Hisashi Iwakuma has been even better than Felix Hernandez for Seattle this year. (Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Chatter about who should be part of next month's All-Star Game is picking up, and as we start to ponder the composition of the two leagues' rosters, it's worth taking a closer look at some players putting together excellent seasons away from the limelight.
Consider the NL leaderboard for Wins Above Replacement among pitchers (Baseball-Reference.com version): Clayton Kershaw (4.3 WAR), Cliff Lee (4.0), Adam Wainwright (3.7), Matt Harvey (3.7) and Shelby Miller (3.1) have hardly escaped notice in this space or elsewhere, but few people are paying mind to Jorge De La Rosa (3.1), whose return from two seasons largely lost to injuries is a big reason why the Rockies are suddenly respectable again.
What follows here is a look at a handful of strong under-the-radar performances by pitchers in both leagues; I'll be back with hitters in another article. This isn't to say that all of those mentioned are worthy of spots on their league's respective All-Star teams, but they merit at least some discussion when Bruce Bochy and Jim Leyland assemble their squads. The players are listed alphabetically.
Bartolo Colon, A's
Consideration for the All-Star team? Fuhgeddaboutit. With a PED-related suspension and his name on the Biogenesis list, Colon isn't getting anywhere near Citi Field on July 16, but even at 40 years old and in the roundest shape of his career, he remains a strike-throwing machine. His 1.0 walks per nine are a league low, his 5.2 strikeout-to-walk ratio and 79 percent quality start rate both rank fourth (the latter tied with Doug Fister), and his 2.89 ERA is 10th. Bolstered by a league-high 6.4 runs per game, he's got nine wins and the A's — the first-place, second-best-record-in-the-league A's — are 11-3 in his starts.
Jesse Crain, White Sox
The sole reliever to crack the WAR top 10 in either league is here because he has a 0.55 ERA based on allowing two runs in 32 2/3 innings. A closer look shows that he's allowed seven out of 20 inherited runners (35 percent) to score, a rate a bit worse than the league-average 31 percent, but the guy has been dominant, with 11.8 strikeouts and just 2.5 walks per nine; that 4.8 strikeout-to-walk ratio is more than double his career mark of 2.1. He's yet to allow a homer, too, though given his fly ball orientation and U.S. Cellular Field's homer-friendliness, that will eventually change. With the Sox going nowhere, the 31-year-old pending free agent could be a hot commodity at the trade deadline.
Jorge De La Rosa, Rockies
The knock on the now-32-year-old southpaw has always been his durability. Through parts of 10 major league seasons, he's topped 24 starts and qualified for the ERA title just once, back in 2009. Since then, he's been a tease, showing signs of improvement but missing large chunks of time due to injuries. He made just 20 starts in 2010 due to a finger injury, and 10 in 2011 before undergoing Tommy John surgery, with continued forearm tightness limiting him to three starts last year. Of his 15 starts this year, nine have been quality starts, no small feat for a pitcher spending half his time at Coors Field, and his 3.21 ERA under such conditions translates to a 141 ERA+. He's striking out only 5.9 per nine, down from the 8.8 he averaged from 2008-2011, but he's trimmed his walk and homer rates (3.1 and 0.5 per nine) considerably as well; his 3.58 FIP (Baseball Prospectus version) attests to the legitimacy of his performance. He's now tied for fifth in the league in pitcher WAR, and the Rockies are 10-5 in his starts, 27-32 in all others.
Hisashi Iwakuma, Mariners
In his second season stateside, this 32-year-old Japanese import has put up numbers that teammate Felix Hernandez would sign for: 2.06 ERA, 0.9 homers, 1.5 walks and 8.1 strikeouts per nine. The ERA and 3.8 WAR are both second in the league, the 5.3 strikeout-to-walk ratio and 80 percent quality start rate third, the walk rate fifth. Granted, the package has been helped along by a league-low .238 BABIP, but the dude is doing it in front of a sad-sack team. The M's are 10-5 when he starts and 22-37 when he doesn't (they're just 8-8 when King Felix takes the ball).
Jeff Locke, Pirates
With 51 career innings under his belt prior to this season, Locke technically isn't a rookie, but after getting knocked around for a 5.82 ERA in his 2011 and 2012 cameos, the 25-year-old lefty has secured his place in the majors. He's second in the league in ERA at 2.01, and 10th in WAR at 2.4. Much of that's owed to a .235 batting average on balls in play, the league's second-lowest mark among qualifiers; while his home run rate (0.5 per nine) is outstanding, his strikeout and walk rates (6.3 and 3.9 per nine) are not, and his 3.77 FIP suggests serious regression ahead. He walks a tightrope much of the time; on June 9 against the Cubs, he took a no-hitter into the sixth but walked seven while striking out six. Still, he's allowed zero runs in seven of his 15 starts, one run in three others, and three hits or fewer in eight of them. He's 6-1 despite getting 3.0 runs per game of offensive support; with a bit better luck, he could easily have 10 wins at this juncture.
Justin Masterson, Indians
Masterson has improved his slider into a swing and miss pitch; he's throwing it 27 percent of the time, up from 19 percent last year, and he's getting swings and misses on it 16 percent of the time, which has enabled him to boost his strikeout rate from a middle-of-the-road 6.9 per nine to an outstanding 9.1 (sixth in the league). He's still walking too many hitters — he leads the league in that category with 43 — but his 2.6 strikeout-to-walk ratio is a career best, and his 0.7 homers per nine is in the top 10. Even with a middling 4.0 runs per game of offensive support, he's got nine wins, and the Indians are 11-5 in his starts, compared to 25-30 in the rest of their games.
Santana certainly hasn't escaped my attention, but after the grief I've given him and the Royals, it's worth conceding that he's been as good as anyone might have dared hope. His 2.64 ERA ranks third in the league, his 2.4 WAR in a virtual tie for eighth with the much more heralded Hiroki Kuroda and Anibal Sanchez. The way he's getting it done is worth a closer look, because the performance may be fleeting given its extremes. His .246 BABIP and 1.4 walks per nine are second and fourth in the league, respectively, and while his 1.3 homers per nine has fallen to 14th, it's taken a June lockdown (one homer in 28 2/3 innings) to do so. The bottom line is that if you keep opponents off the bases, the homers don't hurt so much and you'll keep your team in games; with a 71 percent quality start rate — and a league-best 7.1 innings per start — Santana has, though given pitiful run support (3.5 per game), the Royals are just 6-8 in his starts.
The combination of last year's shutdown, this year's oblique injury and the Nationals' flagging fortunes have some folks savoring a potent schadenfreude cocktail when it comes to Strasburg. Expected to contend for a Cy Young, he's just 3-6 thanks to atrocious run support (2.7 per game, second-worst in the league), but a closer look shows that he hasn't pitched badly at all. His 2.50 ERA and 150 ERA+ are both in the top 10, his walk and homer rates (2.8 and 0.7 per nine, respectively) are close to his career norms, and his 3.22 FIP is quite solid. His falling strikeout rate — 8.7 per nine, down from 11.1 last year — is cause for concern, but his average fastball velocity has barely moved (96.3 mph this year, compared to 96.6 last year according to BrooksBaseball.net), and all of his other PITCHf/x velocity and movement data is in line with his history, suggesting it's his occasional inconsistency that's the real issue. If he's underachieving relative to his peak ability, he's still among the league's best starters.
Travis Wood, Cubs
Wood has gotten more attention in this space for his hitting (.276/.323/.517 with two homers) than for his pitching, but the 26-year-old lefty is thriving on the mound, too. Thanks to an MLB-low .226 batting average on balls in play, he's eighth in pitching WAR (2.6) and 11th in ERA (2.74). His peripherals (0.6 homers, 2.7 walks and 6.3 strikeouts per nine) certainly won't wow anyone, but his 12.0 percent popup rate leads the league. So does his 93 percent quality start rate; only once has he allowed more than three earned runs or pitched fewer than six innings. The bat has its value, too — he's added another 0.6 WAR via that route — but all too often the rest of the lineup is taking a day off; the Cubs are scoring just 3.4 runs per game in his starts.