I have no idea who's going to win the World Series. To end the year dancing on the field, all a team has to do is win 11 of 19 games, and no team in baseball is so bad that it can't do that. The Kansas City Royals, a miserable club, won 12 of 19 earlier this month during a run that included two series with the Detroit Tigers and one each with the Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Angels, playoff teams all. Enter the Royals in the postseason tournament and their chances of walking off with gaudy jewelry wouldn't be all that worse than those of the mighty Yankees.
The reasons why playoff results are seemingly random are well-known. The role of chance is magnified because so few games are played, no one gets to beat up on lousy teams, the way teams happen to match up can give a seemingly weaker team an advantage over a purportedly stronger one, off-days allow teams to avoid using inferior players, and so on. Most important, the teams that you see in October just aren't the same as the ones you saw from April through September.
This makes a project like rating the pitching staffs of the playoff teams tricky. Boston, for example, ranks sixth in the American League in ERA, but right now has the reliable third starter and setup man that it lacked for much of the year, and thus boasts arguably the strongest staff of any playoff team. The Dodgers rank first in the National League in ERA, but enter the playoffs a mess due to injuries and burnout.
To account for this, I've ranked the eight playoff staffs here by how well their best pitchers have done against strong offenses down the stretch. Specifically, I looked at how each team's top three starters and top two relievers have pitched since Aug. 16 against offenses that rank in the top five in their league in runs per game. These criteria are debatable to be sure, but they at least shed some light on how the pitchers who will actually be throwing important innings have performed lately against playoff-caliber offenses. This won't necessarily predict who succeeds -- nothing really does that -- but you can take it as something of a cheater's guide to who's pitching well under pressure and who hasn't faced any pressure at all.
STARTERS: Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright, Joel PinieroRELIEVERS: Kyle McClellan, Ryan FranklinSINCE AUG. 16: 2.42 ERA, 81.2 IP, 58/20 K/BB
As much hype as the Cardinals are getting for their pair of aces, they may deserve more. Since Aug. 16, Carpenter and Wainwright have pitched nine games against the Dodgers, Brewers, Marlins and Rockies in which their combined ERA is 1.37. Only the Dodgers' top pitchers have run up a better ERA against top offenses lately, and the Cardinals men have pitched four times as many innings. As I say, I have no idea who's going to win the World Series. But the Redbirds don't have the worst shot.
STARTERS: Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, Clay BuchholzRELIEVERS: Jonathan Papelbon, Billy Wagner SINCE AUG. 16: 3.86, 67.2 IP, 72/18 K/BB
STARTERS: CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Andy PettitteRELIEVERS: Mariano Rivera, Phil Hughes SINCE AUG. 16: 3.62 ERA, 69.2 IP, 78/28 K/BB
You pick between them. Playing each other, the Angels and Rays, the top arms for the Red Sox and Yankees have put up essentially identical pitching lines over the last six weeks. Boston's starters are probably a bit more reliable, while the Rivera-Hughes tandem is probably slightly more untouchable than the Papelbon-Wagner duo. Whichever you prefer, if these two teams have their first playoff meeting in (unbelievably) five years, it should be a classic. Perhaps the freakiest number I found: In four starts against the Yankees, Rays and Angels since Aug. 16, Beckett has a 25/1 K/BB ratio.
STARTERS: Justin Verlander, Edwin Jackson, Rick PorcelloRELIEVERS: Fernando Rodney, Brandon LyonSINCE AUG. 16: 4.11 ERA, 83.1 IP, 60/27 K/BB
Give the Tigers credit: As much as it seemed for a while like they were trying to kick the division away, that has to be attributed in some part to nasty competition. Verlander, for instance, had two starts apiece against the Rays and Twins, and another against the Angels, down the stretch. Like his teammates he didn't pitch brilliantly in those games, posting a 4.14 ERA, but he came through when Detroit absolutely had to beat the Twins on Tuesday, and by himself he has pitched more innings against top offenses than the frontline pitchers for the Angels, Rockies, Dodgers or Phillies have.
STARTERS: Ubaldo Jimenez, Jorge De La Rosa, Jason MarquisRELIEVERS: Huston Street, Franklin Morales SINCE AUG. 16: 3.73 ERA, 24.1 IP, 23/13 K/BB
If you'd like, you can swap Aaron Cook in for Marquis here, as it doesn't make much difference; Marquis and Jimenez have had, between them, one start against a top offense since Aug. 16. That isn't to say that this isn't a strong staff, because it is, but Colorado hasn't faced the toughest schedule in baseball of late.
STARTERS: John Lackey, Jered Weaver, Scott KazmirRELIEVERS: Brian Fuentes, Darren Oliver SINCE AUG. 16: 4.11 ERA, 26.1 IP, 17/14 K/BB
The Angels might do better if we went four deep, but there's no reason to do so heading into the Division Series -- in the last five years just two of the 20 series have gone to a fifth game, making the fourth starter a bit of a dead letter. The Angels have pitched perfectly credibly against Boston and New York, but the odds seem to favor the Red Sox bouncing them from the tournament yet again. Among other things, Fuentes and Oliver do not present the most imposing end game in baseball.
STARTERS: Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, Joe BlantonRELIEVERS: Ryan Madson, Chad DurbinSINCE AUG. 16: 4.78 ERA, 32 IP, 29/10 K/BB
STARTERS: Randy Wolf, Clayton Kershaw, Van Lingle MungoRELIEVERS: Jonathan Broxton, George Sherrill SINCE AUG. 16: 1.59 ERA, 17.2 IP, 15/3 K/BB
I'm not sure which of these teams is worse. The Dodgers' main problem, of course, is their mystery rotation -- if you think you can start a playoff game, you may want to get in touch with Joe Torre -- but it's also worth noting that other than a set with the Rockies a month ago, L.A. hasn't faced any really strong lineups in some time. (And for the purposes of this exercise it doesn't matter who you put in as the No. 3 starter: Chad Billingsley, Hiroki Kuroda and Jon Garland haven't between them faced a single top offense in the last seven weeks.)
The Phillies have the opposite problem, as their rotation is basically fine, but one can imagine Tug McGraw being called out of retirement for late-inning duty. (The numbers here don't reflect Brad Lidge's appalling ninth-inning work, because it's hard to believe that Philly will turn to him with the season on the line, but swap him in for Durbin and the Phils' pitching would easily rate last.) Assuming Lidge isn't used in key situations, though, neither team has problems anywhere near bad enough to wreck its October. If the Royals could win it all -- and they could! -- either of these two could as well. And given the way the playoffs work, one of them probably will.