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Every professional sports league has its unique rhythm. They entail rotating schedules constructed around healing bodies, traveling from point A to B, honing strategies and skills during practice, and optimal performance on game day. The NBA skips through the week with teams playing every three or four days over the span of seven regular season months. The NFL still plays according to a weekly schedule with a smattering of single games during the week, Monday Night Football being the most famous. Major League Baseball is the only sport where teams are expected to play nearly every day of the week over the span of six regular season months. To some degree, teams are constructed around their schedules. Resilience matters. A lot of good Giancarlo Stanton has done the Yankees cheering from the bench, though Masahiro Tanaka may feel differently.
So what happens to baseball teams when the slow and steady grind of a 162-game season is whittled down to a 60-game sprint?
Historically slow starting teams like the World Series Champion Washington Nationals could kiss their rings goodbye. Cody Bellinger could go on an early season tear like he did in 2019 and end up hitting over .400. Justin Verlander could finish the season without a loss (historically possible but unlikely this season due to off-season surgery). Hell, Gary Sanchez can even shock the world and go into the post-season with a .250 BA. (ESPN.com did a nice breakdown of 60-game MVPs for the past few seasons. Worth checking out for some perspective.)
In our eyes, the single biggest kiss of death during the 2020 MLB sprint to the post-season is the losing streak. Just about every team goes through a rough patch during the dog-days of summer. Normally, teams just work through it and hope they haven’t lost too much ground. Decent teams normally stay within range of each other. Bad teams just suck and nothing can fix that. Needless to say, in a shortened season, a 2-8 stretch (or worse still 0-10) can make the difference between a playoff run or a bus back home. (NOTE: How adoption of a six-man rotation changes things is up in the air. Fresher arms is a plus. Longer timeframe back to your ace is a negative.)
In the current scenario, hitting is great and all that, but our working theory is that pitching will be the decider. More specifically, the combination of two bonafide aces, a solid set-up man, and a steady closer (not necessarily spectacular though because, well, see the Mets’ Edwin Diaz) is the winning formula. Everything is focused around stopping the bleeding when that rough stretch inevitably comes so a single ace is the bare-minimum for starting pitching. The adage that a team is only as good as its next day’s pitcher holds truer than every.
We’ve picked eight teams with the best combinations of two starters, one reliever, and one closer. Let’s look at the numbers. (NOTE: For simplicity’s sake, we’ve broken it down to Earned Run Average (ERA), Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), and Wins Above Replacement (WAR). Each stat will be broken into Career/2019. Closers will also have Saves/Holds/Blown Saves included.
On a much more granular level, getting off to a good start can’t be stressed enough. Opening Day can very well set the tone for teams moving ahead. The Washington Nationals will be the slight underdogs in their opening game of the season against the New York Yankees, as can be seen in the image above. In the second match-up of the day, The Los Angeles Dodgers are highly favored against the San Francisco Giants.
(NOTE: The following statistics are presented in the following fashion Career/2019 season. For example, Max Scherzer’s ERA is 3.20 Career/2.92 2019.)
- 1st Starter: Max Scherzer 3.20 ERA/2.92 ERA; 3.13 FIP/2.45 FIP; 58.8 WAR/6.5 WAR
- 2nd Starter: Stephen Strasburg 3.17 ERA/3.32 ERA; 2.96 FIP/3.25 FIP; 36.7 WAR/5.7 WAR
- Relief: Will Harris 2.84 ERA/1.50 ERA; 3.03 FIP/3.15 FIP; 6.2 WAR/1.1 WAR
- Closer: Sean Doolittle 3.03 ERA/4.05 ERA; 2.69 FIP/4.25 FIP; 11.1 WAR/0.8 WAR; 29 SV/2 HLD/6 BS
- Cumulative Average: 3.40 ERA/ 2.24 FIP/ 15.86 WAR
LOS ANGELES DODGERS
- 1st Starter: Walker Bueler 3.12 ERA/3.26 ERA; 3.1 FIP/3.01 FIP; 7.9 WAR/5.0 WAR
- 2nd Starter: Clayton Kershaw 2.44 ERA/3.03 ERA; 2.74 FIP/3.86 FIP; 64.5 WAR/3.4 WAR
- Relief: Blake Treinen 2.97 ERA/4.95 ERA; 3.36 FIP/5.14 FIP; 6.2 WAR/-0.3 WAR
- Closer: Kenley Jansen (DD) 2.35 ERA/3.72 ERA; 2.26 FIP/3.48 FIP; 18.8 WAR/1.2 WAR; 33 SV/0 HLD/8 BS
- Cumulative Average: 3.23 ERA/3.36 FIP/12.7 WAR
NEW YORK METS
- 1st Starter: Jacob deGrom 2.62 ERA/2.43 ERA; 2.78 FIP/2.67 FIP; 31.5 WAR/7.0 WAR
- 2nd Starter: Noah Syndergaard 3.31 ERA/4.28 ERA; 2.92 FIP/3.6 FIP; 18.8 WAR/4.4 WAR
- Relief: Seth Lugo 3.27 ERA/2.7 ERA; 3.5 FIP/2.7 FIP; 5.7 WAR/2.3 WAR
- Closer: 3.33 ERA/5.59 ERA; 3.01 FIP/4.55 FIP; 6.4 WAR/0.0 WAR; 26 SV/1 HLD/7 BS
- Cumulative Average: 3.44 ERA; 3.21 FIP; 9.51 WAR
TAMPA BAY RAYS
- 1st Starter: Charlie Morton 4.07 ERA/3.05 ERA; 3.79 FIP/2.81 FIP; 19.9 WAR/6.1 WAR
- 2nd Starter: Blake Snell 3.24 ERA/4.29 ERA; 3.42 FIP/3.32 FIP; 11.0 WAR/2.7 WAR
- Relief: Chaz Roe 3.86 ERA/4.06 ERA; 3.69 FIP/3.31 FIP; 1.8 WAR/0.9 WAR
- Closer: Nick Anderson 3.32 ERA/3.32 ERA; 2.35 FIP/2.35 FIP; 2.1 WAR/2.1 WAR; 1 SV/16 HLD/4 BS
- Cumulative Average: 3.65 ERA; 3.13 FIP; 5.825 WAR
- 1st Starter: Sonny Gray 3.53 ERA/2.87 ERA; 3.69 FIP/3.42 FIP; 18.4 WAR/4.4 WAR
- 2nd Starter: Luis Castillo 3.68 ERA/3.4 ERA; 3.94 FIP/3.7 FIP; 8.0 WAR/4.1 WAR
- Relief: Michael Lorenzen 3.94 ERA/2.92 ERA; 4.31 FIP/3.61 FIP; 2.4 WAR/1.2 WAR
- Closer: Raisel Iglesias 3.17 ERA/4.16 ERA; 3.54 FIP/3.92 FIP; 6.5 WAR/1.1 WAR; 34 SV/3 HLD/6 BS
- Cumulative Average: 3.45 ERA; 3.76 FIP; 5.7 WAR
- 1st Starter: Mike Clevinger 3.2 ERA/2.71 ERA; 3.48 FIP/2.49 FIP; 11.0 WAR/4.5 WAR
- 2nd Starter: Shane Bieber 3.72 ERA/3.28 ERA; 3.29 FIP/3.32 FIP; 8.3 WAR/5.6 WAR
- Relief: James Karinchak 1.69 ERA/1.69 ERA; 0.78 FIP/0.78 FIP; 0.1 WAR/0.1 WAR
- Closer: Brad Hand 3.71 ERA/3.3 ERA; 3.78 FIP/2.8 FIP; 6.3 WAR/1.6 WAR; 34 SV/0 HLD/5 BS
- Cumulative Average: 2.91 ERA; 2.59 FIP; 4.69 WAR
- 1st Starter: Justin Verlander 3.33 ERA/2.58 ERA; 3.41 FIP/3.27 FIP; 72 WAR/6.4 WAR
- 2nd Starter: Zack Greinke 3.35 ERA/2.93 ERA; 3.38 FIP/3.22 FIP; 60.5 WAR/5.4 WAR
- Relief: Ryan Pressly 3.38 ERA/2.32 ERA; 3.44 FIP/2.66 FIP; 5.2 WAR/1.5 WAR
- Closer: Roberto Osuna 2.75 ERA/2.63 ERA; 2.77 FIP/3.21 FIP; 8.7 WAR/1.6 WAR; 38 SV/0 HLD/6 BS
- Cumulative Average: 2.90 ERA; 3.17 FIP; 20.16 WAR
NEW YORK YANKEES
- 1st Starter: Gerrit Cole 3.22 ERA/2.50 ERA; 3.06 FIP/2.64 FIP; 28.8 WAR/7.4 WAR
- 2nd Starter: James Paxton 3.5 ERA/3.82 ERA; 3.06 FIP/2.64 FIP; 17.1 WAR/3.5 WAR
- Relief: Adam Ottavino 3.44 ERA/1.90 ERA; 3.55 FIP/3.44 FIP; 6.7 WAR/1.3 WAR
- Closer: 2.23 ERA/2.21 ERA; 2.01 FIP/2.28 FIP; 19.5 WAR/2.1 WAR; 37 SV/0 HLD/5 BS
- Cumulative Average: 2.85 ERA; 2.84 FIP; 10.8 WAR
On the basis of our admittedly crude methodology, the top four teams may be the Washington Nationals, Houston Astros, Los Angeles Dodgers, and the New York Yankees (in no particular order). The New York Mets run a close 5th though this depends on Syndergaard returning from the injured list in good shape and form.
A couple of things to take into account is the closer situation Dodgers and Yankees. As of this writing, LA’s previous season closers have not reported to training due to undisclosed injuries. So Blake Treinen is the Dodgers’ closer for the time being. Meanwhile, New York’s closer, Aroldis Chapman, has tested positive for COVID-19, is showing symptoms, and is out for the foreseeable future. That’s a considerable blow to their chances.
IMAGE SOURCE: Creative Commons
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