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Top 10 pitchers in the playoffs

10/4/2012

A number of the best starting pitchers in baseball this year, including Cy Young contenders R.A. Dickey, Clayton Kershaw, David Price and Felix Hernandez, won't be pitching in the postseason, but we still have plenty of top arms to watch among the 10 teams who did qualify for the big dance. Here, in reverse order, are the top 10 starting pitchers on postseason rosters, based on how they might perform this month.

10. Madison Bumgarner, LHP, San Francisco Giants

I might have had Bumgarner higher on the list if he weren't showing possible signs of fatigue with a late-season fade this year, a surprising end to a season in which he appeared to be taking another leap forward into possible Cy Young contention. Earlier in the year, his fastball was maybe a mile an hour faster, but it also was coming out of his hand more easily and was harder for hitters to pick up. His slider had a little more tilt and a little more velocity as well.

Over his past seven starts, he has looked tired, losing some velocity and bite on the breaking ball, with results to match (5.89 ERA in that span). But he's also going to get eight days of rest before his first playoff appearance, and because he insists nothing is seriously wrong, that extra rest could be enough to get us a glimpse of the dominant pitcher Bumgarner, helped by that low slot and long arm action, was for the first two-thirds of the season.


9. Johnny Cueto, RHP, Cincinnati Reds

Cueto emerged as the Reds' ace this year, reaching career highs in starts, innings and strikeouts with largely the same repertoire he used in the previous two years. His fastball command was better, as was his overall control, and he's using his cutter slightly more often to keep hitters from sitting on the hard -- but often straight -- fastball. He can be hard for hitters to pick up and the possibility that he'll throw any of four pitches -- excluding the curveball, which he rarely uses -- in any count helps add to the value of the deception in his delivery.


8. Max Scherzer, RHP, Detroit Tigers

Scherzer led the American League in strikeout rate this year by fanning 29.6 percent of batters, and actually struck out a higher percentage of non-pitchers than the major league leader in strikeout rate, Stephen Strasburg. Scherzer has come a long way since he was in the Arizona Diamondbacks' system and looked like he'd end up in the bullpen because his delivery was so violent that he sometimes couldn't see the plate when he released the ball. He's cleaner now, throwing more strikes, setting hitters up with the best velocity he has shown as a starter and finishing them with the slider. Other than his teammate Justin Verlander, he's the most likely pitcher on this list to have a dominant start this month where he punches out a dozen or so batters.


7. Adam Wainwright, RHP, St. Louis Cardinals

I'm still stunned that Wainwright, just a year off Tommy John surgery, threw 198 innings this year at a pretty high level. That's not quite what we're accustomed to from him, but not that far off either, especially if you believe his high BABIP this year was a function of bad luck or lack of defensive support. The best news for the Cardinals, and the reason I've got him stuffed on this list, is that big, beautiful curveball of his, a pitch I worried he might leave on the operating table. It's still his out pitch and it's still among the best in the majors. I wonder if he and teammate Carlos Beltran ever talk about that pitch. Probably not. Might be awkward.


6. Kris Medlen, RHP, Atlanta Braves

I'll admit to punting slightly on Medlen; you could make a strong case I have him too high, or too low, but I don't think you could make a strong case that I should have omitted him. Medlen has been pitching like an ace the past few months thanks to plus command of three pitches, including an out-pitch changeup that FanGraphs' pitch run values rated as the most valuable in the National League this year. Medlen's curveball was sharper this year, with better depth even than it had prior to his Tommy John surgery, and because Atlanta vacillated on his role and kept him in the bullpen early in the year, they have the good fortune to have Medlen fairly fresh heading into October.


5. CC Sabathia, LHP, New York Yankees

Sabathia's season was interrupted by two DL stints, including a minor elbow injury that may explain why his stuff was a little shorter this year. That said, his stuff is still better than most left-handers around the game, but not as hard or dominant as Sabathia's stuff was just a year ago, when he was nearly as good as Cy Young winner Justin Verlander. The slider is filthy, with big tilt and a late downward break that has even right-handed hitters swinging over the top, and the changeup remains extremely effective as hitters don't pick it up. But everything is down a tick this year, which may not matter that much in October but has to concern the Yankees a little bit going forward.


4. Gio Gonzalez, LHP, Washington Nationals

When Gio is around the plate, which has been true more often than not this year, he's incredibly tough to hit, and he has also shown me (and Nats fans) that he's capable of being more aggressive and competitive than he was a few years ago when he first reached the majors. What impressed me most about Gio this season, however, was his ability to get outs with his fastball --- swings and misses, called strikes, and even weaker-than-expected contact.

He has had the sharp curveball for years and an adequate changeup, but the fastball coming in a little harder along with improved location around the zone made him a much better pitcher overall. And if you're wondering where I would have put Strasburg on this list, he would have been No. 2. I'm sure having two of the top four starters among all playoff teams wouldn't help your odds of winning a postseason series at all.


3. Yu Darvish, RHP, Texas Rangers

Darvish has remade himself a little bit as a pitcher over the course of his one full season here in MLB, improving his command and control while shifting his repertoire to feature his cutter more. Since his last high-walk start on Aug. 12, Darvish made seven more starts, never walking more than two batters, punching out 59 in 53 innings with a 2.13 ERA. He can get hitters out with multiple pitches, including a slow curveball he throws for strikes, a fastball up to 96, and a hard true slider that is actually his best swing-and-miss pitch, but if the cutter makes him more able to set everything else up, let's go with it.


2. Matt Cain, RHP, San Francisco Giants

Cain often ends up underrated by advanced metrics that cast a somewhat skeptical eye on his ability to limit hits on balls in play and, in particular, to succeed as a fly ball pitcher who's not homer-prone. He does pitch up in the zone with a fastball that appears to "explode" but never sinks. That's largely an illusion, I'm sure, but one borne out in a way in the resulting statistics: hitters hit the ball in the air, but only rarely square it up well enough to drive it out. Yet traditionalists have similarly underrated Cain because of middling won-lost records or because they lost sight of him behind Tim Lincecum earlier in his career. Cain will work with all four pitches and actually mixed in more off-speed stuff this year, especially his short mid-80s slider, missing more bats than ever even while posting a career-low walk rate.


1. Justin Verlander, RHP, Detroit Tigers

Verlander seems almost inhuman with his ability to hold upper-90s velocity through 120 pitches, touching triple digits late in those outings sometimes, while he can also get hitters out with any of this three off-speed pitches, including a changeup that you think hitters would welcome (just for a respite from the heat) but still seem to flail at when he deigns to throw it.

He has been absurdly durable, his arm works great, he repeats his delivery, he throws strikes and he can beat you pretty much any way he wants to. He was the best pitcher in the American League this year, and he was just as indispensable to the Tigers' division crown as the rather well-publicized Miguel Cabrera. If I could pick any starter in baseball to pitch in a one-game playoff for me today, it would be Verlander.