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Analyzing baseball's best arms
One of the most prominent baseball movies of my lifetime, The Sandlot, celebrated its 20th anniversary this past April. While characters like Benny “The Jet” Rodriguez, Squints Palledorous and Ham Porter are famously recalled from the coming-of-age film, one cast member who flew under the radar was Kenny DeNunez, the hurler for the boys’ playground squad. I loved DeNunez for two reasons: 1) He owned a killer Kansas City Monarchs hat 2) He possessed the best mechanics of any pitcher in cinematic history (sorry, Ricky “Wild Thing” Vaughn, it’s true). Regrettably, DeNunez never received his proper due. Hell, “the Beast” is evoked more often that DeNunez’s role.
DeNunez’s major-league equivalents feel his pain. The continuing brilliance of Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout, Chris Davis’ transformation from slugger to hitting savant, Domonic Brown’s long-ball tear, Joey Votto’s plate virtuosity, the emergence of Paul Goldschmidt and, as of late, the Yasiel Puig Experience, have captured the spotlight through a third of the season, yet it’s the performance of those on the rubber that should be the main story emitting from the diamond.
At the beginning of Wednesday play, there were 37 - 37! - starting arms with an ERA under 3.30 (minimum 50 innings). Amazingly, this catalog doesn’t include rotation bosses like Justin Verlander, Johnny Cueto (2.17 ERA but only 37 1/3 innings), Gio Gonzalez, C.C. Sabathia, Matt Cain, Cole Hamels or reigning Cy Young winners R.A. Dickey and David Price. One could make a case that pitching dexterity hasn’t hit such levels since the lowering of mounds in 1969.
It’s inconceivable that all 37 pitchers will prolong this artistry throughout the summer, but how to decipher between the studs and the charlatans? Here’s a forecast for baseball’s best arms for the rest of the 2013 campaign:
Clayton Kershaw, Jordan Zimmermann, Adam Wainwright, Felix Hernandez, Cliff Lee, Mat Latos, Stephen Strasburg, Yu Darvish, Chris Sale
Suspect there’s little push back on Kershaw, Hernandez, and Lee, with Wainwright given the nod after a second of hesitation from his Tommy John surgery in 2011. Perhaps overshadowed by Strasburg, I don’t think fans truly appreciate how dominant Zimmermann has been over his career, flaunting a 2.83 ERA and 1.10 WHIP over the last three seasons. Speaking of which, Strasburg’s injury concern comes to the forefront when conjuring the fireballer, yet the Washington ace is expected back this weekend from a brief sidelining with a lat issue, and has proven relatively durable the past two years. While risk will always be associated with a pitcher capable of blazing speed, the ailment fervor over Strasburg is not warranted.
Some would call for a bigger sample size from Darvish and Sale, though little in their execution implies regression or luck. My only concern with this pair is their home digs, as U.S. Cellular Field and Rangers Ballpark facilitate the occasional fireworks display, but it’s not enough of a worry to negate each pitcher’s upside.
The one name that draws the biggest contention is Latos. Only 25, the Reds right-hander already has 118 starts under his belt and has a 2.88 ERA in his last 35 outings, despite making half his starts in a hitter-friendly environment. Working in two small-market towns hasn’t helped his fame, nor does his look and disposition do him any favors (best described as an evil street racer from the Fast and Furious franchise), but Latos should be grouped in the upper echelon of major-league cannons.
We Have Confidence, But…
Hisashi Iwakuma, Shelby Miller, Matt Harvey, James Shields, Lance Lynn, A.J. Burnett, Jeff Samardzija, Max Scherzer, Doug Fister
I’m a big proponent of Iwakuma and went back and forth on his inclusion in the first list. Unfortunately, there was too much variance in his home-and-away splits from the past two years to justify a paramount standing (1.88 ERA, 0.95 WHIP in 24 games in Seattle; 3.47 ERA, 1.25 WHIP in 20 contests on the road). That said, Detroit’s Verlander is often viewed as the best thrower in the game, and his disparity between Motown showings (21 games, 2.03 ERA) and appearances on the road (25 games, 3.75 ERA) in that same time span mirrors Iwakuma’s figures. Does Iwakuma belong in the elite tier? Is Verlander slightly overrated? Am I asking rhetorical questions simply to fill column space? For now, let’s keep Iwakuma in this lot, with a bright future on his horizon.
Have loved the presence and command of the young guns Miller and Harvey, as both have the make-up to be All-Star quality performers for a long time. Nevertheless, sabermetrics show each will likely experience a tad of retreat in the dog days of summer (Harvey’s 80.1 left-on-base percentage, 20.8 line-drive percentage versus .260 BABIP; Miller’s 82.6 LOB percentage, 3.16 xFIP against 1.91 ERA) that could coincide with a smash into a rookie wall. Keep rolling the neophytes out, merely be prepared for a step back.
Using “wins” as a pitching barometer is far from infallible, though many would be surprised to learn Lynn and Scherzer are first and second, respectively, in victories since 2012. More importantly, both pitchers have high strikeout rates and have cut back on their homer concession.
Fister’s style is reminiscent of a vanilla milkshake: you’re not overly excited to get one, but you’re always pleased with the end results, a sentiment reinforced by Fister’s 3.13 ERA and 1.13 WHIP in his last 71 games. (I always contend, usually unsuccessfully, that Fister would be more celebrated if his name wasn’t “Doug.” Hey, it’s a theory.) In the confines of PNC Park, few are better than Burnett, who has a sub-3.00 ERA and 150 punch-outs in 25 games in the Steel City the past two years.
Shields and Samardzija aren’t considered paragons of consistency, a misnomer that I’ve been guilty of buying into. The truth is Shields boasts a 3.09 ERA and 1.10 WHIP the past three seasons and hasn’t illustrated much drop-off in his transition from Tampa to Kansas City. In the Windy City, the Shark has carried over his second-half success from 2012 (2.58 ERA, 95 strikeouts in his final 87 1/3 innings) to this spring, rocking a league-leading 10.4 K/9 mark with a 3.18 ERA. Alas, a shaky bullpen and mercurial offense hinders Samardzija from reaching the next stratum on our list.
On A Heater…
Kyle Kendrick, Bartolo Colon, Jose Fernandez, Kris Medlen, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Derek Holland, Anibal Sanchez, Alex Cobb, Clay Buchholz, Mike Minor, Patrick Corbin
…And in the words of the sagacious Sid Garner, “You never walk away from the table when you're on a heater.”
Think Buchholz’s classification is too harsh? Understandable, seeing as he enters with a MLB-best 1.71 ERA in 12 starts. In one sense, this harvest isn’t totally out of left field, as Buchholz finished 2010 with a 2.33 ERA. Conversely, in his previous 43 games before this April, Buchholz had a 4.24 ERA and 1.32 WHIP, so forgive me for the lack of passion toward his first two months.
You may wonder why Fernandez and Ryu fall under this umbrella contrasted to the status held by fellow greenhorns Miller and Harvey. Ryu’s numbers are right behind the vaunted duo, and has been one of the more consistent dealers in the National League. Ryu’s 3.42 xFIP is fairly high, and, frankly, has benefited from the spaciousness of Dodger Stadium (1.50 ERA, 0.88 WHIP at home; 4.10 ERA, 1.37 on the road). Seems very Jason Vargas-y to me. As for Fernandez, he’s been good, but also has tantrums of erraticism, which will happen to 20-year-olds. Once he gets a better hold of his command (3.4 BB/9) Fernandez may find himself in the same discussion as the Harveys and Millers.
Since moving into the rotation last summer, Medlen owns a sizzling 1.89 ERA in 25 games working in a starter’s role. In spite of this excellence, his prognosis is cloudy at the moment, as Brandon Beachy’s return may move Medlen to the bullpen. Bizarre, given that he may be the best pitcher in the Atlanta frontline. Don’t confuse this as condemnation of Minor, as he’s been no slouch himself with a 0.95 WHIP in 84 2/3 innings this season, and both have been the beneficiaries of providence (Medlen: 4.26 xFIP, Minor: 3.59 xFIP). Based on personal observations, I’d rather have Medlen starting every five days for seven innings versus three appearances per week at one-inning intervals. Heaven forbid Tim Hudson and his 4.93 ERA over the last 11 games would volunteer for relief duty.
Sanchez’s 1.78 FIP supports the 29-year-old has been every bit as good as his 2.65 ERA states and more. What doesn’t endorse his winning streak to continue: a 3.70 ERA in his previous three years before 2013. Sanchez is also showing cracks in the foundation as of late, giving up 12 runs in his last 25 1/3 innings. He’s a solid pitcher who has a lights-out level few can reach in a single game. From a reliability standpoint, however, Sanchez falls short.
Final notes in this section: Arizona’s Corbin is good, but not this good. With his 3.82 xFIP nearly two runs higher than his 1.98 ERA, bad news could be off in the distance…If he can reduce the amount of bleacher shots yielded, Cobb could be an All-Star next summer…Even though Colon’s been named in the Biogenesis scandal, disciplinary action is not imminent, keeping his relevancy intact for the next few months…He’s only 26, meaning he could be hitting his stride, just have a hard time overlooking Holland’s 4.71 ERA and 1.35 WHIP in 569 major-league innings from 2009 to 2012. Ditto Kendrick – 28 years old, 3.22 ERA, 1.21 WHIP this year. Prior to this year? A 4.30 ERA, 1.36 WHIP in 164 career games.
One In A Million…
Jeff Locke, Travis Wood, Hiroki Kuroda, Alexi Ogando, Mike Leake, Ervin Santana, John Lackey, Scott Feldman
So you’re saying there’s a chance!
The majority of these are self-explanatory. For example, Jeff Locke has three dynamics against his cause:
1. His sabermetrics testify MAJOR relapse in the upcoming months, with a 3.98 FIP, 4.17xFIP, .242 BABIP and 83.9 left-on-base percentage eclipsing his 2.39 ERA.
2. He’s walking the opposition at an amplified 4.2 BB/9 rate.
3. He plays for the Pirates, signaling a second-half collapse is inevitable.
Lackey and Feldman are starting to come back to Earth, as is the Royals’ Santana (3.72 ERA, with Kanas City losing six of his last seven starts). Ogando has been sound when he’s taken the hill, but making his second stint on the disabled list with shoulder inflammation, the view is ominous on Ogando’s rest-of-season prospects. Kuroda’s rising age (turning 39 this winter), coupled with a 3.89 xFIP, doesn’t instill confidence.
Two interesting specimens do exist in Wood and Leake. Wood owns a 2.65 ERA and 1.01 WHIP, and at 26, is regarded as one of the few bright spots for the Cubbies. But Wood also owns a league-low .220 BABIP with an outrageous 4.44 xFIP, and, as previously mentioned with Samardzija, doesn’t have the most auspicious of surroundings. His temperament and construction are similar to top-flight pitchers, and maybe one day Wood will enter into their graces, but it will not be this day. Er, year.
After rookie Tony Cingrani shined in the absence of ace Cueto, many in Reds country were petitioning for Cingrani to stay with the big-league club in hopes of extraditing Leake from the rotation. A former first-round draft pick that jumped right from the amateur ranks to the majors, Leake’s progress had stagnated in most eyes of the baseball world, and looking at his career stats through the first seven games of this season (526 2/3 innings, 4.24 ERA), it would be tough to counter otherwise. Amazingly, this pressure seemed to flip a switch for Leake, who has allowed a scant five earned runs in his last six outings (1.12 ERA). Looking forward, Leake’s 3.75 xFIP appears to rain on the parade, yet his .323 BABIP gives hope that his hot streak is not merely fortune. I’d bet that relapse is more likely than enduring supremacy. Alternatively, I wouldn’t be shocked if we are witnessing a pitcher starting to put it together.
Not that anybody would notice. In this year of mound transcendence, stellar performances are simply par for the course.
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