With a no-hitter, a 41-inning scoreless streak and the most dominant stat line of any National League pitcher, Clayton Kershaw had a very strong case to be the starting pitcher for the Senior Circuit in the All-Star Game. But while the reigning NL Cy Young winner may be pitching the best ball of his career, he lacked an important ally when it came to deciding who would get the ball, as Cardinals manager Mike Matheny instead tabbed his own ace, Adam Wainwright, for Tuesday night's start. With far less controversy, Red Sox manager John Farrell selected Mariners ace Felix Hernandez to start for the Junior Circuit. Both choices, as well as the batting orders, were announced at a press conference in Minneapolis on Monday afternoon.
The two first-time starters have impressive statistical cases, starting with the fact that each leads his respective league in the Baseball-Reference.com version of Wins Above Replacement, reflecting their outstanding run prevention across much larger workloads than the top alternative in either league. Each is putting together the best season of his career to date as well, though the same can be said for said alternatives.
On the NL side, Wainwright has the edge on Kershaw in WAR, 4.9 to 4.2. Because the 26-year-old Dodgers lefty missed 31 games early in the season due to inflammation in his teres major muscle, the 32-year-old Cardinals righty leads Kershaw in innings by 41 2/3. Wainwright's 1.83 ERA also leads the league, but only because Kershaw (1.78) is two-thirds of an inning shy of qualifying based on one inning pitched per team game. Kershaw, the winner of the last three NL ERA crowns, has thrown 96 1/3 innings, good enough to cross the qualifying threshold for the first time this year after last Thursday's start (the Dodgers' 94th game). Since then, however, he's fallen behind due to inactivity, that slacker! Adjusting for ballpark, Wainwright has the edge by an eyelash, with a 201 ERA+ to Kershaw's 200.
However, Kershaw has the stronger case of the two based on peripherals — the things more within his control. His 11.8 strikeouts per nine, 1.2 walks per nine and 9.7 strikeout-to-walk ratio would all lead the league if he were qualified, and they rate as career bests by a wide margin. By comparison, Wainwright has struck out just 7.5 per nine to go with 1.8 walks and a 4.3 ratio; the latter, which ranks ninth in the league, is the only one of those figures in the top 10. Wainwright does have the edge in terms of home run rate, 0.3 per nine to Kershaw's 0.5, and thanks to his defense, has a big edge in batting average on balls in play, .252 to .283.
In the balance, Kershaw's 1.60 FIP towers over Wainwright's 2.52. Moreover, any notion of the league's best pitcher that expands beyond this year's workload to include the recent past — such as Kershaw's Cy Young-winning 2013, when he set career bests in ERA (1.83) and bWAR (7.8) while Wainwright pitched to a 2.94 ERA with 6.2 WAR — would favor the Dodger by a wider margin. Incorporate 2012, when Kershaw had an ERA edge of more than 1.4 runs per nine, or 2011, when he won his first Cy Young while Wainwright underwent Tommy John surgery, and the gap widens. Limiting it to 2012-14, Kershaw has a towering 6.1 WAR advantage, 18.3 to 12.2.
However, it was Wainwright's Cardinals who defeated Kershaw's Dodgers in last year’s NLCS to win the pennant, giving Matheny the honor of managing the NL squad. To the victor go the spoils, though the St. Louis manager's justification that the choice was driven by his pitcher's "leadership" as well as performance is an eye-roller. It’s just the third time in the past decade that a manager has chosen his own starter; Jim Leyland did the same with regards to Max Scherzer last year, and Matheny’s St. Louis predecessor, Tony La Russa, chose Chris Carpenter in 2005.
On the AL side, Hernandez's 4.4 WAR slightly edged those of Mark Buehrle (4.2), Masahiro Tanaka (4.2) and Chris Sale (4.0). With Tanaka — who has dominated the buzz in the AL for most of the season as Kershaw has in the NL — ruled out due to his elbow injury and Buehrle having an ERA about half a run higher than the other two, the choice came down to Hernandez and Sale, with the latter's 32 games on the shelf due to a flexor strain mirroring the situation in the NL. This time, the choice was made by a neutral party; for as good a season as Boston's Jon Lester is having (2.65 ERA, 9.3 strikeouts per nine), his 2.5 WAR season doesn't belong in the same ballpark.
The 28-year-old Hernandez is putting together the best season of his 10-year (!) career, even better than his 2010 Cy Young-winning campaign. Currently, he's setting career bests in several key rate stats: Strikeout rate (9.6 per nine), walk rate (1.6 per nine), home run rate (0.3 per nine), strikeout-to-walk ratio (6.2), hits per nine (6.5), FIP (2.04) and ERA (2.12). The latter two categories lead the league, while he's second in innings (144 1/3) and strikeouts (154).
As with Kershaw, Sale finally accumulated enough innings to qualify for the ERA title in his last turn on July 9, but he now has 95 innings pitched to the White Sox' 96 games, so his 2.08 ERA isn't officially qualified, nor is his 193 ERA+, which bests King Felix's 177. His 9.7 strikeouts per nine and 6.4 strikeout-to-walk ratio are better than those of Hernandez, though his home run rate (0.57 per nine) is roughly double his rival (0.31), and his 2.47 FIP takes a backseat.
In the end, it's a lot tougher to quibble with Farrell's choice than Matheny's, but the two make for a very strong pair. Wainwright is the ninth Cardinal to start the game overall, following Bill Hallahan (1933), Bill Walker (1935), Dizzy Dean (1936 and '37), Mort Cooper (1942 and '43), Steve Carlton (1969), Bob Gibson (1972), Rick Wise (1973) and Carpenter (2005). Hernandez is the second Mariner to get the call, after Randy Johnson (1995 and '97). He's also the first Venezuela-born pitcher to start an All-Star Game.
As for the lineups and batting orders, here's the NL:
Not surprisingly, Matheny chose Stanton, who leads the NL in both homers (21) and RBI (63) as his designated hitter. Gomez is playing out of position, bumped to leftfield by McCutchen despite stronger defensive numbers; being the reigning NL MVP has its advantages.
Here's the AL:
In his 14th and final All-Star Game, Jeter has the honor of leading off, something he's done only once before, back in 2012; among his eight previous times in the starting lineup, he batted second six times and seventh once. In terms of the outfield shuffle, Trout has the stronger defensive numbers than Jones; he’s playing at the position where he made 124 appearances and 77 starts from 2011-2013 but has yet to appear this year.
Finally, it’s worth noting that the NL roster has undergone four more tweaks since we last checked in because pitchers who started on Sunday are ineligible to pitch on Tuesday. Three were replaced by teammates: The Reds’ Alfredo Simon for Johnny Cueto, the Giants’ Tim Hudson for Madison Bumgarner, and the Padres’ Huston Street for Tyson Ross. The fourth was the Nationals’ Tyler Clippard, named to replace the Braves’ Julio Teheran.