The addition of a second wild-card spot in each league has made for a wider field of MLB contenders once again this year. As many as 16 teams can still claim to be in contention, and that should make for an exciting final two weeks of the season.
Not only has the implementation of a second wild-card spot made for more contenders, but it has also given us an exciting winner-take-all one-game playoff prior to the start of the respective division series.
Ideally, a team would be able to throw its ace in that game, though it doesn't always work out that way, evidenced by the fact that Joe Saunders (Baltimore Orioles, 2012) and Danny Salazar (Cleveland Indians, 2013) have both taken the ball with their respective team's season hanging in the balance.
Pretending for a minute that rotations do line up so that each team is able to start its stud, what are the best possible pitching matchups we could be in store for this time around?
Let's start in the National League.
At this point, there appear to be four teams legitimately in the running for the two NL wild-card spots,
The current standings are as follows:
The San Francisco Giants are making a strong push to overtake the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL West standings, as they've cut their lead to just one game.
For the sake of this exercise, though, let's assume the Dodgers take the NL West. That leaves the Giants as a shoo-in to claim one of the wild-card spots and likely to host the Wild Card Game.
As good as Jake Peavy has been since coming to the Giants in a July trade, going 5-4 with a 2.29 ERA in nine starts, the team's first choice to take the ball with the season on the line would undoubtedly be Madison Bumgarner.
The 25-year-old southpaw is quietly having another brilliant season, and he's made some Giants franchise history in the process.
He finished up his last start with 208 strikeouts to go along with an 18-9 record, 2.91 ERA and 1.088 WHIP in 204 innings of work.
So, who would the other three contenders throw at the Giants and Bumgarner if given the opportunity?
The Pittsburgh Pirates played in the Wild Card Round last year, picking up the win behind seven innings of four-hit, one-run ball from Francisco Liriano, and he'd likely be the leading candidate to start the game once again.
His overall numbers don't look great, as he's 5-10 with a 3.53 ERA in 26 starts. However, he's gone 4-4 with a 2.47 ERA, 1.14 WHIP and 10.4 K/9 in his last 12 starts, dating back to a DL stint in the middle of June that cost him roughly a month.
The Milwaukee Brewers have been in a tailspin over the past moth or so after leading the NL Central standings for most of the year, but they are still just 1.5 games out of a wild-card spot if they can right the ship down the stretch.
Mike Fiers has been their best starter in the second half by a decent margin, but chances are they'd opt to hand the ball to one of their veterans, and longtime Brewer Yovani Gallardo is probably the closest thing they have to a bona fide ace.
After posting a career-high 4.18 ERA a year ago, the right-hander has gone 8-9 with a 3.61 ERA. He has five career playoff appearances (four starts) to his credit and has pitched well, posting a 2.08 ERA.
Finally, we have the Atlanta Braves, who have been suffering through a late-season slide of their own and are actually in danger of finishing below .500 if they don't turn things around quickly.
If someone had to be pegged as the ace of their rotation, it would probably be All-Star Julio Teheran, but as far as who would give them the best chance to win right now, it would have to be Alex Wood.
The 23-year-old lefty actually spent time in the bullpen in the first half, but he's been lights-out as a full-time starter since the break. He's currently working on a string of nine straight quality starts, going 3-2 with a 1.88 ERA, 1.04 WHIP and 9.0 K/9 over that span.
Now let's move over to the American League
The AL field is a bit deeper, with five teams legitimately still in the running for a wild-card berth.
The New York Yankees are technically still in contention, sitting five games back. However, they have essentially been a .500 team for the past month, and four teams/five games seems like too much for them to overcome.
So, with that said, the current standings are as follows:
Once again, we are assuming a division winner here, as the Detroit Tigers hold a slim half-game lead over the Kansas City Royals in the AL Central. This is not to suggest that the Royals don't have a chance to win the division, but for the sake of this exercise, let's assume they don't.
That leaves the Royals counting on a wild-card spot to give them their first postseason appearance since 1985.
Their rotation has been a strength all season, and while you can make a case for someone like Danny Duffy based on his 1.91 ERA in the second half, the clear choice to take the ball for them would be workhorse James Shields.
The upcoming free agent is 14-7 with a 3.13 ERA and 1.177 WHIP in 207 innings of work, and he didn't earn the nickname "Big Game James" for nothing.
Then we have the Oakland Athletics, who went all-in at the trade deadline and looked like a juggernaut heading into the final two months of the year but are now in danger of missing the playoffs entirely. They are just 15-25 since the beginning of August, when they pulled the trigger on a number of trades, including shipping slugger Yoenis Cespedes to the Boston Red Sox for ace Jon Lester.
The collapse has been no fault of Lester's, as he's gone 4-3 with a 2.54 ERA in eight starts. And based on his postseason track record, he's the obvious choice in an elimination-game situation. In 13 career playoff games (11 starts), he's 6-4 with a 2.11 ERA and 1.043 WHIP, including a brilliant October a year ago.
The Seattle Mariners have been a pleasant surprise this season, and with perhaps the best pitching staff in baseball (2.70 ERA, first in MLB), they are a team that appears to be built for postseason success.
There may not be a more dangerous draw in the Wild Card Round thanks to the presence of AL Cy Young front-runner Felix Hernandez, who is having the best season of his already storied career and finds himself in a playoff race for the first time.
"I'm really excited. It feels different," Hernandez told Jorge Ortiz of USA Today. "Every game counts and the environment is different."
The 28-year-old is 14-5 with a 2.12 ERA and AL-best 0.915 WHIP, reaching the 200-inning mark for the seventh straight season in the process and putting himself in prime position to win a second Cy Young Award.
An improved overall rotation has helped the Cleveland Indians claw back into contention, but there is little question who would get the ball with the season on the line, as Corey Kluber has been the clear-cut ace of that staff all season.
He's gone 15-9 with a 2.45 ERA, 1.096 WHIP and 230 strikeouts in 212.2 innings of work, and outside of King Felix and Chris Sale, he's been perhaps the best pitcher in the American League this season.
Finally, we have the Toronto Blue Jays, who have the worst starter's ERA (3.94) of any of the nine teams we've highlighted here.
There is no obvious choice for them as far as choosing a starter is concerned, but veteran Mark Buehrle has the most experience on the staff, and he's righted the ship after a rough couple of months.
The 35-year-old is 12-9 with a 3.31 ERA on the year, and he has six postseason games (four starts) on his resume from his time with the Chicago White Sox.
So that gives us our potential starters, now let's do some ranking.
Ranking the Potential Matchups
Assuming the Giants are a lock for one of the NL spots, we have three possible matchups on the National League side and 10 possible matchups on the American League side of things.
The easiest way to rank all 13 matchups is to first rank the nine starting pitchers that have been pegged for each team.
This could have been done using some complex formula of statistics, but instead, we've opted to go the purely subjective route, so here is my take on how those nine pitchers line up:
- Felix Hernandez, SEA
- Jon Lester, OAK
- Corey Kluber, CLE
- Madison Bumgarner, SF
- Francisco Liriano, PIT
- James Shields, KC
- Alex Wood, ATL
- Mark Buehrle, TOR
Yovani Gallardo, MIL
From there, we can order each possible matchup in both leagues, based on the average rank of the two starting pitchers:
NL Matchup Rankings
- Madison Bumgarner vs. Francisco Liriano
- Madison Bumgarner vs. Alex Wood
- Madison Bumgarner vs. Yovani Gallardo
AL Matchup Rankings
- Felix Hernandez vs. Jon Lester
- Felix Hernandez vs. Corey Kluber
- Jon Lester vs. Corey Kluber
- Felix Hernandez vs. James Shields
- Jon Lester vs. James Shields
- Corey Kluber vs. James Shields
- Felix Hernandez vs. Mark Buehrle
- Jon Lester vs. Mark Buehrle
- Corey Kluber vs. Mark Buehrle
- James Shields vs. Mark Buehrle
So there you have it, a quick overview of how the one-game Wild Card Round pitching matchups could play out and a completely unscientific ranking of them.
Last year saw the Pittsburgh Pirates best the Cincinnati Reds in what was their first playoff appearance since 1992 on the NL side.
In the AL, the Tampa Bay Rays needed a win on the final day of the regular season to force a Game 163 with the Cleveland Indians. They then won that game to earn a spot in the Wild Card Round and won that game to move on to the ALDS.
This year's wild-card picture is shaping up to be just as exciting, and there is certainly no shortage of intriguing pitching matchups on tap once we do finally reach the Wild Card Round.
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