Remember when the San Diego Padres were winning last season, and Jake Peavy called out his former team’s ownership for firing general manager Kevin Towers, whom Peavy saw as the architect behind the 2010 Padres? Well, Peavy was put in an awkward position this season, as Towers took over an Arizona team that promptly won the National League West, primarily (albeit not completely) due to players Towers did not acquire. Wanting to stay consistent, Peavy pointed out that Towers stumbled into a good situation. Oh, wait, that didn’t happen. I am sure Mr. Peavy will get around to it in the off season.
Whoever is responsible for the Diamondbacks’ rise in 2011, it has been surprising and remarkable, and the performances of a couple of their starting pitchers played a large role. Arizona does not have a dominating “ace” in the mold of Halladay, Sabathia, Verlander, or Greinke, but neither did the 2008 Tampa Bay team that went to the World Series. How does the Arizona playoff rotation match up with the others?
Each pitcher has some of his 2011 stats listed, as well as his Oliver 2011 projected “true talent” ERA (as of the September 26 update) to give us some perspective. Take it all as you will: the stuff is here for ease of access; go to the player pages for more.
Ian Kennedy, 2011: 5.0 WAR, 2.88 ERA, 3.22 FIP, 3.49 xFIP
Oliver projected ERA: 3.28
When the massive three-way trade during the 2009-2010 off season that brought Kennedy to Arizona went down, most observers (myself included) could make sense of the trade from the perspective of the Yankees (who got Curtis Granderson) and the Tigers (who received Max Scherzer, Austin Jackson, and more). Arizona’s end was harder to understand — Edwin Jackson looked like a league average pitcher who was about to get expensive. The Diamondbacks gave up Scherzer, a young starter with electric stuff. They also got Kennedy from the Yankees, who had his moments in the minors, but had an unimpressive repertoire and and fly ball tendencies that seemed like a bad fit for Arizona’s home park. His 2.4 WAR season in 2010 was nice, and many probably thought that Kennedy had reached his upside.
While I do not think that Kennedy is a true talent five win pitcher, he has shown that he is more than just a generic middle-of-the-rotation starter. He probably is not as dominant as his 2011 ERA indicates, but his FIP and xFIP are both very good. While his strikeout rate increased a bit from 2010 to 2011, the real improvement Kennedy made was to lower his walk rate by one every nine innings. Kennedy does not get very many ground balls, which might be a bit scary against power hitters he will face in the playoffs like Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun, but it also helps keep his BABIP down.
Kennedy is not on the same level as the other playoff aces, but he is very good — good enough that the Brewers’ baffling decision to start Yovani Gallardo rather than Zack Greinke in Game One of the Divisonal Series evens the odds — at least for Kennedy. However, it makes work a bit more difficult for…
Daniel Hudson, 2011: 4.8 WAR, 3.49 ERA, 3.28 FIP, 3.78 xFIP
Oliver projected ERA: 3.52
Remember how the Diamondbacks got Edwin Jackson in the Big Trade? They signed him to an extension, then during 2010 traded him to the White Sox for Daniel Hudson. Prior to his arrival in the majors, Some observers had doubts about Hudson’s repertoire being good enough for him to start, but while his 2010 ERA was deceptively impressive relative to his FIP in 2010, even after things swung the other way in 2011 he still had a great deal of success. Hudson’s strikeout rate is about average, but his ability to avoid the free pass has really been the key to his success this season. Hudson had a great season, and even if he pitched over his head, he is a good number two pitcher. His projected match up against Greinke is unfavorable, and he’s no Cliff Lee, but he gives the Diamondbacks a good chance even against those pitchers.
Joe Saunders, 2011: 1.0 WAR, 3.58 ERA, 4.77 FIP, 4.38 xFIP
Oliver projected ERA: 4.63
When I heard that the Diamondbacks were considering skipping their fourth starter in the Divisional Series, I was intrigued. When I read that Saunders “will most assuredly” be in the rotation, I was horrified. I cannot think of any rational reason the Diamondbacks would choose Saunders over Collmenter. Perhaps his playoff experience? Oh, I typed “rational.” Saunders is, well, like Nick Blackburn. Maybe worse. While he has a slightly better-than-average walk rate, he is not exactly 2004 David Wells, and has managed a strikeout rate over five per nine innings only once in the last four seasons. His ground ball rate is unexceptional. I suppose one could point out that his ERA has been considerably lower than his FIP this season, and was similarly lower in 2008. However, a look at the two previous seasons’ numbers does not to indicate that he has much a “skill” in this respect, and Oliver’s ERA projection is not impressed. Saunders would be the worst fourth starter in the National League playoffs, and if the report above is correct, they are going to have him pitch third, despite the fact that they do not have to have him pitch at all during the first series.
Maybe I am being unfair. I guess this is the kind of stuff teams resort to when they do not have a Dan Haren in their rotation. What, too soon?
Josh Collmenter, 2011: 3.38 ERA, 3.80 FIP, 4.17 xFIP
Oliver projected ERA: 3.86
Wade Miley has also been mentioned as a “fourth starter” option, but I think that Josh Collmenter seems like the more rational choice (because rationality is obviously governing the Diamondback’s decision making). While my choice for National League Rookie of the Year would be Brandon Beachy, one could make a strong case for Collmenter. His numbers are a bit skewed by some relief appearances, but they are still impressive. Collmenter’s stuff is hardly overpowering, and at least one person I talked with thinks that the league may eventually catch on to his deception. However, that still does not mean he is worth bumping for Saunders. Collmenter does not strike many out, but he has struck out more than one hitter per nine innings than Saunders has this season. He also walks fewer batters. If Saunders is the Diamondback’s Nick Blackburn, Collmenter is sort of their Carl Pavano. Which would you choose?
Despite my somewhat strident tone in above, the truth is that in individual series and single games, seemingly big differences between players are not as significant as they would be over a full season. The Diamondbacks have at least two talented starters in Kennedy and Hudson and are far from being doomed to be blown away. However, their overall rotation just is not on the same level as the other two divisional winners, so they really should not be handicapping themselves with sub-optimal plans like starting Saunders in Game Three, especially if they are going to skip the fourth starter, anyway. That means that they can ill-afford for either Kennedy or Hudson to have an off night.
Sorry, Brewers fans. Joe Saunders’ inevitable complete-game shutout is my fault.
Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.