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Is Yu the Man? The issue of the #1 starter in the playoffs

Who are the Rangers going to go with as their #1 starter in the playoffs?

Kevin Jairaj-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

Richard Durrett has a blog post up at ESPN Dallas, asking the question, who will be the Rangers' #1 starter come playoff time (assuming, of course, they win the A.L. West and can set up their rotation for the playoffs)?

We know that the four playoff starters* will be Yu Darvish, Ryan Dempster, Matt Harrison, and Derek Holland...we just don't know what order the Rangers will deploy them in. And there's arguments that can be, and have been, made for all four of them as the #1 starter.

* As I pointed out a few days back, there's the possibility the Rangers will have to use a fifth starter for Game 2 of the ALCS, if they make it that far, but we don't have to deal with that right now.

First, stats for the four from Baseball-Reference:

1 SP Matt Harrison* 26 18 10 .643 3.26 31 31 4 2 207.1 204 79 75 21 58 0 128 1 138 1.264
2 SP Yu Darvish 25 16 9 .640 3.90 28 28 0 0 184.2 147 86 80 13 88 1 214 10 115 1.273
3 SP Derek Holland* 25 11 6 .647 4.50 27 26 0 0 166.0 147 90 83 30 48 0 140 3 100 1.175
6 SP Ryan Dempster 35 7 2 .778 4.48 10 10 0 0 60.1 61 34 30 8 20 0 60 1 101 1.343
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 9/28/2012.

And from FanGraphs:

Yu Darvish 16 9 28 28 184.2 10.43 4.29 0.63 0.290 70.1% 46.4% 8.8% 3.90 3.30 3.56 4.9
Matt Harrison 18 10 31 31 207.1 5.56 2.52 0.91 0.284 78.8% 49.0% 10.3% 3.26 4.04 4.17 3.7
Derek Holland 11 6 27 26 166.0 7.59 2.60 1.63 0.254 69.2% 43.5% 15.3% 4.50 4.69 4.07 1.8
Ryan Dempster 7 2 10 10 60.1 8.95 2.98 1.19 0.315 67.8% 45.9% 11.9% 4.48 3.89 3.79 1.2

The case for Yu Darvish as the #1 starter come playoff time is pretty straightforward: he has the best stuff on the team, he's got the best peripherals on the team, and you paid him $110 million because you thought he could be a legitimate ace. None of the other choices are guys who are legit #1s on a playoff team. You can argue about whether Darvish is or not right now, but at the very least, he's the only pitcher out of these four who at least has the potential to be a legit #1 starter.

The case against Yu is that this is his first season in the majors, he's never pitched in the playoffs before, he's not immune to pressure (recall his first inning against Seattle in his first major league start), and he has a tendency to run up his pitch counts, which raises the possibility of having to use your bullpen more than you'd like right out of the box. I think there's also a legitimate case to be made that his ERA is more indicative of how he has performed than his FIP, given that his BABIP is only .290, and given that his problems seem to stem from big innings where he completely loses command of his fastball.

The case for Matt Harrison as the #1 starter boils down to, he's had the best ERA on the team this season, and he's pitched in the playoffs before. He's not been great in the playoffs, but he does have some playoff experience.

The problem I have with Harrison as your #1 starter in the playoffs, though, is that he doesn't miss bats. Harrison has the lowest strikeout rate of any of the four pitchers who will be starting playoff games for the Rangers. He compensates for that by not walking many batters and getting a lot of ground balls -- he has the lowest walk rate and the highest ground ball percentage of any of the Rangers' options. But I think that, come playoff time, you'd like someone who can get strikeouts when you need them.

The case for Ryan Dempster is that he's your Colby Lewis of 2012. If Lewis were still healthy, in fact, I probably wouldn't even be writing this post...Lewis, I suspect, would be the team's #1 starter if he were active and pitching halfway decently. He's your Proven Veteran Starter, and if you're looking for experience from the person heading up the staff for the postseason, he's the clear choice.

The case against Dempster is that he's really not all that great. Yeah, he had a 2.25 ERA for the Cubs this season, but his career ERA+ is 99, and he has a 4.48 ERA since coming to Texas. He's just a guy, and while he's been huge in helping to cover a hole in what was a leaky Ranger rotation, he's not someone you roll out in Game 1 of the playoffs. And as far as experience goes, he has less postseason experience than either Harrison or Hollland, with 5.2 innings over one start and one relief outing, with a 6.35 ERA.

Then there's Derek Holland. The case for him: Game 4 of the World Series, and that's the only argument I need, Shawn!

Realistically, though, Holland has the worst case for being the Game 1 starter this year of any of the Rangers' options. Yes, there's Game 4 of the 2011 World Series. But there was also the famous meltdown in the World Series against the Giants, where he couldn't throw strikes, and his two awful outings against the Tigers in the 2011 ALCS, which resulted in him losing his #3 starter spot to Matt Harrison for the World Series. Holland has been the weakest of the four Rangers starters in terms of ERA and FIP this season, and he's prone to the sort of meltdowns that you just can't afford from your Game 1 starter.

Really, I think Holland is a perfect Game 4 starter for a 7 game series. If he struggles, well, the other team's Game 4 starter is probably someone like Rick Porcello or Freddy Garcia or Ross Detwiler, so you're not in that bad of shape. But if he has one of his "good Holland" games, if he comes out and everything is clicking, he is capable of shutting down the opposition and giving you a huge edge against the other team's scrub. And it also puts you in a position where you can utilize him as a reliever in a Game 7, if needed.

I still think the Rangers will set up their postseason rotation, if they can, with Darvish going in Game 1, followed by Harrison, Dempster and Holland. It wouldn't offend me if they made Harrison the #1 starter, or Holland the #2 or #3 behind Darvish...I don't think there's a huge spread in what to expect from these guys, other than Darvish, who I do think is the pitcher most capable of performing like an ace.

But I guess we'll find out soon enough which way the Rangers want to go...