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Ranking the best 1-2 rotation punches in baseball

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The Yankees made headlines when it was announced that they had signed Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka to a seven-year deal worth $155 million. They were in need of rotation help and satisfied that need in a big way by signing the best free agent pitcher on the market. That the Yankees signed him came as a shock to no one.

As Craig pointed out earlier, despite a big off-season in which they have spent nearly half a billion dollars on free agents, the Yankees still have problems at other positions — namely third base without Alex Rodriguez. Shortstop Derek Jeter is one brisk wind away from the disabled list, as is second baseman Brian Roberts. Mark Teixeira is still having wrist problems. David Robertson has been fantastic in the past, but there is some uncertainty in the bullpen behind him. And no one really knows how Tanaka will handle the switch from Japanese to American baseball, though if Yu Darvish is any indication, it shouldn’t be an issue at all.

At ESPN, David Schoenfield ranked the best rotations overall. Following the Tanaka news, he gave the Yankees a #5 ranking, which will be justified if CC Sabathia has a bounce-back year and if Michael Pineda can have a healthy and successful year. What I’d like to do instead is rank the best 1-2 punches in baseball, ignoring rotation depth and focusing on the cream of the crop. Let’s start from the back of the top-five.

5. St. Louis Cardinals: Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha (or Shelby Miller)

Wainwright carried an absurd strikeout-to-walk ratio into June. Following a ten-strikeout, no-walk, complete game effort on June 1, he bumped his K/BB to 84/6 for a ratio of 14 strikeouts for every one walk. And one of those walks was intentional, so it was really more like 86/5. Wainwright ended up finishing with a career-low walk rate and subsequently a career-best K/BB ratio. It’s easy to see why Wainwright has ranked among baseball’s best since becoming a full-time starter in 2007.

Behind Wainwright, for this exercise, you could go with Wacha or Miller depending on your preference. During the regular season, Wacha made nine starts and six relief appearances for the Cardinals in his first taste of the big leagues. The 21-year-old posted a 2.83 ERA in 54 innings as a starter and a 2.53 ERA in 10 2/3 innings out of the ‘pen. But it was in the playoffs that Wacha truly shined. With his team trailing two games to one in the best-of-five NLDS against the Pirates. Wacha twirled a gem, pitching into the eighth inning while allowing just one run. The Cardinals won, then went on to win Game 5 as well. In his next two post-season starts, Wacha shut out the Dodgers in six and two-thirds and seven innings in the NLCS. He also won Game 2 of the World Series for his team, holding the Red Sox to two runs in six innings. The Sox got to him in Game 6 however, scoring six times in four innings. Overall, Wacha posted a 2.64 ERA in 30 2/3 playoff innings.

Miller, on the other hand, had a very strong regular season but did not participate in the NLCS or World Series for the Cardinals. In 173 1/3 innings, Miller posted a 3.06 ERA, averaging nearly a strikeout per inning and nearly three strikeouts for every one walk. He slowed down towards the end of August, never striking out more than four batters in any of his final six starts. Still, the 23-year-old impressed with a mid-90’s fastball and a curve. Miller typically lives up in the strike zone, inducing plenty of whiffs. In fact, only three pitchers had more swings and misses on pitches up in the zone last season than Miller’s 548: Chris Tillman (650), R.A. Dickey (588), and Justin Verlander (553).

4. Washington Nationals: Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez

The Nationals’ pitching is going to be scary for opposing teams in 2014. Even Ross Detwiler, at the back of the rotation and unlisted above, is better than your average #5 starter. But, since we’re focusing on 1-2 punches, we’re going with Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez. You could swap Gonzalez for Doug Fister or Jordan Zimmermann and the Nats would still arguably rank in the top-five.

If not for Kershaw, Strasburg would be a common pre-season pick to take home the NL Cy Young award. Strasburg features a fastball that sits in the mid-90’s and reaches the high 90’s with a little extra mustard, and an 88 MPH change-up that would qualify as a fastball for many other pitchers. (Four starters had an average fastball slower than Strasburg’s change-up in 2013: R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle, Eric Stults, and Bronson Arroyo.) The biggest obstacle for Strasburg is his ability to rack up innings. If he can improve on last year’s 183, he’ll be in the same company as Kershaw and Lee. In whatever amount of innings he ends up compiling in 2014, he should be among the leaders in strikeouts, strikeout-to-walk ratio, and ERA at the very least.

Gio Gonzalez has finished each of the last four seasons with an ERA under 3.40 while logging at least 195 innings. He finished third in NL Cy Young balloting in 2012, helping end the Nationals’ longstanding playoff drought in the process. He strikes out batters at roughly the same rate as Strasburg, but has worse control. Additionally, Gonzalez induces a lot of weak contact, as evidenced by his career .286 batting average on balls in play. Most at-bats against Gonzalez are uncomfortable for hitters.

3. Philadelphia Phillies: Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels

The Phillies lay claim to two of the top-five best left-handed starters in baseball. Lee has an aggregate 2.89 ERA since the start of the 2008 season, averaging better than six strikeouts for every one walk. How staggering is that statistic? The next-best strikeout-to-walk ratio, minimum 750 IP since 2008, belongs to Roy Halladay at 4.91.

Player SO/BB IP GS
Cliff Lee 6.11 1333.2 186
Roy Halladay 4.91 1187.2 168
Dan Haren 4.83 1265.0 195
Cole Hamels 3.92 1281.0 193
Adam Wainwright 3.78 1035.2 153
Ricky Nolasco 3.77 1151.1 186
Zack Greinke 3.76 1213.1 188
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 1/22/2014.

Lee is also an innings-eater, logging at least 210 innings in every season since 2008 as well. The Phillies may not be very good in 2014, but having the privilege of watching Lee once every five games is a nice consolation prize.

Hamels, Lee’s partner in crime, also made the above list. After a poor showing in 2009, Hamels became a superstar, adding a cut fastball and an improved curve to an already lethal four-seam fastball/change-up combination. Few change-ups in baseball can compare to Hamels’. In fact, since the start of 2010, Hamels has generated 949 swings and misses at his change-ups. James Shields ranks second on the list with 808. Tim Lincecum is third at 652. The upgraded arsenal resulted in significantly less contact, and when hitters did make contact, it was more frequently a weak ground ball or a pop-up.

2. Detroit Tigers: Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer

Verlander has only had eight full seasons in the Majors, but his resume is already quite impressive. He won the AL Rookie of the Year award in 2006. Then he won both the AL Cy Young and MVP awards in 2011. He has had five consecutive seasons with an ERA below 3.50. He’s logged 220 or more innings in a season four times. He throws a mid-90’s fastball, which he uses to rack up about one strikeout per inning pitched, and nearly three strikeouts for every one walk. In the 2013 post-season, he posted an 0.39 ERA with 31 strikeouts and three walks in 23 innings, notching double-digit strikeouts in all three starts. Verlander is a once-in-a-generation talent.

Scherzer, on the other hand, took a while to get kickstarted. He had always shown promise with his ability to miss bats, but he was around the middle of the strike zone too often and got hit around. He put it all together in 2013, finishing with a 2.90 ERA, a league-low 0.97 WHIP, and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of about 4.3 to one. As such, Scherzer took home the AL Cy Young award with 28 of 30 first place votes. Scherzer added the curve to his arsenal, as Jeff Sullivan detailed at FanGraphs last summer, making him even more of a nightmare from 60 feet, six inches away. The right-hander may not be a favorite to win another AL Cy Young award in 2014, but his rotation mate, Verlander, just might.

1. Los Angeles Dodgers: Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke

Kershaw, who recently signed a seven-year, $215 million contract extension with the Dodgers, has won two out of the last three Cy Young awards in his league, lapping the circuit in starter ERA in that time as well. It’s interesting to think exactly how bad the Dodgers’ second-best pitcher could be while still retaining the #1 spot on this list. Kershaw does everything well: he averages about a strikeout per inning, he is stingy with allowing walks, he hardly ever gets tagged for a home run, and he induces a decent amount of ground balls — usually of the weak variety.

Thankfully, the Dodgers don’t have to waste their time with such a mental exercise because they have Greinke in the #2 spot. Greinke, the 2009 AL Cy Young award winner, would be an ace on almost every other team. Last year, his first with the Dodgers, he finished with a 2.63 ERA. Like Kershaw, Greinke misses a lot of bats (though not nearly as many last year as he had in the past), doesn’t walk many batters, induces ground balls, and is relatively rarely victimized by the home run.

The worst part for the National League, aside from each pitcher’s elite skill on the mound? Their age. Kershaw turns 26 in March and Greinke turned 30 in October. The Dodgers can still count on elite-level pitching from both pitchers for at least a few more years.

As with any exclusive list, there were a few snubs. You can make a solid argument for the Giants’ duo of Madison Bumgarner and Matt Cain if you believe Cain’s shoddy 2013 season was an aberration. Mariners hurlers Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma could have nudged out the Cardinals’ and Nationals’ pairs with a solid argument. If you give a sunny projection for Jacob Turner, he and Jose Fernandez would deserve consideration. The same goes for Pirates starters Francisco Liriano (if you believe in his rebirth) and Gerrit Cole. Ultimately, however, these are the five best pairs of 1-2 starters for the 2014 season in this writer’s humble opinion. What I think we can all agree on is that Sabathia and Tanaka, despite the Yankees spending nearly $300 million on them, don’t make the top-five.

Darvish wins 1st start since 2014 as Rangers top Pirates 5-2

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ARLINGTON, Texas (AP) Yu Darvish struck out seven in five strong innings in his first start in the majors in almost 22 months, and the Texas Rangers beat the Pittsburgh Pirates 5-2 on Saturday night.

The Japanese right-hander allowed three singles with a walk in his return from last year’s Tommy John surgery, ending Pittsburgh’s five-game winning streak.

Adrian Beltre had a two-run homer in the first inning off Juan Nicasio (3-3) to become the fourth third baseman with at least 1,500 RBIs, finishing with 1,501.

Mitch Moreland snapped a 1-for-27 skid with a solo home run in the fourth.

Four Texas relievers allowed four hits and a run with four strikeouts in four innings.

The “Yuuu” calls from a sellout crowd started early for Darvish, who last pitched in the big leagues on Aug. 9, 2014. He missed the rest of that season with right elbow inflammation, and ended up needing ligament reconstruction surgery after his only spring training appearance last year.

Darvish (1-0) had a 0.90 ERA in five rehab starts this month, culminating with an 87-pitch outing. He threw 81 against the Pirates, hitting 98 mph with his fastball in the first inning and displaying his usual array of breaking pitches, some as slow as 70 mph.

John Jaso had a leadoff single on Darvish’s second pitch before Andrew McCutchen struck out. The Pirates didn’t get another hit until Francisco Cervelli‘s sinking liner in front of rookie right fielder Nomar Mazara in the fifth.

No. 9 hitter Cole Figueroa ended Darvish’s shutout bid by pulling a hanging slider into right-center field for a single that scored Cervelli from second. Darvish then struck out Jaso for the second time to finish his outing.

Beltre’s homer just cleared the wall in center field after Prince Fielder‘s RBI groundout to score leadoff hitter Jurickson Profar, who had two hits filling in for suspended second baseman Rougned Odor. It was the second game of Odor’s seven-game ban.

SHORT HOPS

Joey Gallo, who had just one at-bat in his five-day stint, was optioned to Triple-A Round Rock to make room on the roster for Darvish. … Pirates lefty reliever Tony Watson came off the paternity list and pitched a perfect eighth.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Pirates: Manager Clint Hurdle planned to give 2B Josh Harrison the night off after he came out of the series opener early. He’s been battling an illness that kept him out of the lineup Thursday as well.

Rangers: C Robinson Chirinos is expected to start a rehab assignment Tuesday with Double-A Frisco. He’s been out since April 10 with a broken right forearm and could be activated as soon as he is eligible to come off the 60-day disabled list on June 9.

UP NEXT

Pirates: LHP Francisco Liriano (4-3, 4.30) has won his last four starts against the Rangers and is 5-1 with a save and a 2.89 ERA in nine career games against them, most of those with Minnesota. His last appearance against Texas was Sept. 10, 2013.

Rangers: LHP Martin Perez (2-4, 3.13) makes his team-high 11th start and has gone 2-2 with a 2.23 ERA in his past six starts. He threw six shutout innings in a 4-1 win over the Angels in his last start

Utley answers with slam, solo HR as Dodgers rout Mets 9-1

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NEW YORK (AP) After the New York Mets missed, Chase Utley connected twice.

Utley hit a grand slam and a solo homer after Noah Syndergaard threw a 99 mph fastball behind his back, and the Los Angeles Dodgers went deep a season-high five times in routing New York 9-1 on Saturday night.

In a scene that seemed inevitable since October, Syndergaard was immediately ejected following the third-inning pitch – which certainly appeared to be his shot at retaliation against Utley for the late takeout slide that broke the right leg of then-Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada in last year’s playoffs.

Plate umpire Adam Hamari tossed Syndergaard, sending Mets manager Terry Collins into a rage, but no trouble ensued between the teams. A longtime New York nemesis, Utley raised one hand slightly in the direction of the Dodgers’ bench to keep teammates calm – and later responded by doing all sorts of damage with his bat.

“I think a loud, energizing environment gets the best out of you. I think it’s fun,” said Utley, who has 19 RBIs this season, nine in the first two games of this series. “It kind of gets the adrenaline going a little bit, makes you kind of dig down deeper.”

Asked if he thought Syndergaard delivered a purpose pitch, Utley said: “Possibly, but I understand it.”

Adrian Gonzalez homered and had four hits for the Dodgers, who spoiled the Mets’ 30th anniversary celebration of their 1986 World Series championship. Howie Kendrick and Corey Seager also connected, all after Syndergaard was gone.

Kenta Maeda (4-3) shook off an early line drive that hit him on the pitching hand and threw five shutout innings. The right-hander yielded two hits, both singles in the first, and stopped his three-game losing streak.

“Pretty impressive. You wouldn’t see too many other pitches staying in the game at that point,” Utley said.

The stoic Utley is playing at Citi Field this weekend for the first time since Tejada was injured. The Mets – and their fans – were incensed by the aggressive slide, which led to a change in baseball rules this season designed to protect infielders in what some call the Utley Rule.

But the Mets had not tried to retaliate until Saturday night; Utley played all four games without incident May 9-12 when the teams split a series in Los Angeles.

With one out and nobody on in the third inning of a scoreless game, Syndergaard’s first pitch to Utley sailed behind the second baseman by a considerable margin.

Hamari immediately ejected Syndergaard, prompting Collins to come storming out of the dugout. Collins also was ejected after screaming at Hamari and pointing in his face during an animated argument. The manager was finally escorted back toward the New York dugout by another umpire.

“The ruling was that he intentionally threw at the batter,” crew chief Tom Hallion told a pool reporter. “We can either warn or eject. And with what happened in that situation, we felt the ejection was warranted.”

Hallion said no warnings were issued before the series.

“We take each game individually,” he said when asked if last year’s playoff series played a role in the ejection. “We have to make a snap decision. We can’t think about, OK, well this guy did this or he did that in Game 6 of whatever. We don’t have enough time to think that way. We make a decision on what happens in the game.”

Collins said he had never before seen a pitcher get ejected without a warning.

“My argument was, nobody got hit,” Collins said. “There was a time when, in this game, where you had a shot and nothing happened, the ball went to the backstop. So that was kind of my argument.”

After waiting near the mound with teammates for some time, Syndergaard walked calmly to the Mets dugout without showing any emotion as the crowd cheered him.

“It was just a pitch that got away from me. That’s all I got,” Syndergaard said. “I can understand why he did what he did. I still think a warning would have been better.”

Collins acknowledged he’s a little concerned Syndergaard might get suspended.

Logan Verrett (3-2) entered for the Mets and, with a vocal contingent in the sellout crowd of 42,227 urging him to hit Utley with a pitch, eventually threw a called third strike past him. But then Utley homered on Verrett’s first pitch of the sixth for a 1-0 lead.

Booed all night, Utley added his sixth career slam off Hansel Robles in the seventh, making it 6-0 with his 38th homer against the Mets.

Pinch-hitter Juan Lagares homered in the eighth for New York, long after the outcome was decided.

In the series opener Friday night, Utley was greeted with loud jeers and derisive chants. He had four RBIs in a 6-5 loss, including a three-run double that tied the score with two outs in the ninth.

“We came together as a group,” Utley said. “We battled, and it was a good win.”

WHERE ARE YOU NOW?

Tejada was released by the Mets during spring training and signed by the St. Louis Cardinals, who designated him for assignment Saturday.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Dodgers: RF Trayce Thompson exited in the fifth with lower back soreness. He was replaced by Yasiel Puig, who hit an RBI single off Verrett in the sixth.

Mets: INF Wilmer Flores (hamstring) went 1 for 2 with a sacrifice fly in his fifth rehab game for Double-A Binghamton. Before the game, Collins said it was reasonable to think Flores could come off the disabled list Sunday.

UP NEXT

Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw (7-1, 1.48 ERA) starts the series finale Sunday night against 43-year-old Bartolo Colon (4-3, 3.44). Kershaw, coming off a two-hit shutout against Cincinnati, is 7-0 with a 1.17 ERA in 10 starts vs. the Mets. He is 5-0 with a 0.64 ERA in May – including a three-hit shutout of New York on May 12 at Dodger Stadium. The three-time Cy Young Award winner has struck out 55 and walked two this month.

Mets’ Syndergaard ejected after throwing behind Utley

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NEW YORK — In a scene that has seemed inevitable since October, New York Mets pitcher Noah Syndergaard has been ejected for throwing a 99 mph fastball behind Chase Utley of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Utley is playing at Citi Field this weekend for the first time since his late takeout slide in last year’s playoffs broke the right leg of then-Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada.

New York was incensed by the aggressive slide, which led to a change in baseball rules on slides at bases this season. But the Mets had not attempted to retaliate until Saturday night.

With one out and nobody on in the third inning of a scoreless game, Syndergaard’s first pitch to Utley sailed behind the second baseman’s back by a considerable margin.

Plate umpire Adam Hamari immediately ejected Syndergaard, prompting irate Mets manager Terry Collins to come storming out of the dugout. Collins also was ejected.

Indians’ Brantley unsure of return from shoulder injury

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CLEVELAND — Indians outfielder Michael Brantley has no timetable for his return from the shoulder injury that has sidelined him for the second time this season.

Brantley spoke to reporters Saturday for the first time since being placed on the 15-day disabled list on May 14. He began the season on the DL following surgery for a torn right labrum in November. Brantley hit .231 with seven RBIs in 11 games before being shut down again.

“I wasn’t bouncing back quick enough to keep playing back-to-back games, which is very important,” he said. “I want to be healthy each and every day and I have to play at a high level. This is the major leagues. You have to be at the best of your ability and the highest health-wise you can be.”

Brantley, who received an anti-inflammatory shot in the shoulder two weeks ago, doesn’t think he returned from the surgery too soon.

“I was ready,” he said. “We talked about it. We had a great process laid out. Everything went smoothly. It was just a bump in the road.”

Brantley has been hitting off a tee but isn’t sure when he will begin taking swings in the batting cage. He is playing catch since he throws left-handed but wants to be cautious about resuming a hitting program.

“Surgery is nothing to play with,” he said. “You have to be smart and understand your body.”

Brantley visited Dr. Craig Morgan, who performed the surgery, in Wilmington, Delaware after he returned to the DL. An MRI showed no changes in the shoulder.

“He said everything checks out good, just make sure to take your time and we’ll see what happens from there,” Brantley said.

Brantley finished third in the AL MVP voting in 2014 when he hit .327 with 20 homers and 97 RBIs. He batted .310 with 15 homers and 84 RBIs last season.