Can't Sweep This Lesson Under the Rug
Five days into the postseason and only the Colorado Rockies-Philadelphia Phillies Division Championship Series remains in doubt. The other three series concluded on Saturday and Sunday with the Dodgers, Angels, and Yankees sweeping their opponents.
Major League Baseball and FOX must be thrilled, knowing that three of the four finalists are from the Los Angeles and New York markets. I guess it could be better if the Mets were still playing but this is about as good as it gets otherwise (with apologies to Red Sox and Cubs fans). If the Dodgers win the NLCS, it will mean either the first Freeway Series ever or the 12th World Series matchup between the team formerly from Brooklyn and the New York Yankees. The Bronx Bombers have won eight of the previous 11 World Series clashes between these two titans.
While a Dodgers-Angels World Series may not optimize interest on the east coast, it would likely outdraw the Bay Bridge Series between the San Francisco Giants and Oakland A's in 1989. Twenty years ago, an earthquake before Game 3 caused a ten-day disruption in play. Despite the delay, the World Series ended on October 28 as the A's swept the Giants with San Francisco becoming the first team never to hold a lead at one point during the Series.
If everything goes swimmingly this year, the World Series won't end until November 1, at the earliest. It could last as late as November 5 should the Series go seven games. For weather's sake (and for other reasons), I'm rooting against a Yankees-Rockies duel that won't be decided until after Halloween.
In the meantime, there is at least one lesson to be learned from the Division Championship Series. The teams with the best starting pitchers don't necessarily win these things — even if they sport two Cy Young Award candidates (as St. Louis did with Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright) or two No. 1s (like Boston's Jon Lester and Josh Beckett). Not only did the Cardinals and Red Sox lose their respective series, they didn't win a single game. Zero. Zilch. Nada. None. Instead, it was three and done for both of these clubs.
Look, I'm as guilty as the next guy in perhaps paying more attention to the top two starters than other factors, including home field advantage. I mean, I picked the Redbirds and Sox to beat the Dodgers and Angels, respectively, in five games. In our NLDS roundtable, I wrote, "My heart and even my mind says Dodgers, but I'm a sucker for the top-heavy Pujols/Holliday/Carpenter/Wainwright fearsome foursome." You might say I was overly enamored with the big names here. Shame on me.
I'll also plead guilty to choosing St. Louis and Boston partly as a hedge against my hometown teams losing. While I'm usually not the type to worry about sticking my neck out, I figured that I would be happier about the Dodgers and Angels winning than losing my predictions. That said, I still feel as if there is an important takeaway from these series. Do not overestimate (or underestimate) the strength of the starting pitchers in a Division or League Championship Series or, for that matter, a World Series. Especially based on names or reputations.
While Carpenter and Wainwright ranked third and sixth in the NL in Fielding Independent Pitching ERA (commonly referred to as FIP), Clayton Kershaw was FIFTH.
Over in the AL, Lester and Beckett finished with the fifth- and seventh-best FIPs but John Lackey and Jered Weaver placed ninth and 13th among the 30 qualified pitchers. The differences just weren't all that great. Lester's FIP for 2009 (3.15) was just over a half run better than Lackey's (3.73) while Beckett's (3.63) was slightly less than a half run lower than Weaver's (4.04).
Although beneficial, a half run per nine innings isn't insurmountable. Remember, FIP doesn't account for team defense, much less hitting and running the bases. If run prevention is 50% of the equation, pitching might be approximately 33% of the overall total. Put another way, a team can overcome a half run from pitching inferiority via hitting, baserunning, and team defense, not to mention the home field advantage that the Dodgers and Angels both held in the Division Championship Series.
I love pitching prowess. However, we shouldn't lose perspective on how tight the disparities may be as well as the other factors that impact run prevention and creation. Lastly, we should also be aware that a certain level of randomness always plays a part in such a short series.