Phillies-Reds NLDS Preview: Starting Rotations

Not surprisingly, the starting rotation is regarded as the Phillies’ big advantage heading into the playoffs. After all, Roy Halladay led all of Major League Baseball in SIERA at 2.93 while Hamels finished tenth (3.19) and Oswalt finished 14th (3.34). Meanwhile, the Reds’ Game One starter will be Edinson Volquez who is still trying to return to form after Tommy John surgery caused him to miss the first half of the regular season. In 62 and two-thirds innings, his SIERA was 3.68. The Reds will send Bronson Arroyo (4.66) to the bump in Game Two and Johnny Cueto (4.14) in Game Three.

Let’s delve a little deeper and look at the six starters we will see in the best-of-five National League Division Series.

Roy Halladay

You won’t get much of an argument if you claim that Roy Halladay is the best pitcher in baseball right now. He’s a favorite to take home the National League Cy Young award — it would be the second of his great career — and should be in the discussion for the NL Most Valuable Player award as well.

What does Halladay do that leads to all that success? It’s simple, really. He has an above-average strikeout rate (7.9 K/9). He walks very few hitters (1.1 BB/9). He induces a lot of ground balls (51 percent). He handles both right-handed and left-handed hitters. He avoids three-ball counts (13 percent). When he falls behind in the count, he bounces back and gets outs anyway (65 percent). He throws a lot of strikes — in 92 percent of plate appearances this season, at least one of his first two pitches were strikes.

The Reds will be praying that the home plate umpire in Game One has a postage stamp strike zone.

Doc will face a right-handed-heavy Cincinnati lineup, which bodes well as his best pitch is a sinker that runs in on right-handers. He held right-handers to a .610 OPS, more than 70 points lower than their left-handed counterparts. But wait, there’s more! Joey Votto struggles (relatively speaking, of course) against ground ball pitchers. So does Jay Bruce. Four Reds ranked in the top-26 in the NL in fly ball percentage: Jonny Gomes (50 percent), Bruce (44 percent), Scott Rolen (44 percent), and Drew Stubbs (41 percent).

Roy Oswalt

Like Halladay, Oswalt strikes out a lot of hitters (8.2 K/9, a career-high) and walks few (2.3 BB/9).  He differs from Halladay in that he relies more on a straight four-seam fastball and thus does not induce quite as many ground balls. Oswalt also has more of a traditional arsenal of pitches: four-seam fastball, change-up (with about a 10 MPH differential), slider, and curve. The problem is that his off-speed pitches don’t induce many swings-and-misses — this year, the whiff percentage is at 26 percent compared to the MLB average 30 percent. Oswalt will generate the majority of his whiffs on fastballs. And like Halladay, Oswalt is a strike thrower, going into a three-ball count in only 15 percent of plate appearances.

Oswalt is an ace on a majority of MLB teams. That he’s the #2 in Philly speaks volumes to how good the starting pitching is.

Cole Hamels

Hamels rebounded from a rough 2009 to have the best season of his Major League career. His strikeout rate skyrocketed, averaging a strikeout per inning. His walk rate also went up (2.6 BB/9) but it is still well below the MLB average (3.3 BB/9). Why the jump? Cole introduced a cut fastball to his repertoire, reducing the use of his other pitches  — most importantly his change-up. Last year, change-ups represented 30 percent of his total pitches; this year, just 23 percent. While his cutter leaves a lot to be desired (especially against right-handers), it is another pitch for opposing hitters to keep in mind, making him noticeably tougher to gauge.

Hamels is the most fly ball-prone of the Phillies’ three aces, making him a good match for the Reds’ fly ball-prone, right-handed-heavy lineup. Since Hamels will pitch in Game Three, he’ll be in Cincinnati at Great American Ballpark. Needless to say, the park will not be aiding him. GAB has a park factor of 133 for right-handed hitters according to StatCorner.

Of the match-ups in this series, it appears that Game Three is the one the Phillies are most likely to lose.

Now, let’s take a look at the Reds’ hurlers.

Edinson Volquez

Volquez became a household name in 2008 when he finished with a 3.21 ERA and averaged 9.5 strikeouts per nine innings. The Reds believed he’d become a reliable member of the starting rotation for years to come, but injuries sidelined him early last season and he didn’t return until mid-July this year. He seems to have his stuff back but he still lacks command as his walk rate is up over five per nine innings. A patient team like the Phillies (fourth-best walk rate in the NL) will be able to work the count against Volquez and punish him for his inability to consistently find the strike zone.

Like Hamels, Volquez used to rely on a change-up but has used it less in favor of a new pitch — in this case, a curve. Volquez still uses the change-up 23 percent of the time and it has nearly 12 MPH of separation from his fastball, so the Phillies have their work cut out for them in this regard. He has also done well to induce ground balls — 54 percent in a small sample of innings.

Right now, Volquez is in the same class as pitchers like Jhoulys Chacin, Bud Norris, and Felipe Paulino. They can all miss bats with relative ease, but lack the control to become anything more than a middle-of-the-rotation pitcher.

Bronson Arroyo

Arroyo is one of those pitchers who seems to consistently beat the ERA retrodictors. Since 2004, Arroyo has underperformed his xFIP just once: in 2008, when his 4.77 ERA was well above his 4.12 xFIP. For most of those years, he had decent strikeout rates combined with good control, but in recent years he has missed fewer and fewer bats. His 5.1 K/9 this year is even with that of “Grandpa” Jamie Moyer! Unfortunately for opposing hitters, the drop in strikeouts didn’t lead to more failure as Arroyo’s BABIP in ’09 and ’10 was .270 and .246 respectively.

Arroyo’s calling card is his avoidance of the fastball — it made up only 39.5 percent of his pitches during the regular season. As he is not exactly a ground ball machine, one would think he would be a candidate for allowing home runs, but he only allowed more than one home run in six of his 33 starts. Moreover, Arroyo is a workhorse, pitching into the seventh in 20 of those 33 starts.

A pitcher who strikes out hitters as infrequently as Jamie Moyer shouldn’t finish a season with a 3.88 ERA, but Arroyo did. The charade can’t last forever, however. Arroyo has a chasm in his performance between right-handed and left-handed hitters: 210 points of OPS to be exact. The Phillies’ lefty-heavy lineup will attempt to fix what’s wrong by making Arroyo’s results match his performance.

Johnny Cueto

Although his ERA in 2008 approached 5.00, Reds fans saw a lot to like about Cueto in his rookie season. He averaged over eight strikeouts per nine and his walk rate hovered around the league average. Since then, though, Cueto has been unable to fan batters at the same rate, failing to hit the 7.0 K/9 threshold in each of the past two seasons. With a 93 MPH fastball and an 83 MPH change-up, it seems like strikeouts could come in bunches for the young right-hander. Perhaps he is too reliant on his slider, as it accounts for over one-fourth of his pitches.

Nonetheless, Cueto has been an average pitcher at best. In Game Three, Cueto will be praying to the BABIP gods to help deliver a gem.