How NL postseason rotations should stack up
As we enter the home stretch and head towards October, the National League postseason picture is coming into focus. The Dodgers and the Mets appear headed toward an LDS matchup -- though home-field advantage is still up for grabs -- while the Cardinals, after some shaky play of late, appear poised to host the winner of a Cubs-Pirates Wild Card game.
These five clubs are now turning their attention to their playoff rotations, as they must decide how they want to line up their starters for their respective first rounds, with an eye toward subsequent rounds. There are a lot of tough choices to be made.
Here is how I would line up the rotation for each of the five likely NL postseason teams, listed below in order of record.
Cardinals: They have been the most consistent team all season, both offensively and on the mound, and their entire starting staff has pitched at a high level for most of it. The issue they have is that their two most dominant pitchers, Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez, are in uncharted territory in terms of innings, and the Cards should be looking to save some bullets, so to speak, for a deep playoff run.
Therefore, since the Cardinals will likely have homefield advantage in the NLDS, I'd start John Lackey in Game 1 and Lance Lynn in Game 2. Not only is Lackey battle-tested in the postseason, but he also has a much better ERA at home (2.01) than on the road (3.99). So, if the series goes five games, he'd be available to start at Busch Stadium a second time. Lynn has no such split, but he's extremely reliable in any setting.
Dodgers: The Game 1 starter discussion comes down to the same two this year as it did last year: Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw. Greinke has had a remarkable season, pitching his way to the front of the Cy Young Award discussions thanks to an incredible 1.61 ERA. Amazingly, his ERA has never been higher than 1.97 at any point this season.
However, there is one pitcher in the NL who has outpitched him of late, and that is Kershaw. The southpaw had a relatively slow start to this season, compared to his usual standard, but currently leads the league in innings (208), strikeouts (264) and FIP (2.10). It's always more desirable to have a dominating pitcher start as many games as possible in the postseason, and also be flexible enough to pitch out of the bullpen, if necessary, like Madison Bumgarner did last October for the Giants. Kershaw has pitched eight innings or more in eight of his last 12 outings, while Greinke has done that four times all season.
Add this all up, and I think Kershaw should get the ball in Game 1 for Los Angeles.
Mets: Their Game 1 starter is a little more clear cut, now that Matt Harvey (via agent Scott Boras) made it clear that he's on an innings limit. Jacob deGrom has pitched at a consistently high level and has been nearly unhittable at times (although his ERA has "jumped" to over 3 in the months of August and September). The Mets plan to have him skip a start later this month, so he should catch his second wind in time for a dominating postseason.
As for Game 2, it's dependent on the location. Noah Syndergaard has been much better at home (2.15 ERA at Citi Field vs. 4.47 away), so it seems like the Mets should flip-flop him and Harvey for Games 2 and 3, letting Syndergaard handle the home game.
Pirates: Last season, the Pirates started Gerrit Cole on the last day of the season, in hopes of winning the division, and then used Edinson Volquez in the Wild Card game, a decision that proved costly when they didn't win the division and Bumgarner shut them down in the Wild Card Game. While it's still possible that the Pirates could catch the Cardinals and win the division, the most likely scenario has them hosting the Cubs in the Wild Card.
Cole has been mostly dominant this year, with a mid-2 ERA and an impressive ERA+ of 152. He's also fared well against the Cubs, allowing two earned runs in two starts. Something to watch with Cole in October: His batting average against is .433, with an OPS over 1.100, after he has thrown 100 pitches.
If the Pirates beat the Cubs, they'll then have Francisco Liriano, A.J. Burnett and the red hot J.A. Happ lined up to kick off the NLDS.
Cubs: Joe Maddon has what might be the most difficult decision to make of any manager. Does he throw Jon Lester, who has an incredible postseason track record, or Jake Arrieta, the possible NL Cy Young winner, into the Wild Card Game?
While some might say that Arrieta's recent dominance has all but decided this dilemma, remember that Lester has a 2.57 ERA in 84 postseason innings, which is 84 more than Arrieta. However, Arrieta's second half -- which features a 0.93 ERA -- has been one for the ages, and his dominance against the Bucs -- a 0.86 ERA in three starts -- is the tiebreaker for me.
Those numbers are too compelling for Maddon to overlook, and Arrieta should be their Wild Card pitcher, with Lester lined up to start the LDS, should they advance.