Let's take the case of a baseball postseason manager. We need to call him something, so just to pick a name at random, let's go with "Grady Little." It's the biggest situation of the series. Deciding game, score is tied, bases are juiced. There are two outs. You have the option of selecting any pitcher on your staff -- non-fatigued -- to make the biggest pitches of your campaign.
Who do you anoint? It's not such an easy call for most teams. Just from a numbers standpoint, you have to consider several possible factors that might trump the option of simply taking your best overall guy. Do you go with high-leverage success? What about strikeout rate? We're not considering lefty-righty traits here, but in the real deal, that would be a consideration. Who is consistent? Is there a starter whose stuff might play up for one key at-bat more so than your bullpen stopper? Does anyone have that one unhittable pitch -- the Mariano Rivera cutter, or the peak-Brad Lidge slider?
After throwing all of those ingredients into a stew, here's who I would want in that spot for each postseason club. This is the hardball testament of me -- "Grady Little" -- who bears no relation to any actual manager who might have carried that name and/or faced just such a situation.
It takes an awfully special pitcher to edge Kenley Jansen, who might turn out to be the best closer of all time (at least in the non-Rivera division). The real question here is whether for one hitter, you think that Kershaw would be able to dial up the dominance to a higher level than what Jansen brings night after night after night.
I think so. According to FanGraphs, which I leaned on heavily for this piece, Kershaw's slider carries about the same value as Jansen's famous cut fastball, both in total and on a per-unit basis. However, as a starter, Kershaw has more tools with which to carve up hitters.
Both pitchers are consistent and both have exceptional command, the latter a must-have for these spots. Finally, in terms of FanGraphs' clutch rating, which measures high-leverage pitching, Kershaw has outperformed Jansen over the last couple of years. If there were fewer than two outs in our scenario, you might be tempted to go with Jansen because of his higher strikeout rate. Might.
Let's face it, the answer to almost any question of which pitcher you'd want in which hypothetical situation is going to be Clayton Kershaw.
This was a tough pick and the quandary I refer to probably isn't the one that leaps to your mind. You're thinking Scherzer or Stephen Strasburg, right? Sure, that had to be considered and was. But my final choice came down to Scherzer or Sean Doolittle, and not just because of a surname-related form of nepotism.
There's a good argument to be made for Doolittle. His strikeout rate is in the same vicinity as Scherzer's and Strasburg's, but his walk rate is better. If you like K%-BB% as a proxy for dominance -- and I do -- Doolittle comes closest to Scherzer on the Nationals staff. They are also in a dead heat by the aforementioned clutch rate.
The deciding factor for me was that if you're asking Scherzer to just get one big out, his already fierce stuff is going play up that much more. You just hope his wicked movement doesn't take him out of the strike zone. But I don't worry about Scherzer becoming over-adrenalized. He's kind of like that all the time.
What you really want is the 2015 version of Jake Arrieta, or at least the Jon Lester we've grown accustomed to over the years. Recency has to play into this though -- we're talking about this postseason, not a generic one. Arrieta's sore hammy is a concern and Lester's recent results have been worrisome as well, which is why Kyle Hendricks might end up starting Chicago's first playoff game.
Hendricks might be my favorite pitcher in the game right now, but he's too hittable for the spots we're describing. Hittable might not be the right term, but even soft contact is contact. I want a bat-misser. Carl Edwards Jr. has the filthiest stuff on the Cubs' staff, but he walks too many guys.
That leaves us with Davis, who is sort of the best of all worlds. He's implacable and owns a good track record of getting outs in the highest of high-leverage spots. That said, Davis isn't as purely dominant as Lester when the latter is right; if Lester hadn't been up and down lately, he'd be my pick.
Again, while Greinke is the Diamondbacks' ace and is paid like it, this wasn't an immediate, clear-cut choice. Robbie Ray and Archie Bradley merit close consideration as well. As with much of the Arizona staff, you have to give a little extra weight to 2017, while with most teams I looked at 2016 numbers as well. With the D-Backs, Greinke, Ray and Bradley are only three of a number of pitchers who have looked like different guys this season. In a good way.
Bradley was the first eliminated. His track record isn't as long as the other two and his high-leverage numbers aren't as great as you might expect. Ray has the elite strikeout rate, but Greinke and Bradley aren't too far off his mark. Greinke's pinpoint command is ultimately the deciding factor for me.
Greinke's high-leverage indicators this season are based on a relatively small sample size. But for his career, Greinke's .279 wOBA allowed in clutch spots suggests a guy who can dial it up when he needs to. When in doubt, go with the future Hall of Famer.
Wait, where is our hypothetical game being played? I don't know, but just to be safe, we'll want someone who is relatively unfazed by Coors Field. That narrows the pool considerably.
There aren't a lot of great options, at least in relation to some of the other postseason teams. Greg Holland used to be just the kind of stopper we're looking for, but he nibbles a lot more than he used to and his walk rate shows it. Jon Gray has the best stuff from the rotation and maybe that plays up in a one-batter scenario. It's definitely worth a consideration.
Neshek gets the nod because of his swing-and-miss ability, long track record of high-leverage relief (though not much as a closer) and his minuscule walk rates. That high-leverage record includes a career .266 wOBA in clutch spots.
You do have to waver once the specter of lefty-righty matchups comes into the equation. However, Neshek's .306 career wOBA allowed to lefties is impressive and not as stark as you might think given his side-arming delivery. That said: We're forcing ourselves to go with one pitcher in one key spot. The real answer for Bud Black would depend on who's at the plate and if it's a lefty, Rockies reliever Jake McGee might get the call.
It's good to be Terry Francona these days. When looking at two-year stats, Francona has four contenders for this spot sporting a K-BB% of 20 percent or better -- Miller (at nearly 37 percent!), Corey Kluber, Cody Allen and Carlos Carrasco. I would be more than satisfied to throw any of that foursome out there in a must-get situation.
However, Miller might be the best option in all of baseball, and I write that knowing about his recent physical problems. Miller is pure dominance, posting a K-rate of nearly 42 percent and a batting average allowed of .152 going back to the beginning of last season. He leads all current Cleveland pitchers in win probability added during that span. He has done all that with teeny-tiny walk rates, so you can trust him to deliver that stuff in the strike zone.
If you're looking for that one knockout pitch, Kluber's curveball might be baseball's best current offering. And if you're talking demeanor, he's actually nicknamed Klubot because of his autotronic ways. On most teams, Kluber would be the easy choice. Francona simply can't go wrong.
Miller is my pick for this reason: Opposing batters have swung at just 56.8 percent of his pitches that hit the strike zone. When they do swing, they make contact on just 80.7 percent of those swings. He just makes guys look bad.
Let's face it: it has to be Verlander, especially given how lights-out he has been over the second half of this season. What you especially like is Verlander's ability to crank it up when he needs to, and he always has plenty in reserve. As of yore, he gets stronger the deeper he gets into a game and if he needs that one big out, you know he can reach back and touch triple digits.
Verlander's clutch rating is easily the best of the current Astros pitchers, including last season. Since he has joined Houston, Verlander has been fine-tuning his little-used changeup. As good as the sliders are for Peacock and Giles, or the changeup is for Devenski, I'll take Verlander's high fastball and live with the results any day of the week.
This is really not close. Which is an amazing declaration to make for a pitcher wearing the same uniform as Chris Sale. For starters, according to FanGraphs, Kimbrel has produced nearly as much value with his fastball as Sale has with his, in a fraction of the innings.
Sale struck out over 300 batters this season and yet his strikeout percentage (36.2) is dwarfed by Kimbrel's (49.6), and both pitchers walk less than six percent of opposing hitters. If you're scoring at home, that translates to a 44.1 K-BB% for Kimbrel, which is just ridiculous.
Sale can hit triple digits when he goes full-max but even so, he's probably going to be a couple of K's per nine innings shy of Kimbrel. Both are mean-spirited guys in the best way possible. In the real world, maybe it would depend on whether a lefty or righty is at the plate. In a generic context, few, if anyone, can match Kimbrel's combination of dominance and reliability.
Lots of good choices for Joe Girardi, who would probably be best served to rely on multiseason data to sort out this problem. Chapman has had his moments of sub-dominance this season but has rediscovered it lately. In September, he faced 41 batters, gave up three hits and struck out 17 in 12 innings with only two walks.
That makes me feel better about his edge in two-season performance over fellow fire ballers Dellin Betances, Chad Green, Tommy Kahnle and David Robertson. Green, especially, is intriguing. However, there is one additional option: starter Luis Severino.
Severino has a 22.9 K-BB% this season, his breakout campaign, and is less likely to walk a hitter than Chapman. Still, what I'd need to see is if Severino could breach the raw stuff gap with his bullpen aces if he was in a max-effort situation. As it is, his fastball reaches into the upper 90s and he matches that with a knock'em-out slider. When he has worked out of the bullpen in the past, that's about where he has been.
Betances' high walk rate almost certainly rules him out. And Kahnle's track record isn't as long as the other options. You can say the same about Green, but what a track record. In the end, in Chapman, you have a guy who can rear back at throw 102 mph and above throughout an entire key plate appearance and hit the zone while he's doing it. Chapman it is.
You kind of have to chuck track record when it comes to the Twins' staff. All the teams above have multiple options when it comes to guys with a K-BB% greater than 20. The Twins have one: Hildenberger, who has also performed well in high-leverage spots.
Jose Berrios would be another option, but his walk rate is twice that of Hildenberger's. Same for Matt Belisle. What you see here is an overachieving pitching staff and a really good argument that Paul Molitor is this year's AL Manager of the Year.