In his first year back from Tommy John surgery, Stephen Strasburg
has made a strong case as the NL's best pitcher. (Chuck Solomon/SI)
On Monday, managers Ron Washington and Tony La Russa will announce their choices of starting pitchers for the All-Star Game. Both skippers have a handful of worthy candidates at their disposal, with no clear-cut favorite in either league.
The National League features 16 starting pitchers with at least eight wins (a stat that means a whole lot more to these old-school managers than it should), 11 with ERAs below 3.00 and 26 with at least 8.0 strikeouts per nine. Those are all arbitrary cutoffs, of course, but the sheer number of pitchers who meet each criterion point to the bewildering array of options at La Russa's disposal. Four NL pitchers satisfy all three criteria: the Mets' R.A. Dickey, the Nationals' Stephen Strasburg, the Giants' Matt Cain and the Dodgers' Chris Capuano. A quick look at the basic stat sheet, with the pitchers sorted alphabetically:
Though he's been an excellent, economical addition to the Dodger rotation, Capuano wasn't even selected for the NL roster, so he's obviously out. That leaves the other three, all of whom add a bit of narrative juice to their basic stat lines. Here's a breakdown of the cases for each:
• Dickey is having an unprecedented season for a knuckleballer. He leads the league in wins, strikeouts, complete games (three) and shutouts (two) while running third in ERA; a five-run, seven inning effort on Thursday night against the Phillies knocked him out of the top spot. He's also tied for the league lead in Baseball-Reference's version of Wins Above Replacement, which attributes all of the responsibility for runs allowed to a pitcher; the Reds' Johnny Cueto, a controversial snub, has 3.5 as well. The 37-year-old Met has traveled a long and winding road to attain this unlikely peak, and he may never scale such heights again. He has a shot at becoming just the second or third knuckleballer ever to start an All-Star Game, depending upon how liberal a definition one uses for the term; Dutch Leonard of the Senators started for the AL in 1943, while Bob Purkey of the Reds did so for the NL in 1961, though the latter didn't use the knuckler more than half the time. The downside of starting a knuckleball pitcher is the unfamiliarity that starting catcher Buster Posey may have with the fluttering pitch.
• Strasburg is arguably the most dominant pitcher in the league, with the top strikeout rate by a wide margin; teammate Gio Gonzalez is second at 10.5, while Dickey is fourth. Furthermore, the 23-year-old is the ace of a team that has the league's best record. The only real knock against his candidacy is that because he's on an innings limit after returning from Tommy John surgery late last season, he has pitched roughly 27 fewer innings than either Dickey or Cain. Even so, a look at the advanced Wins Above Replacement Player metric, which unlike B-R's WAR adjusts for defensive and bullpen support — he needs less of the former, because he strikes out so many hitters, but more of the latter, because he doesn't pitch as deep into games — shows that even with fewer innings, he's been the league's most valuable pitcher at 3.2 WARP. Still, the Nationals might actually prefer he didn't pitch or at least was limited to a single inning. One can make the case that his shot at starting an All-Star Game should wait until he's able to shoulder a full workload.
• Cain has a perfect game under his belt, and with Tim Lincecum struggling mightily, he has assumed the mantle of staff ace on a San Francisco team that's in position for a Wild Card spot (the Giants and Mets are tied at 45-38). He has the best strikeout-to-unintentional walk rate of the bunch, but he's also got the best defensive support, with a .254 batting average on balls in play. He has ranked among the league leaders in that category for years thanks to his ballpark and his penchant for generating popups, at least to the extent that he's one of the few pitchers who clearly appears to have influence over such balls. Still, without an advantage in any of the traditional categories or the valuation metrics, his case appears to be the thinnest of the trio.
Eliminating Cain, the choice comes down to the aged knuckleballer and the young fireballer. Even without considering the fact that he'll have one fewer day of rest, the latter is on a shorter leash and could be of less help to the NL squad due to his innings limitation. In the end, the nod should go to Dickey.
As for the American League, using the same admittedly arbitrary cutoffs, 18 starters have at least eight wins, six have ERAs below 3.00, and 15 have strikeout rates of at least 8.0. Three pitchers satisfy all three criteria, and all have been named to the AL squad: the White Sox Chris Sale, the Tigers' Justin Verlander and the Rays' David Price:
None of the three have storylines quite as strong as the NL pitchers, but each has a case to be made.
• Despite doubts over whether his mechanics would translate to the higher workload of a starter, Sale has been outstanding in his move to the rotation for the first place White Sox. He's second in the league in ERA, tied for third in wins and ninth in both strikeouts and strikeout rate; he's also third in home run rate, just 0.007 off league leader C.J. Wilson of the Angels. Sale pitches in by far the toughest ballpark of the three, and from the standpoint of advanced metrics, he's tied with Verlander in WAR at 4.3 while running second in WARP at 2.4. If there's a knock on him, it's that he has the lowest innings total of the trio and is in his first year as a starter, suggesting he should pay his dues.
• The reigning AL Cy Young and MVP winner, Verlander lacks an advantage in any of the rate stats, though his leaguewide standing is strong; he's second in strikeout-to-walk ratio, fourth in ERA, and eighth in strikeout rate. More impressively, he's a workhorse who leads the league in innings, strikeouts, and complete games (five) as well as WAR (4.3) and WARP (2.9), the latter even after adjusting for his microscopic .248 BABIP; keep in mind that last year, he finished at .237, a reminder that high velocity pitchers who limit hard contact can often dominate such a category. Bypassed for the All-Star start in favor of the Angels' Jered Weaver in 2011, he's got a reasonable case that it's his turn now.
• Price doesn't appear to have as strong a case as either of the other two. He leads the league in wins while running fifth in ERA and tied for sixth in innings and WAR (2.6), but neither his strikeout rate nor strikeout-to-unintentional walk ratio crack the league's top 10. One of these years, he's going to earn an All-Star start, but it's not this one.
Once again, the decision comes down to the veteran and the upstart, and here it's difficult to bypass the pitcher with by far the stronger track record, particularly when workload is taken into account. Verlander is the AL's most deserving starter.