Choosing The Game 1 Starter

**ORIGINAL POSTED DATE 9/18/12**

After the 162 game marathon that is the MLB season is over, the sprint of the MLB playoffs begins. After playing down the significance of singular moments for five months, those singular moments take center stage for four weeks with significance that cannot be overstated. After each game has been considered no more important than another, one game takes on the ultimate significance: Game 1. With the significance of the one game comes the significance of its most important participant: the Game 1 starting pitcher.

In 2010, the Texas Rangers acquired Cliff Lee for the express purpose of anchoring the Game 1 starter position, which he did with unmatched success, especially in the American League Division Series and American League Championship Series. In 2011, the Rangers’ Game 1 starter was C.J. Wilson, who had earned it with his regular season performance. His results as the Game 1 starter were less than satisfactory, but the decision to put him at the start of the rotation for the postseason could not be doubted.

In 2012, the Rangers have no clear-cut Game 1 starter like they had in 2010 and 2011.  

One thing that is known is that, barring any injuries, the Rangers will opt to use a four-man starting rotation in the playoffs as they did in 2010 and 2011. It is also apparent that those four starters will be (in no particular order): Derek Holland, Matt Harrison, Ryan Dempster, and Yu Darvish. Each of those four may have a claim to the position of Game 1 starter, but none of them are the obvious choice. This dichotomy could be seen as a strength in that the Rangers playoff rotation is a true four deep in quality. It could also be viewed as a weakness that Texas lacks a true #1, or Ace. Here are the arguments for each of these four to be the Game 1 starter:

Derek Holland

While Holland is the low man on this totem pole, he is not without defense in a claim that he should be toeing the rubber once playoff baseball begins. Of all the members of the Rangers pitching staff, Holland is the only one who to have had playoff success in a Texas uniform. The last start he made in the postseason was one of the greatest pitching performances in Rangers history. Holland did not carry that success directly into the 2012 season, as his 4.50 ERA is a testament to. However, just like in 2011, Holland has seemingly saved his best for last, as in his last seven starts he has pitched 48.1 innings with a 2.98 ERA, allowing 35 hits and 9 walks against 46 strikeouts. In his much-heralded 9-1 finish to the 2011 season, Holland had a 3.06 ERA, while giving up more hits and walks, and tallying a comparable number of strikeouts. Holland could be poised to be a big-time playoff performer for Texas once again.

Matt Harrison

Harrison’s biggest obstacle to laying uncontested claim to the role of Game 1 starter is simply that he doesn’t pitch the way that one often thinks of Game 1 starters pitching. Harrison has one of the lowest strikeout rates in the league, meaning he relies on pitching to contact and inducing ground balls to get the majority of his outs. In a playoff setting, the offenses that a pitcher faces are usually above league average, and so relying on pitching to contact can be a recipe for disaster. However, perusing the possible ALDS matchups for the Rangers, you’ll notice potential opponents like Baltimore, Tampa Bay, and Oakland, all of which have a team batting average below .250, and rank amongst the six worst offensive teams in the American League. If the Rangers match up against a poor offensive team, pitching to contact is less threating, and Harrison’s ability to minimize damage by walking very few batters and inducing double plays may give the Rangers the best chance to win a ball game, just as he did on Sunday against Seattle. One thing is indisputable – Harrison has been the Rangers’ best starting pitcher in 2012.

Ryan Dempster

The eldest statesman of the Rangers’ pitching rotation, Dempster will look to bring a veteran influence to the playoff outlook. Dempster pitches like a Colby Lewis lite, in that he does not appear to be incredibly impressive to the eye while on the mound, but he grinds out quality start after quality start. In his last five starts for Texas, Dempster has a 1.91 ERA. In terms of stuff, Dempster falls well behind the Rangers’ other three playoff starters. But what he lacks in stuff, he makes up for in experience. The Rangers may look to him to be the steady hand that leads the way for the young guns to follow behind, just as Colby Lewis and Cliff Lee did in 2011 and 2010.

Yu Darvish

Without question, Darvish is the most exciting of the Rangers starting pitchers. It is obvious that Darvish has the best swing-and-miss stuff in the rotation, and when he was signed by the Rangers the intention was that one day he would be the clear Ace on the staff. What is in question is whether he has matured and acclimated enough to the MLB atmosphere to be prepared for the pressure of starting his first ever playoff game as a Game 1 starter. Darvish is certainly making a convincing argument for himself in the stretch run of the regular season, seemingly rising to every occasion presented to him. In his last six starts, Darvish has pitched 42.2 innings with a 2.32 ERA, allowing 22 hits and 13 walks, while striking out 51. If he continues to display the command, repertoire, and effectiveness that he has, he very well may give the Rangers the best chance to take a 1-0 lead in a Division Series.

The reality of the matter is that the Game 1 starter is still to be determined, based on the final two or three performances that each pitcher turns in as the regular season comes to a close. Texas may simply just choose to ride the hot hand. Given that there is no certified Ace on the staff, the proper decision is to put whoever gives the Rangers the best chance to win on the mound in Game 1. The good news for the Rangers is that each of these four starters has pitched well into September, and that all four can give the Rangers a chance to win, each in their own way.  

Peter Ellwood is a Senior Staff Writer for Shutdown Inning. You can email him at Peter.Ellwood@shutdowninning.com or reach him on Twitter @FutureGM
Peter Ellwood

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