Which Team Has the Best Rotation in the National League?
"I think, therefore I am. I pitch well, therefore I am very good at baseball." That is the famous quote from renowned French philosopher René Descartes. You won't find the second half of this in your textbooks, but that's because it was stricken from the record by tee-ball enthusiasts in the 1800's. Nonetheless, Descartes' 1644 declaration remains true today.
This is why we must ask the question: who has the best starting rotation in the National League? Things seem to be wide open right now in the senior circuit with no team separating themselves from the rest of the pack. As we enter the second half of the season, it may just end up being which team has the best hurlers that will fight its way to the World Series.
The only problem with this question is that there's no definitive answer about which team is superior on the bump. Today, we'll solve this conundrum through wizardry and copious amounts of the lethal drug known as stats.
Throughout this, I'll be citing a couple of statistics. The first (and coolest) one is nERD. In this case, for pitchers, nERD is the number of runs that a pitcher would allow below an average pitcher if they were to pitch an entire game. So, a nERD of 2.00 means Pitcher X would be expected to allow 2.00 runs less than a league-average pitcher over the course of a game. For more on nERD, you can click here.
I'll also be talking about FIP. FIP, or fielding-independent pitching, is a measure of a pitcher's effectiveness based on the number of home runs, walks and hit batters they allow as well as the strikeouts they record. It's a pretty saucy stat that can control for the horridness of the defense behind them. Now, let's get this baby poppin'.
St. Louis Cardinals
Starter ERA: 3.09 | FIP: 3.38 | Strikeouts Per Nine Innings: 7.68 | Walks Per Nine Innings: 2.80
I have to admit: I've got a little bit of a man-crush developing for Adam Wainwright. And when I say "little," I mean big as all get-up. I already gushed over him in this week's power rankings, but then he went all silly last night and put the Dodgers in a little tizzy. Brudduh has been unconscious as of late.
Let's briefly recap Wainwright's dominance. Even though he received the loss last night (#KillTheWin), Wainwright went eight innings, allowing just one run on five hits with seven strikeouts. This brought his season ERA down to 2.01 with a 2.36 FIP, putting him second in the league in both categories. In his last four starts, Wainwright has thrown eight innings three times and seven the other outing, allowing only four runs total over that time.
The problem for the Cards is that the injuries are starting to pile up. They just placed both Michael Wacha and Jaime Garcia on the disabled list this week, and Joe Kelly has missed the last two months with a hamstring injury. Kelly is set to make a rehab start for Triple-A Memphis today which should help, but the staff has taken a very serious hit.
This just means there will be even more pressure on Carlos Martinez. In two starts since being inserted in the rotation, Martinez has gone nine total innings, allowing three runs on five hits with eight strikeouts and five walks. His 0.98 nERD isn't bad for a guy that's asked to fill in, but if Wacha and Garcia end up being out for an extended period of time, their placement on this list could be in jeopardy.
Starter ERA: 3.38 | FIP: 3.28 | Strikeouts Per Nine Innings: 7.83 | Walks Per Nine Innings: 2.17
This seemed to be the most obvious option in the N.L., considering the depth of the talent the Nats have. The best part? That talent is living up to expectations across the board.
Of their five starters, only two have an ERA above 3.00: Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez. For Strasburg, his last two starts haven't exactly gone as planned. Over 10.2 innings, he has allowed 11 runs on 17 hits. Even with that, Strasburg still has a 3.70 ERA, a 2.77 FIP and a 2.48 nERD (the fourth highest among all pitchers).
Gonzalez missed a month due to injury, but is finally starting to pick it back up again. Against the Brewers earlier this week, Gio allowed no runs on three hits over six innings while walking four and striking out five. Add a healthy version of him to the triumvirate of Tanner Roark, Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister, and you've got yourself a bangin' little group of hooligans.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Starter ERA: 3.09 | FIP: 3.64 | Strikeouts Per Nine Innings: 7.94 | Walks Per Nine Innings: 2.11
No-hitters are good things. The Dodgers are collectors of good things. They are also players of good baseball.
Any time you can re-add a guy like Clayton Kershaw to your rotation, things are going to be all right. In 11 starts, Kershaw has a 2.24 ERA, a 1.59 FIP, 11.70 strikeouts per nine and 1.12 walks. Are you kidding me? When you factor all of that in with his 61.4 ground-ball rate, you get a killer package.
I mentioned earlier that Adam Wainwright received the loss despite allowing one run in eight innings. The reason he got that loss was Josh Beckett. Beckett went seven shutout innings, his second consecutive such outing. Beckett has allowed zero runs in seven of his 15 starts this season to bring his season ERA to 2.11. However, his FIP sits at 3.77, indicating he could be due for a regression. But at 34 years old, even a Beckett performing below where he is now is still a ridiculous return for the Dodgers.
The reason the Dodgers are even in this discussion, though, is their depth. Even with his stellar numbers, Beckett has probably still only been the fourth best starter on the team. Zack Grienke and Hyun-Jin Ryu both have nERD's above 1.70 with Greinke at 2.13 and Ryu at 1.72. They also both have walks-per-nine rates below 2.00, helping the Dodgers have the lowest team walk rate in the N.L.
Starter ERA: 3.78 | FIP: 3.31 | Strikeouts Per Nine Innings: 8.37 | Walks Per Nine Innings: 2.86
"What? How could a team with a .429 winning percentage and only the league's ninth-best ERA possibly have the best pitching staff in the N.L.? Get out of here, you drunk Cubbie-homer." Shush, you! I ain't 'bout dat life, boss. The Cubs are just way better than they appear on the surface.
The Cubs starters as a whole have the highest strikeouts-per-nine innings and the second lowest FIP in the N.L. Their bigger issue has been fielding, and an offense that is still very much in the works. The Cubs rank 11th in the N.L. in Ultimate Zone Rating per 150 games, a FanGraphs stat that measures the number of runs a team saves defensively over the course of 150 games. The team also ranks 14th in weighted on-base average, coupling with the defensive tom-foolery to completely devalue a stout starting staff.
Earlier this week, numberFire's Garrett Chiado took a look at Jake Arrieta's dominance this season, saying that Arrieta is the real deal. I couldn't agree more. His 2.05 ERA, 2.10 FIP and 10.11 strikeouts per nine may not all stick at their current values, but the dude has tossed dumpster-dandy filth in his first ten starts.
The main problem the Cubs have, and the reason they (spoiler alert!) won't end up being named the best staff in the N.L., is they lack the depth of the teams like the Nationals and the Dodgers. After Arrieta, Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel, the drop-off is significant. However, the top three guys in the Cubs' rotation are just as good as almost any other team in the league.
Starter ERA: 3.31 | FIP: 3.46 | Strikeouts Per Nine Innings: 7.98 | Walks Per Nine Innings: 2.58
I fear I may tear my UCL just typing about the Braves rotation. After all of the injuries they've had, to still be putting up the numbers they have is unfathomable.
As of right now, the team ranks third in ERA, fourth in FIP and second in strikeouts per nine innings. They don't have a Kershaw or a Wainwright to prop up the stats of the entire staff - it's just that everybody is getting the job done. Imagine how they'd be if it weren't for the injuries. This team would not only be one of the best in the N.L., but they'd give the Oakland A's a run for their money as well.
I'm going to cop out. My bad. I would say that the Dodgers have been the best pitching staff in the league so far this season, but they're not the group I'd want from here on out. That honor would go to the Nationals. At the end of the day, the depth of the Nationals is just too much for other teams to overcome. Once Strasburg gets back on track and starts performing like he did earlier this year...and last year...and the year before that, this team will be unstoppable. Put them in the playoffs with a rotation as good as this one, and they will make some serious noise.