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A tale of two aces

In 2001, Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling were 1-2 in the majors in ERA finishing w/ a 2.49 and a 2.98 ERA, respectively. Despite the fact that Johnson was quite clearly the best pitcher in the majors in ’01, Schilling started game 1 of the playoffs against the Cards. Schilling defeated Matt Morris 1-0 and again 2-1 in game 5 to win the series. Steve Kline actually got the game 5 loss. Morris pitched 15 innings in the series, had a 1.20 ERA and got a loss and a no decision. (anyone still think wins are the best measure of a pitcher’s success?) Randy Johnson was defeated by Woody Williams in game 2 in the desert on a marvelously pitched game but, as we all know, the D-backs went on to win the series 3-2 (Mike Matthews? Really, Tony?). Johnson and Schilling combined to pitch 26 of the 44.2 innings (58%) for the D-backs, yielding just 4 earned runs in those 26 innings. Clearly the plan for the D-backs was to ride the backs of their 2 aces as far as they could take them. The D-backs had a mediocre pen and a decent, but not dominant, offense but their rotation had 2 aces. Sound at all familiar?

The D-backs went on to take on the Braves in the NLCS. These Braves had Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Burkett in their rotation and John Smoltz in the pen. Though they won just 88 games in the regular season, they seemed potent. Johnson started game 1 for the D-backs but they couldn’t use Schilling until game 3 (or chose not to) after having to use him in game 5 against the Cards. He had 4 days rest, but would’ve had just 2 had he been used in game 2 so the D-backs went w/ Miguel Batista. Johnson and Schilling each pitched complete games, yielding 1 run between them, in pushing the D-backs to a 2-1 advantage. When the D-backs won behind Brian Anderson in game 4 against Maddux going on just 3 days rest, it was just a matter of time before the snakes would be popping the cork. They had 3 games to win 1 and Johnson and Schilling would pitch 2 of the 3 if needed. As it turned out, they needed only 7 innings from Johnson in game 5 to win the series 4-1. In this 5 game series, Johnson started 2 and Schilling 1. Between them, they pitched 25 of the team’s 45 innings (56%) and neither had started on 3 days rest yet. They gave up just 3 ER in those 25 innings, bringing their total for the 2 playoff series to 51 innings and 7 earned runs (1.24 ERA).

The D-backs would face the Yankees, who were gunning for their 4th world title in a row. Fortunately for them, Schilling and Johnson would be lined up to go in games 1 and 2 in the desert. The Yankees’ pitchers were no slouches. Mike Mussina and Andy Pettitte were 2-3 in the majors in FIP (behind Johnson) and Roger Clemens was 9th. Schilling was 6th. Game 1 pitted Schilling against Mussina but the D-backs blew up Mussina in the 4th and then Randy Choate in the 5th and the rout was on. Schilling pitched just 7 innings and the snakes won game 1 9-1. In game 2 it was Johnson against Pettitte and the Big Unit threw a 3-hit shutout to defeat the Yankees 4-0. 16 innings, 1 ER. Up 2 games to 1, Schilling started game 4 on 3 days rest. He had thrown 102 pitches in game 1 so it wasn’t like he got the night off b/c of their offensive explosion. Schilling threw 7 innings (88 pitches) and gave way to Byung-Hyun Kim in the 8th when the D-backs were able to take a 3-1 lead w/ 2 runs in the top half of the inning. On the verge of taking a 3-1 series lead, Kim imploded and the Yankees evened the series behind a 9th inning homer by Tino Martinez and a 10th inning Derek Jeter homer. 23 innings, 2 ER.

In game 5, Bob Brenly turned to Miguel Batista, resisting (for whatever reason) the urge to go w/ Johnson on short rest as well. This set up Johnson on regular rest in game 6 and Schilling on 3 days rest in game 7. Either way, Johnson and Schilling would pitch 2 of the final 3 games so you may as well have 1 of them on regular rest, right? Makes sense. In any case, Batista was terrific in game 5 but Kim blew another 2 run lead and then the Yanks got another run off Albie Lopez in the 12th to take a 3-2 series lead. They couldn’t go back to Phoenix down 3-2 w/ Johnson and Schilling looming. In game 6, the D-backs put Johnson on the hill and brought out the whoopin’ sticks as they hung 15 runs on Pettitte, Jay Witasick, and Choate. Johnson threw 7 innings and 104 pitches, giving up just 2 6th inning runs as they evened the series and set up Schilling on short rest against Clemens in game 7.

Schilling threw 7 innings of shutout ball and had a 1-0 lead entering the 8th. The Yanks, however, hung a 2-spot on Schilling in the top of the 8th and he gave way to Batista for 1 batter, and then Johnson after having thrown 103 pitches. Johnson pitched 1.1 innings as the D-backs rallied for 2 runs in the bottom of the 9th off Mariano Rivera and were the series champs. In the 7 games, Schilling threw 21.1 innings and Johnson threw 17.1 innings. Together, they threw 38.2 of the team’s 65 total innings pitched (59%), yielding just 6 earned runs for an ERA of 1.40. All told, the tandem threw 89.2 of the team’s 154.2 innings in the playoffs (58%).

The question I want to ask then is are Carpenter and Wainwright capable of carrying this team the way Schilling and Johnson did in 2001? My first inclination was to think that Johnson and Schilling in ’01 were much better than Carp and Wainwright this year – that they were clearly the 2 best pitchers in the majors. That wasn’t really true. Johnson was clearly the best but there were others, notably the 3 Yankees and a couple of Braves + a Cardinal (Morris) in the conversation. In ’01, Johnson’s FIP was 2.13 (best in baseball) and Schilling’s was 3.11 (6th). This year, Carp’s is 2.79 (4th) and Wainwright’s is 3.15 (11th). Fangraphs doesn’t record WAR for 2001 but maybe we can use WPA as a fair replacement. Johnson’s was 6.23 and Schilling’s was 5.56 – 1st and 2nd in the majors. Carp’s is 5.64 (2nd) and Wainwright’s is 4.11 (5th).

If you look at the 4 pitchers’ peripheral numbers, you notice that…

Johnson ‘01 13.41 2.56 5.24 0.68 0.63 .205 .274 .309
Schilling ‘01 10.27 1.37 7.51 1.30 0.64 .245 .273 .402
Carp ‘09 6.62 1.77 3.73 0.34 1.93 .224 .272 .312
Wainwright ‘09 8.09 2.54 3.19 0.67 1.71 .248 .297 .350

Schilling and Johnson were absolute freaks in 2001. Wainwright’s and Carpenter’s numbers are terrific this year but they pale in comparison to the D-backs pitchers 8 years ago. Carp and Wainer are much better at getting ground balls than the D-backs duo was and maybe that will help them keep the ball in the ballpark in the postseason, as it has in the regular season. Many of the runs that Johnson and Schilling gave up in the ’01 postseason were via the long ball. Hopefully, Carp and Wainer can make other teams get 3 hits in an inning in order to score. That said, they get a lot of ground balls and ground balls inevitably find holes. They’re just not power strikeout guys the way Johnson and Schilling were in ’01 so I think it’s a bit unreasonable to expect our guys to replicate Johnson’s and Schilling’s success in ’01.

That’s not to say that our aces don’t have the capability of leading the team to the championship. Johnson and Schilling didn’t have Albert Pujols in the middle of their order, after all. I believe our aces do have the capability of throwing 58% of our team’s innings in the postseason and, if they do, we’ll probably be very successful.