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Sizing Up the Competition: Pitching Edition

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Previewing the pitchers who could shape the NL Wild Card race in 2018

Even after a down season, the Mets enter 2018 with multiple frontline starters. Will their pitching be enough to carry them back into the postseason? Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

I arrived at the following conclusion last week when analyzing each NL Wild Card contender’s position player corps:

When comparing the Cardinals to their NL foes, it becomes easier to understand why the projections view them as clear favorites to clinch the first Wild Card. With Ozuna on board, they become the only team in the field of eight that projects to have a capable everyday regular at each position. From top to bottom, the Cardinals extract solid value from every spot in their lineup. After leading MLB in pinch-hitting wRC+ for two consecutive seasons now, St. Louis is also poised to have the strongest bench of the NL’s postseason aspirants.

While you would be hard pressed to find fans who believe the Cardinals’ lineup degraded into a liability over the winter, their pitching staff is another story. Some cite the lack of a proven closer or a starting rotation spotted with question marks as cause for concern, but how do the Cardinals stack up against other playoff hopefuls?

I enlisted the help of FanGraphs’ depth charts as a proxy for projected pitching performance and playing time, separating each club’s top five starters in projected WAR from the rest of the bunch. We’ll begin by taking a look at each team’s projected starting pitcher WAR, prorated to 200 innings.

Projected WAR/200, Starting Rotations

Team Top 5 WAR/200 6+ WAR/200 Difference Overall WAR/200
Team Top 5 WAR/200 6+ WAR/200 Difference Overall WAR/200
STL 3.44 2.87 0.57 3.32
PIT 2.90 2.67 0.23 2.88
NYM 3.90 2.37 1.53 3.64
COL 3.00 2.17 0.83 2.84
MIL 2.62 2.09 0.53 2.48
ARI 3.62 1.26 2.36 3.32
SF 2.71 1.16 1.55 2.52
PHI 3.30 1.05 2.25 2.85
  • Carried by a formidable one-two punch of Noah Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom, the Mets take the pole position in both overall rotation value and value from their top five starters.
  • The Cardinals and Diamondbacks are in a dead heat, each projected to post 15.7 rotation WAR in exactly 946 innings. While Arizona derives more value from 2017 All-Stars Zack Greinke and Robbie Ray, the Cardinals boast the strongest pitching depth of any Wild Card contender. Given the injury-prone nature of pitchers, it’s not an encouraging sign for the Diamondbacks that they have the largest disparity in talent between their top five starters and their contingency options.
  • The Brewers find themselves in a precarious situation rotation-wise. Despite being linked to numerous hurlers this offseason, the only notable starters they added were free agent signees Jhoulys Chacin (projected 4.68 ERA, 4.66 FIP) and Wade Miley (4.66, 4.51). On a rate basis, Jimmy Nelson was one of the best pitchers in all of baseball last season. His FIP- of 69 (now, now, let’s settle down, class) was sixth best among all qualified starters–and two spots higher than Clayton Kershaw. Unfortunately for Milwaukee, however, a shoulder injury prematurely ended his 2017 campaign and he is expected to remain sidelined until at least the second half. Meanwhile, the recently-signed Miley sustained a groin tear this spring and no timetable has been set for a potential return.

Here is a closer inspection at all eight teams’ most valuable starting pitcher according to the projections:

Projected WAR/200, #1 Starters

Team Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 ERA FIP WAR
Team Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 ERA FIP WAR
NYM Noah Syndergaard 181 10.8 2.2 0.8 2.98 2.73 5.8
ARI Zack Greinke 204 8.7 2.2 1.1 3.61 3.61 4.4
PHI Aaron Nola 177 9.3 2.3 1.0 3.58 3.46 4.3
STL Carlos Martinez 204 9.1 3.1 0.9 3.55 3.63 4.2
COL Jon Gray 190 9.3 3.0 1.1 4.11 3.86 4.0
PIT Jameson Taillon 190 8.2 2.5 0.9 3.80 3.62 3.8
SF Jeff Samardzija 205 8.2 1.9 1.1 3.81 3.69 3.6
MIL Zach Davies 170 6.7 2.7 1.2 4.39 4.36 2.4
  • With Nelson out of commission for the foreseeable future, Zach Davies is clearly the weak link among the #1 starters. While his 3.90 ERA in last year’s scoring environment may seem impressive, metrics with more predictive power such as xFIP (4.42) and SIERA (4.72) were less flattered than the surface level numbers. Looking at Davies’ peripherals, his strikeout rate fell 4.6% from 2016 to a career low 15.2% and his walk rate rose by 1.1%.
  • Aaron Nola is coming off back-to-back seasons in which he was worth at least 5.0 WAR/200 innings. If the Phillies want to sneak into the postseason this year, they will realistically need Nola to at least replicate that pace, especially when considering that Philadelphia is projected to have the thinnest rotation depth of the contenders.

Projected WAR/200, #2 Starters

Team Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 ERA FIP WAR
Team Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 ERA FIP WAR
NYM Jacob deGrom 204 9.7 2.4 1.0 3.41 3.34 4.9
ARI Robbie Ray 165 11.6 3.8 1.1 3.58 3.49 3.8
SF Madison Bumgarner 209 8.9 2.0 1.2 3.60 3.74 3.5
PHI Jake Arrieta 179 8.7 3.0 1.1 3.90 4.01 3.2
STL Michael Wacha 165 8.3 3.0 1.1 4.00 3.91 2.8
PIT Joe Musgrove 159 8.0 2.1 1.2 4.06 3.96 2.6
COL Tyler Anderson 141 8.0 3.0 1.3 4.43 4.45 2.1
MIL Chase Anderson 170 8.1 2.9 1.5 4.55 4.59 1.9
  • Aided by a .267 BABIP and an ERA that was 83 points lower than his FIP, Robbie Ray isn’t likely to maintain his 2.89 ERA from 2017. Still, his 32.8% strikeout rate was topped only by Chris Sale, Max Scherzer, and Corey Kluber among all qualified starters last season.
  • Jake Arrieta has been on a downward trajectory ever since his Cy Young winning effort in 2015. He ran low BABIPs and ERAs with the Cubs, but a significant portion of that can be chalked up to Chicago’s elite defense behind Arrieta. While Cubs’ fielders are projected to be 33.9 runs above average in 2018, the Phillies are only projected for 2.5 runs above average.
  • After adjusting for different run environments, Wacha’s FIP- of 85 (15% above average) was the second best mark of his career, behind, of course, his stellar 2013 debut. The injury-prone narrative surrounding Wacha might be overstated, but his struggles the third time through the opposing lineup have been well documented over the years. He has never logged more than 181.1 innings in a season, and durability concerns make it difficult to envision him producing additional value with a 200+ inning season.

Projected WAR/200, #3 Starters

Team Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 ERA FIP WAR
Team Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 ERA FIP WAR
STL Luke Weaver 147 8.6 2.5 1.1 3.79 3.79 2.7
SF Johnny Cueto 180 7.8 2.5 1.1 3.77 3.94 2.6
ARI Zack Godley 141 9.1 3.6 1.0 4.00 3.97 2.5
PIT Ivan Nova 165 6.6 2.0 1.2 4.26 4.17 2.3
COL German Marquez 139 8.0 2.6 1.4 4.55 4.44 2.1
NYM Steven Matz 121 8.2 2.9 1.1 3.93 3.96 2.0
MIL Jimmy Nelson 95 9.0 3.1 1.1 3.98 3.91 1.8
PHI Nick Pivetta 122 9.1 3.4 1.4 4.54 4.45 1.6
  • Even in just 147 frames, Luke Weaver is projected to be the most valuable #3 starter among the teams vying for a Wild Card spot. Had he recorded enough innings to qualify, Weaver’s 68 xFIP- would have ranked fourth in all of baseball behind Kluber, Sale, and Kershaw. Needless to say, the projections are evidently bullish on Weaver after his promising 2017 season. I might venture to say that Weaver has the greatest upside of the #3 starters. (Although one should keep in mind that Johnny Cueto is still just a year removed from posting 5.5 WAR.)
  • No team has a greater drop-off in projected WAR between their #2 and #3 starters than the Mets. It doesn’t seem like long ago that Steven Matz was touted as one of the best pitching prospects in the game, but injuries limited him to 35 starts in the last two years combined. After a subpar 2017 in which he was considerably below average by every stat known to man, the projections are far more cautious with Matz now than they were at this time last year.

Projected WAR/200, #4 Starters

Team Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 ERA FIP WAR
Team Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 ERA FIP WAR
ARI Taijuan Walker 185 8.2 3.1 1.3 4.40 4.43 2.3
STL Adam Wainwright 142 6.8 2.8 1.0 4.27 4.17 2.0
PIT Chad Kuhl 160 7.8 3.4 1.3 4.56 4.51 1.6
NYM Jason Vargas 156 7.4 2.8 1.4 4.54 4.63 1.5
PHI Vince Velasquez 113 9.7 3.4 1.5 4.50 4.41 1.5
COL Chad Bettis 142 6.3 3.1 1.4 5.11 4.84 1.5
MIL Jhoulys Chacin 140 7.6 3.7 1.2 4.68 4.66 1.5
SF Chris Stratton 157 7.1 3.7 1.1 4.52 4.53 1.2
  • From a strict per-inning perspective, Adam Wainwright projects to be the best of the #4 starters. His 5.11 ERA last season is deceptive of his actual performance level in 2017, which the advanced metrics grade out as roughly average.
  • For me personally, hard-throwing righty Vince Velasquez is one of the more intriguing #4 arms. After a solidly above average 2016, his strikeout rate of 27.6% declined to 21.6%. His stock has definitely been trending in the wrong direction, but he has better breakout potential than some of the veteran stopgaps on the list. When looking at the things that need to break the Phillies’ way to compete in 2018, a strong showing from Velasquez would be a good start to shore up the back of their rotation.
  • Don’t let Taijuan Walker’s 3.49 ERA with the Diamondbacks–who call hitter-friendly Chase Field their home–last season trick you. His strikeout rate has remained stagnant at about 21% in each of the past three years, but his walk rate climbed every year in the same timeframe. His 4.34 xFIP and 4.42 SIERA are a big reason why he is projected for a 2018 ERA in the mid-to-low four range.

Projected WAR/200, #5 Starters

Team Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 ERA FIP WAR
Team Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 ERA FIP WAR
ARI Patrick Corbin 140 7.9 3.0 1.2 4.22 4.19 2.1
STL Miles Mikolas 120 8.0 2.5 1.3 4.15 4.16 1.7
NYM Matt Harvey 138 6.9 2.9 1.3 4.70 4.55 1.4
PHI Jerad Eickhoff 137 7.9 2.9 1.6 4.74 4.74 1.4
MIL Wade Miley 113 8.2 3.9 1.2 4.66 4.51 1.4
COL Kyle Freeland 122 6.3 3.4 1.3 4.80 4.83 1.3
PIT Trevor Williams 120 6.7 3.1 1.1 4.59 4.49 1.2
SF Ty Blach 114 4.9 2.6 1.1 4.59 4.61 0.8
  • The one and only Miles Mikolas, alias Lizard King, is projected for the lowest ERA and FIP among each team’s fifth most valuable starter. (Although for the sake of technicalities, Patrick Corbin is projected to be better when accounting for park factors.) After a resurgent three-year stint with the Yomiuri Giants of Nippon Professional Baseball, Mikolas has returned stateside as a “spreadsheet darling”.
  • Speaking of Patrick Corbin, he rounds out an impressive top five for the reigning Wild Card Game victors. His velocity last year was just barely below what is was pre-Tommy John surgery, leading Corbin to what was easily his best full season since being named an All-Star in 2013. Arizona enters 2018 with the same five pitchers that comprised the most valuable rotation in the entire National League last season, but only time will tell whether or not that group can give Torey Lovullo 145 starts again.

Here are the projections for each club’s sixth and seventh starters:

Projected WAR/200, #6 Starters

Team Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 ERA FIP WAR
Team Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 ERA FIP WAR
STL Alex Reyes 94 10.3 4.6 0.9 3.81 3.89 1.6
MIL Brent Suter 119 7.0 2.6 1.4 4.55 4.60 1.3
PIT Tyler Glasnow 75 10.7 4.8 1.0 4.06 3.98 1.2
COL Jeff Hoffman 111 7.7 3.7 1.4 5.02 4.86 1.2
NYM Zack Wheeler 88 8.7 3.7 1.2 4.43 4.37 1.1
ARI Shelby Miller 37 7.8 3.5 1.2 4.50 4.42 0.5
PHI Ben Lively 92 6.8 2.8 1.7 5.15 5.17 0.5
SF Tyler Beede 37 6.5 3.7 1.1 4.51 4.60 0.3

Projected WAR/200, #7 Starters

Team Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 ERA FIP WAR
Team Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 ERA FIP WAR
COL Antonio Senzatela 74 7.0 3.2 1.3 4.71 4.57 1.0
MIL Brandon Woodruff 65 7.9 3.2 1.2 4.44 4.43 0.9
STL Jack Flaherty 46 8.1 3.1 1.2 4.23 4.32 0.6
PIT Steven Brault 47 7.7 3.8 1.1 4.38 4.41 0.5
NYM Robert Gsellman 37 6.4 3.1 1.1 4.52 4.56 0.4
PHI Mark Leiter 46 8.3 3.0 1.6 4.82 4.83 0.4
ARI Braden Shipley 74 6.1 3.5 1.6 5.40 5.39 0.2
SF Derek Holland 56 6.7 3.8 1.3 4.79 4.89 0.2
  • It remains to be seen exactly what Alex Reyes’ role with the 2018 Cardinals will be, but the point stands that St. Louis’ young arms give them pitching depth than can rival anybody in the Wild Card hunt.
  • The Pirates have the smallest projected gap in talent between their top five starters and depth options, in large part because their top five took a big blow when Gerrit Cole was traded to Houston. Tyler Glasnow, however, could increasingly factor into the Pirates’ pitching plans as the year progresses. He has been excellent at Triple-A since 2015, but double-digit walk rates plagued Glasnow to start his big league career. The projections anticipate him posting a K:BB ratio of about 2.2:1 en route to a serviceable 4.06 ERA and 3.98 FIP at the MLB level.
  • The Brewers could be in trouble if Brent Suter and Brandon Woodruff falter in 2018. Despite throwing a fastball in the mid-80s, the former’s 3.42 ERA last year far exceeded expectations. Though like Davies and Chase Anderson, Suter outdid his peripheral metrics at a likely unsustainable clip. Woodruff struggled to miss MLB bats in 2017, but ZiPS evidently sees something in him, pegging the righty for a 4.17 ERA. Steamer, on the other hand, merely expects a 4.73 ERA.

As for each team’s bullpen, I turned to the same process used for the starting rotations. This time, I separated clubs into their top three relievers by projected WAR and their fourth through seventh best arms. I also calculated all eight teams’ total bullpen WAR per 65 innings and what percentage of their projected reliever WAR stems from their top three.

Projected WAR/65, Bullpens

Team Top 3 WAR/65 4-7 WAR/65 Difference Top 3 WAR Share Overall WAR/65
Team Top 3 WAR/65 4-7 WAR/65 Difference Top 3 WAR Share Overall WAR/65
SF 0.81 0.28 0.52 76.7% 0.41
PHI 0.88 0.34 0.53 80.6% 0.39
STL 0.95 0.41 0.54 73.0% 0.47
ARI 0.76 0.17 0.59 83.3% 0.30
COL 1.13 0.33 0.80 77.3% 0.55
MIL 1.23 0.41 0.82 77.8% 0.56
NYM 1.09 0.26 0.83 81.6% 0.49
PIT 1.09 0.19 0.90 88.6% 0.44
  • Given the year-to-year volatility of relief pitchers, I supported the way John Mozeliak and his brass constructed the 2018 bullpen through quantity rather than quality. Their trio of Luke Gregerson, Dominic Leone, and Tyler Lyons is projected to produce just 73% of St. Louis’ bullpen WAR, the lowest of any contender, but this is by design. The Cardinals’ depth-centric bullpen, also consisting of Brett Cecil, Bud Norris, Sam Tuivailala, and Matt Bowman, is tied with the Brewers for the highest WAR/65 innings of any 4-7 group.
  • The distinguishing feature that puts Milwaukee’s reliever pool ahead of St. Louis’ is the presence of Corey Knebel and Jacob Barnes at the back of the Brewers’ bullpen. Knebel rode an utterly absurd 40.8% strikeout rate last season to 2.8 fWAR, a figure that only Kenley Jansen, Craig Kimbrel, and Roberto Osuna topped. Barnes’ 4.00 ERA in 2017 wasn’t sparkling on the surface, but a 26.3% strikeout rate and 53.3% groundball rate resulted in both an xFIP and SIERA of 3.67. Offseason acquisitions Boone Logan (projected 3.64 ERA, 3.74 FIP) and Matt Albers (3.86, 3.97) were also brought into the fold to join incumbents Josh Hader (3.76, 3.96), Jeremy Jeffress (3.88, 4.01), and Oliver Drake (3.94, 3.84) to form what projects to be the most valuable bullpen among Wild Card seekers.
  • Right behind the Brewers in terms of overall WAR/65 are the Rockies, who heavily invested into their bullpen this winter. After spending a combined $106 million to land or retain their top three relievers (Wade Davis, Bryan Shaw, and Jake McGee), it’s clear that Colorado is trying to work their way from the ninth inning backwards, hoping they can “bullpen their way” back into October. The key question for the Rockies could prove to be whether or not the likes of Chris Rusin (3.89, 3.93) and Scott Oberg (4.22, 4.09) will produce enough to adequately supplement their big-money arms.

As of this writing, FanGraphs places the Cardinals’ playoff odds at 18.9% to reclaim the division crown and 50.5% to secure a Wild Card spot, good for a total of 69.3%. Here is a full breakdown of the odds for each NL team:

2018 NL Playoff Odds

Team Division Title Odds Wild Card Odds Playoff Odds
Team Division Title Odds Wild Card Odds Playoff Odds
Cubs 78.5% 17.6% 96.1%
Dodgers 82.5% 10.4% 92.9%
Nationals 78.9% 10.3% 89.1%
Pirates 0.7% 7.3% 8.0%
Phillies 2.5% 5.3% 7.8%
Cardinals 18.9% 50.5% 69.3%
Mets 17.7% 24.7% 42.4%
Giants 8.4% 23.9% 32.3%
Diamondbacks 5.3% 17.2% 22.6%
Braves 0.9% 1.8% 2.8%
Padres 0.4% 1.6% 2.0%
Rockies 3.4% 13.6% 17.1%
Brewers 1.7% 14.1% 15.9%
Reds 0.2% 1.5% 1.6%
Marlins 0.0% 0.1% 0.1%

A very distinct first tier emerges with the three odds-on favorites to repeat as division champions. After that, we find the Cardinals perched alone as the team best equipped to make a run at the first Wild Card. Five other teams have at least a 15% chance of reaching the postseason, but there aren’t other clubs breathing down the Cardinals’ neck in the projected standings. St. Louis’ lack of star power may temper their prospects as a championship contender, but as critical as we at VEB can be at times, let’s give the front office some credit where credit is due. They have once again assembled a ballclub without any major holes. The Cardinals’ depth has them well-prepared for potential injuries–at least compared to their NL peers–as the team projects to receive solid value at every position. The bottom line is that this organization is well-positioned to return to the postseason and end the great Cardinals playoff drought...of 2016-2017.

The Cardinals suit up to play the Mets at 12:10 St. Louis time today.

Unlike this game, however, the rematch six days from now will count just as much as a game in six months.

Six days, everybody. Opening Day is just six days away.