Thursday afternoon's pitchers duel at Citi Field between the Cardinals' Adam Wainwright and the Mets' Matt Harvey was compelling, and not just because it actually lived up to its billing — something all too many marquee matchups fail to do. Both pitchers belong on the short list of candidates to start the All-Star Game for the National League at Citi on July 16.
On Thursday, it was the Cardinals who got the upper hand with a 2-1 win. Wainwright threw seven shutout innings and struck out six while yielding four hits and two walks; his first-inning strikeout of David Wright was the 1,000th of his major league career. Harvey threw seven innings and struck out seven while allowing five hits, one walk and one run, which came in the third inning as Pete Kozma scored on Matt Carpenter's triple. Alas, Harvey got zero support from the Mets' offense while he was in the game. Both bullpens allowed a run after the starters departed, and the Mets nearly tied the score in the bottom of the ninth, but Carpenter's diving stop of a Kirk Nieuwenhuis smash prevented John Buck from scoring from second base.
Given that the All-Star Game is still over a month away, each of the following pitchers still has around five starts remaining to augment the case that Giants and NL manager Bruce Bochy will review. Until then, here's how the NL field is shaping up, with the candidates listed in alphabetical order. Unless otherwise specified, all rankings are within the league, among qualifiers for the ERA title (one inning pitched per team game).
The 23-year-old lefty is off to a flying start in his first full major league season. He's 9-0 at this writing, tied for second in wins, with a 2.28 ERA (sixth). He's done that while pitching for a team from a hitter-friendly park; his 175 ERA+ ranks fourth. His 85 percent quality start rate is tied for third. The strongest argument against him is that he's striking out just 7.0 per nine innings, which is a hair below the NL average for starting pitchers (7.2 per nine). That has an impact on his value via Wins Above Replacement, since a proportionally larger share of the credit is owed to his fielders; his 2.6 WAR is tied for eighth. Also, he's arguably not the best of the relative newcomers among this slate, given the presence of the more dominant Harvey and Shelby Miller.
Matt Harvey, Mets
There's very little to complain about with regards to Harvey as a candidate. He leads the NL with 102 strikeouts and is fifth in strikeout rate (9.5 per nine). His 2.04 ERA is third and his 2.13 Fielding Independent Pitching (Baseball Prospectus version, which uses league-specific constants) is first. Until Thursday, he was undefeated in the won-loss department; he's now 5-1. A lack of run support has certainly hurt him in that regard, but he came into the day getting 3.8 runs per start, 21-st-worst in the league but nearly a run better than Clayton Kershaw.
In the coming days and weeks, the argument is likely to be made that Harvey should get the nod on the basis of the game being played in his home stadium. While it's not unprecedented for a pitcher to start the All-Star Game on his home field, it's something of a rarity. In the 50 years since the game returned to being played once a year, it's happened just four times: the Expos' Steve Rogers at Olympic Stadium in 1982, the Red Sox' Pedro Martinez at Fenway Park in 1999, the White Sox' Esteban Loaiza at U.S. Cellular Field in 2003 and the Astros' Roger Clemens at Minute Maid Park in 2004. That's two Hall of Fame-caliber hurlers in Cy Young-winning years (Martinez and Clemens), a longtime star en route to his only ERA title as well as his highest win total (Rogers) and a journeyman having a career year bookended by seasons with ERAs of 5.70 and 5.71 (Loaiza). Plenty of good pitchers have been bypassed for the opportunity. The question is whether Harvey's claim on a starting spot is that much greater not only than of his peers, but of similarly positioned pitchers such as Wainwright in 2009 (9-5 with a 3.09 ERA at the break, en route to a 19-win, 2.63 ERA season) or the Diamondbaks' Ian Kennedy in 2011 (9-3 with a 3.44 ERA en route to a 21-win season). Perhaps the home field factor is enough to break a tie, but it shouldn't be an automatic.
Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers
One of two Cy Young winners on this short list, Kershaw leads the league in ERA and ERA+ (1.88 and 195, respectively), and he's second in innings (100 1/3) and WAR (3.9), having been bypassed by Wainwright in both of those categories on Thursday afternoon. Additionally, he's fifth in strikeouts (96), bypassed by both Harvey and Wainwright, and 11th in strikeout rate (8.6 per nine). As to his uninspiring 5-4 record, his 2.9 runs per start is in a virtual tie for third-lowest in the league; he's even more of a hard luck case than Harvey.
Along with Kershaw, Lee is the other former Cy Young winner on this list. At 7-2, he has already surpassed last year's win total despite run support that's hardly much better (3.7 per game, as opposed to 3.5 in 2012). His 2.55 ERA is "only" 10th in the league, but his 2.52 FIP is fourth. Given his high innings total (95 1/3, third) and strong peripherals, including top-10 placements in walk and homer rates and a 5.2 strikeout-to-walk ratio (fourth), he's third in WAR at 3.5.
Shelby Miller, Cardinals
The 22-year-old rookie has been flat-out sensational, ranking second in the league in strikeout rate (10.1) and FIP (2.51), third in strikeout-to-walk ratio (5.4), fourth in ERA (2.21) and fifth in WAR (3.1) and ERA+ (172). Plus, he's got the highest game score of any outing this year, with his one-hit, 13-strikeout shutout of the Rockies on May 10 good for a 98, one point better than Harvey's one-hit 12-strikeout scoreless effort against the White Sox three days prior (another game in which the Mets delivered a zero as long as he was in). There are precedents in our previously mentioned 50-year window for rookies starting the All-Star Game: Mark Fidrych in 1976, Fernando Valenzuela in 1981 and Hideo Nomo in 1995. All three had become cultural phenomena by the time the Midsummer Classic had rolled around. Miller's not there yet, and he's arguably not the best starter on his own team.
Adam Wainwright, Cardinals
Wainwright became the league's first 10-game winner on Thursday, but that's hardly all he has going for him. He leads in WAR (at 3.8, he was 0.1 behind Kershaw coming into the start, and he's surely higher now, though the figure hasn't been updated yet), innings (103), quality start rate (93 percent), walk rate (0.8 per nine), home run rate (0.2 per nine) and FIP (1.77), driven by an astronomical 10.8 strikeout-to-walk ratio (97 strikeouts, nine walks). In fact, if you account for his one intentional walk, his 12.2 strikeout-to-unintentional walk ratio would be the best ever among ERA qualifiers, edging Cliff Lee's 2010 (11.6) and Brett Saberhagen's 1994 (11.0). It's almost an afterthought to mention that he's fourth in ERA (2.18) as well, but he's hardly been slacking in that department.
Let's face it, he's not the former Washington first-round pick anyone expected to be on the list at this point, but Stephen Strasburg's oblique injury and piddling run support (2.9 per game, tied with Kershaw for third-lowest) en route to a 3-5 record make him a non-starter in this category. Zimmermann, on the other hand, is second in the league in ERA (2.00) and walk rate (1.2 per nine) and tied for second in wins (nine). Alas, his 5.8 strikeouts per nine suppresses his WAR (2.7, seventh) and inflates his FIP (3.09, 11th). Which isn't to say that he's a bad pitcher by any means, just one who may be less deserving than some of the other pitchers here. At the moment, the case can be made that this comes down to Wainwright and Harvey, with the former getting the edge on statistical dominance but the latter holding his own, and probably getting a boost because of the home field connection. If I were in Bochy's shoes, I'd risk the enmity of the New York crowd and go Wainwright, but a fair bit could change over the next five weeks.