As postseason auditions go, the weekend turns of Julio Teheran and Sean Newcomb weren’t encouraging. Teheran issued a career-worst six walks in four innings Saturday; a day later, Newcomb yielded five runs in three. These would seem the leading – word used advisedly – candidates to start Game 4 of the Division Series, and we note that Game 4 of a best-of-five is always an elimination game for somebody. And here we say, “Ouch.”
No, the Braves haven’t yet assured themselves of a playoff berth. They entered Monday’s game against St. Louis with a 6 ½-game lead over Philadelphia in the National League East. With 13 games left, their magic number is eight. Theoretically, they could blow this. Realistically, they won’t.
Asked about his playoff rotation Monday, manager Brian Snitker spoke the expected words, some of which might even be true. “I’m concerned with today, and honestly I haven’t looked ahead to see if we need to tweak anything,” he said. “I feel like we need to worry about today.”
Still, general manager Alex Anthopoulos said – back in July! – that his team had to be ready to pitch through October. For the Braves, October figures to begin with the NLDS against the Rockies or the Dodgers. And the rotation figures to look like this: Game 1, Mike Foltynewicz; Game 2, Kevin Gausman; Game 3, Anibal Sanchez.
That marks a change from what was posited in this space before Labor Day. I still wasn’t sure Gausman’s uptick since arriving from Baltimore was for real, but his National League excellence – his ERA as a Brave is 2.61 – cannot be denied. Sanchez began the season as a fifth starter plucked from the scrap heap, but over the fullness of 5 ½ months he has been the team’s second-best pitcher.
Game 4 is where it gets intriguing. Some teams – mostly those down 2-1 – bring back their Game 1 pitcher on three days’ rest. Others deploy a fourth starter. As we speak, the Braves would choose between Teheran and Newcomb. Teheran has the slightly better ERA (3.97 to 4.04) but a lower strikeout rate and, believe it or not, a higher walk rate. The sabermetric set sees FIP (fielding independent pitching) as a key indicator, and Teheran’s is an alarming 4.82. Newcomb’s is 4.18.
Trouble is, Newcomb has been mostly awful since the almost no-hitter of July 29. His August ERA was 6.75; his September ERA is 6.08. He has great stuff, yes, but he ranks 66th among 67 qualifying MLB starters in first-strike percentage. (Thank goodness for Gio Gonzalez.) With every plate appearance magnified, do you trust someone who walks guys on his better days and who hasn’t been very good for two months?
The guess now – again, different from the late-August one – is that Newcomb won’t make the Round 1 rotation or roster. Two weeks ago, I wondered if he’d have postseason value as a strike-’em-out reliever, but the Braves appear to grooming another young pitcher for that purpose. Snitker used Touki Toussaint in relief after Teheran’s aborted start Saturday. It was a forgettable outing – one inning, two hits, four walks, three runs – but it surely signified something.
Remember how Snitker isn’t looking beyond today? With Toussaint, he conceded he was. “I just was curious to see him in that role,” he said. “We’ve talked about him in that role even before we brought him up here as a starter.”
Two things that cannot be overrated in October – bullpens and strikeout pitchers. Clayton Kershaw, whom the Braves could well see in Game 1 of the NLDS, is the best pitcher of his generation; in 19 postseason starts he has worked seven innings in only four of them. In the regular season, being a long reliever is grunt work; in the playoffs, three strong innings by the long man can right a game going wrong. There was a time when I thought that man could be Newcomb; now I’m thinking it’ll be Toussaint, who only just got here.
Would I be comfortable starting Teheran in a Game 4 with the Braves facing elimination? No, I wouldn’t. Two years ago, he walked 41 men over 188 innings; this year he has walked 79 in 163 1/3. Per Brooks Baseball, his four-seamer has averaged 89 mph in August and September, which means he has to try and miss bats by fooling people. Said Snitker after the six walks Saturday: “He’s trying to hit spots and not give in.”
There is, however, this: Game 4 of the NLDS is apt to be on the road. If the venue is Dodger Stadium, Teheran mightn’t be the greatest choice. He’s 0-4 in career starts there with an ERA of 5.92. If it’s Coors Field, then you’re talking. He’s 1-1 in four Denver starts with an ERA of 2.92.
And there’s this: You can bring back your Game 1 starter on short rest only if he hasn’t worn himself out in Game 1. Foltynewicz has topped 100 pitches 16 times in 28 starts. He mightn’t be a viable Game 4 option.
The bottom line, then: The man who has started five consecutive Opening Days for this franchise mightn’t be the guy any Braves fan would most like to see take the ball in a vital October game, but Julio Teheran stands to be the Game 4 choice. With Touki Toussaint getting looses as soon as the National Anthem ends.