Strikeout aces Harvey and Scherzer will deservedly start All-Star Game
For the first time since 2004, a pitcher will start the All-Star Game on his home field. As expected, National League manager Brucy Bochy tabbed Matt Harvey to take the ball at Citi Field on Tuesday night, an honor that will come 10 days shy of a year since he made his major league debut. On the American League side, manager Jim Leyland named his own pitcher, the Tigers' Max Scherzer, to be the starter. While one can quibble with the ways the two managers justified their selections, what's interesting is that in a year when strikeout rates are at an all-time high (19.8 percent of all plate appearances), the pair are the best available to their respective leagues in that department. Harvey leads the NL at 29.3 percent, while Scherzer is second to the injured Yu Darvish in the AL at 30.1 percent.
To Bochy, the home-field angle didn't factor into his decision to go with the Mets righthander. In Monday afternoon's press conference to announce the starters, Bochy said, "It really wouldn't have mattered what city we were playing in. With the year that he's had, the impressive numbers that he's put up, he would have been the starting pitcher, but the fact that it is here, it's an honor for me to name Matt Harvey as the starting pitcher tomorrow night."
Depending upon what statistics one consults, the case for the 24-year-old Harvey isn't quite as clear-cut as Bochy made it out to be. Using both the old-school numbers the skipper is most likely to have consulted and the new-school ones favored by statheads, one can make some kind of case for any one of five pitchers:
Kershaw has been the most effective in terms of actual run prevention, even after adjusting for ballpark, and via Baseball-Reference.com's version of Wins Above Replacement, the most valuable. Were he not receiving the league's sixth-worst offensive support (3.2 runs per game), he might have put together a won-loss record that made Bochy's choice more difficult. Wainwright has the highest win total, which owes much to to the league's second-best offensive support (5.7 runs per game), and an incredible 8.7 strikeout-to-walk ratio, but he opted out by starting for the Cardinals on Sunday, making him unavailable. Corbin has an impressive won-loss percentage thanks to strong run support (4.6 per game), an impressively low ERA in a hitters' park and the league's second-best quality start rate. Lee is strong across the board but probably the first cut from the bunch.
Harvey has been the most dominant of that quintet in terms of strikeout rate and Fielding Independent Pitching, and despite his lower innings total, he's been right on par in terms of quality start rate. Certainly, he's generated as much buzz as any NL pitcher thanks to his recent arrival on the major league scene, his high strikeout rate, his three flirtations with a no-hitter and the contrast between his performance and that of the struggling Mets. In the majors' largest media market, he turns a bad team into a must-watch one every fifth day.
Add to that the angle of having Harvey start on his home field, and it's a justifiable decision, one that particularly rewards the hometown fans who dug deep into their pockets to buy tickets for the game. In the 50 years since the All-Star Game returned to being played just once a summer, four pitchers have gotten the call in their home parks: 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. More recently, candidates such as Wainwright (2009) and Ian Kennedy (2011) have been bypassed despite the similar opportunity for home-field connections.
The track records for those aforementioned pitchers in such starts has been strong, with one exception:
• Rogers threw the maximum three innings, as was common at the time; since the All-Star Game began in 1933, 81 pitchers have done so, but it has only happened once since 1988: Greg Maddux for the NL in 1994. Rogers yielded four hits, struck out two and allowed one run. He got the win in the NL's 4-1 victory, the Senior Circuit's 10th in a row.
• Martinez threw two innings of no-hit ball, striking out the first four hitters (Barry Larkin, Larry Walker, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire) that he faced. After Matt Williams reached on an error, Martinez struck out Jeff Bagwell, with catcher Ivan Rodriguez gunning down Williams trying to steal on strike three. Martinez got the win in the AL's 4-1 victory.
• Loaiza threw two innings of shutout ball, allowing one hit and striking out one. Thanks to a late rally, the AL won 7-6, as part of an unbeaten streak that ran from 1997 through 2009, including the infamous 2002 tie.
• Clemens set a record for most runs allowed by an All-Star starting pitcher, yielding six in a dreadful first inning that included home runs by Manny Ramirez and Alfonso Soriano. Three of the runs were unearned, coming after a two-out error by Jeff Kent, but that didn't lessen the embarrassment of the Rocket's launchpad explosion. The outburst enabled the AL to cruise to a 9-4 win.
As for Scherzer, Leyland left little doubt his reason for picking his own player. "13-1 Max Scherzer. I don't think I need to explain any more than that." Perhaps not to the old-school set, but the statistically-minded Scherzer himself would be one to concede that he owes that mark to an AL-best 5.9 runs per game of offensive support. Which isn't to say that he's not deserving, but part of Leyland's decision was made for him by other circumstances. Consider the top seven pitchers ranked by WAR:
From that group, Buchholz is on the disabled list. Colon is less than a year removed from a suspension for performance-enhancing drugs and is one of the players under investigation as a part of the Biogenesis scandal; one has to imagine that he's not Bud Selig's favorite selection. He also started on Sunday, as did Iwakuma.
Of the remaining three pitchers, Scherzer (who last started Saturday) has the most impressive won-loss record but also the highest strikeout rate, and is just 0.02 behind Hernandez in FIP. King Felix (who also started Saturday) has been better at actual run prevention, with a slight edge in innings and thus a significant edge in value. Sale has been nearly as dominant as the other two but has been a victim of the league's offensive support — at 2.8 runs per game, less than half that of Scherzer. Given Leyland's leanings, there's just no way he would have tabbed a pitcher with a losing record over one with a record like Scherzer's. For additional confirmation, consider that in the press conference, he justified the selection of Chris Tillman as a roster replacement for Justin Verlander based upon his 11-3 record, despite the fact that Hiroki Kuroda has the league's second-best ERA. As with the lineups and the rest of the rosters, one can argue to the point of becoming blue in the face at the imperfections of the selection process for the starters. Nonetheless, both Harvey and Scherzer have been among the majors' most dominant hurlers, and they're fitting representatives not only of their leagues but of the trend that's defined the majors this year. For all of the swings and misses, the two managers didn't whiff with their choices.