In a little less than two weeks, four teams will play winner-take-all games to advance from the wild-card round to the divisional series, or as I like to call it, the “Real Playoffs.” Baseball’s regular season is a marathon, a best-of-seven series is a sprint, and a one-game playoff is a coin flip. An entire season could come down to a ball/strike call or a grounder through an infielder’s legs, and so who starts that game could have more impact than any single-game personnel decision in baseball, if not all sports.
So who gets the ball in that situation?
As of Thursday morning, eight teams had a greater than 10 percent chance at playing in a wild-card game, according to Baseball Prospectus: the Blue Jays, Orioles, Tigers, Astros, Mariners, Mets, Cardinals, and Giants. Moreover, every wild-card team will have at least one off-day to rest before the game itself, and we’re still far enough out for a team to tinker with its rotation order, so let’s assume that any healthy starting pitcher for a team with a nontrivial shot at making the wild-card game has a nontrivial shot at starting it. After eliminating pitchers who are either injured (Jacob deGrom) or so bad any sane manager would rather take his chances with a bullpen game (not to call anyone out, but … Rafael Montero), I wound up with a list of 41 starting pitchers. Here they are, in ascending order of how scary they’d be to face in a one-game playoff.
Tier 1: Opponent Makes Grabby Hands
41. Wade Miley, Baltimore Orioles
40. Jordan Zimmermann, Detroit Tigers
39. Yovani Gallardo, Baltimore Orioles
38. Anibal Sánchez, Detroit Tigers
37. Ubaldo Jiménez, Baltimore Orioles
36. Luke Weaver, St. Louis Cardinals
35. Mike Fiers, Houston Astros
This section includes three guys who have finished in the top five in Cy Young voting and two others who made All-Star teams, but no matter how good you were once, you can always get old, completely lose your mechanics, or end up on the Orioles. These guys are all either fifth starters who are long shots to start a playoff game anyway, or Zimmermann, who’s trying (unsuccessfully, so far) to get his mechanics back after two months on the DL with a neck strain.
Tier 2: Anything Can Happen (in a Bad Way)
34. Collin McHugh, Houston Astros
33. Robert Gsellman, New York Mets
32. R.A. Dickey, Toronto Blue Jays
31. Dylan Bundy, Baltimore Orioles
30. Francisco Liriano, Toronto Blue Jays
29. Matt Moore, San Francisco Giants
In a do-or-die game, these guys would likely get only two turns through the order, which could either be scoreless (spectacularly so in the case of pitchers like Bundy, Liriano, or Moore, who have been dominant in the fairly recent past but have gotten lit up at times this year) or bad enough to lose the game before the bullpen can get started. Without the wiggle room that even a best-of-five series provides, it’s a huge risk to start someone who could give up four runs in the first inning.
Tier 3: Competent Back-End Starting Pitchers
28. Doug Fister, Houston Astros
27. Mike Leake, St. Louis Cardinals
Five innings, two or three earned runs. Probably not going to win you the game, but probably not going to lose it either.
Tier 4: Intriguing but Unpredictable Young Guys
26. Seth Lugo, New York Mets
25. Daniel Norris, Detroit Tigers
24. Joe Musgrove, Houston Astros
23. Marcus Stroman, Toronto Blue Jays
22. James Paxton, Seattle Mariners
If I were a big league manager, I’d be far more inclined to try to shoot the moon with a youngster with big stuff who might just not have enough experience to know he’s supposed to be nervous than to play it safe with a boring veteran. Lugo has helped keep the Mets afloat after three of their top four starting pitchers went down, while Musgrove has returned to form after a series of rough starts in late August and early September. Stroman’s got postseason experience and has avoided the blowups that plagued him early in the season. Norris has posted a 3.27 ERA (but a .270 opponent batting average) in eight starts since August 9, and while he hasn’t lasted longer than 6.1 innings in a start since August 2 of last year, he’s got an 11-strikeout game under his belt this year. Norris represents a little more risk than a veteran like Fister, Leake, or Dickey, but he’s also got a good shot at coming out after six innings of one-run ball to a thunderous ovation.
The most interesting name in this section is Paxton, who at 27 isn’t young so much as “inexperienced by virtue of being hurt constantly.” Paxton’s pitched a career-high 109 innings this year — which is a red flag in the long term, but in the wild-card game we really only need six innings from him, not 200 — and his fastball has averaged 97.5 miles an hour, which makes him the hardest-throwing left-handed starter in the game by more than two miles an hour over Kansas City’s Danny Duffy. In August, he made four starts: In two, he went eight innings and allowed one run, while in the other two, he allowed three and four runs over five innings.
This group is the first that includes players who could win a playoff game on their own, and while the risk of these pitchers getting knocked out in the first inning isn’t exactly nil, a season-ending disaster isn’t the most likely outcome.
Tier 5: Competent Midrotation Starters
21. Bartolo Colón , New York Mets
20. Hisashi Iwakuma, Seattle Mariners
19. Jeff Samardzija, San Francisco Giants
18. J.A. Happ, Toronto Blue Jays
17. Chris Tillman, Baltimore Orioles
16. Marco Estrada, Toronto Blue Jays
These are just good, solid pitchers. They routinely work into the seventh inning, and all six have at least a league-average ERA+. It’s for want of pitchers like these that teams miss the playoffs — I don’t have to sell you on these guys.
But while they’re all safe choices, none of them is particularly exciting. Estrada’s the only one with an above-average strikeout rate — and given how frequently he pops batters up, as well as his outstanding postseason last year, I’d rate him a half-step ahead of the rest of the pitchers in this group. But apart from that, the best thing you can say about these guys is they’re not going to beat themselves. They’ll all make the other team work, but they don’t have that extra gear you’d want from a starter in a winner-take-all playoff.
Tier 6: Young Guys I Think I Trust
15. Aaron Sanchez, Toronto Blue Jays
14. Kevin Gausman, Baltimore Orioles
13. Taijuan Walker, Seattle Mariners
These three pitchers have similar biographies — all three are 6-foot-3 or 6-foot-4, all three were first-round picks who broke into the top 25 on Baseball Prospectus’s top prospect list, and all three are either 24 or 25 years old — but they represent a continuum of reliability to potential.
Among this group, Walker has the two best starts this season by Game Score, his 11-strikeout three-hit shutout on September 13, and another three-hit, 11-strikeout outing — this one eight innings — on June 8. But he’s also failed to reach the fifth inning six times, as many as Gausman and Sanchez combined.
Gausman and Sanchez are probably a toss-up. Gausman gets more strikeouts but Sanchez gets more ground balls. I’d feel comfortable starting either one, but Sanchez gets the slight edge on the basis of having a better ERA+.
As much as I like Gausman and Sanchez, however, the past two groups represent the limitations of the Orioles and Blue Jays as playoff teams. Neither one has a real top-level starting pitcher, the kind of guy you can expect to fight Clayton Kershaw to a standstill in Game 7 of the World Series. Admittedly, this is less of a problem for Toronto than for Baltimore. The Blue Jays have four starters I actively like and two more I could talk myself into starting a playoff game, while the Orioles have Gausman and Tillman, after which I guess it’s a good thing they’ve got such a good bullpen, because they’re going to need it if they make it past the wild-card game.
Tier 6: Old Guys Who Might Have One More Good Run in Them
12. Adam Wainwright, St. Louis Cardinals
11. Félix Hernández, Seattle Mariners
10. Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers
All year, it’s felt like Wainwright’s been trying to get back into Postseason Ass-Kicker mode, and this ranking is based on my faith that he can, which is one of two concessions to my limited belief in Playoff Magic. If you go purely on this year’s overall results, Wainwright probably belongs about 10 to 15 spots lower on this list.
Not long ago, these were three of the best pitchers in baseball. Verlander and Félix are on track for the Hall of Fame, and Wainwright would be if he hadn’t (1) been 25 before the Cardinals let him start full-time and (2) missed essentially two full prime seasons due to injury. Anyway, for all the talk about Félix’s declining fastball velocity, he’s still only 30, and he’s got a 113 ERA+ this year. And for what it’s worth, if the Mariners make the playoffs for the first time in 15 years and don’t start the guy who was the best player on the team for most of those fallow years in between, there might be a riot.
Verlander, meanwhile, is having his best year since 2012, when he should’ve won his second Cy Young but got screwed by the voters. He’s back up to striking out more than a batter an inning — in fact, he’s got the second-best strikeout rate of his career — and with nearly 100 career playoff innings under his belt, you know he won’t get stage fright.
Experience probably plays a bigger role than it should in decisions like “who gets the ball in Game 1?” though I imagine some of what looks like managers not trusting rookies actually has to do with keeping the veterans in the clubhouse happy. Either way, experience is never a bad thing when a veteran pitcher’s playing well, and while Wainwright, Hernández, and Verlander aren’t as scary as they once were, nobody would bat an eye at starting them in a wild-card game.
Tier 7: Guys Who’d Be Way Higher if I Were Convinced They Were Healthy
9. Dallas Keuchel, Houston Astros
8. Steven Matz, New York Mets
7. Lance McCullers, Houston Astros
6. Johnny Cueto, San Francisco Giants
This is mostly academic for Keuchel and McCullers, both of whom have been ruled out for the rest of the regular season. It’s unlikely either one would be too hurt to play on Sunday, then good to go for 110 pitches on Tuesday night, but the wild-card game is technically on the table for either one. Keuchel hasn’t been that good this year, but he’s the reigning Cy Young winner, and he shoved on short rest in the wild-card game last year.
McCullers over Keuchel might be a surprise, but he’s been the Astros’ best starter by far this year, with an 11.8 K/9 ratio and a 123 ERA+. Some no. 3 starters have no. 3 stuff, while others have no. 1 stuff but can’t stay on the field for 30 starts a year, and McCullers goes into that second group. It’s not like Keuchel lacks self-confidence, but McCullers is the kind of player who’d get really amped up for a do-or-die game like this. He might throw the ball through his catcher. You know, if he were healthy.
(As an aside, if I were Astros manager A.J. Hinch and didn’t have Keuchel or McCullers for the wild-card game, I’d go with reliever Chris Devenski over anyone currently in the rotation. Devenski’s made five starts and had 10 relief appearances of three innings or more, and in 104.2 innings, he’s posted a 200 ERA+. Hinch would probably go with Fister, Musgrove, or McHugh, because he’s got a lot more riding on this decision, but Devenski might be the best option.)
We’re also unlikely to see Matz for the rest of the regular season. Matz has been outstanding for the Mets whenever he’s been healthy, including last year’s World Series, but that’s the catch — he’s always hurt.
Cueto, who will miss his next start with what he described as feeling like crabs were biting his groin, would be no. 3 on this list if he were healthy. For my money, Cueto’s the most underrated pitcher in baseball, and I’d feel good starting him in a playoff game against anyone.
Tier 8: Alex Reyes
5. Alex Reyes, St. Louis Cardinals
Reyes certainly isn’t the fifth-safest choice on this list. So why hand the season to a 22-year-old rookie with 35 big league innings under his belt? Because he’s got better stuff than any of the 36 pitchers behind him on the list, and three of the four pitchers ahead of him. Because in those 35 innings he’s posted a 399 ERA+ and a 10.3 K/9 ratio. Because the Mets rode two rookie starters to the pennant last year. Because fortune favors the brave.
Tier 9: Young Guys I Trust More Than Those Other Young Guys
4. Carlos Martínez, St. Louis Cardinals
3. Michael Fulmer, Detroit Tigers
Now we’re into top-end starter territory. I doubt very much that either Martínez or Fulmer would get the start over Wainwright or Verlander, respectively, unless rest were a factor, but they’re the best pitchers on their respective teams. Martínez, despite having just turned 25 this past week, is a four-year veteran with World Series experience and a 130 ERA+ over the past two seasons. Fulmer, meanwhile, is probably going to be the AL Rookie of the Year — unless Gary Sánchez continues to go nuts — and while Verlander’s got experience and a higher strikeout rate this year, if Fulmer’s slider is working, it’s as unhittable a pitch as you’ll find among American League starters.
Tier 9: The Only Two Guys Who Truly Scare Me in a One-Game Playoff
2. Noah Syndergaard, New York Mets
1. Madison Bumgarner, San Francisco Giants
I’ve talked a lot about which players have the potential to win the game on their own, but I’d expect a performance like that from either one of these guys. Of course, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that they might face each other in the NL wild-card game, which … if that happens, make sure you know where your fire extinguisher is.
The ordering of these two pitchers is the second concession I’ll make to Playoff Magic, because if I were being completely rational I’d have the guy who threw a 96-mph slider in his last start. The game is simply not designed for Syndergaard — he’s so big and throws so hard, with so much movement, it’s almost unfair to let him throw from the same spot they did in 1893, when Cy Young was striking out 2.2 batters per nine innings.
But the last time Bumgarner took the mound in a wild-card game he threw a complete-game shutout, en route to one of the greatest playoff runs by any pitcher in the modern game. And he’s putting up about the same rate stats as Syndergaard this year, so this isn’t some Kershaw Can’t Hack It In The Playoffs bullshit — Bumgarner’s legitimately a very good pitcher. But the thing that puts him over the top is metaphysical: I’d feel silly if I bet against him in a playoff game and lost.