Injuries Are Attempting to Ruin Playoff Rotations

I don’t mean to stress out anybody whose teams are still fighting for a playoff spot, but the postseason is almost here. In less than two weeks fans of either the Mets, Giants, or Cardinals will be crushed as will fans of the majority of the (approximately) 82 teams vying for an American League Wild Card spot. When that time comes, the disappointed will be able to dry their tears while engaging in one of the great annual postseason traditions: overanalysis. For six months, we’ve been watching up to 15 games every night — a pace which lends itself nicely to broad, big-picture analysis more than football-esque gameday breakdowns. In the playoffs, however, that all changes and suddenly every game and series will be diced up and analyzed in every possible way, for better or worse.

One of the biggest ways this overanalysis creeps into our baseball consciousness is through an obsession over starting pitching. If you check a newspaper — I see you and I respect you, old-school newspaper folks — or open a game preview on the MLB.com At Bat app, the first thing you’ll find is that day’s starting-pitcher matchup. Is your team going to win on a given day? Better know who’s toeing the rubber to set your expectations correctly. Intellectually, we know that baseball is too unpredictable and complex to be effectively parsed down to a look at the day’s starters, but that won’t stop us. With that in mind, it’s been a rough stretch for a few playoff-bound teams who figure to see their starting rotations scrutinized under a high-power microscope over the next few weeks. I’m talking, of course, about Cleveland losing Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar to injury, the Mets losing Jacob deGrom, and the Nationals losing Stephen Strasburg.

The good news for each of those teams is that they all have at least one healthy ace-level pitcher remaining, but will that be enough when matching up against other ace-laden playoff rotations? Are any of them particularly well-suited to handle the loss? In preparation for overanalysis season, let’s take stock of what each of these injuries means to these teams and what their October rotations look like as things stand today.

New York Mets

Ideal healthy October rotation (with latest ZiPS ERA projections):

  1. Noah Syndergaard (2.86)
  2. Jacob deGrom (3.09)
  3. Matt Harvey (3.13)
  4. Steven Matz (3.47)

Likely October rotation (w/ ZiPS ERA projections):

  1. Syndergaard (2.86)
  2. Bartolo Colon (4.26)
  3. Matz? (3.47)
  4. Seth Lugo? (4.89)

Let’s start with the Mets, even though they’re the one team mentioned who’s not yet a lock for postseason play. A weekend sweep of the Twins as the Cardinals and Giants beat up on each other does currently have the Mets in first wild-card position with their best playoff odds of their season. However, it was hard to fully enjoy their successful weekend as it also brought the news we’ve long feared: Jacob deGrom is out for the season. Add to that the long-ago loss of Matt Harvey and, suddenly, the Mets’ once formidable rotation looks uncomfortably mortal.

As if that weren’t enough, it’s still unknown if Steven Matz is truly healthy. He’s been sidelined with a shoulder injury for more than a month now. Supposedly he’s set to return to the rotation this weekend, but he remains a scary question mark until he actually proves he’s capable of pitching effectively on a major-league mound once again. With Matz available, the Mets will likely press one of their two rookies — Lugo or Robert Gsellman (4.52 ZiPS ERA) — into postseason service. Without Matz, both rookies may end up joining the postseason rotation. The good news is that Lugo and Gsellman are both having great rookie years; the bad news is that they’ve made 10 major-league starts… combined.

But wait, there’s more. If the Mets win a wild-card position and if they win the wild-card game, their prize is a division series date with the National League’s best offense, the Chicago Cubs. Syndergaard is a frontline pitcher that any postseason team would be happy to have in the rotation against the best team in the league, but the question marks littering the rotation after that give the Mets a steep hill to climb.

Washington Nationals

Ideal October rotation (ZiPS ERA):

  1. Max Scherzer (2.95)
  2. Stephen Strasburg (3.05)
  3. Tanner Roark (3.63)
  4. Gio Gonzalez (3.70)

Likely October rotation (ZiPS ERA):

  1. Scherzer (2.95)
  2. Roark (3.63)
  3. Gonzalez (3.70)
  4. Joe Ross? (3.83)

When healthy, Stephen Strasburg is one of the greatest pitchers in the majors. As such, now that he’s unavailable, there’s simply no replacing that level of talent. Fortunately for the Nationals, they have another ace in Max Scherzer and a surprisingly effective pitcher in Tanner Roark. Sure, there’s been more than a bit of luck in Roark’s 2016 performance — 79.5% LOB%, .277 BABIP — but it’s resulted in a sub-3.00 ERA and a bit of added peace of mind for a Nationals team still trying to win their first playoff series in post-Montreal history.

The rest of the rotation gets a bit dicier. Gonzalez has been a disappointment this season as his velocity and effectiveness have dipped to new lows. Ross just returned to the rotation on Sunday after missing two-and-a-half months with a shoulder injury. If Ross isn’t able to make playoff starts, the Nationals will struggle to find a fourth starter who instills much confidence as the next names on the depth chart are a struggling veteran (Mat Latos) and a rookie (A.J. Cole).

Most teams would struggle to compensate for the loss of a starter like Strasburg, but the Nationals are in a stronger position than most to remain competitive. However, if Roark comes back to earth and Gonzalez’s struggles continue, it could be another frustrating October at the Navy Yard.

Cleveland Indians

Ideal October rotation:

  1. Corey Kluber (3.45)
  2. Carlos Carrasco (3.53)
  3. Danny Salazar (3.70)
  4. Trevor Bauer (4.30)

Likely October rotation:

  1. Kluber (3.45)
  2. Bauer (4.30)
  3. Josh Tomlin (5.09)
  4. Mike Clevinger (5.34)

Ouch. There’s not a lot to say here beyond the obvious. Losing both Carrasco and Salazar is a devastating blow to the rotation and the replacement options are far from ideal. Count me among the many who were looking forward to seeing the Kluber/Carrasco/Salazar trio lead Cleveland to competitive October baseball for the first time in what feels like an eternity. Unfortunately, a comeback line drive knocked Carrasco out for the rest of the season and Salazar is on the shelf with a forearm strain. It’s possible Salazar returns before the end of the season, but it’s hard to envision any scenario in which that return is as a starter who can go six-plus innings.

Of course, there is still hope for Cleveland — real hope, not just the trite “Hey, it’s baseball! Anything can happen!” kind of hope. Namely, they have one hell of a bullpen trio in Cody Allen, Dan Otero, and, of course, Andrew Miller. It might not be 2014-2015 Royals good, but it’s good nonetheless. If the rotation can keep them competitive through five or six innings and the offense plays its part, there’s absolutely still a path to October success for Cleveland. Cling to that while all of the pregame overanalyses look unfavorably upon the majority of Cleveland’s starting-pitcher matchups this October.

Wrap-Up

Alright, so there’s one team I haven’t mentioned and it’s because their situation is unique so as not to be comparable: the Dodgers’ starting pitchers have undergone more injuries than an over-55 softball team, but it also feels at times as though they have more depth than the other 29 teams combined. I looked at their rotation about a month ago and, naturally, we’ll revisit it as their postseason rotation situation gains clarity in the coming weeks.

The Mets, Nationals, and Indians, however, face more straightforward challenges and questions marks that can only be answered by time. All three of these team’s paths to a ring have become more difficult over the past few weeks, but none of them are out of it yet. Baseball is at its best when its best are at it and it flat out stinks that Harvey, Matz, Strasburg, Carrasco, and Salazar are sidelined, but here we are.





Corinne Landrey writes for FanGraphs and MLB.com's Cut4 site. Follow her on Twitter @crashlandrey.

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Max Power
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Max Power

Thoughts on starting Andrew Miller for 3 innings in Games 1, 3, and 5 of the ALDS? Kluber goes Game 1 (post-Miller) and starts Game 4 on short rest though possibly not fully exerted in Game 1. Game 2 (Bauer) would be the only game where there not starting strong. And they’d still have 3 above-average to good relievers on the back-end.

Travis L
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Travis L

Only 4 times this year has Miller even pitched 2 innings. I know it’s easy to think “relievers should just pitch more innings because why can’t they?” but I don’t think you can expect something like this to just work. It’s not moving a SP to the pen for a 3 inning stint once in the playoffs; this is the other way.

I’m not too concerned about the injury risk b/c who can tell what risk factors are for pitchers, but I don’t think he’s going to have the stamina to pitch that much without some preparation.

Max Power
Member
Max Power

Well, they have 2 weeks to build him up without much urgency to win games right now. You’re right that he probably wouldn’t be as good, but a recent study showed that each pitch from Josh Tomlin has -1 pp WPA.