Let's ignore for the moment that the Rangers have muddied the picture on their postseason future over the last week and that the cardiac kids from Anaheim, with three walk-off wins in their last five games, could wind up winning the division.
We'll put those very real fears aside and assume the Rangers make it to the postseason. We know that C.J. Wilson and Alexi Ogando will be making starts in October and we assume that Matt Harrison's performance has been good enough to put him on the mound in one of the other games. If all that is true, who starts the fourth game?
Colby Lewis has long been the obvious choice over Holland, but that picture has grown hazier. Lewis got tuned up by the Red Sox on Tuesday night, allowing seven runs and nine hits over six innings en route to an 11-5 loss. It's tempting to write off Lewis's start as a blip on the screen against a talented team, but the numbers don't really back that up.
For one thing, Lewis has been awful at home all season long. He now has a 5.56 ERA in Arlington and has allowed 20 home runs in 79.1 innings this season. Holland's ERA isn't much better, but he has let up only six homers in his own appearances at the home park this year.
Home stats aren't everything, though, especially not when the fourth game of the first round will be on the road. Both Lewis and Holland have done much better away from home, with Lewis posting a 2.76 ERA and Holland throwing three of his four shutouts as a visiting pitcher. So let's delve deeper.
Holland lags behind Lewis when it comes to strikeout and walk rates, yet he still has a better FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching, i.e. stuff pitchers control on their own) than Lewis because of all the home runs. Holland has also experienced worse luck when it comes to balls in play leading to a .316 batting average on those plays against a .255 mark for Lewis.
Those numbers tell you that there isn't as wide a gulf between the pitchers as you might assume when looking at their superficial results over the course of the season. Lewis has more experience thanks to last year's playoff run, but experience can only do so much to overcome a superior arm.
Is Holland a superior arm, though? He has mixed the thrillingly good with the dismal this season so often that it is foolish to even proffer a guess about how an individual start might play out. That would seem to make him a poor choice to start a playoff game, until you realize that Lewis really hasn't been any more consistent.
Lewis' lows haven't been as low as Holland's, but neither have his highs. If they were, there really wouldn't be a question about who should stay in the rotation come the postseason. Lewis would get the edge because of his past record, his present record and the fact that he is less likely to totally implode on the mound.
If the playoffs opened today, Lewis would probably be the choice for that last reason. The Rangers have improved their bullpen enough that they should be able to survive a mediocre start while a Holland meltdown would almost certainly be too much to overcome. (Read another point of view on this from Red Fever blogger Adam Boedeker.)
The playoffs don't start today, though, and this has to be viewed as an open question. There's still enough time left in the regular season for either of the candidates to swing things in their favor definitively and make the choice about who to take on a postseason run easier.
Assuming, of course, that there is a postseason run in the Rangers' future this time around.