When playoff aces go wrong
We assume the acknowledged ace of a playoff-bound team is at least a good starting pitcher. But how often does he fall short of expectations?
Sometimes, even first-order aces come up short in the postseason. To cite but a spare few examples, there was Roger Clemens in Game 3 of the 1999 ALCS (five earned runs in two innings of work), there was Greg Maddux in Game 1 of the 2000 NLDS (seven runs in four innings) and -- for a more recent example -- there was Justin Verlander in Game 1 of last year's World Series (five earned in four frames).
The point is that we like to think of frontline starters as completely known quantities and assume that they'll be at least solid every time out. That's simply not the case, of course, as even the best pitchers on the planet are capable of soiling the linens on a given night.
As the 2013 postseason looms, it's worth considering which playoff-bound aces may have the greatest potential to pitch like something less than an ace when it matters most.
Before we dig in, let's introduce a couple of measures we'll be using that may or may not be familiar to you. The first is Bill James's "game score." The game score is a somewhat blunt instrument that measures a starting pitcher's level of effectiveness in a given outing. Generally speaking, it ranges from 0 (awful) to 100 (utter dominance). Extreme outlying performances, however, can exceed 100 (Kerry Wood's 20-strikeout game against the Houston Astros in 1998 earned a game score of 105, for instance) or, on the other end of the continuum, drop into negative territory.
Here's how game score is calculated:
-- Start with 50 points.
-- Add one point for each out recorded, so three points for every complete inning pitched.
-- Add two points for each inning completed after the fourth.
-- Add one point for each strikeout.
-- Subtract two points for each hit allowed.
-- Subtract four points for each earned run allowed.
-- Subtract two points for each unearned run allowed.
-- Subtract one point for each walk.
This season, the average NL game score was 52, while the AL average was 51 (the difference is largely a function of the DH).
Also, we'll use something called a "disaster start," which you can think of as being the opposite of the more familiar quality start. A disaster start is simply any start in which the pitcher's earned runs exceed his innings pitched. In other words, it's an outing in which the starting pitcher probably gave his team very little chance to win.
Below you'll see a data table with each playoff team's and likely playoff team's (the AL wild-card berths are not quite decided yet, as of this writing) designated No. 1 starter -- i.e., the guy likely to take the ball in Game 1 of the division series or the wild-card round, assuming he's on normal rest. In some cases, educated guesswork is involved (the Boston Red Sox , Atlanta Braves , Cleveland Indians and Tampa Bay Rays , for instance), but this figures to be how things will slot, more or less.
As for the statistical categories you're about to see, let's explain the acronyms ahead ...
AGS -- Stands for "average game score." It's the game score metric described above averaged out over all of the pitcher's 2013 starts. See those league averages (52 for the NL, 51 for the AL) for further perspective.
NQS% -- "Non-quality start percentage." This is the percentage of starts in which the pitcher in question failed to record a quality start. Stated another way, it's those starts in which he failed to go at least six innings and give up no more than three earned runs.
DIS% -- This is the pitcher's 2013 disaster starts (see above) as a percentage of total starts this season.
<AGS% -- This is the percentage of starts in which the pitcher's game score was worse than the league average game score. Think of this as how often he was bad.
AVG<AGS -- This is the pitcher's average game score in those outings in which he recorded a worse-than-league-average game score. In other words, this is how bad he was when he was bad.
Now, to the numbers (table sorted by last name of pitcher) ...
|When playoff aces go wrong|
|Bartolo Colon , Oakland Athletics||55.8||24%||10.3%||37.9%||41.2|
|Ubaldo Jimenez , Indians||54.4||52%||9.7%||32.3%||33.6|
|Clayton Kershaw , Los Angeles Dodgers||66.8||19%||0%||12.5%||41.0|
|Mat Latos , Cincinnati Reds||56.5||34%||3.1%||37.5%||42.4|
|Jon Lester , Red Sox||54.2||37%||6.3%||37.5%||37.6|
|Francisco Liriano , Pittsburgh Pirates||58.2||35%||11.5%||26.9%||27.1|
|Kris Medlen , Braves||54.3||30%||6.7%||43.3%||40.7|
|David Price , Rays||56.7||35%||7.7%||26.9%||34.4|
|Max Scherzer , Detroit Tigers||62.8||22%||0%||18.8%||40.8|
|Adam Wainwright , St. Louis Cardinals||60.0||21%||3.0%||27.3%||39.2|
|Data courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com|
And now for a smattering of observations on these numbers ...
•No surprise, but Kerhsaw is tops in four of the five categories. He's also, as you see, yet to log a disaster start this season.
•Things look kind of grim for the volatile Ubaldo Jimenez, as he's lugging around what's easily the highest NQS% of the lot. He's also got the second-lowest AVG<AGS, which means when he's bad, he's generally quite bad. On the other hand, Jimenez boasts a 1.86 ERA in 12 starts since the break.
•Medlen seems your "best" bet for a subpar outing on a given night, as he falls below the average NL game score more than 40 percent of the time.
•Dragging down some of Liriano's numbers is his downright revolting start on Aug. 9 (10 earned in 2 1/3 innings in Coors Field -- good for a game score of minus-8). With that said, that isolated start doesn't explain away that DIS% of 11.5.
•It's hardly shocking that Scherzer and then Wainwright stack up as the "most likely to succeed" non-Kershaw pitchers on the list.
•Up in Boston, Lester's struggled with his consistency this season, but it bears mentioning that he has faced the toughest opposing offenses of any pitcher named above. Specifically, he ranks 150th out of 677 pitchers to appear in the majors this season when it comes to the opposition's average runs scored per game.
Final takeaways? Kershaw and Scherzer are, of course, as close to locks as you'll get, but Liriano's proneness to the disaster start and Medlen's penchant for mediocrity should cause some concern in Pittsburgh and Atlanta, respectively.