Debating baseball's best pitcher
March, 15, 2012
By Buster Olney | ESPN.com
David Richard/US PresswireJustin Verlander had a historic 2011 season, winning the AL MVP and Cy Young awards.Clayton Kershaw was dominant in his latest exhibition outing, and he seems poised for another overpowering year after ascending in his level of dominance last year.
Kershaw, who turns 24 in four days, reduced hitters' OPS against him from .615 to .554 from 2010 to 2011. Last season, the opposing batting average went from .215 in the first half to .196 in the second half. The OPS against him in the second half was .525, the best in the majors.
We mention all of this to set up a beer-over-the-bar debate: Who is the best pitcher on the planet?
The criterion has nothing to do with track record. It's about who is the best pitcher right now -- based on stuff, on dominance right now.
My own top three:
1. Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers
He's coming off one of the greatest seasons for any pitcher in the last quarter-century and was the first starting pitcher to win an MVP since 1986. He is Roger Clemens in the middle of his career -- Nolan Ryan with better command -- in how overpowering his stuff is, in how many innings he throws, and how he burns to get better. Teammates say he hasn't missed a step since the end of last season, in his preparation; he refused to let his offseason preparation be swallowed up by appearances.
And he pitches in the American League, so he gets points for degree of difficulty.
1a. Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers
His second-half ERA was 1.31 last year, which was about a half-run better than any other pitcher. Like Verlander, he appears to have figured it all out: the conditioning, the preparation, the mental part of the game. His strikeout-to-walk ratio in the second half of the season was 5.32, which is crazy good for a power pitcher.
3. Roy Halladay, Philadelphia Phillies
Among starting pitchers, he is viewed as the closest thing to a pitching god, for his consistency, for his precision, for his mound presence, for his dominance. My guess is that if you polled managers and pitching coaches on who they'd want to start Game 7 of the World Series, they picked Halladay, because they'd trust him above all others.
For the readers: Present and defend your top three pitchers on the planet.
• Scouts say that the challenge Jason Heyward faces is in integrating the upper and lower halves of his swing. The perception of rival evaluators is that Heyward, in working to combat the inside fastballs pitchers have thrown at him, has used his hands too much and his lower body too little. "He's got to use his lower half more," said one scout. "The problem for the Braves is that if Heyward isn't productive, then their outfield really isn't very good."
Michael Bourn, the leadoff hitter, is the center fielder, and a lot of Martin Prado's starts might actually occur at third base, depending on the availability of Chipper Jones. Heyward's efforts to improve his swing could be crucial.
On Wednesday, Heyward mashed his first homer of the spring, as David O'Brien writes, and shortstop Andrelton Simmons -- who may be moving into the lead for the every-day job -- put on a show.
The Braves got some great news about Tim Hudson.
• Yes, Michael Pineda has struggled to regain his velocity after arriving at spring training at about 280 pounds, or about 20 pounds heavier than he was when he reported to Seattle's camp a year ago. The New York Yankees have been pleased with how he has worked since spring training began and with the early development of his changeup, but they figure that since he probably is playing catch-up with his conditioning, it may be a while before he gets his fastball back to the mid-to-high 90s. Pineda is scheduled to start again today.
There has been speculation that Pineda could be sent to the minor leagues to open the year, and it may be that he will generate the worst results of spring training. But the Yankees figure to weigh heavily the potential of how a demotion would impact Pineda emotionally, as well as the additional pressure it would place on him as he worked his way back from Triple-A. The Yankees understand that to start Pineda in the minors would come off as punitive, which is not how they want their relationship with the pitcher to begin.
• During the last six months, Major League Baseball and the players' association have hammered out the details of the new labor agreement, wedged the 10-team format into the 2012 schedule and dealt with the Ryan Braun issue. In addition, MLB has had ownership issues with the Dodgers, New York Mets and San Diego Padres, as well as the Oakland territorial question. So it may be that the folks involved just ran out of time to settle on a suitable version of expanded instant replay. It'll happen next year.
• Wrote here yesterday that some evaluators are seeing really good things from Mariners second baseman Dustin Ackley. I asked Seattle GM Jack Zduriencik about what the M's are seeing, and he noted in an email that the season hasn't started yet. "But we all know he is going to be a good hitter," Zduriencik wrote. "He is showing developed strength, power, and he is very comfortable at second base, which he played well in 2011.
"It's just experience, confidence, maturation and natural development that young players gain as they age. He is very young, with only four months of Major League service to his credit. He has adapted well in all aspects of his game and he will continue to do so as he matures. He is a very confident but reserved kid."
Ackley has settled in at second base, writes Bob Condotta.
• Some executives in baseball view the Magic Johnson/Stan Kasten/Walter group as the front-runner to buy the Dodgers. Bob Nightengale reports that Steve Cohen intends to hire Tony La Russa if he wins the bidding.
In this story from December, Richard Sandomir writes that Cohen's firm is under investigation by the SEC.
If Major League Baseball could arrange its perfect world, Johnson's group might win the Dodgers -- and then Cohen's firm would be cleared of any wrongdoing, putting him in position to buy the Mets if and when that team's current ownership is forced to sell. But MLB isn't steering this process. So, we'll see.
The Mets' owners lost a key ruling.
• Yu Darvish might be making illegal pitches, a situation easily fixed.
• Trevor Bauer's routine is drawing a lot of notice -- slices of it are detailed within this Nick Piecoro piece.
This reminds me of a pitcher I covered when he pitched for the Triple-A Nashville Sounds in 1989. Jack Armstrong was a tall right-hander, a former first-round pick, and he believed in throwing as much as possible -- including between innings. He'd finish throwing an inning and then he'd jog down to the bullpen, where he would continue throwing. Frank Lucchesi was the manager, Ray Rippelmeyer was the pitching coach, and their attitudes were that if it worked for Armstrong and he was having success, hey, leave him alone. And Armstrong had a strong season for the Sounds and was promoted to the big leagues.
But he struggled at the outset of his promotion to the majors, and somebody with the Cincinnati Reds -- I think it was manager Lou Piniella, if memory serves -- shut down that between-inning regimen. In 1990, Armstrong started the All-Star Game for the National League and wound up pitching in seven different seasons in the big leagues.
Diamondbacks manager Kirk Gibson is a results-oriented thinker, and general manager Kevin Towers is a former pitcher with an open mind. But my guess is that Bauer will be left alone as long as he has good results. If that starts to change, well, the folks who write the checks will be asking for adjustments.
• Scott Rolen is shrugging off age.
• Aroldis Chapman was dealing with family issues last year, Dusty Baker says. This was something heard off the record in the Reds' clubhouse last year; it's not retroactive whitewash.
Moves, deals and decisions
1. Shelby Miller was assigned to the Cardinals' minor league camp.
2. Roberto Hernandez (i.e., Fausto) restructured his contract with the Cleveland Indians, as Paul Hoynes writes.
3. The Washington Nationals say they're not shopping pitcher John Lannan.
4. Neil Walker might hit cleanup for the Pittsburgh Pirates, as Dejan Kovacevic writes.
Dings and dents
1. The bad news for the Kansas City Royals is that Salvador Perez needs surgery. The good news is that he probably won't miss much of the season.
2. Jacob Turner has been shut down for a week with tendinitis. Remember, tendinitis is a symptom. This is no time to panic about Turner, writes Lynn Henning.
3. A couple of Tampa Bay Rays mashed into each other, as Roger Mooney writes.
4. Dallas Braden is a little behind the other folks on the Oakland staff, as Susan Slusser writes.
5. Josh Hamilton has a minor injury.
6. Nick Markakis made his spring debut, as Dan Connolly writes.
7. Bryce Harper is back.
8. The only thing certain about the Phillies, writes Phil Sheridan, is that there are every-day players out of the lineup. Ryan Howard is back in camp, writes Matt Gelb.
9. Paul Meek is regaining the feel for his pitches.
10. David Wright says he expects to be in the lineup for Opening Day. Based on recent history, I'd bet there isn't a single Mets fan who believes that will be the case.
11. Freddy Garcia had X-rays.
The fight for jobs
1. Donnie Murphy is in line to be the Marlins' utility guy.
2. Lance Lynn is being shifted into the rotation.
3. Mike Carp is shouldering a different load.
4. Matt Downs is in a different position this spring, as Steve Campbell writes.
5. The numbers are working against Kyle Blanks, but he's hoping to turn them.
6. Felix Doubront is in the running for the No. 5 spot in the Boston Red Sox rotation, as Scott Lauber writes.
1. Neftali Feliz struggled with his command. He is very important to the Texas staff, as Tim Cowlishaw writes.
2. Anibal Sanchez had a good day -- and Hanley Ramirez is hitting .467, after going 1-for-3.
3. Buster Posey hit his first home run of the spring.
4. Edwin Encarnacion mashed a couple of homers.
5. Albert Pujols killed the ball, as Marcia Smith writes.
6. Derek Lowe threw a bunch of sinkers.
7. Randy Wolf had a good outing.
8. Stephen Strasburg got knocked around a little bit and admitted to some immaturity.
9. Matt Harvey was really good, again.
• Yoenis Cespedes makes the Athletics interesting, writes Mark Purdy. The Athletics are having a good spring training, with their young players performing well. Will they contend? Almost certainly not. But they may well play better than expected.
• Dee Gordon isn't talking about how many steals he expects to rack up.
• Mark Melancon seems like a good fit for the Red Sox, writes Tim Britton.
• Kenny Williams likes what he sees in the Chicago White Sox, writes Dave van Dyck. A year ago, some execs thought the White Sox were one of the best-looking teams in Arizona; this year, many regard the White Sox as one of the worst-looking teams. So, take that for what's it's worth.
• Dale Sveum has the Chicago Cubs aggressive on the bases.
• The Twins' Brian Duensing is in a different world in the bullpen.
• Raul Ibanez isn't worried about his spring training slump, writes George King.
• The D-backs' Archie Bradley is putting in the work.
• Jeremy Hellickson isn't buying the BABIP theory about him. Look, if you post a 2.95 ERA in the American League East -- which has three of the top six scoring teams -- you can understand why the suggestion you are "lucky" would seem a little silly. In Marc Topkin's story, Joe Maddon flexes his own statistical muscles:
- He's a fly-ball pitcher, but he's one of those anomaly guys that gets the popup on the infield,' Maddon said. "If you look into those guys, they are pretty successful. The fastball-changeup combination probably induces the popup."