With the regular season officially coming to a conclusion today, the seeding and teams included in the American League playoff picture have yet to be finalized. In the National League, the playoff picture has been known for some time, with the only changes possible coming out of the NL Central, and more specifically as to where the Reds and Pirates will play the one-game NL Wild Card match up. With the Pirates Saturday win in Cincinnati, the Buccos locked up the team's first home playoff game since 1992, to the delight of the steal city.
When considering the specific match ups for the game, Dave Cameron of Fangraphs has already elaborated on his choice for the starting pitcher for the Pirates.
"Francisco Liriano is almost assuredly going to start the game, and even if he hadn't been the team's best pitcher this year, he would make the most sense given the Reds reliance on left-handed hitters at the top of their batting order. With Shin-Soo Choo, Joey Votto, and Jay Bruce as the primary offensive forces for the Reds, tough left-handers are going to be extremely valuable for Pittsburgh, and there is no left-hander that was more of a problem for opposing lefties than Liriano this year."
Cameron goes on to describe, using a number of splits, why the southpaw Liriano would constitute the most apt choice to throw the majority of the innings in the wild card game. When selecting a starting pitcher for the wild card match up, the team's manager is essentially declaring said starter to be the best pitcher to throw the majority of the innings, and thus the outs, in a game that, if they lost, will end their season. Given the platoon split numbers Cameron sites regarding both Liriano and the Reds lineup, the decision makes sense, but Cameron goes on in his piece to argue the idea of stacking the Pirate roster with a surplus of pitchers in order to create a more favorable match up on a hitter by hitter basis in order to get the necessary 27 outs.
He remarks that his idea not to have a starter pitch a conventional 100+ pitches and 5+ innings, but instead have a starter throw a few innings, enough to get once through the order, and then throw different relievers for the rest of the game, playing the percentages to achieve a superior advantage for the rest of the game. In response to the adversaries of his out-of-the-box proposal, Cameron states:
"It is probably, in reality, too crazy of a strategy for any team to actually adopt."
Given that even the advocate of the idea makes the cogent point that the implementation of such a strategy has little place in reality, the obvious choice for the Buccos is Liriano. Now that we have covered the Pirates starting pitcher decision, let's move onto the Reds.
Let's preface this discussion by saying that in the one game wild card, teams involved can set their rosters for the game, without any repercussions if that team moves on to the division series. Clint Hurdle and Dusty Baker have the opportunity to create a roster designed to beat their specific opponent, and with the knowledge that they must only perform this act once. Moreover, the tendency towards our risk averse minds must be shed in this instance, as the losing team in the wild card game goes home just like the 20 teams that didn't have the fortune to make the postseason. This constitutes a luxury, one that allows for complete strategic preparation, but also leads to numerous questions, especially regarding the choice of a starting pitcher.
Taking a quick look at the Pirates hitters, we see that while Hurdle can put forth a lineup designed to perform better against a left-handed starter or a right-hander. Upon further review though, it becomes apparent that despite a smaller sample size, the Pirates seem to perform better against left-handed pitching, making the choice of starting a righty easier. Following Saturday's game, Baker essentially announced that he will have righty Johnny Cueto start for the Reds in the wild card game. The player most thought would get the nod to start is Mat Latos, who has thrown over 200 ace-like innings this season for the Reds, but due to recent reports from Latos and the team that his arm has been painful, Cueto has received the go from his manager.
Despite choosing Cueto, the exercise of determining which Reds righty truly should pitch against the Pirates on Tuesday can still be debated. So, let's run through and see which of the three, Latos, Bailey, or Cueto, truly matches up best against the Buccos.
(1) Mat Latos
The 25 year old right-handed starter has been the best and most durable pitcher for the Reds this season. His 4.4 fWAR this season eclipses his previous best 4.0 fWAR that he put up in 2010 with the Padres. Latos' career has been one of fascination thus far. His strikeout percentage continues to drop every season, but that attrition coincides with a walk percentage that has fallen each of the last three seasons. In 2013, Latos put up a 21.2% K% and a 6.6% walk percentage, to go along with 6.9% HR/FB percentage, leading to a 3.10 FIP and 81 FIP-. Latos' BABIP has never been higher than it has in 2013, but his ground ball percentage follows the same trend, and with the Reds high quality defensive infield that includes top defenders Brandon Phillips and Todd Frazier, any trend that leads to more ground balls should end with more ground ball outs.
Latos' 2013 has been great, and Cueto's numerous DL stints allows Latos to claim the starting pitcher spotlight, headline the staff, and take the media-loving title of "ace." Nonetheless, when discerning who should start for the Reds in the wild card game, overall seasonal numbers matter less than specific statistics that pertain to the Reds' opponent. This season, Latos pitched in five games against the Buccos, giving up an opponents on base percentage of .317 and a slugging percentage of .445. Given that the Pirates overall numbers against right-handed pitchers this season include a .308 OBP and .388 slugging percentage, Latos matches up well against Pittsburgh. In fact, as a team this season, Pittsburgh posted a 94 wRC+ against all right-handed pitchers, which makes the case that any above-average right-handed pitcher could prove a good choice to face the Buccos on Tuesday.
Given that Clint Hurdle will most likely set a lineup with a numerous left-handed hitters to face the impending right-handed starter for the Reds, taking a look at how Latos has faired against left-handed batters proves beneficial. In 2013, Latos, not surprisingly, faired better against right-handed batters, but in true ace-like form, performed quite admirably against lefties as well. Latos posted a .308 wOBA against lefties this season, but Latos tends to pitch better at home, and when pitching on the road against left-handed hitters, he shows his greatest weakness platoon-wise, posting a wOBA against of .349. Latos' overall profile comes out favorably against a most-likely left-handed heavy Pirates lineup, even in an away park. Latos keeps hitters off base well, and has especially good numbers with men on base and men in scoring position, making him a pitcher that a manager can trust to get out of tough situations and eat up innings, a quality that projects more favorably in a series, but could still work well for the Reds in a one-game wild card situation.
(2) Homer Bailey
Bailey represents the one pitcher of the three considered in this article not to have his name mentioned as a candidate to start against the Pirates on Tuesday. Like Latos, Bailey's 2013 has proven to be his best season yet, as he posted a career high 3.7 fWAR, and a career high in K% at 23.4% (league average is just below 20%). Bailey also posted a career high in ground ball percentage this season at 46.1%, a career low ERA of 3.49, and a career low FIP of 3.30. Latos and Bailey both show better numbers against right-handed batters over lefties, but Bailey showed a greater ability to hold right-handed batters at bay (.257 wOBA against) than Latos, but faired worse against left-handed hitters (.327 wOBA against). What that tell us is that the right-handed hitters that will undoubtedly appear in the Pirates lineup like the dangerous Andrew McCutchen, Russell Martin, and Marlon Byrd might fair worse against Bailey as opposed to Latos. Still, Bailey will have to face lefties like Pedro Alvarez, Justin Morneau, and Neil Walker (switch-hitter), and given that he seems more susceptible than Latos, even his greater ability to neutralize righties might not make him the best choice to start on Tuesday.
Bailey, like many pitchers, has better numbers at home (.270 wOBA against) than on the road (.310 wOBA against). When that gets broken down into platoon splits, Bailey shows to have difficulty, just like Latos before him, with left-handed hitters on the road, but unfortunately, unlike Latos, Bailey does not perform well with men on base or in scoring position. So, if those hitters get on base, even if Bailey faces right-handed hitters, he most likely will have more difficulty. Still, Bailey has serious talent, and in a one-game playoff, if properly prepared both mentally and physically, Bailey could prove an incredibly valuable piece to face a tough right-handed hitter. He may not have the numbers to prove himself the right pitcher to throw against the Pirates in the crucial one-game wild card playoff, but if used in a creative and proper manner, Bailey could prove incredibly valuable.
(3) Johnny Cueto
Then there was Johnny Cueto. Cueto has thrown just over 60 innings this season, not nearly the 200+ innings thrown by Latos and Bailey. Cueto spent much of the season dealing with shoulder injuries, but pitched very well when he toed the rubber for the Reds. In those 60.2 innings pitched, Cueto posted a 2.82 ERA, 3.80 FIP, and 3.23 xFIP. He posted a K% of 21.1% and a walk rate of 7.4%. The fact that the Reds believe Cueto to be healthy, and that he has only thrown 60+ innings this season, means he is by far the freshest arm of all the Reds' starters.
In his career, Cueto has pitched better at home than on the road, with a .307 wOBA against at home versus a .318 on the road. Also, Cueto has been historically better in his career against right-handed hitters, but over the last few seasons, has become a better pitcher against lefties, which has helped him become one of the better pitchers in the NL. Cueto has also pitched incredibly well in his career against the Pirates, putting up an OPS+ against of 66 against the Buccos. Much of that can be attributed to the lack of a good team in Pittsburgh until recently, making his overall numbers against the Pirates somewhat useless.
Looking through Cueto's platoon splits, home/away splits, numbers at PNC Park, and his career numbers against the
Pirates does not provide enough evidence to show that he would be a better choice than Latos or even Bailey to start Tuesday's game. Still one factor helps Cueto's case. Cueto, unlike Bailey or Latos, induces ground balls. In the last three seasons Cueto has posted a GB% of 49% of higher as well as low HR/FB percentages. He does accumulate strikeouts, but he also induces ground balls, and with the top-notch defenders in the Cincinnati infield, combined with two average to above average pitch framers in Devin Mesoraco and Ryan Hanigan, Cueto's propensity for keeping the ball on the ground helps his case a lot. More importantly, this season, the Pirates posted a 31 wRC+ on ground balls in comparison to 137 wRC+ on fly balls, meaning that if an opposing pitcher can keep the ball on the ground, he can keep the Pirates offense from getting base runners and scoring runs. Also, in 2011 and 2012, Cueto posted in field fly ball rates above 10%, which shows that even when hitters do hit the ball in the air, oftentimes it is with weak contact.
Overall, this analysis seems to point towards Mat Latos as the best and most promising choice for a starting pitcher on Tuesday against Pittsburgh. Dusty Baker has already tabbed Cueto, who doesn't profile as well as Latos in a few categories, but could overcome many of those numbers by keeping the ball on the ground. Overall, the key to the wild card game will be the pitchers and match ups that Baker chooses for each out, not just the first few innings in which his starter will throw. One other added benefit provided by Cueto is his ability to post solid numbers against opposing hitters not only the first time through the order, but the second, and third as well, meaning that if he pitches well, he can be counted on to pitch past the 4th and 5th innings, while Latos and Bailey do not excel in the same aspect. In a one-game situation, the individual match ups and plate appearances become crucial, and a manager must do his best to put his team in the best position to succeed in each one. While Latos appears the better overall choice to start the game, Cueto has the numbers to prove he can and could very well succeed. Now they just have to play the game.
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