During the regular season, terrific hitting can mask a pitching staff that is average or below. But in the postseason, even average pitching is often exposed. Of course, any player or group can elevate themselves as the stakes rise and carry a team to a World Series championship.
But beginning the postseason — especially a best-of-three Wild Card Series — with an excellent top three starting pitchers is at least an advantage on paper. I wrote this article last year and of the five teams highlighted, only two won a series and only one won more than one series, the World Series champion Houston Astros.
The theme to last year’s postseason was momentum. Three of the four Wild Card Series, which are best-of-three all at the higher-seeded teams stadium, were won by the underdog and two of those teams (Philadelphia Phillies and San Diego Padres) won their Division Series.
Will that continue this year? These rotations should have something to say about that.
5. Rays: Glasnow, Eflin, Civale
This was a tough call, with the the Texas Rangers (Nathan Eovaldi and Jordan Montgomery) falling out of contention due to Jon Gray’s injury (right forearm tightness), inexperience not elevating the Baltimore Orioles‘ John Means, Kyle Gibson and Kyle Bradish and the Philadelphia Phillies‘ Aaron Nola, Zack Wheeler and Taijuan Walker falling just short.
The Tampa Bay Rays‘ Tyler Glasnow, Zach Eflin and Aaron Civale is not the trio you would have thought would be lining up in the top three spots when the season began, but injuries hit the rotation hard and that is what the Rays have to go against the Rangers.
Glasnow was sidelined to start the season with an oblique injury, then return to make 21 starts, posting a 3.54 ERA with 37 walks and 162 strikeout in 120 innings and is a capable ace.
In his first season with the Rays, Eflin has benefited from the Rays’ pitching magic and led the AL in victories with 16, while tossing a career-best 172⅔ innings, walking 24 and striking out 186, also the best of his career.
Civale came over from the Cleveland Guardians at the trade deadline and hasn’t found his stride just yet. He had a 2.34 ERA with 22 walks and 58 strikeouts in 77 innings with the Guardians, then a 5.36 ERA with 11 walks and 58 strikeouts in 45⅓ innings with the Rays.
4. Twins: Lopez, Gray, Ryan
While not really being challenged en route to the AL Central title and a matchup against the Toronto Blue Jays, the Minnesota Twins put up the second-best ERA by starters in MLB at 3.82, just behind the San Diego Padres‘ 3.69. As a group, Twins pitchers led MLB in strikeouts. So as their pitchers go, so go the Twins.
Right-handers Pablo López, Sonny Gray and Joe Ryan made virtually every start this season, with Ryan missing three. Lopez came to the Twins in an offseason trade with the Miami Marlins for Luis Arraez, a trade the worked out well for both teams.
Lopez did pretty much what the Twins were expecting. In tossing a career-high 194 innings, Lopez struck out a career-best 234 (No. 3 in MLB) and walked 48, establishing ace credentials.
Gray has a little postseason experience (two starts with the Oakland A’s and two with the New York Yankees), with the savvy of a top-of-the-rotation starter. Gray was outstanding this season with a 2.79 ERA and an MLB-best 2.83 FIP. He walked 55 and struck out 183 in 184 innings. After a terrific 2022, Ryan hasn’t been as dominant as Lopez and Gray, posting a 4.51 ERA with 34 walks and 197 strikeouts in 161⅔ innings.
3. Blue Jays: Gausman, Berrios, Bassitt
Everyone knows the names of the Toronto Blue Jays‘ hitters, but it was because of their pitchers that the team earned a date against the Twins in the AL Wild Card Series. The Jays’ starters were just behind the Twins with a 3.85 starters ERA, third-best in MLB, and the staff ERA was 3.87, sixth-best in MLB.
Right-handers Kevin Gausman, José Berríos and Chris Bassitt have been as durable and productive as any top three in MLB. Gausman is a top AL Cy Young Award candidate for the third straight season, with a 3.16 ERA and 55 walks and 236 strikeouts, which ranked second in MLB. Gausman has unlocked his success in his last three seasons—in 2021 with the San Francisco Giants and the last two with the Jays.
Berrios bounced back from a rough 2022 to register a 3.65 ERA with 52 walks and 184 strikeouts in 189⅔ innings. Berrios still yields a few too many runners to be truly elite as he had a 1.186 WHIP. Bassitt was on this list last year with the New York Mets and his numbers were pretty similar this year. In exactly 200 innings, he walked 59 and struck out 186. If the Jays could opt to use a left-hander, Yusei Kikuchi could step in and be a factor.
2. Brewers: Burnes, Woodruff, Peralta
Right-handers Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff and Freddy Peralta have been on a roll over the last two months and carry that momentum into the postseason. They line up to face the Arizona Diamondbacks in NL Wild Card Series after the Milwaukee Brewers won the NL Central for the third time in six seasons to go along with two wild-card berths.
Burnes, the NL Pitcher of the Month for July, hasn’t been as dominant as he was en route to the 2021 NL Cy Young Award, yet he has been the backbone of this rotation. The 28-year-old had a 10-start winless streak before finally getting on the right side of the ledger in his next-to-last start of the regular season.
Despite not getting the W’s, Burnes posted a 3.42 ERA in that stretch and finished with a 3.39 ERA, the highest since his disastrous 2019 season. Burnes struck out 200 in 193⅔ innings, notching at least 200 K’s for the third straight season. He led the NL in WHIP at 1.069.
Woodruff made just two starts before going on the injured list with right shoulder inflammation. The 30-year-old came back in August and has a stellar 2.28 ERA with 15 walks and 74 strikeouts in 67 innings. Woodruff, who has the only complete game for the Brewers this season in a Sept. 11 shutout of the Miami Marlins, has allowed two or fewer runs in all but two of his 11 starts and looks to be fresh for the postseason considering the time he missed.
Peralta, the underrated member of this trio, has been especially sharp the last two months of the season. The 27-year-old was named NL Pitcher of the Month for August after winning all five starts with a 2.10 ERA and 46 strikeouts in 30 innings. He has followed that up with a 3.38 ERA in five September starts, not including his last outing in which he lasted just three innings due to illness. That offset a bad May (5.61 ERA) and subpar June (4.77 ERA).
1. Atlanta: Fried, Strider, Elder (Wright)
There are amazing numbers everywhere you look regarding this year’s Atlanta team. It applies not only to what Atlanta’s hitters have done, but what the pitchers have accomplished, too, en route to the best record in MLB and a bye to the NL Division Series.
Even with right-hander Charlie Morton out until at least the League Championship Series due to a sprained right index finger, left-hander Max Fried and right-handers Spencer Strider and Bryce Elder will be enough to give the defending World Series champions a shot in any game.
Fried, in particular, has been excellent. After missing about three months with a strained left forearm, he returned and picked up right where he left off. Fried finished the season with an 8-1 record and 2.55 ERA, with 18 walks and 80 strikeouts in 77⅔ innings. He went on the 15-day injured list due to a blister and is expected to be ready for the NL Division Series.
Strider, who finished runner-up in the 2022 NL Rookie of the Year voting to teammate Michael Harris II, took a big step toward becoming the next Atlanta ace. Not only did he lead the majors with 20 wins, but he struck out an MLB-best and club-record 287 in 186⅔ innings, walking 58.
Elder is the next significant piece of the Atlanta rotation that will keep the team on the elite level for the next few years. Elder, in his first full MLB season, went 12-4 this year with a 3.81 ERA, 63 walks and 128 strikeouts in 174⅔ innings.