Jan 22, 2014, 9:25 PM EDT
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.
Aug 20, 2014, 11:41 PM EDT
Yadier Molina is beginning to make some progress. Brian Stull of STL Baseball Weekly reports that the star catcher took swings in an indoor batting cage Wednesday at Busch Stadium for the first time since tearing the ulnar collateral ligament in his right thumb July 9 on an awkward side-swiping slide into third base.
Aug 20, 2014, 10:37 PM EDT
Mo’ne Davis and the South Philadelphia Taney Dragons took their first blow Wednesday evening in the double-elimination Little League World Series.
Aug 20, 2014, 9:59 PM EDT
Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro was a late scratch from Wednesday night’s game against the Giants because what was called a family emergency. Now the heartbreaking details are out …
Aug 20, 2014, 8:43 PM EDT
The Angels just got dealt a potentially-major blow. Garrett Richards — who has suddenly developed into an ace this season at age 26 — was taken off on a stretcher Wednesday evening at Boston’s Fenway Park after suffering what looked to be a very serious right knee injury in the bottom of the second inning of his start against the host Red Sox.
Aug 20, 2014, 8:15 PM EDT
Watch as Reds outfielder Billy Hamilton pulls off a sensational double play Wednesday in St. Louis …
Aug 20, 2014, 7:39 PM EDT
A sudden torrential downpour Tuesday night in Chicago — and complications with applying the tarp — left Wrigley Field unplayable even after four hours of maintenance by the grounds crew, so the Cubs were awarded a 2-0 victory over the visiting Giants because that was the score when was play was halted after the top of the fifth inning. The Giants protested, and it actually worked …
Aug 20, 2014, 7:14 PM EDT
Padres center fielder Cameron Maybin has officially been reinstated from his 25-game amphetamine suspension.
Aug 20, 2014, 6:21 PM EDT
Yankees ace Masahiro Tanaka was diagnosed in early July with a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow — the injury that almost always leads to Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery — but he’s trying the rest and rehab route first and it’s actually going pretty smoothly so far.
Aug 20, 2014, 5:17 PM EDT
Wil Myers is off the disabled list after missing nearly three months with a fractured right wrist and the reigning Rookie of the Year winner is back in the Rays’ lineup.
Aug 20, 2014, 4:46 PM EDT
Over the weekend Carlos Beltran was cleared to play the outfield for the first time since May, but now his season-long elbow problems have returned and the 37-year-old has been scratched from the Yankees’ lineup.
Aug 20, 2014, 4:20 PM EDT
Swisher turns 34 years old in November and has two seasons remaining on his contract, at $15 million per year.
Aug 20, 2014, 3:30 PM EDT
He’s going to have his pick of landing spots, and Boston is just one of a zillion teams who would like him.
Aug 20, 2014, 3:15 PM EDT
Gerrit Cole’s lengthy minor-league rehab assignment is over and the Pirates have activated the former No. 1 overall pick from the disabled list for tonight’s start against the Braves.
Aug 20, 2014, 2:58 PM EDT
Joe Posnanski says the Royals’ plan is finally falling into place and has their fans believing they can get back to the glory days of the 1970s.
Aug 20, 2014, 2:50 PM EDT
Derek Holland’s minor-league rehab assignment has been a mixed bag, but after allowing four runs in his latest outing the Rangers left-hander proclaimed himself ready to rejoin the rotation.
Aug 20, 2014, 2:44 PM EDT
A nice gesture and some good customer service by the Cubs.
Aug 20, 2014, 1:31 PM EDT
Jenna and I talk about the tarp problem at Wrigley Field last night
Aug 20, 2014, 1:03 PM EDT
A long and rich tradition of giving up expensive things for a jersey number continues.
Aug 20, 2014, 12:48 PM EDT
No biggie, just two 42-year-old should-be Hall of Famers with a combined 20 All-Star game appearances and 1,023 career homers running into each other in the Des Moines, Iowa airport.
Aug 20, 2014, 12:16 PM EDT
When the Rockies declined their $4.25 million option on Rafael Betancourt and re-signed him to a minor-league deal the assumption was that he wouldn’t be a factor this season following Tommy John elbow surgery last August.
- Garrett Richards suffers ugly left knee injury 17
- Giants win protest, will complete rain-halted game at Wrigley Field on Thursday afternoon 30
- Royals might actually know what they are doing 27
- Curt Schilling reveals that he was diagnosed with mouth cancer, blames smokeless tobacco 70
- Clown shoes in Chicago: the Cubs grounds crew couldn’t get the tarp on the field 58
- And That Happened: Tuesday’s scores and highlights 69
- Tony La Russa denies that Kirk Gibson’s job is safe 22
- Pirates activate Andrew McCutchen from the disabled list 2
- Mike Matheny addresses turmoil in Ferguson: “It’s a sad situation. It’s a tough situation for our city” (127)
- Here’s today’s dose of barfy Derek Jeter sentiment (82)
- Let’s speed up the pace of play. But let’s not be gimmicky about it. Let’s just enforce the rules. (74)
- Curt Schilling reveals that he was diagnosed with mouth cancer, blames smokeless tobacco (70)
- And That Happened: Tuesday’s scores and highlights (69)