Thursday, July 15, 2010

The year of the...

The second half of the 2010 MLB season starts tonight. There is not a division leader who has more than a 4.5 game lead. There is not a single major award with a run away favorite. The national league won the all-star game for the first time since 1996. The home run derby is looking more and more like the slam dunk contest in that none of the stars want to participate. I'm in first place in both of my fantasy baseball leagues. But none of these things is the story line of the 2010 season.

Perhaps 2010 will be remembered as the year of the rookie. Jason Heyward and Austin Jackson got us started. They were followed by much-hyped fellow batters Carlos Santana, Justin Smoak, Ike Davis, Mike Stanton, and Buster Posey. Strasburg led the rookie pitchers discussion, and as always, there were a few surprise rookies making waves, including Brennan Boesch, Mike Leake, and Gaby Sanchez. However, besides Heyward, all of these men were overlooked for the all-star game because they didn't have enough stats accumulated or there simply was not room for them. Unless some of these guys get on a torrid pace and challenge for post season awards, I don't think we can claim this the year of the rookie. But there is no doubt the league is getting younger, and frankly, better.

The fact is, I am in agreement with many others in saying this is a year for pitchers. The all-star game was a showcase of one 98 mph thrower after another. The evidence was in the final score. The AL scored once: an unearned run on a sac fly. The NL scored all their runs on a single base hit, a bases clearing double. The year of the pitcher evidence is also in the numbers. Only one player has more than 22 home runs on the season, meaning it is quite possible that not a single player will hit 40 home runs this season. Furthermore, there are EIGHTEEN pitchers with an ERA under 3 right now. To show how much that has trended upwards we must take a look back. Four years ago, only two pitchers finished the season with such a number. The next year, there was only one. 2008 then saw eight such pitchers, and last year had 11 pitchers finish with an ERA under 3. 2010 is definitely on pace to continue that trend.

The real evidence though is in the pitchers themselves. I can never remember a year where I "trusted" more pitchers than I do this season. By that I mean, in fantasy terms or not, that I would feel comfortable if my team threw this guy out to pitch. There are always tons and tons of borderline pitchers. You never know what they will give you. A complete game 4 hitter is completely reasonable, as is giving up 9 earned in 2.1 innings. See: A.J. Burnett or Edwin Jackson. But the list of pitchers that I would trust to throw a quality start each and every time is extraordinary. There are at least a dozen.

Specifically speaking, there are roughly four or five pitchers in each league still doing battle for the Cy Young award. Of those players, a few are having historic seasons. At the top of the list is Ubaldo Jimenez. He is 15-1 at the break. His other numbers are epic as well, yet 15-1 is almost unfathomable. The reason I say that is because last year's NL Cy Young award winner, Tim Lincecum, finished the year with 15 wins! Wins aren't the best measure of a pitcher's talent and skill, yet winning 15 decisions and only losing one is a ratio that cannot be ignored.

Oddly enough, at 15-1 Jimenez has not clinched any award victory. Roy Halladay is a man that can never be counted out. Not only does he have similarly sparkling ERA and WHIP figures as Jimenez, he too has double digit victories and is on pace for over 200 strikeouts. The thing that separates Halladay from others is his durability though. He leads the league in innings pitched and complete games. In fact, not counting his own Phillies team, he has more complete games than 27 of the 29 remaining teams. That would be combining every pitcher on each staff and comparing their numbers to Roy by himself.

Yet he too is not necessarily having the best season for an NL pitcher. Josh Johnson pitches for a bad team. He has somehow made that not matter. Johnson is 9-3 on the season with more strikeouts than innings pitched and leads all of baseball in both ERA and WHIP. His ERA is under 2. His WHIP is under 1. That means an average 9 inning performance for Johnson would include allowing fewer than 9 base runners all game and giving up either 1 or 2 runs. Obviously no starter receives reasonable run support or bullpen help every time out there, yet Johnson's no decisions and losses actually make up quite a solid season too. He has allowed 3 runs or less every game this season except one, where he allowed 4 earned and took the loss. In his other two losses Josh went 7 innings, allowing 1 unearned run and 8 innings allowing 2 earned respectively. Counting his six no-decisions, Johnson has pitched 57 innings and given up 17 earned runs in games that he did NOT get the victory. That averages out to an ERA of 2.68. Imagine if he was on a contending team. Ubaldo's 15-1 might have some competition.

So the national league has its share of pitchers handling their business, yet the american league is no slouch. Just take a look at Cliff Lee. He missed the beginning of the season because of injury, just got traded mid-season because his team was so bad, yet he has still managed some historic figures. He is 8-4 with 6 complete games in only 14 starts. Yet that does not begin to tell the story. Cliff Lee has struck out 91 batters on the year, and walked a total of 6 men. Six. Usually, a Cy Young type season will see a K/BB ratio of about 4/1. 200 K's and 50 walks is a very good year. Lee has a ratio right now just over 15/1. He strikes out 15 batters for every one he walks. That would go down as the greatest single-season number of all-time, and by a lot. If Lee continues at this pace, he will break Bret Saberhagen's 1994 season record of an 11/1 strikeout to walk ratio. And Lee didn't even get the start in the all-star game.

David Price did. Price leads the AL in wins and ERA. Yet there are a number of other AL East guys hot on his tail, including Andy Pettitte and Jon Lester. Lester is a fun examination since he didn't get his first win until his last start in April. After taking two no-decisions and two losses in his first four outings, Lester has since gone 11-1 and dropped his ERA a full two runs since the beginning of May.

Other than these stars however, there are even a few previous 'no-names' having stellar seasons. Jamie Garcia and Mat Latos are both in the top 10 in the league in earned run average. Jeff Niemann and Trevor Cahill are also members of the group of players with an ERA under 3. None of these four made the all-star team, and in fact, even with all of the injury replacements there were still 6 men out of these 18 with a sparkling ERA that did not make the all-star rosters. That just goes to show how great a year so many pitchers are having.

I don't usually like venturing out on limbs and making predictions. The reason is, predictions usually turn into random, wild guesses since so much of sports is unpredictable and ever-changing. Yet here are my picks for the 2010 Cy Young winners, in this, the year of the pitcher: AL - Jon Lester. NL - Ubaldo Jimenez.

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