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The Best of the Aughts – Pitchers with Tiger Blood and Adonis DNA…

March 7, 2011 2 comments

I seem to remember, before all this NBA trade deadline madness, that I was writing a series of articles on the best Baseball team of the Aughts.  I started with the infield and then laid out my outfield and bench.  I think – and I’ve been known to be wrong before – that all I’m left with then is the pitching staff (well, I’ll probably select a manager too, but that’s just because I’m a masochist for the irrelevant).  So, lets begin where every good pitching staff begins: with the starters.

Starters:

When Rob Neyer picked his team of the decade, he took Roy Halladay as his starter.  Obviously Doc’s my favorite player and thus you’re not getting an argument out of me.  Over the course of the decade, nobody put together as impressive a total resume as Halladay, who dominated in the AL East against the Sox, Yanks, and Rays.  However, this team is all about the Wine Cellar concept – taking single years of greatness – and it would be fair to say that if you made a list of the five top single season performances of the Aughts, old Roy might not make the list.

I sort of look at a pitching staff like this.  At the top, ideally, you have your Ace.  The guy you want out there in any must win situation.  You want to know that he can go 9 innings, strikeout 15, demoralize the other team just by standing on the mound.  Basically, you want someone with tiger blood and Adonis DNA.  Then you have your number two.  Preferably, you want someone just a notch below those lofty Ace standards.  He need not be quite as dominating and he might be the opposite arm, to add contrast.  You want to mix up the look on the other team, but the guy still has to be a beast.  Like I said, you want him a notch below the Ace, but not a foot and a half.  For your team’s third starter, you want someone who eats innings, keeps the score low, and allows your offense to win.  After that, we’re into the back end of the rotation.  Frankly, most teams are looking to get a bit lucky back there. You might want to take a flier on a guy who has underachieved or who’s inconsistent.  Someone capable of flashing great things, but who doesn’t bring it every week.  And, finally you have your fifth starter.  For most teams this is just a dumping ground for whatever shlub you have who can actually put a ball near a strike zone.  If I ran a team I would want my fifth starter to be young.  I would want a constant stream of new talent breaching the majors through that spot.  Some will self combust, some will simply wash out, some will progress to a four or three, but – in the best case scenario – a very tiny few will have a year like Clay Buccholz gave the Sox last year.  So, with all that in mind, lets break down the contenders for the five spots:

Ace:

In my books, to qualify as an Ace you have to be one of the top fifteen pitchers in baseball.  Now, obviously there isn’t a delineated, cut along the perforated line of who are the top 15 pitchers, but you have to be in the discussion.  Some Aces are no-brainers, because they’re clearly top 15, others are fringy, but the point is that they are guys who at the start of the year you can identify as being bitchin’ rock stars from Mars.  Why only 15?  Well, not every team has an Ace, nor should they.  Who’s the last Ace that the Pirates had?  What about the Nationals?  Or the Orioles?  Should Shaun Marcum have been considered an Ace because he was the Jays’ best starter after they traded Halladay?  No, of course not.  Some teams simply have a “best pitcher,” but not an Ace (others of course are fortunate enough to have two Aces, but we’ll come to that in a second).

So, who was the best “Ace” of the last decade?  Well, as much as I love Doc, I must admit that there are really only two contenders for this spot and they both are holdovers from the previous decade who had one or two great seasons at the start of the Aughts:

Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson.

In 2002 Pedro had his last truly great season.  He went 20-4, with a 2.26 ERA.  Those numbers are flashy enough, but of course we know that the former is dumb and the latter is influenced by defense and relievers.  So what were Pedro’s numbers in the categories entirely within his control?  Well, how about 10.79 K/9?  Or a walk rate of 1.81 per nine?  What about only giving up .59 home runs per nine?  Or an FIP of 2.24.  Yup, those are the kinds of numbers produced by a man with tiger blood.

It might have been the best pitching performance of the decade, but…

In 2001, Randy Johnson threw 249 innings and in those innings he faced 994 batters.  Of those, he struck out 372.  Three hundred and seventy-two.  I hate it when people use exclamation points in their writing, but I honestly think this might be an exclamation point moment… three hundred and seventy two!  That’s the third most in modern baseball history, with only Nolan Ryan (383) and Sandy Koufax (382) throwing more.  That means that 37% of the batters the Big Unit faced ended with the batter, dejected, bat in hand, walking back to the dugout.  That is what I’m talking about when I say that I want someone who will “intimidate the other team just by standing on the mound.”  And really, who was more intimidating than the Big Unit at the height of his powers?

Of those 622 players who acutally managed to get wood on rawhide against the Big Unit, only 181 actually got hits.  And of those, only 19 actually managed to get the ball over the fence.  Randy simply overpowered guys.  In 2001 he went head to head with the greatest hitter in history and in 17 at bats, he held Barry Bonds to 2 singles, a double, three walks, two RBIs and no home runs.  He also struck Barry out 5 times in those 17 at bats.  Those numbers don’t sound impressive to you?  Well, keep in mind that in 2001 Bonds hit 73 home runs with a .515 OBP.  Randy didn’t dominate Bonds, but he essentially turned Babe Ruth into Juan Pierre.

So who to pick?  Obviously they were both impressive, and frankly Pedro gets a few bonus points for his 1999 season, which was probably the greatest season by  a pitcher in baseball history, but Randy gets just as many bonus points for that superlative playoff run in 2001.  You know, the World Series where he went 3-0 with a 1.04 ERA, including coming in for an inning and a third of relief to win game seven a night after throwing 104 pitches to win game six.

The real clincher is that while Pedro still had tiger blood, by 2002, he was no longer really an Adonis.  He had already started his ascent into a 6 inning wonder-kind.  For the year he threw 199 innings, which is good, but in 2001 Randy threw 249, those extra 50 innings represent a lot of value.  Randy was going consistently deeper into games and he also made five more starts.  That’s what we call the using resentments as the rocket fuel in the tip of your sabre.

Randy Johnson – lhp (2001) – 21-6, 249.2 IP, 13.41 K/9, 2.56 BB/9, 0.68 HR/9, 2.49 ERA, 2.13 FIP, 10.7 WAR.

Two:

One of the reasons that everyone’s so excited by the Cliff Lee signing in Philadelphia, is that Lee brings a second clear Ace to the Phillies’ staff.  It means that whether you consider him the Ace and Doc the Two, or Doc the Ace and him the Two, the Phils are stacked up at the top in a way few teams can compete with.  The Cards have had a similar arrangement with Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright the past couple years, but in general having two Aces at the top of your rotation is pretty rare.  Most teams, even teams with great pitching staffs, have a defined Ace and then a guy who’s really, really good, but not really in that “top 15” conversation.  Take the World Champion Giants for instance: Tim Lincecum is their obvious, no doubt about it, Ace, and while Matt Cain is a hell of a second arm in the rotation, he’s not exactly someone you’d pick as a Cy Young candidate at the start of the season.

The best modern example of a team having multiple Ace quality starters is the Atlanta Braves, who had at least two, and often three, every year from 1993 to 2001.  But, with all due respect to those Braves, there is a modern example that was even more dominant – albeit for a far shorter time frame.  Fortunately for our purposes, that time frame falls perfectly within our  own.  If Randy Johnson is my Ace, then for my number two, why would I not pick the guy who so superbly served as Randy’s 1A for four years in Arizona?

Curt Schilling is everything I described in my opening.  He’s not quite as good as Randy, but by the slimmest of margins.  He’s a righty, he blows people away, and in 2001 and 2002 he was insane.  I could pick ’01 for the symbiosis with Randy, but Curt was better in 2002, just look at the numbers:

Curt Schilling – rhp (2002) – 23-7, 259.1 IP, 10.97 K/9, 1.15 BB/9, 1.01 HR/9, 3.23 ERA, 2.40 FIP, 9.7 WAR.

Three:

If you thought that I was going to assemble a team of the aughts and not include Doc, well, then you’re Charlie Sheen crazy (but without the Goddesses).  Roy’s 2003 season, was the perfect season to be the third pitcher on my starting staff: 266 innings in the AL East with a 3.25 ERA.  It’s not that he was incredibly dominatingly, lights out, but he was an incredibly valuable pitcher.  Those 266 innings pitched are the most in AL since Dave Stewart threw 267 in 1990 and nobody has topped 250 since.  He only struck out 6.9 per nine, but he kept excess runners off the bases by only walking 32 (or 1.08/9), and he kept the ball on the ground with a 58.4 GB%.  If anything, he was a little unlucky with his flyballs, as 14.3% of them found their way over the wall (highest percentage of his career), but still it was an exceptionally valuable season.  Indicative of the kind of pitcher Roy is… a workhorse who limited potential damage by not walking anyone, kept the ball on the ground, and allowed his fielders to do the dirty work for him.  Strikeouts are, after all, fascist.

Roy Halladay – rhp (2003) – 22-7, 266 IP, 6.9 K/9, 1.08 BB/9, 0.88 HR/9, 3.25 ERA, 3.23 FIP, 8.0 WAR.

Fourth:

As I laid out at the top, I want my fourth starter to be a little reckless.  Well, that’s not exactly true, I mean in reality I want my fourth starter to by Cy “Freakin'” Young, but the reality is that fourth starters tend to be mediocre, but the best ones also show flashes of brilliance.  Think about Brandon Morrow of the Jays last year.  He was their fourth starter, behind Shaun Marcum, Ricky Romero, and Brett Cecil.  Overall his line looked fine.  Solid, if unexceptional: 10-7, 4.49 ERA, 146 IP.  But, if you break down his individual games, you see nights like this:

May 10 v. Boston – 1.2 IP, 3 H, 6 ER, 6 BB, 4 K.

Contrasted with nights like this:

Aug 8 v. Tampa Bay – 9.0 IP, 1 H, 0 ER, 2 BB, 17 K.

So, who is the best pitcher over the last decade to fit this profile?  Well, there are two candidates: Cliff Lee and Zack Greinke.

In 2007 the Cleveland Indians won 96 games and came within a win of going to the World Series.  They accomplished this despite getting a big s**t sandwich from their intended number two Cliff Lee.  That season, the 28 year old lefty went 5-8 with a 6.29 ERA.  Ouch.  The next year however, he threw 223 innings, with a 2.54 ERA, won 22 games, lost only 3 and wrapped up the Cy Young sometime in July.  Of course, despite that, the Indians dropped to 81 wins, finished 7 games out, and traded ace C.C. Sabathia along the way.  Baseball’s a funny, funny game.

When the 2009 season began, Zack Greinke was known as the guy who was once a future phenom, until he went crazy and deserted the team.  In reality, he was a solid young pitcher, who lives with Social Anxiety disorder and depression.  Over the previous couple years, Greinke had worked hard to return to the team and reclaim his spot at the top of the rotation.  Still, no one was expecting what he did in 2009.  He started the year by throwing 29 straight innings without giving up an earned run.  He won his first six starts with a 0.40 ERA and when he finally lost, on May 9th to the the Angels Angels of Anaheim, it was because he gave up one run in eight innings.  Greinke’s season, did more to bring about the death of the “Win” in Cy Young voting than any player in baseball history.  That’s because he threw 229 innings, with a 2.16 ERA and 242 strikeouts, only because he pitched for the Kansas City Royals he won a whopping 16 games.

If I look only at the year they put “it” together, then Greinke takes the cake.  His 2009 season was the best pitching performance of anyone not name Randy or Pedro from this decade, on the other hand, he followed that up with an entirely average year in 2010 .  Of course, he was pitching for the Royals, so who can really blame him for losing interest when they fell out of the race in April… Lee dipped just slightly after his breakout year and has continued to be quite prolific (vagabond style) since.  He also has that sterling 7-2, 2.18 ERA record in 76 playoff innings.

Still, it’s hardly Zack’s fault that he was drafted by the Royals and thus hasn’t come within 13 games of the playoffs.  Maybe if he’d been picked by Tampa Bay instead, he’d have led the Rays past Philadelphia for the 2008 World Series.  Who knows.  I honestly thought that Lee would be the choice here, with his playoff record being the tiebreaker, but… I cannot leave a year in which a guy had an FIP of 2.33 and a 9.4 WAR off my team.

Zack Grienke – rhp (2008) – 16-8, 229.1 IP, 9.5 K/9, 2.0 BB/9, 0.43 HR/9, 2.16 ERA, 2.33 FIP, 9.4 WAR.

Fifth:

For this spot, as I noted above, I want a kid.  So, whatever guy I pick has to have been under 25 during the season I select.  Make sense?  No, probably not… There were some exceptional youngsters breaking into the bigs over the course of the decade.  In 2001 a 21 year old CC Sabathia struck out 171 major league batters; Mark Prior had a career year (literally) in 2003; 2005 saw the debut of Felix Hernandez, who might still be the best pitcher in baseball 25 or under; a year later, a 23 year old Justin Verlander won 17 games; In 2007, a year removed from besting cancer, 23 year old Jon Lester started and won the clinching game of the World Series.  And yet as impressive as all of those performances were, they pale in comparison to our fifth starter, who was drafted 10th in 2006, made his debut in 2007, won his first Cy Young in 2008 and was even better in 2009.  Plus, as if that wasn’t enough, he wears Bow Ties and is nicknamed the Freak.  Frankly, the bow tie thing might have been enough to get him on the team by itself…

Tim Lincecum – rhp (2009) – 15-7, 225.1 IP, 10.42 K/9, 2.72 BB/9, 0.40 HR/9, 2.48 ERA, 2.34 FIP, 8.2 WAR

So, there we have it: The Big Unit, Schil, Doc, Zach Greinke, and the Freak, if that isn’t what Charlie Sheen was thinking when he talked about tiger blood and Adonis DNA, then I have no idea what Charlie’s thinking…

Charlie’s Right…

January 28, 2010 Leave a comment

Two days ago Phillies manager Charlie Manuel lamented the loss of Cliff Lee from his starting rotation:

Manuel said he would have preferred to have both Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee in his rotation, but said he understood the decision the Phillies’ front office made.

“Halladay is the best pitcher in baseball right now,” Manuel said. “Cliff Lee may be a tad behind. . . . Baseball is a business. I understand a lot of things. I have my own opinion and suggestions, but at the same time, I have a boss.

Two things here.  First, Manuel is going to love Roy Halladay.  There’s no other way. Doc just oozes work ethic and professionalism.  He comes to the park every day, works his arse off, pitches a gem every fifth day, and turns up ready to work hard the next morning.

Second, Manuel is right.  The Phils would have been much stronger with both Doc and Lee.  Baring major injury, the Phils are pretty much locks to make the playoffs and once in there’s nothing more important than who you can put out on the mound.  Remember, in baseball momentum is tomorrow night’s pitcher.  A playoff rotation of Halladay, Lee, and Cole Hamels would have been the best in baseball and enough to topple even the mammoth Yankee hitters.

So, here’s the weird part… There’s absolutely no logical reason they don’t have both.  Not from the perspective of the trade, not from the perspective of the future talent on their roster, and not from a money standpoint either.

When the Phillies acquired Halladay, it was largely reported that he was acquired in a three team trade with the Mariners (latter amended to a four team trade when the Jays swapped prospects with the A’s), this is inaccurate and misleading.  In reality, the Jays traded Doc (be still my beating heart) and six million (be still my queasy stomach) to the Phillies for three prospects (be still that rush of vomit).  In a separate deal, the Phillies then moved Lee to Seattle for the poo-poo platter of outfielder Tyson Gillies and right-handers Phillipe Aumont and Juan Ramirez.

Now, in the interests of fairness, I should note that Ruben Amaro and his staff have a very good track record of assessing talent, so maybe there’s more to those three Seattle prospects than anyone believes, but on its face this was a terrible trade.  The three guys that Toronto acquired for Halladay each ranked in Keith Law’s Top 100 prospects, with two in the top 50.  None of the guys that the Phils received from Seattle were on the list.  None.  Not a single one.  This is for a pitcher who won the Cy Young two years ago and beat the Yankees twice in the World Series last fall.  Why give him up for such a lousy assortment of players?

It’s likely that the Phils were terrified about shipping out seven players from their farm system in the span of four months.  That’s a fair concern, but if they resign Lee, as they did Halladay, then while the cost for those two stud pitchers was high in terms of bodies, it was low in terms of quality.  If Lee leaves as a free agent, then the Phillies get two first round picks as compensation (well, technically, it’s a first rounder and a sandwich round, but lets keep our eye on the prize here), which given their recent draft success, they surely could have used more favorably than the Seattle threesome.  Also, if they keep Lee, they could have moved Joe Blanton for a prospect probably in the range of the guys they got from the Mariners.  Add that prospect to the two draft picks and you have the same number of bodies they received in the Mariners deal.

The other reported reason that the Phils moved Lee was for fiscal reasons, but given that they’re paying Blanton 7 million this year, I’m not entirely sure how they couldn’t afford the 8 million that Lee’s going to make.  Believe me, the difference between these twos’ performance is worth a lot more than one million dollars (it works better if you say that in the accent of a maniacal, evil genius while stroking an imaginary hairless cat).  Yes, next year Lee will cost a lot more than Blanton, but, again, if they didn’t want to pay him, then they could have just let him leave and taken the two draft picks.

So, just to recap.  They didn’t need to move Lee as part of the trade that brought them Halladay.  They didn’t make their farm system any stronger by trading Lee, and they didn’t need to move him for financial reason.  So, why exactly did they move him?

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