10 Degrees: Healthy starting pitchers = playoff formula will get stiff challenge

MLB columnist
Yahoo Sports

The equation isn't always true. It isn't all that mathematically sound, either. And yet it is an aphorism throughout baseball that gets repeated every year because it stands up anecdotally in all the right places.

Healthy starting pitching = playoffs

Makes enough sense. A team should start its season with its five best pitchers. The teams that lose those pitchers must troll Triple-A for replacements – usually inferior pitchers. Thus, the team that keeps its best pitchers healthy gives itself a reasonable shot at winning while injuries winnow away others' opportunities.

The correlation between the percentage of starts made by a team's opening day rotation and the team's winning percentage is fairly strong this season, according to an analysis by Yahoo Sports. Not quite as high as starters' ERA or team ERA to winning percentage, though it does beat both in one important area.

Of the top 10 in each category, opening-day-rotation starts have more playoff teams than starters' ERA or team ERA. Seven of the teams with most starts from opening day rotations would make the playoffs if the season ended today, whereas only six of the top 10 in starters' ERA and team ERA would get to the postseason. And the three non-playoff teams on the healthy list include Detroit (one game back of the second AL wild card), Atlanta (one game behind for the second NL wild card) and Cincinnati (every theory needs an outlier).

Again: This is not science. It's one team. It's not significantly different. But it is telling that since 2010's so-called Year of the Pitcher, arms have gotten increasingly good, to the point they so dominate modern baseball the pitching = playoffs chestnut seems obvious. The next five weeks should give it a good test, with a bevy of injuries and ineffectiveness causing late-season shakeups to rotations. One team certain not to make the top 10 is the …

1. Oakland A's thanks to their midseason maneuvering that imported 60 percent of a new rotation. Gone are Jesse Chavez, Dan Straily and Tommy Milone, to the bullpen, Cubs and Twins, respectively, and replaced by Jon Lester, Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. The trades were supposed to fortify the A's for the postseason, and they may still.

Here is a sobering truth, one that Sunday night's 9-4 shellacking by the Los Angeles Angels reinforced: In 34 games since the All-Star break, A's starters have a 4.60 ERA, fifth worst in baseball. Since the back-to-back injuries of Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin during spring training, they have stayed healthy, with Sonny Gray and Scott Kazmir making their full complement of starts.

Even with the miserable month-plus of starting pitching, they've managed to go 17-17 and keep themselves in a better position than the …

2. Los Angeles Angels despite the Halos holding a one-game lead in the AL West following a series victory over the weekend. While the Angels' 114 games started by their opening day rotation ranks second in the AL, it's bound to dip with 40 percent of their rotation gone for the season.

The Garrett Richards injury especially hurts. Richards is one of the few young, hard-throwing starters whose elbow hasn't given out over the last two years, so to see him go down with a freak injury like a torn patellar tendon devastated an Angels team that already lost Tyler Skaggs to Tommy John surgery.

Left are Jered Weaver and his magical 86-mph fastball, C.J. Wilson and his ballooning ERA, Matt Shoemaker and his wonderful 102-to-19 strikeout-to-walk ratio, Hector Santiago and his not-so-nice peripherals and perhaps whatever slips through the waiver wire. (Bartolo Colon?)

It's no fun losing two pitchers and trying to figure out the rest of the season, a feeling the …

Matt Cain (AP)
Matt Cain (AP)

3. San Francisco Giants share after Matt Cain's year-ending arm injury and the ineffectiveness of Tim Lincecum that may prompt his removal from the rotation for Yusmeiro Petit.

The Giants have cobbled together enough starts from the remainder of their opening day rotation that they actually sit atop the leaderboard: 118 of 130 games, the same number as the Milwaukee Brewers, who, actually, are similarly missing a pair of starters from their group, too. Matt Garza is on the DL and Marco Estrada in the bullpen, replaced by rookie Jimmy Nelson and the inexplicable Mike Fiers, who's cooking lately with 89-mph gas.

Both are fighting to hold their leads, Milwaukee's in the NL Central and San Francisco the wild card, grinding along while the …

4. Baltimore Orioles get swept over the weekend – by the Chicago Cubs no less – and still come away with a six-game advantage in the AL East. The Orioles, of course, have some rotation issues themselves, because this is baseball in 2014, and everyone has rotation issues.

Baltimore, actually, is the only team in baseball to have all five of its starters from opening day make at least 20 starts. Over the weekend, it replaced one (Ubaldo Jimenez, who is owed $38.75 million over the next three years, by the way) with another (Miguel Gonzalez, who had been dropped to Triple-A with Kevin Gausman's emergence).

The Orioles' excellence remains something of a mystery. Their rotation's ERA is 18th in baseball. Their offense is on pace to score 689 runs – 56 fewer than last season and 23 fewer than when they made the postseason two years ago. Baltimore's bullpen is really good – especially the wildly underrated Darren O'Day (0.95 ERA) and closer Zach Britton (an inconceivable 77.4 percent groundball rate) – and its gloves strong, though losing Manny Machado and Matt Wieters, two of the best at their position, hurts the cause.

The prospect of a Beltway World Series nevertheless exists, more because the …

5. Washington Nationals are playing like the best team in the game, the sort that at very least can help one person get half of his World Series prediction right.

Stephen Strasburg is dealing filthy stuff this season for the Nats. (AP)
Stephen Strasburg is dealing filthy stuff this season for the Nats. (AP)

And what do you know: Their opening day rotation ranks near the top with 105 starts, and if you replace Taylor Jordan with Doug Fister – whom Jordan spelled when Fister started the season on the DL – then it's actually 119 of 129 games. The Nationals have a wonderful problem: All five of their starters deserve to start in the postseason.

Who do they sit? Stephen Strasburg, with his NL-leading 202 strikeouts? Nope. Jordan Zimmerman, the ostensible ace and heart of the rotation? Not a chance. Fister and his 2.38 ERA? Unlikely. Tanner Roark, who has put up only a 2.80 ERA this season and 2.48 over 214 1/3 innings the last two seasons? It's either him or Gio Gonzalez, whom the Nationals have under contract for three more years and whose left-handed stuff provides a nice complement to a rotation full of righties.

Such issues work themselves out, much like the …

6. Kansas City Royals' problem of having too much starting pitching to begin the season did the same. Both rookie Yordano Ventura and hard-throwing left-hander Danny Duffy pitched well during spring training. The first four spots in the team's rotation were given to veterans under contract: James Shields, Jason Vargas, Jeremy Guthrie and Bruce Chen. The kids dueled. Ventura won.

It didn't take long for Chen to end up on the disabled list and Duffy to take his spot. Adding Duffy in with the rest of the Royals' opening day rotation equals 121 of 129 games started, which would be the most in baseball. For the second consecutive year, Kansas City's starting pitching has stayed remarkably healthy, and the lack of reliance on Triple-A replacements is exactly why the Royals sit atop the AL Central.

Their bullpen is mesmerizing. Their defense is the game's finest. The reliability of their starters, though, equals that of the …

7. Detroit Tigers on whom they hold a two-game lead. Whereas the Duffy scenario gives the Royals the most starts, the Tigers lay the actual claim to that, with 115 from its rotation of Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez, Rick Porcello and Drew Smyly.

Right now, Verlander is not Verlander, Scherzer is Scherzer, Sanchez is on the disabled list, Porcello is having the best year of his career and Smyly is a Ray, replaced by David Price, who has dealt in his four starts with the Tigers.

Ultimately, Detroit's chances of catching Kansas City come down to pitcher health. A rotation headed by a healthy Scherzer, Price, Sanchez and Porcello or Verlander is every bit as good as the Nationals' and the A's and whatever else playoff teams want to throw out there. They need Sanchez, and they need Joakim Soria to fortify their Nitroglycerin Bullpen, and they need the …

8. New York Yankees to stop acting like a playoff team even though they're breaking the healthy-starter model. Only the Texas Rangers have fewer starts from their opening day rotation than the Yankees' 62. They're the only two teams with three starters who didn't even make it to double digits.

CC Sabathia? Eight starts and done for the year. Michael Pineda? At six and trying to make it to the end of the year. Ivan Nova? Four and off to Tommy John. Add in Masahiro Tanaka, who's still on the DL with 18 starts thanks to a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament, and all that's left is 39-year-old Hiroki Kuroda, who's having the worst season of his major league career.

Somehow the Yankees are 67-61 with less than half their games coming from starters in their rotation April 1. They've cobbled together 128 starts from 12 pitchers, and to great effect of late. Since the All-Star break, their ERA is 3.35, among baseball's top 10. It's not quite that of the …

Perhaps Alex Cobb will help ease Tampa's sting of losing David Price. (AP)
Perhaps Alex Cobb will help ease Tampa's sting of losing David Price. (AP)

9. Tampa Bay Rays or Seattle Mariners, the two finest rotations over the last month and change. Even after losing Matt Moore to Tommy John in April and trading Price, the Rays remain loaded with starting pitching, from Alex Cobb (his 1.16 ERA since the break ranks second to Corey Kluber's 1.15) to Chris Archer (no sophomore slump here) to Drew Smyly (whom the Rays control for four more full seasons) to Jake Odorizzi (153 strikeouts in 136 1/3 innings as a rookie).

Like the Mariners, the Rays could use some more offense, though that can wait for Tampa, with their season done. Seattle, on the other hand, isn't the punchless wonder of seasons past but won't conjure visions of the '27 Yankees anytime soon. Their bread, butter, main course, dessert and aperitif is their pitching staff, with their 413 runs allowed 34 fewer than the next-best team (Washington) and a team ERA of 2.95 that could be the lowest since the '89 Dodgers' posted a 2.95 and somehow finished below .500 and in fourth place.

These Mariners are too good for that, their bullpen too strong and deep, and considering how the …

10. Oakland A's are playing, the half-dozen games which they sit behind the A's at the moment don't seem nearly as daunting as they did. Though it's probably advisable for neither Seattle nor Los Angeles nor anyone, frankly, to look at these A's through the lens of the past month.

Because they've still got Lester pitching his very finest, and Gray with front-of-the-rotation stuff – not to mention the second-most quality starts in the league, tied with Lester, behind only Cy Young favorite Felix Hernandez – and they'll get enough out of Samardzija or Kazmir or Hammel or Chavez to fill in the gaps thereafter.

Every team goes through a hiccup, and this is Oakland's. It's not time to panic. It's not time to jump off the bandwagon. It's time to recognize this for what it is: a blip. Because once the A's start playing like the A's of the first 100 or so games, they'll reassert themselves as the team to beat in the AL, which they've been all year and will continue to be.

They may not have the same rotation they did opening day, but their pitching is healthy. And these days, that's practically the whole battle.

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