Phillies Big Three: There Are No Locks

The conventional wisdom says that the Phillies not only are the best team in the National League, but are also particularly well-suited for postseason play. Having a top-heavy starting rotation featuring three ace-quality pitchers is perfect for the short series format. The Phillies will be favored in every series they play, with only the possible exception of the World Series.

All of those statements are true. But I've been hearing far too many people take their rhetoric one step too far and conclude that because the Phillies have the Big Three, they can't be beaten unless they "choke". This is a grievous error. The Big Three give the Phillies an advantage, but they guarantee nothing. No matter how great your starting pitchers may be, they cannot change the fact that the playoffs are a crapshoot.

In one of the threads yesterday evening, we discussed this article which shows that only two of the past twenty #1 seeds in either league have won the World Series. I want to look at this from a slightly different angle. Below the jump is a table listing eighteen of the most dominant starting pitchers of the past twenty years. They are somewhat randomly selected, but I don't think I've left out anyone really obvious. (Except for maybe John Smoltz - I omitted him because it would have been too much of a pain separating his stats as a starter from his stats as a reliever.) The second column lists each pitcher's "prime years" - this is unscientific, as all I did was eyeball all of their career stats, but I don't think any of them will be controversial. The remaining columns show: the postseason W-L record of each pitcher's teams in his postseason starts during his prime years, number of postseason starts, number of innings in those starts, BB/K ratio in those starts, ERA in those starts, and cumulative regular season ERA in the pitcher's prime years.

Pitcher Prime Yrs Team W-L PS GS PS IP PS BB/K PS ERA RS ERA
Brown 1992-2003 6-4 10 71.0 26/67 3.28 3.00
Carpenter 2004-pres. 7-2 9 58.1 19/38 2.93 2.99
Clemens 1986-2006 16-17 33 193.2 68/168 3.72 3.06
Cone 1988-1999 12-6 18 109.0 58/93 3.88 3.15
Glavine 1991-2002 16-16 32 201.1 80/137 3.44 3.15
Hamels 2007-pres. 7-3 10 60.2 17/52 3.86 3.45
Hudson 1999-pres. 2-6 8 46.0 16/30 3.91 3.42
Johnson 1993-2004 6-8 14 103.2 27/117 3.13 2.78
Lee 2008-pres. 5-0 5 40.1 6/33 1.56 3.01
Maddux 1988-2002 13-15 28 183.0 45/120 3.25 2.68
Martinez 1997-2005 6-5 11 72.1 23/71 3.48 2.47
Mussina 1991-2003 6-9 15 97.0 25/105 3.15 3.53
Oswalt 2001-pres. 5-2 7 44.2 19/30 3.63 3.19
Peavy 2004-2008 0-2 2 9.2 4/5 12.10 2.95
Sabathia 2006-pres. 5-4 9 55.1 26/51 4.55 3.14
Santana 2004-pres. 1-2 3 20.0 5/20 1.35 2.87
Schilling 1996-2004 8-3 11 78.0 12/76 1.85 3.23
Wainwright 2008-pres. 0-1 1 8.0 1/7 1.13 2.68

This is a veritable murderer's row of starting pitchers. Every guy on this list is (or was during his prime years) the equal of our current Big Three. Their teams' combined records in posteason games that they started? 121-105, for a winning percentage of only .535.

I don't want to overinterpret this data, but I think there's enough of it to prove one limited point: great pitchers lose in the postseason all the time. This is what happens when you play other good teams. No matter who you've got on your side, you're still going to lose nearly 50% of your games. Having a dominant pitcher helps, but it doesn't bring about a fundamental shift in that equation. Even a dominant pitcher will sometimes have a mediocre game when he goes up against a great lineup like, say, the Reds' or the Yankees'. In fact, dominant pitchers will sometimes even pitch poorly against not-so-great lineups, because dominant pitchers are human - it's just that we don't remember it as clearly when it happens in the regular season. And finally, a starter can pitch great and still lose if his opponent happens to pitch even better than him on that particular day. This seems to have happened on many occasions with the guys listed in the chart. Note that very few of them actually have bad postseason ERAs. Yet their teams were still beaten in over 46% of their starts.

If the Phillies get booted in the division series, we will all be disappointed. But I think a lot of people are raising their expectations so high that if the Phillies lose, they will inevitably respond not only with disappointment but also with bitterness against the team for "choking" or "mailing it in" or whatever other talk radio cliche you want to use. That would be wrong. We are going into the DS with an advantage, but we should expect and demand nothing. Instead, we should embrace the capricious nature of playoff baseball. Not only because it will make the games more fun and more exciting, win or lose, but most of all because it's the truth.

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