Playoff pitching is a much different animal than the regular season. Managers hook starters (and relievers) more quickly. Closers come into the game earlier. Bouncing back on short rest is commonplace. Starters also come on in relief when their team needs them.
For the new Wild Card Series (best-of-three) and Division Series (best-of-five), the strategy is usually a three-man starting rotation. But you need the horses to do that. Not every team has the true thoroughbreds at the top of the rotation to carry a team through a series of those lengths.
So as we get ready for the debut of the Wild Card Series, which will be played on three consecutive days at the higher-seeded team’s stadium beginning Friday, here are the teams with three starters who fit that mold. These are the five teams with the best top three starters. The top two teams in each league receive byes to the Division Series, which begin Oct. 11, and will be able to have their rotations rested and set to take on their opponents.
We aren’t saying these rotations will be in the World Series or the League Championship Series, but these trios are the best of the 12 teams in the postseason. (Also, the three pitchers listed are my selections, not necessarily who the teams will choose.)
List is alphabetical by team nickname.
Astros: Verlander, McCullers, Valdez
Houston Astros right-hander Justin Verlander, at the young age of 39, has found the Fountain of Youth after missing all but his first start of the pandemic-shortened 2020 season due to Tommy John surgery. Verlander is a strong contender for his third American League Cy Young Award following his 18-4 and 1.75 ERA performance, with 185 strikeouts and 29 walks in 175 innings. A calf injury sidelined Verlander for the first couple weeks of September, which only freshened him up for another postseason run, where he has a 3.40 ERA in 31 career games (30 starts).
After being out until Aug. 13 due to a flexor tendon strain in his right forearm sustained during last year’s playoffs, right-hander Lance McCullers Jr. has deepened an already-deep Astros rotation. In eight starts, the 29-year-old is 4-2 with a 2.27 ERA, 22 walks, and 50 strikeouts in 47⅔ innings. Yes, walks have been troublesome in his return, but he has always struggled in that area while still being very effective. Plus, with the depth that will push some starters into relief roles, the Astros might only bank on one turn through the lineup (although McCullers has gone at least five innings in all of his outings this year).
Left-hander Framber Valdez has been a key part of the rotation for the last three seasons and is probably one of the more unheralded guys out there. The 28-year-old is a ground-ball specialist, leading MLB in ground-ball percentage at 69.9%. But he also has the stuff to strike you out, notching 184 K’s in 196⅓ innings, all while going 16-6 with a 2.89 ERA in 30 starts. This leaves other starters such as José Urquidy, Luis Garcia, and Cristian Javier to make spot starts and fill relief roles.
Closing out a great Year with five no-hit innings.
he also tied a franchise record with eight consecutive strikeouts. pic.twitter.com/PcETg4SdAj
— Houston Astros (@astros) October 5, 2022
Braves: Fried, Wright, Morton
Left-hander Max Fried, right-hander Charlie Morton, and right-hander Ian Anderson accounted for 13 of Atlanta’s 16 starts en route to winning the World Series last year. Fried has solidified his ace status through a 14-7 mark and 2.48 ERA in 2022 but should have two others join him in the three-man rotation. Right-hander Kyle Wright (21-6, 3.19 ERA) who was a 20-game winner (the only one in MLB this season) replaces Anderson (10-6, 6, 5.00 ERA), while rookie right-hander Spencer Strider might have supplanted Morton in the third slot had the National League Rookie of the Year candidate not strained his oblique.
Wright, 26, has excelled this season due to a terrific ground-ball rate (56.8%, sixth in MLB) and a pretty good CSW% (30.7, 25th) in a breakthrough season that saw him limit opponents to a .229 batting average. The fifth overall selection in the 2017 draft out of Vanderbilt didn’t exactly establish himself in 21 starts over the past four seasons, perhaps due to his walk rate being almost in twice what he posted this year (7.2%). But Wright has risen to the occasion repeatedly this season, and it seems Atlanta will be trusting in him for the postseason.
While not having the same success he enjoyed during his first season with the Braves, Morton’s veteran presence is a steadying influence on a pretty young rotation. The 38-year-old, who just recently signed a $20 million deal for next season, has the most starts for the Braves this season at 31, but only nine have been quality. However, who can forget what he did last season in Game 1 of the World Series when he broke his leg and stayed in the game to throw 16 more pitches before exiting?
A dominant performance from @Kyle_Wright44 💪#ForTheA pic.twitter.com/y7cBWMW2XR
— Atlanta Braves (@Braves) August 24, 2022
Dodgers: Urías, Kershaw, Anderson
This group might fly under the radar compared to the other four, but the postseason experience of two of the three is undeniable to the success of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Left-hander Julio Urías, who was used in many roles in his first five seasons in the bigs including closing out the 2020 World Series, has established himself as a bona fide ace the last two years. A season after going 20-3 with a 2.96 ERA, .219 opponent batting average and 1.02 WHIP in 32 starts, Urias in 30 starts this year went 17-7 with a 2.16 ERA (best in the NL), .199 opponent average, and 0.96 WHIP. His BABIP improved dramatically from .276 to .229 even as his strikeout percentage remained steady (26.2% to 24.1%). At age 26, he has already been tested in the postseason and just simply produces, although he had a rough postseason in 2021.
Veteran left-hander Clayton Kershaw is a no-brainer but comes with the caveat of remaining healthy. He landed on the injured list twice with back issues that have plagued him throughout his career, yet still produced a 12-3 record and 2.28 ERA in 22 starts, with 137 strikeouts in 126⅓ innings. At age 34, he has a lot of miles on him, which led the retirement speculation last offseason, and is sure to ramp up again after October is finished. Kershaw is as formidable as anyone when he is on.
The Dodgers could opt for right-hander Tony Gonsolin in the No. 3 slot, but left-hander Tyler Anderson is the more prudent choice based on recent results. Gonsolin, an All-Star who is 16-1 with a 2.14 ERA, just returned from a right forearm strain and had mixed results in Monday’s start against the Colorado Rockies, making the choice of Anderson much easier. Anderson had been solid in his first six seasons throwing for the Rockies, Giants, Pirates, and Mariners, but emerged as a top-flight starter in his first season with the Dodgers. In 30 games (28 starts), the 32-year-old has gone 15-5 with a 2.57 ERA, .221 opponent average, and 1.00 WHIP. Most teams would take that production out of their No. 1 starter, much less their No. 3. Gonsolin will work well as a long reliever and occasional starter if the Dodgers again make a deep run.
Julio Urías. That is all. pic.twitter.com/HffE0C7Q9G
— Los Angeles Dodgers (@Dodgers) September 18, 2022
Mets: deGrom, Scherzer, Bassitt
Despite sending their top three pitchers to face the Braves with the NL East title on the line over the weekend, the New York Mets were swept. That should light a fire under right-handers Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer, and Chris Bassitt. And if you know anything about deGrom and Scherzer, that could be a dangerous proposition for playoff opponents.
Since returning from a stress reaction in his right scapula and missing more than a season with injuries, deGrom has made 11 starts. The two-time NL Cy Young Award winner’s record (5-4) doesn’t reflect what he has been doing. He has allowed a .175 opponent batting average with a 0.75 WHIP, striking out 42.7% of batters and a 37.2 CSW%. Scherzer, an ace in his own right as a three-time NL Cy Young winner, has posted an 11-5 record and a 2.29 ERA in 23 starts. The 38-year-old has had two stints on the injured list, but neither had to do with his right arm (left oblique, left-side fatigue), meaning Mr. Intensity has a fresh arm for the postseason. Facing these two to open a series is intimidating enough; imagine if it was Game 4 or 5 of the Division Series or Game 6 or 7 of the League Championship Series or World Series.
Bassitt, meanwhile, doesn’t have the accomplishments of deGrom or Scherzer, but he did fare well in his postseason debut in 2020 with the Oakland A’s, with a 3.27 ERA with one walk and nine strikeouts in 11 innings. This season, after coming over in a spring training trade, the 33-year-old has gone 15-9 with a 3.42 ERA and 1.14 WHIP, very deserving of his status behind the two aces. The question will be performing in the playoffs with the pressure the Mets have on them, but he so far hasn’t wilted in the Big Apple.
Seven scoreless for deGrom! pic.twitter.com/Vhc7Ai281A
— New York Mets (@Mets) September 8, 2022
Yankees: Cole, Severino, Cortes
Aside from Gerrit Cole, there were plenty of questions about the New York Yankees‘ starting rotation. But that group answered in a resounding way and is a big reason why New York built a big lead in the AL East before a slump sliced into that advantage. Still, the Yankees won the division. Cole has been the backbone of the rotation during his three seasons in pinstripes. His most noteworthy accomplishment was breaking the single-season team record for strikeouts in his final start of the regular season Tuesday, finishing with 257, surpassing Ron Guidry’s 248 in 1978. Cole’s other numbers are pretty good, too. In 200⅔ innings covering 33 starts, the 32-year-old had a 13-8 record with a 3.50 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, and .209 opponent batting average.
Right-hander Luis Severino has never been questioned for his talent, but injuries have kept him sidelined the previous three seasons. A rotator cuff in 2019 limited him to three starts, then Tommy John surgery erased his 2020 season and kept him to four games in 2021. So 2022 was going to be a prove-it year for the 28-year-old. While a lat injury kept him out for more than two months, he turned in a quality season. Severino went 7-3 with a 3.18 ERA, 30 walks, and 112 strikeouts in 102 innings. He also had a .196 opponent average and 1.00 WHIP.
The breakout player for the Yankees has been left-hander Nestor Cortes. The 27-year-old, who bounced around to three teams in his first three MLB seasons, finally settled in last year and showed he could be a capable starter. This season, he more than showed staying power, going 12-4 with a 2.44 ERA, 38 walks, and 163 strikeouts in 158⅓ innings over 28 starts, earning an All-Star spot and stabilizing the rotation. Right-hander Jameson Taillon could step in for a spot start or long role out of the bullpen, while trade acquisition Frankie Montas (right shoulder inflammation) could return at some point.
The most strikeouts in a single season in New York Yankees history.
Congrats, Gerrit! 🔥 pic.twitter.com/CuRYfA8UvK
— New York Yankees (@Yankees) October 5, 2022
Photos by Ken Murray, Jeff Robinson, Dustin Bradford, Brian Rothmuller, and Steven King/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Drew Wheeler (@drewisokay on Twitter)