Coming off a Division Series that featured a no-hitter by Roy Halladay, two additional shutouts by Tim Lincecum and Cole Hamels and great work by Matt Cain, Cliff Lee and C.J. Wilson on top of that, the anticipation of a series of taut postseason pitching duels is palpable. The baseball world is holding its breath in anticipation of Saturday's NLCS opener, which will feature the man who won the past two NL Cy Young Awards, Lincecum, against the favorite to end that streak this year, Halladay.
As baseball fans, savoring the moment is fine, but there's always that urge to measure greatness. We know that the four teams that reached the League Championship Series have great starting pitching, but that's not enough. How great are they, relative to the teams that came before? Are we seeing the best collection of final-four pitchers since 1969? Do the Phillies and Giants have claim to the most pitching-heavy NLCS ever?
Support-Neutral Value Over Replacement is a fancy term for how well a starting pitcher kept runs off the board and his team in the game. The stat, part of a whole set of measurements developed by Michael Wolverton in the 1990s and maintained by Baseball Prospectus today, is a simple measurement of seasonal effectiveness. The best pitchers in the league range from seven to 10 wins above replacement, average ones three to four.
To measure the quality of LCS rotations, I calculated the SNLVAR for the first three starters in every LCS dating to 1969. Using the first three gets around the problem of differing rotation sizes, and even with a difficult pennant race or a Division Series ahead of the LCS, most teams can get their best three starters to the mound in the first three games. In best-of-seven LCSs (since 1985), the first three starters are the ones slotted to make multiple starts. With all due respect to likely Game 4 starters such as Tommy Hunter of the Rangers and Madison Bumgarner of the Giants, these are not the pitchers who have fans jazzed about what's to come.
This method was effective for all but a handful of years. The most notable special cases are 1978, when the Yankees' Ron Guidry -- that year's AL Cy Young winner -- didn't start in the ALCS against Kansas City until Game 4 after starting the famous one-game playoff with the Red Sox on two days' rest; and 1975, when Oakland manager Dick Williams used just two starting pitchers in the best-of-five ALCS against Boston, bringing back Game 1 starter Ken Holtzman on two days' rest to try to avert a sweep (which failed). In neither case does adjusting for these factors change any conclusions in this piece.
As much pitching as will be on display over the next two weeks, the collection doesn't rank among the top 20 pools of LCS starters in history. That list:
That 1973 postseason featured three Hall of Fame starters -- Jim Palmer, Tom Seaver and Catfish Hunter -- right in the middle of their peaks, as well as a number of pitchers who helped define the era, such as Vida Blue, Mike Cuellar and Dave McNally. A dozen years later, the postseason rotations included not a single Hall of Famer, but tremendous depth, with just one starter below a SN value of 5.0. Many of the high-peak, short-career superstars from the 1980s, such as Fernando Valenzuela, Dave Stieb, Bret Saberhagen and Orel Hershiser, pitched in the '85 playoffs. A year later, four new teams with a dozen new starters nearly matched the '85 class, this time led by breakthrough seasons from Mike Scott, Mike Witt and a young right-hander for the Red Sox bouncing back from elbow surgery named Roger Clemens.
Of course, while the Rangers-Yankees matchup is interesting, that's not the one with the real studs. It's the Phillies and the Giants who have everyone in a tizzy. How does that series, on its own, compare to all of the LCSs that have been played?
Now we're getting somewhere. The 2010 NLCS looks to be the eighth-best collection of pitching in the 42 seasons of LCS play. The 1973 season shows up again, and you can see the '85 and '86 NLCSs just below the Phillies. The 2005 numbers are bolstered by what may have been the greatest front three in baseball history: Clemens, Andy Pettitte and Roy Oswalt carried an Astros team that was unimpressive outside of its rotation to the World Series, where they lost four one-run games to the White Sox in the most dramatic, entertaining sweep in baseball history.
Sprinkled in there you see four consecutive years for the NL, from 1995-98. Let's see what that's really about:
The '05 Astros had the best LCS rotation ever. The 2010 Phillies crack the top ten. Four of the other eight slots in the top ten are occupied by the Greg Maddux/John Smoltz/Tom Glavine Braves, including 1995, a season that was shortened to 144 games in the aftermath of the players' strike. That run -- with all 12 slots occupied by three pitchers -- is unprecedented in the divisional era.
In looking at these lists, you can understand the excitement. We haven't seen pitching like this in the postseason since 2005, and just once since 2001. After the tremendous stretch by the Braves in the 1990s, dominant postseason rotations have been few and far between. Fans are ready for the Phillies and Giants to show off the kind of pitching that keeps us all on the edge of our seats deep into October.