Jan 22, 2014, 9:25 PM EST
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
Mar 8, 2014, 6:15 PM EST
Edwin Jackson gave up three runs on four hits in his start against the Indians on Friday, but that wasn’t the shocking part of what happened. Unbeknownst to manager Rick Renteria and pitching coach Chris Bosio, Jackson threw all fastballs in his outing — 50 of them. Via MLB.com’s Carrie Muskat: “I think maybe, as…
Mar 8, 2014, 5:48 PM EST
Josh Hamilton has been sidelined for the past week and a half after straining his left calf during a baserunning drill, but he’s getting closer to making his spring debut. According to Mike DiGiovanna of the Los Angeles Times, Hamilton is scheduled to take batting practice on the field tomorrow. If all goes well, Angels…
Mar 8, 2014, 5:25 PM EST
You may recall that the Marlins were reportedly “outraged” at the Red Sox for sending a substandard lineup to Thursday’s Grapefruit League game at Roger Dean Stadium. Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington has since apologized for the incident, but owner John Henry thinks the Marlins should issue an apology of their own: They should…
Mar 8, 2014, 5:10 PM EST
UPDATE: While recent reports have indicated that Ervin Santana is looking to find a team as soon as possible, FOX Sports’ Jon Morosi reports that the free agent right-hander has not set a deadline and is prepared to wait “days” before signing with a club. The wait continues. 1:15 p.m. ET: More intrigue. Enrique Rojas…
Mar 8, 2014, 4:29 PM EST
Doug Fister gave the Nationals and their fans a bit of a scare yesterday when he was scratched from a Grapefruit League start due to a sore elbow, but an MRI showed that he’s only dealing with inflammation. Fister told Andrew Simon of MLB.com today that he’s not worried about the situation. “It’s typical inflammation,…
Mar 8, 2014, 3:32 PM EST
Zack Greinke has already been ruled out as an option to pitch against the Diamondbacks in Australia after straining his right calf last week, but he took an important step in the right direction today. According to J.P. Hoornstra of the Los Angeles News Group, Greinke threw 35 pitches in a simulated game against a…
Mar 8, 2014, 2:29 PM EST
Shane Victorino gave up switch-hitting down the stretch last season and Red Sox manager John Farrell told Peter Abraham of the Boston Globe today that the veteran outfielder is considering hitting exclusively from the right side of the plate this season. Nothing is official yet, but this would be a positive development for the Red…
Mar 8, 2014, 1:25 PM EST
What does Josh Donaldson get after finishing fourth in the American League Most Valuable Player balloting last season? The major league minimum salary. According to CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman, the Athletics have renewed Donaldson’s contract at $500,000 for 2014. It’s a modest raise from the $492,500 he made last year, which was just above the…
Mar 8, 2014, 11:57 AM EST
The Royals gave Wade Davis a chance to win a rotation spot this spring even after he struggled as a starter last season, but Royals manager Ned Yost told Andy McCullough of the Kansas City Star this morning that the 28-year-old right-hander is out of the fifth starter competition and will pitch out of the…
Mar 8, 2014, 11:00 AM EST
We heard yesterday that the Cardinals and infielder Matt Carpenter were in talks about a long-term contract extension and Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports this morning that the deal is done. The Cardinals will hold a press conference later this morning to formally announce the agreement. Per Jon Heyman of CBS Sports,…
Mar 8, 2014, 10:02 AM EST
Dogged by shoulder issues, Michael Pineda has yet to throw a regular season pitch for the Yankees since being acquired from the Mariners two offseasons ago, but he showed a glimpse of his old form last night. Making his spring debut, Pineda tossed two scoreless innings in a Grapefruit League game against the Tigers. Topping…
Mar 8, 2014, 9:08 AM EST
The Ervin Santana saga is reaching its conclusion. According to Dionisio Soldevila of ESPN Deportes, Santana will sign a one-year, $14 million contract with an American League team. This report comes less than 24 hours after Soldevila passed along word that a frustrated Santana fired his agent, Bean Stringfellow, and could negotiate his own contract.…
Mar 8, 2014, 8:51 AM EST
Matt Harvey‘s starts quickly became an event with Mets fans, so much so that the day that he would start began to be called “Harvey Day.” There’s a very good chance that there won’t be another “Harvey Day” until 2015 after his Tommy John surgery, but the ace right-hander indicated on his Twitter account this…
Mar 7, 2014, 11:20 PM EST
Billy Hamilton hit .368 in 22 plate appearances in September last season, but some in the know say that Hamilton will struggle to hit in the Majors. In his first season against Triple-A competition last season, Hamilton hit .256 with a .308 on-base percentage and a .343 slugging percentage. Hamilton’s signature has always been his…
Mar 7, 2014, 10:30 PM EST
Marco Scutaro was scheduled to make his Cactus League debut on Sunday or Monday, but his back problems are persisting and now the Giants are keeping him out for the time being, Alex Pavlovic reports for the Mercury News. Manager Bruce Bochy says that if Scutaro isn’t ready to go at the end of next…
Mar 7, 2014, 9:20 PM EST
You might not guess it by looking at him, but Jayson Werth is a very good base runner. The 34-year-old veteran has stolen 37 bases in 43 attempts in three somewhat injury-plagued seasons with the Nationals. In his prime with the Phillies, under the tutelage of first base coach Davey Lopes, Werth stole 60 bases…
Mar 7, 2014, 8:10 PM EST
Earlier, we learned that the Phillies might have checked in with free agent starter Ervin Santana. But, wait! There’s more Ervin Santana news. Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports is hearing from sources that Santana wants to sign a one-year deal as quickly as possible, preferably with a strong offensive team. Rosenthal adds that the Blue…
Mar 7, 2014, 7:05 PM EST
Deep into the off-season, Ubaldo Jimenez, Nelson Cruz, Stephen Drew, Ervin Santana, and Kendrys Morales were still free agents despite being productive players last season. Jimenez and Cruz recently signed with the Orioles, but the latter three still remain unsigned with the regular season just weeks away. All five rejected $14.1 million qualifying offers from…
Mar 7, 2014, 6:00 PM EST
The Phillies are reeling after Cole Hamels suffered a setback, pushing his 2014 debut into May most likely. They’re thin on starting pitching depth even after adding A.J. Burnett last month. As a result, they have checked in with Ervin Santana according to Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe. Or maybe not. Matt Gelb of…
Mar 7, 2014, 4:17 PM EST
Oliver Perez is one of the best unsigned free agents and Ken Rosenthal of FOXSports.com says that’s about to change, reporting that the left-handed reliever is close to a multi-year deal with the Diamondbacks. Arizona had already invested an awful lot of resources into the bullpen even before bringing in Perez, who went from being…
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