On Monday, I posted an article submitting four questions about the Twins' playoff roster for consideration. The topic that seemed to generate the most discussion was which starting pitcher might get the nod to start Game 4 of the ALDS, should there be one.
Right now, the choice appears to be between Nick Blackburn, Kevin Slowey, Scott Baker or the Game 1 starter on short rest. None of those options seem all that unappealing, which is a good sort of conundrum to face. I can't claim to know what the right answer is at this very point in time, and if you think you do, you're probably wrong.
Ron Gardenhire made his current preference clear yesterday, laying out a planned playoff rotation that includes Blackburn as fourth starter. Gardenhire left the door open for adjustments based on what happens over the team's final handful of regular season games, but for now Blackburn stands at the front of the line for that fourth rotation spot in October.
Is Gardy on the right track?
All things being equal, you want Baker or Slowey to pitch a big game before you want Blackburn. They're better pitchers, capable of controlling a lineup with strikeouts unlike Blackburn who allows an insane amount of contact and can only dictate to a certain degree whether those copious balls in play turn into outs. Against a team filled with outstanding hitters like the Yankees or Rays, you want the guy who can get you some essentially guaranteed outs.
But all things are not currently equal. Blackburn has been steadily excellent since returning from a minor-league stint, with a hugely increased ground ball rate and a pair of strong outings against a playoff team. Meanwhile, Baker hasn't pitched into the sixth inning of a game in nearly a month and has been bothered by a sore elbow.
Slowey has battled arm issues late in the season as well, and while he's occasionally flashed brilliance he has yet to settle into a prolonged groove. While Slowey's overall numbers are drastically better than Blackburn's this year, it bears noting that Blackburn has delivered 13 quality starts to Slowey's nine. That includes four against AL playoff teams for Blackburn, one for Slowey.
A hardcore sabermetrician likely will not waver in claiming that Baker should be the guy, regardless of performance over these final games. After all, according to advanced statistics that filter out luck and defense, Baker's been the team's second-best starter this season.
The problem with strictly statistical analysis is that it tends to ignore the human aspects of the game. These aren't robots out there playing. Sometimes streaks can be meaningful. Guys have confidence highs and lows. They go through stretches where their mechanics get out of whack. They pitch through injuries that affect their results.
This might sound like a major endorsement of Blackburn, and it's not meant to be. I've been as low as anyone on the right-hander this season, and there was a point where the thought of him starting a postseason game would have induced nausea for me. But we know he's a streaky pitcher and right now he's undeniably going good. If he unravels in his final starts while his competitors excel and prove they're fully healthy, you re-evaluate. If no one looks up to the challenge, maybe a start from Francisco Liriano on three days rest is the most logical choice.
Above all, I'd encourage everyone to keep an open mind. The right answer now could very well differ from the right answer on October 6th. Only one matters.