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.

2017 Preview: San Francisco Giants

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2017 season. Next up: The San Francisco Giants.

On a cold autumn night in San Francisco, with a three-run lead in the top of the ninth inning and a three-game deficit to reclaim in the NLDS, the Giants laid their even-year narrative to rest. Short of another championship title, it was the best outcome for a season that had seen massive ups and downs, from the early successes of the first half of the season to the collapse of a beleaguered bullpen and injured lineup down the stretch.

The Giants of 2017 will enter the season with a clean slate and, hopefully, a new narrative to write. They addressed two of their biggest weaknesses — a fragile bullpen and even more fragile left field corner — in the offseason while making little to no improvements in their lineup. On the heels of Angel Pagan’s departure, left fielder Jarrett Parker seems primed to take over the outfield corner, though his .236/.358/.394 batting line and .751 OPS in 2016 leaves a little to be desired.

When it comes to contending, however, the Giants are known for their pitching. AT&T Park is infamous for its appetite for hard-hit fly balls and warning track catches, and on some level it makes sense that the Giants would play to their strengths and double down on elite pitching. It worked for them in 2010 and 2012 with Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain, and it’s continued to work for them with Madison Bumgarner and Johnny Cueto heading the rotation in recent years.

Bumgarner will lead the Giants’ pitching staff again in 2017, with Cueto, Matt Moore and Jeff Samardzija behind him. Jake Peavy, who was beset with back pain and effectively replaced in the rotation by Moore last year, will not return to the club. In his stead, Matt Cain and Ty Blach will vie for the fifth and final starting role. At 32 years old, Cain isn’t the hard-tossing spring chicken he used to be, and his middling numbers and poor health have compromised his position on the team, even with another $20 million still left on his contract. Blach, while younger, healthier and more dominant in camp, could double as a long reliever in the bullpen and might not secure a starting role until Cain hangs up his mitt for good.

Even an extreme pitcher’s park couldn’t disguise how poorly the Giants’ bullpen pitched in 2016. Santiago Casilla faded over the summer, nearly doubling his ERA during the second half of the season and blowing a career-high nine saves. Sergio Romo missed 84 days with a flexor strain, sidestepping Tommy John surgery but delivering just 30 2/3 innings during the regular season and blowing a save in Game 3 of the NLDS. Losing that pivotal Game 4 of the NLDS was a group effort: Derek Law, Javier Lopez, Sergio Romo, Will Smith and Hunter Strickland set the stage for the Cubs’ four-run comeback in the ninth and eventual Division Series win.

The problem was finally addressed over the offseason, when the Giants cut ties with Casilla, Romo and Lopez and signed closer Mark Melancon to a four-year, $62 million deal. The 32-year-old right-hander split his 2016 season between the Pirates and Nationals, delivering a combined 1.64 ERA, 1.5 BB/9 and 8.2 SO/9 and recording 47 saves over 71 1/3 innings.

With Melancon anchoring the back end of the bullpen, Giants’ manager Bruce Bochy should be able to abandon his closer-by-committee approach, though a bit of bullpen tinkering may be in order after left-hander Will Smith undergoes Tommy John surgery this week. With both Javier Lopez and Will Smith out of the picture for 2017, the Giants don’t have a viable lefty left in the bullpen. A midseason acquisition might be one possibility, but until then, Bochy is reportedly expected to utilize left-handed candidates Josh Osich or Steven Okert, leaving Derek Law and Hunter Strickland as potential set-up relievers for Melancon.

On the field, not much looks different in San Francisco. Buster Posey is still the league’s No. 1 performer behind the dish, and even though he regressed with a .288/.362/.434 slash line and just 14 home runs in 2016, he still profiles as one of the Giants’ top hitters entering the 2017 season. Brandon Belt, Joe Panik, Brandon Crawford and Eduardo Nunez round out the rest of the club’s infield, and if Crawford’s antics in the World Baseball Classic are any indication, he’s poised for a monster season at the plate as well.

Hunter Pence and Denard Span will return to right and center field, respectively, while veteran defender Jarrett Parker takes over for Angel Pagan in left field. Last year, Pagan’s offensive output was the best it’s been since 2014, but debilitating back soreness cut into his playing time and eventually forced him off the roster. Rumor has it he’s in talks with several major league clubs, one of whom could be the Giants, but his return to the team would likely come in the form of a bench spot rather than a starting role.

The same question haunts every team that emerges from the long, dark stretch of the offseason: Have we done enough? Is this team fundamentally better than the last one that took the field, more capable of enduring another 162 games to improve its record, capture a title, sustain a franchise? For the Giants, the answer appears to be ‘yes.’ Mark Melancon isn’t the club’s only ticket to reclaiming the NL West, but he’s an integral part of the younger, healthier bullpen the Giants so desperately needed. With a fully functioning pitching staff, these Giants stand a chance of improving on their 28-27 record in one-run games, and perhaps even edging out the competition in close playoff races as well.

Whether that will be enough to overtake the division-leading Dodgers remains to be seen, but one thing’s for sure: Whatever success the Giants build on in 2017, they won’t need any odd-year magic to do it.

Prediction: 2nd place in NL West.

Mets closer Jeurys Familia receives a 15-game suspension for domestic violence

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Mets closer Jeurys Familia has received a 15-game suspension for domestic violence.

Familia was arrested in October following an incident at his home. Criminal charges were dropped in December. As we know, however, MLB’s domestic violence policy does not require criminal proceedings to be commenced, let alone completed, before the leveling of league punishment. MLB has been investigating the incident for the past several months.

Familia saved 51 games for the Mets last year while posting a 2.55 ERA. The Mets are expecting Addison Reed to fill in at closer until he returns.

Familia has released a statement:

Today, I accepted a 15-game suspension from Major League Baseball resulting from my inappropriate behavior on October 31, 2016. With all that has been written and discussed regarding this matter, it is important that it be known that I never physically touched, harmed or threatened my wife that evening. I did,however, act in an unacceptable manner and am terribly disappointed in myself. I am alone to blame for the problems of that evening.

My wife and I cooperated fully with Major League Baseball’s investigation, and I’ve taken meaningful steps to assure that nothing like this will ever happen again. I have learned from this experience, and have grown as a husband, a father, and a man.

I apologize to the Mets’ organization, my teammates, and all my fans. I look forward to rejoining the Mets and being part of another World Series run. Out of respect for my teammates and my family, I will have no further comment.

Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred has a statement as well:

My office has completed its investigation into the events leading up to Jeurys Familia’s arrest on October 31, 2016.  Mr. Familia and his wife cooperated fully throughout the investigation, including submitting to in-person interviews with MLB’s Department of Investigations.  My office also received cooperation from the Fort Lee Municipal Prosecutor.  The evidence reviewed by my office does not support a determination that Mr. Familia physically assaulted his wife, or threatened her or others with physical force or harm, on October 31, 2016.  Nevertheless, I have concluded that Mr. Familia’s overall conduct that night was inappropriate, violated the Policy, and warrants discipline.

It is clear that Mr. Familia regrets what transpired that night and takes full responsibility for his actions.  Mr. Familia already has undergone 12 ninety-minute counseling sessions with an approved counselor specializing in the area of domestic violence, and received a favorable evaluation from the counselor regarding his willingness to take concrete steps to ensure that he is not involved in another incident of this type.  Further, he has agreed to speak to other players about what he has learned through this process, and to donate time and money to local organizations aimed at the prevention of, and the treatment of victims of, domestic violence.