Even though the Pittsburgh Pirates currently sit in second place in the National League Central behind possibly the best team in MLB, the St. Louis Cardinals, fans of the Pirates can at least breath easily because of the 7.5 game lead in the Wild Card standings.
Considering the Wild Card winners have to play a one-game playoff to decide who advances to the “real” playoffs, I think it’s time to discuss who the Pirates would select as their starting pitcher for a potential one-game playoff. The Pirates could certainly win the NL Central, but at this point it seems more likely that they sneak in as the first or second Wild Card team.
Before the season started, I wouldn’t have expected to even be having this discussion; but if you would have asked me who would start for the Pirates in a one-game playoff, I would have said A.J. Burnett. Now I’m not so sure he’s the best option.
Burnett has been good this season, with a 3.05 ERA and a 3.14 xFIP. He has spent a few weeks on the 15-day disabled list, but for the most part, he has been a healthy player throughout his career. His 9.73 K/9 ranks among the best in the NL among starting pitchers.
Another candidate would be surprising All-Star Jeff Locke. The Pirates’ southpaw is 8-2 on the season with a 2.15 ERA. Locke has also been very lucky, shown by his 4.27 xFIP and .228 BABIP against him. His 83.3 percent stand rate is also extremely high and unsustainable. Also, he is still very young and inexperienced. I wouldn’t want to put the pressure of starting the first Pirates’ playoff game in 20 years on his shoulders.
The final legitimate candidate, and probably the best choice, is Francisco Liriano. The veteran lefty signed with the Pirates over the offseason and has been one of the best pitchers in the NL. He missed the first month of the season due to a broken non-pitching arm, but he has been great since he returned. In 76.2 innings, he is 9-3 with a 2.00 ERA and a 3.00 xFIP. His 1.9 WAR ranks highest among Pirates’ pitchers. He strikes a lot of batters out (9.39 K/9) and induces a bunch of ground balls (51.5 percent). He doesn’t give up a lot of home runs, with just a 0.35 HR/9, and only six percent of the fly balls he allows end up being home runs.
Burnett is the clubhouse leader of the Pirates; he is a veteran, and he has the most postseason experience. However, he simply hasn’t been the best pitcher for the Pirates this season. While I think the Pirates would choose to start Burnett if this scenario ends up happening, I think Liriano would be the best choice.