know that the Tigers offense failed to deliver on the scoring opportunities, they were presented, in most cases, through the first 5-6 innings of each game, they were right in it.  Only when the game came down to the bullpens did the game swing clearly to the opponents in the losses they sustained (Game 6 of the ALCS aside of course).  While timely hitting and injuries certainly were not in the Tigers favor, I would also argue that their bullpen was not able to perform to the level expected either.

So, I think pitching does win championships.  However, it is collective effort of the team moreso now than just a a couple starters and a closer.  This post-season, the Detroit starting pitching in was among the top 3 in opponents on base percentagne (3rd behind Tampa Bay and Philly with a .326 – St Louis was fractions worse than the Tigers) and opponents slugging percentage (1st with a .384) of course meaning they were top 3 in opponents OPS too (3rd with a .710).  The two teams ahead of them in OPS were, of course, Tampa Bay and Philadelphia.  When looking at the “close/late” splits on MLB.com of these teams, it is like a night and day comparison.  Detroit, Tampa Bay and Philadelphia were all bottom 3 in OBP, SLG and OPS (and the margins are not even close).  If you were to go by the more generous view of “reliever” you will still find that the all three of these teams were in the middle or back of the pack in the previously discussed categories.

One other interesting thing to note – look at the splits between SP innings and MR innings against the Tigers by the Yankees and Rangers.  It is clear that the bullpens were utilized to a large degree by both teams, especially the Rangers.  While two of the games did go into extras (only 11 innings each) the Rangers had almost identical innings by their MRs.  Now, it should be mentioned that two of the reliever, Alexi Ogando and Scott Feldman saw time in their rotation this year, but the Tigers also had Phil Coke in their rotation, so it is not as if they had a couple guys who could through multiple innings while the Tigers had none.

What is the point in all of this?  Well, frankly, I am wondering if we might be seeing a shift away from what the normal bullpen equation for success has been in the playoffs – that being, have your SP get to into the 7th, bring in a guy to finish off a lefty or righty, go to your setup man in the 8th, and then your closer.  These two series, while they showed off the Tigers inability to drive in runners from scoring position (due to injuries and whatnot) also showed that they had a significant lack of depth in the bullpen compared to their opponents.  I am not ready to make a blanket statement about all MLB teams, but I feel confident in making a few statements about the Tigers going forward:

  • a 5th Stater, while important in the regular season, would have little to no impact in the postseason – unless he is used as a shutdown reliever (ala Alexi Ogando)
  • The Tigers bullpen MUST get stronger if they hope to go deeper into the playoffs.
  • If push comes to show, I believe the more worthwhile investment via trade and/or free agency is with another high caliber bullpen arm rather than a 5th SP

If the Tigers hitters had performed at the level we saw from them during the regular season, I believe they would still be playing baseball.  However, I don’t think that makes any of the above less true.  In fact, it would actually have widened the gulf between starting performance and bullpen performance as significant number of the Tigers chances to tally multiple runs in an inning came when the starting pitcher was on the mound, not the reliever.  It will be interesting to see if the performances of the Tigers’ post-season opponents have an impact on the way they approach the assembly of their team in 2012 and beyond.

Tags: A.J. Burnett Alexi Ogando Andy Pettitte Brad Penny Bullpen CC Sabathia Cliff Lee Cole Hamels Detroit Tigers Doug Fister ERA Greg Maddux Ivan Nova James Shields Jim Leyland Joaquin Benoit John Smoltz Jose Valverde Justin Verlander Mike Mussina New York Yankees Phil Coke Philadelphia Phillies Roger Clemens Roy Halladay Scott Feldman Starting Pitchers Tampa Bay Rays Texas Rangers Tom Glavine

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